The October issue–featuring drugs, 80s movies, and freshman nostalgia–is somewhere between here and New Jersey. While you wait, here’s a profile from Andrew Flynn.
“What do Germans think when they think of bread?” Alonzo digresses from an erudite defense of poetry from the ravages of philosophy, aided by the words of Walter Benjamin on pain and brot. “I don’t think I’ve ever gone out and just said to myself, ‘I think I’m going to have some German bread today.’ I’ve said, ‘I’m going to have a baguette,’ and it’s worked out quite nicely. But German bread…”
This is Jonathan Alonzo Rios, CC ’09—though he answers simply to Alonzo, due to both Hispanic heritage and grammar school confusions with five other Jonathans. When he says “Ah-lon-zoh,” most think he’s English, or perhaps a poseur English major, but the accent is all his own, the anomalous result of a bilingual upbringing. The name, however, is a relative pittance: Alonzo is a man to be known by sight, to be picked out from a distance by his gait—an easy trot, often supported by a cane for an undiagnosed knee ailment—and his dress. Alonzo favors the obscure and the refined: crème-colored fedoras, gold pocket watches, suspenders. In cold weather, his stout frame is draped in black trench coat, his neck wrapped tightly in a wool scarf. When he smokes, which he quite likes to do, his Nat Sherman is frequently wedged in a cigarette holder, bobbing between his faint moustache and slight goatee, kept afloat by a tight, sly grin.
But don’t let looks deceive you. To know Alonzo is to know the roles of Alonzo: gracious host, Muslim seeker, language-dabbler, painter, thinker, to-be-writer, night-walker, and, most of all, constant reader. Upon entering his 191st Street apartment, one must take off one’s shoes before padding down the oriental-carpeted hallway to Alonzo’s study, a room spacious enough for a sofa, a writing desk, and almost all of the classics of Western and Islamic literature, most in their original languages. (Alonzo’s bathroom reading includes Rousseau, Montaigne, and the Iliad in German—“to remind me I should be learning my German.”)
“Assume I haven’t read the books. I’m a terrible reader. But I have great faith in reading.” He gestures to a darkened adjacent room filled with luggage. “Poncho puts me to shame.” Here lives his roommate, a high school dropout who has befriended theoretical architect Peter Eisenman and is attempting to ace the SAT under Alonzo’s tutelage. Alonzo shakes his head: “I’m a terrible tutor.”
Raised Catholic by traditionally religious Colombian immigrants, Alonzo was originally devout. “If I had remained Catholic, I would have considered the priesthood,” he explains. Instead, he experienced a robust intellectual conversion in high school that puts the punk teenage atheist stereotype to shame. “The Trinity”—his brow furrows, remembering thorny theological wrangling of years gone by. “I didn’t buy it.” Now, the Islamic convert places a fruit plate in front of me and offers me hookah as he begins to recount his most recent quest—the year he intended to spend abroad in Turkey learning Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, the languages he thought would lead him to wisdom.
After a whirlwind romance with a red-haired anarchist and a growing paranoia (“I would see meaning in the patterns of the garbage on the street”), Alonzo arranged, via a community of Turkish immigrants living in his hometown, to go to Turkey and study languages. But, when he arrived, it was all a bust. There was no way to study language, no one to teach him Arabic. He returned two months later and holed himself up in his room to read the Qur’an and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
Six months ago, he would have worn a turban, but now Alonzo is feeling the need to be a bit more social and a bit less introspective. “I know it sounds trite,” he nods, “but I’ve truly convinced myself that when you find God, God is not the answer. God is the question.”
In a momentary revelation of the spiritual limits of a well-stocked library, Alonzo begins to pace, shakes his head, and takes another drag of his cigarette. “I don’t do anything,” he laughs.