About a year and a half after KJL died, I spent an afternoon cleaning my office. This was on a gloomy day in late December 2019. Papers accumulate on the corners of my desk and my shelf next to my computer keyboard. I sorted through the papers and found them to be notes on various literary projects, movie reviews penciled on the backs of envelopes, newspaper and magazine articles that I had copied for one reason or another, cards and letters and copies of my own correspondence, most of that writing already archived in my filing cabinet. On a dark day just before the New Year, it is best to be ruthless about ephemera of this kind and, most of it, I pitched into the waste paper basket without a second glance.
But among these heaps of paper, some of it stained by spilled coffee and Diet Coke, I discovered a small hoard of letters and drafts written in KJL’s hand. These were materials that I had received several years ago, studied briefly, and, then, set aside because of the difficulty deciphering my friend’s handwriting. Over the last forty years, I have thrown away writings by KJL measured not in pages but pounds. But, now, that KJL was forever gone, these samples of his small, nervous-looking hand took on added significance, indeed, almost a kind of radiance. I stared at the photocopied pages for a long time, held the leaves of white paper on which his scribbles were written in my hands, and, then, turned over and over the envelope in which the papers had arrived. The postage stamp on the letter showed a stylized platter and the words Chile Relleno. The letter was postmarked June 12, Minneapolis, probably 2017.
The more I looked at the papers, the more I thought I saw – letters and words emerged from the blur.
M A J O R I T Y
I was well past my majority before I understood the meaning of the term and the consequences of that of which I was ignorant. I was thirty years into my majority when my uncle, the legal representative of the estate of his grandfather, my great grandpa, was the process of liquidating his estate. Uncle Greer handed me an envelope at my dad’s thanksgiving table. “Majority” suddenly became not a minority affair. All of a sudden I was brought into a broad family consequence. I excused myself from the room. “Majority” thrust upon me thirty years too late was quickly turning itself into a trust minority. I had a check from my uncle worth thousands of dollars. When my mom died, I had to go through her effects. I discovered all sorts of correspondence, letters saved over the years (I never throw anything away – it must be genetic). Among the letters – I returned right away to my dad, who I bet had not forgotten them; I never forgave Greer for the words he preached to my dad, in letters to Rome, in particular, or how he may (illegible) abusing him (?) --
...responsibilities as a breadwinner while taking the chance of a lifetime on a modest, in 1962 (illegible) five thousand on a prestigious fellowship from MIT...
“I never throw anything away” – this was true on the basis of my experience. KJL’s brothers reported to me that his apartment, post-mortem, was full of sacks full of typed and handwritten papers. KJL had died alone in the summer of 2018 and this was not discovered until the stench of his decaying body caused the authorities to break into his apartment. The papers in these sacks smelled of KJL’s corpse and, of course, were discarded with horror and disgust.
I suppose much of this writing had been sent to me over the years. Some of it I painstakingly deciphered, some of it I threw away unread. KJL’s penmanship posed several problems. First, he wrote in a small hand, very swiftly it seemed, only rarely striking out a word or modifying an expression. As you can see from the sample above, there are various infelicities in his first draft, repeated words and sentences that seem garbled. But more difficult is deciphering KJL’s text in light of his peculiar, even, I dare say, unique prose style. Simply put, KJL didn’t write like other people and, therefore, I dare say, he didn’t think like them either. Much of our ability to decode a difficult hand relates to our expectations: we generally know what to expect – there are algorithms in place, heuristics that we can deploy to figure out what we expect that the writer is telling us. Words are magnetized by other words – in ordinary prose, we can predict how a sentence will end or what the writer wants to say by context and circumstance. But these principles don’t apply to KJL – he might shift subject mid-sentence, employ, without warning or pretence, French words in his prose, morph from fantastically specific to wildly abstract and general formulations all within a short compass of text. And this unusual prose style posed significant problems, even when it was typed on a page and, therefore, more inert than the wild, serpentine stuff that came directly from his hand.
What remained of KJL in late September 2019, now more than a year after his death, was mostly his photographs, magazines that he had edited, and samples of his prose. It wasn’t much, but more, I suppose, than most people leave behind. We had gathered to remember KJL at the Black Forest Inn four or five blocks from the Art Institute and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. This restaurant is a place I have known all my life, an institution as it were, and one of the first places that I drank with KJL when I was in college. Some of KJL’s publication were set on a table against the wall, along with many pictures that he had taken three or four decades before.
The memorial dinner at the restaurant commenced at 7:00 pm. With my wife, I drove up from Austin, my commute badly timed to coincide with the worst of the traffic. South of Minneapolis, the groove in which the freeway runs has been under construction for five years or more. This concrete slot between the neighborhoods east and west of the freeway has been cut into gravel and clay channels where huge earthmovers growl dangerously close to the lanes of moving traffic and the fracture between the neighborhoods made by the Interstate doesn’t fit them together any more. Familiar exits are gone, or hidden behind ziggurat-shaped ramps of packed earth – cross-over bridges have been removed or propped up on iron stilts and exits to downtown arch up and away from the stalled traffic on the freeway, but they lead nowhere – suddenly, the road just ceases atop its columnar supports hanging over a pit where pumps are laboring to evacuate dark, cold water. Once downtown, traffic was even worse – the maze of one-ways was all blocked and every lane change was either suicidal or homicidal, depending upon your point of view. Minneapolis has grown into a big city with the awful congestion incumbent upon such places and it’s nerve-wracking to travel there during rush-hour. So, I will admit, my teeth were on edge when I reached the restaurant, an hour early but still frazzled by the trip. I had a beer at the bar. Two old men were discussing baseball games now forty years in the past. People began to file into the room where we were planning to meet. The streets and sidewalks darkened outside.
We gathered in a side-room, a few friends, and most of the members of KJL’s immediate family. His alcoholism, a persistent and severe affliction throughout his life, had precluded him from marriage or family. (Inextricably entangled with KJL’s alcoholism was his desire to live freely and without ordinary constraints imposed by job and other distractions – it was always difficult to discern whether the alcoholism arose from KJL’s desire to be free or whether his lonely and monastic efforts at pursuing his life led him to drink far too much. As with most of us, KJL’s faults were inextricable from his virtues.) Several people who purported to be KJL’s great friends RSVP-ed that they would attend but I don’t think they were even successfully deluding themselves as to these motives and I knew they wouldn’t show up. KJL had burned most of his bridges behind him and he died forsaken to some extent. Because KJL’s death had been a shock overwhelming to his family, there had been no formal funeral or obsequies, merely an obituary published in the local newspaper.
A group of twenty or so people from the neighborhood, presumably members of some kind of club, had gathered for a celebration on the night of our tribute. They were drunk and loud, sometimes singing in chorus or catcalling across the banquet room to one another. Our group was outnumbered and, of course, much more sober and reflective and, so, it was a little difficult for us remember our absent friend during the dinner party. KJL’s father, a famous architect, was present, slim and sure-spoken and sharp as a tack despite his age. Kay was accompanied by his wife, a woman who had once owned a celebrated restaurant and bistro in Minneapolis. Needless to say the food was not exactly to her liking. KJL’s two brothers were in attendance, one of them with his wife. A woman who had been married to one of KJL’s best friends, Biodun I–, was present along with KJL’s half-sister. KJL’s sister lives in Maine and, of course, it would have been prohibitively difficult for her attend the gathering. A friend from St. Paul, Michael M – was part of the gathering and had been helpful in inviting people to attend. M – had found several short manuscripts written by KJL in a folder in his office and he had published two of these pieces in a chapbook distributed about a year after our friend’s death.
I knew that KJL and his father, a man of taste and refinement, were great admirers of the American novelist, James Salter. Like KJL’s father, Salter had flown combat missions over Korea in the early fifties and, a few years earlier, KJL and his father had met the writer at a reading at the Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnesota. KJL had edited his father’s brief memoirs of his service experiences into a little booklet called Flying for the Navy and had sent a copy to Salter. At the reading, Salter acknowledged receiving the booklet and said that he had enjoyed reading it. KJL thought that he detected homosexual inflections in Salter’s style of speech – it was effete to be sure. But the night was a highlight in KJL’s life – he spoke to me often of the event and I’m sure it was profoundly meaningful to his father as well. Accordingly, I skimmed some of Salter’s books for a passage to read at the gathering. I looked through A Sport and a Pasttime, a memoir-like novel, about a love affair in France – KJL always described the book as a poetic “ode to anal sex.” Of course, there was nothing in that volume really suitable for the gathering. I paged through Solo Faces, Salter’s book about rock-climbing, written most probably in the hope that Robert Redford would adapt the novel as a movie – Salter had written the script for Redford’s film Downhill Racer. There was nothing that I could use in that book either. But in Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days, I found a few paragraphs about William Faulkner and the writer’s vocation that I thought might be appropriate, marked the page, and, then, after some introductory remarks read it those assembled at the Black Forest Inn.
Salter is what people sometimes call “a writer’s writer.” His prose style is similar to Hemingway’s well-ordered and cleanly lit sentences, but, less vehement, and more serene. It was a pleasure to read his words to the group. I was moved, although, perhaps, no one else even could hear me clearly. The people at the table across the room were acting-up as I read.
Michael M-- read one of KJL’s posthumously discovered prose poems. The text was carefully composed and lapidary, but I had deemed the writing too bitter to be read on an occasion of this sort. KJL declared that he had died and his organs been harvested, at least to the extent those parts of his body had not been ravaged by his alcoholism. Most of his skin was intact and it could be flayed from chest and thighs pretty much complete. In the little writing, KJL took a cab from the hospital to his apartment where he had invited a number of people to enjoy dinner with him. But no one came, a comment on actual events in KJL’s recent life. He was left alone to drink what the text called “(his) goat beer.” The writing ending with a recipe for cod fish cooked in lemon butter, something that I thought touching since KJL had worked often as a chef in high-grade restaurants.
KJL’s father seemed a little offended by the writing. (I didn’t blame him.) He said that no one had abandoned KJL in his last years and that, to the contrary, he had been important member of the family. He added that he didn’t believe most people appreciated “how sick” KJL had been.
I read a three page story also found posthumously by Michael M – . In the short essay, KJL described the pier at Duluth stretching out into Lake Superior’s cold and slate-grey waters. A vessel glided along the pier, passing under the girders and struts of the upraised Aerial Lift Bridge. The vessel was entering the inner harbor where the great taconite conveyors had once lifted their iron ramps to the high bluffs and where white grain elevators like mighty pipe organs stood high and stark on the granite shelves of cliff and boulder. The story shifted suddenly to Paris and memories of the student uprising in 1968, something that KJL had never experienced but which was a scent redolent over the Paris where he had lived a decade later. The story compared the cobblestones of Paris, used as weapons during the troubles, and the sand beaches along the Seine – the slogan of the rebels had been “Beneath the paving stones, the beach...” Then, the narrator was whisked back to icy Lake Superior and the granite boulders, streaked with blood-red hematite on its shoreline. The writing was laconic and mysterious – I felt that it had something to do with memory and how the hard facts of existence are broken down into grains of sand or compounded, perhaps, as cobblestones in the streets over which we make our way. What remained of KJL was some writings, essays published in an University of Minnesota journal of literary criticism called Enclitic, a number of brilliantly designed covers for that magazine, a book KJL had translated, and some photographs and short texts printed in Michael M–‘s chapbooks.
The happy club-members at their long table against the wall chortled and sang choruses of bawdy songs. When I tried to read my eulogy for KJL, I was drowned out by their giddy laughter. On the wall above their tables, castles stood sentinel over the green and blue Rhine and there were German mottos inscribed in old Gothic letters. Outside, it was raining. The evening had come to an end. I hugged a few people, shook hands with others, and, then, took an Uber back to the hotel where my wife and I were staying. I felt the inconsequence of my gesture hosting this party. Life went on.
The next day I was lost on a misty hill above the Mississippi River a few hundred yards from the border between Minneapolis and St. Paul. This is where KJL’s preternaturally young and alert father lived, among big houses perched on conical lots, difficult terrain on which to build, I supposed, but long since domesticated into these manors with their stucco garages and round plaster towers. At last, I found the address where KJL’s father lived, a place that I had been one time earlier but now more than 40 years ago. KJL’s father had saved some books for me by Samuel Beckett and Peter Carey, as well as some volumes about Antonioni, a director about whom KJL had once written. There were a few DVDS, The 400 Blows, L’Eclisse and L’Aventura, together with a couple of Blu-Rays of Wenders’ movies. (KJL had met Wenders a couple of times. On one occasion at Cornell, he was having a hamburger with Wenders when someone made a harsh comment about Werner Herzog – Wenders was incensed, according to KJL, and threatened to punch the man who made the rude remark “right in the nose.”)
When I got home, I sorted through the books. I found two postcards signed by Samuel Beckett in one of the French editions of the writer’s play called Comedie. The postcards cordially thanked KJL for sending Beckett a text about his works. KJL was granted permission by the writer to quote from his plays and other writings in the proposed publication with the caveat that, of course, permission must also be granted by “(his) American publisher, the Grove Press.” I found many other letters interleaved in the French books – but they were written in French and, further, composed in KJL’s impossible handwriting (or the equally difficult hand of his French correspondents) and so I couldn’t even decipher to whom the letters had been sent or why.
On the way back to Austin where I live and practice law, I told my wife that this chapter of my life was now closed. But, of course, I knew that the book on KJL would not be concluded until I wrote this essay. It was a task that I dreaded and feared – no good will come of this writing, I have often murmured to myself even while typing these words.
When I last saw KJL alive, I knew, beyond any doubt, that he was intent on drinking himself to death. I spoke to KJL’s brother, Adam, and told him that this was my impression.
My wife had a conference in Door County, Wisconsin. One afternoon, we were driving up the shore-line to Ephraim. It was a nice day with the great lake limpid under the caress of warm breezes. Some huge birds rotated high overhead in invisible carousels of updrafts from the sea-cliffs overlooking the white fringes of the lake. We ate at a café in Sister Bay famous for shaggy white goats pastured on the sod roof of the big place, serenely grazing on the turf above the dining hall. On the way up the hill to the spine of the peninsula, I looked at my phone and saw that I had missed a phone call from KJL’s brother while I was eating Swedish meatballs and waffles in the goat café. I pulled into a strip mall where there was a New Age shop that sold Lake Michigan agates and amethyst crystals. (Amethyst is anodyne against alcoholism – at least this is what gem enthusiasts maintain). I dialed KJL’s brother and found that my friend had been found dead, partly decomposed, in his apartment at 38th and Cedar in South Minneapolis. I asked about the funeral but was told that the family was overwhelmed and wasn’t sure what they would do.
My wife went into gem and crystal store and returned with a geode. The surface of the stone was nondescript, a cardboard-colored pebble, but, where the rock was fractured open, I saw that its inside was profusely decorated by sharp, toothy crystals, most of them purplish or smoky grey. The processions of cars up and down the peninsula passed the parking lot, utterly indifferent to the bad news on the telephone and the crystals in the geode. Soon, it would dinner time and people coming in from sailing on the smooth waters or playing golf at the resorts would be hurrying to expensive restaurants for lake trout and walleye or steak.
KJL’s miraculously young-looking and handsome father had said that his son was very sick during the last part of his life and that, perhaps, no one really appreciated how ill he had been. This was tragically and indisputably true.
The last time I saw KJL, I had stopped at his apartment to check on him. He had been released from a nursing home where he was convalescing from a bad fall just a few days earlier, untimely released as it turned out.
KJL couldn’t come to the door. He was too weak to climb up and down the steps to the second level of the brownstone apartment where he lived. Often, the door would not be open and it would be impossible to enter. But this day, I called KJL and told him that I was coming to see how he was doing. I presume he must have deputized one of the other tenants in the building to prop the door open so I could enter.
It took KJL a long time to reach the old wooden door to his rooms. He was wearing baggy boxer shorts and a dirty tee-shirt and his yellow feet were bare. His face was sagging like a mask half slipped from his skull and the air in the apartment was very bad, a stench of shit and stagnant urine and hops with alcohol. KJL normally wore glasses but he seemed to have lost or mislaid them. The TV was on, turned to a Cable news show, but he didn’t seem to be watching.
KJL was sitting on a stained couch surrounded by lap-deep, hip-high piles of empty malt liquor cans. (He drank a kind of rotgut called Steelhead Reserve.) Between his yellow feet, there was a big jug of red wine. He had a tumbler of red wine on the coffee table, besieged by shiny empties, and an open can of Steelhead also next to the glass. A few days earlier I had told KJL that he had to stop drinking or that he would certainly die. He answered that he agreed with me and didn’t feel the need to drink anymore, but, obviously, he had been completely drunk when he told me these things.
I asked KJL about his glasses. He said that when he had fallen before his hospitalization, one of the lenses of his glasses had broken from the frame and been lost. Because of this mishap, he couldn’t wear his glasses since one of the lenses was missing. KJL told me that he had considered getting an eye-patch to cover the eye that lacked a lens. It was clear to me that he was abandoning his vision, that there was nothing left for him to see, and that he didn’t feel any need to preserve his sight since all was squalor around him. Soon enough, he wouldn’t need his eyes anyway. I asked KJL if he could get dressed so that we could go down to Lake Street and get a pair of glasses that he could wear. “No need,” he told me.
I checked in his refrigerator. There was some beer but no food that looked even remotely edible to me. A hundred yards away, I knew that there was a small neighborhood grocery store and, next to that place, a good butcher shop. “Let me go out and get you some hamburger or something, maybe soup,” I said. KJL told me that he wasn’t hungry at all.
The smell of rot in the house was overwhelming and some big, lazy flies battered their dull button-heads against a screen window. His computer didn’t seem to work and his toilet was a horrible mess.
There was nothing to do and so I drank a glass of wine with him, pouring it from the big jug. The wine tasted sour and, almost immediately, gave me a headache. KJL was gracious and invited me to drink one of his malt liquor beers, but I demurred. The stuff always gave me horrible headaches and, sometimes, after three 16 ounce cans, caused me to cry uncontrollably. I don’t remember what we talked about. The situation was dire and I stayed only about an hour.
That evening I called Adam, KJL’s brother and told him that KJL was drinking himself to death. I had never seen him drink beer and wine simultaneously. But I said there was nothing I could do and, even, had encouraged him, I suppose, by drinking a glass of wine with him. I assumed that I would never see KJL alive again, but I had often had that thought and, just as often, been wrong and so I presumed that something would occur, that one of the guaerdian angels who protected KJL would come to him, and that, in the end, all would be well.
There is a term in Yiddish for a person who somehow survives without any apparent means of support. The word is Luftmensch – that is, “air-person,” implying that the man lives on air without need for any other sort of nourishment. KJL was a sort of Luftmensch although, in point of fact, he seemed to derive his nourishment mostly from that noxious malt liquor, Steelhead Reserve. I don’t really know how he survived. He owned the apartment in which he lived as a result of his deceased mother’s generosity – we learned later in KJL’s life that she had actually bought the building for him with a partner, the man that KJL had always thought was his landlord. (In fact, he and that man were de facto partners owning the four-unit brownstone as tenants-in-common.) KJL was always behind on his share of real estate taxes and, on many occasions, his water was shut off as was his electrical power due to his nonpayment of utilities’ charges. (Generally, the County Welfare people intervened and got the power turned back on, although it was not at all uncommon to come to KJL’s brownstone and see the place placarded as condemned for defaulted taxes or utilities bills.) Sometimes, he hiked over to a Kwik Trip nearby, begged for spoiled bananas, and, then, used moldy flour and ancient eggs to make banana bread. There were months when he subsisted on banana bread and beer alone. About every four months, KJL would try to get sober enough to sell blood plasma – usually his blood was too toxic with alcohol that it couldn’t be sold, but if he could remain sober for a day or two, he might be able to take a taxi to the blood bank and sell plasma. For the final years of his life, he somehow lived without a functioning liver and with kidneys that were only partly operating. During this time, his doctors (he reported) told him that his blood was all foul with ammonia and the urea and ammoniac fumes were contaminating his cerebellum. His brain cells were dying under the assault of ammonia fumes exhaled by his rotting blood. No one could live long in this condition but KJL managed the feat for ten years maybe more. For this reason, he was a famous subject, renowned for his indestructible physiology and his remarkable blood chemistry. This meant that when he was reasonably sober, KJL could sell his blood for tutorial purposes through a company called DaVita. Of course, he would have to cleave to the sober straight and narrow, and commit to a week’s study by the company, but, during that time, he would be fed reasonably well and could consort with young and attractive nurses. KJL always believed that he was unimpeachably attractive to women and that nothing could affect his charm – he had confidence in his libido and sexual attractiveness even when, by any objective measure, he was more than half a corpse. So it was always a pleasure for him to check into the Da Vita suite, suffer innumerable blood sticks, and flirt with the pretty nurses. When he accomplished such an admission, he would be paid $2500, a lordly sum for him at that stage in his life.
KJL’s last hospitalization occurred when he fell down the concrete steps in his apartment, split his scalp open on the threshold and damn near bled out on the sidewalk in front of his house. His hospitalizations were always exceedingly strenuous and dire – after a day of not drinking, KJL would lapse into violent seizures, flop around in the hospital bed, and, then, have to be both restrained and sedated by barbituates. The doctors would induce coma and he would lie motionlessly in intensive care for several weeks. During this time, he would lose weight and muscle tone to the extent that, when revived, he was unable to walk.
I saw him just after he was released from Intensive Care at Hennepin County Medical Center, although still in the hospital. He cut a pathetic figure at that time, weak as a baby kitten, and unable to even hold himself upright in the chair where he was seated when I entered his room. KJL was incurably optimistic and he told me, rather brightly, that he would soon be walking with no problem – this very morning, he had just managed to make his way to the toilet unaided. As soon as he was able to walk unattended, he planned to secure his release from the hospital. As always, when hospitalized and recovering, his eyes were bright and his skin less grey than normal – of course, he was dried-out, not drinking even an ounce, and this restored the bright glint in his eye and gave his speech, even, a kind of lilt. (He had received dental implants about a year earlier and had a beautifully pearly mouth full of teeth.) I always admonished him when he was sober to stay that way and encouraged him as to his appearance. KJL told me confidentially that he thought several of the nurses were flirting with him and hoped to make, at least one of them, his girlfriend.
After about three weeks in the hospital, and as a result of several care conferences involving his father and brother, Adam, KJL was released to Ebenezer Care Center, a nursing home. I saw him once at Ebenezer, a depressing place, located in a re-purposed mansion at about 26th and Park, a half-mile south of the blue-ice and crystal of the downtown skyscrapers. Once this neighborhood was pretentious, the address of milling tycoons and lumber magnates during the coach and buggy era. An arboreal blight has slaughtered all the trees in the area and the old palatial mansions stood naked on square lots tightly fitted together and without the discrete veil of foliage to cover the nakedness of servant’s quarters and galleys attached to the back of the brick homes and smaller stables and outbuildings marking the boundaries of the properties. The nursing home was a gloomy brick edifice with expansive porches now sealed-off as rooms and corridors. A half-block away, the Swedish Institute occupied a similar structure, although a bit more vertical with a mansard-style slate roof. In the other direction, an early 20th century Freemasons lodge stood among parking lots for blood
banks and on-line colleges. The lodge also had an intricate roof, capped with steep gables, and studded with finials in the shape of urns and vases, the tops of corner towers steep as the hat of a witch.
Spring was well-advanced by this time, although it wasn’t yet hot, and the trees were foamy with sweet, green foliage, not yet sun-hardened and acid, but rather moist-looking and a little pale, the tentative color of leaves in this climate before the Spring ends and Summer begins in earnest. I parked on the curb and walked into the lobby of Ebenezer, an ornate space with stained-glass windows modeled after similar glass by Tiffany. The air smelled of institutional food, slightly sour, but, when all is considered, not an unpleasant odor. A Puerto Rican aide showed me to KJL’s room.
He was sitting upright in an old upholstered chair, working on some kind of puzzle designed to measure his cognitive ability. KJL showed me the puzzles, elaborate word problems, that reminded me, somehow, of the detective game Clue – you had to solve the riddle by a process of elimination and, when I tried, the thing almost instantly induced an ache in my skull. KJL’s color was good and he was cheerful, although a bit paranoid about forces that might keep him from being timely released from the nursing home. He looked alert and eyes were clear and bright, although I could see that his glasses were broken. His mind was like a well-tempered tuning fork – it gave off a bright, ringing sound when tapped. KJL told me that he was planning discharge for the upcoming Monday after the weekend. A final care conference was scheduled for Friday. KJL asked me what legal recourse he might have if the care conference did not result in his discharge on Monday. I evaded the question. I asked KJL if he could walk and he said that he had spent hours touring the gloomy hallways of the nursing home, exploring its nooks and crannies. I didn’t ask him to demonstrate his ability to walk, but he was dressed, wearing snug-looking stockings, and seemed well to me. KJL was so strong that when he stopped drinking, he quickly rallied (after some terrible withdrawal symptoms), and looked very fit, even athletic. His eyebrows were a bit unkempt and his hair had turned grey, but it was still a fine head of hair without trace of any baldness and he was clean-shaven, without tremor in his hands. If I recall right, he was reading Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, a writer that he admired.
KJL said he would be patient, that he would be released in four days, bright and early on Monday and all would be well. I told him he looked fine and that, without the booze poisoning, him he seemed fit and ready to play a round of golf or, even, a game of tennis. There were little birds playing in a dreary courtyard outside his window, sparrows, I thought.
On Saturday, KJL’s brother, Adam, called me. He said that KJL had bolted from the nursing home. This was inexplicable – he was going to be released in 48 hours anyway. And the plan was to provide him with a home health-aide who would come to his house two or three times a week to check up on him. Now, this plan was in shambles. A few minutes, later, KJL called me. He said that he was afraid that the plan was being changed and that the home health aides would interfere with his life – by this, he meant, his drinking. So, after signing some waivers, he had left the nursing home, leaning on a cane, and taken a taxi the 15 blocks or so to his home. I told KJL that this was disappointing. I said that the police will come to your house on the pretext of making a “wellness” check and, “if you are drinking,” I told him, “they will take you into custody” . “Then,” I said, “you will be committed as an inebriate.” KJL sounded frightened. “What can I do?” he asked. “You must not drink. Under no circumstances should you drink anything at all.” “I won’t drink anything but my goat beer,” KJL said, referring to the vile Steelhead Reserve malt liquor that he consumed. “Not even that,” I said. But I could tell by a certain stuttering tremor in his voice, by the timbre in his throat, that he was already drunk.
I was seated on my front porch with my Labrador Retriever, Frieda. I had been reading Theodor Fontane’s Irrungen, Wirrungen, an excellent novel by a writer that I like a great deal. It was warm, almost hot. I looked into the middle distance and saw a neighbor washing grime off his car. Another neighbor was pushing a lawn mower. Some small birds were excavating seeds from my lawn and chirping to one another.
KJL invited me to a dinner party about once every six weeks. He lived in south Minneapolis one-hundred miles from my home and so it was difficult for me to attend and, mostly, I demurred. He liked entertaining his friends and made these offers to me for many years, although I almost never attended.
About a month before his final hospitalization, KJL said he had invited a woman to his house for dinner and that he would like me to attend. He said that several other people that I knew were going to come to the party. I was free and the weather seemed to be cooperative and, so, I told him that I would come up to his apartment about an hour or so before people were invited to make sure all things were in order and that there were proper “potables” as KJL used to call wine and vodka and beer. I was curious about the woman that he was supposedly dating. He had mentioned her several times in the preceding months and told me that she had lived in France for a time, and, in fact, even been married to a Frenchman. KJL had met her through the French Alliance in the Twin Cities – apparently, she volunteered her time to judge elocution competitions, grading students as to the purity of their French diction and pronunciation. I understood that this woman had a teenage son and that she played flute and, often, appeared at open microphone performances throughout the Cities. There was another woman involved as well, a pianist, and the two ladies, KJL claimed, were rivals to his affections.
As I promised, I reached KJL’s apartment about an hour before his party was supposed to begin. For a long time, he didn’t answer the door and I doubted whether the buzzer in the security system was functioning. I used my cell-phone to call KJL and, after many rings, he answered. It was not unusual to come to his home on the basis of an invitation and, then, find yourself standing bemused on the sidewalk since the front door was locked and his phone, also, apparently not charged or lost somewhere. In those cases, I never knew whether KJL had simply changed his mind about the gathering or whether he had forgotten his invitation or, perhaps, even despaired of anyone coming to see him because he was, after all, mostly forsaken during this period of his life, physically frail, and, sometimes, visiting him could be disturbing. I knew that he often invited people to his house and sometimes they said that they were planning to attend, but, then, no one came. Indeed, he had even written a little essay or prose poem on this subject and included a recipe for codfish cooked in lemon, something that he might have served his guests if any guests had come to see him.
KJL’s apartment was in a modest brick building, four-square as an Egyptian mastaba, set forty feet back from the sidewalk and boulevard where a column of trees marched along the curb block after block to the liquor stores, check-cashing places and fast food joints on Lake Street. The four-unit apartment where he lived had an identical twin and both buildings looked like stone ovens to me or sepulchers of some kind, walled with dark brick pierced by dark windows that opened up onto the street and treetops next to the sidewalk and the alley behind cluttered with dumpsters and crooked-looking sheds.
KJL looked unsteady on his feet at the front door and it took him a long time to reach the top of the steps. A rubber tree had stood for many years on one of the landings, but KJL had been ill and unable to water the tree and so it had cast great elephantine leaves now papyrus-colored onto the floor. Some of the huge leaves seemed decomposing into beige-colored pools of rot. The air in KJL’s apartment was rancid with the odor of cat shit and stagnant urine. The stench was almost intolerable. It took your breath away. I couldn’t imagine that anyone could possibly eat a meal in that foul atmosphere and KJL couldn’t either apparently because there was no sign of any food. His refrigerator was bare except where the trays and bins were crusted with decaying filth. He had some olives in a jar but they seemed to have nasty cataracts of white mold growing on them and there was something like prosciutto in wax paper – prosciutto is scary stuff even when it is fresh (you don’t want to know how they make it) and I couldn’t imagine anyone would dare to eat those greasy slivers of half-melted fat in the wax paper. KJL seemed unconcerned about the stench or the lack of food or the sink piled up with cups and dirty plates where I could see several golden-colored centipedes writhing in the detritus. I told KJL that we would have to get some food and booze. He blinked at me as if he didn’t understand what I was saying.
We went to Chicago - Lake Liquor. KJL was weak and could barely walk, but he insisted upon going into the liquor store with me, putting his head down so his chin rested on his chest and staggering around behind a cart. We bought some rot-gut wine. I picked out several nice bottles for KJL’s girlfriend but he said that she was a “cock-tease” and didn’t deserve good wine and so he opted for the three dollar red – we bought four of those bottles. At 6:00 pm, the Chicago-Lake liquor store is a museum of human oddities – there were all sorts of tattooed and pierced lesbians, strange types of Gay men with weird rampant hairdos, Black pimps and hookers, and folks with features that seemed vaguely Samoan or American Indian or Hmong. A Black man approached me and demanded in a shrill voice that I give him five dollars. KJL was outraged. I didn’t want to make a scene and so I turned toward the man, advising KJL that I would deal with the beggar and slipped the guy five dollars. KJL looked like he was about to fall over on the floor and so I told him to take the cart that he was using as a walker and go out to my car. I took the bottles of wine and bought some vodka as well and stood in a long and slow line as the burly check-out guys scrutinized Ids and insulted customers and denied credit, everything chaotic and noisy, a sort of urban sensory overload that filled me with something like despair – so many people in the world and all of them entitled to our consideration as God’s children and not a sparrow falls but our heavenly savior knows of that, and yet...and yet...
The Black beggar needed the five dollars to buy a 12-pack of Steelhead Reserve. I thought I should tell KJL about this fact, but, then, decided it was pointless. I couldn’t find KJL in the parking lot. He had forgotten where my car was located and, at last, I located him propped against one of those pillars posted in parking lots to keep cars from clipping the corners of the building. He looked tired and disoriented and said that he had forgotten what my car looked like.
We went back to the apartment and, once again, I had to suppress a gag when I entered his rooms. The kitty litter tray was entirely covered with bitumen-colored cat shit, some of it bearing the imprint of the cat’s paws. This was a ghastly spectacle and I had to avert my eyes. KJL said that his elderly cat had been very ill and was, in fact, dying and that the creature no longer could control its bowels. For many years, KJL had shared his apartment with a cat that I never saw or even heard, a shadowy presence called “Nosferatu”. It was my perception that poor Nosferatu had died years before, but, apparently, the animal was sick somewhere in the apartment, no doubt lying on its side with emaciated rib cage rising and falling as the animal fought for breath. I said that, after a couple drinks, we could go out to a restaurant – KJL’s neighborhood had once been a White blue collar part of the city, but now it was Dominican with little bodegas featuring food from Ecuador and Guatemala as well. Some of these places, occupying small storefronts, looked interesting and I had always wanted to sample the food in those places.
To my surprise, a friend of mine showed-up wearing a white Stetson hat. My friend had a delicate nose and he coughed repeatedly when he entered the apartment – I had gone done the steps to meet him at the door and warned him about KJL’s place as we ascended, passing mummified rubber tree. My friend was mostly allergic to chemicals and so the dense aromatic organic rot in KJL’s apartment didn’t really bother him. A little later, KJL’s lady friend appeared. I also went downstairs to usher her up to the apartment. She swept into the suite of small rooms with a flourish. Her complexion was gypsy dark and she had black eyes and long black hair and a black dress – everything about her was dark, but fashionably dark and, I thought, that she was not unattractive. My friend in the Stetson was scheduled to attend a conference in Boston, something promoted by a Catholic university in that city. He was preparing to provide a ninety-minute lecture on the relationship of Jakob Klein with Leo Strauss. (My friend had studied with Professor Klein as he called him at St. John’s in Annapolis and, ten years earlier, I had translated for him about 150 pages of letters between Strauss and Klein. Most of the letters involved one or the other begging for money, although Strauss had been instrumental in locating a teaching position that had allowed Klein to flee Prague, where he had gone to escape the National Socialists in Berlin, joining the faculty of the so-called New School in Manhattan – that part of the correspondence had a sort of raw suspense about it and, even, a happy ending. Once Klein and Strauss were both comfortably ensconced in the United States – Strauss at Chicago and Klein in Annapolis, they seemed to lose interest in one another and the frequency and intensity of their letters declined.) My friend promoted himself to KJL’s lady friend as a scholar and philosopher. She was impressed and, even, more pleased when my friend opened up his guitar case – he was a professional musician for many years – and played a few Bob Dylan numbers for her. KJL had once been a fine guitarist himself – although classically oriented and, when he played as a young man, it always seemed that he was providing a musical preface to some kind of fiery flamenco. But KJL had hocked his guitar decades ago and he wasn’t attending any conferences about the influence of Leo Strauss on American political culture in the long or near term and, so, I could see that he was becoming increasingly perturbed at the attention lavished on my friend. KJL’s lady friend took her flute out of the big satchel-shaped purse that she carried and she accompanied my buddy when he played his guitar. Then, my friend sang a couple of songs that he had written himself, morose but beautiful pieces including one called “Heart of Stone,” always a favorite with the ladies.
KJL became increasingly agitated. He dug around in his sacks full of papers and located an article that he had translated forty years earlier, something called “The Figure of the Ground.” There were references to Heidegger in the article. This was unfortunate because Heidegger, of course, was a bete noire for both Strauss and Klein, both of whom were Jewish, and my friend, deeply influenced by Klein, also always shudders with righteous dismay every time the German philosopher’s name is mentioned. This led to a discussion about Heidegger’s World War One era seminar at Goettingen or Tubingen (I don’t recall which place) on the subject of Aristotle. This seminar is a touchstone for my friend, because he had been taught that Heidegger’s lectures on Aristotle represented a distinct turning away from Being or the Being of Beings and, further, a pivot from the truth established once and for all and conclusively by Socrates and his mimic, Plato. KJL was not up on his Plato or Aristotle and so he couldn’t quite compete with my friend who was smiling suavely under his velvety John B. Stetson hat and working to seduce KJL’s lady friend right beneath his nose.
Ultimately, the woman became angry and demanded to know when we were going to eat. KJL stammered about not having expected anyone to show up and said that his plans for supper had been disrupted anyway and that there was nothing for him to serve to us in the apartment. This was a relief because none of us wanted to eat in that place. I said we should go down to Cedar Avenue only a block away and find a table at one of the Dominican or Guatemalan places. KJL had not eaten solid food for several years at that point – it interfered with his booze buzz – and so he vetoed my idea. He spread out on the table his article about “The Figure of the Ground”, illustrated if I recall correctly by Muybridge zoopraxoscopic photographs, and began to read loudly from it. My friend began to denounce Heidegger again and made some derogatory comments about the French New Wave cinema, articulating how Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player was a miserable example of Heidegger-influenced (Sartre being a non-entity) existentialism.
None of this was going anywhere good and, so, I excused myself and drove back to Austin, buying a hamburger and fries at the Burger King at the Owatonna exit. Later, I heard that the party, such as it was lasted for another couple hours, that my friend played guitar and the woman sang and played flute (Van Morrison songs) and, then, when KJL’s lady-friend left, she spit in his face: “Get yourself a new goddamn kitty litter box.”
This was, I think, KJL’s last dinner party.
Throughout this time, KJL worked on a project that he called Zazie. This work evolved over time: Zazie initiated as a typed story, more of an outline than a finished narrative. KJL’s narrator begins as a figure suspiciously similar to the author – an unemployed academic with excellent credentials, but, at loose ends. The academic is flown on several occasions to a university in North Dakota. He interviews for a job in the school’s French department and, of course, astonishes everyone with his wit, charisma, and acumen. If I recall correctly, after his first interview, the hero seduces the woman who leads the committee searching for new French department faculty. The hero returns to his home in Minneapolis and, then, is invited back to North Dakota for another interview. This time, it seems, that something goes wrong. The woman leading the search committee is married or there is professional jealousy since the hero is manifestly better qualified than those interviewing him. He is rejected as an applicant for the job and, worse, not even provided with any means to return home. The job candidate leaves North Dakota, possibly with the woman on the committee who now elopes with him. The couple buy and car and Bonnie and Clyde-style embark on a tour of the upper Midwest. After a few pages, they have acquired a small French-speaking girl named Zazie – the little girl is conspicuously foul-mouthed and encourages the man and woman, now called Daddy and Mommy, to have sex. The couple have various adventures that are the subject of Zazie’s sardonic commentary. Ultimately, they meet an old Black man at a Greyhound Bus terminal. He joins their traveling circus, as it were, and the quartet motors down highways parallel to the Mississippi to New Orleans. Where the road ends and the river opens out into the sea, the Black man performs some tricks and miracles. Then, he departs with Zazie.
I recall that the text was overtly self-aggrandizing, but charming in a whimsical way. The writing was mostly lucid although there were bewildering shifts in tone – some of the scenes in the story outline verged on pornographic, there was much obscenity, and the narrative became more and more impersonal with each page. I think the story was about 15 pages long. Obviously, the inspiration for the writing was Zazie dans le Metro both novel and film versions, Alice in the Cities, a 1974 movie by Wim Wenders, with some elements of Easy Rider thrown into the mix as well. Compared to KJL’s earlier academic writing, the prose was clear, even, aphoristic – the text began as wish-fulfillment but ended in enchantment: the Black man seemed to be a variant on Nigger Jim from Huckleberry Finn, both a real character and the witty embodiment of death and dissolution. I was impressed by the way the little narrative was written and perceived in the prose something on the order of a late style – radically simplified writing with short sentences and significant amounts of dialogue operating in service of an allegorical or parable-like plot.
KJL apparently sent the story to various publishers, all of whom rejected or ignored it. Next, he re-imagined the concept as a film story-board. He began to sketch images of shots in a movie derived from the story. These sketches were elegant images of spidery-looking figures in space. KJL tinted these storyboard pictures with water colors and annotated each shot with arrows showing camera-movements, the text itself transcribed in KJL’s nearly illegible handwriting in blocks below the sketches. KJL was an accomplished graphic artist and designer and the storyboards for Zazie had a preternatural elegance and beauty – the pictures were small miracles, little figures all speed-blurred legs and arms dancing in pools of green and yellow light. There was an aspect of Callot to KJL’s mannequins, tiny picaresque-looking whirls and vortices of represented motion, tangles of abstract pen-marks coalescing into figures that seemed to hop and prance and move grotesquely like long-legged arachnids from sheet to sheet. KJL tacked these images on his wall in sequences. He had white walls in his apartment and big east-facing windows and the pictures comprising the storyboard occupied an interior wall twenty feet long across a swath five feet wide.
As this work progressed, KJL began to imagine more and more elements of the film that he was producing in his head. He drew up cast-lists and, I think, even communicated with the agents for some of the stars that he hoped would perform in the film. He asked people for seed-money for the project and tried to put together financing. He imagined settings and marked images with citations to maps and, then, began to compose, with several associates, a sound-track for the movie. Around this time, KJL was friends with a strikingly handsome Black musician, a bass-player in various well-known local and New York jazz ensembles. He collaborated with this musician on the soundtrack. A couple of times, KJL suggested that we should drive up to North Dakota to scout locations. He seemed to actually believe that he had interviewed there once for a job and that, at least, the opening scenes in the film were documentary.
The Zazie project began to take on a curious aspect of obsession. More and more, KJL imagined the storyboard as actual frames from a movie and, at times, he seemed to be merely transcribing images from a film that he had seen so many times –if only in his head – that he could draw to mind at will any part of the picture. There was an eccentricity about the project – it had something of the obstinate and defiant flair of outsider art. But, of course, this was curious because, for much of his life, KJL had been the consummate insider, the man who figured out academic institutions and made them work for him.
Every time I went to KJL’s apartment during this period in his life, the Zazie work had increased in size. The diagrams on the wall with their tiny dancing figures became more and more beautiful. Some of the pictures in the sequence had fallen from their places in the matrix or array of the storyboard. KJL stooped to pick up those fallen images, stacking them neatly on his table to be restored to their proper place in the narrative.
Zazie was KJL’s last big project and, on its own terms, it was startlingly successful. After his death, the pictures were removed from the wall – probably most of them had fallen down anyway. The paper was impregnated with the smell of death and burned.
During the last five or six years of his life, KJL was hospitalized three times, I think. Just before his second hospitalization, KJL reconnected with a woman that he imagined to have admired him forty years earlier. The woman was a blonde, highly intelligent and accomplished. She had worked with KJL when he was a teenager employed as an usher at the Guthrie Theater. I remembered this woman as beautiful and sophisticated – KJL and I had been in classes with her. I recall that she once attended one of those classes dressed in the uniform of an old-style movie-theater usher – a blouse with a red vest and matching trousers with a red stripe along their seam. KJL corresponded with her by email and, ultimately, arranged for a date. He planned to meet her at the Public Library on Hennepin Avenue where the noted public radio surrealist, Andrei Codrescu was appearing at a lecture. KJL asked me for advice. I had been to his apartment many times and knew its state of disarray so I told him that, under no circumstances, should he invite her up to his rooms. I also said that he should not attempt to touch her in any way. “You will have to let things develop naturally,” I said.
A couple weeks later, KJL recounted to me that he had met this woman at the library and been profoundly impressed by her beauty and good health. He said that he thought she was going to marry him. (KJL always described women with whom he was affectionate as “wanting to marry him.”) He was elated about the relationship. Later, he called me again and said that he had invited this woman to his apartment and, even, kissed her and that, then, she had left immediately and, perhaps, all had not gone well. He wasn’t sure that she intended to marry him after this encounter. Later, he exchanged emails with her and she told him that she would not see him again. KJL said that she was nothing more than a wretched “cock tease” and that he thought she was despicable – this sort of abuse inconsistent with other remarks that he made about her beauty and about how she had seemed to like him at first. He said that she was promiscuous and remarked upon how she had treated him years ago when he was an usher at the Guthrie Theater.
I didn’t hear from him for about six weeks and had no occasion to drive to Minneapolis. Then, KJL called me and said that he had just been released from intensive care at Hennepin County Medical Center. It was an odd adventure, he told me. A group of traveling gypsies armed with automatic weapons had besieged him in his apartment. Ultimately, he had to come outside because they had shut off his water and electrical power. Stepping from a curb, he missed his footing. Then, the police had arrived. Although KJL protested that he was not badly injured, the police handcuffed him. The police drove him downtown to the big urban hospital using, for some reason, only alleyways as their means of transit. The alleys led through zones where the police were training cadets by having monsters and terrorist made from cardboard popping up from behind garbage cans and parked cars. Sometimes, savage dogs lunged at the vehicle in which KJL was traveling. He assumed that these weird apparitions were all part of training for the cops but couldn’t make out why he had been press-ganged into this strange obstacle course. At the hospital, he was tortured and, perhaps, his foot was broken. Then, all was darkness until he revived with tubes in his nose and throat in intensive care. He seemed to believe this story to be literally true although I couldn’t imagine that any of these events had actually occurred and never learned what really prompted this hospitalization.
I visited him in the hospital and, then, later in a nursing home. It was the same as what later occurred. The health care people wanted him to complete physical rehabilitation before being released to his apartment, but he refused. As soon as he could hobble to the door, KJL signed himself out of the hospital and took a taxi-cab to his apartment. When I saw him in his home, he was in a desperate state. Somehow, his neck had become twisted like a cork-screw and he couldn’t lift his head. He sat on his couch with heaps of Steelhead Reserve cans around him. When I went into his toilet, I was shocked to see that all of his clothing was soaking in the bathtub under a scum of yellow and black excrement. The situation wasn’t sustainable and he collapsed a few days later and was hospitalized again, almost dying from alcohol withdrawal symptoms in Intensive Care. No one was coming to rescue him. Interventions had failed and the cavalry wasn’t coming.
At that time, I daily expected to receive a call that KJL had died. But he didn’t die. Against all odds, he recovered.
Four or five years before the gypsy attack, KJL was driving cab. I don’t know how he managed to accomplish this because I thought that his driver’s license was fatally impaired from several previous criminal charges for drunk driving. KJL drove a night-shift as an independent contractor for a business operated by some Somali men. He wasn’t an efficient driver and never learned to pick routes that would minimize time and fuel in reaching destinations. He made only pennies and, some nights, didn’t even break even when gas charges were deducted from his fares.
One night, during the wee hours of the morning, he drove a half-block the wrong direction on a one-way street downtown. KJL thought he could chance the brief infraction because the lanes beneath the sleeping skyscrapers were completely deserted and his fare was in a hurry to get back to his hotel. But there was a cop hiding in an alley. The police car pulled up behind KJL’s cab that was facing the wrong way under the hotel’s steel awning and he was given a citation. One of the cops thought he smelled alcohol on KJL’s breath. He had KJL get out of the car and performed a field sobriety test with ambiguous results. KJL explained the odor by showing the cops a small flask of Swedish mouthwash Vademecum. Then, the cop deployed his breathalyzer, probable cause being established by FST. KJL blew .52. The cop apologized and said that the breathalyzer was malfunctioning. He asked KJL to blow a second time. This time, the result read as .55. KJL was standing on the heated sidewalk at the front of the hotel. A bellhop valet watched the whole thing from his station by the hotel door. KJL smelled of booze but was upright, not wobbling on his feet, and, although he was stuttering, the cop thought that this was out of respect and caused by fear. No one could possible survive with a BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) above .5. People went into a coma and ceased breathing at about .35. Above .25, most people are passed-out. The cop told KJL that his breathalyzer wasn’t working correctly and needed to be recalibrated. The policeman was about to propose that KJL come to the medical center for a blood draw when an alarm sounded and the radio summoned him to some emergency a dozen blocks away. The cop scribbled a quick warning for KJL and told him to go home and not drive any more that night. Then, the cop hopped into his squad car and sped away down the streets toward the darkness at the edge of town.
I was amazed that KJL was hacking in the Twin Cities. A half-dozen years earlier, the police had stopped him in his car downtown, oddly enough across from the old Romanesque city courthouse. This was on a block where police cars often double-parked as they hauled handcuffed prisoners out of their vehicles and hustled them into the holding pens and jail in the old building. The courthouse had a huge tower displaying a clock that was never set to the right time and its walls were rusticated ashlar the color of soot so that the building seemed to be more of a work of nature than something constructed by human hands. KJL had made an irregular turn and almost hit one of the idling squad cars and so the cops pulled him over. He blew a .32 on the breathalyzer. The police were astounded that he didn’t really show many signs of intoxication – his clothing was neat and, even, professorial and his eyes seemed clear and his speech unimpaired. A confirmatory retest showed .30 BAC and so KJL was kept in jail for a few hours. The cops pulled his car into a nearby parking ramp next to the Bail Bond business.
KJL was released the next morning. He told me that he was planning to meet a woman and that he had just used a mouth freshener, a Swedish wash called Vademecum. This mouth wash was full of ethyl alcohol and KJL told me that he thought the rinse that he had given his mouth just a couple minutes before the stop tainted the results yielded by the breathalyzer. In fact, the police incident report noted that KJL had shown the arresting officers the little flask of Vademecum, something they had confiscated. The cops were puzzled that the high BAC didn’t seem to correlate with the symptoms one would expect at that level of intoxication.
At that time, Intoxilyzer 2000 results (the equipment involved) were presumed to be accurate unless expert proof affirmatively showed otherwise. In their efforts to purge Minnesota highways of drunk drivers, a politically popular agenda, the State legislators had passed laws making it almost impossible to overcome technical proof of intoxication proffered by prosecutors. We didn’t have money to hire an expert to contest the breathalyzer results and, so, KJL had to plead guilty to gross misdemeanor DUIL (Driving Under the Influence of Liquor). The situation was complicated and the severity of the charges compounded by the fact that there was an outstanding warrant for KJL’s arrest in Ohio, a State where he had briefly taught at the university at Miami. The police records on that offense showed that KJL had been arrested while sleeping in his car along a freeway. He had tested to a BAC of .28 but, then, absconded from the State never appearing in its Courts with respect to the charges lodged against him there.
I appeared with KJL when he pled guilty to the gross misdemeanor drunk driving offense. We appeared before a famous and curmudgeonly Minneapolis jurist, Judge Patrick Fitzgerald. (Judge Fitzgerald was renowned for his temper and high intelligence. He was a traditionalist Judge. I recall seeing him speak once at a seminar. The man had a fine head of hair and bright red complexion and he looked like a retired boxer. He preached about the beauty of the King James version of the Bible and recited several psalms from memory. The point that he was making was that old dignified legal language far surpassed in precision and purity of meaning the more idiomatic words and syntax used in the new Jury Instruction Guides. The new Jury Instruction Guides were anathema to him and he used them only with contempt – preferring the more difficult, but beautiful, previous formulations in the law in the obsolescent instructions.) On that afternoon, I recall Judge Fitzgerald as loud and eloquent. He completely ignored me and spoke directly to KJL as we stood before him to confirm the plea. The courtroom was empty except for a court reporter and pretty female clerk and the Judge lambasted KJL, calling him irresponsible and a scoff-law. He said that he was well aware of the scourge of alcoholism that “afflicts my people who are your people as well” – by this, he said that he meant men of Scottish and Irish origin, the so-called Celtic strains that were famously fond of the booze, not excluding himself, the Judge advised. He told us how he had been sober for a decade now and didn’t regret a moment of that sobriety and that KJL must stop drinking. He praised KJL for his education and scholarship and told him to return to those things that made him excellent and renounce the booze forever. “If you ever come before me in this Courtroom again,” Judge Fitzgerald said ferociously, “I will see that you regret it for the rest of your life.” The Judge asked KJL if he understood. KJL meekly said that it was perfectly clear to him. The Judge, then, told KJL that he was going to spend ten weekends (Friday at five pm to Sunday 3 pm) in the County Workhouse. He banged down the gavel, stood majestically, and said that he wished KJL the very best – then, he departed from the Courtroom.
I led KJL to the Clerk who was supposed to schedule the workhouse weekends. She was pretty and neatly dressed with a vivacious manner. She also seemed to be Irish or Celtic, with red hair as I recall and a complexion like Dresden porcelain.
“When do you want to start?” she asked KJL cheerfully. It was mid-June, bright and sunny outside. The Fourth of July fell on a Saturday. “I’ll go in right away,” KJL said. “I want to get this over with.”
The girl winked at KJL and said: “You don’t want to miss the 4th. That’s no fun. Let’s start with the first weekend in September.” She made some notes. KJL’s famous luck was holding – the young woman obviously was impressed by him.
“We’ll do four weekends starting in September,” she said. She handed KJL a slip with the dates written on it. “But it was supposed to be ten weekends,” KJL said. She winked at him again. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I manage this part. Just don’t worry.”
KJL began to fret about going to the Workhouse in September. He called me and asked if I would drive him to jail. At that time, he had no car. But I was a hundred miles away and I said I couldn’t come up to Minneapolis for this purpose. KJL was supposed to report to the Workhouse where a breathalzyer test would verify that he had no alcohol in his system. “I’ll have to take a bus,” he said. At that time, the State was cracking down on drunk driving and every conviction in the metro area was supposed to result in some time in jail. In the legal community, we joked that on Friday afternoon, the workhouse let out the real criminals so the citizens could take their place over the weekend.
KJL called me before reporting to the jail. He said that he would bring some books by Beckett and work on a monograph that he was writing. In fact, he served only a few hours of his sentence. In the workhouse, KJL had a grand mal seizure about three hours after his admission and ended up in the Hennepin County Medical Center. The Court obligingly canceled his remaining three weekends in jail. It was expensive and time-consuming to transport an inmate to the hospital and the jail had to pay the bill.
We took 95 from atop the river bluff in St. Peter, west to Nicollet and, then, the intersection with 14 through Courtland, a scatter of old buildings on a terrace forty or fifty feet above the intricate meanders and wet forests in the Minnesota River Valley. From Courtland, it was another eleven miles, I think to the bridges at New Ulm. KJL was riding as my passenger and drinking wine from a jug he held between his knees. I hadn’t been on these roads for many years. One Summer, many years before, when we toured the Sioux Uprising monuments and battle sites scattered across southwestern Minnesota, my father had driven us along 95 out of St. Peter. In 1862, when the Dakota conflict occurred, the young lawyer, Charley Flandrau had led a group of mounted rangers, a sort of paramilitary, over this terrain to relieve the settlers besieged at New Ulm. My father slowed the car to 15 miles per hour and we drove at that speed for twenty minutes – “this is the fastest that men on horseback could ride for any length of time,” my father said. In those days, parts of 95 were gravel and dust spun up behind us and expanded like the tail of a comet. Flandrau had a law practice at Traverse des Sioux where St. Peter is now located, the ford on the Minnesota before it makes its great bend to the northwest at Mankato. With his rangers, Flandrau reached New Ulm in time to participate in the second desperate battle at that place. The Indians killed at least one of his men, although that ranger was reputed to be very drunk during the fighting.
KJL was teaching French as an adjunct professor at Gustavus Adolphus, an expensive and prestigious Lutheran college in St. Peter. (Each year, it hosts hundreds of visitors for its Nobel prize conference.) By report, things weren’t going too well. KJL had been told that he had to take up residence in St. Peter if he wished to continue teaching at the college. But St. Peter is full of students, most of them housed in dormitories on the hilltop, but some in apartments, and apartments were expensive. And, so, he was living among the truckstops at the north edge of Mankato about 13 miles from St. Peter – he had rooms at a Super Eight motel across the highway from a Denny’s. One summer afternoon, I had a short hearing at the Courthouse in St. Peter (Nicollet county) and, then, after the proceeding, I drove up to the barren hillside where the college with its concrete Brutalist chapel and instruction halls and high-rise dormitories was located. Once St. Peter had been renowned as a city of trees, shady lanes ascending the step-like terraces above the river to the height where the college raised its steeples and towers to the sky among dense groves of old oak and elm. But a terrible tornado has swept through the city one March, an anomalous weather event, and smashed all the trees into violent expressionist-looking, barbed barricades of fallen limbs and logs – under grey skies the town was turned into the set for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. So the trees were now gone and the City exposed to view with all of its warts and ungainly backyards and humble garages on humble alleyways out in the open. The tornado had not ripped out the ancient woods around the St. Peter State Hospital for the Criminally Insane located among ravines a little to the south of downtown – that was a mercy, I supposed.
After the hearing, I found KJL chatting with another French instructor, a handsome if somewhat gaunt gay man. They were in a shadowy basement corridor below the classrooms. Both of them were renegade academics and felt persecuted by the school’s administration. KJL shook my hand, bid farewell to his colleague and, then, went outside, lugging a jug of red wine with his backpack. He found his elementary French class sitting on the grass under a tree surviving at the edge of the campus, a place where the lawn yielded to great, green cornfields stretching to the horizon. KJL pulled out a text-book and some dixie cups from his backpack. Then, he poured his class members shots of red wine in the dixie cups. I didn’t think this was a very good idea – most of the kids in the class were perky, sassy girls, all of them underage as far as I could see. They sipped on the wine while KJL bantered with them in kindergarten-level French, now and then correcting a verb tense or pronunciation. Of course, I couldn’t tell what was really going on although I got the gist of things. (Kim had always told me that the best way to learn a language was “on the pillow” as it were, and this, perhaps, was the next best thing to such intimacies.) The class, such as it was, didn’t last long. The girls dispersed after about half an hour, seemingly losing interest in sitting under the tree with KJL and me. There didn’t seem to be any fixed time to begin the class and the gathering simply ended when the girl’s lost interest and walked away.
I told KJL that we should drive over to New Ulm for ribs at Kessler’s, a well-known German restaurant in that town 26 miles away. We took 95 through the hamlet of Nicollet to Courtland on 14 winding up the river valley to the bridge at New Ulm. The plains above the river were a labyrinth of wet lands, blue eyes of water opened to the blue sky with eyelashes of cattails and reeds and, some of the pot-hole swamps were white with elegant-looking long-legged birds. This time of year, late Spring, the river valley was lush, the main channel of the Minnesota hidden among parenthesis-shaped oxbow lakes and dead-end canals. The corn and soybean fields ended on the hilltops where there were raw-looking outcroppings of pink and red granite and the valley was without roads, staircase-like terraces leading down to the green jungle at its core.
We came into New Ulm on the same road that Charley Flandrau and his rangers had used in August of 1862. The town was drawn out along the river banks, but on sloping terraces that exposed the village to our view. We drove along Main Street, past the armory and the Turnerverein Hall (the Turners were 19th century German socialists who met daily to practice gymnastics), and, then, up the steep road to the monument to Arminius the Cheruscan, the German warrior who had defeated the Romans AD 9 in the battle of Teutoburger Wald. The road went past the monument to the defense of the town in 1862. We stopped next to the Courthouse, got out of my car, ran our fingers over the baroque bas relief at the bottom of the stone obelisk – flames carved like tresses of hair rose over windmills and houses with steep gabled roofs and wild Indians on horseback surged through fields of maize toward beer-barrel barricades where smoke sculpted into the shape of mushrooms was rising above the muzzle flashes. After looking at the monument to the town’s defense, we continued through the big park at the foot of the river bluffs and, then, up to the hilltop. Herman the German, as he is called, is about forty feet tall, bearded and wearing a bear-skin cloak. He has a horned helmet and raises a great broadsword to the sky. The monument is built atop a sort of plaster and stucco gazebo, open and supported by mustard-yellow columns, with a cupola on which Herman stands. The whole thing towers above the trees and the bandshell in the park atop the bluff and the little brick barracks and garrison-style church of Dr. Martin Luther College directly across the street. For a quarter, you can climb a winding cast-iron stairway spun around the mustard-colored iron columns and stand inside the cupola where there is a commanding view of the village below. I gave 50 cents to the bored-looking girl sitting at a folding chair next the monument and we climbed up to a viewing platform in the round dome under Herman’s yard-long feet. The air inside the monument was a little foul, smelling of urine and beer, and the frieze of windows at eye-level were smudged and there were fat-bellied spiders dangling in webs in front of the inset glass. Above the clear viewing windows, there was a ring of stained glass portholes occupying a clerestory level overhead. The portholes were blue, yellow and green and the sun was shining in such a way to angle through the windows and illumine our faces. KJL’s brow glowed in the light coming through those round openings.
Of course, a few weeks later one of the girls complained about KJL’s sessions under the shade tree at the edge of the row-cropped fields. KJL was fired from the job and, I think, this was the last academic post that he held.
The lilacs were in bloom near Lake Harriet, where KJL’s mother, Bev, lived. It was early evening and KJL was hosting a dinner party at his mother’s home. There were many accomplished people present and KJL had, at that time, a girlfriend pouring wine to the guests in the elegant kitchen inside the home. My phone rang and I went outside. From the house, you could look through some trees to a little lane where a yellow and red trolley ran back and forth, carrying people from parking lots in Linden Hills to the bandshell on the shores of the lake. I could hear music in the dusk. I am unsure as to the year. My wife was probably present. (I know at one time at a dinner party at Bev’s house, KJL had become very drunk, something that was not characteristic for him because he rarely showed any overt signs that he had been drinking. He yanked out his penis and put it on a chopping block and told my wife to cut the thing off. She was very angry at the display and we left the party a few minutes later. I don’t know if this was the occasion of the phone-call or another party.) The person calling me was a lawyer with whom I had taken some depositions a few months earlier in Cincinnati. We had a product liability case together and he had called to make an offer to my client. It was a pretty good offer and, so, I told him that I would recommend accepting the proposal. There are beautiful rose-gardens around Lake Harriet but this was too early in the year for those flowers to be blossoming, but I recall the scent of lilac and the flame-shaped bunches of purple flowers on the shadowy green bushes. On the porch, KJL’s friend Biodun I-- was sitting with another couple, Phil M–, a Dante scholar, and his wife, a very pale, doll-like woman with pinkish cheeks and white hair; she was an opera singer. More music wafted through the trees, a patriotic march, and the trolley jingled and rattled as it ran along the lake shore.
The depositions in Cincinnati were in the early Spring and I recall that a snow storm intervened in my efforts to fly home. I recall dangerous ice around the art museum on the high hill overlooking the river-city. My rented car slipped and skidded on the steep icy curves.
At that time, KJL was working at the University of Ohio at a town called Miami. KJL had a girlfriend who, he said, planned to marry him. He wanted me to inspect the girl, describing her as a very great beauty. So, I took an extra day, after my depositions and said that I would drive to Miami, a distance of about 40 miles. KJL was teaching during the day and I had some additional work to complete in the city and so I told him that I would drive up to the school with the plan to reach Miami about 7:30 pm. He told me that he would introduce me to his current girlfriend and that there was a wild party scheduled for later in the evening.
Cincinnati lies at the base of bluffs in a deep river valley. The route from downtown spiraled up a hillside, passing through layers of icy mist. I followed the highway over rolling countryside that was dark and foggy and deserted. After about 12 miles, I saw taillights flashing ahead and stopped at the tail of long queue of cars. I couldn’t see to the head of the line and, so, didn’t know what was blocking the road. Periodically, a squad car with spinning lights would tentatively advance along the oncoming lane, throwing a whirl of red across the soggy ditch, a stand of trees behind a rickety-looking fence, and the metal sides of the waiting cars. Vehicles pulled up behind me and, soon, the line of cars to my rear reached beyond the big curve that I had navigated to reach the place where the traffic was stalled. Fog seemed to pulse from low places near the road, inflated, it seemed, by the rotating squad car lights. At two or three minute intervals, headlights would show in the oncoming lane and a car or truck would slide by, dark windshield and dark sides, uncommunicative as to what lie ahead. Then, the queue would advance, but only a car length or so. I understood that the oncoming cars were not travelers approaching from beyond the calamity that had blocked the highway, but, instead, vehicles that had made u-turns to escape the traffic jam. I waited for about a half-hour, advancing only eight or nine car-lengths. There seemed to be no way to go forward and no viable roads leading to the right or left around the blocked traffic – the countryside was smeared with fog now and some snow was flickering in the air. When the next headlights in the oncoming lane passed me, I waited for the truck ahead to lurch forward a few feet, and, then, nervously pulled out of the line and made a u-turn to head back to the city.
Tongues of snow twitched in the air. Some switchbacks curved down from the bluff to where the city was nestled in the valley.
It was pretty clear that KJL wasn’t ever going to finish his doctoral dissertation. In fact, a few years had passed since he had written anything on that project.
I was remarried and had small children and I didn’t see him very often. KJL had moved from his apartment on Clinton Avenue near the Institute of Arts and was living in rooms a block from the intersection of Cedar and 38th Street in Southeast Minneapolis. Not too far from his place, a bar named Matt’s served a local delicacy, the “Juicy Lucy” – that is, two patties of hamburger wrapped around molten cheese. KJL sometimes said that, if I came up to see him, we could go out to Matt’s to sample this famous hamburger. I saw him every four months, perhaps, but we never made it to the bar and grill for “Juicy Lucys.” At his apartment, he would show me books that he was reading, or hand me a copy of new writing, usually short stories in a cycle that he called Foibles. He had also written a number of stories about animals – the longest, and most notable, was called “Rats”. These texts were very difficult, even, rebarbative and I’m not sure I read any of them to the end. On weekends, KJL watched football games on his TV. Sometimes, he also watched tennis and soccer. He had been an accomplished athlete, a formidable competitor on the tennis court and a tireless soccer player and an all-star High School basketball player. He wasn’t as fast and strong as when he was a young man, but he still played as much as possible. I understand KJL also golfed weekly with his father, usually at the University of Minnesota course adjacent to the State Fairgrounds by the Ag Campus. When I visited him, KJL told me about various women that he was romancing, but I didn’t see much evidence of any of them. I knew that he had been seeing a woman who wrote for a life-style weekly, The Twin Cities Reader – I think I met her once at a picnic in one of the nearby parks. She was a nervous, worried-looking woman. Ultimately, I think she told KJL that he would have to choose between her and boozing – of course, he choose the booze.
KJL’s mother had worked for decades at Carmichael-Lynch, a well-known Twin Cities advertising agency. Although she was an administrative assistant, I understood that she held a position of some prominence and responsibility in the agency and I believe that she was a very creative woman. She retired from this work and bought KJL an apartment, the place where he lived near 38th and Cedar. The nature of this transaction wasn’t clear to me until about five years before KJL died. When we checked title on the building, we discovered that KJL was actually the co-owner of the building itself, as well as adjacent real estate and parking garage in the alley. This meant the KJL had been for many years, unwittingly, a partner with the other owner, a man with granny glasses and long grey hair tied-up in a pony tail, Bill B—. In principle, KJL should have shared half of the expenses of operating the building and half of the income from the other three units, all occupied by elderly disabled people on social security. (KJL paid no rent because he assumed that his mother had bought his rooms for him outright, but, as we discovered, the situation was more complex.) Except when he was selling his blood, or grading college admission tests (something KJL did for eight or ten weeks yearly), he had no income with which to pay rent. He also had no income to pay his share of the utilities and garbage collection and property taxes. Apparently, the ad hoc solution to this problem was that Bill B– kept all proceeds from the other tenants and used that money to pay off the charges required to operate the building. Nevertheless, the building was often in distress. Many times, when I came to visit, there was a red card taped to the door indicating that the water or heating had been shut-off for non-payment of utilities’ charges and, periodically, the apartment was posted as subject to foreclosure because of default in the taxes. But, somehow, these problems were always worked out. The arrangement must have been sustainable because it continued for twenty years or more.
During this time, KJL’s mother died. I attended a service for her, slipping into a back pew in the beautiful chapel at Lakewood cemetery south of Uptown. (As everyone in Minneapolis knows, Hubert Humphrey is buried there and a host of other local notables.) The non-denominational chapel’s modest dome is resplendent with gold mosaics. The gold leaf on the tesserae catches the light and the vault overhead looks like a Greek Orthodox heaven, with allegorical figures wearing white gowns and bearing floral bouquets adorning the spandrels beneath the rotunda. An inscription in big block letters ran around the base of the dome, somewhat inscrutable because each word was set apart from the rest of the words by cross-shaped emblems: + the + shadows+flee+and... Most of the people at the service were Bev’s co-workers and all of them spoke of her with great warmth. She seemed to have been universally beloved. One of KJL’s brothers, I think, had brought him to the service, but he was sitting apart from the others. After the service, I shook his hand and we ambled about the huge cemetery, inspecting the grey stone mausoleums and the chilly columbarium with bronze plates naming the niches where cremated remains were stored. It was autumn if I recall correctly, or, perhaps, early Spring because there was fox-brown leaf litter between the graves, bare trees, and the bright unwavering color of the lake metallic between the flame-shaped cypress trees at the edge of the cemetery. I found my car and we drove to the home where KJL’s brother lived, probably about a mile away. KJL and I sat in the basement and, then, later on a terrace at the backyard of the house. People came and went – there was a smell of cooking. KJL seemed estranged from his family at that time. I shook hands with a few people but don’t recall their names. After an hour, I left. KJL said that he would get back to his home with one of his siblings. I don’t recall really talking with anyone.
KJL came to Austin in the summer once. He said he was going to take some pictures of local buildings and people. He didn’t look well. His face was blistered with oozing sores and there were scabs all over his forehead, nose and chin. His appearance was alarming to my children who were them quite small and I found it difficult to look at him directly.
I drove him around town and he snapped pictures of some of the local landmarks. One of my partners was outside his large home, mowing his lawn on a riding lawnmower. I recall KJL took a picture of my partner. My partner is grinning with a forced smile, distressed at KJL’s appearance.
We were going to eat at a local steak-house but KJL said that he wasn’t hungry. He told me he had to get back to Minneapolis. I asked him what was wrong with his face: “Dude,” I said, “you don’t look too great.” He said that he acquired a venereal skin infection. He named the lady responsible. She lived in New York City and was the daughter of a well-known art critic. (I had met her years before when I went to Manhattan for a couple days.) I knew that he hadn’t seen her for about ten years and, so, I discounted his story as fiction. KJL seemed surprised when I mentioned his awful appearance. “It looks like you’ve been burned or something,” I told him. He said: “You know I don’t have any mirrors in my house.” I asked him whether it hurt. “Not that I notice,” KJL told me.
Later, I called to check on whether he had seen a doctor about the infection. He told me that he had gone to dermatologist and been diagnosed with a staphycoccal infection to his face. He was given an infusion of antibiotics to quash the infection and, then, some pills that he had to take daily. This worked like a charm and the next time I saw him there was no trace of any infection. His skin was clear and he looked good.
One January around this time, KJL said that he was going to drive down to Austin to see me. He hoped he could spend the night. I told him that this was fine. My wife was unhappy. She thought KJL was a menace – that he would accidently leave the range burning or light some kind of fire that would kill us and destroy our house. The kids were a little afraid of him because of the way that he had looked the last time they saw him.
As it turned out, the weather, always unpredictable in January, turned bad. A blizzard blew into the State from the Dakotas and the temperatures plunged to many degrees below zero. Snow fell for several hours, light and powdery because of the extreme cold. In town, the ends of the blocks at the intersections were churning with blowing snow, vortices whirling upward and slashing across the bare, trembling trees and the glazed house-fronts. At the edges of town, the streets exhausted themselves against white surging clouds of flying snow and the granular particles whipped across the landscape, blown almost horizontal. The governor declared an emergency and the State Patrol shut down the freeway from Minneapolis south to the border. There was no way that KJL could get to Austin – it was simply impossible.
My wife and I went upstairs to take a nap. The wind howled outside and thudded against the walls and made the gutters roar like trombones. We were sleeping when my daughter, who was, then, four, came into our bedroom. She had been watching TV downstairs in the living room.
“That man is here,” she said.
“He is standing by the door.”
“That man that dad knows.”
I went downstairs and found KJL blinking in the living room, his stocking hat now dripping melt water onto the carpet. He looked disoriented, bewildered, stunned even.
“How did you get here?” I asked him.
“Drove,” he said.
“But it’s a terrible blizzard. The freeways are all closed,” I told him.
“I saw some police,” he said. “They had a barricade and, so, I just drove through the country.”
Outside the window, the snow was whipping in vicious-looking white pennants along the sidewalk. The wind was tugging at the trees and some big black boughs had fallen.
“It’s impossible,” I said.
“I didn’t have any problems,” he told me.
I suppose his guardian angel had shown him the way. It was, I understand, Otto von Bismarck who said that God protects children, drunks, and the United States of America.
We sat around the house for a while. Then, I took him out to eat. He wanted to go downtown to see the strippers in Austin. In those days, there were a couple of clubs in the blocks around the courthouse that featured naked girls who paced back and forth on narrow walkways in corner niches partly sheltered by black curtains. You couldn’t call what the girls did “dancing,” although they did have boom-box CD-radio sets that they fingered to cue songs to which they shook their breasts and bobbed their heads a little. Most of the time, they spent on their backs, resting on a couple of bunched towels, twirling their high-heeled shoes in the air. Patrons would try to stuff money into their crotches, but they would intercept the bills with slender fingers with red nails and stack the money next to their hips. The idea was always: look but do not touch. My wife didn’t much approve of our visits to these places but it was part of the local culture, something with which she had been raised herself, and it was better than having KJL lounging around the house drinking vodka and whiskey.
The streets were snowy and the traffic lights tolled over the wind-blown intersections like great bells and the sidewalks were drifted over with rippling white heaps of the stuff like the vertebral prominences of a great buried spine. Cop cars prowled the side streets and the sky full of whirling snow roared. The bars with the naked women were mostly empty, a few old men in great rotund coats ignoring the strippers who took the stage only every twenty minutes or so and, then, just for one or two songs before returning to where they were playing pool wearing their pink and brown bathrobes. We watched a couple of girls with C-sections scars displayed over their beer bellies. The girls’ heavy eye-shadow gave them a masked and enigmatic aspect.
We went home and KJL slept in the basement. The next morning he was up early and made scrambled eggs for us. But the eggs were so peppery that they were inedible and, in any event, the dish was gritty with broken egg-shells. Mid-day, he left – the wind was still howling in the distance but the snow had ceased falling and it was very, very cold. I was afraid that he would not get back to Minneapolis safely but, somehow, he made the hundred miles. He had consumed most of the booze in the house and, obviously, was concerned about being stranded somewhere in which liquor was inaccessible.
During some of this time, KJL lived in Saint Paul and was a manager at a used book store called The Book House on Grand. Sometimes, he sent out post cards on behalf of the store, advertising special sales in “lit-crit studies”, a subject on which he was expert. KJL’s image sometimes appeared on the cards and he described the sales as personally curated. At The Book House, he met a woman who was, then, a graduate student at Macalaster or Hamline. She taught French and, also, played the flute and, later, I understand moved to France where she was married, for a time, to a real Frenchman. While she worked at The Book House, KJL apparently pursued her unsuccessfully and, after a few months, she left the States to live in France for a number of years.
Once, KJL and I met at a park in St. Paul – Como Park, I believe. We were in the picnic grounds far from the zoological gardens where there were seals and an old gorilla and some bears in cages built to resemble mountainous landscapes with a great moat in front of them. KJL had some meat and we were planning to barbecue steaks. It was a fine sunny day and we were waiting for a man named Gus. KJL had some Steelhead Reserve in a cooler and we sat at a greasy picnic-table waiting for Gus to appear. Some Hispanic families were sitting at the other tables playing mariachi music on their ghetto-blasters and little kids were romping around. The toilets were far away and, sometimes, the mothers took the small children into the brush next to the picnic grounds so that they could pee there. The beer went through us as well and we used the brush, wild with thorns and bees and butterflies, as our urinal as well.
Gus came along at twilight. He was wearing bib overalls and carrying his own cooler of beer. No one had brought any charcoal. Apparently, this was a misunderstanding of some kind. We weren’t able to cook the steak and, so, we just had a few more beers, slapping at the mosquitos that were now rising up out of the moist grass. Gus was a photographer and some kind of legend among the local avant-garde although I never really understood what he was famous for. His eyes were bleary and he walked with his arms outstretched as if groping at the air in front of him and he didn’t seem very well – he coughed a lot and had trouble clearing his throat. After a while, he just wandered off into the dusk. We could hear the rides at the amusement park next to the zoo clanking and jingling and there were high-pitched shrieks of little kids taking their first roller-coaster ride. The arc of a ferris wheel, outlined in red and yellow bulbs, rolled over, turning above the shadowy treetops.
Gus died about a month later. He was hailed as the “unofficial mayor of Saint Paul”. More than a thousand people came to his funeral.
It was a letter from Professor Richard Klein that ended KJL’s work on his Ph.d thesis. The letter was not as virulently hostile as Professor Klein’s previous correspondence with KJL and didn’t necessarily deliver the coup de grace to his work on the project, but, I knew, the hurdles that were being interposed between the present status of the writing and its completion would prove to be insuperably high and impassable. Klein was KJL’s faculty advisor on his doctoral thesis, a professor at Cornell where KJL had completed his graduate school courses. About a year earlier, Klein had announced in writing his contempt for KJL and his project on Baudelaire in unmistakable terms. This most recent letter was more concilatory, but, nonetheless, as I sensed, fatal to the work. Reluctantly, it seemed, Klein admitted the KJL’s most recent draft of the first chapter of his writing on Baudelaire was acceptable, albeit only barely – Klein suggested that with vigorous editing that chapter, about 25 pages if I recall correctly, could, perhaps, be published under the prestigious imprimateur of the Cornell University Press. But Klein insisted on seeing an outline complete in all respects for the remaining chapters of the book. And, I knew, that there were no remaining chapters to the book, that there were not even notes directed toward completing the project, and that there was no way that any additional outlines could be provided to Klein since KJL had no idea what his thesis was about or why he was writing it – in point of fact, he had no thesis at all as far as that term is used to describe an argument or a proposition that may be submitted for debate (for instance, Martin Luther’s “99 theses” that triggered the Protestant Reformation.)
I was aware of these facts because, for all practical purposes, I was the author of the final draft of the first chapter to the Baudelaire book issued under KJL’s name. This wasn’t anything new for me. I had often written papers for KJL, simply to hone my style and demonstrate my versatility – indeed, I think I wrote about a half-dozen of his papers during College and I thought that, with a little luck, I could guide him toward completing his Ph.d thesis at Cornell. But, after revising the first chapter line by line, a task that cost me twenty or more hours, it was pretty apparent that there would never a second chapter since KJL seemed to have no articulable ideas about about Charles Baudelaire.
The problems were implicit in his approach. As far as I could decipher KJL’s prose, his written discourse (“discourse” was a term of art for unintelligible and, seemingly, random musings on a subject) about the poet was modeled after Sartre’s The Family Idiot, the philosophe’s study of the life and works of Gustav Flaubert. I recall hearing about this enormous book when I took a class entitled “Sartre and the Artist” during my sophomore year in college. In attempting to unravel Flaubert’s various motives and influences, Sartre raised the question: “What, at this point, can we know about a man?” and, then, attempted to answer his inquiry vis a vis Gustav Flaubert. This writing occupied the last ten years of Sartre’s life, culminating somewhere in the course of this project with the idea that a man is never an individual, but, rather, something called a “universal singular” – that is both an exemplar of his age and culture but, also, a singularity with respect to the “project” that he undertakes and poses for himself. The revelation is actually commonplace, a characteristic of French “discourse” as understood and practiced by KJL – hundreds of pages are lavished on a subject that is addressed and critiqued in the most daunting and abstruse language imaginable only to result in a discovery that should be completely obvious to everyone. I guess the justification for this approach to literature is that the formulation of an idea is unimportant– it is the process of getting to that formulation through innumerable digressions and divagations that is meaning of the text. And, so, on the basis of that model, a book by Sartre that apparently spent hundreds of pages explicating juvenalia, childhood letters, inexact memories, household accounts, anything and everything but the main work of the Flaubert’s life, KJL proposed to similarly excavate the hidden meanings in Baudelaire’s poetry. Sartre never finished The Family Idiot, although he finished three volumes of the work before giving up the project; similarly, KJL was not to finishhis book about Baudelaire – indeed, he couldn’t even complete the first chapter without my assistance.
After working on his thesis for about a year, KJL dispatched the first draft of his first chapter to his faculty advisor, Richard Klein. I suppose that Klein was absolutely the worst advisor that could have been chosen for the task of hammering KJL’s prose into some kind of meaning. Apparently, a charismatic figure, Klein edited Diacritics, a well-known lit-crit journal published at Cornell. Indeed, KJL had been recruited by Cornell, in part, I think, to work as an associate editor on that magazine. This was on the strength of KJL’s work at Enclitic, the University of Minnesota’s literary theory magazine – a periodical with some notoriety and influence in the mid-1970's. (At Enclitic, KJL was mentored by Professor Tom Conley, also a rising star in the field of advanced European literary criticism – an area of endeavor that was dominated at that time by acolytes of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault (and for those inclined to even more arcane esoterica, Gilles Deleuze).) Klein is still around, a professor-emeritus at Cornell and, in fact, he enjoyed a brief celebrity on the basis of two books of cultural criticism that he pitched perfectly to the same audiences that had bought Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae. Klein’s books were Cigarettes are Sublime (1993) and Eat Fat (1997), both volumes with a contrarian slant with respect to smoking and over-eating. Klein’s calculation on these books was just about perfect – the volume on anti-smoking crusades was translated into 14 languages and a huge success that undoubtedly made the professor wealthy. Eat Fat seems to have been slightly less successful but was still well-esteemed. These volumes were written probably eight to ten years after the contretemps with KJL, but they illustrate Klein’s ultra-sophisticated ironic style, his almost Talmudic argumentation, and his highly refined hubris – after all, he was attacking two sacred cows: the health arguments against smoking and the American infatuation with dieting. (Dieting is like the pathetic list at the end of The Great Gatsby – if I could just lose a few pounds in the right places, I would have friends, success, the love of beautiful women. But, of course, you can’t lose those pesky pounds.)
Photos of Klein show a typical piratical-academic – a guy nurtured in the sixties (I accidentally typed “sexties”) when professors were not just licensed, but encouraged, to have sex with their students. He is trim without an extra ounce of fat on his torso – he apparently counsels that you can Eat Fat because his metabolism precludes (or once precluded) him from converting food into anything other than excrement and nervous energy, presumably requiring the chain-smoking that he endorses in his earlier book. In the images, he has pink lips, wears a tweed suit coat over an immaculately black turtleneck sweater – an U-Boat commander’s sweater. There is no trace of dandruff or any other Schmutz on Klein’s sweater, something accomplished, I think, by the fact that the man seems to have very little hair. His head is bald and his little black button-eyes are opaque behind raccoon-style black horn-rimmed glasses. He has a straight unsmiling mouth, pink as a rosebud, like an half-healed surgical wound – to use a metaphor coined by Robert Penn Warren.
Although Klein could produce jargon-laden bullshit with the best of them, his bestsellers show that he could also write clearly, cogently, even, incisively if required. But KJL, I think, was a student whose defects and obsessions struck too closely home to Professor Klein. KJL was a past master of totally incomprehensible bullshit, something that might reflect adversely on Klein’s own prose style in his academic writing, a style that Klein also fostered in some, but not all, articles that he approved for Diacritics. In Eat Fat, Klein noted that a good reader needed to “suspend your need to know in advance where you’re going (as you read)” A book should be approached as a “mandala” – that is, a spiritually and ritually inflected cosmic diagram, something affording multiple accesses into a labyrinth that didn’t necessarily have a center. This notion of structure and suspension of the idea of argumentative progress describes with reasonable accuracy the way that KJL wrote. Therefore, my notion is that Klein recognized in KJL a less accomplished version of himself. KJL’s clumsy, if dogged, approach to lit-crit might, indeed, cast a jaundiced perspective on Klein’s own academic practices. If KJL were to publish and, then, be unmasked as a fraud, then, who knows who might be next in line for embarrassment? After all, the Lit-Crit folks were under attack and the 1996 Sokal hoax (in which a piece of utterly inane gibberish was published in Social Text, the Journal of Postmodern Studies by editors who had no idea what the writing meant or, even, if it meant anything at all) was just around the corner. Klein’s own ethics with respect to mentoring his graduate students were questionable; he was “outed” as having sex with a graduate student assigned to him for counsel on her thesis, the formidable June Gallo who published a book in 1997 Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment. In that book, Gallo mounts a defense of herself with regard to accusations that she french-kissed one of her own graduate students – what goes around comes around, Gallo proclaimed when she clearly identified Professor Klein as having been engaged in a wholly inappropriate, if consensual. sexual relationship with her. To his credit, Klein admitted that he had been a “lousy” sexual partner and, in fact, offered to write a blurb for the back of her book that effect – Gallo’s editors declined that proposal. I presume Klein had no sexual interest in KJL and, therefore, quickly lost interest in his student’s efforts. And, as I have suggested, I sense that Klein grasped on some level that KJL was a brother-in-arms with him, a master bullshitter whose work on Baudelaire might cast an unseemly light on Klein’s own work, including, perhaps, his publications on the troubador poetry written in Occitan during 12th and 13th century, the professor’s passion along with his admiration for Derrida. To cite Baudelaire, we have here several hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable! – mon frere!
When Klein received KJL’s first draft of the first chapter to the Baudelaire book, he responded with vicious rage. He wrote a furious letter to KJL mocking his prose style, declaring every phrase and word and punctuation mark incoherent and unreadable. He went further and admitted that he had done KJL no service by passing him in courses where the student had manifestly failed and, further, demonstrated that he couldn’t write a meaningful, grammatically correct sentence in English to save his soul. Klein said that he should have driven KJL out of the academe several years before and that he now had to live with the consequences of what he had thought was appeasement, even, mercy but was now coming back to haunt him. Klein said that KJL’s work on Baudelaire would never see publication under the auspices of Cornell because it would expose that venerable Ivy League school to shame and ridicule. He ended this essay in ferocious vituperation telling KJL that he had to “start entirely anew” and that he needed to burn all of his previous notes, all of his earlier efforts, and rewrite from beginning to end the first chapter of the Baudelaire book. KJL, who could write persuasively and, even, idiomatically, replied to Klein’s screed with an equally impassioned letter in which he alleged that his advisor had made various promises to him enforceable, perhaps, in a court of law and that Klein should re-consider his hostility to KJL’s project. KJL ended this letter by saying that he was “owed a doctoral degree” and that Cornell had to (“must”) accept his manuscript. Of course, this letter only prompted an even more savage reply from Klein in which he said that Cornell didn’t “owe anyone a degree”, that KJL had no legal recourse, and that what KJL wanted (that is, a published thesis) and what he as his faculty advisor was willing to do were two completely different things – in effect, he told KJL that his desire for publication of the Baudelaire book were wholly irrelevant to what Cornell was willing to do. After all, academic standards were academic standards. For Christ’s sake, Nabokov had once taught at Cornell and Archie Ammons, the famous and prize-winning poet was in residence even at that time.
KJL met with me and showed me this correspondence. The letters literally burned my fingers and I pitched them to the floor as if they were laden with electrical current that shocked me like an electric eel. The whole thing was completely horrifying. KJL was teaching at the University of Minnesota and, even, earning a good salary – but this was all dependent upon him completing his thesis and being awarded a doctorate from Cornell. I told KJL that I saw no choice but to completely rewrite the first chapter of the book. I had ghost-written many papers for KJL when he was in college with me and, so, I thought, perhaps, we could pull this off. I told KJL that I needed him to write a short two or three sentence paraphrase of the main points in each of his long, rambling paragraphs. Then, I said that I would try to transform those ideas into some sort of serviceable English prose.
It took KJL about six weeks to deliver the first five or six pages of his chapter to me with the paraphrases written in his illegible hand in the margins of the typescript that his mother had prepared. I was dismayed to find that KJL’s paraphrases were inarticulate and didn’t track in any way with the words on the page. I told him to make paraphrases of his paraphrases, this time is short declarative sentences. KJL labored on this for another two or three weeks but couldn’t get the job done. He told me that his ideas couldn’t be paraphrased and that his meanings were stylistic, that is embedded in the matrix of his exact wording. It was clear to me that he had no idea what his own writing was supposed to mean – he couldn’t give me even an approximate summary or abstract of what his long, convoluted sentences meant.
Further complicating efforts at revision was the fact that I don’t know French. Hunks of letters and verse in French were interpolated into the text. I asked KJL to translate those for me or, at least, provide the gist of the writing. He demurred, always indicating that he would let me know, at some point, what the French words meant, but never actually delivering a translation. This was doubly puzzling because I knew that KJL spoke and read French fluently. I think he regarded that language as beyond reproof, a privileged means of communication and, perhaps, he felt that rendering French words, particularly those written by Baudelaire (albeit as a boy) into English would demean them in some way. KJL’s approach to literary criticism was kabbalistic in procedure if not substance – the French critics possessed certain arcane secrets as to decoding writing, some of them expressed in Roland Barthes S/Z which was a kind of sacred text to KJL. These secrets could not be disclosed in profane language.
After working many hours, I finished a second draft of the first chapter to KJL’s thesis. About half of the words originated in KJL’s manuscript. I had selected phrases or sentence fragments that I thought I understood and, using those words as germinal to each paragraph, I had built a structure of exegesis – by and large, I was interpreting KJL’s text to itself. I installed clarifications and built transitions that were absent in his writing so as to create an illusion of organization in the writing. As I recall, the first chapter had something to do with Baudelaire’s beloved mama and his stepfather, letters from a boarding school, military aspirations or lack thereof – biographical data on that order was strained through a dense sieve of prose that ascribed more importance to that material than it deserved. I now think that the writing bore a close resemblance to the prose of Jacques Derrida’s Spurs, a book about Nietzshe’s style that (at least in English) is similarly impenetrable. In any event, Klein seemed to accept the revised first chapter as within the ball park of what might be published by the Cornell Press and wrote back to KJL directing him to prepare outlines for each following chapter and, after his approval, go to work on the basis of those schematics. Of course, I knew that there would be no additional outlines and no additional chapters. I knew this before KJL understood this truth. From time to time, he worked on the Baudelaire project for the next four or five years.
KJL paid me for my work with a nice London Fog overcoat and a copy of the first or second volume of Martin Heidegger’s study of Nietzsche.
Conflict of interest cost me my only chance to join the ranks of the hip, the powerful, and the successful. This happened – both the opportunity and its failure – when KJL became, for a time, part owner of a successful restaurant.
In the late ‘eighties and thereafter, the place to be seen in public was the Loring Café. This was a restaurant to which a bar was annexed located in an odd dead-end location in southwest downtown Minneapolis. Hennepin Avenue, once Minneapolis’ main thoroughfare is a crooked road, changing angle and direction several times as if intending to link together as many of the city’s institutions and monuments as possible. The street crosses the Mississippi above St. Anthony Falls, the geographical landmark that was the source of the grain milling industry on which the town was founded. The street, then, passes the enormous Grain Belt beer sign, a Claes Oldenburg-proportioned beer bottle cap advertising the local brew, and, then, arrows south alongside Minneapolis’ modest skyscraper district (Hennepin is one block to the west of the iconic IDS tower designed by Philip Johnson), running along the front of many taverns, restaurants, and theaters. The road abruptly changes direction to angle past the Minneapolis Basilica where Father Hennepin in bronze raises his cross to the sky. The street, then, changes direction again to climb Lowry Hill, passing the Modernist cubes and concrete screen-walls of the Walker Art Center and the Guthrie Theater. A big zone of waste-land extends outward and creates an open area between the museum and the theater (as well as some monumental churches with lance-shaped stone steeples) and the downtown. The pentagonal zone of open terrain was once occupied by wetlands, marshy swamp and Loring Lake, a small oculus of water at the center of a park contured in a vaguely crater shape, the place frequented by gay men cruising for sexual encounters. On the north side of the park, along Harmon Place ,there was a big fortress-like building with five- or six-story walls, a bit like the prow of grey battleship incongruously beached on the edge of the homosexual-haunted park. Once there had been a car dealership occupying the angle where Hennepin changed direction in front of the bronze French padre in his cassock but that business had been closed for many years. Except for its nocturnal visitors, who were many and active, the area was devoid of business – a part of the city that seemed archaic: the little park was neglected and crisscrossed with innumerable small, tentative trails, many of them dead-ending in dense and ragged bushy shrubs where the ground was littered with broken bottles and condoms. A pedestrian bridge spanning Hennepin crossed into the Walker Art Center sculpture garden where there were spooky palisades of trees wrapped around lawns occupied by enigmatic metal and wood objects. The only business within hundreds of yards of the theater and Walker was a decrepit café in the similarly battleship-shaped prow of the building overlooking pioneer priest, the sole surviving enterprise on the north side of Loring Park. The cafe was a place that gay men went for scrambled eggs and bacon after their late night rendevous in the park. The place had only one competitor, a Perkins Cake and Steak with late-night hours, located about eight blocks away.
KJL was close friends with an ambitious and handsome young actor nicknamed Boomer. Boomer’s father, if I remember correctly, was a commercial pilot and he had an elegant and solicitous mother who looked like she had been some kind of beauty queen or movie actress. Boomer had been to New York City where he performed as an actor in a company specializing in Commedia dell’ Arte. He returned to Minneapolis after a few years, performed as an actor with a local troupe, and, then, due to rumor and innuendo about improper relations with some young girls associated with the company, left show business and invested his money (and some of his mother’s money) in buying out the lease to the café on Loring Park. To establish a line of credit, the restaurant business needed credibility – most restaurants fail and the location for the café was not propitious. This part of the city had been allowed to become seriously derelict. KJL’s stepmother had founded a very prestigious restaurant business in a similar outlying, and neglected, neighborhood of the City – the old warehouse district. The name of this restaurant was The New French Café and it was a renowned success, the anchor of revitalization in the west part of downtown. KJL’s family connections, I think, were instrumental, at least, initially in securing credit for the business. With a third man, Doug C – a contractor from Hutchinson, a city eighty miles west of the City, the Loring Café was founded. The enterprise needed a lawyer to review contracts and negotiate leases with the owners of the block where the café was located – the area was owned lock, stock, and barrel by Wheelock Whitney, one of the Twin Cities’ most prominent business men. I was the lawyer for the corporation.
After much hard work, the Café became a fabulous success. I recall one of the last times that I ate at the restaurant. It was summer and the place was very crowded – however, except for celebrities, I’m not sure that the restaurant took reservations. People didn’t mind waiting for their table. With my wife, we sat outdoors in a slot canyon between buildings, a narrow fissure where there were tables glittering under canopies of Christmas tree lights that winked suggestively at the patrons. This urban gorge was surmounted by a pedestal high overhead, set atop one of the rooftops. A man sat on a stark-looking wooden chair above us and serenaded the distant stars on his saxophone. The patrons were unbearably hip, gorgeous, and wonderfully casual about their glory – everyone seemed well-heeled, wealthy, even-tempered and gracious and the conversation rippled in the warm night air like many silvery streams plummeting downward in cool, clear cascades. The man playing the saxophone six stories above us was theatrically lit and the entire space had the feeling of an elaborately designed and gorgeously illumined stage set. The wait-staff were part of the decor, sullen and Gay, almost too fabulous to even notice the tables that they were assigned. The food, of course, was perfectly calculated – tasty, spiced just right, not too abundant, small plates that left you desiring just a smidgen more. As I sat at my table, I felt a sneaky sense of ownership of my own in the enterprise. Perhaps, this wonderful place would be my “hang-out”; maybe, I would become a regular customer, known and respected among these glittering urban elites.
The saxophone sounded above. I looked up through the filigree of Christmas tree lights to the musician glowing against the sky. It all seemed very wonderful.
Unfortunately, disputes arose among the three partners who initially owned the business. As the café prospered, its footprint on the block became larger. A bar called “the Bohemian” opened next to the café – it was dimly lit place with big overstuffed Victorian furniture, heavy wooden tables and chairs with griffin arm-rests and claw-feet. The place looked like the inside of an Edward Gorey drawing. The café rented some offices in the empty rooms and corridors above the bar, a spectral space where no one had disturbed the dust for many years. The café didn’t have a liquor license – it offered only beer and wine. KJL was responsible for the wine-cellar maintained by the establishment. As I rather dimly understood the situation, KJL had an office upstairs and he ordered wine and misappropriated much of it for his own use. Boomer expelled KJL from the partnership, something that triggered a crisis. The contractor stuck in the middle of the divorce had to choose sides – I think he liked to drink as well and so he sided with KJL. I was also in the middle of the divorce, representing the corporation and, therefore, all three men. I had to recuse myself from the dispute. Later, the business hired another lawyer and my rather optimistic dreams of joining the elite in Minneapolis were dashed. KJL persuaded his uncle, a well-known Minneapolis medical malpractice defense lawyer, to negotiate the buy-out. Apparently, a settlement was reached and KJL sold his shares in the enterprise amidst various recriminations between the parties. (The contractor was bought out around the same time.) Boomer became the sole proprietor of the restaurant and, for many years, it flourished and was the chief ornament of this part of Minneapolis, a place where the best and brightest gathered – at one time, Walter Mondale, I think, frequented the place. So that is the story of KJL’s foray into the restaurant business, not the whole story, of course, but as much of the story as I know.
During the period that KJL was employed as an assistant professor at the University, he taught an elementary French class, an honors colloquium, and a humanities class on the Enlightenment, a course pitched to sophomore - junior students. One night I had business in St. Paul, probably a deposition of an adverse medical examiner on Fort Road, and, so, after the proceeding, I drove to 94 and slipped without difficulty between the two cities, the roads in those days usually clear and fast-moving at most times of the day. As usual, KJL had a number of people at his home. I went to the nearest liquor store and bought some wine and chops and KJL made us supper. We drank and argued about movies and literature until about 9:30 and, then, KJL’s friends went home. The apartment was on Clinton Avenue, an ancient carved rock building that seemed extruded from the earth, a sort of soot-blackened dike pushed up out of the earth. KJL lived in this brownstone with big windows that glowed from within at night, a suite of white rooms with glistening polished hardwood floors that were smooth and slippery as the ice in a skating rink. At the back of the ancient brownstone, balconies hung over an alley that dipped down to a narrow lane overshadowed by the sound-barriers confining the freeway, featureless and smooth concrete walls that were supposed to shield the neighborhood from the roar of passing traffic. The balconies behind the house were precariously supported by old timbers and seemed to me to be always half-detached, ready to fall from their stilts and deposit the BBQ grills and deck chairs in the big iron dumpsters along the lane. From the outside, the building where KJL lived seemed impossibly old and decrepit and the people inside the structure were like nomads who had colonized some kind of decaying ruin, but, in fact, once inside the place, it was surprisingly roomy, well lit, an elegant place to live and wonderfully located. The rank of apartments with their 19th century common walls was only a block and a half from the College of Art and Design and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, a classical portico towering over a little park where drunks slept under newspapers on iron benches, the park’s trees and lawns surrounded by immense castle-like houses where the Mill City’s oligarchs had once lived.
After KJL’s guests departed, we worked for a half hour on the dissertation. Some papers were spread on KJL’s table – he always worked on an elegant open surface, suspended by steel struts and tilted slightly like a drafting table. I wrote a couple sentences, added punctuation to one of KJL’s divagations, and, then, it was midnight and I was tired and a little blurry with wine. This was between marriages and I had no place to go in particular that night and, so, I took off my suit and draped it over a chair to sleep on the floor on a pile of pillows and under a blanket.
KJL was restless and up much of the night. Now and then, a light would blaze in one of the other white rooms and he padded back and forth between the toilet and his kitchen. The honors colloquium, if I remember correctly, started at 9:15 and, so, to get to the University and park, we had to leave around 8:30. I was nervous that KJL would not get to his class on time. But he didn’t seem too concerned. He fried some eggs and, then, poured me a glass of orange juice on top of two-fingers of vodka. I had never seen anyone do this before and the vodka in the orange juice immediately warmed me and loosened my tongue and brightened the day a bit until the fog oozed back over everything and, almost, blocked out the sky.
KJL swallowed two glasses of the orange and vodka. Then, we motored over to the University, taking Franklin Avenue – there was a bridge on Franklin at that time, crossing the freeway among some elegant old terracotta commercial buildings deserted except for a paperback emporium that specialized in used science fiction books. I followed KJL’s car and we slipped sideways, as it were, through surface roads between the freeways onto the campus, and parked next to the classroom building. Because KJL was an assistant professor he had special parking privileges which, seemingly, extended to me as well. A bit delirious from the vodka, we hiked up some flights of stairs to a classroom, entering just as the bell sounded. About a dozen students were sitting in desks that they had dragged up against the walls, forming a rough semi-circle. KJL introduced me as a visiting professor from Austin, leading the students to think that I had flown up from Texas. KJL produced from a steel cabinet a CD-player in a boom-box assembly. He cued-up Prince’s record 1999 and played a couple songs. Then, KJL asked the students to comment on the songs. They had long since abandoned any pretense at impressing KJL, a person who simply could not be impressed in this setting. The girls whispered among themselves and flirted with KJL and he flirted back and the young men made various cracks about using drugs and dancing to the music. The class was White and privileged, upper middle class kids from the suburbs, and they gazed at KJL with sardonic skepticism, and, even, contempt. The conversation petered-out in inane comments about having sex to Prince’s music, a discussion KJL encouraged. Then, there was nothing more to say and KJL rounded out the hour with another three tracks on the record. He encouraged his students to dance, but they didn’t leave their desks, although some of the girls bobbed their heads tentatively.
The class was over. KJL said that he needed to get ready for his French class later that morning. He went to his car, parked right under the shadow of the classroom building and drank something from flask in his glove compartment. I had to get back to my life in Austin (Minnesota not Texas) and so I drove from within the campus, cautiously navigating roads I had never used because, of course, during the seven years I had attended the University of Minnesota, I hadn’t ever actually parked inside the campus itself. It was hard finding my way to the public highways and I, even, had to go the wrong way against traffic for about a block, all the time fearing I’d be stopped since I was still half-drunk on the vodka.
I found the freeway and drove the hundred miles back to my office in Austin and, about half-way, my head began to throb. The sun came out and glistened on flooded fields and I felt awful.
Around this same time, KJL invited me to appear as a guest lecturer at his course in the European Enlightenment. I agreed to speak for forty minutes on 17th and 18th century poetry. I prepared for this lecture for about a month, reading vast amounts of Alexander Pope and mostly forgotten writers like Oliver Goldsmith and James Thomson. I even read a dozen pages of Ossian, who, in my view, represents the terminus of 18th century poetic styles, concluding with “bardic” verse that one might characterize as “proto-romantic”. In English literature, the bards (Chatterton, Thomas Grey, and James MacPherson who hoaxed the Ossian poems) stand in the same relationship to classical and romantic schools as Sturm und Drang stands to the mainstreams of German poetry. I had a developed a thesis that the hypertrophied faculty of Reason and its mistress, Sentiment, derived from a vast and inescapable anxiety about madness. Pope’s serene couplets skated over an abyss represented in part by his Dunciad, the nightmare version of The Essay on Man – 18th century poets praised decorum and reason, neatly assembling their thoughts in rhymed couplets and carefully designed odes because there was, at heart, an enormous fear of madness, unreason, anarchy that afflicted these writers. At the end of the era, Blake’s prophetic books and his poems such as “Auguries of Innocence” congealed these trends into writing that revealed the tension between reason and madness implicit throughout the century. This notion is not particularly novel and I’m not sure where I had first read criticism adumbrating some of these ideas. But my lecture was heart-felt, carefully designed, and based upon an anthology of about 45 pages that I had KJL duplicate and deliver to the students two weeks before my talk.
KJL invited me to come to his house the evening before the lecture so that we could work on his dissertation. Of course, he would serve me a fine dinner, pour drinks, and there would be many interesting people at his apartment. But I feared that if I went to Minneapolis the night before, KJL would get me drunk and, then, I would be hungover and unable to function effectively at the lecture and, so, I told him that I would reach the classroom about a half-hour early but that my schedule didn’t permit me to come before that time.
Of course, I’m not faculty and was never faculty in Minneapolis (I taught business law for 15 years in Austin but this didn’t account for anything in the big city) and, so, I had to park at a ramp on the West Bank and hike across the Washington Avenue bridge to reach the hall where I was supposed teach. It was a nice day and the river was foamy beneath the bridge, the gorge howling with cars and trucks roaring over the double-decker span. The veins of froth from the Falls upstream at St. Anthony decorated the hard, brown, muscular bore of water coursing downriver. I was very happy. It was wonderful that KJL was letting me play with him in this way. When I was an undergraduate, I had always dreamed of being a professor of literature and having my own courses to teach according to my own ideas. I had been practicing law a decade or so and didn’t really like that profession and I thought it would be fine thing to instruct students about literature and, even, films, something that I enjoyed, of course, because it was pretty much the opposite of the practice of law. KJL had a professor friend who was very successful and now teaching at Harvard and I admired this man immensely. I wanted to be like him and, therefore, in my own mind, I dedicated my presentation to the Harvard professor whom I had heard lecture a couple of times a decade earlier when he was teaching at the University of Minnesota. It was all play-acting, of course, but I was very pleased that I had this opportunity to pretend that I was a professor of literature come to “profess” some certain thesis about 18th century poetry.
KJL was at the classroom which was long and narrow like tunnel bored through the center of a building. I recall that it was like speaking into a funnel that opened out into a railway car. I spread out my texts on the lectern and, after being introduced as a visiting professor from Austin (ostensibly Texas, I’m sure the students thought), I stood at the pulpit, gazed at my students, and, then, began to speak to them.
I think the lecture was a success, although I don’t know for sure. Vanity blinded me, of course, and I thought that I was witty, learned, and profound – but who knows how the 80 young people in the room received my words. After the talk, some students came up to me and asked about some details in my talk. They said that they would really like to see me lecture on other subjects as well. KJL had a big jug of wine concealed under this desk and was drinking from a styrofoam cup. He had a bony-looking female graduate student who approached me and was complimentary about the lecture – she said: “we don’t usually have this kind of substantive discussion – it’s more... (she paused).. impressionistic.” From what I gathered KJL had been talking in circles around Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Rambler, annotating the work with comments about Charles Baudelaire and Samuel Beckett, neither of whom had much to do with the Enlightenment. She asked me to come again and deliver another lecture and said that my topic was something that she had been “trying to get her head around” for several years. Several of the kids asked me what parts of my lecture would be covered on the exam. I told them to consult with KJL on that topic.
After the students had dispersed, KJL and I went off-campus to have drinks at Stubb and Herbs, a bar in Stadium Village, that is, the neighborhood dominated by the big coliseum where the Gophers played. KJL was wearing a Bastille Day tee shirt from his stepmother’s restaurant, The New French Café – the back of the tee-shirt was imprinted with some French words including AIOLI in big block letters. I drank a couple beers. KJL was sweaty and his perspiration smelled of rotten beer and garlic. We shook hands and I, then, went back across the campus and big bridge to where I had parked my car in a ramp. It was a happy day for me, but, also, a little disturbing because, of course, the lecture encouraged me to view my own profession as something demeaning and, even, abject. I don’t do well when I drink when the sun is shining. Mid-afternoon, halfway back to my office, again my head began to ache and I felt very sleepy. My life was going in the wrong direction. I had made a mistake about my own personality, a mistake about what I desired and what I could do well. And the mistake seemed, increasingly, irremediable to me.
In those days, it seemed to me that it was very easy to motor from southern Minnesota into the heart of Minneapolis. The highways were always clear with cars widely spaced and, normally, you didn’t encounter traffic jams even downtown. The capacity of the freeways, which were swift and safe, exceeded the volume of cars driving on them. And, it seemed, particularly easy to come toward the glass towers of Minneapolis, lancing toward the lake-blue steel summits with the Foshay Tower crouched at the base of those higher, brighter ranges of buildings, the grey older obelisk shaped like the Washington monument, easy to roll forward as if coasting on a gentle wave of traffic, exiting at Lake Street, then, turning at the first right, next to the check-cashing place, and then, just six blocks to KJL’s old brownstone near the Art Institute. You could get there in a jiffy, no problems, find a place to park and, then, you knocked on the door and you were admitted to KJL’s salon where drinks were always being served and something elegant was generally just about to be served for dinner, people sipping white wine and working in teams in the kitchen to get the salads ready or the soups properly warmed while the meat was on the porch being grilled to perfection – KJL would pronounce the word “barbecue” with a French accent, “from the beard to the tail,” he would say. The people at KJL’s salon varied but some of them were regulars: there was Ron M —, from Puerto Rico, wonderfully handsome and athletic and an expert in Dante, his girlfriend, an opera singer, Francis, who seemed gay to me, a sort of fop and dandy, but someone who was fantastically witty and terrifying (his repartee was sharp as a switchblade) KJL’s brother, who was then in law school, was also on the scene as was his shy girlfriend together with Biodun I – , from Nigeria, a Byronically handsome man who wore rakish red bowties and was reputed to be the son of a UN delegate, sitting as if enthroned and smoking an expensive cigar (he was a book editor at the U of M press) and his glamorous wife Susan and other people as well, Bob and Frenchie L– who were instructors at the College of Art and Design with various junior faculty from the University, people with access to good drugs, and a rotating cast of women whose names I didn’t know, but who seemed to be interested in KJL, moving from room to room with trays of hor d’ouevres or carrying books that they were reading or interested in reading and Prince’s music playing under everything, feinting and jabbing throughout the dinner party that seemed to be always underway, not just some evenings, but on every single night of the week.
Of course, it was wonderful to be part of this salon, a fine thing to be accepted among these luminaries all of whom were artistic, attractive, and accomplished in one way or another. This was the party that went on day after day and week after week while KJL was teaching at the University, earning a good wage, and working, supposedly, on his thesis. KJL, you must understand, was a marvelous listener – you have, perhaps, not grasped this from these pages. When you spoke, he leaned toward you and his eyes sharpened with attention, brightening a bit, and, then, he seemed to measure each word that came from your lips, seemingly pulled forward into what you said. He seemed to focus on you alone to the exclusion of all the rest of the world and, generally, he would respond to your speech by praising it for its wit or acumen. If everyone in these bleached white rooms was some kind of genius, KJL listened to you as if you were a genius also, as if your words were all worthy of being recording in some sort of volume of table-talk. It’s impossible for me to convey to you KJL’s charm. He wasn’t just affable but loveable as well, entirely benign. Everyone drank too much in those days and this was the case at KJL’s salon, but his guests were mannerly and discrete – everyone, I suppose, held the same general opinions and so there wasn’t much dispute about politics or the world. Mostly, people argued about books and, if you hadn’t read the book, then, the arguments were all the more piquant and exciting, because, of course, there was nothing at stake.
Sometimes, if conversation flagged at KJL’s apartments, and if the weather were fine, everyone might decide to drive downtown for drinks at the New French Café Wine Bar. The cars were nearby and the guests would pack into them and be whisked away, through the brownstone neighborhoods, then, past the downtown Convention Center to Hennepin and, then, 10 blocks north, more or less, on the dog-leg to the warehouse district. The New French Café Wine Bar occupied a loading dock in the building where the restaurant was located – the structure’s second story, reached by a glacially slow groaning freight elevator, served as the architectural offices for KJL’s father. The people at the New French Wine Bar, were, if anything, even more hip and elite than those patrons who frequented the restaurant – these were young people, by and large, associate lawyers from big downtown law firms, investment brokers and venture capitalists, various types of artists and media specialists. Everyone was casual and wore dark clothing. The talk there was of love affairs, break-ups, and motorcycle accidents. Just about everyone had a motorcycle and some of them were parked in the dank alley alongside the wine bar. We would commandeer a table – of course, KJL had clout with the maitre’de – sit on the edge of the high dock looking out to the west over the vast, half-eroded brick quarries of the abandoned warehouses. This landscape is gone today but, in those days, the old warehouses built at the end of the 19th century walled-off the city with squat parapets of burnt-red brick. The warehouses were within a quarter mile of the water impounded above the Falls of St. Anthony and, therefore, close to a source of river ice and many of the structures were cold storage – that is, monumental windowless walls rising to flat featureless roofs. No one went among the warehouses any more except junkies and homeless people and, where a few blocks had been razed, semi-trailers were parked in disorderly rows, providing some modicum of shelter for the crazies and drunks who wandered in that wasteland. At the far end of the warehouses, higher than the rusted platforms atop the smaller buildings – hoists and lifting apparatus that looked like instruments of execution – there was a great cube of brick, big as the tomb of a pharaoh or a Scythian warrior, featureless except for the faded white letters COLD STORAGE. In the summer, when the sun was setting beyond these ramparts of walls and flat roofs slotted into one another, the light ignited the bricks as if with fire and they burned raw and red against the horizon.
There we sat at our big table, sipping on wine that was expensive to us, because none of that company was well-heeled yet – we were all just starting out in life, hopeful, and anxious, even nervous about our new professions. A motorcycle revved in an alley and the sound ricocheted off the walls of the warehouses reclined against the sunset and, then, the cycle was under the high ledge of the wine bar and the man astride the bike was flirting with a waitress, maybe asking her to run away to Europe with him, and the sun went down among the brick blocks and, then, out in all that desolation, the little burning barrel fires of the crazies and drunks twinkled like a constellation of stars.
About a semester after KJL returned from Cornell to write his thesis, he motored down to Austin one night for a visit. An appearance of the great scholar and writer, KJL, in our modest town was always an event of signal importance and so I called together all my friends for a party at my house. KJL was in fine form and he had offered to lecture, or, at least, make a little presentation about Wim Wenders’ film Im Lauf der Zeit released in the U.S. as Kings of the Road. He had the film on about a half-dozen 16 millimeter reels and I arranged with some of the faculty at the local college for the loan of a projector.
Im Lauf der Zeit is a long movie, shot in sumptuous and velvety black and white. The film has a rambling plot. A man decides to kill himself by driving his VW bus into a great slow-moving river. Another man, a blue collar worker in a panel truck, rescues the would-be suicide as his little Volkswagen beetle sinks beneath the waters of a river as still as a painted picture. The man in the panel truck works repairing film projectors in old movie theaters in the small villages in the deserted territory near the East German border. It’s a vast open terrain that looks a bit like North Dakota, fortified farms amidst old poplar and elm shelter belts, barren railroad crossings under an implacable lead-colored sky, acreages of barley and hops stretching out to naked horizons where, perhaps, church steeples like tacks prick up against the horizon. The movie theaters are half-abandoned; everyone has TV and no one goes to the cinema any more. The two buddies have various adventures, encounter women who either willing or hostile, and, from time to time, repair a projector – it’s a German version, in a way, of The Last Picture Show, but even more bleak and more randomly plotted. Peter Handke, the German novelist worked, on the script and his notion of narrative was that of an audience watching a soccer game but unable to see the football motivating the action – that is, much frantic scurrying to and fro but for what purpose? The movies on which the repairman would test the projectors were, generally, American Westerns, films that had reached the end of the line so to speak, left in places where it would cost more money to ship the pictures back to Hollywood or their European distributors than the prints were worth and, so, the celluloid would just be stockpiled in broom closets or on shelves against the walls in the projection booths. The kids in these towns, raised in the shadow of the war, were feral and went to the theaters to drink or do drugs or have sex and you could project the movies with the reels in any order at all and no one would pay any attention or, even, notice that the film didn’t make sense. Sometimes, the projectors would seize up and the heat from the incandescent bulb throwing the image on the screen would cause the film to soften and, then, melt, the images on screen writhing as they were destroyed. Im Lauf der Zeit is one of those movies that butts up against the very end of the world – the landscapes look post-apocalyptic and the characters, in one scene, smoke and drink in an abandoned bunker overlooking the border with Communist Germany, that is a place where the civilized Western word has its edge – it is in that scene that one of the actors, either Ruediger Vogler or Hans Zisschler says: “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious.” It’s a militarized border with soldiers in watch towers, but you can hear Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent playing on the phonographs in the dismal little taverns near No Man’s Land.
Im Lauf der Zeit is a masterpiece, perhaps, Wenders’ best movie, and KJL had met the director when he came to Cornell for a retrospective of his works and, even, heard the man threaten to punch one of Werner Herzog’s detractors in the nose. Everyone was looking forward to KJL’s presentation but he delayed his talk to us to do some serious drinking first, and, then, everyone was pretty inebriated. When you’re drunk, it’s hard to thread a 16 millimeter projector and difficult, as well, to make the thing work properly. Furthermore, KJL as a homage to Wenders’ film and its hapless projectionists was committed to showing the long movie completely out of order, with the reels shuffled as if randomly. The movie has leisurely narrative or non-narrative and, so, at first, no one really noticed that the film’s chronology was scrambled. But, after about an hour, things began to get confusing and, then, out of sheer perversity, KJL decided to simply re-screen a reel we had already watched – in effect, he made it impossible for anyone to understand or enjoy the movie and there were protests. The older people walked out and so KJL decided the exercise had gone far enough. He shut down the projector and put the reels of film, one of which someone had drenched with Coors Lite beer, back in their battered carrying case. A woman from the German department at the community college stood up and thanked KJL for the evening. She was a severe woman, about twenty years older than me, and my friends who taught with her at the Community College said that she was very religious, a kind of Lutheran nun. (At the College, she led a Bible study group called R.I.O.T. – that is, Righteous Invasion of the Truth.) Of course, years later, we learned that this German teacher was not exactly a “Lutheran Nun” – rather, she was gay, although, indeed, also piously Lutheran. The German teacher qua nun was asked what she thought of the movie. “Some interesting grammar,” she said. She added that in one of the scenes a line of dialogue had concluded with three nouns, something like “gelassen wuerden haette” – that is, a passive construction in the subjunctive. “Very unusual,” she said. As to the merits of the film, she had no comment.
It was about 11:00 pm and KJL was anxious to go downtown and look at the strippers working in several of our bars just off Main Street. It was a fine Fall night and Austin downtown was like the arcades and sideshow attractions of the State Fair – the sidewalks were crowded and people were passing from bar to bar, something that you could do in those days by simply crossing an alley. Many of the taverns had back doors opening into alleyways that, in turn, opened into the back doors of other bars and, so, you could go from place to place in the blink of an eye, not that the two places were particularly different from one another. In the alleys, kids were smoking dope or fighting or making out in the niches and alcoves of the old brick commercial buildings. Some of the taverns had live music and there were bands up on platforms rising over the smoke of the cigarettes and colored lights rotating in the tempests of electric guitar and people packed three and four deep at the bars where girls in tank tops were pouring beer into pitchers or making watery drinks. I ran into a couple of my secretaries and KJL danced with them each in turn. Then, we went into the Tiki Pub, a place where naked strippers sullenly paced back and forth atop a huge 100 gallon aquarium full of aggressive long-tailed fighting fish. The girls seemed to be in some kind of trance and nothing, apparently, could really awaken them – their faces were masks and their eyes as impassive as the buttons sewed on the head of doll. The Tiki Pub had booths that were all shaggy with some sort of grass simulating the raffia of a South Seas Island. The mechanical crew scheduled to begin cleaning machines in the slaughterhouse at one-o’clock a.m. was on-hand, playing pool, ignoring the tits and ass on display, all getting pleasantly loaded on Windsor-Sevens before reporting to duty.
The Tiki Pub always seemed a little sleepy, like a relic of an earlier era – an impression that was true: the place had been a Jazz club in the sixties under the ownership of Geordie Hormel, the black-sheep son of the great pork chop prince, Jay C. Hormel. We went across the alley to the Brown Derby. The Derby had four or five strippers – although this is a misnomer because they didn’t really bother to strip. The girls just removed their bathrobes, sprawled on the floor, slipping aside their G-strings and raising their legs in the air as if performing some kind of calisthenic exercises. The drunks pushed dollar bills in the direction of their genitals and the girls seized the currency with their white hands and long red-painted fingernails. On that night, the Mayor and the County Sheriff, Wayne G– , were stooped over one of the plush green tables in the Derby playing pool. I brought KJL over to the Mayor and Sheriff and introduced him. In a small town, you have to pay fealty to elected officials of this sort. A little later, the State representative to St. Paul sauntered into the tavern, very drunk and jovial. I also had him shake hands with KJL.
After last call, we went home. KJL had some cocaine and we did a couple lines while drinking bourbon. I went to bed. In the morning, when I arose, KJL was gone together with the battered carrying case containing Im Lauf der Zeit. I carefully loaded the 16 mm projector into my car and returned it to the college.
In those days, Hazelden was the gold standard for substance abuse treatment. The place was famous throughout the world – the so-called “Minnesota model” for the treatment of alcoholism. This was before Betty Ford Rehab acquired the enterprise and before there was a chain of facilities located in various places. At that time, there was a single ‘campus’, as it was called, at Lindstrom, Minnesota. During the summer between Semesters at the University where he was teaching and working on his thesis, KJL went to in-patient therapy at Hazelden. I don’t know what circumstances forced him into treatment. But I learned from his brother that he was at the facility being “dried out.”
I drove up to Lindstrom. There are a number of avowedly Scandinavian villages in the pretty rolling lake country between the I-35 corridor north to Duluth and the St. Croix River and Lindstrom with its twin, Chisago City (presumably one hamlet Catholic and other Lutheran) was a few miles from Interstate State Park in the scenic river gorge, pinnacles of cliff there with round kettle potholes and white-water rapids. I hadn’t been on the road very often and, in high summer, there were lots of station wagons towing campers toward the river as well as commuters from St. Paul who lived in these towns or, across the iron bridge in west Wisconsin.
KJL had sent me a post-card from Hazelden, a discrete piece of correspondence that merely showed a picture-perfect lake among some autumnal trees. He had written something like: “Here. They. Want. You. To. Believe. In. A. Higher. Power.” – This was an idiosyncratic way that KJL used to express significance phrased as a cliche aspiring to monumental status.
It took me about two-and-a-half hours to reach Lindstrom and the right-hand turn to Hazelden. The road entered between a couple of glacial eskers shaded by groves of trees. A bright lake with crystal water so clear it seemed that you could drink it – no doubt an intended effect at this colony for the very thirsty – was nestled in a hollow and surrounded by beautifully designed trails. Healthy looking people were either bicycling or speed-walking on those smooth asphalt trails, crossing the little wooden bridges over babbling brooks. It was a very lovely place, as serene as could be.
I met KJL at his residence. He had a tiny white room with a French volume of Beckett and the Bibliotheque de Pleiade edition of Baudelaire on his night stand. He looked healthy, even a bit plump. He told me that in the morning he attended lectures and that, afternoons, he played golf on a course tucked into the rolling hills and valleys near the facility. The place had its own watertower and there were terraced apartments, it seemed, rising up along one of the shores of the little lake. KJL showed me the common dining room in his unit where his “team” took their meals. The drunks and junkies were divided into “teams” and they were all responsible for one another’s well being and sobriety. KJL told me that he liked the people on his team and enjoyed group therapy. For all of its cutting edge reputation, Hazelden was simply a supercharged Alcoholics Anonymous program and copies of the Big Blue Book were everywhere. KJL showed me a roster listing the patients and assigning them various duties – some of them were in charge of laundry or serving in the dining room or cleaning toilets or bussing tables. The participants were identified by first names with last initials. KJL showed me several names and hinted to me that his mates in the program were famous movie stars or business moguls. One fellow, he told me, was the popcorn king of Iowa, a man who’s countrified face appeared on every package of the stuff that his business sold.
We went out for a walk. KJL told me that he had learned that alcoholism didn’t really exist until the invention of distilled spirits, something that took place in the 17th century. Before that time, people just drank beer and wine and everyone knows, KJL told me, that beer and wine, that is fermented alcohol, is highly salubrious, even good for your body and mind. The evil that had crept into the production of booze was the process of distilling out the alcohol to create much more powerful “potables” – a term that KJL used for all kinds of spirits. The key, KJL told me, was to avoid drinking distilled alcohol. Beer and wine, he had concluded from the lectures, were fine and, perhaps, necessary to maintain good health.
We walked around the lake. It was a fine day and KJL nodded to team members as they approached us jogging or passed-by on bicycles. The water sparkled and rippled with light and the wind blew in the trees and I saw that there were birch and aspen like the marble columns of temples among the green and pleasant woods. KJL didn’t like the food but said it was tolerable. The greatest challenge, he said, was to believe in a higher power. KJL’s family, at least as far as I knew them, were all conspicuously atheistic – no one believed in God and everyone thought that organized religion was a mug’s game, a hoax and a fraud. “How do you manage?” I asked. KJL pointed to the neat water tower poised on its iron stilt legs above the golf course. “When I jog,” he said, “I pray to that water tower. It is higher than me, that’s for sure. Whether it has power, I don’t know.”
It was a nice visit. I said goodbye, shook hands with KJL, and drove back home. On the way out of Lindstrom, I saw that the highway was a gauntlet of temptations. A dozen bars lined the road. Some of them advertised that they would pour two free drinks for you in exchange for your sixty-day sobriety medal. Everywhere I looked there were bars beckoning and the sun was high and, if viewed in the right light, that bright light could be parching.
KJL didn’t stay completely sober for even a week after returning from Hazelden. He had learned at the program that the way to remain healthy was to eschew distilled spirits and simply drink beer and wine. And, so, this is the policy that he followed, almost entirely (although with some relapses) up to his death. After a while, ordinary beer lost its virtue for him and, then, he began drinking malt liquor and since all malt liquor is pretty much uniformly ghastly, KJL decided that he would slake his thirst with Steelhead Reserve. It was the cheapest of the lot.
The visit to Ithaca was pretty much of a bust. KJL was distracted and fighting with his girlfriend, Gabrielle C–. I was superfluous and it was clear to me that he didn’t really want me in town. We ate lunch, I did some shopping and, then, around dusk, I drove another ninety minutes or so through empty country north and west of Ithaca to some grimy city where I checked into a motel and spent the night. I think KJL was busy, working to complete whatever tasks he needed to perform before ending the semester and returning to Minnesota. Although I didn’t know it at the time, presumably, he was working to satisfy the requirements of his faculty advisor, Professor Richard Klein. KJL told me he had an appointment for an assistant professorship at the University of Minnesota and that he intended to work there while finishing his thesis on Baudelaire. Not only was the trip to Ithaca pretty much pointless, in fact, the whole vacation to the East Coast didn’t amount to much.
KJL invited me to Cornell because he wanted to introduce me to Gabrielle C–, a woman whom he said “wanted to marry (him).” He had sent me several letters with pictures of this lady and he told me that all was going very well with her and that, perhaps, he would rescue her from Cornell and bring her back to Minneapolis when he came to teach at the University. At Cornell, he told me that he was editing the literary theory magazine, Diacritics, teaching some courses to undergraduates, and serving as the resident advisor at the Telluride House, a famous heap of student housing sometimes referred to as “a non-fraternity community” – Richard Feynman, the physicist, and Francis Fukuyama, the “end of history” Hegelian had lived in that community as well as a host of other notable people. KJL wanted me to see the Telluride House itself, a brooding medieval-looking Arts and Crafts castle atop one of the ridges above Cayuga Lake – he sent me a postcard picturing the hulking building with its huge porch supported by brick pylons and said that I should come and see what it was like inside.
I was a young man, unmarried, although I had a girlfriend from College. She was in the process of dumping me, although I didn’t fully appreciate that fact at that time. KJL asked me to come see him in Ithaca and, so, I decided I would drive to the East Coast, spend four days in New York City and, then, stop in Cornell on my way home. I could travel, more or less, as I wished and so I left Austin in late September, drove to the eastern edge of Pennsylvania on the first day, and, then, crossed the big State driving through construction in the mountains for many hours (it was warm and the delays in my little car were sweltering) until I reached the Delaware Water Gap and, then, the fast freeways stitching New Jersey to the City. I found a cheap motel in Paramus, a couple miles from the George Washington Bridge and planned to drive into the City each day to park my car in the Port Authority ramp near 42nd Street. My girlfriend had said she would travel with me to NYC, but as the date for the trip approached, she didn’t answer my calls and I had no way to communicate with her except by letter. I wrote her several increasingly frantic letters, but she sensed the sour desperation in my words, something that is not very attractive at all, and didn’t reply to my messages. Accordingly, I made the trip alone.
When KJL learned that my girlfriend wasn’t coming, he said that he would set me up with a former paramour in Manhattan. He told me that he had phoned this woman, Emmy H– , and said that she should show me around the big city. I had her number in my wallet and was supposed to call her once I got into town. KJL gave me a useful primer as to her sexual predilections but, of course, I didn’t intend to touch her in any way. When I reached Paramus, I called her a couple of times but there was no answer. It was unseasonably hot and humid and the subways were suffocating. I was relieved when she didn’t pick up. I didn’t need any more complications in my life. Each day, I drove downtown, around 10:00 am, put my car in the Port Authority ramp, and, then, toured the art museums by myself – it was pleasant but hot and walking across Central Park or along the great avenues was sweaty work. At night, I would find a Thai or Korean place to eat on one of the side streets near Times Square and have supper. Times Square was raunchy and vibrant with all sorts of gaudy crime and the whores with their acrylic nails and big puffy Afros would come into the Thai or Korean places for take-out, chatting with the counter guy about the humidity outside and the oppressive heat. I decided to call Emmy H– one last time and, to my dismay, she answered. She didn’t seem to know who I was. I had the distinct sense that KJL had never really talked to her about me. But, surprisingly, she agreed to meet me in the East Village in front of a newstand called the Gem Spa. I knew that Emmy H– had attended Vassar and that she was the daughter of a well-known Soho art critic, someone who was close friends with Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and the world’s foremost expert on the ouevre of Larry Rivers. KJL told me that when Emmy’s parents got divorced, the main commodity exchanged between husband and wife as they separated were pictures by these artists as well as sketches by Picasso and Matisse and Cezanne.
I dutifully went to the Gem Spa and waited for Emmy for a long time. She was supposed to appear at 6:30 pm but didn’t materialize. It was a bad street corner on which to loiter – beggars harassed me and junkies and drug dealers had a proprietary interest in that intersection and they didn’t appreciate me hanging around on their turf. The dealers, in particular, kept asking me what I wanted to buy and when I said that I wasn’t in the market for anything, they asked me whether I was a cop or something. “Of course not,” I told them. One particularly aggressive panhandler hit me up repeatedly until I gave him five dollars. He sauntered up to me again an hour later – I guess every timid White boy looking to buy weed in the East Village looks alike because the guy didn’t recognize me. I told him that I had paid him five dollars an hour earlier. He thanked me. I joked with him: “Maybe, you can sell me a drink.” He looked puzzled and said that, for another five dollars, he would make me a drink on the spot. I tendered the cash to him and was astonished when he reached into a pocket pulled out a dixie cup and, then, poured me some rot-gut bourbon. He groped around in another pocket and, actually, produced a couple of shards of ice which he deposited in my drink. Then, we shook hands and he wandered off. I was holding a Village Voice in my hand so that Emmy H– could identify me on that Godforsaken street corner. The Voice was all sweaty and moist because I was perspiring heavily – the neighborhood was sinister and, as the darkness rose from the noisome alleyways and narrow streets, the boiled cabbage stench of subways and sewers blossomed and I was becoming increasingly nervous. Just as I began to walk away from my post at the Gem Spa, now glowing inside with amber light, Emmy H– came up to me, introduced herself, and shook my hand.
There’s no reason to document my date with Emmy because, after all, this writing is about KJL and not myself. (This is, at least, partly true.) We walked around the East Village and she showed me some interesting places and we had one or two overpriced drinks someplace, possibly the Cedar Bar where the famous Abstract Expressionist and Pop Artists had convened for their nightly orgies, and, then, we saw a show, an avant-garde concert, and I shook her hand again, and took the subway back to Times Square and the Port Authority parking ramp.
The next day, I got up early and drove the five hours up to Ithaca, reaching town about one-o’clock. I wasn’t expected until 3:00 pm and so I hiked up one of the slot canyons in the bluffs overlooking the lake, a place that looked like a Hudson Valley School painting, wild with fallen trees stripped of their bark, pale and ghostly athwart the chasm and huge boulders slippery wet with spray from the cascades churning like buttermilk in the shadowy gorge. KJL didn’t pick up when I called mid-afternoon and, in fact, I didn’t reach him until supper time. He told me to meet him in Ithaca and not at Telluride House – I had the impression that, perhaps, he wasn’t an RA at Telluride any longer. I found my way to an apartment in town, parked, and, then, found that I had come to Gabrielle C–‘s place. KJL had just arrived and he was bickering with Gabrielle and I don’t know what he had told her about me, but she was manifestly hostile and terse. It was pretty clear that my presence was nothing but a nuisance to both of them. KJL had said that he would make supper for me, but there was no food on offer. KJL was drinking wine and making comments to Gabrielle that suggested that she had committed some sort of terrible, unpardonable crime against him. I was uncomfortable and left after an hour or so, got some burgers at McDonalds and returned to my motel. KJL agreed to meet me for lunch the next day outside Gabrielle’s apartment since I already knew how to reach that location.
In the morning, I went to the Tompkins County Courthouse in downtown Ithaca. No security blocked entry into courthouses in those days. In fact, attending trials had been a sport and a pastime a decade earlier. I admired the interior of the Courthouse and, then, found a trial underway. I sat in a polished pew far in the rear of the big room and listened to the lawyers. The examining attorney was laying foundation for the admission into evidence of something and he was very concerned to not lead the witness. Apparently, objections to leading the witness were sustained as a matter of course in Tompkins County and a good trial advocate should avoid incurring trouble by phrasing his or her questions carefully. The lawyer kept asking: “Did there a come a time, when – (something happened)?” When asking questions about actions taken by other people, the lawyer phrased the inquiry: “Did someone or some several do (thus and such)?” It was mildly interesting and I don’t recall if the hapless lawyer ever finished actually laying his foundation for the admission of whatever it was that he was trying to put before the Court and Jury. I slipped out of Courtroom and walked a couple blocks to the place where I was supposed to meet KJL. He was late and, obviously, irritated when he arrived. He said that Gabrielle was acting like a “cock tease.”
I told KJL that I wanted to eat at the famous Moosewood Vegetarian restaurant in town. KJL said it would be too busy this time of day and that the place was vastly overrated in any event. We went to diner down the street and KJL had a cup of chili. I think I ate a burger with fries. He said that he had to teach some classes in the afternoon and would have to hurry away to that work. KJL said that he would return to Minnesota before Christmas and that the plan was that he would start teaching at the University in the Spring while writing his thesis on Baudelaire. I told KJL that I was sorry that he was having trouble with Gabrielle C–. He said: “You know, she wants to marry me and have my children.” I shrugged my shoulders: “You will never marry that woman,” I said. KJL looked at me with amazement as if he were not used to anyone contradicting him, particularly with respect to affairs of the heart. But, then, he grinned and shook my hand and he was gone.
I found the campus bookstore and bought about 30 dollars worth of German books. Then, I got in my car and drove away from Ithaca, heading northwest toward Minnesota.
By this time, I suppose, you may have some skepticism about this project. What is my motivation? Is this writing some species of revenge, cowardly pay-back inflicted on a dead man. KJL can’t defend himself from my account of his life, which is, certainly not impartial and, also,necessarily tendentious – certain themes are developed in this essay and the alert reader (hypocrite lecteur) will detect, I suppose, arguments about my friend’s life that the dead man is unable to refute. There are qualities in this prose that were foreign to KJL. If the readers suspects bitterness on the part of this writer, you must understand that my subject was never bitter – indeed, even when gravely ill, he was determinedly optimistic and, as far as I could see, happy with his station in life. Similarly, there may be traces of rancor, even, regret in this chronicle – in many ways, KJL lived the life that I wished for myself. But, as Sartre reminds us, regret is nothing but bad faith – had I wished to live otherwise, I surely had agency in selecting my style of existence. I could have done something else with my life, but didn’t. I never heard KJL ever express any regrets about anything that he had done or left undone.
Simply stated I admired KJL but am well-aware that he didn’t admire me. My accomplishments, such as they were, meant nothing to him, and were meaningless in the context of the world that he made for himself. It can probably be said that I spent half my life admiring KJL and wishing I could be more like him. Of course, I admired his courage, his ability to interact with the widest variety of people without self-consciousness or self-doubt, his freedom, and, even, his powerful physique that impressed women and that defeated men in athletic competition. He was worldly and had a great deal of what people once called savoir faire. By contrast, I tend toward naivety and everything frightens me.
Therefore, it is right to understand that I admired KJL for half of my life and pitied him for the other half. He didn’t want my pity and, if he had known that I felt that emotion, he would have disdained it. Indeed, the last time I saw him, when he was terribly stricken, I asked him to let me buy him glasses so that he could see better. Proudly enough, he rebuffed that suggestion.
This essay has become a burden to me. I wake up in the middle of the night and start ransacking my memory for anecdotes about KJL and, after a few minutes, my recollection comes to life and I am suffocated with thoughts about him. It is as if I am next to a great dismal torrent on which my memories are floating like a froth of scum. I want to seize as many as I can but it’s to no avail. The efforts don’t add up to anything like the man himself.
Last night, I was tormented by these thoughts and couldn’t sleep and, at last, I decided to get up to use the toilet – it is an old man’s curse, an aging urinary tract. When I arose, I felt an awful pain in my right hip. It was as if I had been wrestling with some celestial being and that, as dawn was whitening the horizon, the angel touched a hollow place near the socket of my hip and put it out of joint. The pain was really shocking, worse I suppose because imaginary, and it made me shiver in my bed. But, then, I fell asleep and everything went away.
The house was coming down. It’s old walls trembled like a dog shaking water of its fur. The plaster in ceilings and corridors exploded like shrapnel, fragments pelting the floor and opposing walls. Soon enough, the whole building would fall into itself.
I was standing upstairs near a flight of steps that dipped down to the first floor. Thunderous booms followed by catcalls rattled the walls. An acrid cloud of dust spiraled up from the demolition taking place below. Some of the electrical wires had already been amputated and KJL stood near me, clutching the banister to the stairs lit harshly by a trouble-light plugged into an extension cord that slumped down to the main floor. I was wearing an ill-fitting cream-colored tuxedo and my shoulders and knees were white with pulverized plaster-dust. KJL was telling me something that seemed unrelated to the chaos in the house. He seemed serenely unconcerned about the destruction of the home in which we were standing, although there was a mixture of saw dust and plaster on the lenses of his glasses. The next day, I think, he was scheduled to fly back to Paris where he was attending graduate school. At that time, KJL was credited as the “Paris Correspondent” to Enclitic, a magazine that published cutting edge French critical theory and that originated in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Minnesota.
Five hours earlier, I had stood at an altar in a Lutheran Church in the suburbs, best man for a particularly ill-starred and inauspicious wedding. A High School friend was getting married for the second time in a decade. The bride was openly hostile to me and seemed skeptical about the marriage and her mother’s face was lined with worry. Before the ceremony, my role was to shuttle between the groom, sequestered in the sacristy behind the sanctuary’s altar and the bride with her several attendants and fretful mother occupying one of the Sunday School rooms in the humble low-slung brick-walled wing beside the stained glass and pews where we were to gather with the pastor. Each time I passed between the groom and bride, the situation became more dire. The groom looked like someone about to be shot by a firing squad and the bride’s voice was shrill with tension. Ominous premonitions afflicted both parties and, of course, any rational person would have called the whole thing off – but the train was on the tracks and rolling toward destruction and there seemed to be nothing to do but allow the calamity to unfold. In the bride’s chambers, one of the maids of honor was crying. Apparently, the bride had made some hideous comment to her when I was shuttling between the rooms. A ragged bunch of threads and seam was dangling from the side of the bride’s dress like a tumor. The bride’s mother demanded that I find a scissors to snip the excrescence off the dress. But no scissors were to be found. I went from classroom to classroom, rooting around among coloring books illustrating Bible stories on tables decked with models of Noah’s ark, all complete with small plush animals, but I couldn’t find a scissors. Finally, in the last of the classrooms that I searched, I found a blunt, but serviceable safety scissors, sticky with Elmer’s glue and what seemed to be blood-colored Kool Aid residue. I hustled back to the agitated bride brandishing the scissors. Apparently, mama had already torn the threads and unraveled seam off the dress, ripping it loose with her teeth no doubt and, when I handed her the filthy safety scissors, she snarled at me and threw the utensil in my face. I ducked and the scissors clattered against a black board on which someone had written the first five commandments in white chalk. Discretion being the better part of valor, I turned tail and ran to my friend’s side in the sacristy. I didn’t mention the incident with the scissors but said: “There’s a problem...” My high school buddy turned his white face to me and began to gnash his teeth. “No, no...” I said. “It’s been taken care of.” My friend made a fist and brandished it at me, crying: “I should punch you in the face. I should punch in the face for making a mess of my wedding.” I shook my head and retreated from that room as well.
A half-hour later, the deed was done and I went to a post-wedding reception somewhere, a basement in another church, I think where we were served potato salad and ham sandwiches and some cookies with cake, the sort of fare that you are usually provided gratis for attending a funeral. The bride and groom went off in a limousine. I saw their faces dimly visible through the smoked glass of the vehicle – husband and wife looked like sea creatures found in the deepest and darkest abysm in the ocean.
I was alone, then, went to a McDonald’s still wearing my ridiculous cream-colored tuxedo, and, then, read a book for a couple hours sitting in a parking ramp near the University. KJL had invited me to a party somewhere in the warren of old houses occupying the area a few blocks to the east of the big hospital complex on campus. Cars came and went from the parking lot, a depressing place where I could hear wheelchairs being pushed over the raw concrete, stairwells moist, it seemed, with human tears. This was a place where you parked your car and went into the hospital to say your last goodbyes to someone terminally ill and I thought I could hear the banshee howling over the empty, naked parking stalls under the June sky at the top of the ramp.
Later, I walked over to the party. The neighborhood was congested with old houses built, it seemed, around the turn of the century, each place with a crumbling porch and a roof from which storms had flayed most of the shingles and a tiny backyard full of debris. Cars were parked on blocks along the curb-line. All of these old homes, never much good even when they were new, were occupied by students or unmarried nurses pulling double-shifts in the huge University hospitals. The area was depressing, crowded with homes that were like rotting teeth in a great humid mouth.
The party was underway at a small house all festooned with signs printed on orange cardboard stock advising that the structure was condemned, and, in fact, due for imminent demolition. The inside of the place smelled of generations of students who had vomited on the floors or pissed on walls to the point that the acid of their urine had melted the plaster and exposed the studs and the ancient sub-code ceramic-post wiring. The rooms were empty except for some derelict-looking wooden chairs, seemingly salvaged from the garbage. It was an awful place, Richard Speck, seven-murdered nurses hideous.
I’m not entirely sure who was renting the house on its last night of existence, possibly Larry C– and his cronies, but, after all these years, I don’t know for sure. In any event, all the critical theory folks from Enclitic, the magazine that KJL had edited, were on-hand. There were two real French poets, Philippe D– and Michel V– , both of whom moonlighted as waiters and sommeliers at the Hotel Sofitel, a French hotel out on the 494 strip. Philippe D– was a wiry little surrealist with face like a porcelain doll – he was very pretty and casual and it was wonderful to see how he smoked his cigarettes, later to be declared “sublime” by the redoubtable Professor Klein. His buddy, Michel V– , always dressed like cartoon gangster in double-breasted pin-striped suits and that was how he looked at the party in the doomed house – his cartoonish big face was flushed and bulging and his jaw-line showed some serious five-o-clock shadow and I could see that he was scanning the mob of party-goers for likely-looking women. Larry C– was an expert in Russian formalism and, always, the smartest person in any room. He was lanky with studious-looking glasses and sandy hair and I had known him, although only by reputation, for several years. Larry C– had gone to De La Salle High School on Nicollet Island and I admired him immensely – he was tremendously self-assured, and witty, and never at a loss for an ironic comment. I knew that he had published several papers in Enclitic, including something on Eisenstein illustrated by a big center-fold of the sort that you might find in a Playboy magazine, except that instead of a naked girl, the sheet unfolded to a sequence of frames from The Battleship Potemkin, a handsome graphic that I also esteemed although I had not been able to make much sense of Larry C –‘s arguments about the movie. There were many others at the party, but I can’t reconstruct their identities after almost 45 years. It’s possible that Professor Tom C– , the faculty advisor for Enclitic was in attendance, although I can’t say for sure. Professor C– was also a person whom I greatly admired.
I have just made some harsh comments about Michel V–‘s suit, but my readers must recall that I was dressed in cream-colored tuxedo, a little the worse for wear with some ketchup from my McDonald’s burger smeared on my right lapel. So, if anyone looked clownish at this gathering, of course, it was me.
Around 11:00 pm, the party-goers began to tear the house down. Since the place was slated for destruction the next morning, the people in the structure began to smash holes in the walls and tear doors off their hinges. Someone used a sledge hammer helpfully provided by the host to knock open a wall in the corridor and, then, people began to pry out the lathe under the plaster. There seemed no point in carrying bottles to the garbage cans in the kitchen. The guests just hurled bottles at overhead light bulbs so that glass rained down onto the damaged, scuffed floors. A couple of men pounded the porcelain kitchen sink into sharp white pieces. I’m sure that most of the water had already been shut-off because I don’t recall any geysers or floods. Those more interested in conversation than demolition withdrew into bedrooms, as far away as possible from the ruffians tearing apart the structure. I found the whole thing distressing and, in some strange way, I sympathized with the house – people had lived here, probably some for many years, and children had been raised in these rooms and the old and sick, I supposed, had coughed-away their lives in these corridors and toilets and, now, it was all being ripped apart, willfully and, even, gleefully. Maybe the place had been roach infested or the toilets prone to overflowing. Probably, the electrical power had been more than a little skittish sometimes and the furnace in the basement balky and, so, those who had been tenants in the condemned house were now taking their revenge upon it. But revenge, of course, is always an ugly thing.
Styrofoam and plastic coolers full of ice and beer were scattered through the house. I think I was drinking from a flask of peppermint schnaps in the pocket of my tuxedo. KJL was standing by a cooler upstairs, on the landing beside the steps, illumined by a trouble-light because the power was off in the upper half of the house. Larry C– came to get a Heineken from the cooler. He called the brew “greenies” and said that Heineken always caused headaches, immediately and without exception: “They should sell the things with two aspirin per bottle,” Larry C– said. He had flecks of shattered plaster in his hair. KJL said: “That’s why I stick to malt liquor.” KJL had a Colt 45 in his hand. He handed me a 16 ounce can. “You can’t drink those things,” Larry C– told us. “They make malt liquor with formalin, with formaldehyde. You might as well be drinking anti-freeze,” he said. Larry C– was a very well-informed fellow and I assumed that he was rights about the formulation of malt liquor. Nonetheless, I drank two cans.
The whoops and shrieks below us intensified. Someone hurled a beer bottle through a window and the I could hear glass tinkling as it sprayed across the sill and hard-wood floor. We looked down and saw that a lit-crit guy, one of the editors of Enclitic, was swinging a maul against the wooden treads leading upstairs. “We’re going to get cut-off,” I said. So we cautiously eased out way down the steps. Above us, a young man howling like an Apache began to kick the lathe-turned banisters off the landing. Wood shattered and fell like spears onto us. When we reached the bottom of the steps, KJL remembered suddenly that the cooler of Colt 45 and Heineken was still on the landing above us. He hurried up the steps and dragged down the cooler and, near the bottom, his foot plunged through the tread into some space below. All the many-legged creatures in the house were frightened out of the walls and the drunks chased the centipedes around, crushing them under their boots.
The day had been long and I was tired and, now, the malt liquor was acting on me. I didn’t like the destruction of the house. A home is the ultimate signifier and these savages were tearing it apart. Pretty soon, I supposed someone would light the place on fire or, accidentally, electrocute himself or knock out a trestle supporting the whole thing and it would simply collapse into the basement. KJL and I went out to the sidewalk, already broken by fifty seasons of frost into a jigsaw of broken pieces. On its tiny plot of barren lawn, everything parched and eroded and trenched, the house roared at us. Windows were blown out and the power now was completely gone so that the vandals ripping the place to pieces were now stalking back and forth holding trouble-lights on extension cords so that vast and malevolent shadows were cast on wrecked plaster walls. The home’s front door had been ripped off its hinges and lay on the porch. Someone had smashed an opening into the place through a side-wall and I could see people whirling around in a frenzy of destruction. The toilets weren’t working any more and the party-goers were now pissing on the walls and in the corners of the house. A crowd of drunk spectators was standing on the boundaries of the property and someone was passing around a joint.
Malt liquor does something to me. It insinuates itself into my emotions and exposes raw feelings that ordinarily I keep hidden. The two 16 ounce cans of the stuff were working on me. The malt liquor knocked me into a terrible of black and inconsolable sorrow. The odor of the stuff and its taste were like a premonition, an indication of an awful flaw in the world that couldn’t be eradicated. I burst into tears, shook hands with KJL who was traveling later that day to Paris (it was now after midnight), and, then, sobbing out loud staggered away to the parking lot where my car was located.
On the flight to Paris, KJL slept. His guardian angel sat on his shoulder. The angel resembled nothing more than one of the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. KJL’s guardian angel whispered in his ear:
“Human folly is a river that is a mile wide and one inch deep.”
At the end of a week in May a few months before KJL departed for Paris, the Romance Languages Department sponsored some sort of festival of deconstruction. Visiting scholars were imported and graduate students presented papers. Of course, KJL was in his element. Because he was one of the principal editors of Enclitic and, about to become the “Paris Correspondent” for that journal, KJL was one of the presiding officers at the seminar.
I attended one of the sessions late in the afternoon, a program that took place in an odd oval room in an annex to Vincent Hall, the offices for the Department of Mathematics as well as mortuary sciences. A rather saturnine woman named Patti F– was reading her paper. She was skinny with slack red hair and freckles. Most of the seats around the small oval amphitheater were filled and I saw Larry C– and Professor Tom C– and, of course, KJL and his cronies from Enclitic. I was an English major and the only representative from that department was a young professor, a sort of hippie with long black hair and a handsome boyish face, Charlie S–.
Patti F– was delivering some words to us, a paper entitled something like “Putting the Dick back in Dickens.” She was explicating – although I don’t think that is the right word – “The Christmas Carol”. In every sentence, she found an obscenity, although frequently the dirty words were in French or German, puns that she extracted from the text with the nonchalant aplomb of someone pulling plums from a plum pie – grinning as if to say: “Oh what a good boy am I!” If a sentence didn’t contain an obscene phrase or word in one of the languages that she knew, she would rearrange the letters as anagrams. Of course, the anagrams that she constructed also were obscene. The gist of her performance, as I imperfectly understood it, was that the novella “The Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens was, in fact, an account of some sort of orgy involving all sorts of deviant sex acts. Every ghost represented a spume of ejaculate. I could follow the puns that she found in Dickens’ Victorian prose and knew some of the obscenities in German that she wrested from the text, but, when she began to read, very quickly and in a monotone, her conclusions about the story, her prose degenerated into jargon that was impossible to understand, something to do with difference (with an accent over the first “e”), a word that sounded like difference but apparently had a completely different meaning than the English word. If I had been carefully reading her text, I would have been perplexed by her long and complicated sentences and curious diction. But I wasn’t reading, just listening and the whole thing sounded like word salad to me.
At the conclusion of her reading, everyone applauded enthusiastically and several professors hustled to the podium to congratulate her on the presentation. Patti F– beamed.
KJL and I went outside of the annex with its observatory-like dome atop the oval amphitheater. I asked KJL what Patti F–‘s presentation had meant. He told me that she was more than a little naive and that there was too much demonstrative material in her paper. “She is still trying to prove things,” he said. I said that I didn’t know what she was trying to prove. KJL said that he would explain later.
“A text doesn’t have a meaning,” he said. “There’s no meaning and, so, no interpretation possible.” This was a variant on a conversation in which we had engaged on many occasions. “What if I said to Patti F– that her speech should be construed as calling for the murder of all Jews?” I asked. “Could it mean that?” “If you want it to,” he said. “But why would you want it to take that meaning of all the possible meanings in the world?” I shrugged. “Anyway fascism and racism don’t mean what they think they mean,” he said.
Later, there was a party in Northeast Minneapolis. All the editors from Enclitic attended as well as the visiting professors. We were in a suite of rooms, an apartment where someone lived, above Hennepin about six blocks from where the avenue crossed the river on an old span above St. Anthony Falls. The street lights in that part of town were bright orange and the avenue outside the windows was the color of a pumpkin. Everyone was drinking beer and Patti F– was standing with her coterie by one of the big Chicago-style openings with a view down onto the street. There was a tavern across from the apartment building where punk rock bands played and people with Mohawks and wearing leather and big shit-kicker boots were standing along the facade passing around joints. Down the street, a White Castle open all night was serving tiny square burgers on greasy buns to drunk kids. The Enclitic editors were organizing a soccer party for the following afternoon – everyone in Romance Languages played soccer. A Palestinian guy with a raven-black forelock was discussing the merits of different sorts of automatic pistols and rifles.
I asked KJL again about Patti F-‘s paper. “I know what it means,” he said. He told me that Patti F– was from Winnipeg and that her family were Ukrainian immigrants to Canada. “She is Slavic,” KJL said. “And you know what means?” “What does it mean?” “That she is a terrible cock-tease,” KJL said.
He suggested that I go over to Patti F– to ask her about her paper. “When she gets drunk,” he said, “she will tell you that she is just asking her readers to fuck her in the ass.” “How do you know that?” I asked him. “I’ve been with her when she was drunk,” KJL said. “But she is really a prick-tease,” he said again.
At the University of Minnesota, you can walk underground for a great distance, moving from building to building by way basements, tunnels, and below-grade parking lot. When I attended school, you could enter the system at Kolthoff Hall, a tall slab of a brick building with a stylized portico made from poured concrete. Kolthoff had some interesting stairwells that rose up the side of the building in glass prisms to a considerable height above the mall. At the top of the stairwell, a locked door apparently opened onto the roof, but you didn’t need to exit there (and couldn’t in any event) – rather, it was a cozy nook to sit while drinking a bottle of wine on a fine day, a nice vantage on the students sunbathing on the great grass lawns of the quadrangle or playing frisbee or just hurrying to their classes on the sidewalks, Kolthoff was full of chemistry labs that looked very secret and, no doubt, engaged in heavily subsidized and highly proprietary work for private industry. The building had a sort of moat around it and, on its lower level, there was basement tunnel that ran to the north, forty paces or so, into the bowels of Smith Hall, an old structure of a decidedly institutional cast, probably built around 1920 with enormous class rooms that smelled of old wood and chemical experiments, pews arranged around pits where professors lectured as their lab assistants made things boil and fizz and pop. From the basement of Smith Hall, you could walk through another tunnel, a concrete walkway underground that had a caternary slope like a slack rope hanging between two pegs and that opened into Walter Library’s first basement, a tight well-lit place with many study carrels and, really, only the tip of the iceberg since, in fact, the library went down and down, many levels deep into an abyss that no one had ever really sounded, a great hollow space excavated into the bluff over the Mississippi River and that was filled with metal catwalks anchored in the rock and millions of feet of shelf space, all of it occupied with ancient, rotting journals in thirty languages. From Walter Library, another tunnel passed to the administration building cellar, past some copy-rooms that were always huffing and puffing, and, then, you made a short jaunt through an underground parking lot that smelled of spilled gas and oil to the cellar entrance into Northrup auditorium. The metal door opened inward to an old, ornate stair made from pale carved marble with polished stone banisters and toilets behind swinging doors, also cold stone, like a Roman privy where once I saw Hubert Humphrey urinating in a trough at an intermission at a performance of Aida by the Metropolitan Opera’s traveling company. At Northrop, you had to climb the steps and walk across the majestic tiles of the grand entry hall with its vast dim chandeliers and high sober balconies, past the doors opening into the gloomy auditorium with its immense stage lined with red velvet curtains, then, along another subterranean gallery, past band practice rooms where horns were always sounding fanfares and, then, into a true tunnel – a thousand feet long with a couple of crooked dog legs where niches had been walled up a bit like the alcove in "The Cask of Amontillado", machines behind those walls humming and buzzing and blowing air through fans to keep the narrow passage-way properly ventilated. The tunnel ended in a strange building called the Nolte Center, an enigmatic and elegant structure that served no known purpose with its basement opening into yet another buried parking lot that, in turn accessed the lowest level of Folwell Hall, the grandiose structure devoted to foreign languages and the destination of this campus tour.
Folwell Hall was where KJL spent his time, up on the third floor which housed the Department of Romance Languages. The building fronted University Avenue behind a spiky iron fence and the ornate brick hulk sported a red tile roof like something that you might see in Amsterdam. The cornices were heavy with ornamented scrolls and grimacing masks made from terra cotta and ornamental obelisks rose above the gabled eaves. The critical theory journal, Enclitic, was produced by Department of Romance Languages and galley-proofs of illustrated articles in that magazine were on display on compositors tables in their offices. This was where the center-fold illustrating dialectical montage in Eisenstein contrived for Larry C–‘s article had been produced.
No one knew exactly what the word “enclitic” meant, something that was appropriate since the essays published in the journal were also largely incomprehensible. I always thought that the name meant a diacritical mark over other marks on a page, something like the inflection mark over the first “e” in the French word difference, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t correct. Sometimes, editors of the journal, including KJL, would explain the word, but no two definitions ever matched. It didn’t matter because the word had a sexy sound (“clit”) and the periodical was exceedingly handsome. The volumes were stark white with brilliant graphics on the cover, most of them designed by KJL. Generally, a black and white photograph, picturesquely desolate graced the magazine’s front – I think the first issue, more raw than succeeding numbers, showed the great mills along the Mississippi river, vast tubular structures like flour-colored pipe organs, with hand-lettering beside the photographic images by KJL. His print was influenced by architect father’s profession – it was blue-print text, very legible (unlike his handwriting) and elegant.
Sometimes, I inquired after KJL at the Department of Romance Languages. The secretaries were olive-skinned Italian women with big bosoms and slender French ladies – of course, they had to be able to type in languages other than English. In the morning, the administrative people in the department greeted one another after the European manner – they shook hands, embraced, and, even, kissed one another on the cheeks. Everyone smoked French cigarettes or, even, cigars from the Dominican Republic and the seminar rooms all smelled of burnt tobacco. Upstairs, in the attic of Folwell Hall, the graduate students were massed in cubicles and it looked like a party was always underway in that big open space. Tacked to the cubicle partitions were travel posters of the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum in Rome and, I suppose, the Amalfi Coast, many pictures of that sort along with prints of paintings by Renoir and Monet as well as film posters for Jules et Jim and Enfants du Paradis. Sometimes, I would find KJL in the attic, sitting at a big round table with cover designs for Enclitic spread out before him, an admiring group of students flanking the place where he was sitting with a styrofoam coffee cup brimming with red wine in front of him.
In truth, I didn’t see much of KJL in those days. I had started my first year at Law School and he was busy with his publications in Enclitic. KJL was also enrolled in a class in creative writing taught by Tom Disch, a famous science-fiction writer. (Disch was a true renaissance man who wrote novels, non-fiction, poetry, plays, opera librettos and, even, a famous series of children’s books featuring “the brave little toaster”. He seems to have been a real genius of the highest order, someone whose books we should read and re-read – although I’ve never read any of them nor encountered anyone who has read them.) Disch’s class was super-exclusive and elite. It was part of the University’s MFA program in creative writing and to enroll you had to have either been nominated for a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize in literature, published a best-seller or a success d’estime translated into at least twenty languages. Qualifications of this sort meant nothing to KJL. He had patrons who always finagled him into any position that he desired, and, of course, it was a real feather in his cap to be in Disch’s writing class. KJL told me that his father had gone to Spain between marriages and lived with a group of highly creative people in a polyamorous commune in an ancient castle poised atop beetling cliffs overlooking the wine-dark sea. Thomas M. Disch, who was gay, was one of the commune members at the castle – or so KJL explained to me.
KJL wrote long, novella-sized stories for Mr. Disch, works that his mother, Bev, dutifully typed for him from illegible long-hand manuscripts. I read a number of these stories and, of course, KJL’s prose style and subject matter were highly distinctive. In these stories, a figure of speech might be the protagonist, some rhetorical gesture KJL had heard actually spoken – the figure of speech would interact with the world and its speaker in certain ways and, through blocks of anonymous and convoluted prose, there would be a slow movement, a rhetorical progression toward something that could never be exactly defined or, even, directly articulated. The prose was eerie and disembodied, highly abstract, with enormous sentences that snaked past aphoristic phrases or descriptions that were like landmarks briefly glimpsed in fog from a speeding car. Generally, I had no idea what KJL intended by these works, but they were certainly unique, written in a formidable, vaguely Faulknerian diction. I never could decide whether KJL’s prose poems were hoaxes and works of genius. If the latter, it was a kind of genius that I couldn’t decipher although this was not so, apparently to Thomas M. Disch. KJL reported to me that Mr. Disch had said to him, before the entire class of Nobel and Pulitzer laureates , that KJL was the future of American literature and that his works were so ineffably brilliant as to be world-historical. Whether this was true, or whether Mr. Disch actually uttered these judgments at all to anyone is unclear to me. We can’t ask Mr. Disch – disconsolate over the death of his lifelong companion and lover, he shot himself in 2008.
Around this time, I was working on a long novel of my own, something that I wrote in small handwriting using mechanical pencils. The novel involved an anguished narrator who lived underground, ranging through a series of tunnels and underground spaces connecting buildings at a large Midwest university. The novel grew to immense length (I still have a three-ring binder containing the manuscript) but I couldn’t finish it because I had no clear plan as to the book’s plot or, even, its intent. I aspired to being a professional writer and, in fact, had some success in that direction – for three years in a row, I had won the Literata prize for best short story of the year published by the Minnesota Daily, the campus magazine. This was no small accomplishment – the Daily in those days had a circulation of 50,000 and was, perhaps, the fourth largest newspaper in the State. With my friend, Dan T– (who has just last year published a superb book of poetry), I edited a literary magazine that was issued by the Department of English at the University of Minnesota. The chapbook-sized publication was called Look up and See Wonders! and featured a woodcut on its cover showing 16th century peasants gazing upward at a sky full of spiny-looking comets and falling stars. But, all of these accomplishments, seemed to shrink into insignificance when compared with the work that KJL was doing. In my senior year, a German professor with whom I was close, said that he could get me an appointment in Berlin for a semester at the University there on the basis of my study of poets like Hoelderlin, Goethe, and Benn. But I was supposed to attend Law School – this was my father’s ambition for me – and so I declined the offer.
The people were eating family-style at a long table – actually several smaller tables pushed together with white cloth covering the seams. There were baskets of fresh bread and little pots of butter infused with garlic. Some bottles of red wine graced the table. The sun was shining and the table cloth was radiant and, of course, I imagine the people at the table all facing in one direction like the participants in the Last Supper, although I know that no one would have been seated in that way. The waiters and waitresses and the cooks from the kitchen were eating left-overs from the lunch setting at the New French Café and it was about 2:30 in the afternoon. Perhaps, a third of the tables in the restaurant had been marshaled for the lunch served to the cafe’s staff. The other tables remained in place, white cloth stained in a few instances with red wine and cluttered with bread crumbs. I recall the air as pungent with the smell of roast garlic.
I sat by KJL. At that time, he was helping in the kitchen doing prep work. I think it was a summer day with a breeze blowing across the city. Some of the people at the table were speaking French. I was happy to be included in the gathering.
Perhaps, ten years later, KJL was working at a restaurant somewhere downtown. It was a dining place that had a fine reputation, one of the best in town. For some reason, I wasn’t present, although my wife was in the restaurant where KJL was employed. He made fish for her in a vodka sauce. (I must have been downtown at one of the law offices taking depositions or something on that order.) At that time, a theater company called Theatre de Jeune Lune was active in Minneapolis and, in fact, internationally famous. (For a number of years the troupe, lead by Dominique Serrand, Vincent Gracieux, and Barbara Berkovitz, divided their time between Minneapolis and Paris.) One of the leading actresses at Jeune Lune, as it was called was a beautiful and highly creative young woman named Felicity J–. Julie, my wife, and Felicity J–, were seated at the bar in the restaurant where KJL was cooking. He brought them their plates of food and poured drinks gratis for the two women. As always, KJL was suave and charming and the dish that he had made for them was memorably excellent. From time to time, he deserted his duties in the kitchen to flirt with my wife and Felicity. He was nipping on the bottle of vodka from which he had made their mixed drinks.
It is impossible to overstate the cultural importance of Theater de Jeune Lune in Minneapolis. The company went from triumph to triumph and was universally renowned until it’s sudden collapse. In 1989, the Jeune Lune’s version of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano was presented in the old ritual auditorium on the top level of the downtown Masonic Temple. Felicity J– had an important role in that production which I recall as, possibly, the most moving live theater experience of my life. Like The New French Café, the Theater de Jeune Lune was a pioneer in developing the warehouse district and, in 1992, acquired the vast and cavernous Allied Van Lines building in that old brick wilderness as its residence. Live theater is incredibly difficult to sustain as a business and, ultimately, the Theater de Jeune Lune went bankrupt in 2008, only three years after it had won a Tony Award for the best regional theater in the United States. Felicity J– went on to Broadway and repertoire theater at the Guthrie, Hartford, Yale, and Harvard. (She will be appearing this Spring 2020 as a character in an adaptation of Jane Eyre at the Hartford repertory theater.)
Felicity was very interested in how my wife knew KJL. He had invited her to stop by the restaurant for his fish cooked in vodka sauce and, I guess, that it was pure serendipity that Julie was also present. My wife observed that Felicity was looking at KJL very attentively, following, as it were, his every movement and gesture and leaning into his words. When KJL spoke, her gaze moved up and down from his lips to his eyes. Each time, KJL returned to the kitchen to work on his other dishes, Felicity bent toward my wife to question her. My wife was impressed with the actress’ beauty and charming personality. KJL seemed a bit standoffish, showing off for both women, but directing most of his attention toward my wife. Apparently, Felicity had an errand to perform and, so, she said goodbye to KJL and Julie and, then, hurried away.
My wife told KJL that Felicity was very interested in him and, certainly, seemed available. “She likes you a great deal and wants some kind of relationship with you,” Julie told KJL. He said that he hadn’t noticed. “You should go out with her,” Julie said. Oddly enough, KJL seemed disinterested. Perhaps, at that time, he was in another relationship.
The last of the four classes I took with KJL at the University of Minnesota was a course on John Milton. KJL was a modernist in all respects (and completely irreligious) and, I think, the Milton class was an unpleasant burden to him. After the first two or three weeks, he stopped coming to classroom sessions conducted by Professor Leslie U–. There were about 25 students in the class and I don’t think KJL was missed.
Of course, KJL had to produce a paper on the subject of Milton’s Paradise Lost. I expected KJL to ask me to write this paper, since I frequently composed essays for him required by his courses. (I write very quickly and pride myself on being able to produce a professionally lucid and well-written paper on just about any subject, made to order as it were.) To my surprise, KJL told me that he intended to write this paper without my help. This perplexed me because I knew that he despised the subject matter and, further, hadn’t read more than a couple of hundred lines of Paradise Lost, a work he found noxious, even, offensive. At that time, KJL was taking a course on critical theory in the Romance Language department and, I think, his scheme was to write a paper that could be turned-in for both classes.
KJL’s project was ingenious. He located images of the first edition of Paradise Lost, particularly the first page on which Milton begins “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree —“ When the poem was first published in 1667, the initial “O” of “Of” was printed as either a historiated or inhabited initial depending upon your perspective. The “O” at the inception of the poem is large, as broad as several words and tall, occupying the space required for about three lines of the verse. A historiated initial is a large letter at the front of a text that contains a picture. By contrast, an inhabited initial is a large stylized letter that doesn’t communicate a story associated with the text but which is merely an instance of decorative graphic design. The “O” in Paradise Lost may be historiated because the oval form encircles a foliage motif – perhaps, the fatal tree of the knowledge of good and evil as described in the poem. The foliage, a fleur de lys pattern, however, is also continued in the spandrel-shaped corners of the block print initial – and, so, of course, it is possible that the branching leaf pattern, an exuberant fountain-like shape, is merely ornamental.
In any event, KJL wrote twenty pages, densely typed by his mother, advancing various theories about the typography used in the poem and, in fact, ascribing meaning to the historiated or inhabited initial “O”. This was exceptionally ingenious because KJL didn’t have to write much about the poem. Instead, he focused on nuances of 17th century type-face. Of course, it was impossible to grasp KJL’s point – his prose, at this point in his life, was so impenetrable that you couldn’t tell precisely, or, even, approximately, what he meant. The bluff worked. KJL was awarded an “A” for his paper on Milton and, then, after submitting the same work exactly to his critical theory professor, garnered a second “A” as well. In those days, I thought that KJL was some kind of genius.
KJL was less successful in a class that he talked me into taking on the American Short Story. I had just won a prize for one of my short stories published in the Minnesota Daily in its Friday literary supplement Literata. KJL told me that he had spoken with the professor, a fellow named Robert S– , and that this teacher, with whom KJL sometimes played tennis, had explicitly directed him to recruit me for the course. (Now, I don’t think any of this was true.) In any event, I signed up for the course which turned out to be nearly disastrous for me and not particularly salubrious for KJL either.
This happened during a summer session at the end of my undergraduate work at the University and I recall the first day of the course: we met in a oval room, round as the “O” in Paradise Lost, in one of the buildings on the threshold of that mighty compound of brick towers and courtyards constituting the University Hospitals. The room had steep sides comprised of benches and desktops and a curious emerald green rotunda with skylight overhead and I always thought that I could smell a faint stench of formalin and decay in that place. It was my assumption that this oddly shaped amphitheater had once been used for teaching anatomy and that cadavers had been disassembled here for the eyes of medical students. (In fact, I knew that there were actual cadavers upstairs in dissecting rooms either in that very building or an adjacent structure – one of my friends was in medical school and, on a couple of occasions, he gave me a tour of the corpses in the anatomy laboratory.) On that first morning, the air over the campus was heavy with humidity and everyone was drenched in sweat. The skies pressed down on the University like the heavy lead lid of a coffin. Professor S– was wearing tennis togs and seemed a powerfully built man – I later learned that he was a good athlete and lifted weights to stay in shape. Professor S– announced that it was a dark and sepulchral day and, in fact, perfect for discussing Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I recall the relish with which S– pronounced the word “sepulchral” – the vowels spilling from his mouth like rich, warm gravy.
It was fine course and I learned a lot about American short stories. Professor S– was an expert in Mailer and Bernard Malamud (and, later, was to write an important critical study of Robert Stone) and he was an excellent teacher. But, unlike most of the other professors at the University, he was very hard to impress and the sort of rambling, undisciplined approach that I took to criticism wasn’t much appreciated. In fact, when I turned in my essay on some Civil War stories by Ambrose Bierce, the paper came back to me graded at B minus, or, maybe, even worse. The text was marked with a hedge of adverse comments in red ink denigrating my observations and, further, attacking my prose style. I felt aggrieved, but, as far as I was concerned, fair was fair and, in fact, the paper had been laced with fanciful bullshit – I wasn’t the teacher and so who was I to complain? KJL had written an even more quixotic essay and ended up with the same grade marked on his paper. He agitated me to complain to the Teaching Assistant who had, apparently, savaged us with respect to these essays.
The TA was a swashbuckling guy who looked very much like General George Custer in his Civil War days, a kind of combination of Indian Fighter and Huck Finn, ready, it seemed, to “light out for the territories.” I recall that the man had a big moist moustache and long hair down to his shoulders and he was insufferably arrogant. KJL and I met him in his cubicle in the sweltering attic of Main Engineering, the old building where English classes were inexplicably venued. TA Custer was imperious – sure, there were some Indians down in that valley but not enough to make him reverse his course of action (although in this case, I now think the TA’s grade was probably fair and reasonable.) We spoke with him for a half-hour to no effect. In fact, the longer we argued with the TA, the more wretched he found both of our essays and I was actually afraid he would, further, downgrade the mark on my paper to punish us for remonstrating with him. The conference was pointless and KJL and I went down to the sidewalk outside of Main Engineering where we discussed the situation. Of course, we agreed that the TA was a fool and wished every possible misfortune upon him – in the case of TA George Armstrong Custer, hordes of angry Sioux warriors who would scalp him and stuff his genitals down his smug throat.
I was much more cautious with regard to the next short paper that I wrote for the class. I stayed very close to the text that I was explicating, didn’t advance any radical or bizarre interpretations, and used as modest a prose style as I could muster. But the damage was done – despite the fact that my next paper was objectively excellent, TA Custer was not about to give me anything better than a B +. I think I wrote my last paper on Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner”, certainly a wonderful story and a literary touchstone for me for the rest of my life. Again, I wrote as a supplicant – in a humble, exceedingly reserved manner. TA Custer was willing to forgive a little – he put a A minus on that paper. At that point in my High School and college career, I was a straight A student – I had A’s in chemistry, a whole year of physics with labs, as well as A for three semesters of advanced calculus that I had somehow taken by mistake – the subject was Fourier transforms and the theoretical underpinnings of calculus, a course that was specifically intended for Junior math majors. (I had A’s in Freshman calculus as well three-years worth of German literature classes taught in German.) In fact, I was fucking Phi beta Kappa and graduated magna cum laude with only one blemish on my entire record, a B+ in American Short Story, a course in which, by all measures, I should have excelled.
Oddly enough, Professor S– who presided over this debacle later became a good friend to KJL. The two men frequently played tennis and Professor S–, who is a very wise and nice man, was exceptionally generous to KJL. Late in KJL’s life, Professor S– hired him to do small odd-jobs around the home and, I understand, that the two men actually poured concrete in the retired instructor’s basement. I met Professor S– when I was in my fifties, thirty years or more after the short story class. Professor S— used to quote the warlord Audi Abu Tayi played by Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia – there is a scene in that movie in which the warlord’s tribe is gathered, camels and women and children at a banquet under the desert’s immense night sky. The sheikh cries out that he has been paid in gold by the Turks and yet is poor because he is “a river to his people”, a metaphor signifying the vastness and glory of his generosity to those dependant upon him. It’s a memorable scene and, I recall, that the women ululate and the men fire their carbines up into the torchlit darkness when those words are pronounced. Professor S–, referring to his kindness to KJL as well as his other graduate students, used to declare that he was “a river to his people.” This might seem grandiloquent, but, in fact, this assertion was, more or less, accurate. Professor S– sustained KJL for, at least, a half-dozen years or more and, even, gave him a car. KJL promised to pay Professor S– for the car, but, of course, this never happened. KJL was a Luftmensch, he lived on vapor and the fumes of malt liquor, and, of course, he had no resources to pay anyone anything.
Before he became an editor and designer for Enclitic, KJL and I walked across the campus, moving restlessly as we spoke. We walked for the sake of walking or, better put, for the sake of talking as we walked. Young people are nomadic by nature, designed to walk and see and, then, talk about what they have seen. It’s a way of knowing, and, perhaps, one of the most pleasurable. More than half of what you learn in college comes from talking to your fellow students, learning their passions and the things that they love, and exploring those passionate interests with them.
KJL had gone to High School on the campus and he knew the place intimately, all of the hang-outs and haunts and hidden byways between buildings. He knew the neighborhoods adjacent to the University and the bars and restaurants in those places as well as the athletic fields and gymnasiums and field houses, the places where there were soft ball or soccer fields, the tennis courts shadowed by the great range of grain elevators standing with outstretched millwork limbs along the railroad tracks north of the campus, the basketball courts, and the golf course for faculty next to the test fields and agricultural buildings of St. Paul’s farm campus.
We didn’t have cars. I came to the university each morning as a passenger with my father who worked in the Aerospace and Defense industry at Honeywell on Stinson Boulevard. After school, at 4:00, I would walk north, forty-five minutes or an hour to Honeywell where I would wait for my father to drive me home. I was a commuter kid at the great commuter college and, in his way, KJL was the same, although he lived much closer to the campus in St. Paul and took buses to and from school. But during the day, we walked, hiking across the big campus, crossing the Washington Avenue Bridge infamous in those days because John Berryman, the great poet had committed suicide by hurling himself off that span, plunging from white sky to white river to lie smashed on the ice lining the Mississippi in its black gorge. KJL took me over the river and we walked to the huge concrete colossus of Rarig Center, a brutalist monument comprised of cliffs of brick supporting a massive ledge of pure pre-stressed concrete still ridged and seamed with imprint of the forms into which the raw concrete had been poured. KJL told me that this place had been designed by his father, who was, of course, partner to Ralph Rapson. Then, we walked over the Cedar Avenue and stood in the shadow of the towers overlooking the atavistic old houses and decaying businesses on the river bluff. The towers were also Brutalist, although we didn’t have that name for them in 1974, big piers of concrete upthrust over the old slums where the Swedes had lived in the hollows and ravines next to river’s west bank. At the base of the towers, there were vestiges of communal structures that had been planned for the community, neighborhood taverns and meeting places inserted into niches at the base of the high-rises. The whole complex of skyscraper apartments and the markets and courtyards below them had been planned as an ensemble, a version of Le Corbusier’s radiant city. KJL’s father had studied architecture at MIT after returning from his aviator adventures over the sea between Japan and Korea and he had trained in Rome and the south of France and was an admirer of Le Corbusier. We talked about the Ville Radieuse and the way that human beings could live together in harmony and joy and how buildings were instrumental to the happiness of communities. On the East Bank, we went into Dinkytown and looked for new music at the record shop – KJL told me that I had to acquire the Beatles’ White Album, something that I obediently did. We walked past the pharmacy and campus bookstores where I used to buy volumes of German poetry and, then, stood on the matted, trampled grass of the Dinkytown library– this structure also had been designed KJL’s father and Ralph Rapson. I usually didn’t have any money because I was poor and paying for my education from proceeds earned in the summer as a laborer at an injection molding factory. But, sometimes, when we had enough money between us, we might go into one of the pizza joints in Dinkytown and put our quarters together with a dollar bill or so to buy a pitcher of beer. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I guess I was happy. The young are always happy, when they are not desperately sad – and, even, then, there is a kind of fierce joy in being miserable.
We talked about art, abstract and figurative and which was better (I preferred figurative; KJL took the opposite view), films and photography, the respective merits of Bob Dylan as compared to the Beatles, (of course, a relative of a relative in KJL’s clan was friends with the Iron Range Zimmermans), the politics of the draft and the War in Vietnam, the moral obligations of literature and whether there were such things as Truth and Beauty, the interpretation of written texts and the authority of certain novelists and intellectuals as arbiters of Truth and Beauty, the best snacks to consume when smoking marijuana, hangovers associated with different sorts of “potables”, noteworthy recipes, and family lore: KJL told me about his father and the divorce that had complicated his adolescence and he talked about his relationships with various women, some of whom wanted to marry him and others who were merely “cock teases”. We discussed work for minimum wage and films that we admired and books that were important to us. We never talked about the future. This was because the future was so huge and unknown as to be an unwieldy topic for conversation – it was all ahead of us and, when you are young, 24 hours creeps by at a dismal lagging pace and a week is a decade and a month an eternity. KJL was a close friend and I liked talking to him and there was, in our relationship, that very slight mixture of competition and, even, skeptical disregard for the other’s opinions since, as William Blake assures us, “Opposition is True Friendship.”
One morning in Autumn, a circuitous route had brought us to Dinkytown and we were standing on the sidewalk a few storefronts north of 4th Street, the west-bound one-way that Dylan sings about (or so it is alleged) in his song “Positively 4th Street, and the sun was shining brightly and the air was crisp with the snap and pop of football, cleats clawing earth and shoulder pads snapping together, kids coming and going and bums panhandling among the fresh-faced students and a busker at the intersection across from the drug store playing guitar and yowling at the traffic light signaling to the tidal waves of cars, a couple Vietnam veterans in tattered fatigues sitting on their sleeping bags and passing a joint back and forth, the street singer strumming “Positively 4th Street”, if I recall correctly and the vets mouthing the words to the chorus about someone wanting to see someone else paralyzed and down the street across from the Burger King and the pizza place, a small line of people stood on the pavement, a little queue that extended under the eaves of the buildings. KJL and I took our place in the line and, in due course, much more quickly than you might imagine, places opened in the café and we were seated in a narrow dead-end corridor in front of a narrow formica counter in the campus institution called Al’s Breakfast and there was Al himself, an old Swede lean and gaunt as Max von Sydow pouring coffee and sliding plates of eggs and sausage and griddle-cakes to his customers, about 12 of us sitting elbow to elbow in the tiny place. A couple of men smoking cigarettes over their coffee knew KJL and greeted him and, then, Al himself reached his bony hand across the counter and shook with KJL and it was wonderful, truly wonderful, to be with such an accomplished person who was known in all of the very best places on campus.
KJL told me that his father had frequented this tiny dive, a place famous on campus however, when he was supervising the construction of his public library around the corner and down the street. Al looked very sleepy. It was about 10:30 in the morning but he had been slinging hash since 5:30 or 6:00 am and pretty soon it was time to call it a day, shut the door to the niche in the building and pull the iron gate closed so that it could be padlocked. KJL was planning to cut some classes and search for rare titles in the Bookhouse, a used bookstore a hundred feet away. I was a more dutiful student and had classes later in the day and, so, after eating I hurried away alone to where I had left my books and note-pads in the great reading room of Walter Library on the massive scarred table where I sat every day, always at the same place, so that my friends, such as they were could find me.
KJL was sexually sophisticated and he could supply you with many stories of his various intimate encounters. And he had a real girlfriend with whom he actually lived, cohabiting on Lowry Hill with Susan C– in a brownstone just above the slanting brick cube of the Walker Art Center and Ralph Rapson’s Guthrie Theater. Susan C– was several years older than KJL and she had lived adventurously – KJL told me that she had spent a year, or more, at a hippie commune in Vermont. Susan C– was gracious and welcoming to me. She had a frizzy crown of jet-black hair around her pale face. She didn’t wear make-up and dressed in black trousers and black shirts and seemed fantastically sophisticated and Bohemian to me. (In the summer, during shorts-weather, I observed that she didn’t shave her legs, something that also seemed utterly outre to me.) I think Susan C– came from Anoka or Champlain, some town just beyond the northern ambit of the suburbs and her brother was an Olympic- class wrestler: he had competed in Mexico City, I recall hearing, as a member of the United States’ team of Greco-Roman wrestlers.
I thought Susan C– was wonderful and enjoyed talking with her. She was a good cook and could make excellent vegetarian dishes. I don’t think she had moral reservations about eating meat – it was just that she was poor and KJL was poor as well and no one had much money to buy meat. The relationship between KJL and Susan didn’t end well. As is the case with many couples, their timing never exactly synchronized. During the time that she was most committed to their relationship, KJL was distracted and, when he was most passionate about her, she also had other interests. When their relationship was just beginning, Susan C– traveled to New York City and lived a few blocks from the Bleecker Street Cinema, pursuing her dream of becoming a professional dancer or artist or the mistress of a professional dancer or artist in Greenwich Village. She went to New York, partly to elude KJL who was, then, living in her apartment near the Walker and had become a nuisance. In her dreams, she saw herself as free and easy and as liberated as Mary Tyler Moore, let’s say, making it all on her own in the Big City. KJL was not part of this fantasy, but, nonetheless, he missed her after she left Minneapolis and so, saving up all of his money, he took leave from the University and went by train cross-country to Manhattan where he surprised Susan in her roach-infested closet of a room in the Village. Although I think Susan C– loved KJL after her own manner, she didn’t want to take care of him and she was distressed at his unexpected appearance at her apartment. KJL took some pictures of the city and he made a beautiful portrait of the skyline over Bleecker Street, the perspective toward the Battery, with elderly and decrepit-looking rooftop water-tanks leaning on their stilts like an old man leans on his cane, and, looming against the grey sky, the two towers that were destroyed a quarter century later. Susan C– was enraged at KJL interrupting her fantasy, something that had been going rather well before he suddenly knocked on her door, and she forced him to get a job to help support the apartment where they lived. KJL took a job at Macy’s on Herald Square and he worked there over the winter rush and, then, the expedition to NYC collapsed and he came back to Minnesota with Susan C– following a few weeks later. As a souvenir, from this trip, KJL had a tee-shirt that showed the various stops and stations in the New York subway system. It was a nice tee-shirt and KJL wore it for several years.
After the New York adventure, the apartment on Lowry Hill decorated with an enormous portrait of Joseph Beuys was leased to some other tenant at that point and so KJL moved in with Susan C– to another small and squalid apartment a little off 4th Street near University Avenue, a very old structure that, of course, KJL prepared for habitation by renting a floor-sander and buffing the ancient hardwood to the fine shimmer of a dance-floor. Susan C– and KJL weren’t happy and he accused her of being unfaithful. Once when I went to see them, they were arguing violently. One of them had offered me dinner, but KJL and Susan were so angry with each other that nothing could be safely prepared – it’s not a good idea to exchange recriminations about fucking other people when chopping vegetables with a sharp knife or boiling water. Susan sat on one of KJL’s exquisitely designed but uncomfortable chairs (he had Ealing furniture or something like it) and KJL raged at her and, once, when she went to the fridge to a get a beer, he shouted at her that she shouldn’t be stealing his beer and that all the beer in the house was his property and that she owed him at least a dollar and 25 cents for that particular beverage. Susan took some change from her pocket and threw it at him. Later, I think Susan C–, who was then studying architecture, went to Paris. I wasn’t much in the picture at that time – I assume I was in law school and KJL was at Cornell or studying abroad. Just as before, when she lived on Bleecker Street, KJL showed up unbidden on her doorstep in Montmartre or wherever it was that she was living in Paris and, again, entirely disrupted her fantasy of forging a way on her own as the muse of artists and painters in the City of Light. The relationship lasted seven or eight years, I think, and most of that time it was unhappy.
But, at first, Susan C– and KJL were good for one another and made a nice couple. KJL ushered me into her apartment on Lowry Hill the first afternoon that I met her. She had been cooking something and the apartment had a warm, fresh smell. Susan C– said that she was happy to meet me and that she heard many complimentary things about my writing. Some of KJL’s photographs decorated the wall, including a large print showing Susan C– framed against the big and austere portrait of Joseph Beuys that was big as a canvas by Chuck Close and that adorned the white-washed kitchen wall over the sink. KJL apologized for the apartment floor – he said that he was saving some money to rent a sanding machine to buff the floorboards to a bright shine. While she was cooking, KJL and I took a walk down the street to a small park in Kenwood. Children were playing on a swingset and some young mothers were chatting on a bench. KJL told me about his fine relationship with Susan C– and how she met all of his needs and he told me that he was very happy. He was certain that soon they would be married. We walked back to the brownstone. KJL poured some red wine from a jug. Susan C– told me about how she had seen Bruce Springsteen a year earlier when he performed at the Guthrie Theater. She said that the venue was intimate and that the concert had been marvelous, the sort of event that changes your life. We were waiting for the lentils in a big stew pot to soften enough to be edible. The kitchen was steamy and fragrant with onion and garlic that she had chopped. KJL said that Susan C– was obviously sexually excited by Bruce Springsteen. “She would like to sleep with him,” KJL said. I thought he was joking but there was an edge to his words, a slight trace of disapproval in his voice. “Everyone would like to sleep with Bruce Springsteen,” Susan said. “He is a rock star.” She told us that he had launched himself into the crowd at the Guthrie Theater and that the audience had held him above them, cradled by many hands, and that they had passed him from place to place in the room while the band played. “He was so trusting,” Susan said. “Do you see?” KJL said. “Her nipples are getting hard just thinking of it.” “He’s just teasing,” Susan said. KJL poured us all another glass of wine. “He’s just teasing,” she said once more.
The second class that I took with KJL at the University of Minnesota got me in trouble with my father. I was enrolled in advanced calculus, physics, a course on the German novella, and philosophy class. This latter class was about the mind-body problem and was taught in basement room in one of airless mazes for humans comprising the psychology department. Psychology and its allied sciences occupied a fortified bluff above the Mississippi gorge where the campus power plant dipped its toe into the spillways at St. Anthony Falls and the music departments were nearby so that, when windows were opened in that neighborhood, the breeze resounded with instruments practicing arpeggios, flute-like scales ascending and descending. The mind-body course was taught by a dour Scandinavian who wore rectangular blue suits to class and held himself at strict attention as if he were instructing a group of Danish military cadets. I didn’t even know there was a mind-body problem and the initial readings in the text book were appalling – dry as dust statements of first principles annexed to impenetrable arguments about definitions and semantics. I thought philosophy had something to do with Truth and Beauty, the sorts of things I debated with KJL when we hiked around the campus, but this subject-matter seemed almost willfully dull and elementary. Before you can discuss the ostensible subject, the mind-body problem, you need to be confident that there is a mind and also a body and it seemed to me that it would take half the semester to establish these things. Apparently, in philosophy, the ascent to the Empyrean is by slow degrees and Truth and Beauty are revealed only after much preliminary study. My memories of this mind-body class are suspect because I only attended two class meetings.
KJL had been told that the best minds in the Romance Languages Department recommended a sophomore-junior level course called “Sartre and the Artist.” During our walks, KJL said that I needed to better understand “discourse,” a mode of self-presentation that was different from the ordinary ways in which people communicated. “Discourse,” he told me was central to an understanding of the most recent, and interesting, developments in continental philosophy and that I was wasting my time trying to sort out the “mind-body” problem. I don’t like changing my plans and had already acquired my books for the mind-body course (and, even, read several chapters in them) and, furthermore, my father had approved my course of study, an efficient engine for getting me into law school as quickly as possible. But KJL was persistent and, finally, I did something that I had never done before (and have never done since): I dropped out of the mind-body course and enrolled in Professor George B–‘s “Sartre and the Artist.” My father was furious – in fact, the Sartre class could be applied to the elective requirements that had induced my enrollment in the “mind-body” class, but, nonetheless, he thought that this deviation into Sartre and, presumably, French thought was sinister and might well be the first step on my way to my choosing some whimsical course of study inimical to matriculating into the Law School. The fact that I paid for my own tuition, however, rendered him powerless to dissuade me from this course.
Professor George B– was an old queen who sat on a stool at the head of the class sipping red wine from a coffee-cup. He was shrill and bitchy, but had been, I’m told, a courageous soldier during the war in Europe, assigned service in Paris after the victory over Germany where he had actually met Sartre on several occasions. Curiously, Professor B–, had in his possession a manuscript of Sartre’s unfinished final novel, something that he told us he had retrieved from a table in a Left Bank bar frequented by the famous philosophe. Sartre was still very much alive when I took this course and Professor B–, I think, was anxiously awaiting the philosopher’s death so that he could do yeoman-work in editing the incomplete novel for publication. For much of the class, Professor B– speculated as to why Sartre hadn’t finished writing the novel. This was before the era of readily available photocopying and, I supposed that Sartre wasn’t able to work on the book for the simplest of all possible reasons: the manuscript was no longer in his possession, having been purloined by a homosexual American GI, and the philosophe didn’t have the ambition to rewrite the whole thing from rien (if that is, the proper French word). When Professor B– speculated in the most abstruse ways on Sartre’s inability to complete this novel, a problem that he ascribed to the philosopher having lost faith in the literary form in the context of the “engagement” of the writer, I wanted to shout out: “why don’t you just give Sartre back his manuscript and, perhaps, he’ll, then, be able to finish the goddamned thing!”
Professor B– was in the closet, although not too deeply. He had a buxom wife and several robust children as befitted a WWII combat veteran, but, clearly, enjoyed the company of the young men working with him as Teaching Assistants. This was where I first encountered the formidable Larry C–, a student of Russian formalism who spoke like an academic treatise and knew words like syuzhet and fabula. Larry C– was the smartest student on campus and possibly the smartest person in the whole world. Someone told me that later he abandoned literature and invented the cell-phone or something on that order. The other TA involved with “Sartre and the Artist” was Biodun I– , a Nigerian student whose father was supposedly a delegate to the United Nations. Biodun I– was a flashy dresser and his glasses were framed in solid gold and it was obvious that Professor B– was infatuated with him. Of course, KJL was also one of the teacher’s pets in that class, even though, he fell behind in the reading and didn’t attend many of Professor B-‘s lectures.
In actuality, the course was very good and influential on my thinking. We read Sartre’s Nausea and the trilogy of novels comprising The Age of Reason, and then, his play The Flies. We also studied Sartre’s flamboyant essay on Tintoretto, a text that I greatly admire, and the famous writings on the necessity that novelists and, indeed, all other artists be politically engaged. I still recall the climax of the essay on Francois Mauriac – M. Mauriac has chosen divine omniscience and omnipotence. "But novels are written by and for men... God is not an artist. Neither is M. Mauriac". In fact, the class was wide-ranging and very ambitious: we studied Picasso’s “Guernica” and the career of Marcel Duchamp as well and were directed to write a term paper on some important contemporary artist, applying the concepts that we had discussed in class. Professor B– required that his students submit an outline as to the artist proposed for analysis. I was interested in Max Beckmann’s triptychs and their relationship to the tradition of church altars that could be opened to reveal a central panel flanked by images on hinged wings. Needless to say this topic was completely unacceptable to Professor B–. He told me that if I was interested in triptychs, then, I should study Rauschenberg’s “combine” of that title and explicate that work on the basis of ideas that we had learned in his class. Dutifully, I went to the art library, looked at every Rauschenberg painting or collage illustrated in the monographs about the artist, and, then, undertook to write on that subject.
Rauschenberg’s "Triptych", a lithographic print, is a beautiful thing, a precise and poetic surrealist image: there is an x-ray of a skeleton on the left, posed above an open umbrella; the center of the picture is a whorl of words that looks like a thumbprint overlaying a blue silk-screened image that, perhaps, shows Mexican bandits in big sombreros; on the right, a man on roller skates is tightly harnessed to a great webbed sail intended to catch the wind atop a diagram of a box. (The expression on the man’s face, a combination of panic and anguished determination is worth a thousand words itself.) There are many other elements to the print and it is wonderful. Furthermore, as I quickly grasped, the subject in general was an easy one – Rauschenberg’s graphic work is complicated in its meanings and can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Levi-Strauss in his structuralist work defined certain subjects, such as animals, as “good to think with.” Rauschenberg’s art is “good to think with” – you can inscribe a half-dozen trajectories of interpretation across the face of the work and all should be equally valid. The essay on Rauschenberg was a pleasure to write and I composed the text in my most “unbuttoned” style, bringing all sorts of stories and personal anecdotes and digressions to bear on the subject. I was desperate to impress Professor B– and earn a place among his disciples and acolytes. I thought that the resulting paper was one of my best and was very proud of it.
Of course, KJL also had to write a paper for the class, although I suppose this requirement might have been waived if he had made that request. (KJL always seemed to receive special dispensation at the U of M.) He conceived of the ingenious idea that his paper would be a critical commentary on my Rauschenberg essay. This notion was duly approved by Professor B– and, when my paper was complete and typed – it was about 25 pages – I was advised to submit the work to KJL for his annotations. KJL scribbled handwritten notes all over my text, underlined in red ink passages that he disliked, and circled any grammatical or usage solecisms that he observed, inscribing the manuscript with nasty-looking big, hooked question-marks. Then, he submitted the paper as annotated to Professor B–.
Each student was supposed to meet with the professor to discuss his or her paper and, so, a time was scheduled for this conference in Professor B–‘s office at Folwell Hall. Killing two birds with one stone, KJL and I were both told to meet with the instructor at the same time. I recall that Professor B– was a little drunk, his coffee cup half full of brandy that forenoon, and he seemed giddy. Biodin I– , his favorite TA was present, lithe and elegant as always. Biodun’s skin was pitch-black and this accentuated the gold rims of his glasses and his neatly tied cravat, actually if I recall correctly a red bow-tie. Professor B– told me that my essay was certainly very interesting and, indeed, much enlivened by KJL’s brilliant comments. I was never exactly sure what those annotations said because KJL’s handwriting was illegible. As far as I could tell, he had decried various portions of my essay as naive or unsophisticated and proposed counter-interpretations to Rauschenberg’s art in marginal notes. After declaring KJL’s notes on my essay as really remarkable, Professor B– said that my paper would be marked as an A minus and that KJL’s work rated an A. I supposed I looked a little crestfallen because Professor B– offered me a glass of brandy or, perhaps, it was cognac. I agreed and we all sipped on the stuff while Professor B– regaled us with stories about his adventures in Paris. Then, he opened his desk drawer and proposed that we smoke cigars with him. The cigars were big and brown, huge turd-shaped blunts that Professor B– manipulated lasciviously. KJL and Biodun I– both bit off the tip of their cigars and presented them to be lit by Professor B–. His eyes glittered mischievously. I thanked him for the cigar but said that I would smoke it later. The haze in the office was blue and noxious and made me feel faint. After another quarter hour, we escaped onto the mall. I was dizzy and sat on a bench.
“That went well,” KJL said. I agreed and told him that he could have my unsmoked cigar.
The plan was to eat some sauerbraten and drink German beer. We were seated at the bar in the Black Forest Inn. KJL and I had come from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, about eight blocks away. I don’t know how we came to be in that restaurant. My memory is inexact on that point and I don’t remember what led to our visit to the Black Forest. I seem to recall a conversation about Rene Magritte and, then, some discussion about photography. Most likely, we had gone to the nearby art museum to see photographs on display there. In those days, KJL was very interested in photography and had exhibited about twenty of his own black and white prints in an annex to the old Cedar theater on the West Bank. Accordingly, I reconstruct that most likely we had come from looking at photographs in the museum on which, no doubt, KJL was expressing opinions on what we had seen – KJL’s ideas on photography were contentious but well-informed.
I have a folder containing about ten or fifteen pictures by KJL in my desk drawer. He favored images with people wearing masks, often a flabby rubber mask of a gorilla. Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who made pictures of similarly masked figures, was one of KJL’s favorite photographers, although my friend eschewed the out-of-focus blur in many of Meatyard’s images. KJL’s most fascinating picture (really a collage) was later used as a cover for Enclitic’s film edition, the number of that periodical featuring the center-fold shot-sequence from The Battleship Potemkin. In his collage, KJL showed a projector casting images on a screen. The image was broken into four quadrants that were to be read from top left to bottom right. The first quarter of the picture showed the projector and, then, next to it, the image that it was projecting: this was an audience, lit from behind, a shadowy assemblage gazing intently at something unseen – I think the picture was a frame from Merian Cooper’s King Kong. In the lower left corner, a figure wearing a gorilla mask seems to attack the projector. In the last frame, the gorilla, now scarlet with red water-colors roars at the viewer and beats at his brawny chest. This was a very wonderful work of art that still seems admirable to me today – I have that picture framed and hanging on my wall. The other pictures in KJL’s show were portraits of Susan C– staged to look like frames from some unheralded film noir – she slaps her forehead in amazement with a cityscape looming over her profile. Some pictures showed Biodun I– riding on a carnival Tilt-a-Whirl, plastered back against a metal grating by the centrifugal force, but still smoking a cigarette with the palm of his hand cupped over his mouth. KJL’s little brother, Adam, appeared in some of the carnival pictures, whooping and wide-eyed as the spinning ride also pinned him against the metal grate.
I think KJL’s photography show was presented under the auspices of the Nancy Hauser Dance Company, a troupe in which his sister, Jessica, performed. For a time, I think the Nancy Hauser Dance Company occupied the old Cedar Theater under the escarpment of the skyscraper apartments designed by KJL’s father and Ralph Rapson. But I also recall that the Cedar Theater would sometimes screen the film Les Enfants du Paradis, the epic movie about show-people in 19th century Paris directed by Marcel Carne and produced under conditions of legendary difficulty during the German occupation. Whenever the film was shown, projected in a dilapidated 16 mm print marked in its first frames with the Janus insignia, a big crowd of people attended. It seemed that everyone from the Romance Languages department and faculty were present, drinking wine from bottles in paper sacks, and enthralled by the movie. The film seemed immensely long to me and I never really warmed to it, although I think I saw the picture several times on the West Bank and always in the chilly vault of the Cedar Avenue Theater. (“Warming to the movie” was literally impossible in that under-heated theater.) One line from Jacques Prevert’s screenplay has remained in my memory for almost fifty years: “If everyone who lived together loved one another, the Earth would shine like the Sun.”
So, as you will see, there are troubles with my memory. I’m sure I saw KJL’s show of his photographs in a room adjacent to the studios of the Nancy Hauser Dance Company. But I recall that room to be a part of the Cedar Theater and it is hard to reconcile my memories of seeing Les Enfants du Paradis in that theater, which I can almost smell (spilled wine and rancid butter) and feel in my bones (the place was never properly heated in winter and it was icy cold). Probably something is wrong and, most likely, I saw the Carne film on the East Bank in the old Campus Theater where the Janus film festival as it was called played European art films in February and March each year. But the Campus Theater, now long gone, was located across from the hospitals and the dormitory district at the university, and certainly, would not have hosted an exhibition of KJL’s idiosyncratic photographs. All of this writing, this text that I present to you, of course, verges on the fictional – after almost fifty years who knows what exactly happened. I can recall my emotions and some physical sensations but the context of those feelings is now elusive.
And this is true also of our visit to the Black Forest. I had been to that restaurant once before, when I was a little boy – I think my father brought me to that place after I attended with him a Jazz concert played by the Hall Brothers Emporium of Jazz at the Institute of Art. (One of my father’s cronies from his own High School in central Nebraska was attending the MIA at that time.) In any event, I hadn’t entered the Black Forest for more than a decade when KJL and I ventured into the bar, planning to eat some Sauerbraten and drink some good German beer.
KJL and I went to the dark, polished bar counter. It was mid-afternoon and gloomy in that part of the restaurant. Indeed, the entire place was dark with heavy timbers outlining windows dimmed with stained glass and big black beams supporting the roof. The trim above the old wooden booths framed German mottos in old black-letter Fraktur, exclamations of Gemuetlichkeit, and smoke-stained frescos of castles overlooking the Rhine. At that time of day, the place was an “old man bar” and there were a couple of elderly drunks seated at the bar, mugs of beer under their noses. The old men were disheveled and their trousers looked grimy and they were wearing big, battered work boots that were like hooves at the bottom of their legs. One of the old men was talking about some battle in which he had fought in World War II. The other old man said that he had once sold beer at the stadium where the Twins played baseball, although this was so long ago that the Twins were still called the Washington Senators although they had relocated from Capitol to Minneapolis and St. Paul. The old men gestured as if drawing pictures in the air with their dirty hands and fingernails. Drunks of this kind were a novelty for me and I watched carefully and listened to them speak even as KJL and I continued our debate about whatever it was we were debating.
KJL got up to go to the bathroom. When he returned, he took me back to the wall between the Men and Women’s rooms (Herren und Damen). That wall is covered by a great mural-sized picture by Richard Avedon, the famous American photographer – it is still there today and you can inspect it now exactly as I did almost fifty years ago. The Avedon picture shows society matrons in elaborate clothing. But the picture, with figures almost life-sized, is most interesting because it has been riddled with bullet holes. A couple years after the picture’s installation behind a transparent plastic panel, some crazy drunk drew a gun and fired into the photograph. Several neat round holes are visible, bored into the big black and white photo-mural. If you doubt this, you can put your finger in those wounds.
The beer was very good and we used up our money drinking. There was nothing left over for Sauerbraten with Spaetzel. The sun had set and the streets were dark and empty – in those days, the neighborhood looked a little malign, although most of the people on the streets were art students enrolled at MIA. I had to walk fifteen blocks to reach my bus. The beer caught up to me and I remember pissing in alleys several times on my way to the bus-stop.
KJL worked at the Guthrie Theater as a usher. There was a lovely blonde girl who also worked there as an usher. She was enrolled in the Honors English class that I attended with KJL during my freshman year at the University of Minnesota. It seemed that KJL knew everyone. He met acquaintances on every block at campus and, sometimes, people called out to him merrily from the sidewalk across the street. One day, the blonde girl came to class wearing her usher uniform from the Guthrie. A red stripe ran along the seam of her trousers and she ws sporting a red vest and looked very cute, a little foot-soldier in war between the sexes. KJL told me that she had seduced him a year before when they were both in High School. The blonde girl’s boyfriend was a race-car driver and ex-Marine, five or six years older than her and this man was finishing his courses in business administration. I think he worked as an intern at the downtown Grain Exchange. KJL said that the blonde girl flaunted her Marine boyfriend as a way of taunting him. But he would not take the bait because she was a “prick tease.”
KJL was cast as one of the two furniture moving men in the Guthrie’s production of Juno and the Paycock. I saw the play from a cheap seat, a long way from the thrust stage and off to the side. If I recall correctly, KJL was dressed as a roustabout. His beefy build made him perfect for the part. He wore a sort of grimy beret over his eyes in the play. If I recall correctly, he even had one line – but I don’t remember what it was.
In the Honors English class, the teacher Lonna Malmsheimer, was finishing a degree in American Studies. Her subject was women’s roles as revealed in the texts of 17th and 18th century sermons preached by New England divines. Ms. Malmsheimer knew KJL’s father somehow, perhaps, from an encounter in the Spanish castle. She was a very sober woman with dark-hair and, with her husband, she lived somewhere in Uptown, near the intersection with Lake and Hennepin. KJL had been to her apartment and was on close personal terms with her – he called her “Lonna” in class and she didn’t correct him with respect to this form of address.
During the Spring term in the Honor’s English Class, we read the novella “Melanctha” from Gertrude Stein’s Three Women. I found that story very difficult, repetitive and mostly uninteresting. There was an American-Indian woman in the class, a very beautiful girl who was from Seattle. She had long braids that fell down her back to her buttocks and wore dark tee shirts lettered to celebrate the American Indian Movement occupation of Alcatraz Island. I recall that this young woman argued that “Melanctha” was racist – she denounced a passage in the book involving Black men fighting with knives. The Native-American girl was very passionate and it was impossible to argue against her – indeed, on campus, it is always very hard to refute assertions that something is racist without being ascribed racist motivations yourself. I kept silent, although KJL made a few remarks, claiming to agree with her, but actually undercutting some of what she had said. The teacher kept out of the fray. After all, she had assigned the book.
The class met mid-afternoon for about ninety minutes. We took a break. Our class-room was on the third floor of Vincent Hall near the offices for the Department of Mathematics. In display cases, there were models of remarkable curves and patterns, images made from interlaced wires and thread that simulated the shapes defined by certain mathematical equations. The forms seemed designed to support architectures in higher dimensions than those that we could see.
The drinking fountain in the corridor outside our classroom was over-pressured and, when the handle was turned, icy water jetted up into the air in a big arc – a shape, also, no doubt described by an interesting polynomial equation. You had to take care with this fountain or it would spray you in the eye. I drank from the fountain’s spigot, sealing it off with my mouth. KJL, then, drank. I stood nearby. The Indian girl was close to us as well. “Are you guys gonna spray me?” she asked. I think she was teasing but I don’t know for sure. Perhaps, she thought we were so malign, so irredeemably racist, that we would punish her for criticizing Gertrude Stein by shooting water in her face. I hope she was teasing, but I don’t know – there was a faint flicker of a smile on her face. Of course, I thought the girl was fantastically desirable. “No,” I said, “we won’t spray you.” “That’s good,” she said.
Lonna Malmsheimer told us that she had applied for a job in Long Beach, California. The college was on sand bluffs overlooking a vast beach. She said that the kids came in from classes with the sea water in their hair and wearing flip-flops and bathing suits – from the cafeteria, she said, you could see your kids scheduled for class that afternoon, zigzagging back and forth in the grey spray of the surf. The girls, she told us, were like Botticelli’s Venus rising from the sea.
We finished our discussion of “Melanctha.” KJL and I went down the stairwell to the ground floor of Vincent Hall. On the south side of the corridor on the ground floor, the entrance lobby terminated in a big stucco wall painted Pompeii red. On that wall, white Bauhaus-style letters said: Department of Mortuary Sciences. I always wondered what was behind that stucco wall with its bright coating of paint. Sometimes, I thought you could smell formalin in the air, the same odor you might sense from a frog opened up below your nose on a dissecting tray in 10th grade biology. Formaldehyde, it was said, was a preservative used in certain beers and malt liquors. It was raining outside and KJL stopped to open his umbrella. He mentioned the name of the Native-American girl. “You know, she really likes me,” KJL said. “How do you know that?” I asked. He said: “Whenever I talk, her nipples get hard and you can see this through her shirt.”
At the next class, I tried to observe this phenomenon but wasn’t quite sure what I saw.
Sometimes, we went to the Department of Architecture. KJL’s father was on the faculty there with his partner, Ralph Rapson.
Of course, the architecture building was so poorly designed and so completely hideous that it was pulled down twenty years later. The structure sat on a low knoll, about a block from the fantasy parapets and Rapunzel towers of the old Armory (where the ROTC students took their military classes). The use of space in the architecture building was wasteful: the place had a huge atrium that was completely useless. This atrium was raised a bit above an interior moat, a six-foot deep groove that ran along the edges of the court illumined by some chilly skylights overhead. The moat seemed to have no function except to collect candy bar wrappers and empty potato chip bags. Small, ugly classrooms lined the moat. To cross the atrium, you ascended to steel and concrete bridges that spanned the moat. The building was only a dozen years old when I was on campus and, already, the walls were tearing free from of the foundation and the skylight was in disrepair and the bizarre, and utterly pointless, moat had also developed cracks in the walls of that concrete channel.
When I first knew KJL, the atrium contained an exhibition of architectural models of Italian hilltowns. Faculty from the architecture department had led a field trip to Italy and the students had mapped and surveyed about twenty villages located in the Apennine Mountains. Upon their return to Minnesota, teams of students simulated the mountain sides with cardboard stacked to show the differing elevations on which the towns had been built. Then, the white hives of the village themselves with their baroque churches and plazas were installed in tiny cardboard models carefully glued to the stacked elevations. Photographs of the actual hill-towns were attached to posters set next to the displays, each of them mounted on plywood set atop what seemed to be saw-horse mounts. The hill-town models were exquisite and, if you looked at them long enough, you could imagine yourself wandering the streets and aerial alleyways of those village. Each town represented a labyrinth, a maze of buildings and chapels suspended like a glacier above the depths of a valley green and grey with ancient olive trees. I spent some time contemplating these models which exercised a curious fascination on me. KJL was less interested. I don’t know if KJL’s father had something to do with the Italian hill-town exhibit, but I always associated him with it.
KJL told me that once Frank Lloyd Wright had come to the University of Minnesota to harangue the architecture students. The old man was tiny, a wizened silver-haired mannequin draped in a large cape. He was escorted through the studios and inspected some blueprints as well as a couple of models. Then, he spoke to the assembly. KJL’s father was present together with the one-armed Ralph Rapson who was, then, designing the Guthrie Theater. Frank Lloyd Wright glared at the students gathered before him and said something like: “When I look into your faces, I despair of the future of architecture in this country.” He delivered a few more pithy insults and, then, departed.
Throughout my undergraduate years, the models of the Italian hill-towns remained in the barren atrium of the architecture building. The tables displaying these models with their precipitous cardboard landscapes were scattered around the courtyard like perverse ping-pong or billiards tables. As time passed, the models became increasingly dilapidated – people had spilled coffee on them or left garbage atop the fragile olive tree groves made with toothpicks and tiny flares of green crepe-paper foliage. The stark white houses yellowed and some of them slipped from their perches to fall into the simulated valley below. In fact, as time progressed, whole neighborhoods broke away and skidded off the hilltops. People swiped the photographs verifying the accuracy of the models. Pretty soon, the whole thing became (more or less) an embarrassment.
In the Honors English class, we were assigned writing projects. Lonna Malmsheimer encouraged us to write short stories and poetry. I composed a story called “KOM,” an acronym that meant “King of Monsters” – the story was about Godzilla conceived as a metaphor for a nuclear holocaust. One of our classmates, Bill S– wrote an elaborate poem in heroic couplets. The poem was very impressive, although I recall that Ms. Malmsheimer thought that the Bill S– should have used more enjambment to avoid the risk of monotony posed by end-stopping each couplet. (Bill S– later became a psychiatrist and, then, wrote many books about planets in our solar system – he also wrote a book about Edward Emerson Barnard, called The Immortal Fire Within; I think this latter book about the great comet hunter and astrophotographer was published by the Yale Press. Bill S– now lives in Flagstaff, Arizona where is affiliated with the observatory there, the mountain-top eyrie at which Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. I bought a number of Bill S–‘s books issued by Reaktion Press at the University of Chicago without knowing that these had been written by old classmate.) KJL wrote tiny aphoristic short stories in stripped-down prose that was exceedingly elegant – each paragraph in those stories was lapidary, terse gem-like sentences that were singularly beautiful. These little short stories seemed perfect in their own way and were, even, very funny and sardonic. KJL had a way of writing, then, that was completely rhetorical – by this I mean he never indulged himself in mere description. Rather, his sentences were all animate with sensibility, that is, with a kind of attitude. Although I didn’t appreciate the fact at that time, KJL’s prose was, in fact, captions to a sort of cartoon or story-board that the reader’s imagination supplied.
One of our classmates was an older man, probably in his late twenties – perhaps, he was a veteran although I don’t think so. This man wore a rather decrepit suit-coat over his flannel shirt and jeans. He had a prematurely grey beard and always came to class half-stoned and smelling of marijuana. Because he was eight or nine years older than the rest of us, he surveyed the class with a kind of lordly mien that KJL found maddening. Further, this guy seemed interested in the pretty blonde who was an usher at the Guthrie Theater and, sometimes, wore her uniform to class. She sat next to the older man and, sometimes, whispered sarcastic asides to him. He beamed at her and whispered back. Today, I would say that this fellow had the appearance of a malevolent hobbit, but that description was not available to me in 1973.
The hobbit-guy had written a four or five page short story called “What Clark and Peggy are Not”. The story involved a couple who fancied themselves exceedingly sophisticated and hip. Clark and Peggy knew all the best people and enjoyed fine wines and expensive liqueurs and exquisite drugs. Their sexual encounters ended in titanic, and liberating, orgasms. They seemed to have money to burn and vacationed at expensive resorts. When Clark and Peggy interacted with their peers, also people who were fantastically cosmopolitan and elegant, they always prevailed in all ways. The two characters in the little story were like figures from an Ian Fleming novel, like people glimpsed in a casino where James Bond is playing roulette.
The story’s worldly and hip mannerisms irritated KJL. He thought the story was a sham, something written merely to impress, the beautiful blonde girl in her Guthrie Theater usher’s uniform. KJL told me that the story was bogus and inauthentic and that it was false from beginning to end. He said that we should formulate a scathing attack on the tale and mount this assault during the period when we were invited to discuss the writing with its author – generally, we spent the first two-thirds of the class in conversation about our reading assignments and, then, talked about our fellow students’ compositions during the last half-hour or so. I thought that the story by the hobbit was pretty good, although I didn’t like some of the affectations in the prose. KJL’s anger seemed primarily some sort of jealousy – superficially, the story resembled his own writing, although there was no question that his prose was far more accomplished and brilliant that the hobbit’s work.
When the appointed hour arrived, KJL waved his copy of the hobbit’s story in the air and shook it like a terrier shaking a rat. He denounced various sentences as false and contrived. Then, he invited me to join in the attack. I also said that the story was inauthentic and, obviously, confused. I ended my peroration with these words: “It’s pretty evident to me that Clark and Peggy are poseurs. They think they’re cool but they aren’t at all. They’re really just fakes.”
The hobbit looked at us mournfully. His little round granny glasses glinted. Then, he shook his head and said blandly: “You got my point exactly.” KJL began to say something else. The hobbit interrupted: “But maybe you didn’t read the title of the story.” “What is the title?” KJL demanded. “It says right here,” the hobbit responded, “It’s ‘What Clark and Peggy Are Not’.”
The door to the cage slammed shut. KJL and I were trapped behind bars, gesticulating futilely like Koko the talking gorilla. The pretty blonde girl in the usher uniform shook her head in dismay at our folly.
I visited KJL at his home on Lincoln in St. Paul where he lived with his mother and his brothers and sister. KJL had sent out a Christmas card that was comprised of a folding sheet of card-stock printed with small thumb-sized portraits of members of his family. The sheet unfolded to the size of a small poster and showed his weary-looking mother, his father wearing raffish aviator sunglasses, Jessica, his sister, holding her cat in her arms and half-bowing to the camera (she was a great beauty with the pale countenance of a pre-Raphaelite madonna), Tony, KJL’s brother, a renowned High School debater, and Adam, the little brother, who was then eight or nine. There were also collateral relatives portrayed in small boxes: Greer, KJL’s uncle, a famous trial lawyer, another uncle who was also a partner in a big firm downtown, and an old woman with austere features – KJL had labeled her in his indistinct handwriting as “The Bearded Matriarch.”
Some of these family-members were present when I went to KJL’s home. His mother was cooking supper and the smaller kids were watching Tv or listening to music in their rooms. The home was large and elegantly appointed – obviously, a place where an architect had once lived. The floors were hardwood and polished to a fine sheen and the white walls were adorned with original artworks. Many of KJL’s photographs were displayed under glass in tight, nicely made black frames. I think the divorce between KJL’s parents had occurred four or five years earlier and remnant sorrows were still in evidence in the home, little traces of happier days and clues, I think, to the tensions that had ended the marriage. KJL maintained that the troubles between his parents had forced him to become an artist. I think he held to this notion until the end of his life.
Things at KJL’s home were unfamiliar to me. He referred to his mother by her first name, Bev. They had a sleek, indolent cat. (My family possessed dogs.) The other kids came and went at will, it seemed, and there was an atmosphere of liberation and freedom that I found daunting. KJL told his mother about a new album by James Taylor. I think he had bought that LP and put it on the turntable to play a few songs for Bev. “Sweet Baby James,” she said. We ate and, then, KJL played a few pieces on his guitar – it was classical music with a proud flourish that sounded like the prelude to a fiery flamenco dance.
A little later, we walked to neighborhood tavern called The Green Mill. KJL said that the Mill had the best pizza in town. The place was crowded and people were playing pool and darts. Everyone knew KJL and beckoned to him when we entered the bar. A waitress who seemed to know KJL brought us a pitcher of beer and, although we weren’t really hungry (KJL’s mother was an excellent cook), we each ordered a slice of pizza primarily so that I could taste it. “Everyone knows it’s the best,” KJL said.
Everything associated with KJL was the best. I felt very proud to be his friend and confidante. I don’t recall how I got home to Eden Prairie that night.
No one but me from my small High School class in Eden Prairie attended the University. (My friend, David P–, was an exception – but he was studying horticulture at the Farm Campus.) I dutifully attended Welcome Week, an orientation program at Coffman Memorial Union. In the big art-deco ballroom, the Greeks had tables set up to solicit applicants for the Fall rush and the various extra-curricular clubs were represented as well. The Young Republicans wore somber suits and ties (I suppose I could have fit in with them – I had gone door to door raising money for Nixon earlier that year); the Democratic party, it seemed, had more girls. The incoming Freshmen were invited to several concerts – an Englishman named Cat Stevens was performing and, I think, Leo Kottke as well. I didn’t go to the concerts, but did attend a showing of Jules et Jim somewhere in the bowels of the Student Union. After the film, we were invited to discuss the themes in the movie. I have always wondered what message was being communicated to us by the selection of that particular film for the Welcome Week activities. Statistics were presented that showed that the more extra-curricular activities in which a student participated, the greater likelihood of his or her academic success. This was daunting to me. Like most of the students, I was a commuter and didn’t expect to spend much time on campus.
The University was a frightening place. Rumor was that it took you one-half day to walk across the campus from east to west, the great river gorge intervening, a gloomy span a quarter-mile long from which students sometimes hurled themselves into the inky waters below the Falls. Some classes were so remote from one another that you had to take a bus to pass between them. Forty-thousand students packed the quadrangle and the sidewalks and parking lots stretched to both horizons, impossibly remote from the huge mall flanked by vast and dignified buildings with Roman pillars rising over high pedestals of concrete. Some classes were conducted in enormous amphitheaters crammed with four-hundred students, the teacher gesturing up to his pupils as if from the bottom of a great funnel. Registration was said to take a whole day and classes important to your future were always closed or over-enrolled and, once you were committed to a course, you couldn’t withdraw. Only death or God could change your schedule once tuition was paid. Here you were nothing but a number in the faceless crowd. Famous professors owned harems of coed girls and there were communists embedded in most of the major departments in the social sciences, at least, and bomb-throwing revolutionaries plotting murder in the cellars of dilapidated houses off-campus, every kind of radical imaginable, people quite willing to overturn buses and barricade the avenues against cops charging through a haze of tear-gas. Foreign exchange students gathered in Coffman Union and there were acres in that huge building where no English was ever spoken, and, sometimes, on the mall, haggard and wild-eyed African scholars would stop you, and transfixing you with a glare like the Ancient Mariner, press pamphlets labeled Gaddafi’s Children into your hands, a cartoon tract showing all the dispossessed of the world gathering at the feet of the benevolent Libyan dictator, Moamar Gaddafi. When it rained, cars spun out on the freeways around the campus and, sometimes, the place was half-inaccessible and the snow often closed all the lanes so that the University stood on its twin bluffs with the Father of Waters between them, a lofty, vast brick fortress hidden in the veils of drifting white.
Of course, the place terrified me. I hiked the mall and slipped between buildings the weekend before my first courses began, locating the rooms where I was scheduled to attend these classes and using my wristwatch to time the march between the places that I had to be. I rented a locker in the Chemistry building, a site, more or less, centrally located. Up to attaining the age of 40, I had a repeating nightmare about forgetting the combination to the padlock on that vertical steel cubby and being locked away from my books and papers.
When I was in fifth-grade, my father had taken me to the University to review some micro-fiche newspapers in the underground hollow deep below Walter Library. I recalled that the library’s stacks were closed and that you had to request the books that you desired from a counter in a grim subterranean room, windowless and congested with big card catalogs in khaki-green metal drawers. As far as I remembered, there were no reading rooms in the library, just an ornate marble entry-way with coffered ceilings and arabesques of vaguely floral shape oppressively curling up the walls like gilded ivy. We had been told during Welcome Week, that spaces for study were at a premium at the University and that it was first-come, first-served and that many students simply did all of their work at home because there was literally no place to comfortably sit on campus. Of course, this was completely untrue but this is what I believed when Fall semester began.
The sky was black with rain and, for the first few weeks of my Freshman year, it seemed that cold water was always pouring remorselessly out of the sky. The only place that I really thought that I knew on campus was Walter Library because my father had taken me there when I was a boy. But I also knew, or thought I knew, that there was no place to study in the library because it was just an ornate facade hiding endless stacks, miles and miles book shelving in some sort of gloomy catacomb to which students were not afforded access. Accordingly, for my first month on campus, I kept my books in the locker amidst the sulphuric fumes of the chemistry building a few hundred feet to the south, but studied in the cold chambers of the entry to Walter Library. I climbed the big stone steps, entered the low mausoleum-like entrance hall with the coffered ceilings and the arabesques on the walls and found a place to sit on the floor, my back to a marble wall next to a squat column that seemed straining to keep the whole mass of the building from collapsing into itself. Each day, I spent four hours or so, sitting on the floor with my legs outstretched, books opened so that I could study for classes, three hours, it was recommended, for each 45 minutes of lectures. The light was poor – in the claustrophobic entry area, some yellow tubular bulbs were screwed into brass sconces as if to simulate candle-light and it was chilly on the marble floor and the stone wall also was like ice against my shoulders. Students coming and going tramped rainwater onto the smooth floors inlaid with many different colors of marble and granite. The puddles were slippery and came from the doors opening onto the quadrangle, wet boot tracks that led past me into halls and rooms that were terra incognito as far as I was concerned.
After about three weeks, I tired of working on the floor. It was uncomfortable and I didn’t see anyone else using this space as I did. I made a few tentative excursions into the first floor of the library and found that there was a huge room adjacent to the circulation desk packed with people sitting at vast oak tables. The students occupied every seat in that room and I assumed (incorrectly) that they were upperclassmen who had been assigned places at those tables. I discovered that there were marble stairs curling around a central well on both sides of the entrance that led to a basement room with about twenty wooden study carrels, upright like the plywood booths in which you might watch a pornographic movie, but those carrels also seemed assigned. A toilet was located in the basement with marble urinals and twenty metal stalls on which people had scribbled graffiti by gouging the green paint with their car keys – various kinds of sexual encounters were advertised together with pictures of erect penises and racist slogans. During my fourth week on campus, I tentatively ventured up the marble steps, pausing at landings where I expected to be turned back. But no one stopped me and so I climbed higher and came to some sentry desks in a big space where the ceiling, also coffered and gilded, was fifty feet above me. Marble pilasters rose up to the ceiling and there was an eerie silence in this room. I wondered if it were possible to penetrate further into the building. And, so, I watched and waited. Students were passing through a turnstile without showing identification and, so, I thought I would try this as well. Beyond the turnstile a big door opened into a resplendent reading room, a sort of spacious paradise in which stacks of books were arranged in islands under a remote and ornate ceiling, enormous windows with elaborate mullions through which light was pouring because, it seemed, that the month of rains had now passed. More vast oak tables stood between the metal cases shelving the books and I found a place where I could sit and spread out my books. At first, I expected that someone would challenge me and, even, drive me from this place. But no one seemed to notice that I had taken a seat there and was preparing to study a textbook, several notebooks spread in front of me. This table in the reading room of Walter Library was where I spent five years, generally in the same exact location. (In my sixth and seventh years on campus, when the Law School was moved from Frasier Hall to the West Bank, I changed my study location to a carrel actually assigned for my use among the statute books of foreign countries up on the third floor.)
I was enrolled in an Honors English class taught by a very earnest and conscientious woman, Lonna Malmsheimer. She seemed to want to make us better people by the instruction that she provided. The first assignment in her class was Whitman’s Song of Myself. We, then, read Ionesco’s Exit the King and King Lear. Finally, I think we read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I don’t recall much about the first semester of that class, except that I enjoyed the reading and looked forward to discussing it.
The first work assigned during the second semester of Lonna Malmsheimer’s Honors English class was William Faulkner’s Light in August. I recall that the book began with an account of a pregnant woman who has come a “fur piece’ to reach the hamlet where the story takes place. We read the first paragraph out loud. There was a new student enrolled in the course and the teacher introduced him. The new student said some things about the use of the phrase “a fur piece” in the first paragraph of Light in August. He seemed to know the teacher somehow and dared to refer to her, rather ostentatiously I thought, by her first name. She didn’t seem to mind and seemed happy that this new student had joined our class and smiled warmly at him.
The new student was burly. He had very broad shoulders. His eyebrows were a little unkempt, some extra dark hair in that place, and he was wearing round, wire-rimmed spectacles under unruly black hair. Although the new student seemed powerfully built, there was still a hint of chubbiness about him, a little baby fat still retained in his jowls and belly. He was wearing a blue flannel shirt that was half open over his chest. Beneath the blue flannel, he had a black tee-shirt that was lettered with a word that I didn’t know: Aioli.
The new student was aggressive in class and dominated the conversation. At first, I decided that I didn’t like him. I made a couple of low-key remarks that were intended to undercut some things that he had said. The teacher glared at me as if I should hold my tongue and let the new addition to the class speak.
After class, the new student approached me in the hall. We were in the mathematics building. To my surprise, he said that he had found my comments very interesting. I have never been able to approach others to make friends with them – rather, I pray that people will pick me out and make friends with me. The new student suggested that we should meet for lunch the next day. I thought that he was very exotic and not the sort of person with whom I could be friends. But I was intrigued. “Okay,” I said. Then, he told me where to meet him, smiled with winning confidence, and, turning on his heel, was gone.
(I express my gratitude to Adam L--, a younger brother of the hero of this memoir. Adam graciously shared with me archival materials that adorn this essay and provide the readers a glimpse of the singular genius of the subject of this essay. All images provided in this essay were made by KJL.)