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April 1, 2017

By Arnold Serapilio

Athena, with perfect posture
Athena, with excellent posture thanks to charm school. Photograph by Dana Salvo

Ike Dredge for the Daily Deadbeat reporting. It's business as usual at the Boston Athenæum on a Thursday morning that can't decide whether it wants to be sunny and glorious or rainy, brutish, and short. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, who at this stage in her long and storied career rarely talks to reporters, has agreed to an exclusive interview with me from her perch in the vestibule at 10½ Beacon St. Can you believe it. Ol’ Ike “I like Ike—no, not that Ike”—Dredge. Whose ship has just come in. I slap on some aftershave (Self Effacement by Aurélien Lefeuvre; floral, breezy, ethereal, and entirely masculine) and the famous Dredge charm. I’ve placed a collect call to Lady Luck and if she accepts the charges? I’ll be strolling out of this place with a skip in my step and a watershed story to lord over the boys at the office. And, most importantly, I'll finally have the leverage I need to demand my own parking space, which after 17 loyal years of service is long and embarrassingly overdue. All the other senior writers have their own parking spaces, what about me? Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean—you read it here first, folks! Ike Dredge reporting.

It's about a quarter to noon and people are filing in for a book talk, free of charge and open to members and the public alike. Written by Dr. Marvin-Olivia R. Salk-Central III, an adjunct professor at Harvard University, Chair: Unpacking the Ubiquity of the Edwardian-style Sitting-down-enabler and Deconstructing its Influence on a Neo-Imperialist Landscape and What-not, the book is a history of Edwardian style chairs in New England cottages and what they mean for the future of libraries and digital spaces. Standing room only. "Should've charged for this one," Athena muses from where she stands proud, still as night. "Coulda cleaned up."

I thank her for agreeing to talk to me for I am nothing if not a pillar of graciousness. "You're helping me get a plum parking space," I explain with a twinkle in my eye, because in this life you can’t expect to get very far if you don’t know how to deploy a twinkle every now and then. Athena's no dummy. She appreciates the value of good parking in this city, and good twinkles. 

"Thanks for meeting me here. I don’t get out much,” she says. “And I’ve not much time, so…”

“Right, let’s get down to it. Athena, you've got daddy issues," I say, because I was never socialized correctly as a child and because time is of the essence.

She gives me that piercing grey-eyed stare of hers, the one Homer’s always on about. She's very good at it! And yet she says nothing. Neither do I. The eye contact is electrifying. I wonder if she’s single? Although I’ve heard tell she’s a virgin?

“Because—well, you know, because Zeus doesn’t always let you use his thunderbolt. And hey, I get it: you’re more than capable, can’t he see that? Heck, you sprung forth into existence from his forehead! Fully-formed, no less! Who else can say that? I mean, what’s a goddess got to do to prove herself around here?”

Still nothing. This isn’t going so well. A rush of cold air hits the back of my neck, and I hear the front door slam. "I'll find out where the bathrooms are," says a voice from behind me. "I'll sit here while you do that," says another voice, and the first voice says, "Just come with me, you'll lose your steam if you sit now," then, "Not here, not now, Albert," and the first voice lumbers into view and I see that it belongs to a man on stilts. He wanders over to the door to the newspaper reading room, observes with apparent envy an older gentleman in a suit dozing peacefully in a red chair. Eager to join in on the fun he yanks at the door but alas it’s locked; anyone hoping to enter the newspaper reading room during an event should walk down one flight, cut across and into the drum at the basement level, being careful to watch both her head and her step as she does so, and then up two drum levels, and thanks in advance for your cooperation. Albert is steady on those stilts. He must be professional. "Albert. The talk is starting soon. Remember to ask about the skin book!" He turns on his stilt-heel, nudging my shoulder as he pushes past toward the rest of the building, smacks his head on the top of the doorway, stumbles backward, flirts with gravity a little, regains his balance. Doesn't groan in pain, not even a lousy 'ouch.' Like I said, a pro. "He really should know better by now," his wife says to me, shaking her head. I watch as he saunters into the Bow Room, scanning for bathrooms, security running in after him.

“I’m my dad’s favorite,” Athena says. “End of story.”

Tough crowd. I fumble with my notebook, trying to make sense of my own chicken scratch and cursing myself for not typing up my questions. Improvising, I say, “So what’s with all the armor?”

“I’m the goddess of war, silly.”

Ah-ha! Caught in a lie! I can see the headline now: ‘Athena the Goddess of Lies, Not Wisdom, Sources Say. Ike Dredge Reporting.’ And I tell her as much, with the utmost tact of course. Who do you think I am?

“I’m wisdom and war,” she says, and her exhaustion is palpable. “If you thought I dealt strictly in wisdom, what did you think this giant spear was about?”

I concede that I thought it was the Spear of Wisdom, which many a teacher used on me back when I was being insolent, which evidently was quite often. Athena is attentive as I expound upon my school-related childhood trauma until a lady and her dog enter. The dog runs over and starts sniffing at my pants pockets.

“Give her a treat!” Athena says, giddy.

“Riley! Get back over here!” the woman exclaims. “I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t have any treats,” I say to Athena, whom the Romans call Minerva because they got some nerve-a! And, to the owner of the dog, “It’s OK. I’m given to understand security has treats.”

“That’s our next stop,” the woman says, kneeling to scratch Riley’s neck under her collar. “Riley knows all the hot spots. Don’t you sweetie? Whosa good girl? Whosa? As does Professor Sugarman.”

Athena and I eye each other—“Who’s Professor Sugarman?”—I’ve got my notepad and pen in hand, ready to record.

Before the woman can answer, in gallops this stunning black Thoroughbred, an out of breath man in tow.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Professor Sugarman,” the woman says, then to the exasperated man who’s tripping up the steps, “Honey, I’ll go save us some seats. Remember to get some hay from security.”

“Uh-huh,” the man says, taking off his raincoat.

“This is the talk about sitting-down-enablers, right?” she asks me. I tell her that yes, that is my understanding. “Salk-Central’s a genius. This one is sure to be a game-changer,” she says, and she and Riley leave us to it. I hear her say to security, “Hi. I’m a member but I don’t have my membership card.”

“It’s kind of hectic around here isn’t it?” I say.

“This is nothing,” Athena says. “Things will really ramp up just as the talk’s about to begin. Before I came here I thought I’d seen it all, having been through the Trojan War and everything. Turns out no I did not.”

Which reminds me to ask Athena how she found her way to the Boston Athenæum after eons of making history across the sea. Prof. Sugarman is giving me the stink eye while his human sidekick fidgets with the self-serve locker. “Can’t get this dang key to fit,” he grumbles, to no one in particular it would seem, except that Professor Sugarman rolls his eyes—I swear it, I swear it!—and edges away from me to go help his master, with this look on his kisser that he may as well be saying ‘This isn’t over.’ Why do horses always hate me?

“It all started when a ragtag bunch of enterprising Boston blokes contacted me through Sandy [Bodham, her booking agent] asking for permission to use my name and likeness for their—as they described it— ‘little knowledge club.’ ‘Little knowledge as in, not very much knowledge?’ was my first question. But I guess they meant for ‘little’ to modify the word club, not the word knowledge, so I instilled within each of them the cranial capacity to better understand misplaced modifiers.”

I hear the locker key fall to the floor repeatedly and Sugarman neighing in consternation. Those keys can be kind of a pain.

“And it is busy, you’re right. But I do my best work in the midst of chaos. All day people are coming and going. The faces inspire me. And the conversations, too: after all, the lobby is one of two designated areas where folks can make phone calls. Oh, the things they say! I am duty-bound to keep mum on specifics, but suffice it to say I know way more than I ever care to about people’s medical histories.”

Athena is best known for her thorough, tortuous dissertations on the homo sapien's cognitive and spiritual development. Her debut, People: I’ll Be Goshdanged If They Don’t Do The Dangdest Darn Things put her on the literary map, earning high praise from the New York Times, who in their review of People assessed her as ‘the premier talent in the burgeoning subgenre of divinity lit. Athena’s voice is strong, clear as a bell, and sure to be the benchmark by which any further works in this field are measured.’ She also created and edits the ongoing educational  ________ For Microcephalics series (“I wanted to use ‘Dummies’ but my editor advised against it”). When I ask her which one she’s most proud of, her reply is instant: “Staying A Virgin For 5,000 Years For Microcephalics.” That answers that question. Still, I wonder if she’s seeing anybody and resolve to ask her out by the end of our chat.

“With such a commercially and critically successful first book, was the pressure to live up to people’s expectations too much to bear at times?” Through the doorway I see the circulation assistant sitting on Professor Sugarman, lovingly stroking his mane, while security feeds him hay from an antique urn I’m given to understand used to hold flower arrangements on the fifth floor terrace back in the 1970s.


“Because you’re the goddess of war and wisdom, right?” I’m getting pretty good at this whole follow-the-bouncing-ball thing.

“Ten four, good buddy.”

More cold air, more door slamming, and here comes a train of children from a nearby school, excited because story time is imminent. Their voices echo in the vestibule.

“Sssh! There’s an event about to start! Everybody please keep your voices down!” yells the long-suffering adult chaperone.

“Oooh I see a horsie inside!” one of the children screams.

“Maybe later, Hayden, right now it’s time for a story time!”

“Aw, but I want to listen to the man talk about the socioeconomic implications of the proliferation of the Edwardian chair through middle and southwest America,” laments another child.

“I don’t think that’s quite the angle, Lynn-Marie,” the chaperone says. “Don’t you want to hear about Peter Rabbit and all his machinations?”

“I'm through with Peter Rabbit and his machinations,” Lynn-Marie pouts. And with that the children train choo-choos on down the line.

“They’re going to go shake, shake, shake their sillies out,” Athena predicts with a knowing nod. “The little devils.”

“What are you working on now?”

“I’m compiling a book of etiquette, told in limerick form. Etiquette and civility are the backbone of a functioning society, but when presented in a straightforward way these things can be such a drag to read about. So I spice it up. For example—

A bad habit I'm hoping to squash
A solution that’s nothing too posh
When in need of a toilet
There’s no need to spoil it
And please give your hands a good wash

A roaming security officer, making the rounds, happens by. “I’m going to have to ask you to please keep your voices down as the talk is about to start,” he says. He turns to face a man coming through the front doors who is wearing a backpack the size of a small country. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to check your oversize bag in one of our oversize lockers.” The man says nothing and vanishes into thin air in a puff of smoke.

“Where’d he go? Did you see where he went?!” the security rep asks, darting his head from side to side in disbelief.

“Over there!” I say, pointing to the circulation desk where the man with the backpack is now unloading dozens of books. Security dashes over and lunges at the scofflaw, decades of relevant work experience and a lifetime of determination behind him.

“These books are wildly overdue. So let’s see, you owe, one second…$4,372.75,” the circulation assistant says with a chuckle. The man disappears in a puff of smoke again, and security crashes into the desk.

“I’m leaving these fees on his account for now,” says the circulation assistant. “He’s going to have to pay up eventually, invisible man or no.”

“You should probably go,” Athena says. “This disappearing flouter’s been giving us trouble for quite some time. The staff is organizing. I may be called upon any minute for my strategic warfare.”

“OK—and maybe you’d like to go out for coffee some time?” I wish my voice wouldn’t raise an octave and get all squeaky whenever I’m hopeful, but here we are. I also wish there hadn’t been so many interruptions. I’m not exactly sitting on parking space material here.

“I don’t date journalists, is the thing...” Athena begins, and I wish I could give you the full rundown of her what seems to be polite rejection, but I am already miles away, distracted by the sight of the disappearing man reappearing in the locked newspaper room, his arms overloaded with stapled newspapers and books. As he struggles to keep them from falling we lock eyes. He regards me with the cautious interest of a hungry wild animal.

"There he is!" I shout, pointing to the newspaper room, but he’s already disappeared again. If I owed that much in back fees I'd be way gone too, baby.

And meanwhile in the Long Room: “Chairs—they’re not just for enabling sitting down anymore,” says Dr. Salk-Central III, to thunderous applause.