by JIM KNIPFEL
July 1, 2018
Stranger On The Third Floor
I had no idea what to expect as I made my way up the rickety wooden stairs to the third floor of the row house office, but I still had a picture in my head. When I got to the top floor, way I imagined it, I’d be greeted by a smug, slick hipster in his mid-thirties. He’d be a tall and lanky guy, probably six feet, dressed all in black, probably Armani, and would have an expensive haircut. Despite the initial promise I felt that mid-summer afternoon as I walked the three blocks to the office, I could already sense it wouldn’t end well.
A week earlier on a whim I’d sent a three-page review of Henry Rollins’ new album, Life Time, to both of Philly’s alternative weeklies, just to see what kind of reaction I’d get. I gave both editors a week to digest things, then picked up the phone. I had no real driving desire to be a writer, but I was new in town and bored. It was something to do. Upon simply hearing my name over the phone, the first editor I tried called me every name in the book and told me I was a very bad person. That entertained me no end, was pretty much what I expected, so I hung up and called the next editor, some guy named Derek Davis, expecting more of the same. I’d actually read a few of his columns in the Welcomat, and liked them a bunch. They were weird and funny, and he seemed to hate a lot of the same things I did. It struck me he was the only writer in the paper who was doing anything interesting and inventive. Of course that didn’t mean he wouldn’t likewise tell me I was the scum of the earth, but if he did, all the funnier, and afterwards maybe I’d pursue a career in commercial fishing or industrial sabotage, and abandon this whole pointless “writing” lark for good. Better to learn that when you’re twenty-two anyway.
When he picked up, the voice on the other end of the phone was youthful, calm, a little nasal, clearly educated. And it was from that voice alone I constructed a portrait in my head of a young Armani-clad hipster with a fancy haircut. I mean, who else would be editing the entertainment section of a big city weekly, right?
He didn’t tell me I was the scum of the earth. Not that I recall, anyway. Or maybe he did, but that wasn’t the important part. The important part was that he asked me to stop by the office the next day. So now there I was climbing the rickety wooden stairs the next day, burning cigarette in hand, a half-pint of Wild Turkey in my pocket, somehow still expecting the worst. The exuberant hippie woman at the front desk had been nice, but everyone else I passed never gave me a second glance. They seemed pretty straight. Straight, to my mind, didn’t bode well. No, this would likely end in disaster.
When I reached the top step and turned the corner into the narrow and cramped editorial office, I was not greeted by a lanky, six-foot, well-dressed hipster, but instead a frumpy little man in shorts and his stocking feet. He seemed to be the only one around. I would’ve put him in his late forties or early fifties if I had to guess, but it was hard to judge. Balding, the fringe of hair around his round skull drooping down over his ears, a scruffy blond beard, a beaked nose and kind eyes. He had a slight paunch, and reminded me immediately of a gnome, though I would later come to dub Derek a Silly Little Troll.
After assorted greetings and introductions, we took a seat on the cracked vinyl couch in the editor-in-chief’s office (the uptight stick-in-the-mud was off that day, thank god), and talked for the next two hours as if we’d known each other for years. Derek had a great, sharp bark of a laugh, a bawdy sense of humor, and a taste in music as weird and eclectic as my own. Since arriving in town a few weeks earlier I hadn’t really spoken to a soul in Philly save for the guy across the street who sold me beer.
My future ex-wife was still living in Chicago and wouldn’t be coming out for another month or so. I was completely alone, as alienated as ever, having found myself in an alien city for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on except at the time it was the Worst Place in the World, and so where I needed to be. Maybe that’s part of the reason why meeting Derek seemed so odd and out of place, but at the same time natural, bordering on the magical. He simply understood what the hell I was talking about, maybe because, even after spending a lifetime there, he seemed to belong in Philly about as much as I did.
Over the next thirty years I would gather more Derek stories than would fit in anything less than a fairly hefty book. To a lot of people back then, we likely seemed an odd couple—a frumpy ex-hippie type, a humanist and alienated idealist hanging out with a disheveled, misanthropic punk rock kid with dreams of nothing and a heart full of rage—but we were both outsiders wherever we went, so fuck the lot of them.
We got roaring drunk at the Khyber Pass whenever Killdozer or Zen for Primates or Dave Williams was playing. We took road trips to the international party clown convention in Seaside Heights and up to an Amish tourist trap of a diner called Zinn’s. We had dreams of shipping his Death-Defying Little Yellow Car (DDLYC) to Australia, driving the length of the one road that bisects the country north to south, and getting a book out of it. We went to lord knows how many avant-garde musical performances and experimental theater things. And we got drunk an awful lot—Derek on Yukon Jack, me on the magnums of white wine I picked up at the liquor store on Chestnut Street for $6.99. And we talked about philosophy, music, literature, history, family, and politics. We traded a lot of cassettes, which was how Derek introduced me to Indian pop singer Malkit Singh, Jazz Butcher, and contemporary Nordic folk music. Funny how, even though our tastes in music and books tended to be wildly divergent, they overlapped at a few significant points—Pynchon, The Residents, Killdozer, and a few other but equally important cultural icons.
My future ex-wife and I spent most holidays over at Derek’s, feasting on duck and sausage and cheese and a deceptively sinister concoction called Glug. I got to know his wife Linda, his three daughters, and much of his extended family. In fact they were as close to a second family as anything I’d ever known. When they were visiting Philly one summer, I took my parent’s to Derek and Linda’s place one evening, and my dad in particular would talk about that night for years afterward.
God, all the nights I crashed at his place on Baring Street when I was commuting from Brooklyn to Philly would likely make for a side volume unto itself. Derek, Linda and their youngest daughter Cait (who was about two when I first met her) lived in the back half of an old commune which had been split vertically into two homes at some point. They had a black cat who was in the habit of marching back and forth across the keys of the upright piano, and a black, quite possibly retarded dog who was, well, everywhere. Their back door opened onto a small but lush garden with a compost pile in the corner and a goldfish pond.
I fell down a long flight of steps there one night, but was luckily so drunk I somehow missed every step save for the one at the bottom, and so came through it reasonably unscathed. When I crashed on the landing and slowly pushed myself to my hands and knees, I remember Cait—probably four or five at the time—clapping her hands and shouting “Do it again! Do it again!”
It was also at Derek’s house that I discovered the world’s one and only sure-fire hangover cure: a cup of freeze-dried coffee and two generic pop-tarts. Works like a charm, so I’m relieved Derek and Linda, who only drank tea, kept the jar of freeze-dried around for guests.
It says something about Derek and Linda that they would let me crash there as often as I did, considering.
As much as he would deny it, citing his own unease and discomfort in social situations, as well as an explosive temper that seems reserved exclusively for tools, computer keyboards and himself, Derek is the embodiment of gentle, palpable wisdom. He was, and remains, the youngest person I know. Despite the fact he’s a quarter century older than me, he’s younger than I’ve ever been. He was always up for anything, any adventure, any foolhardy notion. “Hey, you wanna go see the West Indian Day Parade? It’s a fucking madhouse.” “Let’s go!”
And on top of it all, though he insists on denying this, too, he’s the one who, in those early years at the Welco, taught me how to write. Derek’s an amazing writer and storyteller with a singular imagination and a relaxed prose that’s an unlikely blend of the urbane, the Surreal and the homespun, shot through with a humor that can do an end run past readers who aren’t careful. Can’t tell you how many times he ran (unlabeled) short fiction in his column, straight-sounding pieces about the stretch he spent living under a bridge, or the local strip club that was offering something called “Dead Nude Wrestling.” Not only did readers believe these stories to be true—they deluged the paper with a mountain of outraged letters in response. He even fooled me a few times.
As expected, once I started typing this a thousand old stories began popping up—the musical going away party in his backyard after we were both canned from the Welco, the two of us trying to dodge through six lanes of traffic while so drunk we could barely stand—but I’ll hold them for later. It also occurs to me that as I type this it’s starting to sound like some kind of eulogy. Well, it’s not. Derek’s still as lively as ever, has published two novels and a short story collection in recent years (all three available on Amazon), and at the moment is preparing to publish the massive novel he’s been working on since before we met.
Oh, man, and then there was that wine tasting event at Jack’s Firehouse, but I’ll hold that one, too.
About twenty years back now, he and Linda, in a burst of inspiration, picked up and moved to a rural area in the wooded mountains of northern Pennsylvania. Just saw a house while driving around up there, bought it and moved. When he told me what they were doing, as insane as it all seemed I knew it was perfect. Derek never belonged in Philly any more than I ever belonged in Green Bay or Chicago or Minneapolis or New York.
Despite having spent a lifetime in Philly, the longing for a rural life was always there in his work. Although he’d never lived in anything approaching rustic small town America, he had a clear and innate understanding of the stalwart diner waitresses, truck drivers and corner hardware shop owners who did. And when he and Linda landed in Dushore, it was like he landed in one of his own novels, with the chainsaw sculpture contests, the woman who ran the llama rescue operation, and the Mennonite families with scads of gorgeous and brilliant children. He’d finally found himself at home, even with bears showing up unexpectedly on the front porch and flash floods washing away the small bridge that connected him and Linda to the outside world.
Weird thing is, as radically as his life has changed, now that he has to chop enough wood to keep the wood stove stoked all winter, has to drive forty miles to the doctor, is building additions onto the house by himself, and is a central figure in the local arts council, as a person he hasn’t changed a whit. He’s still the same guy I met that summer afternoon on the third floor of the Welcomat. He’s still reading ancient Gnostic and Buddhist texts, still following the latest developments in science, still discovering new and strange music he loves, and is perhaps younger than he’s ever been.
That’s all. Just wanted to write something about one of my oldest friends and greatest inspirations.
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