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Remembering Dr. Diag

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Twenty five years of traipsing through central campus have left quite a stash of images in my wrinkly little brainroom. Which is to say: My head is f uil of memories of street people, lawn musicians and spontaneous orators. Nowadays, when someone stands on astone bench and holds forth, it's usually with Bible in hand. While l'm not here to put down evangelism, I must say that preachers have a tendency towards conservativism. Jesus, they'll imply all afternoon at the top of their lungs, was a Republican. Normally l'll stand and take it for two or three minutes, holding my breath so as not to haggle the loudmouth. Soon l'll find my feetcarrying me away. If it's a sermonette I want, there's John Donne, William Blake, Lord Buckley and John Coltrane. That's religión. The Diag has always been a forum for free speech. Earlier this year, individuals were given an opportunity to express themselves into a microphone on the steps of the Grad Library for a short spell. This was heartwarming, and it brought back echoes of great verbalizers. If I have achieved any kind of fluency as a public speaker, some credit must go to the unfettered rantings and ravings of Diag shouters. l'm sure some of you will be able to cast your minds back to the late 1970s. There was a burly, bearded African-American of maybe 40 years who became known as Dr. Diag. He had his own specialconcrete bench; the last one on the right facing the Harían Hatcher Grad Library. This put him very close to the main walkway, and anyone crossing through that part of central campus would get an earful. He stood for most of the day, speaking to a crowd or to no one at all, hashingoutsocietalconundrumswithathundering voice. Newspaper headlines put him in a rage! The angriest I ever saw him was when some candidate's divorce was being used as a pre-election demerit. Bellowing with fists clenched, Dr. Diag vented his dismay at such trivial nonsense. (Those were comparatively innocent times I guess; today, nearly everyone has been through a divorce.) One day I triedto engage him in dialogue. I nserted a question while he caught his breath. We were pretty much alone on the plaza. He repeated my question very carefully in a loud voice and made some sort of elongated reply. Minutes later, I gave him a can of beer, and we began to communicate. Suddenly he leapt to the sidewalk and indicated I should follow him. We entered Haven Hall and were soon sneaking through a service passage into Auditorium C of Angelí Hall. This was bef ore the renovations - Auds C & D were spooky old dungeons backthen compared to their present condition. What drew Dr. Diag into that auditorium was an upright piano. Seating himself with all the dignityofaconcert pianist, helaunched into a series of scales. But he played scales the way Rachmaninoff would have; tremendous power and f eeling went into his performance, which was abruptly terminated by the arrival of an elderly and enraged custodian, who waved his arms and shouted, "I thought I told you to stay the heil out of here!" We made our getaway . Outside, Dr. Diag laughed, shrugged and took a piece of chalk from his shirt pocket. He gót down on one knee and painstakingly wrote the Greek alphabet backwards and forwards on the sidewalk. This was something he did every day, between lengthy bouts of public speaking. I was thrilledby this time and invited himto my house just a few blocks from campus. I told him I had a refrigerator full of beers and a baby grand piano. And so it was that Dr. Diag came to visit me at home. He must have played those fortissimo scales for a full hour in my living room. Then he strolled around the place, taking in my archives and the oil-on-wood paintings which still hang like hallucinations on nearly every wall. Seizing the time, I played him some records. We drained a case of longnecks between us, and my WCBN training took over as I randomly selected weird artifacts from the past. We made itthrough half of Tm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair," when he raised his voice and notified me that He'd Heard Enough! Without batting an eyelash I switched to Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky. Closing my eyes and communing with Slavic antiquity, I suddenly realized that my guest was laughing, a warm outburst of mirth from the belly. Then he explained: "Check out the contrast! Look what America and Russia each carne up with during the war! America's talking about gonna wash that man right outta myhair, and Mother Russia, faced with invasión, produces this incredibly heavy shit!"He roared with laughter, ran up my winding staircase, slipped and feil back down to the hallway floor, still laughing. I still have a couple of Dr. Diag's artworks. One is aperf ectly executed conceptual study in the form of, yes, the Greek alphabet, backwards and forwards, with scraps of our conversation carefully notated. At the top of the page he placed the title: Arwulf's Atelier. But the really memorable piece of art that he left and which I keep framed in glass and metal is a commentary on Ann Arbor. Using a piece of purple paper as a background, he juxtaposed a large maple leaf from my yard, a pair of female eyes from a cosmetic ad, a sheaf of 100-dollar bilis from an nvestor's magazine, and the words ANN ARBOR, culled from a discarded envelope. Never have I seen a more appropriate depiction of this wealthy community with its emphasis on affluence and appearances. He signed his artworks as Richard O. Robinson. Rumor had it he was a veteran of the diabolical, ClA-driven war in Southeast Asia. Whatever it was that drove him, it gave him a short temper. One day, it seems, a UM student got in his face and wouldn't let up. l'm af raid that Dr. Diag came down off of the stone bench and struckthe youngster. That was the limit. My favorite Diag philosopher was banished not only from the U-M campus, but apparently from Ann Arbor itself. Anyway, l've never seen him since. I sold my piano and with the money purchased a lifetime supply of Art Tatum records. No regrets. But let me say at this point - Richard O. Robinson, wherever you are, if you're reading this, drop us a line. I haven't forgotten the way you expressed yourself . Somewhere there's a piano waiting for you to hammer out your scales as if you were in Carnegie Hall. And with all that's happened in this world since you stood on the slab and voiced your opinions, t would be a pleasure to get an update.