Thursday, April 12, 2007

So It Goes - My Encounter With Vonnegut

I just read on the Washington Post website that Kurt Vonnegut has passed away, resulting from injuries he sustained in a fall a few weeks back. During my life, I only read one of his books, Slaughterhouse Five, and that for a high school English course. I can't remember it too vividly, since it's been well over 20 years since I read it, but I can remember my teacher's excitement at this tale of time travel, war, and the Tralfamadorians. I've always considered it one of the more unusual books I've ever read -- perhaps I'll pull it down again someday.

I only saw Vonnegut once in my life, in New York in November, 2003. I had taken the train up from D.C. to attend the memorial service for George Plimpton at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and following the service I was standing on the steps of the cathedral waiting to board a bus for a post-service reception at Elaine's being hosted by George's widow. As I was standing there, admiring the cathedral and basking in the New York night, I glanced to my left and saw Vonnegut standing a few steps away and down from me, waiting for his car service to pick up him and his wife. There he was, one of the icons of 20th century American literature, standing just a few feet away, quietly smoking a cigarette. Of course, being the literary enthusiast that I am, my mind was racing with options: to say how much of a pleasure it was to meet him; to thank him for everything that he had done for readers everywhere; to ask for his autograph; to tell him how important a figure he was to my high school English teacher; to take his picture without his noticing.

Instead, I did nothing. It was enough that were there together at the cathedral to celebrate the memory of a person who, while on different levels, was a friend to us both. That meant more at that moment than any feeble comment I could have made or any surreptitious photo I could have taken, and now, a few years later, I'm glad that I never approached him. He stood on the steps for a few more moments, and then walked down to his car on Amsterdam Avenue, got in, and rode off.

My memory of Kurt Vonnegut is not as grand as others we will read and hear of in the days to come, but it is a very treasured one to me indeed.


Dad said...

The NPR reporting was excellent on the fact that he had died. They quoted Vonnegut and his famous "so it goes" which he used so many times when dealing with death, dying or mortality, and ended with "Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday - so it goes."

rdl said...

Great post!! One of my favorite books of his is "Cat's Cradle". Might be time to read that again.

Dave said...

Matt, I've had a couple of similar close encounters with celebrities that I've handled just as you did - recognizing their "famousness" as well as their proximity but choosing to not make a big deal of it... a few names that come to mind in my experience: baseball player Kirk Gibson, musicians Bob Seger and Huey Lewis.

SusansPlace said...

DH and I were just speaking of him yesterday. His name is so well known but as I read a list of his more famous books, I realized I have never read any of them. Maybe I'll read "Slaughterhouse Five". Nice memory you shared.