Thrones of our republic

IN our world of manifold and intricate devices, there is much to be grateful for - wheel, plow, and violin, turbine and telegraph, flying machine and whistling kettle - but surely no invention contributes to the satisfactions and advancement of humankind more felicitously than the simple, seven-slatted park bench. Each court at the Berkeley Rose Garden, where I play tennis four times a week, has two of these slatted benches. There, before and between sets, players sit, introduce themselves, peel and share an orange, and get to know each other. A friend of mine called this ``waiting'' and didn't like to do it. When he proposed going somewhere else to play, imagining it might be thought the kind of enlightened insight Walt Whitman and Robert Frost got famous for, I offered him the notion that park benches were ``the thrones of our republic.'' But instead of compliments and comradely appreciation, my friend huffed, ``They aren't the thrones of my republic!'' With laughs all around.

No one likes to have another person trash his metaphor. My anguish was increased because for almost 50 years I had carried it in mind, waiting for an appropriate time to share it. I had grown up during the Depression, hungry for clues about how the world worked, and noticed magazine and newspaper photographs of a man said to be very rich, very important, and very wise, a man who was invariably photographed on a plain bench in a public park. His name was Bernard Baruch. He wore a formal suit and pince-nez. He sat relaxed but pensive, sideways, with one arm resting along the highest slat. According to the captions, he was thinking up advice for kings, prime ministers, and presidents. Imagine that! Here was a man who was wise enough to counsel the rulers of planet Earth, rich enough to have almost anything money could buy, yet he had settled for a plain park bench, as if there he were a sovereign of our republic.

Why did my friend so peremptorily dismiss the idea? Were park benches unsuitable for worthy functions? Privately, I imagined that my insight might be one of those not always appreciated in their time. But I said nothing. People quick to say, ``They aren't the thrones of my republic,'' can be just as quick to say, ``There are very good reasons people are not appreciated in their time.'' Not so easy to respond to that.

Among that vast array of perplexing matters about which park benches are a perfect place to wonder is why people so often discover the merit of an idea long after it has stopped mattering to whoever offered it. And why we can carry useless images and metaphors around for half a century before they are tested and found wanting. On such matters, whether a person is innocent as a growing boy, wise as Bernard Baruch, or in a hurry, like my friend, park benches offer a seat with perfect manners, infinite patience, and that impartial hospitality essential to sovereigns in search of truth.

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