by JIM KNIPFEL
September 24, 2017
Late in his career, William Burroughs was asked by a young reporter if he’d ever done anything he regretted. After Burroughs stared at the kid mouth agape for a bit, he responded in his own very imitable way that not a day passed when he didn’t do something he regretted. I often feel the same way. On the flipside, and to pull out another weary cultural reference, the Butthole Surfers’ cover of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” opens with a father counseling his son that it’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t done. The latter’s been eating at me a bit lately now that I’m getting older. Let me offer up a few stupid examples.
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t regret some missed opportunity. Even small things, like meeting up with a friend who was passing through town or seeing a band I like play live. Part of it is being in Bay Ridge, and part of it is not being able to see. Being in Bay Ridge, it takes at least an hour or more to get anywhere where anything is happening, and not being able to see, well, what’s the point of going to a live performance if I won’t actually be able to see it? Last year X came through town with original guitarist Billy Zoom performing with them for the first time in years. Even though we’d bought tickets long in advance in giddy anticipation, come the night of the show we decided to lump it, as it seemed kind of a pain in the ass to get to the club and deal with the crowd, only to turn around and come back home again. Thinking like that has kept us from seeing an awful lot of things we likely would have enjoyed. Mostly now I just sit at home and the world, stupid and ugly and annoying as it is most times, just grows smaller.
Missing a show is one thing (though I’m still kicking myself for turning down that free ticket to see Johnny Cash), far worse are the times I turned down offers to meet people I admired. Those aren’t chances that come around again the same way bands do.
The phone rang one night in the late Nineties. I’d gotten home from work about fifteen minutes earlier, and was only moderately drunk, so I picked up. A friend on the other end told me he was meeting famed Italian horror movie director Dario Argento for dinner in Midtown, and was wondering if I might like to come along. Jesus fucking Christ, dinner with the man who made Suspiria and Deep Red? I still had my pants on and everything! But then I considered the prospect of heading back out, getting back on the train, going into Manhattan and trying to find the restaurant. Then I further considered my drunken state, and the fact Argento’s English was about as good as my Italian. So I passed. Drunk or not, in retrospect what the hell was I thinking?
A few months later, I got home from work again, perfectly sober this time, and found a message waiting from another friend. He’d left it about half an hour earlier. He was very funny, had worked in radio most of his life, and knew a bunch of interesting people. In the message he said Neil Innes was playing a few shows in town, so he thought it would be fun to take Neil and his band to Coney for the afternoon, and would I like to come along?
Jesus fucking Christ, Neil Innes, the man who’d written all those songs for Monty Python? The one who played Sir Robin’s bard in Holy Grail? The guy who’d written and starred in The Rutles, for godsakes? Going to Coney with him sounded like an absolute blast, especially since Coney hadn’t yet been cleaned up and homogenized. But then I realized he’d left the message a while ago. They’d likely already headed out. I mean, it had only been about half an hour—I could’ve easily jumped on a train and zipped down there. Finding them wouldn’t have been much trouble, I bet. But figuring it was too late anyway I didn’t even bother calling back. A week later my friend sent me pictures taken that day of Neil on the Go-Karts, and I knew again I’d made a horrible mistake.
When author Jerry Stahl released his follow-up to Permanent Midnight, his publicist called me at the Press to tell me Jerry had personally requested that I be the one to interview him. I don’t know if that’s true or just one of those things publicists say to bolster a journalist’s ego. In any case, considering the workload I had in front of me, not knowing much about Stahl at the time apart from the name, and having no idea where I’d find the time to read the new book beforehand, I again declined. Way I saw it then, I wouldn’t have anything intelligent to ask him. Besides, I was a little suspicious of that whole “he asked for you” business. Of course had I done the most rudimentary bit of research, had I learned that Mr. Stahl had written three of the strangest and greatest porn films ever made, and was also friends with Hubert Selby, it would have been a different story. Instead the interview went to the kid sitting at the desk behind me. I sat there listening to his end of the phone interview, kicking myself yet again for another missed chance. Three or four times I wanted to whip around, tell that stupid goddamn kid he was doing it wrong, and yank the phone out of his hand to take over an interview that was intended for me in the first place. I didn’t.
This is a slight variation on the theme, but back when I was covering stupid and pointless events for the Press, I went up to Mickey Mantle’s bar and restaurant on Fifty Ninth Street to cover a Major League Baseball peanut vendors competition. The idea was to pit peanut salesmen from Yankee and Shea Stadium against each other, a competition in which they would be judged on the originality of their pitches and the accuracy of their peanut tosses. The event was sponsored by Planter’s and hosted by legendary Cincinnati Reds catcher and Hall of Famer Johnny Bench.
Well, no actual professional peanut vendors showed up, so they opened the competition to anyone who might happen to be having lunch in the restaurant at the time, none of whom seemed to fully grasp the subtleties of the rules. (“Okay, so make a loud and clever peanut-selling pitch while trying to hit that target over there with these bags of peanuts.”) It was pandemonium, with bags of peanuts flying everywhere and the flingers just yelling “PEANUTS! PEANUTS! PEANUTS!” As loud as they could.
At one point in the midst of the chaos, having lost complete control of the event, the promoter brought Mr. Bench over to meet me, as I was the only reporter who’d bothered to show up.
Now, when it came to covering pandemonium, I was pretty good. When it came to covering stupid events gone very wrong, I was even better. But I was no sports reporter, and never gave a toss about baseball. I knew who Johnny Bench was, certainly, but I had absolutely nothing to talk to him about save for the event at hand, which just seemed to make him very sad. So we shook hands, exchanged a few pleasantries, and the promoter led him back into the fray.
This time instead of missing something for myself, I’d missed a chance to do something simple and goofy and nice for someone else. My sister Mary was always the athlete in the family, and spent five or six years playing catcher in a girls’ softball league when she was in her teens. So back when we were kids, while the walls of my room were festooned with movie posters and NASA ephemera, she had a poster of Johnny Bench hanging across from her bed. She loved Johnny Bench back in the Seventies, yet it never occurred to me, notebook and pen in hand, Johnny Bench standing right there in front of me, to ask for his damned autograph for her. I like to think it was only because we were too busy ducking all those flying bags of fucking Planter’s peanuts.
Of all my regrets, all those missed opportunities, none can touch turning down without a thought the guy who called and asked if I would provide the official voice in the national ad campaign for a line of adult diapers. Minute I hung up the phone I knew it was the biggest mistake I’d ever made. That could have changed everything.
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