Yesterday a large and interesting group met to review the life of Harry Weininger, who died May 31, a few days after a cardiac arrest. Lindsey and I were there; we knew Harry "in the old days," back in the 1960s and '70s, when his business The Carpet Center was across the street from David Goines's shop on Grove Street, as I will always call it.*
Harry and David were fast friends; David and we were also; somehow Harry and we never fully completed the triangle. We had few close friends in those days; our lives were too full of immediate family, work, and selfishly intellectual pursuits to accommodate many — one of the few things I'd change about my life, given the opportunity. But we knew Harry, that is were acquainted with him and his interests, and were always happy to see him when he popped up, as he so often did, at a concert, or the restaurant, or, very occasionally, a social gathering of one kind or another.
In the late 1990s I ran into him somewhere for the first time in a number of years, and was shocked to find him badly gripped by Parkinson's Disease. I think this was upstairs in the café at Chez Panisse: he had lunched and was on his way to the stairs, accompanied by his loyal and loving Yvette, whom we'd never really met. I think I only saw him once or twice after that, and then in large groups, at intermissions I suppose, and not to talk to.
Yet when he caught our eyes on these occasions the flash was always there; that curious, direct engagement of eyes, both observational and inquisitive, not really challenging, but as if asking Shall we not talk? Don't we have things to discuss together? And among the many regrets that begin to pile up neatly in a corner of my aging mind there's this one: that among so few opportunities, on even fewer occasions — much fewer — was I able to or ready to respond.
Harry was born, I learn on reading the obituary,
in the Carpathian Mountains, a region in the Ukraine that has at various times been in Austria, Romania, and Moldavia. He emigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1950. They initially settled in Chicago, and in 1963, Harry moved to Berkeley where he lived for the next 47 years.He was sixteen or so when he came to this country, that means; he'd grown up Jewish in Soviet or Soviet-influenced society during the worst of Stalinist-Fascist times. Grown up rural, too, I think, or at most a villager, though we never talked about such things; how I wish I could now!
There were nearly twenty speakers at yesterday's memorial service, testifying to Harry's many facets: a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army; a matchmaker; a chess player; a businessman; a loyal follower and generous supporter of such local cultural institutions as Berkeley Repertory Theater and the Berkeley Symphony; a trencherman with taste; a traveler; a politician; a walker; a conversationalist, bon vivant, friend, father, grandfather, mensch. His overwhelming enthusiasms seem to have been community, culture, and the cultivation of intelligent and informed conversation. (Come to think of it, that last item includes the previous two.)
In a town where, as Narsai David put it in a final toast, all the men are intelligent, the women inarguable, and the conservatives vote progressive, Harry was able to listen to every side of an argument, then contribute his own view. The others always listened; they knew he would have something to say worth hearing. He was interested in every aspect of any subject, but he was dedicated to the possible, particularly to the perhaps previously unsuspected possible. He was a very graceful, witty, engaging, friendly, cheerful, uncomplaining, generous, enthusiastic, and grateful man; I wish I'd known him better.
*Not out of disrespect for Martin Luther King jr., but out of respect for the Berkeley I was born and spent much of my childhood in, and its Grove Street, whose name still resonates with the prewar tranquillity of the town. The Berkeley I knew, in those days, was Republican, dry, and churchgoing; its mayor, Laurence L. Cross, was also the minister of a local Presbyterian church. He and his immediate predecessors were politically conservative but socially liberal, concerned about and active in the defense of rights for then marginalized groups of people.
Perhaps they would not object to the re-naming of Grove Street: but my opinion was and is that it was more a politically expedient manner of honoring the martyred activist than a true commitment to a continued honoring of his goals. But then, I went to a school whose name memorialized James A. Garfield, the second president to fall to a murderer's gun, but was then re-named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King jr. This may have influenced my view of what seems to me the casual re-naming of public things for political expediency.