One night, when I was in grade school, our landlord took me to a baseball game. It was the night of the second Clay/Liston championship fight, May 25, 1965. I was nine years-old. Our landlord was a man named Louie Hiskes. He lived in our small string of apartments in a larger one that formed an el at the end. It had a large picture window. He lived there with his wife and son, who was yet to start school.
I don’t know what Louie’s day job was, but in the evenings and on weekends he kept up with repairs in the apartments. After school, I was often outside with my baseball and glove, tossing the ball high into the air and then catching it. Louie often made time to play a game of catch with me and to teach me how to throw a curve. My own father couldn’t do such things because of his prosthetic hands. Louie surely didn’t have the time to spare, but he somehow managed to pay attention to me.
I was thrilled when my parents told me he’d asked their permission to take me to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox play the Detroit Tigers. I was a shy kid who’d moved to the suburbs of Chicago from a rural community downstate. To see a major league baseball game in person was beyond my wildest dreams.
And that’s what I did. Nothing out of the ordinary happened, outside of the Clay knockout of Liston at 2:12 of the first round (the infamous phantom punch), a fact flashed to us on the Comiskey Park scoreboard, and a house I saw on fire as we passed through Blue Island on our way to the game. Other than that, Louie and his brother-in-law drank a couple of beers and asked me questions about our farm downstate. They were polite to me, and I returned home without incident.
I still remember that night, not only because it was monumental for me to go to a big-league game, but also because Louie, when he had no obligation whatsoever—and when he had his apartments to see to and his own son to raise—made the time to pay attention to me. He was kind; this is what I’m saying. I had no claim to his time and yet he gave it to me.
A civilized society is built upon such kindness. Maybe I’m recalling all of this because these days insensitivity is too much the rule. I won’t linger on all the ways people are failing to look after one another. I’ll only say that when I was a boy, I was lucky to know a man who somehow sensed that I needed his attention, and he gladly gave it to me. Knowing him made me feel a bit better about myself. My own father and I were often at odds; I had a hard time pleasing him. My mother was timid like me. I was an only child, and I learned how to be alone. Louie’s attentions drew me out of my solitude.
I guess what I’m saying is we can’t forget one another. We can be kind. We can make that choice. We can be kind and generous, not only in our living, but in our writing as well. All we have to do is pay attention—pay attention to need, pay attention to the people we put on the page, pay attention to strangers, pay attention to the burdens people carry with them.
Love is as simple as that. It comes by paying close attention. A writer loves the world no matter how critical he or she may be of it. The act of creation is always an act of love, and how can you love—and how can you create—if you’re not fully present in the world and willing to be selfless in order to reach out and to touch the lives of others. Such generosity—such attention—makes us more empathetic, and leads to writing that’s more nuanced, more multi-dimensional, more alive.