Last Spring at The New School, in a class called Writers on Writing, we began a group discussion about the “literary family.” The idea is, unlike your parents, siblings, cousins, and aunts and uncles you choose your literary family. They are the writers who have inspired you to write, whose words constantly relieve your inner quarrels and ratify your existence. Without thinking, my immediate choice for my literary father was Kurt Vonnegut.
I began reading Vonnegut’s work when I was about thirteen. I found a copy of Breakfast of Champions in my garage, and with nothing better do to with my time, I sat on my old couch and began reading. I finished the book that day. Since then, my fascination with Vonnegut has grown continuously. What separated him from any other writer I had ever read is his undeniable honesty, his childlike perspective on the world; and how we, as citizens of a chaotic country, develop mental callouses that prevent us from admitting our flaws and insecurities.
Stylistically, Vonnegut was one of a kind. His novels often broke the fundamental “show don’t tell” rule of writing 101 by revealing the ending of a story at the beginning and by telling you loads of character information, even for the most minor of characters. His voice was the same in most of his works: simple, explanatory, satirical, and always with a black humoristic perspective on life and death, breaking both down to their elementary foundations. His most distinguishable tool was his use of two or three word phrases, which closed paragraphs and ended thoughts. The most famous of these is “So it goes,” used in Slaughterhouse Five to put a period on death; whenever a character died, no matter how vital or insignificant, that phrase could be found on the line below. In Slapstick, it was “Hi ho,” a response to any atrocity or awkward situation that surrounded the protagonist, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, the grotesque, ape-like president of post-apocalyptic America. And in Breakfast of Champions it was “And so on,” used whenever any character faced a bleak turning point in his or her life.
When I read that the person Kurt Vonnegut thought of as his best friend was Sidney Offit, a teacher at my university, I knew that if I didn’t take his class I would forever regret it. Of course, I did sign up. And his fiction class was one of, if not the best class on writing I have ever taken.
Professor Offit, much like his late friend, is an honest man. He has no preconceived ideas about what writing is, or what it should be. He simply wants you to write as well as you can, and to enjoy it all the way. He expresses absolute joy when he reads a piece, regardless if F. Scott Fitzgerald, or one of the students wrote it. His love for story is inspiring, and I always find myself going home after class to write, still high off the enthusiasm he radiates.
On the 22nd of October, I went to Hunter College to see him speak about his relationship with Vonnegut. Rather than talk about Vonnegut in a biographical way, giving details of who he was and how they met, professor Offit relied on his innate storytelling gift to express the realm of their friendship through glimpses. He spoke about the time they feasted on steak dinners and recalled Vonnegut sharing a simple piece of philosophical advice: “chew your meat and have fun.” He told of the time they went to a theatre in Times Square to see the classic pornographic film Caligula, starring Malcolm McDowell. “After about twenty minutes Kurt walked out,” Offit told us. “I joined him and asked why he left. Kurt responded, ‘Too much of a good thing.’”
Of all the snippets of their relationship, the most moving was an anecdote about them playing ping-pong in the basement of a Broadway shop. They were often the only players on deck, but this particular day two young men played on a table near them. During the Vonnegut-Offit match, a hundred point game invented by Kurt, the ball rolled off the table towards these men, and one of them retrieved it. Before returning the ball to Offit he asked what was the point of the hundred point game? Offit referred him to the inventor, Kurt Vonnegut. These two men happened to be big fans. They hesitantly asked him to sign the fallen ping-pong ball. Vonnegut obliged and scribbled his signature onto the ball. Offit began to tear-up as he concluded, “Somewhere in the world there is a ping-pong ball with Kurt Vonnegut’s signature on it.”
I end this with a Vonnegut story of my own—one of those unexpected life-changing moments that never quite leaves your memory. It was the Thanksgiving of 2009, and I was working a ten-hour shift as an Emergency Medical Technician. That day was far slower than usual, and for the first three hours, my partner and I sat in our ambulance playing video games on our phones. Suddenly, we got our first call of the day, the pager read “Labor and Delivery” and the address below. We rushed over to the birthing center, and found that the pager was lying: it was not a labor and delivery call. It was a far worse scenario. The baby had died during labor earlier that morning; by the time we arrived around noon, the mother could not move from the bed without having a seizure. There was a stillness in the air. The father, mother, and mid-wife wore pale expressions, that of mourning. We rushed the mother to the hospital, she seized the whole way there, and the Emergency Room nurse took her immediately. We were dismissed shortly after the patient was secured in her room and the paperwork was full and finished.
We parked outside a kosher deli, waiting for the next call. I found myself in the bathroom of the deli, in the basement. A sole florescent light flickered as I sat on the toilet, not using it but instead balling my eyes out. I couldn’t stop thinking about that dead baby. There was a wooden plank in front of me, nailed to the wall. Thousands of people tagged the plank, though now I cannot recall a single thing that was written. I felt an urge to write on the wall too, to pay homage to that baby, who I didn’t know, but whose death had affected me. I pulled my pen out and held it in my hands. Then I scribbled the only thing I could think to write, all that I had to say to whoever later sat on that toilet in the basement of that kosher deli.
So it goes.