by JIM KNIPFEL
January 14, 2018
A few weeks after moving to Philly, I walked down what felt more like a desolate alley than a street and opened the squeaky front door of the Welcomat, the scruffier of the city’s two alternative weeklies. It seemed I was about to start writing for them, and had been invited to stop by for an introduction. Although I’d spoken with editor Derek Davis briefly on the telephone (coming up with an utterly misdirected picture of him based on his voice), the first actual human being I met there was Toni. Toni ruled over the ramshackle reception area, answering the phones, taking down classified ads, directing visitors, answering questions, and doing a little bit of everything else that might come up.
Referring to her merely as a “human being” would be selling her short. Toni went far beyond what makes up most humans. She was loud, brash, crass, funny as hell, smart as they come, wise and exuberant. First time I met her I couldn’t help but think she reminded me of Mama Cass. Same long dark hair, same build, bursting with the same crazy energy. It was a perception I could never quite shake. She was the paper’s true heart and soul. And I don’t think anyone who was involved with the Welcomat back then would deny it.
In short order we became friends and confidantes, and as I pieced her story together in dribs and drabs over the months, it became clear she’d lead a life like few others, and one that put any of my so-called adventures to shame.
From the Sixties into the Nineties, she’d been involved in pretty much every underground scene the culture had to offer. An unmistakable Italian South Philly native, she’d been a rock chick, she’d hung with bikers and been deep in the drug scene. She was involved with occultists, swingers and gun nuts, and made no bones about any of it. Out of the blue, she’d say things like, “I remember waking up to find myself standing waist-deep in the Atlantic Ocean off some Jersey beach. It was New Year’s Day. There were a bunch of us there, and we were filling vials with sea water for some ritual.” It all came out as naturally as if she’d said, “I decided to put some marmalade on my toast this morning.”
She made no apologies for anything she’d done, and passed no judgments on anyone else, except outright assholes. In fact she seemed to prefer people who flirted around the darker, more dangerous edges of things, as at heart they tended to be more honest, and certainly more interesting. She was a real Johnson through and through.
She also seemed to take great delight whenever my stories pissed off the readership, and always encouraged me to push it further. Apart from Derek, she was my one true ally at the paper. When the other South Philly ladies working in the office were circulating a petition demanding I be fired, Toni was my only vocal defender on the ground floor, and kept me apprised of what was going on.
Shortly before I moved to New York, I gave her my old Smith-Corona, the typewriter upon which I’d clumsily composed my first several stories. Toni had mentioned she wanted to do a little writing herself, and I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d rather pass it on to. Turns out she was an incredibly sharp and funny writer on top of everything. First thing she wrote, which ran in the Welco (and I wish I still had a copy), was a piece about trying to write on my old typewriter, and how it kept inserting obscenities in every sentence.
I’m a little hesitant given the context to mention she was also my speed contact back then, but so what? It was no big sin to her. It was one of the worlds she’d come through, and it was as honest as anything. Now that we have it out on the table, let me also add it was the best, cleanest, and most powerful crank I’ve ever had in my life.
Now that I think of it, she reminds me of my dad in one rare and profound way. Both were so full of life, both so damnably vibrant, and most importantly neither ever bothered with masks, no matter who they were dealing with. Toni was just Toni at all times, that was all she needed to be, and that never changed. Not many of us can say that.
In later years she moved to different little papers around Philly, taking on different Jobs. She ran the singles section at one paper, and wrote a crime blotter for another.
We fell out of touch for awhile, but I still kept up with her through Derek. One of the last times I saw her was when Morgan and I went down to Philly to give a reading at Germ books. A bunch of people were reading that night, and it drew a bigger crowd than expected. Much to my surprise, Toni was in the audience with her new husband, Bob. Outside on the sidewalk afterward, she shouted “Knip!” (She always called me that) before wrapping me in a mighty bear hug. She seemed a little shorter than I remembered, and her long straight hair had gone gray, but the same smile and cackling laugh was still there. She was still the Toni I’d always known, down to the last chromosome. It was so damn good to see her again, and after that we stayed in touch more regularly.
Even after she was diagnosed with cancer too many years ago, along with updates on what the doctors were saying and how the latest chemo regimen was working, she would pass along funny videos she’d found online, or odd bits of ephemera she found interesting. She told stories about cheering up other cancer patients by performing impromptu pole dances with an IV stand. Even as the news grew worse, nothing seemed to quench that spark.
I think she herself summed it up best with the quote that ended her emails for a long time: “be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor each morning, the Devil says, ‘Oh shit, she’s awake.’”
Her last note was an unflinching admission that things weren’t going well. After a year of promising news, the latest, incredibly harsh chemo regimen didn’t seem to be helping. When I didn’t hear anything more for a few weeks afterward, I dropped a line, just to say hey, and let her know Morgan and I were thinking of her. I’m glad in retrospect I sent that when I did, though I’m not certain whether she saw it or not.
Derek wrote on the morning of December eleventh to let me know she’d died earlier that morning. Not long afterward he sent out his own eulogy, which I want to reprint here in its entirety, because he says it all much more eloquently than I ever could.
So many of you knew her at the Welcomat and the Forum, with her various last names of di Enna (maiden), Scheffler (Dave 1), can't remember the last name (Dave 2), and finally Huhnken (Bob), which I never figured how to pronounce. What the hell, she was always just Toni.
Bob called at 7 this morning to tell me that Toni had “passed” peacefully, “quietly, in my arms.” I'd never talked with Bob before and was deeply touched that he'd phone someone he knew only by name and tale. He said he hoped he'd sent me an email (“I'm not a computer person, just pushed the button”) but that hasn't shown up. No need.
Toni was the Official Presence of both papers, with her smile as wide as Arizona, face overflowing with intelligence and humanity, and that rumpled cascade of hair. She knew everything, could answer any question or tell you where the answer lay, would help anyone. Odd: Linda and I were watching Broadchurch on Netflix last night and I mentioned that the female lead has a smile like Toni's.
Toni came out of a hard-rock and drug South Philly Italian background for which she never made the least apology, noting her LSD hallucinations with loving nostalgia and recounting how she’d lean her head against gigantic pulsing speakers at concerts, which should have destroyed her hearing if not liquefied her brain, but seemed to have left no residue except a tinge of amazement.
Officially, she was receptionist and classified-ad taker. Much of the financial support for the Welco (which was distributed free weekly) came from the lurid sex ads that bulged the last four pages (indeed, the Forum's hifalutin refusal to live off such luridity had much to do with its early demise). She considered the city's madams and dominatrices her friends, respecting them for their bedrock honesty in dealing with the desires and kinks that make humans human. Toni had no pretense, not the hint of it in anything she said or did, and kept her minimal scorn for those who lived by hypocrisy.
Toni called me Der, the only one who ever has. As usual, she just knew that I hate my name and still cringe when I hear it.
I knew her first husband, Dave 1, one of our best writers at the Welco – we even took a couple stabs at collaborating on reviews. It's cloudy, but I think he brought Toni in to the Welco rather than vice versa. Linda and I visited their place a few times – I remember seeing The Hitcher, one of the scariest movies ever made, on their defective TV that made Rutger Hauer's forehead half a mile high. Dave was an Alistair Crowley fan at the time, but showed no signs of black magic. They remained friends after divorcing.
Dave 2, though, was a flat out whack job. After his brief period of adoration, he turned to vicious invective, calling her daily at the Welco to rant. Toni's response: She put him on speaker so his rancid vituperation filled all three floors of the row house office. Only Toni would think of that, a passive knife-thrust to the spleen of a shithead.
Bob was her marital salvation. I know little of him, except that he gave her the life she deserved and was exactly the person she needed for support through a way too long period of rampaging cancer.
Toni was one of the finest people I’ve ever met, one of the few I could respect without reservation. Bob called today, he said, because “she thought the world of you.” Whenever anyone says something positive about me I figure they just can't see deep enough to understand my bedrock of intolerance and hypocrisy. But Toni knew people, absorbed them, read their souls, so there must be something useful down there. I should look for it.
Now, let Dylan Thomas read the coda for all of us:
The closer I move
To death, one man through his sundered hulks,
The louder the sun blooms
And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults;
And every wave of the way
And gale I tackle, the whole world then,
With more triumphant faith
That ever was since the world was said,
Spins its morning of praise,
I hear the bouncing hills
Grow larked and greener at berry brown
Fall and the dew larks sing
Taller this thuderclap spring, and how
More spanned with angles ride
The mansouled fiery islands! Oh,
Holier then their eyes,
And my shining men no more alone
As I sail out to die.
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