June 3, 2012

Like a Kind of Death


It was the middle of a stormy Thursday afternoon when I remembered I was supposed to find an earphone. One of those cheap plastic jobs with a long, thin cord that plugs into a tape recorder, a radio, or whatever small bit of portable audio equipment you choose, so you can listen without bothering the folks around you. I had to conduct some interviews in the near future, and the earphone would just make transcribing easier.

        I used to have half a dozen of the damn things around getting underfoot all the time. I finally consigned them all to my desk drawer so I could easily find them when I really needed them (and so I’d stop stepping on them).

        Easy enough, right? Open the drawer and there one would be. Turns out it wasn’t quite so easy. I’ve been dumping all sorts of crap in that desk drawer ever since I was in high school, and have never much bothered with cleaning it out.

        An awful lot of loose paper clips in there, and three half-full boxes of paper clips that don’t quite close properly. Lots of rubber bands, too, half of them as dry and stiff as dead earthworms. Too many dried-up ballpoint pens which I should probably dump (with the exception of that psychedelic “TCB” pen from an Elvis gift shop in Memphis). I also have two boxes of official U.S. Government pens from my dad’s Air Force days. You can tell they’re official because they have “U.S. Government” stamped along the barrel.

        There’s a book of White House matches in there too, from a trip to the Gerald Ford Museum in Michigan. Don’t think I used any of them. The museum was pretty nutty though. Also picked up a “Ford for President” campaign button. Don’t know why they ever chose to use the picture they did, though—Ford just looks angry and confused, and his eyes are too close together. He looks like some kind of hairless Irish Setter. The “Nixon Now” button (also in the drawer, and also from the same museum) is much more austere. I used to wear that every once in awhile while living in Philly, but stopped after an old man cornered me in a grocery store and said, quite sadly and earnestly, “A Nixon America . . . is a better America.”

        My ex-wife was from grand Rapids, so we ended up visiting her family a couple of times a year when we were together. I remember very little about my several trips to Michigan apart from the day at the Ford museum. I’ll always be grateful she took me there (though if I remember correctly, I was pretty insistent).

        Found my two harmonicas. One’s an old Hohner Marine Band in a little red box, and the other came from my grandpa Carrol. That one’s even older, but much more sleek. It’s a shame a couple of the reeds don’t work. It’s an even bigger shame, I suppose, that I never learned to play either harmonica.

        I have a bunch of instruments in the drawer I never much learned to play. Not that they take much skill—it’s just that the tiny flicker of required skill has always eluded me. I have a very nice metal kazoo and a jaw harp in there. Never was sure if it was “jaw harp,” “juice harp,” “mouth harp,” or “Jew’s harp.” I guess any of them would get the point across, but I was never really sure what I was supposed to do with it. Didn’t stop me from playing it at old Pain Amplifiers shows, though, where Grinch proudly and loudly introduced me to audiences as “Master of the Jaw Harp!”

        There’s a siren whistle in there too. That I can play.

        There’s a Residents coaster, and several kinds of toy eyeballs—one that squirts water, one that winds up and hops, one that just sits there. There’s also a tip for my blind man cane painted to look like an eyeball. I dig that, but will never use it. Got some other cane tips in there too—a rolling marshmallow tip, a rolling donut tip (yes, that’s what it’s called). The latter was given to me by a crazy lady who had all kinds of theories about the blind, none of which were true. That same lady showed up to one of my early readings and proudly revealed to me that she was stealing a copy of my book. Yeah, people are funny.

        There’s a handful of ticket stubs from Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson, and Residents shows. Lots of Residents shows. The Tom Waits stub is the oldest. I saw him in a massive, crumbling cathedral of a theater in Minneapolis back in ‘86. There’s a whole story there involving my ex-wife before she was my wife. I thought she’d come up to Minneapolis to see the show, but then she left town half an hour before the show began. It was an odd and uncomfortable evening. Then I went to the show alone and it was amazing. On the way home from the theater, I broke my glasses.

        One of the weirdest things in the drawer is my G.G. Allin cigarette case. That was a gift from Dave Williams, who found it as absurd as I do. It’s a very nice brushed steel case that pops right open like any classy cigarette case you see in the movies—except that the lid of this one is embossed with an engraving of G.G. Allin for some reason.

        Got a fish-whacking club tucked in the very back. That was a Christmas present from my late brother-in-law Bob. He was a serious fisherman, though I don’t know what he thought I would do with that club. Guess I’m still trying to figure that out, which is why it’s still there.

        There’s a reproduction of Elvis’s driver’s license that’s laminated and everything. I’ve always been tempted to show that as my ID at the airport, but somehow I think it would end with my being detained and interrogated. And below that is my old Guggenheim ID card. Those ID cards, in theory, were supposed to get you into any museum in the world for free. And I gotta say, it worked for the first two years after I left the Gugg. Then I stopped trying. Don’t know why I’ve kept it all these years. Maybe just as proof that I really was a handsome devil once. Since then I’ve apparently turned into Andy Rooney.

        Speaking of the Gugg, here are a bunch of tattered pocket notebooks. They were handed out to all the museum guards, who were supposed to use them to jot down incident reports. I don’t think a single incident was ever jotted down by any of us. People used them to doodle, write poems, sketch out plans for world domination. I used mine to jot down rants, story ideas, awful titles, and insults directed at the visitors.

        Even after leaving the museum I continued carrying little notebooks with me to sketch out scenes, dialogue, lines as they came to mind. My first four books (in incoherent note form) exist in these little notebooks, I think I tossed them all in the desk, instead of throwing them away, in the dusty hope that someone some day might give a good goddamn.

        Oh Jesus look at this. A rectangular booklet handed out to all incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1983. The booklet contains the photo, home address, and campus address of every new student. Somehow I can’t imagine that this seemingly innocent and friendly effort on the U of C’s part to help students interact and adjust continues today. If so, I bet the stalking is completely out of hand.

        Speaking of dead traditions, here’s a small pocket knife given to me by my grandfather when I was six or seven. It used to be a kind of tradition that grandfathers would pass along knives, BB guns, and other assorted weapons to their grandsons. These days it would probably result in lawsuits and jail time and make the front page of the Post.

        Down under most everything else is a crumbling, brown newspaper photograph of me and my friend Peter sitting on Santa’s lap. thing is, we were in high school at the time. The photographer coaxed us into it one night while I was on a break from my bookstore job at the shopping mall. He thought a photo of two obvious geeks sitting on Santa’s lap would be funny. I still think it is.

        There are a bunch of other news clippings in here too. Most of them involve high strangeness from around Wisconsin, though I can’t read them anymore. My dad used to cut these out of the local paper and send them to me, just to keep me up on all that I was missing back home. When the local paper met the same fate as most every other small town paper in the country and just became a clearinghouse for AP wire stories, the weird bits disappeared and the funny little mailings from Green Bay stopped.

        Here’s an autographed photo of Bobo the Clown, a party clown from Philly. Never have you seen such a grim looking clown in your life. I interviewed him back around ‘92 as part of a big feature on party clown culture. God, that story involved me and my friend (and editor) Derek Davis taking a trip out to Seaside Heights for the annual national party clown convention. It was an incredibly strange, frightening, and drunken few days, as well as one of my finest memories. We were nearly lynched by clowns, which somehow seemed appropriate. Along with all the clown hate mail I received after the story ran, I also received this picture, which is inscribed: “I like you, Jim Knipfel” and it’s signed simply “Bobo.”

        Got some old cat collars back in the corner there, including the tiny leather collar my evil cat was wearing when I first adopted her from the Philly Humane Society in ‘87. Her neck had the diameter of my thumb at the time. I adopted a second cat, Guy, shortly thereafter, and they hated the other collars we got for them and refused to wear them. That was okay I suppose, given that they never went outside. I still liked them though—Guy was a big, loping, semi-retarded and doglike tabby, so his is in the shape of a bone. The female was as evil as they come, so hers was a black heart.

        Tucked in next to the collars is a keychain I picked up in 1976. It was one of the thousands of marketing gimmicks and tie-ins released to promote the Dino De Laurentiis version of King Kong. I must’ve had half of that shit at the time—puzzles, posters, books, drinking glasses—but this keychain was the prize. On one side is a tiny reproduction of the movie poster, and the other contains six hairs, reputedly clipped from the fifty foot-tall mechanical gorilla that was such a huge part of the pre-publicity. In the end the mechanical gorilla didn’t work very well and only appears in about two seconds of the final edit of the film. Still, though, I have some of its hair, but the keychain is so scratched up these days that you can no longer see the hair or the poster through the plastic.

        There’s plenty of other crap in here, too—empty plastic bags, cassette labels, push pins, a single cufflink with a devil’s head design—but I should stop. It’s too much like death.

        Shortly after he died, William Gaddis’s last novel was released. Agape Agape  was a slim number, but still in its own simple way presented an encapsulation of the ideas Gaddis had been developing throughout his career in a number of massive novels. The plot here was very simple: an old man dying of cancer moves about his office, which is filled with stacks of papers, magazine articles, news clippings, advertisements, photos, contracts, etc. He pulls random bits of paper out from the stacks, reads them, and each one sends his thinking off in a new direction. In the process he sums up his life and his beliefs.

        I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gaddis’s novel as I pawed through my desk, though I’m a bit short on beliefs. Mostly all I have are dumb little stories. But as with most of us, those count too, sad as it can sometimes be. All this detritus left behind, crammed into a drawer and forgotten until that rare moment when we’re forced to open the drawer again and take stock, only to find in the end that most of what we have is what we’ve left behind.

        And worst of all I never did find that fucking earphone.


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