by JIM KNIPFEL
June 22, 2008
This happens far too often. I was just at the point of falling asleep—that brief delicate moment of balance when the body has shut down and the brain, though still conscious, is fast following suit. Blessed sleep—which I spent my whole day anticipating—was mere seconds away. Unfortunately I was conscious enough to hear, if vaguely and distantly, what was going on in the apartment. That’s when the phone rang. That’s when the phone always rings.
I threw the covers back, pushed myself upright, groaned, and slowly trotted toward the kitchen, hands in front of me, praying I wouldn’t collide with the door again.
I reached the phone just as the answering machine picked up. I didn’t bother to sit. In most cases it wouldn’t be necessary—unless it was an emergency, I’d just head back to bed. Non-emergencies can wait until morning, if only out of spite. When the phone rings just as I’m dozing off, it means I’m fucked. The body’s been shocked back into consciousness, so now it’ll take another hour or two to get back to sleep.
The connection was bad, and through the crackling it was hard to tell if the voice coming through the machine was male or female. In any case, it was a stranger. If I could’ve shot the caller in the head at that moment, I would have.
“I just read your book,” the voice said after a few standard preliminaries, “and I was wondering if you could offer any advice regarding psychiatric abuse?” Then they left a phone number and hung up.
I stood there a moment longer in the darkness, glaring at the blinking red light. I got out of bed and screwed up a night’s sleep for that?
All right chum, you want some advice on psychiatric abuse? Try this out—I say tie the loony tune to a straight-backed wooden chair and lock him in a small dark room for a few days without food, water, or access to a toilet. Give him intermittent injections of experimental psychoactive drugs and motor oil. Smack him around a little. You could also—if you were bored—try electrodes on the genitals, or dust off the thumbscrew, or take his clothes away and throw him in a meat locker for a few hours. And if all that fails, nothing beats a good old-fashioned iron tub full of ice water. Use your goddamned imagination.
Okay, I don’t mean to be “insensitive” here (well, yes I do). Obviously the caller was having some bad trouble and needed a little help—but let’s analyze the thinking here for a moment. You read a book that some guy wrote ten years ago. A book, mind you, that has nothing whatsoever to do with psychiatric abuse—it’s just a funny book about some stuff that happened. Anyway, you just read this book and now you’re having some kind of trouble of your own, so what do you do? Of course! Pick up the phone and call the author at home while he’s trying to sleep to ask his advice concerning something he knows absolutely nothing about. Yeah, that makes sense. Hey, and while I’m at it I’ll also toss in a few free pointers about breeding cattle and throwing a killer knuckleball, how’s that?
I get cranky when my sleep’s interrupted. Especially when it’s interrupted by some dimwit stranger with “issues.”
Many years ago, back when I was—lord help me—a “music journalist”—I was interviewing Henry Rollins. The interview wasn’t going well at all when he mentioned something in passing about getting lots of letters from confused kids asking his advice on things.
“What do they want from you?” I asked, and with that, the entire tone of the interview changed.
“I dunno, man,” he said. “Answers . . . things I can’t give them.”
Mr. Rollins suddenly sounded much less hostile. If anything, he almost sounded sympathetic—even mournful. It was as if we’d left the interview behind, and he was now confiding something to me. In an instant he’d switched from an angry thick-necked man annoyed with this glib jerkoff on the other end of the phone to a thick-necked man who cared deeply about the problems faced by young people, and regretted his inability to solve them all.
At least he had the good sense to admit that he didn’t have all the answers. I’ve encountered more than my share of figures of a stature akin to Mr. Rollins who’ve been more than eager to adopt the guru role, doling out driblets of wisdom to the needy and desperate and hopeless. (From what I hear, Anthony Quinn was particularly sleazy in that regard.)
Yeah, well, I’ve never really been that way much myself. Not only do I know for a fact that I don’t have any answers; I don’t feel particularly bad about it. Mostly questions like that just annoy me—especially when they come right as I’m falling asleep. But I think I have a good excuse. First, I have a scrawny neck. That’s a dead giveaway right there. Beyond that, Christ, look at me—I’m a forty-three year-old unemployed drunk sitting here in my underpants. I think if people like the one who called the other night could see how I really lived, they’d think twice about asking my advice on anything.
Fact is, most writers are fuck-ups. That’s why we write instead of doing something, y’know, worthwhile. Despite what people might think, we’re the last people you’d want giving you any advice.
Embarrassingly enough, I will admit that when I was a confused and hopeless youth, I sent a few pleas for advice to people I admired, figuring they had some inside track on the whole Wisdom Game. Mostly I think I was just trying to make contact with them. Writers, musicians. Looking back on it, though, I think I’m awfully glad I never heard from any of them. Wait—I did hear back from Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, but I couldn’t read his handwriting for the life of me. Never heard a peep from any of the others, and I think that was the wisest move they could have made. By trying to follow their example, I think I’ve saved a lot of people a lot of grief. Because that was always the trouble from my perspective—not the handing out of advice so much, but rather the fear that someone might actually be stupid enough to follow it.
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