Let me put my friend Jan at ease. First, what am I writing, and what do I plan to do with it?
I started writing about eight years ago, just taking notes about what happens at our MIT office, because some days just beg to be put down on paper. Noam is at the center of most of my pieces, but each piece is different. And they are all drafts until I figure out how to put them all together as one unit - maybe a book. I write, in reality, from my own bird's eye view of the office, of Noam, of the people who come to us and how that affects me, us, them. It's probably best if I just show you something, instead of trying to write about it...
The first draft essay I worked on is called "Stata Confusion," about Noam's first day in the new Stata Center after working for almost half of his life in the old Building Twenty. Here are a few short excerpts from that work in progress:
By the spring of 2004, when the construction of MIT’s Stata Center, pronounced stay-tuh, and formally known as the “Ray and Maria Stata Center” was completed, I had been managing Professor Noam Chomsky’s office for almost twelve years, and our relationship had grown into one of trust and rapport. Maybe our bond was a result of my relaxing more into my position as the assistant to this renowned linguist and human rights activist, who is also one of the world’s leading intellectuals. Maybe we had worked together long enough for me to feel a genuine a part of his passionate and profound world, while at the same time seeing him also as a regular human being. So when the phone rang the morning he was expected at our new offices for the first time, I knew it was Noam, and I knew he was lost.
Any first-time visitor, or resident, no matter how bright, sharp, or knowledgeable, would become confused in this building. Noam Chomsky was no different. I picked up the ringing phone and spoke into the receiver.
“Uh, Bev…” he replied.
“You’re lost, aren’t you?” I said. For the past three years, as our dear old contaminated Building Twenty was torn down on this very footprint, and construction began on the Stata Center, we had been temporarily housed in an older brick building above Rebecca’s café in Kendall Square. This was Noam’s first foray into Stata.
Noam liked to claim that MIT had put the renegade, activist professors like Wayne O’Neil and himself in Building Twenty to keep them away from the bustle of activity – and people – in the Institute’s main hallways. I’m not sure it was an intentional move on the part of those who delegated space, but we enjoyed joking that we were too politically controversial to coexist with the rest of MIT’s population. I realize in retrospect that this idea is quite a stretch, considering the profile of the “typical” student, as there are lots of student activist groups spread around the Institute, and over the years, most of them have invited Noam to lecture or take part in a Q&A session with them.
One of Noam’s trademark sighs blew through my end of the receiver. “Yes,” he said. “How did you guess? I’m hopelessly lost. I’m calling from a library area somewhere on the eighth floor, and I can’t find our office.”
I rushed to the elevator and pressed ‘one.’ Riding down to the first floor to meet Noam, I felt nervously excited as I wondered about his reaction to our new space. I had spent the past couple of months laying out and organizing our modern, though smaller, office suite, unpacking boxes and refilling his bookshelves with authors like Jacobson, Wittgenstein, Russell, Skinner, Jespersen, and Dostoyevsky. Because the outer office is blessed with straight walls, Noam’s own books and translations, arranged by date, fill two floor-to-ceiling walls of shelves surrounding the work area of our office assistant, Glenn.
The first book on the uppermost shelf is Noam’s Master’s thesis, a thin green book published in 1979. This thesis has remained the cornerstone of his collection, and so was the first book I picked up and examined at my new job, as I tried to find out more about the man for whom I would be working. I would like to say that the first thought that came to my mind when I read the thesis title, “Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew,” was, “I really want to read this,” but in reality I was dying to get it out of my hands. The small green hardback reminded me of a bound collection of poems I read in Junior High School called “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle.” Both books are thin, army-green volumes of about six by nine inches, and both have a dry, scratchy cover that raises goose bumps across my arms and legs – my version of fingernails on a blackboard. I could deal with the pronunciations of his titles, but I prayed that the rest of the books were smooth, since I guessed I would be handling them a lot in the coming years.
I had framed and hung some of Noam’s favorite pictures and posters, including a haunting print of three bronzed faceless men holding shovels and picks, which I had learned from Noam represented a horrendous massacre of miners and their families in Northern Chile in 1907. I gave the glass and frame of this picture a cursory dusting before hanging it and moving to another project. While I welcome the more hopeful and upbeat visitors and messages, and even find richness talking with those who are struggling, I have to be careful how much misery I take in on any given day.
Having been moved a few times over twenty years, his larger-than-life black and white poster of Bertrand Russell had become tattered. Thanks to a tenacious member of the Bertrand Russell Society, a group Noam had recently met with, I was able to replace it with a new one, mounted on foam core for stability. I placed Noam’s favorite Bertrand Russell quote in front of the poster. It reads:
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.
Bertrand’s quote and his sober expression have provided the backdrop for hundreds of photo ops in Noam’s office. Since Noam long ago honored me with the title of expert resident photographer, I’ve gotten a few people to loosen up when posing with him by commenting that no matter how many times I snap Bertrand’s picture, he never cracks a smile. And I’m pretty sure that, regardless of how simple or fancy the camera, most people have left Noam’s office with a nice enough picture or two, as well as a close up of my index finger.
On the front wall, I had tacked up Noam’s oversized poster of a blue mailing envelope, the simple address on the front, Palestine, cancelled out by a row of tiny red Stars of David, and “Return to Sender – No Such Address” stamped in the lower left hand corner. This is the first thing that catches your eye when you walk into Noam's office. On the other side of the room, a new streamlined wood and aluminum table replaced Noam’s old gray metal desk. Gone was the dented gray hanging file drawer which he had pulled out and rested his feet on during countless phone interviews since the Vietnam War era. The old gray desk, it ain't where it used to be...
When we were preparing to vacate our old building for demolition, I had removed from that top drawer an accumulation of things collected over forty years. Business cards from the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean press, the BBC, the CBC, and a slew of others. Boxes of paper clips and staples from the old University Stationery store in Central Square, bearing faded paper price tags and probably also dating back to the 60’s. I had removed a half-empty box of thick, white chalk, Noam’s favorite sturdy white mug, and a fistful of perforated strips of line printer paper rolled up into tight springs. Noam had developed a habit of rolling these strips in his fingers during phone interviews. The more intense the interview, the tighter the spring.
“Hi, Noam!” I called out, giving him an enthusiastic wave, its redundancy making me immediately self-conscious. He still intimidates me at times, even after all of our years together. My issue – not his. I tried to shake off my uncertainty, and the feeling that Noam’s approval of the building was on my shoulders – after all, it wasn’t as if I had designed it.
“So, Bev,” he sighed, looking up at the glass ceiling panels and spiral cement staircase, “this is the new place.” Though he was smiling, he didn’t look particularly thrilled.
“What do you think?” I asked, reminding myself to relax and breathe, and allow him to process his own reaction. Growing up, my siblings had learned to talk over one another in order to be heard, but also to cover up distress and sadness, and it took me years to realize that silence between thoughts is natural – and comfortable - for many people. This is particularly true of Noam, and after working with him for so long, I had finally begun to catch on.
“Pretty impressive,” he said, “but I liked our old building.” I tolerated the quiet, letting him finish his thought. “It was kind of fun when the loose windows fell out into the parking lot.” We both laughed at the memory of it. The inside of the elevator was all stainless steel and recessed lighting, and it was suddenly hard to believe that just three years before, the old rickety stairways, creaking floors, and cracked walls of Building Twenty had stood in this same spot. Noam sighed again as we approached the eighth floor.
Finally, the elevator door opened onto our main lounge, its puffy red upholstered seating looking out to a magnificent mix of MIT structures, and the Cambridge and Boston Skylines beyond. Noam often comments on my perceptiveness, but even I couldn’t read his poker-faced expression this time. He was taking it in, and I respected his silence again as we walked together past our headquarters office. My intuition was telling me he was feeling something – a loss, or maybe the feeling that you can’t go home again. Maybe I was projecting, but it was clear that something was going on in his head. I was suddenly struck with the awareness that old buildings fall, and new ones rise up. New students and professors fill the hallways as the older professors’ faces line with stress, wisdom, and the simple and inevitable passing of time.
Noam is my boss and my friend, but he is also the closest I have to a father, since my own father had died about seven years before. I could only guess at what he was thinking, and didn’t want to pry too deeply.
We turned right onto a short corridor of offices already lined with rows of horizontal gray file cabinets, and took another right to our door. I opened it for Noam, standing to the side so that he could enter first.
to be continued...