Seven deadly sins: Stalking Kurt Vonnegut

A young writer attempts to turn his literary hero into a neighborhood pal.

By Dan Stern
Published February 3, 1999 9:23AM (EST)

There we were in the packed auditorium, our eyes locked. He was up on stage
under the spotlight, a guest in a round-table discussion on the issue of time
in our fast-paced, techno-driven world. I was down in the seats, about eight
rows back on the aisle. And I swear it, our stares were fixed, one on the
other, on and off, for much of the night. Am I inventing this, just wishing
that my literary icon, my reason for writing, actually had some special
interest, good or bad, in my ordinary face in the crowd? Could my imagination
have played such a wicked trick on me?

Yes, it could have. It has before and will again. But this time, no. Kurt Vonnegut was indeed probing my eyes, engaging me in a staring contest of who would give in first. All told, we came out even that night. I'd like
to believe the cause of all this was that he saw some divine aura swarming
around me, detecting a uniqueness that only comes around every
few decades or so, one that he himself possesses. But that wasn't it at all.
Let me tell you a bit about our past, Kurt's and mine. Then you'll understand.

I moved to New York City, across from the United Nations, at the end of this
past summer, already a devoted Vonnegutian. He's my light in the darkness, the
thrust behind my writing desire. Who else could put down on paper something
like "Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you
any different" and get away with it? Hell, not only get away with it, but come
out a literati prophet on the other end. Or how about this one: "If you really
want to hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve enough to be a
homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts." For a while, like most
writers who read Vonnegut and find in his satirical prose a humanistic wisdom
once thought extinct, I tried to imitate his art. I failed miserably but still sometimes hear an echo of his voice seeping into my stories. You'll probably even see it happen in this one. He's like head lice, hard to shake. But, ultimately, there's only one Vonnegut. Only one.

One sunny Sunday afternoon in the Big Juicy Apple not long after I'd moved
here, I headed to Rockefeller Center to see Stephen King read from his most
recent megaseller. King wrote one of my favorite short stories, "Rita Hayworth
and Shawshank Redemption," since made into a film. Few things could have disrupted my stream of thought as I ran through the streets to see King in person for the first time ever. Very few things. Vonnegut, it turned out, was one of them.

Only three blocks from my apartment, I briefly caught the image of an older
man with a full head of scraggly gray hair sitting on a bench, puffing away
desperately at a cigarette. As I ran by, that image sent a message to the certain part of my mind that stores sacred, though little-used, information. That's what Kurt
Vonnegut looks like, the message said. And then another memory swam into my consciousness: Kurt Vonnegut lives right near the United Nations.

My legs stopped moving, my head turned in the old man's direction. I peered
closer to make sure it was him. Almost certain it was, I walked up beside him,
close enough that he looked up at me from behind the smoke screen fluttering
between us.

"Umm, uhh, uhh." I never stammer over my words. Never. "Are you, uhh, are you Kurt Vonnegut?"

"Yes." He said it as plainly and coldly as if he were a court witness and I
the prosecutor who'd delivered the question.

But it was him. Confirmation. And with that a mental floodgate was opened, unleashing a dam of neediness: I had questions, I had compliments, I desperately wanted advice.

"Wow." I actually said Wow. "You are truly my favorite author of all time.
Do you mind if I sit down next to you for a minute?" I was already crouching
down toward the bench. He was older than I had imagined him. And his
face was sad, which didn't surprise me. His life has been replete with
struggle and grief. His countenance just happens to tell his life story more
than others.

"No, no," he said in a crabby kind of way. "I dont want to talk to anybody
right now."

"Oh, OK," I said, quickly standing up straight. "I understand. I just think you're wonderful." He never smiled, never thanked me. But I walked, no, speed-walked, down the street, turned the corner, and began running like I had been momentarily dipped in heaven. Hell, I had been.

And, Kurt, I defended you when I told my friends and family about this
headline in my life (a mere footnote in yours) and they said how rude you
were, how jaded you'd become. "No," I said to them all. "He just wanted some
peace and quiet to smoke his cigarette. He wanted to be alone."

A few weeks later, I saw a flyer that said Vonnegut would be reading at
the Union Square Barnes & Noble in the Village. On that particular night, in
the front row of the crammed event, sat a young man with a camera, his library
of Vonnegut books, ready to be signed, and a grin the size of a Chiquita banana. In a slightly altered version of the words of Vonnegut himself: That young man was I. That was me. That was the author of this tale.

It turned out that he didn't read. Someone else read for him. He just answered a moderator's questions about literature and life. And, oh so inconveniently, the moderator said at the end, "Mr. Vonnegut will not be signing any books, but you can purchase some pre-signed books over at that table. Thanks for coming out."

Shit. I stuffed my now-dead-weight books away in my bag, grabbed the nearest
scrap of paper and scribbled a note to Kurt, one drafted loosely in his own
playfully irreverent style. I figured, he's not gonna contact me. Worst he can
do is ignore the letter. I'll live. But not giving it a shot -- that I couldn't
accept from myself. I memorized the note:

Kurt, If you ever get overly bored with the monotony of old age, feel free to give me a call and we might feed off one another. Lord knows I could use some wisdom from a self-proclaimed old fart like yourself. And who knows, I might add something to your life. Maybe not. But at the very least, you'll get a free meal out of it.

Thanks for existing,

Dan Stern [my phone number]

I pushed through the crowd growing around him and said in a loud whisper,
"Kurt, here," and slipped him the note across the table behind which he was
sitting. I saw him pocket it, so I walked away, saying to my friend as
seriously as I've said anything before or since, "He'll call. I really think
he'll call." What else does he have to do, I figured. His recent writing gives
off the impression of a man waiting to die. He implies in "Timequake" that he's
already said all he could ever say. I could be the youthful fuel that lights a
fire under his ass, or if he's not interested in that, let him, if only for
kicks, call and say, "Hey, kid, that note took balls. Let's grab lunch." I've
joked with my friends and said, "Imagine if you called and asked me what I did
last night and I said, 'Oh, not much. Just went over to Vonnegut's to hang out.'"

Needless to say, must I say the obvious, oh damn I hate this part: He didn't call. I supposed, or rather hoped, that maybe he was just playing coy, like a guy who likes a girl but doesn't want to seem too forward. Maybe he was just waiting for the right time. Who am I kidding? That note was used for kindling that night, that is if the thing even made it home with him.

That was around the time my friend suggested I write a story about being young and hopeful and searching for a mentor or someone to respect or someone to aspire to be like who can help point us the way home. A story about finding
someone we believe in but who wants nothing to do with us. A story about the
frustrations and disappointments that come when we're just starting out and our unwritten futures are waiting to be discovered. Either that, my friend said, or just write a piece about stalking Kurt Vonnegut.

In the ensuing days, weeks, I struggled in my writing, in grad school, in my
job search. I just haven't been able to find that voice that suits me, that
says what I want to say in the way I want others to hear it. My work in the creative writing program I'm enrolled in has been panned by my classmates, ripped to pathetic pieces and put back together only to be shred apart again and again. And, good God, is there a job in this town that I can somehow get, please, one I could actually tolerate? The closest I've come is an editor/writer position I interviewed for at what turned out to be a porn publisher. And someone else apparently wrote smuttier prose than I, because I haven't heard from the company since.

But Kurt, you've been there, too. Remember? Your son, Dr. Mark Vonnegut, said it himself. When a reporter asked him what it was like growing up with a
famous father he replied, "When I was growing up, my father was a car salesman
who couldn't get a job teaching at Cape Cod Junior College." When you were 25,
like me, you had published nothing. The masses didn't embrace you until you
were well into your 40s. I can't wait that long, Kurt. And I know I'm not
alone in my pursuit of you. I know other hopeless hopefuls want a piece of
you, too. I see them standing in line, shoving your books in your face,
begging you to scribble down the symbols that spell your name, that they think
will make them complete. But Kurt, when I ask for your signature, I'm not only
thinking of myself, I'm considering posterity. How prized my signed copies of
your novels will be when I'm famous. "And now the next item up for bid from Dan Stern's estate is his copy of 'Slaughterhouse-Five,' signed by the book's author, Kurt Vonnegut, who just happened to be Dan's literary hero. That's right, folks, these two gems from the age of the archaic written word actually crossed paths once. It includes all of Dan's shrewd little notes and witty remarks he jotted down throughout." Kurt, I'm special. I really am, can't you see?

Don't you know I don't even use semicolons anymore because you said they
serve no purpose? That I try to always follow your advice that when one writes
he should be a good date on a blind date? That I start so many of my sentences
with "And" and "So" for the reason you gave in "Breakfast of Champions" -- to acknowledge the continuity of life?

In "Cat's Cradle," Vonnegut's novel on the foibles of man, of religion, of
science, he writes that any seemingly random person who keeps finding his
way into your life for no apparent reason is likely a member of your karass,
"a team God has formed to get something done for Him." Kurt, listen: My
friend's friend, I recently learned, is one of your grandsons. My other
friend's friend's mother is your son's colleague (you follow?) in his medical
practice. I recently interviewed for a copywriting position at Penguin Putnam,
your current publisher. I even saw you on the street several times. Once you
were wearing a pumpkin orange sweater in a city teeming with people cloaked in
black and I just smiled to myself and went on my way in my own orange shirt.
Kurt, I am part of your karass, can't you see? If
only on the fringe of it. But I'm in there. I know I am, damn it. And I need you to see that before you head off toward your Galapagosian blue tunnel into the Afterlife.

Back in the auditorium at the round-table discussion, Kurt was eyeing me. And
you can see why now. He recognized me and thought I was a lunatic stalker.
This occurred to me after I had relinquished the delusion that he
was somehow trying to signal me to say he'd lost my number and, oh, could I
pretty please give it to him again 'cause I'd just love to get together with
you. Me, a stalker? No, never. But wait. Aren't I the same kid who, after
moving to New York, reread "Timequake" looking for clues to his life? "As I
saunter a half-block to the news store on Second Avenue ... the store is a
Ma-and-Pa joint owned by Hindus, honest-to-God Hindus! This woman has a teeny-weeny ruby between her eyes ... From the news store I go one block south to
the Postal Convenience Station, where I am secretly in love with the woman
behind the counter." Don't think I didn't map out this U.N.-area scene, look for
the Hindu joint with the ruby-wearing woman or try to pick out the unknowing
object of his passion at the postal store. Damn, I thought in that auditorium
seat, I might very well be a stalker. An unsuccessful one, a good-intentioned
one. But a stalker, possibly, nonetheless.

The round-table wrapped up, and a surge of audience members carrying books and ready pens lunged toward the stage. I was purposely slow in getting up, smooth and patient. Stalkers can't make sudden movements or their hunt will flee. Still, I had no problem making my way to the front. So there I was, holding my pen and a pile of books -- two by Vonnegut, one by E.O. Wilson and one by Peggy Noonan (both of whom were round-table participants too). Wilson and Noonan were up on stage and Vonnegut came stepping down to the floor to speak with his wife. And who do I address, in whose famous face do I shove my
attention? Noonan's.

My lord, what was I doing? What words did I actually hear my unthinking mouth spewing? "Peggy, would you sign this for me, please?" My hero, my hope, my very own enlightenment is sliding behind me to get by, and I'm playing hard to get talking to Peggy, who, though real, real sexy for an older woman, is
someone whose work I don't even know. My Mom made me have her sign her bestselling book, "What I Saw at the Revolution." Oh, you'd better love me for this
one, Mother Dear.

And, then, it only gets worse. With Vonnegut still only a few feet from me,
talking to his wife and signing books for others wiser than myself, I found it
necessary to avert my concentration from Peggy to Professor Wilson. A two-time
Pulitzer Prize winner, leading evolutionary biologist and one incredible
human being, Wilson, still, is no Kurt Vonnegut. And yet there I was, asking
him to sign his book, all along ignoring the very man whose gravity had pulled
me to this place in time. This same kind of silly crap is what prevents men
and women in bars who otherwise are attracted to one another from ever
actually getting together.

Next thing I knew, Vonnegut had ventured back up to the stage and disappeared
behind the curtain. Gone ... for now.

Why do I speak of Vonnegut so often to my friends, to myself? Because to me he is a saint, which he himself describes as a person who behaves decently in an indecent society. And his writing illuminates decency for others. Why else?
Because, as Vonnegut has one of his characters in "Cat's Cradle" say, "People
have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order,
so they'll have good voice boxes in case there's ever anything really
meaningful to say." I'm preparing my voice box for that weekend afternoon when
I'm heading out the door into that fresh spring day to play some ball in the
park and that patient little phone begins to ring and ring and ring.

Dan Stern

Dan Stern lives and writes in New York.


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