If friendship went by logic, then I would hate Brother Charles. Where he is Quebecois, I am le maudit anglais. He sounds like a Boston Brahmin, while I come from a long line of dissenting ministers and trade unionists on one side and small tradesmen and farmers on the other. While he writes books on the history of rum and the papacy, my publications are articles that are here today and gone tomorrow. Worst of all he’s not only a political and social conservative while I am decidedly leftist, but he’s an ordained monk and Catholic apologist to my Protestant upbringing and adult agnosticism. By rights, we shouldn’t be able to tolerate each other in the same room without shouting. Yet, despite everything, we remain friends over the distance and the years.
Part of the reason is Charles’ combination of innocence and charm. He seems to assume — apparently with never a doubt — that everybody he meets will be enchanted by his friendliness and slightly old-fashioned glibness — and, as a result, everybody is. Time and time again, I’ve seen him draw out people from whom I’d be lucky to get a non-committal grunt. Another large reason is that he is one of the half dozen best-read people I’ve met, and can talk knowledgably and engagingly on dozens of topics.
But the main reason is that Charles is an eccentric, and in my experience that always trumps politics and beliefs. Since he’s an original, I can almost forgive him for being an imperialist running dog lackey.
I first noticed the mad monk at a Mythopoeic Conference, the annual academic conference devoted to Tolkien and other members of his circle. He had some of the better material at the roundrobin bardic circles run by Paul Zimmer, and knew how to deliver it, too. He later made himself conspicious by constructing a food sculpture and parading it around the tables during a lull in the banquet. We had a mutual friend in Paul, but, even without that connection, he was offbeat enough that we would have hooked up sooner or later.
Over the years, we’ve learned that visits with Charles are always as unlikely as our first encounters. Since he’s a monk, he can’t make women part of his holidays except in the most fraternal way — but wine and song always are, and who knows what else besides.
At another Mythopoeic, we joined forces to give long-suffering children’s writer Sherwood Smith a history as an international truffle smuggler, with a heroic pig as a sidekick, just because we thought her daughter deserved a mother with an adventurous youth. I remember we serenaded Sherwood in the hotel lobby with a tale of her adventures set to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” But maybe you had to be there.
Another time, Charles visited Trish and I in Vancouver. I still remember trailing behind him through Vancouver’s more-radical-than-thou east end with him in full morning dress and top hat on way to a folk concert. He affected a lordly disdain for the catcalls of the locals about his costume to encourage them; we shuffled behind and hoped we were unnoticed as we almost doubled over laughing.
He was in morning dress because, with his belief in the mystical power of monarchs, he had cajoled the Monarchist League of Canada into letting him be aide-de-camp to the exiled king of Rwuanda for a few days while his majesty raised money to stop the genocide in his country. Inevitably, this escapade drew us in, and we staggered out to the airport at 3AM so that Charles could greet the king as he came through customs. The king, a tall thin African who apparently lived with his secretary in a small apartment in Paris, was more than a little bemused to get royal treatment for once, and kept looking at Charles as though he couldn’t quite believe him. When we got to the Bayshore Hotel, the entire staff turned out in the lobby to greet the king while we watched our lives get a little surrealer.
That was the same visit where Charles dragged us to a performance of “Ain’t Misbehaving,” a Fats Waller revue before we had time to eat after work. At the time, few restaurants in Vancouver were open after midnight on a Monday, and, in our half-starved state, we must have reached the door of a dozen eateries just in time to see the Closed sign flipped over. We finally found a fabulous northern Chinese hot pot restaurant.
That’s another key to Charles: luck seems to attend him in the little things. Left to ourselves, we probably would given up and bought chocolate bars at a corner store, just in time to witness a holdup.
For a while, we went through a period where our main contact was our annual Christmas cards: Charles’ inevitably religious and usually depicting the Virgin Mary, and ours a joke one with “Season’s Greeting” crossed out and replaced by “Season’s Gratings” and a baggie of cheese parings.
But, last summer, he descended upon us again, and our lives became tipsy again for a couple of days. One night, we watched him charm first the waitress and then the manager of Rasputin’s, both of whom swore that he should be a standup comedian (he already had been). The next night, he used his club’s reciprocal dining privileges to treat us to dinner at the Vancouver Club, where even the formal waiters were no match for his aimiable chatter. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we would have preferred an ethnic restaurant that was more casual and had better food, although the way I discarded my shoes for sandals and shucked my tie before we went on to a Celtic Night at a local pub probably tipped him off. But the conversation was the point, and, when we dropped him at the hotel room he was sharing with his monastery’s prior, he gave us a copy of his encylopedic history of the papacy. The next day, he was scheduled to go to Victoria to give a copy of his book the lieutenant-governor of the province, so we were in select company.
Who knows when I’ll see Charles again? But, when I do, I can be assured that our conversation and relationship will pick up exactly where it left off, and, for a few days, my life will become stranger and more exausting.
It’s people like Charles who shatter my incipient misanthropy after experiences like trying to get in touch with my high school friends after my reunion. Unlike them, people like Charles know what friendship is about — and, for that, I can forgive even starry-eyed conservatism.