Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. —Albert Einstein, Reader's Digest, 1977
Who today remembers the man who carried Einstein’s head in a box through the streets of Vancouver? We remember clearly the box (dark wood, varnished, the door on brass hinges: what about the latch?) with Einstein’s head in it, a plaster model (was it plastic, perhaps? modelling clay? plasticine?) that the unremembered man carried everywhere he went, during the time of his being in the city, in the downtown area, in a neighbourhood consisting of hotels (two with beer parlours), bookstores (two antiquarian, one science fiction, one mysteries and thrillers), a junk store filled with furniture and paperback novels, a copy shop, a rubber stamp works, at least one numismatist, a philatelist, three low-grade cafés (the Smile, the Montgomery, the Richard Pender, the White Rose: make that four low-grade cafés), and don’t forget the Enver Hoxsa Bookstore & Headquarters of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), whose premises the unremembered man may or may not have frequented for much of the period in question, browsing among the Stalinist archives beneath fading portraits of the premier of Albania, until the building, a wooden structure of uncertain provenance, was put to flame one night during Ramadan by a disgruntled follower or perhaps a careless smoker hanging out in the alley: the police surprised no one when they classified the fire as probably “not gang-related.”
Perhaps it was a species of theatre to the unremembered man to sit down in beer parlour or café, to open the hinged door of the box with Einstein’s head in it, to leave it open or to close it again. How to decide? How to remember? Sometimes he sat across the table and opened the door toward himself and sometimes the other way around: what difference did it make? What kind of theatre would that be? Here too there is a paucity of information: we recall him turning the box sideways; that is, ninety degrees from the axis of conversation, when something already forgotten was being said, exchanges of opinion lost within moments of their utterance, so that patrons at neighbouring tables might look through the opening and regard there the head of Einstein at some distance, without noticing anything in particular about the proprietor of the box, a man about whom they would remember nothing from that moment on. Perhaps they would be filled with wonder at the object in the box, but never in the White Lunch (over on Hastings Street and not to be confused with the White Rose on Pender), whose patrons tended to be filled with anger, not wonder, although no one can know what might have ensued in the White Lunch, erstwhile haunt of the Exclusion League and its deeply exclusionist acolytes and liegemen (embittered fedora-wearers whose wives smile grimly in cotton frocks in snapshots taken at picnics on the grass near Lost Lagoon under the weeping willow trees near the laughing waters), had the unremembered man gone in there with his interesting burden, as it was his fate never to be remembered in any event. But everyone remembers the box, and the head, about three- quarters life-size (or was it full-size, life-size? how big was Einstein’s full-size head in life-size? a cubit? an ovaloid?), and no one would even think of him, the unremembered man, if it weren’t for the box with Einstein’s head in it, which sooner or later everyone remembers, and then we remember it more than once, we remember it several times before it fades, slowly at first and then more quickly, but always to return again at one time or, if not that time, another time: the memory, the image, the trace of Einstein’s head in a box: once perceived it really is impossible to shake it off.
But he was certainly there, the unremembered man, in the neighbourhood of the “downtown area,” whose precincts he haunted for several weeks, possibly months, in an early or a later part of the year (one recalls clear skies, white clouds sailing through them, a breeze, definitely a light wind, “bracing” in the usage of the day: certainly the trees in Trout Lake park were seen to be fluttering and stretching, but this was miles away, in another part of the city), although no one can remember how long the unremembered man might have been known to be in the area so many years, months, or was it only days ago? He may have had a literary ambition; certainly it was the company of writers and their hangers-on that he sought out and for whom he would wait at a table near the door in the Niagara beer parlour and then later in the evening in the beer parlour at the Marble Arch, hoping to draw them over to have a look (again, who could resist? once you had seen Einstein’s head you would sooner or later want to see it again, just to confirm your earlier impressions, which were already fading into the limbo of half-remembered dreams) into the wooden box that was his beacon, a sign if you will of his presence, or should that be his absence forever aborning in the moment? He was not unknown to enter rooms with the box held out before him like a lamp in the dark, a hurricane lamp, perhaps, as if his own life were a metaphor for stormy nights, or should that be a bull’s-eye lamp, with its sliding shutter so like a metaphor, shutting off the light and letting it out again?
He would put the box down on the table or counter or desk or whatever there was to put it down on and then open the door of the box so you could see the object within, instantly recognizable: the wild hair, which we know now to have been tousled intentionally in order to create the well-known wild-haired effect favoured by photographers and fundraisers, the deep corrugations in the forehead, dark eyes deep in their orbs of flesh; surprisingly little eyebrow, a mere hint of brow-thatch; and the long, thin jowls, lank, carved into furrows in the cheeks, the slightly swollen nose, really a schnozz, a schnozzola even. And the upper lip invisible, hidden beneath that great sad overfall of moustache, a real cookie duster dusting a long hound dog face of a face; a bloodhound comes to mind, or is it a basset hound? What great sadness lurks within? What resignation celestial? A certain shyness too in that familiar visage: he remembers the Cosmological Constant, in fact he can never forget it: certainly he considered it his biggest mistake, and there were others who found it useful in posing alternative solutions; but could there ever be any doubt about the original of that plaster head? Not in anyone’s recollection, certainly. This was all thought to have happened years before news of the man who drove across the USA with Einstein’s brain in a jar in the trunk of his Chevrolet, I believe it was, certainly a General Motors product.
We recall presuming the unremembered man to be from elsewhere, somewhere like Moncton, Pouce Coupe, Valleyview, Ajax, certainly not a local man. He may have been a smoker, but was he ever seen at Smokers’ League meetings? The police will have lost the tapes, no doubt. But we may be inventing here, for who remembers him now, the unremembered man who appeared among us bearing in a wooden box the head of the man who would be named Person of the Century by Time magazine, to take his place among earlier Persons of their respective centuries who would have been nominated had Time magazine been publishing during all the epochs of the millennium, as we are assured in a sidebar listing the centuries past and the Persons whom Time would have named as being of them, had there been time enough: William the Conqueror, of course, Saladin, then Genghis Khan, Giotto (Giotto!), Gutenberg, Queen Elizabeth I, Newton, Jefferson, Edison (surely some mistake!), but definitely not Hitler, never Hitler, because, as another Time writer, author of the sidebar “Why Hitler is Not a Person of the Century,” writes: “Evil may be a powerful force, a seductive idea, but is it more powerful than genius, creativity, courage or generosity?” Certainly a question of great moment, but who can remember the answer? This much can be said: he appeared among us unheralded and then vanished, with Einstein’s head in a box. The past is covered in forgetfulness: we who were there will never know that we knew him, or even that we were there: for how can we know, who can recall to us an unremembered man of yesteryear?