Everyone Knows Kurt Vonnegut but Me

[img_assist|nid=652|title=Bunny Envy, Marlise M. Tkaczuk © 2007|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=192|height=200]1. When I insisted that fixing my glasses with a welding torch was a bad idea, my grandfather asked if I’d ever read Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The book, he said, was about an optometrist who’d made a fortune selling frames.

Deployed to Europe in the waning days of World War II, my grandfather spent his days in the service pushing a broom through Germany. I didn’t read Slaughterhouse-Five when he told me to, so I never thought to ask if my grandfather had passed through Dresden. If he had, he might have run into Kurt Vonnegut—or scouted out the slaughterhouse where the author and the first stirrings of his unstuck-in-time protagonist Billy Pilgrim weathered Germany’s worst bombing while the city burned.
More than likely, my grandfather never actually met Kurt Vonnegut.
But then again, maybe he did and never knew it.

If I’d read the book like he told me to, I would have at least known to ask.

2. It wasn’t until four years later that I finally got around to reading Slaughterhouse-Five, and even then it was only because a girl told me I might like it. Her name was Theresa Jones, and she got most of her books from a dumpster behind a bookstore. Except for their missing covers, the books were all in great condition, but poor sales had condemned them to an early death. The least Theresa could do was rescue the cult favorites and share them with the as-yet uninitiated.

Hence my first reading of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Hence my falling in love with language.

Hence my decision to major in English.

Hence eight years of graduate school.

Theresa’s coverless copy of Welcome to the Monkey House still bears a warning that reads: “If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that it is stolen property. Neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this stripped book.” So as she was welcoming me to the monkey house, Theresa was also robbing Kurt Vonnegut of his pocket change. If you doubt the gravity of this crime, consider this: had Theresa not gotten me hooked on Vonnegut, I never would have gone to graduate school, and the world would have one less over-educated yet largely unemployable doctor of the English language to worry about.

Maybe this is the real reason behind the prohibition against “stripped books.”

Maybe “stripped books” lead to harder drugs like “curiosity” and “critical thinking.”

And we all know where “curiosity” and “critical thinking” lead:
Straight to “higher education.”

Theresa might just as well have invited me into an abandoned house to shoot heroin with her—reading Vonnegut was that good. And in addition to mugging him, Theresa had also seen Vonnegut give a reading, after which someone asked for an autograph.

“No thanks!” Vonnegut said before quietly slipping away.

3. Since my fascination with Vonnegut had led me to major in English, I had no choice but to move in with my parents after graduation. By chance, a local writer named Jim Wronoski lived in their neighborhood. What impressed me most about Jim was that he’d met Kurt Vonnegut’s wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, and had given her a copy of his book, Knaves in Boyland. Not long after that, Jim received an email stating that Vonnegut had read the book and found it “very funny.”

At about the same time, I did the only thing I really could do with my English degree and enrolled in graduate school where I met two more people who had come within spitting distance of Vonnegut. The first was my officemate, Jeff Hibbert, who, like Theresa Jones, once saw Vonnegut evade an autograph hound with a simple “No thanks!” before quietly slipping away. The second was a former babysitter for Vonnegut’s youngest child. To earn money many years earlier, she’d gone to work for a service that provided babysitters for Manhattan’s elite, among whom was a woman named Jill who lived in a brownstone near Gramercy Park. When my friend arrived at the brownstone, Jill handed over her daughter and said that she and Kurt didn’t expect to be gone for too long. Then Kurt came down from his bedroom dressed for a night on the town, and the couple left my friend alone with their child.

4. So one of my friends had made Vonnegut laugh, and another had been entrusted with the well-being of Vonnegut’s youngest child. In addition to this, Theresa Jones had mugged Vonnegut for his pocket change, and my grandfather had (arguably) served with Vonnegut during World War II. And, of course, Jeff Hibbert had, like Theresa before him, witnessed a near-miss between Vonnegut and an autograph hound.

Clearly a pattern was emerging.

Clearly everyone in the world had met Kurt Vonnegut.

Everyone, that is, except for me—an impression that was reinforced one day while I was subbing at the school where my wife, Kerri, teaches. Since it was common knowledge that I was a graduate student and therefore a) had plenty of time on my hands and b) would do anything for a buck, I became the go-to guy for any of Kerri’s coworkers who happened to either fall ill or go on vacation. This was how I met a young high school student who happened to run into Vonnegut on not one but two separate occasions.

The student was visiting Smith College when her tour guide asked if she wanted to meet my favorite author. Upon accepting the invitation, the student was led to Vonnegut’s office where she shook hands with the man and said that she was a big fan of his work. Apparently this impressed the author, because when they met at a train station late the next day, he said hello to her.

“Wow,” I said when she told me the story. “What was he like?”

“Oh, you know,” the girl said. “About what you’d expect.”

I nodded my head and said I knew exactly what she meant.

But it was a lie. I had no idea what she meant. At the same time, though, I knew I couldn’t let on. Otherwise the girl would know my secret—that I was the only person in the world who’d never met Kurt Vonnegut.

5. The last straw came when I filled in for a science teacher named Priscilla Ryan. When she asked me to fill in for her, Priscilla mentioned that she was taking the day off to help her daughter shop for a wedding dress. What she failed to mention, however, was that her daughter was marrying Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite nephew. In fact, I had to learn this information second-hand when Kerri came home from work months later and informed me that while I was out walking my dog, Vonnegut was sitting in a chapel just blocks from my house watching his nephew tie the knot. Which meant that Priscilla Ryan didn’t simply meet the man or care for his child or make him laugh, but that she and Kurt Vonnegut were family.

6. So I’ve stopped telling people that Vonnegut is my favorite author—mainly because I’m tired of everyone telling me about how they’ve seen him or met him or made him laugh, or how they’ve given their daughters away to his nephews in marriage.

Okay! I want to scream. I get the point!

Everyone knows Kurt Vonnegut but me!

But I’m okay with that. Because not too long ago, Kerri and I took a train out to New York to see a production of King Lear. And during the intermission, I spotted a tall, thin man with wiry hair and a mustache standing alone in the lobby.

It couldn’t be, I thought, but every glance I stole in his direction confirmed my suspicions. This had to be the man who turned me on to reading, the author responsible for my love of language, the very reason I ended up in graduate school. So I made my way across the floor and tried to sound casual as I asked the tall, skinny man if I might be so bold as to say he looked exactly like Kurt Vonnegut.

“No thanks!” the man said—and quietly lost himself in the crowd. Marc Schuster has two works of nonfiction coming out in 2007. His monograph on Don DeLillo will be published by Cambria Press, and his study of the long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who (co-authored with Tom Powers) will be available from McFarland & Company. “Everyone Knows Kurt Vonnegut but Me” was first heard on WXPN’s “Live at the Writers House” in November of 2006.

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