June 2, 2019

Finding Grinch


Grinch called the other day, and amid the usual flurry of crass jokes and nihilistic social commentary, he brought me up to date on his kids. Both were now out of college and had landed themselves interesting, high-profile and very lucrative jobs. While still in their twenties, it seemed both were well on their way to a couple of very bright futures. Certainly much brighter than either mine or Grinch’s had ever been.

            “So where the fuck did we go wrong?” I asked.

            “Yeah,” he said. “When I was their age, I had creepy old men lined up to shove dollar bills down my g-string and spank me.”

            We quickly compared notes, and concluded that all the smartest people we knew in college were now trying to hold down dead-end jobs in car washes, factories and retail stores, while the stupidest ones were corporate CEOs and department chairs at prestigious universities. Such is the way of the world, I guess.

            It could be worse, I suppose. Back in the day we both figured quite seriously that by this time, we’d either be dead or in prison. If that’s actually a worse alternative.

            Grinch then went on to tell me a story about something he’d done just a few nights earlier in the bathroom of a local club. It was a pretty great and insane story, vintage Grinch, but his wife, who is a doll, insisted I not repeat it. So I guess I’ll have to hold that one in reserve for awhile.

            It’s funny how many people over the years have been convinced I’d just invented Grinch, that he was a fictional character same way people thought Hunter Thompson’s Samoan attorney was a fictional character. Those who do finally accept that Grinch really does exist are equally amazed to learn we’re still solid friends thirty-five years later, and remain in regular contact.

            For as much as I’ve written about Grinch over lo these many decades, I don’t know that I’ve ever told the full story of how it was we met. I may have, but I Don’t remember any more and it doesn’t matter, as this is how I recall events now. Grinch wasn’t simply some demonic force who materialized on my doorstep one afternoon, asking if I’d be in the market to sell my soul. No, the real story is much more boring than that.

            When I transferred from the University of Chicago to Madison in, I think, the spring of 1984, I naturally fell back into the company of the friends I’d known in high school. They were all there at the UW, and in fact were all living in the same apartment. God knows I had absolutely no interest in moving in with them, no sir, but did rent a small room (more a short hallway with a cot and a sink) in the same massive pre-fab apartment complex. As we got reacquainted, it soon became apparent to me something had changed. They were all very nice, bright, funny kids. Back in Green Bay we liked to imagine we were pretty radical and dangerous, because back in Green Bay, talking about anarchism and revolution and inventing new religions, we were. But now that they were here, they’d all become mainstream and straitlaced and dull. They were all still nice and bright and funny, but to my mind they’d become harmless and irrelevant. They were at the second largest university in the country, an entire world unto itself that was wide open to them, and all they wanted to do was study and watch television. If they were feeling really kooky and wild on a Friday night, they might take a walk over to the ice cream parlor a few blocks away. Then they’d go home and watch more TV. (And I’m serious about the ice cream parlor.)

            I’d just spent a year and a half living alone in Chicago, where my darker, more antisocial thoughts had been allowed to evolve without constraint, and where I’d developed a taste for seeking out adventure in unfamiliar environments without anyone telling me I couldn’t or shouldn’t. This lifestyle they’d all willingly chosen seemed an horrific waste of time. Especially mine. We remained friends, most of us, but it wasn’t that long before I decided I had better things to do.

            After classes got underway my first semester there, I began seeing this same character everywhere I went. Tall, skinny kid with curly dark hair and glasses. The boots and haircut told me he was punk rock, and it didn’t take a big leap to conclude he was another philosophy major as well. We were both taking Claudia Card’s Nietzsche and Schopenhauer class, and he was also in Terry Penner’s Ancient Philosophy course with me. There was no reason in hell why anyone would take that Godforsaken Penner class if they weren’t a philosophy major. Beyond departmental offerings, we were both in the same Dostoevsky course taught by some insufferable and shrill dipshit, and, most notably, Martin Winkler’s Violence and Catharsis course, which involved drawing parallels between violent Greek tragedies and violent American films. Helluva class, that one, ready-made for a couple of smart and smart-assed bloodthirsty punks.

            Whenever this skinny kid spoke up in class (something I rarely did), I noted it was generally to offer up a comment that was a cackling blend of the brilliant and the crass. Most of the professors seemed horrified, and most of the other students kept their distance. That’s always a good sign.

             Outside of classes, I could usually spot him lurking around the edges of most of the protests where I, too, was mostly lurking around the edges.

            Well if the same guy is in four of the six (pretty small) classes you’re taking and at most of the same protests you’re attending, it’s inevitable you’re going to start talking one of these days. So we paused in the hall near the elevators after Violence and Catharsis one afternoon, and started chatting about punk rock. In the days that followed we talked some more, learning that our tastes in music, movies, literature and philosophy ran parallel down the line. The darker, the more brutal and offensive and hopeless and funny, the better

            Come to think about it, it’s not that far off to consider him a demonic force who simply materialized on my doorstep one afternoon, if you extend the idea of that doorstep to encompass the entire goddamn UW campus. Eighty-five thousand students there at the time, and this one kept shadowing me.

            I learned he was a year or two older than I was, having recently been dishonorably discharged from the United States Army for, among other things, “extremely poor attitude.” As he began telling me more stories about his past—and this is the thing with Grinch—As more and more tales of over the top pranks and violence and unabashedly sociopathic behavior kept pouring out of him, I was convinced he was just making it all up, right? That brilliant as he clearly was, he was also a blowhard telling crazy stories about what a badass he was in order to either impress or frighten me. It wasn’t simply the events he was recounting, but the flamboyant, loud, arm-waving manner in which he told them. It was easy to believe there was a touch of Munchausen about him, right? He was someone who liked telling shocking and outlandish stories to see what kind of reaction he’d get. I’ve known my share of people like that. Thing was, though, the stories didn’t shock or frighten me. Even if they were fabrications, they were nevertheless describing the life I’d been aiming for.

            Well, if you spent a little more time around Grinch, heard accounts of the same events told by other people who were there, saw photographic and newspaper evidence, you learned before too long that yup, all his stories were true. And I can attest that all the stories we’re still telling about what transpired over the next couple of years are true, too.

            I remember one afternoon early on. One of the kids from the Green Bay set, Peter (who still considered himself a crazy wild man because he’d once yelled “God is dead!” at a church we were driving past) had dropped by my short hallway of an apartment for one reason or another. He was still there when Grinch showed up. Peter had never met Grinch before. None of the Green Bay kids had. I opened the door and a shirtless Grinch strode in with his new Travis Bickle mohawk, clutching a crowbar for reasons that were never made apparent, and immediately launched into a story involving crowbar-related violence. Peter, for all his radical posturing, was clearly terrified and quickly made some excuse to leave, no doubt to scamper back to his apartment to tell the others I’d become friends with an obvious psychopath.

            If I remember correctly, that was the day Grinch had stopped by to cram for the next day’s Dostoevsky final. Having no patience whatsoever for the professor, he’d blown off the class completely after the third or fourth week, hadn’t been there once since, so wanted me to fill him in on everything he’d missed. Well, when you’re talking about the last ten weeks of an in-depth course on the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, this meant all the major novels—Crime and Punishment, Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and what was at that time still being mistranslated as The Possessed. And I was supposed to cram all that into a single afternoon. It was a tall and hopeless order, but I did what I could, putting on a pot of coffee, pulling out my notebooks and, over the next few hours trying to convey to a sociopath what that asshole of a professor had to say about Dostoevsky’s novels, wrongheaded as he was.

            The next day Grinch re-entered the classroom for the first time since week four, sat down, took the final, and got a better grade than I did.

            What was that I was saying about demonic?

            So yeah, loath as I am to admit it, it was all just as boring as any other story about how you became friends with that guy who would later go on to become a second-rate orthodontist in Akron, or the regional sales manager for a chain of Big & Tall men’s clothing stores.

            Before you know it Grinch and I were breaking into buildings, vandalizing banks and the State Capitol, setting fires, beating up Moonies and stealing everything in sight. And with that kind of experience behind us, it wasn’t long before we formed a political party that was three decades ahead of its time.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.