It was November 1990, back when I lived in Providence. A short, offhand blurb on page four of the local paper for which I wrote quietly announced that Kurt Vonnegut would be in town to address Brown University students at Alumnae Hall. “Check to see if any tickets remain,” said the article. Say what?!?
In exactly twenty-fours, one of the major writers of the twentieth century and my all-time hero was scheduled to appear at my very door. My chances of getting a ticket now were about as slim as finding a rent-controlled apartment in Trump Tower. Nonetheless, I ran like a bad rumor over to Brown—only to be told that all 600 tickets had been handed out a week ago, two tickets per Brown ID. It was shaping up to be blue Monday, indeed.
“Why don’t you just go over there and tell them you write for a local newspaper?” asked my wife in a cheery, optimistic voice. “There’s your ticket.”
Raising my head slowly out of a bowl of soggy corn flakes in which I was trying to drown myself, I looked at her and laughed. “Yeah, right. With hundreds of bigwig journalists there, from George Wills and Mark Patinkin to Hunter Thompson and, who knows, maybe Tom Wolfe, do you really think they’re going to let me in there? Don’t be absurd.”
“Got any better ideas?” asked Josie, in her gentle tone of why-did-I-marry-this-jerk sarcasm.
I did not. So I called the Brown News Bureau and introduced myself. “Hello, my name is Gene Twaronite and I write for The East Side Monthly. I’ve been assigned to write an article on the Vonnegut lecture. I was wondering if …”
“Who did you say you are?” asked the young woman. “Isn’t that the paper that runs all those disgusting sex ads?”
“No, that’s the other paper,” I reassured her. “We only run ads for poodles and politicians.”
“A press conference has been scheduled for three,” she said. “Just show your press card at the door. There will also be a section reserved for the media at tonight’s lecture.”
“I don’t have a press card. My publisher says they’re too expensive.”
“Are you sure you’re a writer?” she asked, like I was something from the bottom of a dumpster.
After a short enumeration of my writing credits and the promise that I would throw myself off the Point Street Bridge if I didn’t get to see Vonnegut, she reluctantly agreed to meet me later at the door. I will remember her kindness always.
Shortly before three, I was allowed to enter and ushered into the inner sanctum—a small side room of the Maddock Alumni Center. Furtively I looked around, still expecting someone to challenge my credentials. But the expected horde of media hounds had so far failed to materialize. There wasn’t even a podium or microphone in sight. Just a few dozen folding chairs set in front of an overstuffed pink chair in a corner near the window.
Journalists started trickling into the room, though none of them were from the NY Times or Newsweek. There were eighteen of us in all, many from student newspapers. Tom Wolfe was nowhere to be seen.
Expecting to get no closer than 500 feet, I had brought with me a 300 mm telephoto lens for my camera, which I hoped would also certify me as a bona fide journalist. I had also equipped myself with a crisp new first edition of Vonnegut’s latest novel Hocus Pocus. One never knows.
Suddenly, he appeared. Wearing a dark grey suit, tie, and V-neck sweater, he strode gracefully into the room like a wise, beloved professor and quietly took his seat. Then, as if addressing old friends, he began to talk in a soft, reassuring voice.
“I’ll be speaking six times this year, speaking in some strange places … though this isn’t one of them.”
Then he launched into his opening remarks about the deplorable state of the country today and how “we are miserably led.” As he warmed to his subject, the pace and intensity of his words picked up. He described the choice of Dan Quayle for vice-president as “a terrible insult to the American people.” Sitting back and crossing his legs, he reminded me of a less flamboyant Mark Twain. His hollow, slightly vacant eyes—eyes that had seen too much yet never enough of this crazy world—stared back at us with a mixture of mirth and madness, inviting us to join the party. “Life is fooling around.”
With the precise timing of a good comic, he fired off one extravagant remark after another, occasionally interspersing them with common sense observations revealing the intense humanism that fueled his cynicism.
“I can understand people wanting to be doctors or lawyers or teachers. But people who want to be managers, well … something is wrong with them.”
“Government’s a TV show.”
“The ideal government is an extended family.”
“I took my junior civics course in grade school very seriously.”
Asked by Providence Journal-Bulletin reporter Bob Kerr if “there is anyone you find particularly hopeful,” Vonnegut replied without hesitation. “Yes, the American people.”
Swallowing hard, I finally summoned the courage to ask my own question. “In your novel Galapagos, you raised the point that our brains may be too big for our own good. Do you …?”
He cut me off, delighted to be given this tangent, and went on to compare our brains to the ridiculously over-sized antlers of the extinct Irish elk. “Nature may have made a mistake.”
For a few more minutes, Vonnegut bantered with the media. He came to lecture, he told us, usually at the invitation of students, not faculty. He doubted if anyone from the English Department would be in attendance that night. To hear him tell it, he was a virtual nobody in the academic world. (This despite the fact that a seminar on his works was held by the Modern Language Association at its annual international convention back in 1975, where he was compared to such world class authors as Nabokov, Swift, and Twain. It was not the first or the last of such seminars)
Lost in sad reverie over one of his parting comments that “there were a lot of swell writers in the world who just weren’t ever going to be noticed,” I was caught by surprise when suddenly the author bolted out of his chair and began heading for the door. I remembered the book in my knapsack and lunged to intercept him.
He was almost home free, but I nabbed him just in time. “Mr. Vonnegut,” I asked in a timid voice. “This may seem tacky, but …would you mind signing my book?”
“Not at all,” he replied, staring at me with those wild, wonderful eyes of his. Then on the endpaper he made his famous scribble, complete with a certain orifice that some people mistake for a star.
That evening, having been told that press seats would be limited, I arrived at Alumnae Hall forty-five minutes early. I needn’t have worried. The first three rows on the left had been reserved for me and my fellow journalists. Being the first one there, I sat down in my privileged seat as the hall quickly filled to capacity and overflowed to the balcony and much of the floor.
Actually, the best seats in the house were reserved for the creative writing class. And sitting among the students, as if to nullify the author’s earlier prediction, were some unmistakably professorial types.
I was especially interested in hearing what Vonnegut had to say about how to be a writer. This time, there was a podium and even a blackboard. Right on time, he stepped up to the microphone and began to address the crowd with the same unpretentious grace as that afternoon.
He introduced himself as having been born of the last generation of novelists “whose brains were marinated in books.” He then told us that, if as some people claim, rock ‘n’ roll can cause suicides, he did not want anyone to read his latest book.
Commenting on the Voyager Spacecraft’s trip past the Outer Planets, the author displayed his scientific bias, proclaiming this “the most beautiful thing humans have ever done. Just think of it—we made that thing!”
For a while, he read animatedly from a prepared speech, which emphasized the darker side of his worldview. “We are swamped with bad news,” he reminded us, then ran through a checklist of his most deeply felt social and environmental issues, as if making sure we all knew he wasn’t just some flaky novelist.
He even slipped in a quick lesson on transcendental meditation, describing this state as like “scuba diving in warm bouillon.” Then he compared it to reading—“the meditative state of Western Society.”
Finally, he got around to the topic I’d been waiting for, though I really didn’t expect he’d have much to say. In his diverse collection of essays and stories, Wampeters, Foma & Grandfalloons, he wrote that “you can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do. (This from an avowed atheist.)
He told us there are two main ways to support yourself as a writer: inherit money, or marry a rich person.
He then gave us one of his cardinal rules of revision—throw away the first three pages of any manuscript. It’s just needless introductory clutter.
Stepping to the blackboard, he began to draw graphs illustrating the curvature of various kinds of stories. He was always trying to bring much-needed science to English departments.
At the end of his lecture, commenting on the changing nature of student questions these days, he recalled that back when he was a young man on campus, when the world seemed to be in flames and Europe and Asia were on the verge of being swallowed up by Hitler, the burning question was: “Does penis size really matter?”
Whereas now the question he is asked most frequently is: “Do you use a word processor?” I detected a note of sadness in his voice.
So it goes.
(Author’s Note: An earlier version of this piece first appeared in East Side Monthly, Providence, RI.)