My Own Private Vonnegut

by

03/17/2005

E 51st St & 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10022

Neighborhood: Midtown

It was the middle of a heavy, overcast day.

I was eating lunch in Greenacre Park. Most of the patio chairs were leaning against the tables, draining off the earlier rainfall. Usually this vest-pocket park on 51st Street between Third and Second Avenues is Standing Room Only at lunchtime. But the weather had scared away the usual crowd. So there I was, working on some lamb-over-rice from a street vendor, staring at the waterfall, when someone sat down at the table next to mine.

It was Kurt Vonnegut.

There was no mistaking him. He wore a rumpled cream-colored summer suit. He lives in the neighborhood and I’d seen him around before. But I never know what to do when it comes to the Greats. I just leave them alone.

Mr. Vonnegut lit up a cigarette.

Now, I’m a pretty militant anti-smoker. But hell, didn’t this man deserve to do whatever he wanted after living through the firebombing of Dresden? Yes, I would just leave him alone.

One of the park’s vigorous attendants appeared at his table. He addressed Mr. Vonnegut as Sir, and told him that smoking was not allowed. I don’t believe the young man knew who he was talking to. Mr. Vonnegut said something, his voice too low and rumbling for me to make out his words. I did hear the attendant point out that there were signs posted with what you couldn’t do in Greenacre Park.

Sir.

The park is not really a “public” space, after all. At least not in the old fashioned sense of the word “public,” the sense, presumably, Mr. Vonnegut knew from the days when he fought in the war, the same one my father did. Those days are long gone, as are the rationed cigarettes handed out to the GIs. My old man smoked, too, though he finally quit after emphysema and hypnosis.

But not Mr. Vonnegut.

His cigarette was still lit when he got up from the table, pushed in his chair, and walked out of the park.

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