Thirty years ago, Borges stopped off to visit on his way back to Buenos Aries from Iceland, where he was working over the Norse Sagas. He arrived at 19 West Twelfth, where I had a simple bachelor’s apartment, and he was tired. I said, “Borges would you like a bath?” I had robed and disrobed Borges in the past, and he said, “Yes, please.”
It was an old-fashioned high-walled tub. I helped him undress, put him into the bath, and gave him his soap and a washcloth. He looked up at me with a wonderful expression—part grimace, part smile—and he said, “Would you mind closing the door? You see, I am very modest.”
Borges’s wit was wonderful, and it still surrounds me.
After his death, when I visited Buenos Aries with my wife, Paula Cooper, it was remarkable to stay in a hotel next door to a building that Borges once occupied. To see his spartan bed, to see a simple chair—I should not say “simple,” because Borges once corrected me and said, “There is nothing simple in this universe. Nothing is simple. The universe has one unarguable characteristic, complexity.”
When we returned to the hotel, the receptionist called to me, “This is an extraordinary coincidence.” And she passed me a message. “This person with the name of Borges’s widow has called you.” Of course it was María Kodoma, and then I understood how important she was, and how loved she now is in Buenos Aires.
When Paula and I were there, we wanted to walk the literary landscape of Buenos Aires, the landscape of his stories. We needed to find the Hotel du Nord from “Death and the Compass.” We knew it was the Plaza Hotel, but there were several Plaza Hotels and we never found the right one. We knew about Morano and Suarez and the knife fights, and we also knew that the knife that Borges used was Spinoza’s knife. It was the knife that had to fulfill a prophecy— everything has its own being, its own need. It’s not the wielder of the knife, it’s the knife itself that does the killing. We knew that Morano was a man from the North Side, from Palermo, and that he had to protect himself from somebody who had invaded from the South Side.
We took buses, we walked: we had to see these places, and many more. Obviously, we wanted to visit the Palermo Zoo, of the tigers real and dreamed. There was so much to see and it was all so alive that the memories of Borges came flooding back, again and again. It was impossible not to have memories, real and imagined. On Florida, the great walking street that Borges called the place of greedy pedestrians, I saw somebody in the distance who looked like Borges talking to a tall, rather good-looking younger man who looked like Tom Seaver, the baseball player, at the time he was playing baseball. I didn’t dare mention it to Paula because she already had enough doubts about my sanity. Back in 1970, at a Dutton sales conference, we had Tom “Terrific” Seaver because we were about to do a book with him on the amazing Mets, who had won the 1969 World Series; the next speaker was Borges. While Tom was rattling on about his prowess on the mound, I got a little note saying “Borges is out front.” I went to the lobby and brought him in, and in a loud stage whisper, he declaimed, “Who is that man speaking—the Texas Ranger?” Borges then talked about Keats’s Nightingale—a bird and verses unfamiliar to most sales reps, and totally unknown in Argentina.
I’ll conclude with a memory that brings on tears. When Borges won the Jerusalem Prize, I had the good fortune to be there with him. After an endless evening of ceremonies, we had trouble finding food that Borges could eat—he was by then diabetic. The next morning we needed a treat so I picked up the car and we drove to Bethlehem. As he stepped into the church—those of you who’ve been there know you have to go down some very steep, difficult steps—Borges knew exactly what to do, as though he had been there many times before. I started to lead him, but he was already bowing his head to avoid the low stone ceiling, working his way down the steps. Then we went to the Dead Sea, and he said, “I want to go into the water.” I replied, “Borges, you know, that water is really disgusting. It’s heavy and salty.” He said, “No, no I want to go into it.”
So I took off his shoes and socks, and my own, rolled up his trousers, and we walked in, and together we marched into the sea, all the way up to his chest. When we came out, the day was so hot and dry that we easily brush the salt off our clothes. We then drove into the wilderness to share a fine Arab meal. He was having the time of his life, and so was I. Finally, about eleven, we returned to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. After he was in bed, I started to shut the door. He smiled, pleading, “Don’t close it all the way,” so I didn’t. I walked out of his room to the door that led to the corridor, and just as I was opening the door, I heard him hum a tango. It was the perfect date. I’ll never forget it.