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The Night I Slept with Kurt Vonnegut

It was a nasty night in New Orleans.  Torrents of rain−at once pounding and windswept.  Filling and rising.  We were sheltered, on the floor.  The carpet was damp.  My clothes were matted beneath me. 

That night was unforgettable.  However, the best part of the story happened ten years later in New York City, 2005.    

It was the first day of the fall semester at The New School.  I registered for a writing class, with trepidation, as a continuing ed student.  I hadn’t been in school in twenty years, back then a psych major.  But I had recently started to write a novel (it chose me, I did not choose it) and the time had come to decide what to do with this living, breathing thing that had taken over my life.  A friend told me to go to The New School.  

As one of the first students to arrive that day, I took a seat somewhere in the middle of the tiny classroom.  I noticed, as the others trickled in, many of them looked like freshman; it would be hard to blend.  I best not do anything to bring attention to myself.  I was clearly one of the oldest in the class.  That was until the teacher appeared.  Sidney Offit, our able teacher, was a fixture of the New York literary scene for decades.  He was the author of novels and memoirs, the curator of the George Polk journalism awards, on the boards of PEN American Center and the Authors Guild and a respected writing teacher at NYU and The New School for years.  Mr. Offit, dressed in a tweed jacket, bowtie and wide toothy grin, peered through oversized spectacles and began by suggesting we introduce ourselves: name and where we were from. 

A fresh faced girl from Idaho started us out and a few more chimed in after her.  A sturdy girl sitting behind me introduced herself in a deep, molasses-smooth voice.  She just arrived on campus yesterday, but almost didn’t come at all.  It tortured her to leave her hometown of New Orleans, and her family, now homeless, as they suffered through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which blew out of New Orleans only days before.  The class sat in somber silence, struggling to wrap our minds around her story.  The energy in the room dipped dramatically.  Mr. Offit decided we should stop sharing for the moment.  Instead he’d switch gears and talk about the importance of voice.

In fact, he was just having this very conversation the night before at his favorite restaurant over dinner with his best friend, Kurt Vonnegut.  Then he paused.  And waited.  The girl from Idaho was too slow to muffle a gasp. The rest of our mouths swung open−practically in unison.      

Mr. Offit let his simple statement envelop us like the moist vapors of a thick fog until I broke the silence and said, “Kurt Vonnegut?  I slept with him.” 

Idaho girl couldn’t muffle the next gasp, neither could Mr. Offit himself.  The New Orleans girl slapped her hand down hard on the desk and cried, “That beats dinner, baby!”

Now all nineteen pairs of eyes were on me.  I felt them on back of me and I saw them in front of me.  Some craned their necks to get a good look.  We were clearly back to sharing. 

I sat up tall and told them my name and where I was from but nobody cared.  They wanted the story.  So I told them the whole thing. 

It happened in 1995 in New Orleans during a storm and a flood.  By strange and fascinating coincidence we were back in New Orleans, again with too much water.  It was at that moment that I remembered another detail, “My boyfriend was with us.”  That got any remaining holdouts to shift completely in their seats.  I had everyone’s rapt attention, even Mr. Offit’s, whose hands now rested on his hips and eyebrows crept above the rim of his glasses.  So I continued. 

Jazz Fest weekend had come to a close and we were headed back to NY, LaGuardia Airport.  My boyfriend and I boarded the plane and sat waiting to take-off.  But the rains and winds blew wildly and without pause.  We couldn’t take off.  Not yet.  They showed a movie and served dinner as we sat on the tarmac.  Three hours passed.  The pilot told us to deplane and sit at the gate until we were cleared to fly.  Another hour.  Finally an announcement: no planes would take off−the airport was officially flooded.  All passengers needed to arrange alternate flights.  No one could leave the airport−cars were not permitted in or out.  We would all camp out for the night.  

My boyfriend and I, and our fellow passengers, sat immobile, letting the weight of this news sink in.  Most of us were experiencing cognitive delay, having spent the weekend mostly sleepless, overindulging in music, food, drink, and dance.  Then one spry young man, who clearly hadn’t showered in days, jumped out of his seat and sprinted out of the boarding area.  This jolted the rest of us.  Mass hysteria ensued.  We ran for our lives.  We ran for a way home.  To the ticketing counter went my boyfriend.  To the pay phone went I.  This was 1995−no smart phones or apps or ipads or Expedia.  All we had at our disposal were two legs, a credit card and the obnoxious persistence of a used-car-salesman.  Two hours later we were triumphant and spent.  Two tickets to LaGuardia (via a few less-notable American cities) leaving the next evening. 

It was time to find a spot to call our own, a gate with the fewest transients, where we could lay out across 4 or 5 plastic interlocking seats.  No such luck.  There wasn’t a seat in the house.  Let alone 5 consecutive.  The airport was packed.  This meant we’d be left with option #2.  The floor.  And since the carpet on the airport floor was already damp, we pulled clothes from our carry-on to create a makeshift bed, a layer to shield us from the wet carpet.  This was irrational thinking.  We were cranky and hungry and tired and now wet.  I was about ready to curl up in an attempt to sleep, when a man approached me and asked if anyone was sleeping beside me.  It was Andy Rooney.  I was surprised to see him.  The last time I saw him (and the only times I’ve ever seen him) was on Sunday night at 7:55 pm on CBS.  It amused me to think that if I was cranky, what must he be?  He was cranky in the best of spirits.  My carry-on bag was to my right, but there was still plenty of room for him, maybe eight feet before the wall.  Anyway, I quickly moved my carry-on and placed it in an upright position behind my head. 

“I’ve got the wall,” Andy said to his companion, revealing the man who’d eventually slip in between us and lie beside me, Kurt Vonnegut.  His eyes, for a split second, locked on mine; he tipped his head at me and I at him. 

And so, that was the night I slept with Kurt Vonnegut.  And Andy Rooney.  Something of a New Orleans nuzzle−with two grizzled lions.    

Now that beats dinner, baby.      

 

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*"Slept" with a celebrity?  (Planes count.)