Sunday, August 7, 2011

In Memory of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I first read “Slaughterhouse Five” when I was at boarding school in Germany, and the book had a profound impact on me. It started me on a quest to read every novel, every short story and every essay he ever wrote. Vonnegut’s work gives me hope, it makes me laugh. It’s bold yet beautiful, simple yet complex, smart yet accessible to anyone with an open mind. It was while reading Kurt Vonnegut’s novels that I realized I wanted to write my own.

So it was quite a thing when I first met him at a Kinko’s in Midtown Manhattan.

This was 2005, and I was working twelve-hour shifts on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays to pay my way through college. It was almost midnight when he stumbled in. I thought I was seeing things but, at the same time, it was so clearly him. He was just so real. He stank of cigarettes and coffee. I walked up to him and offered to help. He told me he wanted 10 copies of some poems that he was working on. I made him 11 and asked him to sign the last one for me. He did, and scribbled a few pictures here and there.

I told him I was his clichéd “biggest fan.” He replied: “I hope you’re a Republican.” I laughed my ass off. We talked about politics and women and the generalized chaos that was the Bush II years. He spoke like he was writing a novel with his words.

This became a routine over the next several months. Each time Vonnegut came in, he walked right up to me. I never let any of my coworkers help him; they knew when Vonnegut came in that I had to drop whatever I was working on. I was a good copy boy and I dressed up his work in black leather backing, clear covers and black coils. He liked them that way, but he would ask for a velo bind every once in a while, just to mix it up. He always thanked me.

I left the Kinko’s shifts to take a job with a daily newspaper in Maryland. I moved away before I was able to say goodbye. Before I was able to work up the courage to ask him out for coffee. He was old and he seemed to like his personal space and privacy. But late at night or early in the morning or on rainy Sunday afternoons, he would come into the store, shake my hand and crack jokes. It was a life-changing experience for the artist in me.

I teared up when I read his obituary in the New York Times. Then I cracked a beer, grabbed my notebook and sat down on my front porch. I wrote this poem in his honor. I’ve been trying to get it published since 2007, but to no avail. Oh well. At least I still have all those poems and essays, some of which were published only after his death.

So, enjoy. (And, by the way, if anyone wants to publish this poem, post a comment!)

So it goes...

The scent of stale cigarettes
wafted through the store
when he waddled in.
Pall Malls, to be exact. Unfiltered.
“These things were supposed to have
killed me
by now,” Vonnegut said.
“I’m gonna sue.”
He threw some wrinkled pages,
those jagged, silky poems,
on the counter
and asked for 10 copies. He let me make
another one
for me, his biggest fan.
He penned a squiggly face on the page
and scribbled what I guessed was his name.
Looked like chaos to me.
“Thanks, kid.”
From then on, I didn’t mind
going to work on Saturdays.
He’d come in
from time to time.
I’d follow his every word,
waiting for some profundity to come
spilling out.
It was usually just Pall Mall breath
and jokes.
Good jokes.
But I left Manhattan. He didn’t.
He told jokes. I didn’t hear them.
He fell and cracked his noggin yesterday.
What a hilarious way
to die.
As his brain was swelling,
I’ll bet he was
As he’d say,
“So it goes …”

(c) Isaac James Baker
2007 - Westminster, Maryland


  1. A lovely story from your life. How great to have meet Kurt Vonnegut - kind of surreal. I'm sure the poem will be published soon, I really enjoyed reading.

  2. Slaughterhouse-Five is seriously a fantastic book. It mixes alien fiction with everyday reality and continues to play psychological mind games with you. The main thing that caught my attention was how descriptive Billy Pilgrim (the main character) is about war. It really makes you think twice about war and society. In my opinion, the book really stresses that there is more than one way to see a situation. My fav. character is Billy Pilgrim. He is very interesting, yet his home life with his wife really stinks. I don't think he really likes her much. He seems depressed and morbid around her. I really like him too because we really get into his head and get to see how he thinks. The main conflict is whether or not the existence of aliens and their 'world' is real or not. Billy cannot really decide what to believe.

    1. Netherland, I obviously agree with you, and I like your summary of the Billy Pilgrim character. He's definitely one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. It's been about four years since I've read Slaughterhouse, and it might be time to experience it again. Cheers!