The air in Southold has been electric with gossip for weeks, and Main Street store owner David Rothman can’t help but pay attention. Is he really coming? Is it just a rumor? Where will he stay? How long will he be here? And for God’s sakes, how do we meet him?
And then one summer morning, he walks in.
A Mozart symphony is playing on the store phonograph when the front doorbell jingles and suddenly there he is. The rumors were true after all.
By the end of the summer, Mr. Rothman will have forged a remarkable and everlasting friendship with his brilliant, witty, wild-haired customer. A man you all know as Albert Einstein.
Here now, with a healthy dose of artistic license, we use the story of Rothman and Einstein to present you with a foolproof plan for becoming fast friends with a world-famous physicist spending a summer in your hometown.
1. Let his accent fool you. (He’ll laugh when you misunderstand him.)
When Einstein walked into Rothman’s Department Store on that fateful morning, he was shopping for something very specific.
“Haff you any sundahls?” he said through his thick German-accent.
Confused, nervous, excited, utterly determined to play it cool, Rothman led his customer outside to the backyard. He didn’t dare ask what scientific experiment Einstein could possibly be working on that required a sundial.
He pointed to his own personal sundial – there were none for sale in the store – and told Einstein he could borrow it and bring it back when finished.
Einstein laughed. Rothman blushed. The scientist playfully pointed to his feet and repeated, “Sundahls!”
He went home that day with a $1.35 pair of white size 9 women’s sandals, the only ones Rothman had left in the store. He wore them all summer long.
2. Make music together. (Even if he plays a little better.)
To impress your Einstein, share his interest in music. To become his friend, share his love for playing the an instrument. If you’re like the real Einstein and Rothman the music will be classical. The instrument? Well, the violin, of course.
When he invites you over, show up at his rented cottage in Nassau Point with stacks of sheet music in your arms and let him choose your first piece to play together. (He’ll choose Bach’s Double Concerto).
If you stumble, never mind. He’ll understand. If you nervously grip your bow a little too tightly, he’ll respond graciously. If you have to stop playing altogether because you feel completely out of your league, he’ll simply invite you to the front porch so the two of you can chat. At midnight, his secretary will ask you to leave; you’ve kept “the doctor” up too late.
If all else fails, it helps to have some musical friends up your sleeve. Invite Dr. Einstein to join the twice-weekly quartet at your house, and he’ll happily arrive each time, violin in hand, to play alongside his new orchestra of friends.
Einstein treasured these nights at David Rothman’s house so much, in fact, that he wrote in a 1940 letter: “I am very sorry that I have to miss the beautiful quartet evenings you arranged last year. I send my greetings to the quartet brothers and to you and your family. Cordially, A. Einstein.”
3. Always be ready to Google. (He’s very smart.)
You’ll need to brush up on your knowledge of physics, astronomy, philosophy, literature, international politics, religion (and let’s face it, much, much more) if our plan is to work properly. No one said this friendship thing would be easy – remember, you’ve got a genius on your hands.
Despite his profound humility and total lack of pretension, Einstein was never satisfied with small talk. He enjoyed nothing more than conversations that allowed him to explore the depth and mystery of the universe – and luckily for David Rothman, years of devouring books paid off in a big way. Though only possessing an eighth grade education, Rothman was brilliant (fascinating?) in his own right: a self-taught business owner who could discuss intellectual subjects with the ease and sophistication of a college professor. His only limitation, in fact, was mathematics, which made a one-on- one lesson in relativity nearly impossible for Einstein to accomplish:
4. Play it cool. (Even when you deliver him letters from the President of the United States.)
When meeting your Einstein, the less you’re impressed (outwardly, at least) the better. Both David Rothman and Albert Richmond, the postman who delivered Einstein’s mail and groceries every day that summer, appear to have had a similar approach to their friendship with the famous scientist: complete nonchalance.
“You let Einstein come to you,” Richmond was quoted as saying many years later. “People who pushed their nose into his business, snapping pictures, you lost. You let him come to you, and you were in.”
In between long chats and long walks, sailing trips and string quartets, Einstein found time that leisurely summer to draft one of the most important letters in American history.
Two of his fellow physicists, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, visited the cottage on Nassau Point in July 1939 to discuss Germany’s atomic bomb-making abilities. By the end of their stay, Einstein had drafted and signed that famous letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him to develop the bomb with the intent of beating Germany to it.
When FDR wrote back, Albert Richmond was the postman who delivered the letter straight to Einstein’s house. The Manhattan Project and eventual atomic bomb strikes in Japan were not far off — all set in motion by a letter Einstein later deeply regretted signing. (It’s best to play it cool with this topic, as well.)
5. Never join him on a sailing trip. (But always be prepared to rescue him from one.)
Einstein loved to sail, but he was frighteningly bad at it. He bought a sailboat, named it Tiniff – German for “junk” – and took it out on the Peconic Bay at every opportunity.
At nearly every one of those opportunities, someone on the beach nearby was called to save him.
“Hey, Dave, this is Captain Meyer,” came a call to David Rothman’s house one evening, some 12 hours after Einstein and his sister had left Nassau Point to sail to Rothman’s house in Southold. “There’s a wild-looking couple with white hair who need haircuts, asking how to sail a boat to your house. I can hardly understand them. They’re down here at Founder’s Landing.”
Frantic, yet relieved that his wild-looking friend with white hair was still alive, Rothman hurried to Founder’s Landing to collect the failed sailors and bring them back to his house for dinner.
When in doubt about any of these five strategies, just remember this: treat him as you would any other Nobel Prize-winning genius in the neighborhood, and you’ve got yourself a friend for life.