SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
August 30, 2020

The Proverbial Whimper

 

When I was fired from the New York Press in June of 2006 by a paranoid moron (my sixth editor there in four years), it came as only half a surprise. The paper’s owners, who’d purchased the Press in 2002, had been trying to get me fired ever since they took offense at one of my columns. Since they lacked the authority to fire me themselves, they had to find an errand boy of an editor who would do their bidding. The string of editors leading up to the paranoid moron all refused to fire me, ended up getting fired themselves, and before leaving warned me what was in the works. So I knew what was coming, but didn’t know the exact date or circumstances. I chose not to worry about it too much, and simply put my head down and kept writing. I’d deal with it when it happened.

            Coincidentally, the final “Slackjaw” that ran in the New York Press (it appeared on the day I was shitcanned) was entitled simply “Stamina.” On the surface it was about Orson Welles’ late career, when he trudged stubbornly onward, doing what needed doing, taking demoralizing voiceover and acting jobs to finance his own films. It was also about all those precocious teenagers with a smidge of talent who’d come to the paper over the years thinking they were going to set the world on fire with their explosive literary genius, usurping my job in the process.

            Yes, well.

            Once they got that first story published, they knew they had it made, that the book and movie deals would be arriving within the week. They never stopped to consider they’d need to write another story after that first one, and another after that, and another twenty after that before anyone would even begin to notice them.

            They simply lacked the stamina to pull it off. Unable to handle the pressure of having to produce week after week, they all vanished. One went completely mad, another had a drug-induced breakdown, another almost made it, then jumped off a building. Guess that’s what happens to kids who are accustomed to instant gratification. It’s also what happens to kids who’ve been told they were geniuses since they were nine.

            Beneath all that, though unspoken, the column was about my own thirteen year relationship with the Press, where I trudged stubbornly on through multiple pay cuts, humiliations, increasingly incompetent editors and a staff around me that grew younger and louder and dumber by the day. In response to it all, I simply put my head down, again, and kept writing. It seemed a perfect column to end my run there.

            “Slackjaw” was born in the pages of the Philly-based alternative weekly The Welcomat in 1987. Thanks to Derek Davis, my friend and editor, it was where I not only learned how to write by trial and error, but learned how to type the same way as well. Derek and I both resigned in, I believe, early 1994 (it’s a little fuzzy now), in the middle of a meeting with the fuckwad of a new publisher who had been grossly over-reaching his jurisdiction as a glorified ad salesman. We were there for one more issue, which gave me time to write a final fuck you. Reading that last column again recently, I still think it’s pretty funny, and made for a perfect capper considering all I’d done there up to that point.

            I’d been at The Welcomat for about six and a half years when I walked, so when the Press finally got around to firing me, I had been writing the column weekly for nineteen years. It had become my heroin, the thing that made life bearable and kept me sane. The column allowed me to put my demons down on paper, give them physical form, trap them, shove them away and get them out of my head once and for all. And I’m telling you, after nineteen years it was a fucking hard monkey to shake.

            In the weeks following my leaving the Press, desperate to keep the column alive, I pitched “Slackjaw” to a bunch of high-profile publications. All the editors I contacted expressed some interest, which was at least encouraging. They all took me out for a series of lunches at restaurants much fancier than myself to discuss the possibility of gracing their slick, sophisticated, four-color pages with my neanderthal ramblings. In the end I was always told the same thing: “Love ya baby, don’t ever change. We adore you. Have absolutely no use for you, but hey—wherever you end up, let us know, because we’d love to keep reading.”

            Well, at least I got some decent meals and a few beers out of it.

            Then four months later, in October of 2006, I was contacted by Electron Press. They wanted to know if I’d be interested in running “Slackjaw” there every week. Electron Press was an eBook publisher, one of the very first out of the blocks. They’d been around about a decade at that point. Running a weekly column would’ve been a departure for them, but what the hell? Then they made an offer. We shook hands, and the column began its third era, this time in purely electronic form.

            Here’s a funny thing. Right around the same time “Slackjaw” began appearing here, the New York Press was sold again, and before the ink was dry on the sales contract, the new publisher called me at home and asked if I would come back.

            “How much does it pay?” I asked him.

            He quoted me a number, and before the final consonant was out of his mouth, I simply said, “Yeah, that ain’t gonna happen.” To be honest it didn’t matter how much he offered. He could’ve offered ten times what I’d been making there before, and I still would’ve said no. I may not have much, and may not have much by way of pride, but I have enough to know I would never go back there again, even if I didn’t have that Electron Press deal in hand. Fuck ’em. And that was the right decision, as the paper folded completely not long afterward.

            “Slackjaw,” meanwhile, would continue to run weekly at Electron Press for the next fourteen years, right up to this very moment. The exuberant, savage, unpolished rapier prose of my youth may have quieted and dulled a bit, my bottomless volcano of fiery rage cooled, but I still think I wrote a couple of good stories here and there, and it was at Electron Press the annual Dead Celebrity Roundup became a bit of an event. Best of all, I outlasted all of my enemies. Stamina? I’ll show you some goddamned stamina you fucking chowderheads. Ha!

            Now, however, things are coming to an end once again. There is no rancor this time, no backroom plots to bring about my demise, and (so far as I know at this point) no lawsuits in the offing. It’s been an honest pleasure to write for Electron Press, they took far more care in the editing process than most places these days, and I’m grateful they let me hang around so long. Thanks to them, I was able to continue holding those demons at bay. It doesn’t feel like it, but I’ve been here longer than I’ve been at any other publication. Over time, however, especially now, economic situations have a way of changing, and it was no longer tenable to continue the column as things stand.

            Pisser is, when I resigned from The Welcomat, I had a week to compose a final column. I was still young, still relatively new to the game, and that kind of pressure worked to my advantage. When the Press abruptly ousted me late one Wednesday afternoon, I didn’t have time to ponder how I cared to properly frame my exit. One minute I was a long-time staff writer, the next I was gone, but I got very lucky with the accidental significance of that final week’s “Slackjaw.” In this case, however, I learned of the column’s imminent demise two months ago. That left me way too much time to ponder how I wanted to close things out. I still have no clue. For a while there I was thinking it might be fun to run the one column the New York Press had censored completely, refusing to run it because they thought it was just too nasty. Then I was reminded I actually ran it here at Electron Press about ten years ago when I didn’t have anything else handy to run that week, so that was out.

            I still have no fucking idea what might be the most appropriate and dignified way to close things down, or more likely in my case, the most inappropriate and humiliating way. Do I rant and rave and condemn the culture as a whole in a barrage of obscenity? Do I rage against the metaphorical dying of the light? Do I get all misty-eyed and nostalgic about all those wild and bloody years now behind me, all the death threats and newly-opened doors brought about by these silly stories? Maybe as a final column I could run that unpublished novel in its entirety.

            Thirty-three years is a good run for anything, right? And much better than most are allowed. Hell, Jesus made the most of a thirty-three year run, didn’t he? (And no, don’t read too much into that, you silly ass.)

            Maybe I’m unsure how to shut out the lights and lock the door behind me because something tells me the column will magically reappear at some point somewhere before too long. I mean, I still have half a dozen new columns sitting here, and they have to go someplace, don’t they? Like I said, this weekly outing is my heroin, my one constant, and the only thing keeping my mental health in check. Besides, I’m not obsessively updating that fucking Dead Celebrities list every goddamn morning just for fun.

            Or who knows? Maybe nothing at all will happen, and this really will be the end.

            Maybe as I wait for that latest miracle, the best way to close out this third era of “Slackjaw” is by taking a cue from my old friend David E. Williams, who was a master at abruptly ending phone calls with a simple and straightforward:

            “Well, goodbye.”

 

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