Tobias Walch was such a splendid friend, much older than I, but then we’d studied with Trungpa Rinpoche for many years. Usually we met in whatever kitchen where Tobias presided. A small, soft-featured, dapper man, bald with a fringe of gray hair, a soft German accent. He worked intently, darting irritated glances that sometimes turned to rage at his more careless amateur assistants. In terse asides, usually when I helped him in the early morning (me: “Tobias you cut things beautifully. I just can’t.” Tobias: “That’s because you have no training.”) , I came to know something of his past.
Born in Berlin in the 1920’s and his father was a famous stage actor who, from what I gathered, was witty but not exactly nice. “Tobias,” he said when his son was in his early teens, “In this life, to survive, you need talent. Unfortunately, you have none. It’s best you become a cook.” And indeed after eight years of apprenticeship, that’s what Tobias became. He worked in the kitchens of various Buddhist establishments only after he’d retired from his position as executive chef at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, a job he hated.
Father and son fled the Nazis; his father ended up in the German Language Theater in Basel, and Tobias remembered people rushing up to his father on the street, addressing him as ‘Nathan the Wise’ after the lead in Lessing’s play of the same name in which his father had had often triumphed. The father explained: “”You know, there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who can express things very clearly, very precisely and very beautifully, and… those who never understand anything.” Something of his father’s mordant humor rubbed off.
Me: “You were married once, weren’t you?”
Tobias: “It lasted two weeks. It was terrible.”
Me: “What happened?”
Tobias: “I was working in Las Vegas, The Sands. At night I was bored, so I’d gamble. But a pit boss I knew pulled me aside: ‘Why are you doing this? This is for stupid people.’ ‘I don’t have anything else to do.’ ‘So, go to college. Take a class.’ ‘You can do that?’ ‘Yes.’ So I did. I took a philosophy class. I met a young woman there, and we began having coffee together. She agreed with everything I said, (and here Tobias shrugged and produced a naughty smile) so, of course, I thought she understood me.”
Tobias also had a wonderfully scary way of letting all the muscles in his face go slack and his eyes go blank; it made him look like a hatchet murderer about to pop. There was no way to know if he meant to do it. One evening he was bent over his plate, eating supper amid the hubbub of the dining room at a Buddhist residence house. Suddenly he looked up, made his hatchet murderer face, paused and said in a loud voice: LIFE… COULD BE SO WONDERFUL. The room fell silent as Tobias resumed eating.
I wish I could remember the hundreds of interchanges where his focused whimsy somehow made things slide into an unexpected gap. Alas, I can’t. But even on the edge of dying, his sparkle didn't dim.
Tobias’s heart trouble got worse and he spent more time in bed. After a life that was, as far as I knew, quite celibate, beautiful women, many beautiful women came to attend him. This soothed him no end. But one morning a particularly vibrant young woman came by to visit. “How are you,” asked Tobias. The woman glowed: “Why… I don’t know but I’m just feeling really wonderful today.” Tobias: “Don’t rub it in.”
And then the night before he died, another woman was feeding him, holding a spoon up in front of his face, urging him to eat.
Tobias: “Actually, you know, I’m not in any hurry.”