Three good friends and I recently packed our bags and headed to Washington D.C. in effort to find and talk with renowned atheist, debater and political commentator, Christopher Hitchens. We spent the five days sightseeing in and around D.C., our final stop being Dupont Circle, a cultured part of the capital as well as the home of the famed journalist. I hadn’t planned on this being the last thing we did. Feeling as if I had made the very goal of the trip nothing more than an afterthought, I was doubtful stepping off the metro that anything would work out as I had hoped.
A few miles and a couple wrong turns later, we were standing in front of the author’s building. I hesitantly walked up to the door to press the intercom button in attempt to get in the high-rise. My friends told me what to say when the receptionist answered, but before my finger had a chance to press the bell, he buzzed in saying, “Come on in.”
The lobby was elegant and warm. Thick, marble-swirled columns lined the interior and a large, fragrant Christmas tree stood at the end of the hallway in a dining room. I told the receptionist that we had driven all the way from Florida to interview Hitchens. His name was Jose, and he looked at me like I was crazy. But, he offered to call Hitchens’ room and tell him the situation. He didn’t answer. We asked if we could wait a few minutes and try again later. He agreed. After about 10 minutes passed, Jose told me that Christopher comes down every day to check his mail, and that I could leave him a note. I was going to take him up on his offer, but in a last-ditch effort asked if there was anything else he could do to help us out. He looked at me and chuckled. Then he said words I never thought I’d hear: “I’m not supposed to do this, but I’ll take you up. Your friends have to stay here, though.”
I left my three friends, whom I would have loved to have taken with me, and followed Jose to the elevator. It was a long and silent ride up, and I was getting increasingly dizzy with each passing second. Finally, we got to his floor and took a right. The door was cracked open, and a festive cranberry wreath hung from it. Jose knocked on the thin, green door and the footsteps I heard were obviously not those of the weakened Hitchens. They were loud, dress-shoes-clanking-on-a-wooden-floor kind of foot steps and seemed to be those of a healthy man. They turned out to belong to Christopher’s publisher, Steve.
Steve opened the door, and Jose explained who I was. I quickly interjected, “I drove all the way from Florida!”
“All the way from Florida?” he said. “Yes! I’ll be super quick! Two minutes is all I need!”
He said it wasn’t the most convenient time but agreed to run the situation by Hitchens. He came back seconds later and said, “You’re in luck!”
The apartment had little furniture, but certainly no lack of books. Everywhere I turned books lined the walls from the floor up. They were in messy stacks, row after row, without any shelves to hold them. We entered through a doorway lined with Christmas lights, and there he was: frail, bald and wearing a cardigan that wouldn’t have suited him in his pre-cancer days. But now, no article of clothing seemed more fitting for his frame.
He was organizing papers, and didn’t look up at me until he finished what he was doing.
“If I don’t finish this now, I’ll never remember,” he said, as he sat at the small table where he was writing. He apologized for his lack of manners, rose to his feet, and shook my hand. “I just finished writing a book, would you like a celebratory drink?” he asked. I declined at first, but he insisted that I join him in the celebration. Steve turned on what sounded like Bob Dylan, and Christopher led me into a dining room. He poured me a generous glass of Beringer white wine, and walked into his black and white tiled kitchen to retrieve a glass of scotch for himself.
“Am I supposed to believe your story?” he asked. I didn’t understand at first, so he clarified with, “Am I supposed to believe you drove all the way from Florida to talk to me?”
“I did!” I answered.
We engaged in small talk for a brief time, but it wasn’t long before we were lost in deep conversation. I told him that there are recurring statements in his writing that make me feel he doesn’t understand the gospel. Lines like the first paragraph in the last chapter of his memoir entitled “Something of Myself” that said, “Every month I engage in debates with people whose goal in life it is to woo and to gain the approval of supernatural beings.” And another one in a radio interview where he talked about the absurdity of the Ten Commandments (which I discuss at length in my previous note I mentioned in the first paragraph). I told him those statements are the reason I came. At this point in the conversation, Steve asked if he could join us.
I had trouble understanding many of Christopher’s responses, in part because he is so intelligent and uses very big words, and also because of his deep, raspy, English-accented voice. There was one response, however, that I remember more clearly than them all: “The word ‘grace’ is lost on me,” he said, “it’s like white noise.”
His wife temporarily lightened the heaviness of the conversation a few minutes into things. She frantically came through the front door with a huge knot in her hair saying, “Is Anotonia home?” Antonia is their daughter, and she needed her to brush her knot out so she could get ready for their Christmas party-which I made them late for, by the way. I told her I would be honored to brush the knot out of her hair, but Antonia came home just in time. Which I’m thankful for, because I may not have been able to articulate my thoughts while trying to de-knot Mrs. Hitchen’s hair.
Heavy conversation resumed, and we continued talking for about an hour before Christopher and Steve wanted a smoke. He owns a room right next door to his apartment. It was stark and cold with absolutely no furniture except for one solitary chair, which they insisted I sat on. I was appreciative because I had nervously drank the entire glass of wine very quickly and was feeling the effects of the alcohol on an empty stomach. The walk from his apartment to the smoking room was a wobbly one.
We continued the conversation for another half hour or so. I would write more of the content on here, but I feel it’s better explained in person. Before I left, he searched for a copy of his best-selling book to give to me. He couldn’t find one. As he reached out his hand toward mine he said, ”Well my dear,” and proceeded to wish me luck in my life and career. I thanked him for so generously giving me almost two hours of his time and headed toward the elevator.
An older lady accompanied me on the ride down, and I couldn’t keep my excitement to myself. I turned to her and said,
“I just talked with Christopher Hitchens!”
“Oh he’s such a nice man!” she said.
We topped the night off with dinner at Buca de Beppo and I relayed the stories to my wonderful (and patient) friends.
Though I wouldn’t trade this night for anything, the experience has brought with it a certain embarrassment that took some time to surface. Immediately afterward I was preoccupied with the expected emotion of excitement, but it quickly morphed into the less expected one of vulnerability, making me feel highschool-like in my desire for his acceptance and approval. I don’t think much about this night anymore. I try my hardest to simply appreciate it and move on; hoping and trusting that something was said that needed to be.
Please continue to pray for Christopher’s health and salvation.