Slackjaw

A Trip to the John with John

by Jim Knipfel


Okay, so let's set our establishing shot: The University of Chicago--that South Side ivy-shrouded, gothic-barred Bastion of Rigor, that Rockefeller-founded Baptist school where Jewish professors teach Catholic ideology to atheist students--was celebrating it's centennial. A very big deal to some, and one of those some happened to be Laura. I didn't care much. The U. of C. pulled the rug out from beneath me after a year and a half, forcing me to the University of Wisconsin--a school the stupidest of students could afford (and did).

But Laura spent four years in U. of C. administration, giving tours, writing the University history, coordinating the convocation ceremonies and running the Office of Special Events. She put so goddamn much into that place that we had no choice but to fly out for the party. And when U. of C. types party, they party hard: seminars, lectures, classes--everything you'd expect from a place which produced more Nobel laureates than any other American university.

So there we were, me wondering when I'd be able to get my next drink (there's only one bar on campus--Jimmy's--a place that blackballed me in 1985, for reasons I don't quite remember), Laura giving impromptu tours of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House to anyone who paused longer than a few seconds by the outer wall.

We planned to go to only two things that weekend: our fifth class reunion ("I didn't talk to anybody while I was there," I told her before she made reservations for us, "so why in the hell should I want to talk to them now?" "They'll have an open bar." "What time does it start?"), and something like "The Grace L. Ferguson Lecture," being given this year by NBC News commentator John Chancellor.

I happen to like John Chancellor, even though he's on the television. He seems smarter than most and seems to have the freedom to say things most of the other images won't. But I'm not one to piss away an opportunity sent my way by the devils.

We were sitting in the back row, near the exit of the auditorium, Laura looking for familiar faces in the crowd, me anxious to get it over with, when Chancellor walked in next to us with two of the lecture's organizers.

"I'll be ready in about five minutes," he told them, "but first I have to find the bathroom. Where's a bathroom?"

They told him, and he left. I leaned over to Laura, and whispered, "I'll be right back."

Down a winding staircase, at the end of an unlit hall, I kicked open the men's room door. Chancellor was nowhere to be seen (which meant that he wasn't standing at a urinal), but one of the two stalls was occupied. I took the next stall and kneeled down in front of the toilet. I could tell from the sounds that someone was on the other side of the partition.

"Jesus," I groaned, "those look just like John Chancellor's shoes!" before letting loose with a series of hacks and vile gags, like I was trying to retch out my kidneys.

I paused a second, after getting no response. "So, are they?" I asked, my voice strained and wet.

Still no response. I gagged some more, then paused again. "Say, tell me . . . umm . . . is that Hunter Thompson story true? That one about you and the acid--whoa, hold on, Jesus--" I retched some more.

Finally a voice from the next stall--those unmistakably crotchety tones--"Are you alright over there, sir?"

"Aw, Christ, yeah--don't mean to scare ya at all. This happens to me five, six times a day. Doctors don't know what the hell to make of it.--whoops, hold on a sec--" I gagged, then flushed before going on.

"Didja ever notice that? Even if nothing comes out, everybody always flushes after they try to puke? Isn't that weird?"

He released a small grunt of what I took to be agreement.

"Yeah, weird. Say, so what about that acid question?"

He didn't say anything, so I knocked on the partition. "Hey, Mr. Chancellor, are you okay over there?" I knocked again. "Mr. Chancellor?"

There was a roll and crumple of toilet paper, then a flush. I quick stepped out of my stall and went over to the sink. He stepped out of his own stall a minute later, his grey suit impeccable, his pasty, hang-dog face a bit more ashen than usual.

"Hey, you don't look so good," I told him, "are you sure you're ready for this? I mean, there's nothing to worry about--it's not like you're up against a hostile audience or anything. I mean, did you take a look at that crowd? They love you. You could go out there and talk for an hour about putting all the niggers back on boats and shipping them to Africa and you'd still get a standing ovation. So don't worry."

He was trying to get around me to the sink. "Hey, let me ask you something else. You always seem annoyed with Tom Brokaw--it's like, when he introduces you, it's like you're both racing to get the introductions out of the way. You always seem really annoyed."

"Well, television news depends on very careful timing," he started, "and I only have a minute to say what I have to say, so, of course, I want to get on with it."

"Yeah, but did you ever want to just haul off and punch him one? Just whack him a good one right there on the air?"

"If you'll excuse me, I've got to go give a talk." He started for the door

"Sure, I understand. But don't you want to wash your hands first? I mean, it's kinda gross not to, don't you think?"

He sighed, went back to the sink, and started washing his hands.

"Say, you don't need an assistant, do you? I mean, I live in New York, and I've been out of work for a year now. And look what it's done to me. U. of C. alumnus turned into, well, me. But I could, you know, shine your shoes--well, that probably doesn't matter--nobody ever sees your shoes anyway. Well, I guess I did, but that doesn't count."

He dried his hands and headed for the door.

"Or in a pinch, I could even write your bits for you--jazz 'em up a little, make 'em funnier than they are. Hey, listen to this one! This is a column I wrote a few weeks back--" I pulled the "Decade of Hate" column out of my pocket and followed him into the hallway.

"Okay, I won't do that, I know that's annoying, to have people come up to you reading things, trying to get work, but hey--" I was getting out of hand. "Hey, could you get me into the Democratic National Convention in July? I really wanna go--and ya know why? Do you know why? Cause that mama's boy Clinton needs someone to teach him what it takes to be a real man!"

His pace quickened as he neared the steps, and the pitch of my voice shot up.

"Before you go, you've got to tell me one thing--just one thing--forget everything else--John--Mr. Chancellor!--What is the frequency? WHAT IS THE FREQUENCY?!"

It tasted good again, seeing fear in the eyes of a stranger. It went down like cold gin on a hot day--as smooth and easy as sweet gasoline.


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

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