When I was a kid, I pursued what I considered dueling obsessions.
I wanted to be George F. Will. I pored over his twice-weekly syndicated columns in the Press of Atlantic City, dictionary never far from hand. Before church on Sundays, I set the timer on the VCR to record ABC's This Week.
Tragic, I know.
But I also wanted to be Keith Richards. If I wasn't reading, I was flogging a guitar. I snapped I-don't-know-how-many high-E strings on my cheap Telecaster until I finally realized that you tune down, not up, for Keith's signature open-G tuning.
To me, in middle-class southern New Jersey, these two archetypes seemed diametrically opposed. I had no concept of bohemia—of the urban intellectual, of literary dissolution. No idea, really, of writing or rhetoric as a species of artistic performance. At some point, I told myself, you're going to have to choose: the bow tie or the skull ring.
Shortly after graduating from college, I discovered Christopher Hitchens. I'm pretty sure the discovery was occasioned by Hitchens's outspoken hatred (for Hitch, was there any other kind?) for President Bill Clinton.
I was captivated by the cover photograph (taken by the great Annie Leibovitz) of this collection of Hitchens's columns.
Here was the hybrid creature I never knew existed.
In 1999, my now-wife and I went to the annual Funniest Celebrity in Washington contest at D.C.'s Improv comedy club. Hitchens was a contestant that year. I introduced myself; I tried something clever, like, "I'm a self-flagellating conservative who likes your stuff."
"I don't see what should be flagellating about that," Hitchens replied. (He was right; he was far from what passes in the American commentariat for a doctrinaire liberal.)
"I'm more of Shaftesbury, Tory type of conservative than an American one," I said.
"Shaftesbury was a good man," he declared.
About to part ways, Hitchens signaled for me to stick around.
He was headed to Timberlake's, his favorite Dupont Circle watering hole.
"I'll meet you on the pavement," he said. (He meant the street, my more worldly-wise girlfriend/wife would explain to me.)
Off to Timberlake's we went for a late evening of drinks and food. Him, renowned essayist; me, twenty-something nobody. It's not quite right to say that Hitchens's gift at conversation was akin to performance—because performance, properly speaking, should be a strenuous act.
For Hitchens, it was effortless.
I don't want to engage here in the more controversial aspects of Hitchens's work: the militant atheism, for example.
What I'll remember about Hitchens most, aside from the prodigious output, is that, for all his well-cultivated contempt, he was actually an extraordinarily kind person.
I remember, as we got up to leave, Hitchens embracing my girlfriend/wife and kissing her on the cheek. The gesture seemed at once rakish and completely gentlemanly. Distinctly British.
"I'm in the book," he said—meaning, feel free to call him.
He meant it. He was as open with his time and talent as anyone of his stature could possibly be.
A couple years later, I saw him at a book fair in downtown Washington. I told him that I'd almost finished Anthony Powell's 12-novel cycle A Dance to the Music of Time, which Hitchens frequently championed.
He raised his hands in the air as though he had scored a touchdown.
This, more than anything else—more than religion, more than politics, more than high society—is what animated Hitchens. He simply loved to write, and he loved great writers.
For me, he was an inspiration. I'm going to miss him greatly.