My First Time
I remember walking down Forbes Avenue, with my two best friends, Neal and Dave. It was the middle of the week, beginning of summer, and hotter than hell. As we walked past a liquor store, a wild eyed man grabbed me by the arm.
"I JUST GOT OUT OF WESTERN PSYCH, MAN!" Neal and Dave quickly stepped away, as the guy held on tight to me. He pulled out a snipped medical bracelet from his pocket. "I NEED MONEY. RIGHT NOW." I looked to my friends for support, but, we were 13 or 14 years old, and they were, probably rightfully so, trying to make sure at least two of us made it to 16. I fumbled in my pockets and handed the guy a few bucks.
"NOT ENOUGH, MAN! NEED MORE!"
I looked at him and said, “I’m a teenager, dude. I don’t have money.” He processed the words and released me. It seems the psychotic episode was over once he realized I wasn’t worth much more than three bucks and a handful of change.
I adjusted my shirt, put myself back together, and walked over to my friends who played it off like a totally normal thing that just happened. So, I did the same. Then, Dave pointed down the street, passed the Beehive (the coolest coffee shop/art house theater/medieval castle in the world) to a small stairwell off a side street.
We knew this neighborhood well, spending every free hour at the Beehive, or looking at the paraphernalia and clothes and posters at Tela Ropa, or thumbing through records at Oasis and the old Jerry’s Records. But this was somewhere new. The sign outside read “ICE NINE.” We huffed it up the little narrow stairwell and into the place that would forever change my life.
The store was decked out in the style of punk rock simplicity. Everything looked DIY, from the Zines to the poorly designed bound manifestos with black covers and white text saying things like THE ANARCHIST’S GUIDE TO CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE and COMMUNISM NOW. There were the more standard things like the old printing of The Anarchist’s Cookbook, and the Cult of Bob Subgenius stuff. I remember (probably incorrectly) some underground comix and even a role playing game or two.
The guy who worked there had hair like the drummer from Faith No More (although, to be fair, my memory paints him as the actual drummer from Faith No More, which, is probably unlikely.)
Standing in the doorway, taking it all in, I felt like i’d found a new home. A new life that catered to my addled adolescent mind. We spent as long as we could in there before we made the guy uncomfortable, or possibly, vice versa. One of my friends probably bought something, and then we headed back downstairs. This was a landmark moment for me. This place was a gateway to me.
I stood with my friends outside for a moment taking it in, and then I said eight words that would change my life.
"Why the fuck is it called Ice Nine?"
They immediately dragged me back upstairs and plunked down cash to buy me a copy of CAT’S CRADLE by KURT VONNEGUT. We headed to the Beehive ordered coffee (which I undoubtedly did not drink), and I started to read.
I remember that day so vividly because for the first time, on the stinking hot (literally) second floor of that converted movie theater, I would read the author who would forever alter my life. It was funny and nasty, heart-breaking and sarcastic, fanciful yet realistic. It was a culmination of all of my favorite things. From the Sci-Fi of Aliens and William Gibson, to the satire of Bloom County, to the humanism of Chekov and Ibsen. And, oh yeah, it was written by a rumbled weirdo who looked about as cool as I felt. Somehow, this old dude with a curly mop of hair and a hideous mustache was speaking to every fiber of my being.
I spent the rest of that summer banging through everything i could by him. Galapagos, Breakfast of Champions, Player Piano, Sirens of Titan, Deadeye Dick, Slapstick, and Mother Night. I banged through the short stories and what ever essays I could find. I was a believer. I adopted his posture in my own short story writing, trying to be both acerbic and emotionally provcative simultaneously. It wasn’t an easy fit, but it was what I aspired to.
The one book that eluded me is SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. For some reason, the punk rocker in me said that a book that was THAT popular and that was TAUGHT IN SCHOOL had to be a piece of shit. I remember reading the first few pages and just completely not getting it.
I figured everybody writes some crap once in a while, even Vonnegut.
Vonnegut remained one of, if not the, most important writer to my life. I think that I continue to this day to try and ape what he does best, and, I’d argue that some of my work that holds up the best is the stuff most directly influenced by what I learned from him.
I learned how to tell impersonal stories in a personal way. How to inject yourself into your stories (albeit, less specifically than he does), and I learned that thumbing your nose at your own work is the only way to ever truly understand what you’re trying to say.
I say all of this because there’s a Documentary about Vonnegut up on Kickstarter right now. A documentary you should probably help support, because, first off, I want to see it, and second off, there is no more influential writer on the 21st Century of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and, perhaps, even literature in general. His finger prints are all over every one of us banging away at telling stories that are both high concept and achingly personal.
As a post script to this story, I did a chronological reread of all of Vonnegut’s novels almost a decade ago. When I got to Slaughterhouse Five I considered skipping it, remembering how much I hated it as a kid. But, after I re-read it, I did something I rarely do. I read it again. And again. Three times in a row. I couldn’t get over how wrong I was and how important and powerful that book was. That book led me, very specifically to two of the most important projects I’d ever do. TUMOR (which dealt with Time Travel in a very different way, but, still…) and THE BUNKER (which, y’know, has a lot of similarities to it.) If you HAVEN’T read Vonnegut, that’s where you need to start. It’s a masterpiece, devastating, hysterical, and, most importantly, extremely human.