Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Long Live Posthumous Writings of Caroline Knapp -- Her Legacy of Female Power and her Elusive Autograph

I was recently compared to humor writer, Caroline Knapp, in a lovely way.  A respected critic and artist said to me, “You’re easily as good as the greats who have made it like Writers X, Y, Z… and Caroline Knapp.”

Caroline Knapp touched a cord for me.  We both wrote for the Phoenix at the same time. 

I wrote about the 90s urban revitalizations for Worcester and Boston that were ongoing.

Caroline wrote a weekly humor column called ‘Out There’ which featured Alice K., a fictionalized angst-ridden female ne'r do well who was super fun to follow! Knapp wrote her Alice K column  eleven years before her second book captured national acclaim.  

Between her first and second books, I was assigned a mission from a friend to acquire Caroline's autograph for her first published book: Alice K.'s Guide to Life.

At the time, I devoured Caroline's columns.  Becoming a humor columnist was what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Writing political investigatives for the same publication Knapp wrote humor colums for?  What a treat.  Not because writing political hyperbole brought me joy. It brought me angst. I wanted to migrate to Knapp-status and not defile the reps of pols in my district.  

But how?  Twenty years later, and eleven years after her death, I do not know.

 I never wrote my heart. I felt Caroline did. I so loved her for this. Our paths  -- mine and Caroline Knapp's -- might have crossed.  But they didn’t.  

 I learned of Caroline’s death in summer of 2002 from lung cancer. 

 In receiving the compliment that my work is ‘as good as the greats, like Caroline Knapp’ I felt compelled to rummage through my pieces to find the one I wrote... about failing to get her autograph.  So here it is.


In Search Of Caroline Knapp --  1995

When I heard from my friend Jan S. G. I feared the worst for her vehicle.

 “Jan, are you alright!? It’s only 10 degrees outside!”

“Carolyn, PUH-LEEZE!  I don’t just call you when my car breaks down. But listen, I do have a huge time-sensitive favor to ask.  You work for the Phoenix, right?”

“Well I wouldn’t say I WORK for them so much as I wait for them to assign me something. Usually after a selectman does something stupid.”

“Great because I need you to contact Caroline Knapp. Since you work with her, I thought you could help.”

I LOVED how Jan S.G.’s brain worked.  Since I had twice freelanced for the Auburn-based Pheonix covering Worcester’s political news, I had direct access to Caroline Knapp, weekly humor columnist for the BOSTON Phoenix, who wrote her columns from home.  A logistical impossibility.  So after giving it serious thought, I had to tell Jan S.G., “Of course I can contact Caroline. Tell me what you need.”

This is when Jan relayed the story of Wendy D’s Birthday Miracle.  It seems that the previous year, Wendy D expressed to her best friend, Anna V, that all she wanted for her birthday was the newly-released Knapp book about her alter-ego, Alice K.

 Anna V flashed at once to her local bookstore where, to her delight, copies of Knapp’s book were available for purchase.

The peals of joy issued from the throat of Wendy D have become a birthday legend. Oh, that Anna V!

It seemed, however, that Wendy D believed miracles relapse annually, like cold sores and Jehova’s Witnesses. Because this year, she asked Anna V to procure the autograph of author, Caroline Knapp ON the very book that Anna V purchased the previous year.

No wonder Anna V needed the assistance of Jan S.G. who knew a Worcester-based freelance writer for the Auburn Phoenix to transport a book from Auburn to Boston to Caroline to Worcester to Jan, then Anna V then Wendy D by her birthday on January 7.

In six days.

Jan noted she was calling Anna V "to tell her the autograph was en route." –click--

The first step on my six-day apostolic quest was to obtain the book from Jan S.G., which I did that afternoon.

Next, I tried to phone my assignment editor for advice.  Should I give the book to someone in Auburn to bring up to Boston for one of their regular meetings?

But this effort was waylaid by a chance encounter with New Year vacation time my editor was taking.

So I phoned and left a message with the Worcester news editor’s desk.

Hi, it’s Carolyn Given.  You guys assign me political investigatives every couple of months.  Listen, when do one of you guys head up to the Boston office next?  I have something I’d like to send up!  Thanks.  Call me when you get this.”

I waited NINE MINUTES  for him to return my call before I phoned the managing editor’s assistant.

“Hi, I was hoping to speak to Cliff?”
“We have no one here by that name.”
“Yes you do.”
“I’m sorry but we do not employ a Chris.”
No, no. Cliff. C  L  I  Double-Eff.”
“Ummm…. Nope.”
“His last name is—“
“Oh you mean Cliff!  The managing editor.  We DO have him, please hold. And sorry, I have a cold so my ears aren’t working” –‘click ‘

“Hello, you’ve reached the voice mail of Cliff, the Managing Editor.  I’m not  at my—“

I redialed the hearing-disordered person.

“It’s me again.  Cliff isn’t in today.”
“Well, that’s because it’s Thursday.  He’s at the BOSTON office.”


I phoned Boston to reach my contact, Cliff, to arrange a signing-rendez vous with Caroilne Knapp. Except my hearing-impaired helpmate suffered a vision misadventure and mis-quoted the Boston extension.

Consequently, I had a long conversation with an event coordinator at the Boston Aquarium who suggested we throw Caroline’s book away and bring Wendy D to the Shark Tank for a different kind of Birthday Miracle.

Meanwhile, Directory Assistance gave me a wonderful number that zoomed me straight to Subscriber Service, staffed by folks who cared astoundingly little about Wendy D’s Birthday Miracle.

Next, I was in the touch-tone hands of a Phoenix Operator who deftly connected me to the Busy Editor’s Desk.

Busy Editor’s Desk.”
“This is Carolyn Given from the Auburn off—“
“What’s up.”
“I am looking for Cliff of the Worcester off—“
“This isn’t his extension. Ask the opera—“
“No, no. He’s from Auburn and won’t have an extension.  He’s physically up there with you guys.”
“Oh, right. The Thursday meeting.  He’ll be in that for hours.”
“Well, could you please have him cal—“
“Call back then.”
They’re THAT busy.

Day 2

I phone Jan S.G. to keep her apprised of Mission Knapp.
“Just want you to know, the Auburn office goes to Boston regularly and everything’s underway.”
“Well what did Caroline say? I mean, she must think this is late notice.”
“Uhhhhmm.  She’s always happy to assist her fans and I have a beep I must take.”

Day 3

I have not heard from my assignment editor or Cliff.  I while away my wait by actually reading Caroline’s book.

Day 4
A very GOOD book.

Day 5
I called Cliff back in Auburn only to discover he had contracted the same vision and hearing virus going around the office and was home sick.  I was transferred to my assignment editor back from vacation.

Carolyn, hi! I was just thinking about you. No I didn’t get your message but it’s been hectic with the holidays and I’ve been away. What’s up?”

I explained the story, which, according to my rendering, involved more tactical complexity and split second timing than the transport of vital organs from donor to DNA-matched recipient nine time zones and one dimension away.

“Carolyn,” chirped my editor brightly.  “Have you tried calling Caroline, directly?”

This is why writers need assignment editors, to assign us Rational Thought.

Editor’s Desk and boy are we busy.”
“I’d like to speak to Caroline Knapp, directly.”
“Caroline freelances. She’s not in the office.”
“How can I reach her?”
“You can’t. You can leave a message with Beverly who’s out until January 9th.”
“But that’s too LATE – you see—"
“Here’s Bev’s extension.”   --click--

Think think think.  What would my assignment editor do? 

“Directory Assistance, for what city and state?”
“Boston, Massachusetts. The number for Caroline Knapp, spelled Kay, Enn—“
“Yes, the Phoenix columnist, I know how to spell her name. Please hold for the number.”

I dial.  It rings. A machine tells me to leave a message.  I do.  As I reach the climax of Wendy D’s plight… I weep.  And leave my number for her to return my call.

Day 6

Wendy D is 24 hours closer to death.

I considered my options:  forgery or failure.

Then I remembered my assignment editor. She’d go with the latter.  Editors are like that about facts and truth and avoiding legal fines and prison.

Before delivering the un-autographed book to Jan S.G. I opened its cover.  And I wrote:

Dear Wendy D,
The Easter Bunny is dead, your parents paid your Tooth Fairy money then pitched your teeth in the trash, and in lieu of Caroline Knapp’s autograph, accept this Hero’s Quest saga, beginning with the morning Jan S.G. phoned me at 8 am and ending here, with me defiling the jacket of Knapp’s Book.
Carolyn Given, Auburn-based Phoenix freelancer who’s easier to reach than Knapp and cares DEEPLY about your birthday.

I cannot believe it’s been 20 years since my failed attempt to get Caroline’s autograph.

In defense of Caroline Knapp, I DID receive a call-back the day after Wendy D’s birthday.  It came from a Caroline Knapp who lived in Somerville, not Cambridge, who told me she ‘gets Caroline Knapp calls all the time, but Knapp’s number is unlisted.”

This Caroline Knapp hoped that Wendy D’s Birthday was a truly magical event! 

It was clear from the photos taken by Jan S.G. that with sufficient champagne, magic was had by all!

I think the story has a happy ending:  it is clear that people who “make it” – either during their lifetime or posthumously -- are able to network a helluvalot better than I.  

 I am meanwhile saddened anew to recall that we lost Caroline Knapp eleven years ago. She was only 42.  We were the same age. Something I didn’t know back then.  I thought she was at least a decade older due to her insights and acumen.

 My six-day quest in futility to acquire her autograph brought a real affection for her, albeit born of elusiveness and irony.

But the strength of Knapp’s writing does go on.  Caroline, indeed, “made it as one of the greats.”  Her stories of power through recovery, of women who battle anorexia and alcoholism -- and some gorgeous work about the healing power of dog ownership and love – continue to teach, to empower, to live.  

 I still aspire to making it as she did – with my own unlisted number – and in my case some IT students in need of cash who will  create an electronic autograph I shall launch into cyberspace to enhance the Birthday Miracles of future Wendy D’s of the year 2020.  After I ‘Make it’ – whatever ‘it’ is. 

I hope ‘it’ comes in chocolate.