Recently I have been pondering my life, thinking about all that I have and have not done, seen and not seen. I figure, this is what most men do when they get older, some get the seven year itch, me, I get melancholy and misty about my past. I will impart to you a true story, one that until now I had almost forgotten, I hope you enjoy this memory as much as I do. I have met many famous people in my life, Gram Nash, George Carlin, Joan Jet, Jerry Garcia and members of the band Anthrax and so on, but none as famous, to me as the next one.
It was December 12th 1984, I remember because it was just before my birthday and I was on break from college. I was invited to a party being hosted by a friend of mine in Manhattan, a literary party, for those who thought themselves quite the intellectual illuminate of NY, so I had to attend. I took the train from Farmingdale to Jamaica station to board the transfer to Pennsylvania Station, we called it the “Penn” for short, don’t know why, just did. I took my seat and withdrew from my shoulder bag a book I had been reading, “Slaughterhouse 5” by Kurt Vonnegut, at the time, my all-time favorite author.
While reading this great book, I slipped into the story, like a warm bath, drifting and being subdued by the gentle sway of the train as it clattered along the tracks, the peaceful drift was interrupted by a soft yet bold voice “ is that a good book”, without looking up I answered” yes, very” to which was responded “ well, I have read his work, don’t care much for it at times, but I guess it does well” , to this I thought to myself “where has this guy been”, I then looked up and saw the face of a gruff looking man, wearing a grey tweed long coat and a shabby driving cap, it took a moment and I realized I was looking directly into the eyes of Mr. Vonnegut himself.
I sat there, motionless and for a first time, in a long time, speechless. Vonnegut asked “you ok?” I responded “well, yes, it’s just not often I am faced with the author of the book I am reading, what are you doing here”, he stared at me, “I live in NY, so being on the train is something I do”, I did not realize the impudence of my statement, how can I ask one of the great literary minds of our time to account to me of his decision to ride the same train and sit across from what was now to be known as the biggest jack-ass of NYC. From that moment and for about 10 min there was a crushing silence, I dared not try to engage him in conversation, I felt a striking class difference, a rift of immense proportions, and I felt I did not even have the right to be in the same state as him, yet the same train. Mr. Vonnegut looked to me and said “where you going”, I quickly responded “to a party, a book party, I mean a writers party” stammering over my words like a child trying not to get caught in a lie “ but I don’t think I am a writer, well not like you, you’re great, I mean wonderful I mean..” to which he interrupted “ So you like what I write I gather” my response “YES”, I realized the word could be heard on the platform we just passed. We came upon Penn and he said “well, this is where I get off, going to a party myself, my well wishes to you”, and we departed the train together.
I watched him disappear into the crowd on the platform, thinking to myself – well, he lives in NY, why is it impossible to have not met him, and off I strode, thinking ill of myself, missing an opportunity to just have a normal conversation and not to “gush” at his every word. I took the subway to my destination and walked 2 blocks west to the apartment building, a very nice and wealthy neighborhood, the nice part of Manhattan, and I felt that I now had a story to tell, but not to too many, I did not want it getting around that I thought to snub Kurt Vonnegut and then try to coax a friendship from it.
It was about 20 minutes into my arrival that the host announced that his special guest was going to be delayed, but will show up, I thought to myself “wouldn’t it be great if it was Vonnegut again” but lightning never strikes the same place twice”. An hour later, or was it 2 long island Iced Teas and a Beer later, Kurt Vonnegut arrived at the door, wearing the same jacket, but a different hat, he was the special guest, I slid out of sight, composed my thoughts, so if he did come near I could appear calm and eloquent. Other people started to show up, people of note, other local writers, newspaper columnists and some of the social commentators who write for the papers, I thought this was just unheard of writers, no, this was the real deal, I stumbled into a nest of angels and vipers, if I made a fool of myself here, no matter how well I wrote, I would never get published.
I sat down on the sofa, feeling a bit woozy, not drunk woozy, that I could handle, fame woozy, that was it, surrounded by all these famous and soon to be famous and those who thought themselves famous, that is breathtaking. There was a “whump” and the couch shifted, sitting next to me was Kurt Vonnegut, he looked at me “oh, hello again, so this is where you wound up” I replied “yes, and I still feel stupid, I am so sorry if I said anything foolish earlier” he smiled and responded with “you would be surprised at what some people say to me”. We sat there and watched the people shuffle past, back and forth, and he commented on who each person was, what they did and what he thought of them. Kurt Vonnegut has had the pleasure of keeping most of his life private and his private life even more so quiet, so when he said that most of the people here have 2 sides, and he wanted to see neither I had to ask why he was here, to which he responded that the host was related to him, and as a special favor he was asked to come, I wanted to know how the famous and infamous knew he would be here, we both paused and said “ well, it is NY, isn’t it”, in NY there are no secrets, everyone finds out sooner or later who is where when and how.
The party came to an end around 3am, some had work the next morning, I suppose, the rest had whatever, Kurt had left around 2am, he said “ I always leave early and unannounced, so nobody can follow me home” he was smiling when he said it, so it had to be true.
April 11, 2007, Kurt Vonnegut passed away, I was at home and heard the news on NPR, even though I don’t even begin to think I knew him, I did “Know “him, he was a New York Native, one of the tribe, one of our great chiefs, one of the gems in liberty’s crown, it has been said “if you ever meet a New Yorker writer once, you have met all of New York”, with Kurt, it was a very true statement.
I am including Kurt’s website, which is being maintained by his family, I suggest you visit it, just to see the smiling writer I had the honor of sharing a coffee with at 1:30 am surrounded by people that wanted to be him.