When Even the Cheapest Costs Too Much

by Jim Knipfel

About a week ago, I hit the wall again, busted through again, and once again, found absolutely nothing on the other side.

Amazingly enough, through a sick mixture of scrabbling, panic, screaming, chutzpah, brouhaha and pure dumb luck, I was able to cover the rent, keeping the rain and snow off my head for another couple of weeks. Problem was, taking care of that little matter left me nothing else. Well, not nothing, exactly--it left me with twenty-seven cents worth of cold, hard cash jingling in my pocket. Twenty-seven cents to last me eight days. Jesus, even the subway beggars end up with more than that after strolling through two cars on the A. But I'd been here before (I'll probably be here again--my guess is that it'll be next month), so I know it can be done.

Larry stopped by that Thursday afternoon and caught me in the midst of one of my whining fits. I can always count on Larry to cut through the bullshit, straight to the nut. He's been there, too.

"Twenty-seven cents isn't hard to do, Jim. Twenty-seven cents is easy."

"Yeah, I know," I told him, realizing the error of my whines. "Five bucks--that's the killer. If I had to make five bucks last a week, that'd be the end."

So we sat around, listening to old Bad Religion and Dead Boys, smoking, comparing old drug habits. Unfortunately, there wasn't a drop to drink in the apartment. That's another old alcoholic dictum--if someone has a fully stocked liquor cabinet, you know immediately that you're not dealing with a drinker. A true drunk's liquor cabinet is perpetually empty. Or, in this case, almost empty.

Once the last beer was gone--it vanished in a swift celebratory toast to myself on the day the rent was paid--once there wasn't anything around to allow me to get some more, I teetered on the brink of serious panic for awhile. I kept my ears open for parties and art openings without any luck. Even if I had heard of something, it would've been hopeless--no money for tokens. About then I started dipping into the kirschwasser that was around for cooking. Blackberry brandy's one thing. Ginger brandy's even better. But cherry brandy's a foul, bitter stench made liquid. I wasn't about to foist that on Larry. I'd keep that around to control the shakes that seemed to be crawling out from my guts, struggling toward air.

Instead, I dared to crack the verboten bottle of Delamain cognac--a wedding present from a monstrous, hairy Pakistani who held a snub-nosed .38 to my head for an awfully long time on New Year's Eve, 1987 (but that's another story). Insane and violent or not, Mongo was a kook with real hard class. I poured a healthy shot for Larry, then one for myself. It'd have to last me awhile.

Food was another matter. I'd have to count on rice, thin slices of bread and cheese, and dinner invitations. I was able to make two meals worth of turkey soup charity last four. Food was something I could pretty much do without for awhile. As long as I had a water faucet that still spilled out delicious, thick, milky New York water and a stereo that still played Sinatra, I'd make it. I could bum smokes. One of the grocery stores in the neighborhood regularly doles out tiny free samples of jelly and syrup. I could hang out there, while I prayed that the NYPress might finally pay me what they owed me. Maybe it was their plan to keep me struggling. If I get too soft, if I'm allowed a tiny bit of comfort in this fucking world, that muse might just slip away.

In desperation, I started plucking out some of the prizes from my library, hoping to sell them. It seemed an easy way to get myself out of this mess in a reasonably short amount of time. Autographed editions, first editions--things I'd been gathering for years--suddenly didn't seem all that important anymore. Not, at least, when I could put a price tag on them. Hell, who really needs an autographed, leather-bound, gilt-edged first-first edition of Bonfire of the Vanities, anyway? I sure as hell didn't. I put together another pile of less important stuff for Paul the book dealer to come pick up.

Problem is, Paul won't be able to make it into Brooklyn until next week, and the cash from the Wolfe may be a long time coming (some fool has to stop by Skyline Books and buy the damn thing first).

Twenty-seven cents singing a sweet, hopeless song in my pocket.

Funny thing is, through all of this, I've been writing stories and just giving them away. That's not right. I'm not supposed to do that. I'm a professional vulgarian! I get not penny-one for a two-volume Slackjaw collection that's just been put out on the Internet. "Fine, take them," I said stupidly. "Do whatever you want with them, I don't care. Live it up." I'm asked to write an introduction for some silly book about Philadelphia--free of charge, of course--and agree without a moment's hesitation. I donate a long piece--one of my favorites, actually--that's been sitting around for awhile, waiting for the right venue--to the first issue of a new art/literary-type magazine called Hootenanny (available at St. Mark's Books, Ink, and both Whitney and Guggenheim Soho bookshops!)

I guess I'm just one fucking swell guy.

Meanwhile, everything else that surrounds me gets sillier and meaner and quieter. I'm forced to cancel a singing engagement in Philly (the Crippled Lord had a gig, and asked me to come down and sing a duet of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" with him) because I'm trapped in Brooklyn. If hunger keeps me awake all night now, it's no different than whiskey or spinning dumb logic or the Animaniacs theme song keeping me awake in the past. My ex-shrink calls and leaves nasty messages on my answering machine, forgetting that I know how to waltz through the lock on his door smooth as pie at any time of the day or night. Sometimes I guess mental health professionals forget that they're dealing with the insane. And with desperation and suicidal depression being the current driving forces in my head, well, who knows what might happen?

You know, it's almost funny, as Sinatra sings, but things can't get worse than now. Maybe I do prefer it this way. That was one of Laura's perennial questions for me before she left. "Don't you want anything more?" she'd ask. "Do you want to live like this for the rest of your life?" I don't see as I have much of a choice. We struggle, we live by increments. Every once in awhile, something makes us happy.

That's why this twenty-seven cent situation doesn't bother me much. It's just another test. Another challenge to my strength and resolve. As everything is yanked from me--money, love, a reason for living--the things most of the maggots consider fundamental--I become more determined to survive. Call it spite. Only hatred is eternal. I can pawn off everything in this apartment, and probably wouldn't miss much of anything (except maybe the really stupid things, like my evil Dancing Clown Music Box). The less you have, the less you have to worry about someone taking from you.

I'm not much of a man to hand out advice--even if it's something I seem to do an awful lot--but here's a bit of wisdom born from a long, painful recurrent experience. When everything you have vanishes, when there's absolutely nothing left, relax. Listen to Sinatra's Cycles album. Strange little mysterious blessings have a way of spraying down on you. Survival is little more than a funny little endurance game. If your blood is pure, it'll give you the strength you need. Of course, if those blessings don't find their way to you pretty damn quick, I'd suggest suicide.

With two days left before my next check arrived (if Brooklyn's new postmaster is keeping his word), I reached into my pocket, pulled out those three coins, and dropped them in the garbage. They were just too damned tempting. Besides, if twenty-seven cents was easier to deal with than five bucks, then nothing at all has got to be easier still.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the Welcomat. Illustration by Russell Christian. All rights reserved.

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