A lot was going on in my life in the early Nineties. I began my first semester as a full time professor of English at a college just outside of Chicago, and I was moving my family from big city life to the suburbs. I got this new position because I had picked up some college degrees and published some articles and two novels, and so on.
Committee work was obligatory, so I joined the Cultural Arts Committee, and we were responsible for planning lectures, readings, and performances for students and community members alike. It was a very nice committee to be on, because the members were friendly, and our work was unique—choosing cultural presentations for the students and community members. Like other committees, if you asked us for a horse, we could give you a camel—which is a joke my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Manchester, told me about committees. Anyway, there was an opening for a lecturer and we had these brochures from New York agents, and one of them had Kurt Vonnegut’s name on it. Kurt Vonnegut!
Here is a side story: When I was thirteen I used to like to spend time at Walgreens Drug Store after school. Walgreens had these black-wire circular stands you could spin, and they were filled with paperback books, and I loved paperback books, their covers printed in lurid colors, featuring fetching graphics, alluring titles. Titles like Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. I almost put that novel in my notebook, almost shoplifted it, but decided at the last minute to pay for it, because I had the money, after all, and with my luck, I knew I’d probably get caught. Then for the next month every adult in my life would find it their solemn duty to make me feel as guilty as a Roman soldier at the crucifixion. Already when it came to Vonnegut, there was petty larceny in my heart, however now I just steal his lines. For instance, the title of this essay is the opening of Slaughterhouse Five. Thirteen years old and reading about, almost believing in Ice 9! Of course, I didn’t get it all, but I loved the idea of Bokoninism, and I knew a wise guy when I saw one, or rather when I read his prose. Then in my later teens, my early twenties, when I had decided on a career in teaching and writing, I made my way through Player Piano, Mother Night, The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse Five, and my all-time favorite, Breakfast of Champions. By reading those books, growing up with them, I caught rare glimpses of the author himself and his personal characteristics—his great compassion, courage, iconoclastic sarcasm, and humor of brutal yet whimsical force. Here was a genius (albeit a wise-guy genius) who could tell you terrible truths about the human condition, about human nature itself, and make you laugh simultaneously. Yes, so back to the committee. Some of the other committee members thought that hiring Vonnegut would cost too much money, and so they wanted to go with someone asking a cheaper fee. In other words, we were going to overlook the thoroughbred and bring in Mr. Manchester’s camel.
I had already pictured my students in the same room with Vonnegut, hearing him read, seeing him in the flesh, being with him. I’ve always thought that there is something to the idea of sharing space with greatness. That’s a hard sell, though. So I said, “Say—” and I pointed to a paragraph on the Vonnegut brochure, one that indicated that he was touring in support of a new book of essays to be published, Fates Worse than Death “—with a new book out, we might break box office records. Think of all the other colleges and universities in the area that will wish they had signed him.” We booked Vonnegut.
We had a window of five months in which to encourage other English professors to teach Vonnegut’s works, and to have their students attend the lecture. Across campus there were fliers, and a tremendous anticipation over his visit had built up within the community. There would be a reception for Vonnegut with the president and English faculty in attendance; a private dinner with the committee and Liberal Arts dean—and I had inherited the responsibility of being his guide, chauffeur, and MC.
October 19, 1991. I arrived early in the parking lot of the hotel and sat in my car, fiddling with my introduction in a spiral notebook. I couldn’t tell if it was too much or too little. I never really believed I’d be giving it anyway. I have a terrible fear of crowds, and so I figured I’d probably just pass out and someone would hand it to the dean and say, “Here, you read it.”
I checked the center console for music cassettes. I had taken out all the Beatles and rock and roll selections and replaced them with Rimsky-Korsakov, Bach, Beethoven. He was, after all, a sophisticated intellectual. Then finally, I got out of my car, ripped the scribbled pages from the notebook, stuffed them in my back pocket, and walked toward the hotel entrance with the same ersatz aplomb that had got me this far in life. “Could you ring Mister Vonnegut’s room? I’m here to pick him up.” The desk clerk, who was seated, looked me directly in the eyes as if I were some kind of imposter, (and of course I was, I was the guy who was pretending that he wasn’t excruciatingly nervous) and then he picked up the phone, said something in it, and hung up. “He’ll be right down,” he said. It looks like rain. That’s what I thought as I, hands clutched behind my back, walked along the floor-to-ceiling window of the hotel. I turned around and faced a tall gray suit with Kurt Vonnegut inside of it. He was right there, his hair in romping gray curls. He looked older than I had expected. I stammered, introduced myself, and he extended his hand, and said, “So you’re the one they sent to get me.”
I was the immediate straight man in this routine, confined to phrases like, “Yeah,” and “That’s right.”
He’s so tall, I thought, which when combined with my earlier observation, It looks like rain, should give you a pretty fair idea of the level of reasoning I was capable of at the moment. I said that I was somewhat early, and apologized, and then opened the passenger door of my car for him. I looked at him and then the car, and wondered how in hell he would fit into it. Just incidentally, it was a spiffy, new, black Toyota Celica.
Vonnegut stood there, looking at it. He said, “How fast will it go?” I said, “I don’t know.” “Well, let’s find out.” He slid the seat back and cramped his legs and folded himself inside, origami style. He told me that he drove a Honda Accord. He seemed pleased with it. “You know, I was hoping the Saturn would be a success. It’s about time for a good American car.” Then he sort of shook his head. That hadn’t panned out. My internal commentary continued in detailing the obvious. I’m driving Kurt Vonnegut in my car! And of course it still looked like rain.He wanted to know what our itinerary was, and so I ran down for him the reception, the dinner, the lecture. We were pulling into the main drive, a longish road, and the campus itself was a considerably-sized one—the buildings rather modern, the grounds manicured, trimmed with flowers. “How many students?” he asked “About twenty-five hundred.” He appeared to reflect upon this, impressed. I recall walking with Vonnegut along an outdoor walkway, and we had both stopped to light cigarettes. I was still a smoker in those days—though I couldn’t keep up with him. He smoked all day long, and he smoked Camel Filter Lights. I had read for years that he smoked Pall Malls, though he must have changed brands somewhere along the way. I said, “My students are reading Slaughterhouse Five.” Sometimes there were awkward breaks in our conversation, and I thought he would be pleased to hear this. “Are they? I feel sorry for them.” “Why?” “That book jumps so much.” We lingered outside the administration building a moment, smoking, and I remember thinking, I like this guy. Then he took a puff, stopped short, exhaled the smoke, and said, “Have I told you what a scumbag Geraldo is?” He certainly had not. That came from as far out of the blue as a thing can, and I shook my head, wondered what in the world he meant. He told me that Geraldo Rivera had been his son-in-law at one time, that he had been married to his daughter Edie, and that now he had published a book called Exposing Myself, in which he revealed many affairs he had had, even during the time he had been married to Edie. Vonnegut was furious. He told me that you can call someone a scumbag without fear of being sued, because such a case had gone to court, and it was determined that there was no accepted definition for what a scumbag actually was, so it was safe to use. Several times that afternoon I heard what a scumbag Geraldo allegedly was, in his opinion.
The president’s board room was a big, imposing affair, all paneled walls, a horseshoe-shaped mahogany table with upholstered chairs, plush carpet. A few caterers wheeled in stainless steel carts with sterling silver coffee and tea-ware, plates of finger sandwiches, punch bowls. Still, Vonnegut and I were the only other two people in the room. He reached for his package of cigarettes, two-fingered one out, and began to light it, this right in front of a sign mounted on the wall forbidding smoking.
I said, “Mr. Vonnegut—“Call me Kurt,” he said, lighting his cigarette and taking a deep drag on it.
“Uh, Kurt—the President takes his no smoking policy very seriously.” He blew out a cloud of bluish gray smoke that wafted throughout the room, reflecting back the fluorescent light of the ceiling. “Oh, that’s all right,” he said, a gleam in his eye as he tapped me on the shoulder. And then he whispered, “If anybody says anything, I’ll just tell them you tried to stop me, but I’m bigger than you are.” He grinned, and gave me a sidelong knowing look, having just told me what we could do with our smoking policy. He had a way of deflating anything that might hint at being stodgy or overly proper. I did notice with some relief that he did not light another cigarette in the board room after he finished the one he was working on at the moment. The English faculty arrived, and the president, and the committee members, and I introduced everyone. A sort of formal question-answer session took place, which made me vaguely uncomfortable, because up until then everything had seemed so affable and off the cuff. It was as though he was being made to perform. I don’t remember much of what was asked, except one professor wanted to know why only a few select authors got anywhere with publishers. Vonnegut explained that publishers wanted to make money, and that after all, they were under no obligation to subsidize anyone’s writing career. Next a committee member wanted to know what he thought about the trend toward political correctness, and whether it limited freedom of speech. Vonnegut looked upward for a moment and said that he thought the intentions of those who fostered PC were good, their hearts were in the right place, and that he did not think any harm would come of it—something to that effect.
Vonnegut was truly caught between both sides of this issue. He was a fervent supporter of the first amendment, and his own books had been banned in different parts of the country. But his political leanings certainly embraced social underdogs, those who could use all the enforced dignity and gentle treatment that political correctness had to offer. It was a gutsy thing to have asked, and I wished that Vonnegut’s presence would not encourage such fencing, but I supposed he was used to it, expected it, and that there was more to come. There was.
Back in my car we were headed to the restaurant for an early dinner—4:45 p.m. The lecture would begin promptly at 7:30, and what do you know. It was pouring outside. “Did you hear the one about—” he began to telling me jokes with elaborate build-ups, and every time he hit the punch line, he gave me that sidelong look of his for just a fraction of a moment to see if I thought it was as funny as he did—and then he just exploded in laughter, as did I, not so much because the jokes were funny, but because of that sidelong look he kept giving me. He laughed so hard that he began a coughing fit and I thought he was going to bring up a lung. He is so aware of audience, I thought. I filed that away in the back of my mind. I didn’t want to step out of the moment, but I knew I would remember that brief insight.
We arrived at the restaurant that way, very silly, like two schoolboys, cackling and guffawing. I pulled right up to the entrance. The valet service had not yet started, and I did not want the guest of honor to get drenched before his lecture. “You go ahead in,” I told him. “I’ve got an umbrella in the back seat.”
“Okay. I’ll wait for you.” And then, as he got out, he looked up into the downpour, and, ever the wiseacre, said, “See you in about an hour.” It was your run-of-the-mill steakhouse, striving to be more elegant than it really was, and it had seen its best years, and it isn’t even there anymore. Whenever I drive past the space it used to occupy, a little wave of remembrance washes over me, and I think back on that evening in October of 1991. I think, Can it really have been that long ago? I think, How I treasure that memory. How fortunate I was.
I’ll fast-forward through all the ceremonious stuff involving the committee members and dean greeting Vonnegut and making a fuss over him, the detailed discussion of World War II battles, of which he had an almost-encyclopedic knowledge. I was sitting to his immediate left, and we both had our faces buried in menus, when all at once I felt a sharp knock on my arm. Vonnegut had just elbowed me. I looked up.
“What are you having?” he asked, looking down his nose and over the tops of his reading glasses.
“Filet mignon,” I said. “Me too.” I went back to reading the menu. Soon there came another poke on my arm. It was starting to hurt.“What?” I said. Vonnegut: “What’re you going to drink?” “Iced tea.”
Someone at the table was talking about the Maginot Line. “Me too,” he said. He wouldn’t look at me this time, but he was smiling and had that devilish twinkle in his eye, and I saw that this was going to be a running gag that we were in on together—take a little stuffiness out of an otherwise awkwardly dignified dinner.
A little while later I was lifting my iced tea glass to my mouth when another hard shot to the arm almost knocked it out of my hand. Vonnegut was extending two pink packets to me. “Have a little Sweet’N’Low. Take the edge off your iced tea.” He tossed them on my bread plate. He was Abbot and I was Costello. Nobody caught on. Soon they were talking about Patton Tanks. Then things got complicated. It was time to get back to the campus; in fact, we were cutting it close. I told him to wait for me at the door because the rain was coming down in thick gray sheets. The problem was, now the valet parkers had arrived, and after Vonnegut performed his origami trick and got safely in the car, we were stuck behind a long line of arriving diners. To the left were a series of orange traffic cones. We were fenced in.I said, “Kurt—we’re never going to make it in time for the lecture.” He pointed at the traffic cones. “Ah—run over them witches’ hats.” The valets were opening car doors for patrons, holding protective umbrellas over their heads. I looked at my watch. There was no other way. I turned the steering wheel hard left and gunned the engine for all it was worth. Thud! Thud! Thud! Orange cones tumbled and flew, rolled and lolled. Valets screamed colorful curses at us. Vonnegut grabbed my right arm with both his hands and said, “My God, I didn’t think you’d really do it!” Geraldo was still a scumbag, and as the car made sloshing sounds on the pavement, Vonnegut told me that guns turned people into assholes. I was getting a preview of his talk that night. You give a person a gun, and pretty soon he starts looking for things to shoot with it—birds, squirrels, the like. And it doesn’t stop there.
What we used for a green room was an office on the second floor of the gymnasium. I was back there with Michael, director of Student Activities, and Vonnegut, who was looking over some notes in a leather binder he carried with him. There was a large interior window, and down below I could see the room fill up. Up front was a dais upon which stood two podiums with microphones. One was for our famous author, and one was for me. During the last part of the show I would ask him questions that would be printed out on cards by members of the audience.
I went out in the corridor to study my introduction. I had pretty well got it memorized. I remember being extremely wired, as though electric current was flowing through me, and when the time came, I did not faint. I walked out into the big room, climbed the stairs, and the lights went down. I looked out on row upon row of faces. We had been worried about the costs, but we had indeed broken all box office records—2200 tickets sold. I felt so encouraged, I winged my opening, abandoning that part of the script. I tried to tell the audience how Vonnegut’s early work had alerted his readers that a great talent was about to enter the American scene, and how the later novels of the Sixties and Seventies made him a legend. I have the rest of it right here on my original notes: “If it’s true that ‘everyone is a victim of a series of accidents,’ then this evening’s mishap is likely to be among the more enjoyable ones we’ve had in quite a while. It is my particular honor to introduce to you tonight our speaker, not only because of the magnitude of his literary achievements, his continued tackling of every crucial issue of our times, but in a more personal sense, because of the effect his work had on my life and the lives of many in my generation at a young and decisive age. He’s made a career out of—in his own words—‘poisoning minds with humanity.’ And I suppose if we’re going to be contaminated anyway, then it might as well be with humanity, with virtue. Ladies and gentlemen, the author of Hocus Pocus and Fates Worse Than Death, Mr. Kurt Vonnegut.”
Bathed in the platinum light of the spotlight, Vonnegut made his way across the floor and up steps of the stage, and I realized we could have choreographed his entrance a little better because it was taking so long. The audience was still applauding, though, by the time he shook my hand and I took my place in a chair off to the side.What did he say? He talked about life and politics and current events. He did his Hamlet schtick—a popular satire on the plot of that play, in which, he claimed, nothing happens. And he talked about the second amendment and the insanity of guns. This got him some jeers from the audience, because our college community is mostly conservative. But he handled it well because he was a professional, a professional speaker, author, thinker, human. And because he was Vonnegut, and you can’t rattle Vonnegut.Wait—one thing did rattle him. We were at the last part of the presentation, when I was asking questions from the audience. Someone wanted to know how he had reacted to the news that Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) had passed away. He looked suddenly flummoxed, made a sound more than a word. “Awww—” he said, “I didn’t know that he had. Is it true?” The audience affirmed it for him in a synchronous “YES.” He said he was sorry to hear it, and then he spoke gently and sympathetically about Geisel, told an anecdote or two.When we had run out of questions from the audience, he turned to me and said, “What should we do now? Want me to talk about what a scumbag Geraldo is?” He was already chuckling at the prospect. The momentum of the show was finished, and I didn’t think it was a good idea to extend it, have it end with a bashing. I said, “No, that’s okay. Thank you for coming, ladies and gentlemen.”
Then it was chaos. I could see the crowd looking for a way to get to him. We hastened down the stage steps, and a few crew members with walkie-talkies tried to provide a cordon for us. A canvass curtain had been rigged to separate the backstage area from the audience, but once the crowd saw us duck behind it, they were after us. It was a mob.I put my hand on Vonnegut’s back to hurry him and said, “Get upstairs as quickly as you can.” Another crew member was waiting with the door held open, but the fans were gaining on us. From the corner of my eye I saw Michael, the head of Student Activities, come running from the wings and then pivot—standing in place with his arms outstretched, yelling for the crowd to stop. It gave me just enough time to slam the door behind us as Vonnegut negotiated the stairs.
“How was it?” Vonnegut asked, out of breath, once we were safely in the green room. “Is that about what you had in mind?” “It was great,” I said. “Just great.” “Why wouldn’t you let me talk about Geraldo?” Down below the lights had come up. Some fans were milling about, still trying to figure out where there might be an alternate staircase.“I thought you were kidding.” “Just as well,” he said.
Later, in the car, the adrenaline no longer pumping, both of us enjoying cigarettes, Vonnegut told me he was afraid we were going to lose the first amendment. I asked if he meant that sincerely, and he said he did. Then we somehow made the jump to what a golden creative time the Sixties had been. I said, “Do you think a movement like that will ever happen again?” “I sure as hell hope so, but it will only happen if the people, the middle class, get terribly hurt, and I hate to think of them hurt like that.” He thought for a moment, and just as I was reaching into the cassette rack, looking for Scheherazade, he said, “Drugs ruined it for everybody, but the music was great, wasn’t it?” I’d left all my rock and roll at home. At the bar of his hotel we each had a scotch, and signed books. I autographed my first two novels for him, and he autographed Hocus Pocus for my son, and Fates Worse Than Death for my wife. In that one he drew one of his trademark profiles of himself, cigarette dangling from his lips.
I told him how much I admired the new collection of essays. He added some flourishes to the self-portrait and shook his head. “I’m afraid my publishers might let me go. This is the first of my books in quite some time that hasn’t made it to the best seller list.” “They could never do that. You’re Kurt Vonnegut, for Christ’s sake.” He took a puff of his cigarette and looked me squarely in the eye from across the table. “They did it to Joseph Heller.” “It’s not going to happen,” I said. He did not seem entirely convinced.
We each had another scotch, and he asked me how it was that I had gotten into writing. I told him that I had started writing articles, and that my second one was a conversation I’d had with J.D. Salinger at his home. He stopped short of lighting another cigarette. “You actually met him? And he talked to you?”
“Yes.” His mustache stretched from cheek to cheek as he grinned. “That’s a wonderful piece of work, isn’t it?” He was referring to The Catcher in the Rye, and of course I agreed. The place was crowded, but our privacy remained intact. He drew stares from customers occasionally. They knew he was somebody, but they didn’t exactly know who. When the evening was over, I stood up and tried to pay for the check. Vonnegut slapped my hand. “Put that away. This is mine. I know you’re a successful author, but I’m a more successful author.”
And that, I’m afraid, is where the memory clip runs out and flips and flips and flips like a bit of celluloid at the end of a reel. On the way home that night the streets were deserted, and snippets of our conversations played randomly in my mind. I recalled the goodbye, how he looked down at me from his great height, his eyes weary and wise—the firm handshake, his long wrinkled fingers clutched around mine. I had the driver’s window cracked open a bit to allow in fresh air, so that I wouldn’t fall asleep. What a day. It seemed that it had started two weeks ago.
When I got home it was past midnight. My wife and son were asleep. I left the two books for them on the dining room table, and opened each to see what he had written to them. For good old Jeremy.Jeremy was just seven, but he knew who Kurt Vonnegut was. He would be thrilled.For dear Carmen A dear she was and is. You can’t know how many times I have relived that day. I do it for my students, I do it for my friends, and I am doing it for myself and for you, right now, as I did when I heard the sad news of Vonnegut’s passing. It was a landmark day in my life, that rainy day in October of 1991. And here is how it ended:I draped my suit coat on a chair, turned off the lights, and climbed the stairs, bound for bed. My arm vaguely ached, and I smiled a little smile to myself when I remembered why.