In Memoriam: A Chance Encounter with Christopher Hitchens

Photo by José Ramírez

This article has been updated from a post that first appeared on December 16, 2011, at the former Rant ‘n Reason blog.

Christopher Hitchens would have been sixty-six years old today. I once met him at the post office on Florida Avenue in Northwest DC. It was a rainy day in April. Turned out it was his 61st birthday, several months before he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. I saw him from behind—he was standing a few people ahead of me in line—but I recognized him instantly. I then spent the next few moments talking myself into approaching him and trying to think of something worthwhile to say. He turned around several times, looking toward the front windows of the post office. He looked terrible. Bloated, disheveled, a worn tote bag with all kinds of loose paper sticking out the top thrown over his shoulder.

As the line crept forward he turned around once more, and I said, “Mr. Hitchens?”

“Well,” he began with some restraint, “would you like me to be?”

People who knew Christopher Hitchens, or knew of him, were likely to have a strong opinion about the writer one way or the other, and I took his question as an attempt to confirm whether I was friend or foe. I introduced myself as the editor of the Humanist magazine and he instantly warmed. “Ah yes, yes. I believe I accepted an award from you,” he remarked matter-of-factly. I really don’t remember what happened to the one or two patrons between us, but suddenly we were together in line, inching closer to the counter.

It had been in the news just a few days before that he and Richard Dawkins were seeking advice from human rights lawyers to have Pope Benedict arrested during a planned visit to Britain, the charge being his cover-up of sex abuse by Catholic priests. I asked him whether he thought they could pull it off, and he wasted no time describing the legal rationale and the idiocy of the Catholic Church with his trademark candor and erudition. He no longer looked terrible. He was Christopher Hitchens on a tear—indignant and aglow. Being on the receiving end of this energy, I was very glad to be seen as a friend and not a foe. And then it was his turn to mail his letters. I managed to slip him my card and ask for an interview (“of course, of course,” he said, “I’m in the phone book.”). And that was it. I later sent him a letter and a copy of the magazine, but when the diagnosis came down I thought it best to hold off. Then his cancer became a big story, along with the requisite bets on whether his mind would convert spiritually before his body gave out physically, and any access I may have had was lost in the shuffle.

I regret that I never got to sit down with Christopher Hitchens and hear him out on all manner of issues of importance to humanists. We’re all familiar with his targets and his shifting foreign policy perspective. But we can’t ignore his contribution to the cause of reason. I personally wanted to ask him about his falling out with Gore Vidal, who I did have the opportunity to interview and who had some pretty scathing things to say about his one-time friend, Hitch. If nothing else, it would have felt fair to let him have his say. Then again, Christopher Hitchens was someone who got to have his say again and again because he did it so damned well.

With that, let us give a toast to Hitch on what would have been his 66th birthday. Mr. Hitchens, you are sorely missed!

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