Wednesday, November 11, 2020

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KURT VONNEGUT, 11 11



On the ledge over KV's front door


Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is why I became a writer and he became a writer because of Mark Twain and they both believed, as Humanists, that the universe is a crock and that humanity, as Vonnegut put it, is here just to fart around.  


My favorite fiction book in high school was The Sirens of Titan, about which I scribbled into a journal on Thanksgiving Day, 27 November 1972, “Wow, that Vonnegut book is so weird.  It is one of the best books I’ve ever read… unbelievably fantastic… I’d sure love to have a discussion with Vonnegut someday.”  


One could say that The Sirens of Titan somewhat awakened me; to reading, thinking; to learning.

Before that, my interest in most teachers and their teaching was, quite literally, out the window.






Just five days after penning that journal entry, on December 2nd, 1972 I awoke from a dream with the phrase one is doubles, one is doubles, one is doubles reverberating within my skullin my mind (according to my journal) I connected one is doubles to Vonnegut and The Sirens of Titan.

Kurt Vonnegut was supposed to appear at the American School in London and talk to my creative writing class, an event I greatly anticipated and then was  hugely disappointed when he failed to appear.  

I wanted to ask him the meaning of one is doubles.  

(The principal’s staff whispered that he had been distracted by his mistress that dark drizzly day, or hung-over and, well, seeing double.)

Through our journeys in life, our paths (Vonnegut’s, mine) crossed twice, fleetingly, about ten years apart.  

The first, in New York City, took place in 1988 after I’d lunched at a French brasserie with David Gernert, an editorial bigwig at Doubleday. 

As Gernert and I stood outside Jean Lafitte on West 58th Street wrapping up our discussion, I looked left toward Avenue of the Americas and observed a familiar-looking figure weaving on the pavement toward us.

Is that…? I thought to myself.  “Is that Kurt Vonnegut?” I vocalized to Gernert, motioning with my eyes.

He turned and studied the zombie-like figure and replied, “Yeah.”

As Vonnegut neared, I discerned that his eyes were low and glazed with booze, his footing unsure.

I whispered to Gernert, “I think he’s drunk.”

Although Gernert was a seasoned editor who worked with some of the best-known authors of the time, he was as awed as I by Vonnegut’s proximity to us.  

I should have said something to Kurt.

With hindsight I know exactly what:  May I buy you a drink?  

We might have gone into Jean Lafitte and, at its bar, gotten to the bottom of one is doubles.


The second time our paths crossed was at Crown Super Store in McLean, Virginia where Vonnegut appeared October 25th, 1997 to sign copies of his final book, Timequake.  

Upon entering I discovered that a queue to reach him snaked around three aisles and I realized there was no point joining because the time allocated for this event would soon expire and Vonnegut’s temperament would not allow him to stay a second longer than commitment required, so I stood and watched from a distance.  

He was animated that day, smiling affably for the occasional snapshot taken by a fan.


Five years after Vonnegut's 2007 death, I was on a journey from The Exorcist steps in Georgetown (Washington DC) to Salem, Massachusetts, chasing the devil with my artist friend Thomas Van Stein when we impulsively decided to overnight in New York City and look up Vonnegut’s haunts...






...after visiting Edgar Allen Poe's marble-and-granite grave marker in Baltimore.
  






We began by visiting Kurt’s last home at 228 East 48th Street, a brownstone in a neighborhood called Turtle Bay where he lived for a couple decades and died a few days after tripping on his dog’s leash and tumbling down the front steps.







Vonnegut would walk Flour every day to nearby Dag Hammarskjold Plaza and sit upon a favorite bench to smoke cigarettes, read newspapers, watch humanity fart around and stare inward hoping not to be recognized.  




After visiting the park we searched for Vonnegut’s favorite restaurant armed with a few clues provided by an old British newspaper interview:  

Italian, Second Avenue, walking distance from his brownstone, a Ralph Steadman drawing on the wall. 


Pescatore seemed right but it was Spanish, not Italian. 

Their maître d’ pointed me to Lasagna, corner of 50th and Second.  

Standing in the doorway, I could not see a Steadman drawing.

As I turned to leave a swarthy man tapped my shoulder and said, “This is the place—he came here every day, lunch and dinner.”

It was uncanny that he knew my mission.  

“But where’s the Steadman drawing?” I asked.

“We re-did the place a couple of years ago.  It’s in the back office.”

“What did Vonnegut drink?”

“Dewar’s on the rocks.”

“Do it.”  

And I ordered his favorite meal too:  

A Caesar salad followed by linguine, white clam sauce.




From Vonnegut’s table, Van Stein and I surveyed the scene.   

“We should ask to see the cartoon,” said Van Stein.

Five seconds later, before we had a chance to ask, the manager reappeared with the Steadman drawing, a caricature of Vonnegut himself.  

“Usually he would come by on his own,” he told us.  “And he’d sit by the bar, back to the wall.  If anyone tried to approach he would raise both hands close to his face and wave them away.”



We ate solemnly, a kind of séance, seeking Vonnegut’s presence and counsel.  

After dinner, we returned to Kurt’s brownstone in the dark.  

But it was clear Kurt wanted nothing to do with a pair of scruffy adventurers.  

Death had not changed his desire to be left alone.


Five years later (October 2017)

My Memphis buds bid farewell as my driver, who I will soon nickname Nashville, rolls up.  

Nashville is pleasant and efficient and off we zoom, northward toward autumn, mercury falling, rainclouds gathering.  


A glittery angel or fairy dangles from Nashville’s rearview mirror so I know I’m in good hands as we zip past Abe Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky and Hunter S. Thompson’s too, in Louisville, and four hours later we're in Indy, rounding into the forecourt of the old Severin Hotel, built by Kurt Vonnegut’s grandfather, Bernard, who shaped Indianapolis with his landmark architecture.


I dump my bags and we carry on to Red Key Tavern, Vonnegut’s hang, but they don’t open till four o’clock and there’s no time to waste.  

Returning to the city center we inadvertently pass Crown Cemetery where the Vonnegut clan is buried, all except Kurt (whose whereabouts remain a mystery though I suspect his ashes were spread near his brethren).  



I’d read about this graveyard but hadn’t placed it on my itinerary, yet here it is anyway and Nashville, now sharing the spirit of my adventure, cuts a roscoe and glides through the gateway.

The last time I saw so pretty a cemetery was in Oslo where I’d gone with Van Stein to see Edvard Munch’s final resting place and scribbled these notes into my journal:

“We need to go where Munch is buried,” I tell Tom, our driver, handing him a printout from findagrave.com.

In all the years Tom’s been shepherding tourists around his hometown, no one asked to see Munch’s gravesite. He shakes his head good-naturedly, already understanding we are not his normal tourists.

The Cemetery of Our Savior is just across the Akerselva River, once the divide between wealth and poverty, good health and bad; this exclusive graveyard the final resting place for notable Norwegians.

Perhaps from stress brought on by the Nazi occupation of Norway, Munch in 1944 succumbed to bronchitis, which plagued him most of his life.  He believed that the Nazis, who labeled his art degenerate, would find and destroy his paintings—his “children”—just as they had done, to his horror, in Berlin.

There are no directions in this cemetery and though it is not vast, it is not small.  It is serene, however, with rolling hills and quietude.

Tom asks directions from someone who, though alive, belongs to this graveyard and we endeavor to follow the caretaker’s point, ambling among the dead, inspecting inscriptions.  Finally, I come upon Munch’s head in bronze atop a five-foot monolith.


We pose, Van Stein and I, for a goofy mug shot with Munch and I leave a wooden nickel for a free beer on the cement slab covering his bones.

The graveyard brings to mind mortality, which I do not fear, not since my death dream.  Instead it cheers me that I am here, alive and living in the moment.

“You might as well enjoy the time you’re here,” I say to Van Stein as we saunter back to the car.  “Being alive is just a drop in the bucket compared to how long you’re going to be dead.  And it’s coming faster than you think.”

“How’s that?

“You’re over 50 now.  Going from 49 to 50 is one-fiftieth of your life.  You know how long it seemed to get from four to five years old?  That’s because going from four to five was one-fifth of your life.  Time is relative.  But I wouldn’t worry about it,” I add.

“Why not.”

“Does it bother you that you weren’t here for billions of years before you were born?”

Van Stein shake his head.  “Why should it?”

“Exactly.  You won’t even know, or care, when you’re not here for billions more.”

 

Nashville, bless her, is as much into this as I am and, on this gray moody day, she cruises this cemetery’s sections and plots, straining her neck to find what we’re looking for.

  

I alight at a section I misidentify as the Vonnegut residence and happen upon a prominent gravestone inscribed with this name:  Stanley.

Onward we drive, onward my mind tumbles.

Downtown Indy is quiet on a Sunday and Vonnegut’s tidy memorial library is even quieter; we, its only visitors. 


I am excited to be here, finally, to see Vonnegut’s electric typewriter, reading glasses, his last pack of Pall Malls (found hidden on a bookshelf after he died).  



Particularly poignant is a display celebrating the first line of Slaughterhouse Five: 




Afterward, Nashville drops me at the Severin where I fight for a better room and wind up on the rooftop top floor with a patio to look at the cityscape, then launch to Bluebeard, a restaurant named after one of Vonnegut’s novels and whose decor features vintage typewriters, hence not overdone as a theme, subtle and discreet, an emphasis on what emanates from the kitchen, which for me is the best Caesar salad I’ve ever eaten and, this being Sunday, one dollar-apiece “pink” oysters on the half-shell.

Dinner at the bar is made all the more delightful by conversation with a pair of sisters from Kansas City happily relocated to this clean, well-kept city.




Finishing up, I realize I’m not done; that I must revisit Red Key Tavern while open and, even better, in the dark.  

And, indeed, 30 minutes later I’m sitting at the long bar nursing pale ale, coaxing Kurt’s spirit to manifest.



After draining my glass I aim for Vonnegut’s childhood homestead, alight from the cab into darkness and quiet.  

The house is vacant, lonely and, I gather, haunted—by Vonnegut and his siblings.  


I don’t know this for certain until next morning when I lighten pitch-black digital photographs to reveal a single orb hanging between tree branches and then another photo with three distinct orbs hanging around the front yard, checking me out.



And I smile, knowing that Vonnegut found a way to get back home with his siblings after all.



Two years earlier (June 2016)


Landing at Heathrow Airport after eleven hours in the air reminds me of something my late business partner and mentor used to say when I flew with him first-class on assignments to Europe: “That was effortless.”  


Rain is merely threatened as we ease our way through traffic to St. James’s and The Cavendish Hotel and I can hardly believe my last time inside this hotel was a quarter century ago working with the legendary spymaster.


My mind further boggles when my friend Curt steps from the elevator to claim his room, 1111, which, with a space in the middle, pops from the door as 11 11, an image that evokes my 45 year-old dream riddle, one is doubles, that I never got to ask Vonnegut about.



I excitedly consult several websites and learn that 11:11 is a sign of awakening, “a key to unlock the subconscious mind,” a message to pay attention and be more aware than usual because a spiritual presence is reaching out.