A Few More Degrees of Separation
by Jim Knipfel
No, the posters I'm talking about are those vicious, personal, libelous attacks that are handscrawled on a piece of paper, usually with a photograph, then Xeroxed a few hundred times and tacked up on telephone poles all around the subject's neighborhood.
Fortunately, it's a kind of journalism that still lives and breathes in some of the city's poorer neighborhoods. In a way, e-mail technology has revived the art of public slander--I know of a couple people who've been the subjects of ugly electronic attacks--but the thing that had always impressed me about the fliers was the dedicated, obsessive physical effort that goes into tacking these things up. It's not simply typing a few nasty sentences then hitting a key to send the message all over the world. That can be done on a whim. But slanderous fliers require an extended burning rage.
The last such poster I had seen in New York was a few months back, plastered sporadically around the East Village. At the top was a grainy photo of a scraggly-looking young woman. Beneath it, in a bitter scrawl, was the warning that this woman (I believe her name was "Maria") was a whore. Not just a whore, but a whore with AIDS, who was still on the streets, plying her trade. And not just plying her trade while carrying the virus, but stealing other girls' boyfriends in the process!
That was the kicker. It was sort of like a public service message from someone who couldn't afford to buy thirty seconds of air time on Channel 2.
All of this only comes to mind after I found out a week ago that an old acquaintance of mine was the subject of just such an attack. "Don't believe this man!" it read, over another grainy photo. "This man is a liar!"
To understand what this was all about, why it was so intriguing, and why it affects me personally, we have to step back a couple of years.
I was plying my own trade at the Guggenheim. There was another guard there at the time, name was Michael, and none of the other guards wanted much to do with him. He was small and wiry, a hyperkinetic smarty pants who was always trying to corner people into philosophical arguments about religion and sex. He was a loud, clever and pushy little black kid who was studying psychology at Columbia. He was interested in S&M and was reading most of the same things I was reading when I was his age--Burroughs, de Sade, Artaud, Foucault--the whole hip canon.
He told me that he was born and raised on the Upper West Side and that his mother sent him to a speech therapist when he was very young in order to teach him how to "talk white."
Michael had seen all the bands, been to all the underground film screenings, and knew most everyone there was to know. And at the time I knew him, he was trying very hard to become a junky.
Far be it from me to preach against the scourge of drugs; but the fact remains that there are worthwhile drugs and there are stupid drugs. Heroin is among the stupidest. So far as I can tell, Keith Richards and William Burroughs remain the only two men in history who have managed to dredge something meaningful out of the experience. The rest of them--including too many friends of mine--are dead as a result.
There. That's my lecture. It's a lecture I gave to Michael, and it was one he wasn't too interested in hearing.
Having said my piece, I still dealt with him, still found him intriguing if a little abrasive, and simply ignored him when he was high. He was always very excited about classes he was taking, papers he was writing and professors who were heaping praise upon him. When it came time for him to produce his B.A. paper, something about the psychology of pain and murder, he asked if he could have access to my library.
That's always a tricky issue for me. I never lend books to people I don't trust, and then never loan out more than one or two at a time. But in this instance, something went wrong in my head. I stopped thinking. I went home and gathered together classics, modern basics and obscure volumes that could never be found in any library. I lugged in an autographed copy of Judge Bob Gollmar's book on Ed Gein, Loompanics' Hunting Humans, medical books on the physiology of pain--maybe a dozen titles, all in the name of advancing...well, something or other.
A few weeks later, Michael actually returned a few of the books, explaining that he needed to hang on to the others for a little while longer. That was fine. I took the fact that he had returned a couple as a good sign.
Around this same time, he started sharing a Chelsea apartment with a woman named Christina--another Guggenheimer and Columbia student, another friend of mine. The two of them invited me and Laura and a few other folks over for dinner one night, and, as the evening came to a close, I asked Michael if maybe I could have at least some of my books back.
(I realize this whole "book" thing might seem petty and anal to some, but they're all I've got these days)
"I'd love to, but I'm afraid they're all boxed up, and I'm not sure where they'd be...but don't worry, I mean, they're here, they're just..."
"Are you finished with that damned paper yet?" I asked.
"Not quite. That's the other thing--"
"Must be rough going when all your research materials are hidden away in boxes somewhere."
I was starting to get a little nervous. Around work, Michael was becoming more openly dissolute and erratic. Like I said, he was a small fellow, and the drugs were taking a very visible toll on him. It was clear that he simply couldn't handle what he had gotten himself into, and if he o.d.'ed I'd never get my goddamned books back.
A short while later, Michael moved out of Christina's apartment, leaving her stuck with a $3000 phone bill. As it turns out, he had a crush on some Italian fellow--the kind who lives in Italy--and liked to talk to him on an almost nightly basis. Soon after he left the apartment, Michael quit the museum.
After that, it became more and more difficult to track him down. He left the occasional rambling message on my answering machine at 3 a.m., never bothering to tell me how to get ahold of him. After a little research, I came up with three possible phone numbers--and each of them yielded nothing. I found out where he worked, but by the time I was able to get over there, he'd been fired. The people I talked to either claimed never to have heard of him or, if they had heard of him, they claimed not to know where he could be found.
It'd been about two years now. I'd given up on the books, figuring by this time that he hocked them for junk money ("I hope he at least got a good price for them," I thought).
As it turns out, I wasn't the only one trying to get things back from him. Other friends and acquaintances were trying to retrieve other books, videotapes, recordings--and Michael was doing a crackerjack job of staying one step ahead of us all.
Then, by all accounts, he simply vanished. I guess I expected it. So I just stopped worrying about it and gathered new and different books around me instead.
Out of nowhere, a week ago, news of this flier popped up. It started appearing in Jersey City, site of his last known whereabouts. I guess after Michael had fled, his last roommate started going through the things he had left behind--books, papers, unpaid bills--and started making some phone calls.
I don't know if any of this is true (which is why I'm not using his last name). This is just what that last roommate--the man behind the fliers--is saying. He found out that Michael wasn't, in fact, born and raised on the Upper West Side; he was from Harlem. He never went to Columbia, at least not as a registered student. Pretty much everything Michael had claimed about his past was a complete fabrication.
Here's the tricky part. Even if he didn't go to Columbia, he was still a step above most people who did. He wasn't stupid. He was extremely well-read and could do more than drop names. He knew what he was talking about. I guess the question now is, if what the slanderous flier claims is true, why was he doing it? And what's more, where in the hell are my books?
Was he trying to manipulate people? If so, to what end? To steal from them? And if so, why from the few people who were nice to him? Was he ashamed of his past? Lord knows, to some degree or another, we all create for ourselves the biography that we'd like to hear. For the most part, it's harmless--a few more lovers, a few more drugs, what have you. And this could have been harmless, too.
Unfortunately, it wasn't. I don't put my trust in many people, mainly because I expect that most people would screw me over in one way or another if given the chance (I am, after all, a very simple man). I have no tolerance for lies.
So when I am screwed over by someone I allowed myself to trust, the venom boils to the surface and steams through the pores. My vengeance can be a terrible thing. This time, it seems, I may have an army of the vengeful with me. That is, if we can find that rotten little sonofabitch.
"A Few More Degrees of Separation" copyright
1996 by Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress.