Give 'Em Hell, Mr. Vonnegut

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I first met Kurt Vonnegut in May of 2005. I had been dating his youngest daughter, Lily, for several months, and she seemed eager to introduce me to her parents. So, after some deliberation at the Vonnegut’s Eastside townhouse, we decided on Serafina’s Madison Avenue location. Mr. Vonnegut expressed his willingness to troop the five blocks across town on foot, but his wife thought better of the idea and hailed a cab.

We were seated in Serafina’s sun-drenched back room, across from Bronx Bomber Alex Rodriguez and one of his Botox-blasted bimbos. People often refer to Kurt Vonnegut as a Dark Humorist, but I think it would be more appropriate if they called him an Honest Humorist. I mean, just because he had the courage to say what was on his mind didn’t make him sinister, it simply made him sincere. Mr. Vonnegut’s unorthodox sense of humor became apparent immediately after our waitress asked him how his Smoked Salmon Pizza was, and he responded with a completely straight face, “It will make a wonderful meal for our dog.”

The waitress came back holding a “doggie bag” with Mr. Vonnegut’s pizza in one hand, and the bill in the other. Without any warning, she handed me the bill. After nervously inspecting the check, I weighed both options in my head: A) If I paid the bill, my girlfriend’s parents would think I was a disrespectful punk; B) If I handed Mr. Vonnegut the bill, my girlfriend’s parents would think I was a disrespectful mooch. It was a lose-lose situation, and I cursed the waitress for putting me in such a predicament.

I couldn’t muster enough courage to pass along the bill, so I pulled out the proper amount of money and was about to give it to the waitress when Kurt caught wind. With an utterly offended look on his face, he grabbed the check out of my hand and said, “Well you can go ahead and fuck yourself, son. I’m from the Midwest.” Needless to say, I didn’t make the best first impression.

As a lowly hack of a writer doing trumped up advertorial work for a snotty luxury lifestyle publication, I worried that he thought I wasn’t good enough for his daughter. After all, he had encapsulated revolutionary social commentary into best-selling novels that everyday people could understand, while the closest thing to an accomplishment I had under my belt was editing a recipe for Rachel Ray’s weekly column. But he always encouraged me to continue writing and, even though we both lived in Manhattan, he once sent me a postcard explaining that he had taken similar jobs to make ends meet at the beginning of his writing career. “It’s an honest way to make a living,” he wrote. To this day, he is the only person who has ever sent me a handwritten postcard.

Nowadays, most people would rather communicate through text messages than be bothered with voice-to-voice phone calls, and sending a fax is an inconvenience compared to the ease of email. With all the high-tech gizmos and gadgets, Kurt Vonnegut was the last standing link this society had to personalized communication. He even signed his letters with little caricatures of himself. Receiving that note from him made me hate this fast-paced, impatient society I had been raised in. Hell, even my grandmother uses email (she’s a sucker for spam and chain letter hoaxes, as well).

As a result of my own insecurities as a man and a writer, I made the mistake of humanizing Kurt Vonnegut. I looked past his genius, past his ideals, past everything that made him so memorable and instead looked at him simply as my girlfriend’s father. While we rarely discussed literature, even the most mundane of conversations left me feeling like a benchwarmer being taught to dribble by Michael Jordan. I once told him that I thought my generation was addicted to microwaves and MySpace, and he responded, “I think my civilization is addicted to gasoline.” 

Putting all the pessimistic premonitions aside, Kurt Vonnegut was one of the easiest-going people I have had the pleasure of knowing. From what I gathered, he liked spending time with his family, smoking cigarettes and sharing dirty jokes. Although I’ve always agreed with Mr. Vonnegut’s disbelief in an afterlife, part of me wants to think that he’s up there somewhere right now with a Pall Mall and a half-cocked smile, watching in bewilderment as his fellow species rape and pillage the planet they inhabit.

All I wanted was to prove to him that I was a half decent writer, but now as I sit watching footage of a sunken ship leaking that precious petroleum oil us humans are hooked on into the Aegean Sea, all I want to do is thank him for sending me that postcard. My thoughts are with you wherever you’re headed Mr. Vonnegut: Give ’em hell!

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