The Periodic Table

Revson and I went to a lecture together at the Y on 92nd St. I had suggested it to him and I bought the tickets, as he had recently fallen on hard times.

We took our seats in the front row of the lecture hall. The subject was The Periodic Table, Primo Levi’s memoir as an Auschwitz survivor. And, since Levi had recently been found dead at the bottom of a long stone staircase, under very uncertain circumstances, the room was overflowing with anticipation.

When the room quieted, Ian Thomson, Levi’s premier biographer, began his talk. Levi, he explained, was an itinerant, anti-fascist Italian-Jewish chemist who wrote with compassion and studied awareness of his Piedmontese family. He wrote in chapters he named for elements in the periodic table, the first being called ‘Argon’.

Revson was immediately enthralled. This was solidly up his alley. He was, as he often said, an amateur scholar himself.

One afternoon soon after I’d first met him, he was at a table at McSorley’s Ale House, wearing his threadbare Harris tweed jacket, an argyle sweater and a knit bowtie. The table was long and he was seated in the center, eating an overstuffed liverwurst and onion sandwich, recounting one of his stories to a few friends who were nursing their pints of Guinness.

Though I cannot to this day recall the story he told, I became enrapt by it and by him. He spoke with relish and conviction, a wondrous confluence of perspicacity and perspicuity. He could speak on any topic, no matter how esoteric, technical, or arcane it might be.

Some in his circle of friends thought him to be crass, ill-informed, and, a bit of a cad, though I had found him to be a sincere and delightful companion.

Rumor had it that he was related to the Revlon Revsons; the illegitimate and unacknowledged child of an affair between Charles Revson and Eartha Kitt.

Though he never spoke of it I could see a resemblance. I had become obsessed with researching his family history but was sadly unable to find any support for the claim.

At one point in the lecture, as Thomson paused for a sip of water, Revson raised his hand.

“I was wondering,” he said, standing, “if you would care to comment on the underlying chemistry of the Wizard of Oz.”

Thomson was clearly nonplused.

“You know,” Revson continued, “the entire film was based on the passionate debates in the late 1890’s over whether or not silver should replace gold as the basis of our national currency, and ‘Oz’, as you well know, is the periodic table symbol for gold. Need I say more?”

I was fascinated. He knew so much and he shared it so freely.

“I am no chemist,” replied Thomson, “but I can assure you that there is no such element as Oz in the table. The symbol for gold is Au.” And he turned back to his notes, continuing his reading from ‘Argon’.

“But professor,” Revson interrupted…

Men and women behind us shifted in their seats.

“…What then about the symbol for emerald, is it not Em? Think of Auntie Em and the Em-erald City and all of the singing midgets like leprechauns in emerald green…What do you make of that?”

“Those little people are not leprechauns. There are no leprechauns and there is no symbol Em or any other for emerald in the…”

“What are they then…I mean emeralds?”

“Emeralds…” a young woman in a bright yellow scarf, seated to our right called out, “…are made of several elements. Namely, beryllium (Be)… actually beryllium silicates, and their brilliant green color is derived from minute traces of chromium (Cr) and vanadium (V).”

The room turned toward her as if she was the North Star.

Revson turned as well. “Thank you young lady,” he said, with gratitude.

“Finally,” he whispered to me, perhaps a tad too loudly, “we have a true chemist in our midst.”

After security showed us the way off the premises, we stopped for a beer at the Drunken Munkey, a nearby pub Revson favored for its ambiance and their wide selection of inexpensive ales.

“Professor Tomkins was a bit off his game tonight wouldn’t you say?” he mused.

“Thomson,” I said. “Perhaps he was a bit hesitant to embrace alternative points of view, or maybe it was only a simple misunderstanding.” Though I was not ready to say on whose shoulders the misunderstanding might lay.

Revson read the menu printed above the bar. “Well said, my good man and true, well said! We have learned something new tonight and perhaps Professor Tomlinson has too. Let us celebrate with a fine ale of your choosing.”

“Thomson,” I repeated, respectfully, wondering whether or not he remembered my name any better than Thomson’s. “Yes, let’s celebrate,” I said. “I’m leaning toward either Beyond the Pale Ale, or a bottle of the Acolyte IPA.

We settled amiably on one of each.

One thought on “The Periodic Table”

  1. Like it Joe. Couple of “big”words that cannot be found in my gardener reputae(sp). But breezed over, the story does carry on. Looking forward to reading of all your ventures. One story at a time. Be well.
    N –


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