Erik Satie: Trois Gnossiennes

Michael D**, whom I met at the French House cafeteria in 1975, had a friend named Thom Klem, who often joined us for meals at the table where all the people from the French House sat. Klem came from South Bend, Indiana. His grandfather had bought the Coca-Cola franchise in town and ran the bottling plant. Almost everyone who ever did that became millionaires, and Thom’s parents lived in a posh, but not ostentatious part of town.

Thom was majoring in Chinese language, but he, too, spoke French, and he also had a smattering of Spanish. His minor was history, and though he loved reading that, he also read just about anything else. He had a rocking chair in his room, and many evening you could find him there, nose stuck in a book.

Thom and I became fast friends. Like me, he showed enthusiasm for any new body of knowledge, especially off-beat and arcane ones. In addition, he shared a love of cooking, which has always been a hobby of mine of mine. Like almost everyone else in the French House, he had studied in France, but he had also spent a semester in Taipei, Taiwan, so in addition to haute cuisine, he could do a mean stir fry.

Thom was a kind of mentor and partner in crime to me. I had inherited a number of early 20th century fountain pens from my grandfather, and it turned out that Thom prided himself on only writing with fountain pens. Once he came to my room with a great discovery. An old bookstore in Bloomington was going out of business, and they were selling of an old cache of fountain pens from the 40s and 50s. (The bookstore had once been a restaurant called the Gables, and local legend had it therein Hoagy Carmichael had penned Stardust.) Upstairs, from a dusty old case, a dusty old woman produced a box of pens which we rifled through, buying about 3 or 4 a piece. Some took cartridges. Others had ink-encrusted bladders. A number had a very complex capillary system for drawing up ink. We took them back to his room and got a number of working, although, for weeks afterwards we tended to have stains on our index fingers.

In food, Thom was always exploring new and odd tastes based on his literary excursions. Once he read that some author was fond of drinking a warm glass of milk before bedtime with a spoonful of vanilla in it. So that became a ritual of his for a while, but of course, only after having tracked down the best, pure vanilla extract. Another time, someone else had expressed a fondness for red vermouth, and so he methodically went through ever type of the apéritif the local liquor store had to offer before settling on the one that suited his tastes–Noilly-Pratt by the way.

Perhaps, he was a bit of an anachronism, but from him I learned the pleasures of small, material objects, and the little rituals that make life rich. He taught me the joy of buying a nice sheet of linen writing paper, getting out a fountain pen, cleaning it, filling the reservoir, shaking the excess ink off, and then writing a letter in long-hand. Later, when I went abroad for the first time, he and I corresponded in long-hand almost daily.

Maybe that is why I associate Thom in my mind with Trois Gnossiennes by Satie. I remember listening to it one day in the room of either Mark Z*** or Cynthia C***, and all of us were touched by its poignancy. Satie was an old guy before Debussy and others discovered him playing in a bars and championed his simple sounding but complex melodies. And maybe that was what drew me to Klem–his unassuming air, but complex interior life.

When Thom died of AIDS in the early 1990s, I sat down to write his mother a letter of condolence. Without thinking, I bought some nice paper, cleaned my old fountain pen, and sat down in a quiet place to write. Suddenly I realized that he had taught me how to do that. After I became an adult, he was the first person near my own age to die. So here’s to you, Thom. I’ll write more about you later.


Download MP3 or buy CD of Erik Satie: Gnossiennes from Amazon


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

3 Responses to Erik Satie: Trois Gnossiennes

  1. kvennarad says:

    Kurt, please expand these ‘French House’ stories and make them a book.


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