Susan Elizabeth Crosby

Friend of Paul

Paul Feyerabend, Unlimited



Paul turned up in our lives unexpectedly one winter afternoon in 1971. I came home from class to find him holding forth at the dinner table. He and Robin Assali, his TA, were thick as thieves in those days, and the two of them were in a rollicking mood — Robin unfiltered and satirical, and beside him, Paul, a thermonuclear event with eyebrows by Dr. Seuss, flashing with life and ideas. It was the end of ordinary days.


There were three of us sharing a flat on upper Oxford Street in Berkeley that year, the upstairs apartment of a rambling wooden house. The oversized front window looked out over the San Francisco Bay, and we could watch tomorrow’s weather rolling in through the Golden Gate Bridge. Anita was 20, Karen was 21, and I was 22. It was my final semester as a Comparative Literature student, Karen was studying Psychology and considering pre-med, and Anita was a fed-up Philosophy major. Seemingly everyone she confided in about her disappointment with the curriculum and dull lectures told her, “You should talk to Paul Feyerabend”. It wasn’t long before she did, in the form of a letter.


When Paul stopped by the department office in Moses Hall to collect his mail, he found a letter from a young idealist with an Italian surname and decided to answer it. He later said it was Anita’s beautiful last name, Castellini, that clinched it.


Anita Castellini

Karen, Susan, Anita

Karen Montgomery

Berkeley, 1971

Paul became a friend to the three of us, a fixture of our lives that spring. He would propose — and bankroll — trips into San Francisco to see movies of all sorts or plays at the American Conservatory Theater, then on a run of glittering productions under the directorship of William Ball. In the elevator of the parking garage after the theater, Paul would practice operatic scales in his deep, resonant baritone while the other passengers blinked and exchanged perplexed smiles. Years later, when I read Paul’s autobiography and learned about his complicated childhood and youth, I wondered if harsh experience had driven him into the arms of the arts. He made life into theater.

Late afternoon on Paul’s deck

Did someone say ‘disruption’?

Robin Assali, Paul’s T. A.

Paul loved the books, music, and movies of America in the 1930’s 1950’s: the playfulness, sass, and wit. Busby Berkeley’s films were Surrealism set to music. Movies like “Born Yesterday” with its tongue-in-cheek humor, brash and sweet at once, and books by Damon Runyon and Dashiell Hammett were catnip for Paul. Always with a light touch… he would say.


Paul took lightness of spirit and the ability to treat life with deft humor to be profound responses to life. Not only is humor a creative act, it makes us better company. I think what Paul appreciated most about America was the culture’s relentless humor, informality, irreverence, and careless charm. At our best, we are that. He chose to write in free-wheeling, lucid American English. What better idiom for tossing off slangy remarks and easy observations? Anything goes.


I hadn’t read Paul’s books or paid much attention to his professional life, but it was clear that he was an academic like few others. During the time we knew him, he was invited to teach in New Zealand, London, and Switzerland. When he left on one of those assignments, our friend, Bob Miller, looked off into the mid-distance and said dreamily, “Paul Feyerabend. Philosophy magnate.”


The only lecture of Paul’s I ever attended was in the winter of 1971. A few minutes into his class, I walked through the double doors of Wheeler Hall, and there he was at the lectern, recounting the personal life of René Descartes. The Queen of Sweden, Paul explained, invited Descartes to visit her in Stockholm. He went, caught a nasty cold, and died. This kind of personal backstory made philosophy interesting in a human way. A moment later, Paul stopped in mid-sentence at a sound from the back of the hall. The auditorium doors opened, and in stepped the Philosophy Department’s clipboard-bearing evaluation committee, there to observe his teaching. Paul didn’t miss a beat. He picked up a small book from the lectern, stuck his nose in it, and feigning intense interest, grabbed his walking stick and strode with long, resolute steps straight out the other door.


One day that spring, after lunch at an outdoor cafe on Channing Way with Paul and the Head of the Philosophy Department, we three roommates – young, happy, and always hungry – ended the meal with ice cream and coffee in the bright sunshine. When the check came, the Department Head picked it up and began to calculate his share. Paul grandly scooped the bill out of his hands: No, no. You pay all, or you pay nothing. Then paid the bill in full.


Paul told us that when he was a boy he and his mother would walk in the parks of Vienna where they saw older men sitting on benches, dozing, reading newspapers, and playing chess. When adults asked Paul what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would tell them he wanted to be retired.

One afternoon, Anita and I walked into a movie theater to meet Paul and Robin, arriving just as the lights dimmed. Peering around in the gloom, we couldn’t spot them anywhere. But from the front row, Paul saw us, stood and waved his “stick” over his head, booming: We are here!! Startled laughter from the audience.

Talking to Robin about a recent review criticizing one of Paul’s books, Paul: They accuse me of fouling my own nest. I am merely pointing out what already is in the nest.

When Paul returned from New Zealand, head over heels for a woman he had met at the university there, he started reading John Donne’s poetry. “I want to know what it is to love, what it’s meant to others in the past. Otherwise, it’s just another physical condition, like flatulence.”

I graduated from Berkeley while Karen and Anita still had a year or two to go. In 1973, I left to study in Italy. On the way, I stopped in Vienna to visit good friends, Tessa von Grunebaum and her husband, Chris Bergen. They’d made a science of attending the opera on the cheap. (A science called standing room.) Paul happened to be in Vienna that week as well, to check on an apartment he was considering buying for the future: I think I would like to leave the world in the same place I entered it.


What luck! Paul took us to lunches in gardens and dinners in the old city, even bought us tickets for the Statsoper to see “Falstaff”. Sitting next to me, Paul whispered the themes as the music rolled by, watch for this one, it’s the rascal’s motif, you’ll hear it every time they appear. He was shushed by the people in the row behind, more than once another recurring theme of the evening.

One afternoon of that immoderate week, Paul, Tessa, and I visited Vienna’s Prater, the city park known for its colossal Ferris wheel equipped with full-sized train carriages to lift the passengers majestically aloft. There, high over the city, Paul enacted the scene from The Third Man, where the Joseph Cotton character confronts the Orson Wells character with selling diluted vials of penicillin on the black market and is almost shoved out the door for his trouble. Safely back on the ground later, knees tucked under chins, we rode the tiny train meant for children at the Lilliputbahn, the only passengers of the portly gent dressed as an engineer. Ah, the general merriment of that day. Oh, the explosive mirth when Tessa opened a wooden box she found under the seat and discovered the engineer’s stash of schnapps.

Satisfied passengers on the Lillitputbahn

photo by Paul

Site of Viennese excess

California is famously “earthquake country”. Paul thought about that prospect and thought about it some more. Then he hired a contractor to reinforce the foundation, windows, and walls of his house, and packed a backpack with food and supplies, along with a sleeping bag, to keep by the door. He even bought a brazier with self-starting fuel because I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be uncomfortable.


One Saturday, I picked Paul up to drive to San Francisco for lunch with Robin. I opened the passenger door only to watch him soberly walk to the back of the car to toss in two life preservers. I asked him why. Silence. Nodding sardonically, Robin told me to think about it. It was a slow 5 count before it clicked: the life preservers would be there so that if we were on the bridge when the earthquake hit, and if the car fell off into the water, we would be saved. I laughed and turned to Paul. He stared steadfastly through the windshield at the road ahead and didn’t crack a smile.


In the mid-1970’s, Paul returned early from his teaching post at Bristol University, seriously ill and fast losing frightening amounts of weight. The doctors in the UK hadn’t been able to diagnose his health problem, and his doctor in Berkeley said his only option would be exploratory surgery, which would probably kill Paul, as weak as he was. Paul turned to acupuncture, illegal in California at the time. Someone recommended an acupuncturist/herbalist on 9th Avenue, near Golden Gate Park. Dr. Foon had a cover operation, a storefront that advertised Oriental Art Supplies, with dusty cards and brushes in front and a curtained-off treatment area in the back next to a shadowy, creepy room filled with gray and deathly-green roots and herbs hanging from the ceiling or stuffed into big glass jars. Paul would sit or lie on the treatment table while Dr. Foon twirled needles into him and stuffed herbs into paper bags for him to take home. Dried papaya seeds and Chinese herbal treatments boiled away in Paul’s kitchen for years, and he followed a strict regime of boiled chicken and steamed vegetables, a bland but pungent diet. No wine, no beer, no coffee.

The acupuncture shop as it stands today

Months went by and Paul slowly began to recover. The only diagnosis Dr. Foon ever offered was Poison in system, poison in system, but the weekly treatments and prescribed diet helped when nothing else had.


Within a year or two, Paul was strong enough for an occasional meal at Vanessi’s, at that time the unchallenged best Italian restaurant in San Francisco. Robin (always) and other friends (at times) would meet Paul there, and a transgressive lunch would follow – Sicilian wedding (maritata) soup, pot-roast, veal piccata, Caesar salad, zabaglione, wine – a menu that was itself a sort of reunion with old friends. Then off to the acupuncturist to be needled back into health. After the treatment, we’d go to a movie, then to Japan Town for noodles, then across the street to the Kabuki Theater, closing out the day with Samurai movies, none better than those of Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman.

With Robin and Lee Anne, one of Robin’s friends, and her daughter, Andy, outside Robin’s apartment on Russian Hill in San Francisco, 1976, on our way to lunch and acupuncture, a movie, dinner, and a Japanese film

This was a Saturday ritual for two years, 1975-1977, one of those periods in life that we imagine will go on forever, but then, of course, don’t becoming, instead, encased in amber, a reminder that a moment in life can sometimes be a pearl on a string, perfect in every way.

Paul’s house on Miller Avenue in the Berkeley hills was a redwood shoebox with a million-dollar view. He would track the progress of the sun as it set far to the north of the Golden Gate Bridge in winter, then slowly work its way back south of the San Francisco skyline in the summer. A narrow deck stretched across the back of the house with sliding glass doors that opened onto a vastness that seemed to be the edge of the world.

Stacks of books covered the coffee table and dinner table, tracking Paul’s careening interests. Sometimes he’d take Robin, Anita, Karen, or me along when he went to Black Oak Books, Cody’s, or Moe’s to buy books for himself and one or two for us, on whatever subject he was curious about, so we’d be able to talk with him about the Kabbalah, or Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, or Berthold Brecht’s plays, or something else entirely. Paul was in it for the pure pleasure of learning — the first and last true scholar I am ever likely to have as a friend.


A black-rimmed schoolroom clock on the south wall of the living room by the seldom-used front door was frozen with its hands on twenty past ten. I asked why he didn’t have it repaired. Because it’s stuck at such a good time. 10:20 is a good time in the morning and 10:20 is a good time at night. In the mornings, it’s not too early, and at night it’s not too late.


Next to the clock, a black and white poster of King Kong atop the Empire State Building, snatching biplanes from the sky. Outraged innocence, said Paul.

On Paul’s 50th birthday, Anita drove the three of us to dinner at San Francisco’s swankiest and priciest French restaurant, Le Trianon old-style formality just short of silliness, more French than France, with pale blue menu inserts for the men, and shell pink for the women, the pink ones without the prices. Driving back over the Bay Bridge afterwards, I remember thinking what a good sport Paul was about turning 50… because he was now so, so old. At the time, although venerable in my eyes, he was almost too bright to look at directly. That still holds true, although by now I’ve lapped him as to age.

Paul learned to drive when he was in his 50’s. Once he had his California driver’s license he started tooling around the Bay Area on his own. When he proudly described driving into San Francisco, changing lanes on the freeway and turning his head around to check for traffic, I congratulated him on that extra step of caution: it’s dangerous to rely on the rearview mirror alone. Oh, I never look at the rearview mirror! It’s too confusing!


And he could be slow to start. When he lingered at a stop sign, if the car behind honked in impatience, Paul would put on the emergency brake, open the door, grab his walking stick, and thump back to lean into the driver’s window and ask, Yessss, is something the matter?

These aren’t exact quotations, but close:


That we have waists to tie sweaters around when we don’t want them is proof that we live in a benevolent universe.


When I was young and invited to dinner, I would think of clever things to say before I went out. Do you ever do that? I don’t, not anymore.


In Europe, there are understood ways to behave that everyone knows and follows. Do these take away from freedom, or are they a kind of freedom? In America, everyone acts and speaks out, without conventions. Because of that, in America, words and actions can be more original, but lose shared understandings and traditional forms. Does that take away from freedom? Or add to it?


There are entire days when I cook, clean up, cook again, and never seem to leave the kitchen.


The skylight your friend Greg installed in the kitchen ceiling leaks like a sieve when it rains. To think I almost had him install one over the bed!


When you know the constellations, they are like old friends. They rise and set and follow you through the year.


On a night walk with Paul and Anita. Paul, in joyous recognition: Fat Jupiter in Scorpio’s tail!


I want to come back as an annoying ghost, to float around the edges and keep you from taking yourselves so seriously.

That would be my strong preference, too,

Susan Elizabeth Crosby