When I was a junior in college, I had a writing class. One of many writing classes. But this writing class, in the end, was like no other.
It was a non-fiction class taught by a man whom I thought was terribly difficult at the time. Today, I think he simply expected the best of us when we didn't necessarily demand it of ourselves.
During the course of the quarter, we were expected to write several small papers, all of which would feed into one large article at the end of the class. I had an idea. Well, I thought I had an idea. It never really panned out. So in Week 7 of the 10-week quarter, I met my professor during his office hours and explained my plight. Could I arrange for an incomplete?, I asked.
No. I don't want you to think you can slack off for the rest of the quarter.
Shit. Three weeks to do 10 weeks worth of work? Shit. Fuck.
Linda, my first non-fiction writing teacher in college (and friend to this day) suggested I do a paper on Nelson Algren.
Nelson Algren, noted Chicago writer. Noted to everyone but me, apparently.
OK, I figured. Sure. Nelson Algren. I went to the library to look him up. His books weren't on the shelf. Huh. Weird. Well, OK. I went to a bookstore. His books weren't on the shelf there, either. I asked a clerk why. He had no idea. But his computer told him that Algren's books were out of print. He suggested a used bookstore.
Eventually, I got my hands on a used copy of "The Man With The Golden Arm." And I thought I hatched a new idea.
And then, the night before the paper was due, I realized I was wrong.
I had written two pages - two good pages - earlier in the week, but the night before the paper was due, I sat in my dorm's laundry room with my typewriter and tried to write 10 more good pages.
I wrote four. And they were crap.
Later, in class, everyone passed their papers to David. (Yes, another David in my long, long history of Davids.) He didn't notice that mine was not among them. And after class, I returned to his office, dropped my backpack, laden with notes and notecards and Xeroxes and books, in the middle of his office floor and said, "It's not done. Do I fail?"
"Do you have anything?" he asked.
"I have six pages," I said.
"Let me see them."
So I handed them to him, and he read the first two, and said, "I like what you're doing here. I'll give you an incomplete."
Incompletes were required to be completed before the end of the next quarter in residence, so technically, I had until December, as I wasn't taking classes during the summer term. But David wanted the paper before I returned in the fall (when, it turned out, I'd have him for another class). Fair enough.
I quickly realized that with another three months to write this article, this article had better be nothing short of sensational.
My obsession with Algren grew, and I seemed to be part of a Nelson Algren renaissance. His books were being reissued by a small press. A biography was in the works. People were talking about him again.
My initial idea dealt with Algren peripherally. I wanted to map the locations in "Never Come Morning" to the present-day Division Street. My evolved idea focused on Algren himself. And as a writer who obsesses over ledes, I thought a lot about how to open the telling of my Algren tale.
I decided that I would open the story at his graveside.
He is buried on Long Island, in Sag Harbor, New York.
I told my parents of my plan.
My mother thought I was insane.
"No," I said. "You don't understand."
"No," she said. "You
don't understand. You're nineteen. You're not going to New York to visit the grave of a man you never knew."
"Besides," she said. "You're too young to rent a car."
At work at the Chicago Sun-Times
the next day, I told my officemate of my brick wall.
"You should interview someone in New York," she said. "That way, the trip is about the interview, not about visiting the grave."
Ooh, that was good. But who to talk to in New York?
At home that night, I picked up my copy of "Never Come Morning." I read the foreword, dateline Sagaponak, New York. I got out the road atlas. Sag Harbor, Sagaponak, about 10 miles apart.
The author of the foreword?
I'd never gotten in touch with a writer before. I had no idea how to go about it. So I made a few bumbling phone calls and finally got the name and number of his agent and gave him a call. Explained who I was and what I hoped to do. And a couple days later, he called me back.
"Do you have a pen?" he asked. "Write down this number."
And he gave me Kurt Vonnegut's home phone. "Call him," the agent said. "He'd like to talk to you about this."
Feeling as though I would surely hurl, I went into my boss's office, closed the door, sat down at his desk and shook. Practically convulsed. Call? Kurt Vonnegut? Holy crap.
So I called. He asked me when I was planning on coming out.
"Well," I said. "That's kind of up to you. I'll work around your schedule."
"Call me when you're making travel plans," he said.
So I did. And we picked a day and time.
And my father and I flew first to Detroit and then to New York and when we landed, I pressed my forehead against my window and thought, "I'm in New York. What the hell am I doing in New York?"
In the car on the way to the hotel, something in the conversation made me ask my father, "Dad? Do you even know who it is I'm going to see?"
"Well, Phil says he's a writer," he said. Phil, his friend on a barstool, knew the name Vonnegut.
"Well," I said. "He's one of the pre-eminent authors of the 20th Century, but yeah, he's a writer."
At the hotel, I called Kurt, as instructed, for directions. And an hour later, I was knocking on his front door.
His wife let me in, showed me to the sunroom. Kurt came in from the pool, no shoes, white shorts, turquoise polo shirt, a pack of Pall Malls in hand. We sat and talked, he signed a poster for Linda (framed and in her office 'til this day), he offered to call another friend of Nelson's for me who lived nearby, but she wasn't home.
I did indeed visit Nelson's grave. Began my paper the way I'd always intended. Turned it in the day before the fall quarter convened.
David gave me an A-. I thought his comments were pissy. "You're interviews are impressive," he wrote. "But you could have done more with them in each case. Describe, for example, the interior of Vonnegut's house."
I cut my own work from 22 pages down to 17. He wanted 12 to 15. "You want to know what the interior of Vonnegut's house looks like?" I raved to Linda as if she were David. "Buy the book someday."
Linda talked me down. "Take the A," she said. She was right. It was not a fight worth fighting.
Last December, I talked to her class. The Vonnegut story, of course, came up.
She had her students write thank-you notes to me, which she promptly popped in the mail, and which were not-so-promptly returned to her because she forgot to use stamps.
The packet arrived the other day. I smiled as I read them, and laughed out loud when I got to Melissa's: "The Vonnegut story was fantastic - a reminder of the potential power of a little naivté."
No kidding. I've often wondered where I got the chutzpah, as a 19-year-old, to call Kurt Vonnegut and ask him for an interview for a college paper. I wish I could bottle it.
I could use a swig every now and then.