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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
A Man Full of Gentleness and Rage
Morgan and I were having dinner with a couple friends last week, when one of them said, "You heard that Lou died, didn't you?"
We hadn't. I can't say I was shocked, really. Just a little sad.
I didn't know Lou all that well. In fact, he only spoke to me of his own volition once, and that was to ask if I wanted a pretzel. I think I took one just to be polite. He didn't look at me as he spoke then, and I can't say as he looked at me-or much of anybody else-very much at all. He always kept his eyes averted.
I think I should back up here a bit.
It seems so long ago now. Back in the mid-90s, the New York Press was located on the 8th and 9th floors of the Puck Building at the corner of Lafayette and Houston. I was the receptionist back then, which meant that I worked up on the 9th floor. In retrospect — though it didn't always seem that way as it was happening — they were very good days. A bright and interesting crew of people was working in the office at the time. Artists, musicians, pranksters, goofballs. It was a lively place. That's where I met Morgan, and a number of those other folks remain good friends to this day.
There were exceptions, of course-the creepies and the nutjobs and the cokeheads who could make life an annoying ordeal, but every office has those.
Then there was Lou. I never saw that much of Lou — he was an ad salesman who sat in a back corner of the office near the supply closet. He usually came into the office at 4 p.m. and worked late into the night. Some say it was because most of his clients were people who lived in other time zones. Others (myself included) just figured he liked having the whole place pretty much to himself.
He was a large man with thinning hair on top and a heavy red beard. His eyes, like I said, were perpetually averted. He would come in the office every day wearing a tattered, rust-colored sweater and carrying a bag from the corner deli, which contained a bag of snacks—chips or pretzels—and a two-liter jug of Diet Coke.
I didn't know too much about him—few people seemed to. There remains to this day some question as to what his actual last name was. There were a couple possibilities floating around, all of them pretty closely related, but no one was absolutely sure. I think Lou himself used a couple different names.
Despite the air of mystery (whether it was intentional on his part or not) and his general silence, Lou did have his favorites around the office, those two or three people he would talk to. I wasn't one of them — Lou, it seemed, only liked the women. He would always be offering them snacks or giving them little trinkets of some form or another. He always sounded nervous when he spoke-his voice a low but gruff staccato. It might've been the result of all that caffeine.
The first thing I learned about Lou's personal life, as I remember, was that he didn't have a bed. His apartment (I was told) was devoid of furniture of any kind. He slept on a thin pallet on the floor. It was an odd thing to imagine for such a big man.
That lead to the revelation that he was a member of a very strict, ascetic Christian sect which, among other things, demanded that he donate all of his money (less what he needed for absolute bare essentials) to the church. That's why he didn't have any furniture-he'd sold it all (again, so I was told) and put all the money into the church's coffers.
Someone who knew him better than I did only recently told me that this "all money to God" business went to some ridiculous extremes. Lou, for instance, in order to save money, would walk to and from work every day. Thing is, he lived in Brooklyn, and so every day, rain or shine, he'd have to walk across one of the bridges.
One night, he told her, he was walking home over the Manhattan Bridge, despite the fact that there was some construction going on. Only when he arrived on the Brooklyn side did he discover that the bridge was closed, and there was no way through for him. So, having no other option, he turned around, trudged all the way back across the bridge, found his way over to the Brooklyn Bridge, and took that one home instead.
He also, it was no surprise, didn't drop a lot of his paycheck on clothes. Every day, again regardless of the weather, he would slink into the office wearing the same tattered sweater over the same, vaguely-yellow shirt. One day his supervisor, after much soul-searching, finally had to sit him down and suggest that a new shirt might be a good idea.
He was a hell of a salesman though. I have no idea how or why-maybe on the phone, he came across as gentle, soft-spoken, even a little hapless. And I guess he was that, in his own way.
Given all those other things, though, I guess it should've been no surprise to discover that Lou was also a man full of rage. It was always there, right under the surface, threatening to blow. You live like he did, you figure there's got to be a mountain of anger at play. Fortunately for those who worked with him, he always took it into the hall before it erupted.
I remember the first time I heard the howling outside the office door. I didn't know what to make of it. Especially when the pounding started. Only after the second or third time it happened did anyone dare peek outside to discover that it was Lou, standing around the corner by the bathrooms, screaming a bitter, barking scream and pounding on the walls with his meaty fists.
I never knew, and no one ever fielded a guess as to what, exactly, set him off each time. Maybe nothing at all. Every two or three months though, he'd step outside, calm as can be, as if he were making a normal trip to the restroom. A few seconds later, the near-Biblical pounding and wailing would begin-and continue for about ten or fifteen minutes.
Thing is, although it startled me that first time, I always empathized with him. Partly because I had a long history of rage seizures myself, and partly because I knew that damn near any job can make you want to scream and pound the walls sometimes.
Weird thing is, those episodes left me with a greater respect for Lou. I mean, sure, I always suspected (and I certainly wasn't the only one) that one day, he was going to stroll into the office toting a sawed-off shotgun, an AK-47, and about 1200 rounds of ammunition. But that was okay.
One morning, long before Lou showed up, a thick-necked, beet-faced, coked-up 40 year-old frat boy who worked there rifled through his desk, just for yuks. There he found a personal letter Lou had written. In proper stupid frat boy fashion, he promptly made several dozen photocopies of the letter and distributed them around the office.
Most all of us thought the act was cruel and unforgivable-not to mention illegal. Lord knows what he'd have found had he gone through my desk. Still, I have to admit that I read the letter. I'm not proud of the fact, but I did. And only after reading it did I come to more fully understand the depths of Lou's anger. And with that, I felt a deep sadness for him.
The letter, written in a hard, printed scrawl, was addressed to God Himself. In it, Lou asked God why he was being tortured after all the work he'd done and all the sacrifices he'd made. And why, he also wondered, were all the people around him (his co-workers, I'm guessing)-people who openly mocked God-being rewarded? He wanted to know what he'd done wrong.
The letter went on for a page and was signed at the bottom. I'm not doing justice here to the palpable rage that came through both the words and the handwriting. It was the kind of thing you'd expect to find on the desk of an employee who was planning on coming back the next day with a cache of weapons strapped to his body.
He never did, though. And though a few of us talked about it, nobody ever said anything to Lou about that letter.
Not long afterwards, Lou was let go. I no longer remember who did it or what specific reasons were cited. I don't know if it had anything to do with the letter or the screaming. One day he just stopped coming in. I never saw him after that, though I did think about him every now and again.
I'm told now that it was about a year and a half ago that someone heard that Lou had been diagnosed with something awful and was given only a few weeks to live. Whether or not he actually did die remains something of a question. Not knowing that last name of his for sure makes checking out death certificates something of a problem.
I guess what that means is that he'll remain as mysterious as he ever was. And who knows? Maybe that's the way he would have preferred it.