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Me and Kurt

Sue and somsbodyThe folks at Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing (Max Booth III and Lori Michelle) have decided they love Kurt Vonnegut. In fact they love him so much they’re publishing a Kurt Vonnegut tribute anthology. And being in possession of fine taste and exquisite judgment, they’re including my story, Megastar Hopper.

That is cool on so many levels. First off, I love Kurt. But then, everyone does, so nothing unusual there. Further than that, though: me and Kurt, we go way back. All the way to the 90s when I had a part time job with a publisher on East 47th Street, over by Second Avenue in Manhattan.

You know where this is going because you know Kurt lived on 48th by Second Ave for a good portion of his life. It was inevitable that I would develop a relationship with Kurt being in such close proximity to him for a goodly portion of every business day.

Interestingly this Second-Avenue-47th-48th –ish neighborhood has many claims to fame besides Kurt. Sparks Steakhouse, where Gotti had Paul Castellano plugged, is on 46th between 2nd and 3rd.  And   the corner of 47th and First Avenue is where Donald plopped the Trump World Tower. You remember the controversy there. The neighborhood folks, headed up by Walter Cronkite, got pissed at the egomaniacal height of the building and started an anti-Donald’s-new-big-building campaign. Unfortunately for Walt et al., Trump had bought up the neighborhood’s aerial rights and easily won the suit. He’d also been in the business long enough to know who to pay off to get things done. So today 47th Street is blessed with what amounts to another of Trump’s big phal…nevermind. Just take a look at the shot on the right there  and come to your own conclusion.

TrumpWorldTowerAcross First Avenue from Donald’s big you-know-what, is the United Nations. Because it’s agin’ the law to protest on UN property, everybody holds their big anti-world government rallies in Dag Hammerskjold Plaza between First and Second Avenues on 47th. It’s across the street from the building housing my old office.

It is reported that Kurt used to sit with his dog on one of the benches in Dag’s plaza. I never saw him there, but I did see him once walking west on 47th Street. It was around noon and so I can only assume he was headed for lunch. Probably at Sparks.

On the occasion when I spotted Kurt, he was alone and muttering to himself.  This was before Blue Tooth so he wasn’t on the phone. Despite that I’m quite sure he wasn’t losing it and talking to himself the way crazy people do. I know this because in Manhattan famous people walk around talking to themselves all the time. It’s a technique they use for privacy.

As you know, the only way to avoid overlong and nonsensical conversations with lunatics is to avoid eye contact. Because of the high percentage of nut jobs in New York City, New Yorkers know from birth to not engage crazies. The minute a New Yorker notices someone talking to him or herself, they start admiring the tops of buildings, the strength of the scaffolding on the lower floors, the gum stains on the sidewalk. The sad thing is, they miss so many opportunities for star gazing. They often realize it later, in the late hours as they get ready for bed, that the bag lady talking to herself over on Lexington was actually Jay Lo or Dr. Phil on their way to a workout session. Another opportunity missed.

It happened quite often to me. In the course of a typical day in Manhattan I’d run into ten or twelve crazies. Well, maybe five or six certifiables and another half dozen wannabe starlets strung out on street drugs because they can’t seem to get a break. At any rate, a couple of times a year, it’d hit me later as I’m getting ready for bed, that one person that day was neither a wannabe actor nor an escapee from Doctor Feelgood’s Lithium Emporium upstate. It was Somebody Famous.

Famous people I would have seen talking to themselves if I hadn’t been admiring the mound of trash by the curb include:

1)    Christopher Walken. (Not sure he was actually using a technique, though. I mean…it’s  Christorpher Walken. He’s just naturally that way.)
2)    Eddie Murphy
3)    Walter Cronkite
4)    Jesse Jackson

The last one, Jesse, wasn’t really talking to himself. This was during that phase of his life when he was mustering a constituency for an attempt at the presidency. The day I saw him he was on a 48th Street sidewalk addressing a group of about 20. In terms of a serious presidential campaign, I consider a crowd of 20 the same as talking to yourself. Actually it’s more like talking in a vacuum. The sound just wasn’t going to carry; the words were getting sucked right out of his mouth. A crowd of twenty in a bid for the presidency is more like a negative audience. In mathematical terms, Jesse was actually losing attention that day. He wasn’t even talking to himself.

Anyway, I saw Kurt mumbling on his way to Sparks one day. I made a quick ralph and headed for the closest library annex to run a bio check (Google wasn’t around yet) and discovered that Kurt actually lived in the very neighborhood where I was employed. I was overjoyed. He, no doubt, went to Sparks often. In other words, there was a good chance I’d run into him again. Thus began my relationship with Kurt.

I started carrying around an essay I’d written a few months earlier. It was my first scholarly writing ever. It was mostly a rant, so it probably should be considered “scholarly” only in a pretentious, totally mendacious way. It sounds good, but there wasn’t a footnote in it.

I’d written this essay in response to a book I’d picked up at a used book stall. I’ll keep the title to myself because I don’t want to get sued. The book was what I’d call a commercial success. A best seller. In other words, it was predictable, boring, and lousy with one-dimensional characters. Its main selling point was that it had enough sex and violence for the reviewers to consider it “edgy” despite the fact that it was predictable and boring.

I hated the book and wanted to vent my hatred. In my essay I spewed forth on the book’s mediocrity, and the mediocrity of modern fiction in general. My final conclusion was this: Why don’t more authors write like Kurt Vonnegut?

I wanted so bad to give this essay to Kurt as a present. As a gift to show him how much I, his most devoted fan, loved him. I was sure he’d be surprised and pleased that a complete stranger appreciated his work.

I assure you it was a terrible, solipsistic essay, much like the one you’re reading right now. But I was proud of it. Naïve as I was, I thought if only more writers went back and reread their Vonnegut they would choose to write better. We, the voracious reading public, would then have much better material to read.

How dumb can someone be? I mean, Vonnegut is not a thought process, a way of writing, or a life choice. Second, the awful piece of crap I’d been trying to read was a runaway best seller for a reason: most people like vapid characters served in a pointless pool of sex and violence. They love that formula. If the author of that vapid, pointless, dare-I call-it-book, wrote a great piece of scathing, spine-withering satire, do you think he’d find a publisher? No. Max and Lori hadn’t been born yet, let alone gone on to college to become enlightened. Besides, that author wouldn’t have been good at it anyway. The logical conclusion totally escaped me: There is only one Kurt.

I carried that silly essay around forever, years anyway, hoping to run into Kurt. That’s pretty much the sum total of my relationship with Kurt. I never saw him again and our office moved to Park Avenue a few years later. I have no idea where the essay is now. Thank god I never got a chance to give it to Kurt.

I have fond memories of my relationship with Kurt, short and somewhat thin on the ground as it was. It was, after all, a relationship of a sort. Maybe of the stalking variety, but even at that, pretty lame.

Now that I think about the episode, I realize the takeaway for me is that lesson: There is only one Kurt.  Sure the world would be better if everybody wrote like him, but it ain’t gonna happen. You want more Kurt?  Shut up and reread Breakfast of Champions.

I admit Megastar Hopper falls far short of the Vonnegut genius, but I like to think the spine-withering satire and social comment is in there.

Max and Lori have all kinds of wonderful promo ideas for their anthology. It’s called appropriately “So It Goes” after Kurt’s favorite answer to the question of death. They’ve got contests for writers and artists, and free books for readers.  They’ve even got us contributors recording materials for YouTube. I’m putting together a stage reading of a play version of Megastar Hopper. This reading will be open to the public at the Wise Owl bookstore in West Reading. If you want details–the where and when of the thing—let me know. Also let me know if you’d like to read. I need about eight actors plus extras. If you can whisper, mumble, or shout, I need you. Send me a message and let me know you are totally on board.

And don’t forget to preorder the book. It’ll be available in paperback and e-version. Yay!

Sue Lange

P.S. In case it’s not obvious, that’s a fake picture of me and Kurt.

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3 thoughts on “Me and Kurt

  1. Great recap of the alleged love affair with KV. I never knew that about you! I did, however, meet Jesse Jackson (have pics to prove it). I was with my African-American friend and her daughter in Chicago. He talked to us for several minutes. Mostly to Elnora and Krystal and what it meant to raise a good citizen child this day and age. They were thrilled. Me? He told me to quit smoking.

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