by Brandon Dameshek
After one year of enrollment in Carnegie Mellon’s creative writing program, I quit. I despised everything about it: the dorm life, the male-to-female ratio (7:1), the weird dynamic of a campus overrun with mechanical engineers and theater majors. Nothing made sense there, especially to an aspiring 18-year-old writer who was living away from home for the first time, only to be bunked up with a Turkish student named Can. (“It’s pronounced ‘Jon,’” he would demand repeatedly to my bigoted neighbor across the hall who insisted on calling him “Can.”) I returned to Harrisburg, disappearing deeply into both pot and my mother’s disdain, because how could I possibly throw away a Carnegie Mellon education? “Why couldn’t he make it work,” she often wondered aloud.
Not my dad, though. He was the one who drove the three-and-a-half hours out to Pittsburgh, packed me up, and hauled me back to Harrisburg. He accepted that it wasn’t for me. He made bad jokes that had nothing to do with school. He brought me home without judgment. And that was that.
So rather than pursue a college degree from an esteemed institution, I instead bounced around from restaurant to restaurant, waiting tables, cooking, tending bar, and so on. It didn’t take me long to realize that being back in my hometown and living with my mom and step-dad was way worse than the freedoms of college, even at a college I loathed.
When it came to Kurt Vonnegut, I was a goner. My step-brother, Pete, first introduced me to the majesty of Vonnegut through what remains my favorite of his books, Cat’s Cradle. I read it in two days. Even then, as a 12-year-old boy awkwardly making my way through 7th grade in a school district that was still new to me, I was obsessed with language and words. I read and imagined the voice of the characters speaking directly to me. I marveled at those authors who could put two words next to one another and somehow make them into something that I’d never seen or heard before.
When I read Vonnegut, I imagined I could hear his voice–or at least what I assumed was his voice: gruff, articulate wisecracks delivered through smoke. I couldn’t hear anything but the sweet, curly-haired, mustachioed man whose face graced the back of every jacket. And with Vonnegut, whose voice was so distinct and accessible, so hilarious and heartbreaking still, it’s the only voice I wanted to hear. Now it’s not to say that I became maniacally obsessed with the man; rather, I became obsessed with his words, and my god, how simple it was.
There was just so much of it! He didn’t write these one-off masterpieces like Harper Lee. He didn’t leave Catcher in the Rye on my doorstep and vanish when I demanded more. Instead, he wrote 14 novels, 7 plays, 7 short story collections, 5 essay collections, and myriad articles, speeches, and poems that settled over the collective deluge of sweet, simple-minded cretins he so often spoke to in his work. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions and Hocus Pocus and Deadeye Dick and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. There were the infinite number of short stories, like “Harrison Bergeron” and “Deer in the Works.” And it would be criminal not to gloss the various commencement speeches and essays that were published in, say, Palm Sunday. With every novel or short story or play or literary criticism I read (yes, even that!), I wanted more – so I devoured everything.
Sam Bowie was the first celebrity I ever met. Most of you have probably never heard of him. It was 1984, I think, and he’d been drafted second overall by the Portland Trailblazers after an impressive high school and college basketball career. I don’t remember what I was doing there, but I ran into Bowie in an airport, and still now all I remember was shaking his hand and thinking I’d met an actual giant. At 7’1”, he towered over everything. My dad didn’t know him, and yet he introduced me to Bowie as if they’d been college roommates.
See, I wasn’t one of those kids whose parents had author William Kennedy and his wife over for cards and Tom Collins every Wednesday, or whose dad fooled around with the guitar and occasionally talked shit with some unknown session player on the porch late July evenings as the lightning bugs caught fire in the backyard. Instead, I had parents who split up when I was six and were ordinary in pretty much every way. Dad fed us take-out pizza and Mom overcompensated. They came to my soccer games and stood on opposite ends of the field. I guess you could say, though, that my dad was a celebrity of sorts, in that all of my classmates knew him. Did he thwart a robbery at the local Pathmark? Was he a war hero? Did he set the record for most consecutive rounds under par at Blue Ridge Country Club?
No. He sold shoes at the mall to seemingly every kid who passed me in the school hallways on a daily basis. He’d sold all of them shoes. And their brothers and sisters. And their parents and cousins and estranged relatives, even. He handed out pretzel rods and told horrible jokes.
There have been plenty of celebrity run-ins since Sam Bowie. To call them all “celebrities” would be somewhat presumptuous, as plenty of them were hacks whose celebrity was undeserved. For instance, during my first visit to Los Angeles, I imagined all of the Hollywood elite I might eventually run into and perhaps even strike up some interesting conversation with, which would of course result in them getting me some small part in their next film. Instead, I encountered Joe Millionaire himself, Evan Marriott. No one gives a good goddamn about Evan Marriott. In fact, not even Evan Marriott cares about Evan Marriott.
Don’t get me wrong, though. There were definitely some legitimate stars in there over the years, like Jimmy Kimmel and Sarah Silverman and even Slash. When I turn it over in my mind, though, it would seem that the majority of my encounters with the “elite few” have involved run-ins with musicians.
I once pissed next to Modest Mouse bassist Eric Judy. Years later, in Chicago’s Empty Bottle, I bought a Guinness for Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock who, unfortunately, was a prick. I got high with The Subjects inside their Johnny Brenda’s dressing room in Philadelphia. I had beers with Of Montreal after a performance at Schuba’s, again in Chicago. I talked with members of The Apples In Stereo and The Minders after their show at the now defunct Lounge Ax. I had a drunken conversation with Guided By Voices mainstay Bob Pollard. I chatted up Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich after a show in Albuquerque. I used to buy records from former Shins keyboardist Marty Crandall, long before he abused his America’s Next Top Model girlfriend. I spoke briefly with Jeff Tweedy, Matthew Sweet, and Doug Martsch. And if only my memory weren’t ravaged by booze, I’m certain I could rattle off plenty more.
But who the hell cares anyway? Telling someone you met a celebrity is akin to telling someone about your dream: it’s only real to the teller.
Harrisburg wasn’t what you’d call a “cool” or progressive city, so waiting tables meant having your pick of the chain restaurants: Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, Ruby Tuesday, and, of course, Olive Garden. When you’re 20 and working in a restaurant you show up as late as possible, stock glasses and plates, fill sugar caddies, do your best not to unleash hell on every last customer, count your money at the end of the night, get drunk till 4 AM with whoever happens to be there, maybe sleep with a co-worker if you’re lucky, and do it all over again the next day. It was mindless, meaningless and laborious. And for a long time, it was my life.
I was waiting tables during the lunch shift at the Olive Garden when the hostess told me I had a call. “It’s your dad,” she said. I grabbed the cordless phone from the hostess station in the front of the restaurant.
“I quit my job,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I quit my job. I was tired of it. It was too long. I’d been there too long. So, I quit.”
“Good for you. If you hated it, good.” I think I even told him I was proud of him, or maybe I just remember it that way. But the thing is, I was proud of him. He’d been selling shoes since before I was born. And here he was, in his mid-50s, finally saying he’d had enough.
A couple weeks later I got word that Kurt Vonnegut would be reading at Lebanon Valley College, a mere 30 minutes away. I was, of course, over the moon, and swore that I’d be there no matter what. From what I recall, it wasn’t a ticketed event; rather, it was a simply announced in the local newspaper– a tiny blurb that may as well have been announcing Bingo Night at the VFW. Attendance was open to the public, provided space was available. Space would most certainly be available.
In my mind I went over what I’d say if I actually had the chance to meet him. I even grabbed my favorite copy of Cat’s Cradle (the 1976 paperback edition) in the hopes that Vonnegut might sign it. I re-read the book. I did everything to prepare for what would be, to that point, one of the quintessential moments of my life. Well, nearly everything.
I came into work that week, took one look at the schedule, and realized immediately I never requested the night of the reading off. In fact, I was scheduled to work a double that day, which meant straight through lunch, maybe a 30-minute break, and right into dinner. I was devastated.
I spent the entire week trying to get someone to cover my shift. But like me, most of the wait staff were 20-something-year-old numbskulls who’d rather get drunk on a Saturday night than actually work. So I showed up that morning for my lunch shift, a change of clothes and Cat’s Cradle on my front seat, knowing what I had to do. I worked lunch, same as always, and then I walked out.
I drove straight to Lebanon Valley College, still dressed in my Olive Garden uniform of black pants, white button-down shirt, and stained tie. I parked and changed in the front seat. I found a seat near the back center of the tiny auditorium, and watched, mesmerized, as my hero talked about war, drawing ridiculous formulas on the chalkboard to illustrate his points. Here he was, breathing the same air as me, in a room so anesthetized and small, yet I couldn’t believe how large the world suddenly seemed.
The Olive Garden management fired me, and they were right to do so. But I was 20 and didn’t give a fuck. I could throw a rock and hit Applebee’s. I never spoke to Vonnegut. He didn’t sign Cat’s Cradle. I never saw him again in the 12 years that followed before his death. That was okay, though.
I quit what would turn out to be just another stopgap, dime-a-dozen job to spend a couple hours with my hero. And I knew my dad, of all people, wouldn’t have blamed me.
About a year ago my dad was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD). It’s a degenerative brain disorder that’s turned him into someone I don’t recognize. My sister and I had seen it coming for years, really. Here was this affable, gregarious man suddenly withdrawn and reclusive. He no longer cared about seeing his grandchildren. He was fired from a part-time cashier’s job over claims of sexual harassment. He’d stand by the kitchen door and invite total strangers (girls, mostly) into his house, though they wisely never went inside. And then, at some point, the vocal tics started. They started as what sounded like unconscious laughter in response to jokes, only they surfaced for no reason. I mean, I’m not that funny.
These days his vocal tics are constant. He’s incontinent. His leg shakes. He’s afraid to leave the house. He eats till the food is gone, like a dog with bag of kibble. He worries that he might jump out of the window. He thinks the ceiling fan might come unhinged and fall on him while he sleeps. And that’s what he does all day: sleeps. He rises only to eat and watch television, and then it’s back to bed. He’s fallen several times. He stares at me sometimes as if trying to figure out who I am. He’s a 70-year-old child.
He doesn’t realize the condition he’s in. He has no sense of his illness. He has no idea that he’s going to die at some point, prematurely. He doesn’t seem to understand that he and his brain, too, will soon quit. These days my dad reminds me of Vonnegut, or at least how I picture Vonnegut near the end: unshaven, rougher around the edges, slightly unkempt. When I go to his house for dinner it’s like meeting him again for the first time, only now he’s the child and I’m the 7-foot giant. Still, some part of me wonders if he knows what’s happening, and thinks he’d rather die than live like this. And I wouldn’t blame him for quitting. Not one bit.
About the author
Brandon Dameshek’s poetry has appeared in Cimarron Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Harrisburg Review, Coe Review, Portrait, Conte and, most recently, Wildwood Journal. Dameshek hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. After living all over the country, he now resides in his hometown of Harrisburg, PA, with his fiancee, daughter, and dachshund.