Wednesday, May 21, 2008

wherein I meet Ben Katchor and Jacob Kornbluth

By some quirk of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Bus Line 24, I arrived a full 20 minutes early to see Josh Kornbluth interview Ben Katchor at the Jewish Community Center.

Ben Katchor live and off the page! Josh Kornbluth live and on purpose! All this, and dessert too. It's no quirk that I arrived early.

Since I was alone, I was able to secure a plum seat in the middle of the 4th row. I’m not sure why it’s important to sit close to the stage; it’s not like you’ll get a hand up to dance with Bruce Springsteen or Oprah will toss you the keys to a BRAND NEW CAR. Nope. Not going to happen. Still, there’s something exciting about being in the 4th row.

The auditorium was almost empty when I took my seat; being so early made me feel over-eager and squirrelly. I busied myself by filling out the survey the usher had handed me when I wandered in. How did you find out about this show? Ah. That’s easy. They didn’t keep it much of a secret. That’s how I found out about it. I filled in the bubble next to ‘Postcard’ with the miniature golf pencil the usher gave me. I was buzzing in anticipation of the show; it was all I could do to color inside the lines.

Ben Katchor live. How cool is that?

C110 seemed like a really good seat, a seat with a clear view of the two big chairs set up for the interviewer and the interviewee. I concentrated on the survey. How many events have you attended during the last 12 months? After some reflection, I lied. It’s embarrassing to admit how seldom I leave the house. Unless you count my trips to the market. But isn’t going to the market an event of sorts? For me it is. I exed out my original answer of less than 6 and colored in the greater than 24 bubble.

Why does my survey look so messy?

The audience began to file in. So where was that really tall guy going to sit? Keep going. Keep going. Keep going: I willed him to keep going. He sat down directly in front of me. I knew it! Not a chance that I’d be sitting behind one of the countless short wide Jewish ladies who smelled of Nivea and secured used Kleenexes up the sleeves of their cardigans. Nope. The Bill Gaines look-alike—a compact fire plug of a man—took a seat three to the left. The neurotically thin Yoga ladies who were season ticket holders? They weren’t sitting in front of me.

No, I was sitting behind the tallest man in the room, and next to a young blond spiky-haired guy who awkwardly held a skateboard to his chest. You could tell he was thinking, “What are all these old Jewish people doing here? This is about comix.” He sat nervously, as if the whole audience was going to turn around and yell at him not to skate on their sidewalk and to pick up the trash.

It was exactly the audience that he—and I—should have expected.

Then the two men, Ben Katchor and Josh Kornbluth, walked out. The audience, which was surprisingly quiet for hard-of-hearing older Jewish people, became even quieter. The man in front of me sat up even straighter. He was probably 7 or 8 feet tall and had unspeakably good posture. I shifted in my seat, trying to look around him.

I’ve seen Ben Katchor before; it was when he was touring in the wake of his MacArthur Foundation genius award (which, incidentally, is taxable). That time he was reminiscing about the golden age of museum cafeterias. It’s true: museum cafeterias have become too good. I often go to the Berkeley Art Museum’s Café Muse just to eat the sustainably grown Raw Vietnamese Mushroom Salad with Cilantro, Scallions, & Almond Vinaigrette. I don’t even look at the museum’s exhibits. I eat lunch and leave. Someday I hope to be satisfied by just reading the menu.

Ben Katchor was right.

I squirmed in my seat again, trying to get a good look at the setup on the stage. The skateboarder made his best effort to shift left and get further away from me.

I’d forgotten how much Ben Katchor looks like Mark Bernstein. He looks a lot like Mark Bernstein. Surprisingly so.

Josh Kornbluth looked even less like Ben Franklin than I’d remembered. Perhaps it was the red socks that were bunched up at his ankles; I never picture Ben Franklin wearing red socks. (I still think Josh Kornbluth looks like Jay Sherman, who might well wear red socks with failing elastic).

Using a Sharpie, I wrote on my Muni pass: perhaps JK is a BK character. That would work. Josh Kornbluth looks drawn, as if he’s jumped off of the page of one of the Weekly Strips. The one about the chiropodist, perhaps.

His experience as a talk show host has served him well: Josh Kornbluth is a fine interviewer. He asks good questions and mostly gets out of the way and lets Ben Katchor talk.

I could listen to Ben Katchor talk as long as he felt like talking. That’s how good he is.

The first piece he reads is about modern apartments, about a man who moves every year so he can live in ever more up-to-date surroundings. The same mythical Eastern European movers transport his furniture year after year. One of the movers has a hernia, but nonetheless is able to horse the man’s grandfather’s delicate antique armoire out of the back of the van into the next of the series of more improbably-modern apartments.


The man finally goes digital and no longer has belongings to move. In the final frame of the story, the irrelevant armoire is hefted into a dumpster. Done and done. Gone digital.

My feet are dangling. If the springs in a theater seat are sufficiently strong, the seat begins to fold up on me, so that I’m folded in half, as if caught mid-crunch. My mini-backpack forms an uncomfortable lump between my top half and my bottom half.

It is then—after a particularly restive series of shifts and folds, peering around the 8-feet-tall guy and fighting against the theater seat spring—that I begin hearing voices. Well, not really hearing voices like a schizophrenic person but rather, hearing voices like someone has their radio on. Yes, there is a muted voice of a radio commentator. How rude!

Who on earth is listening to the radio? Is it feedback from someone’s hearing aid?.

At some extreme point in my contortions, my ear is in close proximity to my mini-backpack. Aha! That’s the noise: it’s my own MP3 player. I must’ve pressed the ‘on’ button by accident. Those tiny tinny voices are from the Slate Political Gabfest. With great discretion, I put my hand inside my backpack and turn off the player. Ben Katchor must not discover that I’ve disrupted his reading with my $39 earPod. Shoot.

The second piece is even more arresting than the first. It is about condiment packets and how they are replacing the more human-scale shared service containers that preceded them. The sociable metal creamers have given way to personal handfuls of Mini-Moos; the mustard jar has been superseded by mustard packets with an unimaginably small amount of condiment within.

Not only are the packets an unrealistic size (how many for the average hot dog? 10?); they’re also uniformly difficult to open. One wrong move and a Mini-Moo will give you a creamy facial—a Mini-Moo money shot, if you’re in the mood for an obscene tongue twister. The ever-inventive Mr. Katchor suggests that young men will rent out their packet-opening services—they’ll accompany you into a restaurant, and will open all of the necessary condiments for you.

With such help on call, you can go wild. Five tubs of syrup cascade down your short stack! A lavish squiggle of catsup ornaments your fries!

Such a good idea. Condiments are certainly a topic I can warm to; I think about them a lot. In fact, there’s not much in our refrigerator except a wealth of condiments: Uncle Chen’s chili garlic sauce; Aztexan Habanero Supreme hot sauce; Hoisin sauce; Tiparos fish sauce; Heinz Catsup in the ultra-large bottle with the customized label; Safeway Spicy Brown Mustard; and other bottles and jars too numerous to list (although I’m very tempted to alphabetize them).

The condiment shelves are packed. Packed! A comic about condiments is very nearly perfect.

But really, I can’t object to the packets on any but aesthetic grounds: I was recently saved from impending starvation by a stray peanut butter packet that I’d stashed in my suitcase. I was in a hotel room, late at night, in a strange city, and I came upon this miracle cache of peanut butter. I scrabbled around in my briefcase until I found airplane pretzels. Pretzels and peanut butter: Is that not a complete meal? It is. Most food groups are adequately represented. It was kind of like the original Hanukah, except with peanut butter and pretzels instead of oil.

But I digress. Being in the Jewish Community Center with all these little old Jewish people (and the 9 foot tall man sitting in front of me) is clearly having an effect.

The Crumb Trap is the title of Ben Katchor’s third story. It is about the New York Department that goes from apartment to apartment (an entire building in an hour!), emptying toaster crumb traps. After a sufficient portion of the city’s small appliances had been emptied—saving residents from potential toaster-fires and cockroach invasions—the crumbs are sorted and used for different functions. Some are fine abrasives; others are Thanksgiving filler; still other crumbs are fed to the city’s songbirds.

Really his ideas are quite practical. I greatly admire them.

I wish I had ideas like that. I could’ve listened to lots more stories.

But the ‘in-conversation’ format has one unfortunate characteristic. The part where the author speaks is always too short, and the part where the audience asks questions is always too long. I’m not sure why they let the audience ask questions at all. Josh Kornbluth already asked questions, and he did fine. The audience will not do fine; they are bound and determined to ask stupid questions.

Some of the questions are like Jeopardy questions: they’re the answer in the form of a question and they’ve only been asked because the asker wants to demonstrate that he’s actually met the celebrity before. Or that the question-asker is a minor celebrity in his- or her own mind. Yuck.

Did I hear someone ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” Someone must’ve. It’s as if you could subscribe to ideas like you would the Harry & David Fruit-of-the-Month Club. In January, you get 12 Royal Riviera Pears and a half-dozen good ideas about, say, small appliances.

All too soon, it is over, and we must shuffle from the auditorium as a bovine group. Shuffle. Shuffle.

On the second floor, there is a reception and the author will be signing books. It is a Jewish Community Center. I know that a proper reception cannot be conducted on an empty stomach. And I am right. There are crudités and macaroons. Brie and celery sticks (nature’s dental floss!). Petits Fours and cheese balls. People are milling around, eating compulsively and talking volubly.

And Stacey’s has set up a table. Forgot to bring a book for the author to sign? You can buy one from the nice lady.

I find myself buying a book: Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District. And edging my way through throngs of older Jewish men and women eating reception food (“oooh. Did you try the macaroons? I wonder where they bought the macaroons? So moist!”) until I got to Room 209. There were only a few faithful fans in line when I got there, real comix-lovers. Odd looking men and women with bulging backpacks and stacks of books. Not just one or two books that they’d purchased at the Stacey’s table, but big hulking stacks of books. As if they’d brought half their home libraries for Ben Katchor to sign. Anthologies that already have other signatures in them. Everything they could think of.

Book signings are horribly awkward. It’s like making small talk at a party if you’re not out to get laid, but just trying to make benign conversation with strangers. Just words to fill the dead air and demonstrate you’re a teeny bit smarter than the neon tetras in the aquarium you’re standing next to and a teeny bit more appealing than the decrepit old family dog that has wandered into the room. At best, you leave without the need for an apology.

When I reach the front of the line, I start out poorly, haltingly. I allude to something he’d admitted about his books, about how they were almost too much to be taken in all at once. It seems like a stupid opening line when you’re asking someone you admire to sign a just-purchased copy of their book. He frowns.

Quick! Must say something else. Must redeem the conversation. Because I do read his comics on the web, I ask him about his web site. He is momentarily pleased and says he put it together himself—and that it’s nothing. That he used to be a typesetter.

Ben Katchor is gracious; he draws me a small cartoon guy in spite of the non-conversation we are having. I console myself: this is a transient blip in his day, and even though he’s really smart, there’s no way he’ll remember his brief encounter with me.

Up close, he still looks like Mark Bernstein. In some hard-to-quantify way.

Does he know Mark Bernstein? He might know Mark Bernstein. Yeah. He could know Mark Bernstein. Mark Bernstein gets around.

I stop myself before I ask him. Phew. That was close. It is something my mother and I do, this looking for momentary cosmic alignments—shared friends, shared schools, shared towns—but many people are less crazy about that kind of coincidence.

And just like that, my turn is over. My chance to make a positive impression has evaporated. Ben Katchor has drawn a little cartoon guy for me to puzzle over; I have thanked him; and now I shuffle out of the room, back toward the food tables. The signing line has grown long while the first few of us have had our turns. I am still flustered.

Maybe it is because I am flustered that a guy with a hand held video camera, a nice one, approaches me. Now I will say something stupid and it will be immortalized. Bits that’ll come back to bite me. A sudden panic grips me; I am beyond flustered. Yet I’m drawn to the camera.

We all want to be celebrities. We can’t help ourselves.

“Hi,” he says. “I’m Jacob Kornbluth, Josh Kornbluth's brother. Is it okay if I ask you a few questions? I’m making a little documentary about Ben Katchor for Josh’s TV show.”

If I were smart, I’d realize that this is the guy who co-directed and co-wrote Haiku Tunnel. This is a professional and he’s not making a home movie. But I’m not smart. And not only have I already missed a critical cue; my mind is rapidly going blank. The microphone in my face is making it worse.

Jacob Kornbluth doesn’t look at all like Josh Kornbluth. For one thing, he’s got a disarming smile; Josh Kornbluth seems to have gotten all of the frowny angst and Jacob Kornbluth has that easy-going charm. He’s cute. For some reason, the way he introduces himself makes me think he doesn’t really do this for a living, that he’s just come along because he hasn’t got anything better to do on a Monday night in May. That he’s doing this as a favor for his brother.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Walk away! Walk away! Run! Dive under the macaroon table! Hide among the crudités! Camouflage yourself as a wheel of Brie! Act inert!

Jacob Kornbluth starts asking me questions about comics, and I am immediately sucked into a mammoth mental vacuum. Any problems I have remembering names when I’m on the spot are exacerbated and I give him absurd answers, answers that he won’t even have to take out of context to make me look foolish. For some reason, the only artist I can remember is R. Crumb; I can’t even remember Aline’s name, even though they draw comics together in The New Yorker, comics I read again and again. I can’t remember that Mary Fleener went to PV High and surfed at the same beaches I knew. And what about Julie Douchet? And Daniel Clowes? Why can’t I remember a single name of the artists I like? Why can't I come up with any details about their ouvre?

I can’t even come up with Art Spiegelman’s name. I once started a whole project because of a piece Art Spielgelman did about the New York Public Library’s picture collection.

The wall outside my college dorm room had an S. Clay Wilson panel that Adam Melch meticulously copied from a Zap Comix. Surely I could’ve come up with ONE two sentence anecdote about comics.

Jacob Kornbluth is asking me easy questions but I can’t answer them. Good god! Do I really have no favorites in the comics world? Do I really have no favorite Ben Katchor comic? I listen to words coming out of my mouth that even I don’t believe.

At the last minute, I remember the Ben Katchor story I like about the chiropodist, although I say “podiatrist”, which makes it less funny and makes me seem like less of a fan. It’s not my favorite either, but at least it’s something.

I flinch even now, embarrassed to recollect my performance in front of the camera.

I am so NOT ready for my closeup.

Now I wish I’d even said, “I can’t remember a darned thing. My blood sugar must be low.”

Instead I grab one of the moist macaroons and shove it in my mouth. I have clearly seen too many Twix commercials, but it works. Jacob begins chatting with the lady standing next to me and I flee.

In retrospect, I think all he was looking for a fan. Someone who would say that they were a fan. I don’t even think he was looking for a ‘good’ fan, one of the fans who memorizes whole stories and can quote ad nauseam. He was just looking for someone who’d say something admiring, something interesting and not too stupid.

I did none of the above, even though I admire Ben Katchor’s work a great deal.

I’m hoping I’ll end up on the cutting room floor.

I walk out of the San Francisco Jewish Community Center into the May night. The reading has newly sensitized me to the odd window displays and neon signs on California Street. Pregnant mannequins look less like pregnant mannequins and more like a small army of Nicole Richies shoplifting basketballs. Ben Katchor has changed what I see, just as any artist worth his or her salt should.

I get on the Number 24 Muni bus and head back across town.


Blogger wren said...

I have no idea who these people are and "Bluth" makes me think of "Arrest Development" (R.I.P.). That Jacob is a cutie though.

Found your blog on a search for intestine length. Trivial conversation w/ co-worker. yeah, life's weird.

7:51 PM  
Blogger nancy said...

On sitting near the front: I remember feeling exceedingly privileged, sitting in one of the front rows in Herbst Theater for Oliver Sacks. I could look up his pants legs to see above where his socks stopped. (Nothing intimate or kinky, just flesh with, as I recall, hair.) Unfortunately, both I and my companion (we discovered later) were so mesmerized by looking up his pants legs that we kept losing track of what he was saying.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cathy, Where are you?

No middle initial withdrawal symptoms.


The Trolls amongst us

lulz you?

7:03 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I has kidnapped by cheezburger-eating lolcats.

Plz send ransom. $$.


yrs true-ly, The Walrus

7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't copy it. I interpreted it.

9:10 AM  

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