May 22, 1989 12:00 PM

Keep time! How sour sweet music is When time is broke and no proportion kept. So it is in the music of men’s lives.

—King Richard II: Act V, Scene 5

At the start of his business day, when he was in the throes of his grand passion, Irvin Matus and his unresolved anger awoke on a bare blanket in the exposed heart of the nation’s capital. It was, by homeless standards, a pretty fancy address—a fenced-off construction site just behind the Library of Congress. “I looked for a place that would afford me privacy,” says Matus, a 47-year-old survivor of the streets. “I had no intention of making a public spectacle of myself.”

The morning routine was simple: a day-old doughnut and take-out coffee, a look at the news in a previously owned paper. Then at 7:45 A.M., just as it was opening, Matus would walk past the familiar guards into the Library of Congress and make his way to a men’s room where he would brush, shave and change into a clean shirt, washed at a Laundromat with change received from his food stamp allowance. Then, “with every hair in place,” he would make the five-minute walk up East Capitol Street to his intellectual sanctuary, the Folger Shakespeare Library. He would settle behind a fortress of reference books and piles of his meticulous notes and boot up his word processor, purchased with $650 of a $2,500 grant he got from a foundation two years ago.

Thus began the day’s work on his book, a survey of the buildings, ruins and castles that touched the life and work of William Shakespeare. A street person writing of castles has an obvious, undeniable irony. But scholars follow their own light, no matter how narrow the beam.

Next year Matus’s now-completed 68,000-word book, tentatively titled Shakespeare: The Living Record, will appear in both the U.S. and Great Britain. “We found the scholarship excellent and the writing good,” says Sarah Roberts West, an editor at the London office of Macmillan & Co. (St. Martin’s Press will publish the U.S. edition).

And so, Matus was not one more muttering crackpot in our midst after all. But he did lead a strange double life before his four years of research and writing were done, buried deep in his erudite vocation one minute and outwitting security guards the next. “A police officer from the library said to me one day that I wasn’t allowed to shave in the washroom,” he recalls, now that his long ordeal is apparently over. “People would complain. They said street people shouldn’t be able to come in unless they had a legitimate purpose. Well, keeping warm is a legitimate purpose.”

Undaunted, Matus found another men’s room, and every third day he showered at a public swimming pool four blocks away. He insisted on keeping himself well-groomed, he says, “because the minute you let down on yourself, then you are dead.”

There has always been a hard, stubborn nub of defiance guiding Irvin Matus. The elder of two sons born to a middle-class Brooklyn family—his late father, Matthew, managed a Western Union office, his mother, Betty, was a housewife—he claims to have had “an extremely ordinary childhood.” But he was not ordinary. Admitting to a certain “quirky hyperintensity” about the things that interested him, he became a fanatic follower of baseball who, even now, will open his wallet to display an aging photograph of himself standing by Mickey Mantle. An equally zealous stamp collector, he still boasts about being the first junior member of the American Philatelic Society ever to be featured in their monthly journal. At night, while his schoolmates listened to rock deejay Alan Freed on radio, Matus was visiting his studio and cadging autographed scripts.

If there was an inkling of the budding scholar, it was late in blooming, and Matus quickly dropped out of the two-year community college he had entered. One day, still in his teens, as his own legend goes, he was walking down Flatbush Avenue when the sight of his fellow human beings set him off. “You blocks,” he muttered under his breath. “You stones. You less-than-worthless things.” He realized that this was not an original thought.

He had heard the same exact words in Julius Caesar, a play he ascribes to “Willie Shakes.” In school, “I couldn’t stand the Shakespeare classes, but I loved reading the plays on my own,” he says. “He was able to see human beings clearly without feeling that their foibles or failures deprived them of beauty. No one heard the human spirit within the soul like he did.”

There was no practical payoff for an affection for Shakespeare. Matus had no interest in teaching or in the theater. At one point, he and his brother, Paul, attempted to start up a small vanity publishing company, but it failed, and soon after, Matus was drafted into the Army.

“The other soldiers, when they were writing letters to their girlfriends, would come to me and say, Hey, Matty, give me a good Shakespeare quote,’ ” he says. “They loved it. Apparently, so did their girlfriends.”

For Matus, however, life held little in the way of romance. “In relationships, you have to make compromises. I am a loner,” he says. Even friends have a habit of dropping out of his life as if his personality contained some natural repellent. “I think he’s obsessed with himself,” says Virginia Durr, a writer and psychiatric social worker who at one time offered Matus shelter. “He’s a sweet, nice person [but] he seemed to have no sense that other people were suffering for their beliefs too.”

After the Army, Matus drifted through a variety of jobs, free-lanced a few newspaper features and searched for “some sort of broader context for my life.” Finally, six years ago, he found that context when a bookstore owner gave him a few volumes on British architecture. None of them made a connection between the plays and the Elizabethan architecture of Shakespeare’s era, and “after a long search, I found that there was no such book,” he says. “I decided I was going to do it.”

By then, he and his brother had bought a small ranch-style home on Long Island. They sold the house in 1985, and Matus used his $5,000 from the sale and his few savings to go in search of “Willie Shakes.” He made two trips to England, renting an RV camper once for a six-month tour of the countryside. In November 1985 he returned to the U.S. and headed straight for the Folger Library, a private center of Shakespearean learning where only recognized scholars are permitted to work. “A lot of people told me I’d be walking into a lion’s den,” he says. “They said the people would find out I’m really an ignoramus, that my manners aren’t scholarly and they simply won’t accept me. They were wrong.”

Sam Schoenbaum, director of Baroque and Renaissance Studies at the University of Maryland and author of 10 books on Shakespeare, had learned of Matus’s project, took him under his wing and enlarged his network of contacts. “I’m willing to help anyone committed to such a complicated and ambitious project,” says Schoenbaum, 62. “There was never any question that Irvin was committed.”

For a few months Matus worked as a part-time phone solicitor, keeping himself sheltered by house-sitting for friends. From October 1986 until May 1988, there were, in all, 25 roofs over Irvin Matus’s head. When the soliciting job ended, Matus began devoting even more time to his research. He tried, without success, to find work as a cashier, a tour guide, a newspaper reporter, but it was the book that took his time, that provided the music within his life.

Last May, Matus finally ran out of friends and house-sitting arrangements. He was homeless for three months in all—summer months at that—but the experience left a cold imprint. “The only thing that got me through it was sheer anger,” he says now. “I simply can’t believe that with all the people I knew, there wasn’t somebody who could help me. I’m afraid I live in a society in which the bottom line is, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ”

Still, Matus pressed on with his writing, baffling his nice, middle-class friends by his tenacity. Why would a man with such intellectual gifts, a man not rendered helpless by liquor, drugs or mental disease, choose to live so precariously in the street? Surely he could work and finish the book in his spare time. “Get a 9-to-5 job? No way,” says a horrified Matus. “When you have a mind like mine, such a wonderful mind, well, to have it virtually imprisoned in the boring, trivial and mundane would be torture.” Of course, he adds, “A line from Hamlet says it best: ‘What is a man/ If his chief food and market of his time/ Be but to sleep and feed?—a beast, no more.’ ”

Wary of endangering his library privileges, Matus kept his homeless status a secret. He received occasional messages and mail at the Folger reception desk, and when people asked where he lived, he’d reply, “the Hill.” At 3 P.M., the Folger staged a gentle pause for tea and cookies, and Matus would join his fellow scholars. In the evening, he drifted over to the catered buffets hosted by Washington lobbyists. Though not given to feeding those lacking legislative clout, the lobbyists seldom noticed his presence. “When you make a nice appearance and decent conversation like I do,” says Matus, “they don’t mind.”

After the Folger closed, Matus would return to the Library of Congress. Sometimes, with an $87 monthly food-stamp allowance, he bought what he calls “designer dogfood”—canned chili, spaghetti and lasagna—and warmed the fare in the library microwave. At closing time, 9:30 P.M., he returned to the streets once again.

“There were incredibly bleak days,” he says, “but the little things get you through. I’d get in conversations with tourists, nice, ordinary Americans who are so full of enthusiasm. There’s something so soothing about the normal when you’re in an abnormal situation.”

In early September, Matus finally found temporary quarters with an acquaintance at the Folger. On Sept. 15, precisely at 12:56 P.M., he finished his manuscript, got up from his desk and went out for an egg salad sandwich, an orange soda and a cigarette. “That,” he says, “was my celebration.”

Matus has yet to receive the modest $550 advance promised by Macmillan and is still living in borrowed rooms and temporary beds. Although his future remains precarious, he has already begun work on an idea that might save others from his fate, an “Independent Scholar Center” where academics on a shoestring budget can study and live. “When you lose the artists, writers, dramatists and philosophers,” says Matus, “then you lose the foundations that are the strength of your society’s culture.” New York Congressman Stephen Solarz, his cousin, is now helping to raise funding for the project. Though the two rarely see each other, “we have been in communication, we have been writing,” says Matus.

He is also planning his next book, a tome on the still-extant ruins relating to Shakespeare’s 10 history plays. Although, like his first volume, it is unlikely to generate many royalties, “this is really a necessary book,” he insists. And if he doesn’t find a publisher to back him? Says Matus: “I’ll do it anyway.”

—Ken Gross, Christopher Phillips in Washington, D.C.

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