Like many of my peers, when I was in college forty years ago, one of the writers whom we all admired was Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007). I never thought I would actually meet the man but, during one of my trips to New York, meet him I did, sort of, and this is what happened.
It was a Saturday afternoon, sometime in the early 1980s. I don’t remember what play it was we had been seeing, or which theater on Broadway we were in, but during the intermission at that particular matinee performance, we were all mingling in the lobby, and there he was, standing right next to me, towering over me, a shaggy bear of a man—looking like something the cat might have cradled and then dragged in from the monkeyhouse—the great man himself, Kurt Vonnegut!
I was still drinking in the power and the glory of the man when I saw two teenage girls coming up to him, shyly but bravely asking him for his autograph. We all tried not to eavesdrop as the man cleared his throat, paused dramatically, and then spoke in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “I’m sorry,” he said gruffly, looking at his watch, “but I never sign autographs at 3:30 on Saturday afternoons.”
The champion could have had all of us for breakfast, and he did. The two girls shrank and turned to me in confusion, because I just happened to be standing next to the man. “Sir,” they asked me haltingly, trying to cover their embarrassment, not knowing whether or not to ask me for my autograph, “are you anyone?”
“No,” I mumbled apologetically, fleeing from the scene, back to the safety of my seat inside the theater. During the entire second act of the play, I thought of all the things I might have said to console the two girls but didn’t, to cut the great man down to size but didn’t; and I hated myself for not being quick-witted enough, for having been in awe of a hero, for wanting the same thing those two girls wanted, the man’s autograph.
In the introduction to BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX, Kurt Vonnegut lists eight cardinal rules for anyone wishing to write short fiction. Here’s Rule #6: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Perhaps, back in the lobby of that theater in New York, at 3:30 on that particular Saturday afternoon in the early 1980s, Kurt Vonnegut was being deliberately sadistic, leading his young fans into that familiar slaughterhouse, teaching us all a lesson in life, liberty and the pursuit of celebrities.