by JIM KNIPFEL
March 13, 2016
A Very Few Years
I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of looking at a life in reverse, noting all those unexpected detours and random encounters that collectively landed you where you are today. Remove one of those accidental left turns or missed on-ramps from the mix, and you might well be selling cheap real estate in Tucson today instead of hiding from Interpol in Prague under an assumed identity.
For instance, I was introduced to the tall gay Southerner who eventually got me my first book contract through some mutual friends here in New York. They were the first people I knew up here when I initially landed in town in 1990, though I’d actually met them a few months earlier in Philly. I was introduced to them by Gretchen Worden, director of the Mutter Medical Museum. They were coming to town to meet her for lunch, and she invited me along, thinking I might find them interesting. They were a splendid couple a few years older than me with a long history and endless connections within American underground culture, and they remain two of my favorite people to this day. Now, I’d met Gretchen while doing a story about the museum for the Welcomat in 1988, and we quickly became friends as well. Even though the museum was right around the corner from my apartment, it was buried in the back and the basement of the College of Physicians, so I had no idea it was there. I’d only been pointed toward it by a tall and balding gay Satanist who hung around the used bookstore in the Reading Terminal where I was working at the time. This same Satanist also dosed me with vodka spiked with heroin one night, but that’s a story I’ve told too many times. So in short, see, had it not been for that Satanist who tried to rape and kill me, I would have likely never got a publishing contract.
But thinking about that this morning also reminded me of something else, and it’s something I suspect may be true for many people. If you’re lucky, right? If you’re lucky there will be little adventures, strange encounters, some derring-do here and there, terrors, apocalyptic failures, the occasional noteworthy victory, memorable things both big and small, good and bad, scattered throughout the course of your life. Enough to keep you interested in the idea of waking up and moving some more, anyway. But when it comes to the honestly formative periods, those action-packed stretches of time that define and cement the attitudes, perspective and personality that will be with you much of the rest of your life, I’m always a little shocked to consider how relatively brief they are.
Of course there was that whole “childhood and family” thing to help lay down and establish a few fundamentals, like my lack of patience with most people and a tendency to reflexively act and think contrary to whatever the masses find good and right and popular. In spite of my general attitude toward the species I was still a quiet, nerdy, straight-laced kid, and by the time I left home for the University of Chicago I was still absolutely convinced I was headed straight into a quiet, dull career as a physics or philosophy professor at one college or another. My friends were equally nerdy and shared similar long-term plans. I didn’t drink or smoke and could go weeks at a time without speaking a word to anyone. It wasn’t until a few years later, around age twenty or so, that things began to unravel, and unravel gloriously, sending me careening in an unexpected new direction.
For all the endless wild adventures, from forming a political party and the world’s worst band to setting a few fires to pulling ridiculous large-scale pranks that inevitably made the local news (if unattributed) at least once a week, it’s hard to believe now that Grinch and I were only up to those shenanigans for about two years. It was during that endlessly crazed period that for the first time I began to look at life as a wildly improvised game with no rules and no meaning. You never knew what was going to happen next, though if you were the one throwing the wrenches around the works it definitely gave you the edge. It was a game you could play if you wanted, but most people opted out in favor of the safety of a predictable routine. We just made up each day as we went along, and come that night if someone asked us what we’d been up to, it was admittedly pretty impressive. “Well, we found this ax in a parking lot so we brought it on a city bus, were stopped by a cop, went exploring in an abandoned factory, harassed some Moonies, and started a riot at the pro-Israel rally. Then we stopped for coffee.” Maybe that’s why it seems in retrospect like it went on six or seven times longer than it did.
Funny thing is, though, that when we graduated we were both still firmly convinced we were headed straight into cushy academic posts in a few short years. Only difference from the way we were thinking when we first started college was that now we saw ourselves as practitioners of something we were calling Gonzo Academics.
Well, that obviously didn’t happen, as the grad schools we ended up in made it perfectly clear they had no interest in Gonzo Academics. But the damage had been done and that welcome detour sign had been pounded into the path. I had no idea what I was going to do when I left school, that detour sign might have pointed me toward an abrupt dead end, but it simply didn’t matter. I had a much better sense of what the world was like, as well as my own role within it. That meek, quiet straight-laced kid was dead, replaced with an avowed nihilist who saw it as his civic duty to fuck things up in entertaining ways.
As an interesting side note, it also occurs to me now that of all my friends in high school or as an undergrad who’d known since birth they were going to get a doctorate and spend the rest of their lives at a university teaching this or that, the only one who actually ended up doing that was my ex-wife. Which may help explain the divorce. The rest ended up designing resumes for people at Kinko’s or working as professional camp counselors or hospital orderlies. Makes you think, don’t it?
The second and solidifying formative stretch began a few months after leaving grad school, when I crash-landed in Philly. As the story goes, I picked up those two local weeklies and, with no training, no prep, no dreams, no nothing but a battery-powered youthful arrogance, a pocketful of Pall Malls and a head full of speed decided writing was something I could do. That period, too, when I was teaching myself how to write, was still shockingly brief. Only about three years, but even those wouldn’t have happened the way they did had it not been for that time with Grinch. Of course those years are mostly lost to me now, but damn it, I know a whole bunch of shit happened every goddamn day.
After that, the new course was set. Had no idea what the coordinates were and sure as shit had no idea where I was heading or where I’d be a few decades down the line, but that, too, didn’t matter. Everything was in place, and from that point on, for all the tragedies and terrors and little victories and losses and unexpected encounters, even if I wasn’t cruising through them all at a breakneck pace the way I once had, precious little has changed in my head. But if it hadn’t been for those two brief and abrupt explosions in 1985 and again a couple of years later, I might well be spending this afternoon showing a hard-to-please newlywed couple an affordable split-level in a new development on Frontage Road before heading home to stick a gun in my mouth.
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