David Sipnick is a bookseller, mostly online in recent years, but with some of his small press stuff from the 1990s, Oberon Books Editions, children's (boys', really) adventure stories on consignment at specialty stores around western states, as I understand. I've used Dave to track down some hard to find though not terribly collectible old Fitzroy paperback editions from Ace Books in the 1960s and some stuff his company once reprinted and bound from magazines like Boy's Life and Argosy. He used to import British editions into San Jose, California, and supplied a lot of special orders for independent stores until about ten years ago when the cost became prohibitive. He's my age, mid-50s, and lives (or lived, I just learned) with his mother in a hotel in Chicago's near north side. He has been writing novels all his life and never published any of them, though they were not bad at all. He is one of the most literate people I know and never has had any real literary ambition to speak of in the years I've known him. That would be about 42 years. He has written under a dozen or more names, some of it for publishing trade magazines, some of it for soft-core porn houses here in San Diego in the early 1970s. You may have passed him several times on the street in the downtown area in those days. He always seems in need of a bath or shower. He has a ponytail now, mostly gray, and still packs an armload of library books and legal or "foolscaps pads" as if he's a barrister having been trying the Bleak House case for decades.
I ran into him on a recent Friday evening at a coffee shop on Market Street. I was surprised by how glad I was to see him. I hadn't thought about David much over the years, but my associations had always been on the fun side. He himself was not what you would think of as warm; his manner was irritable and dismissive, but one soon found it was an act. He didn't squander affection, did not suffer fools; one man he suspected of being a bigot, so he doused the nattily dressed salesman with a squirt gun full of brown watercolor paint.
After establishing how we knew each other, bemoaning the years, I sat down. "How's your Friday night shaping up?" I asked him.
"My last in town." He still speaks like a man forever enumerating unpleasant facts. When he ran his bookshop on Clark Street in Chicago, my friends from Loyola called him the Good Humor Man. David had been in San Diego for the week to bury his mother. I never knew she was from here -- no reason why it might have come up, I suppose. I expressed my condolences. "She was 91," he said, as if informing me that she had been flayed alive by Cossacks.
"You two were close. I remember her from Diogenes [the store]...and her cat."
"The damned cat." He shrugged, made a blowing noise through his lips.
It quickly came back to me how pointless small talk always proved abbreviated with David, a reason I liked him, I now remembered. "Still writing?"
I gestured at his legal sheets covered with Pentel Rolling Writer script. "Looks like a book or novel rather than magazine stuff, and I notice you're one of the last-ditch holdouts against computers. That figures."
He shrugged again. "No soul."
He didn't talk about his mother. In fact the only subject he insisted on veering the conversation toward was his health. He has a number of vague malaises; doctors are fools and know nothing...he could go at any time. Now he would be forced to live with his sister in a Pakistani neighborhood on the west side. His hotel was giving him 30 days to move out tens of thousands of books. It occurred to me that David reminded me of myself, always had, really: past middle age, hypochondriac, getting more antisocial with the years rather than less. The major difference was his lifelong closeness with his mother. My relationship with my own mother was different. But I suppose I always related to a kind of inner David S. in my own character, a sense that I too might end up a garrulous old hippie shouting at little Pakistani kids from my front porch on Damon (or Devon?) Avenue in Rogers Park, "Get off my property!" all the while waving legal sheets densely lined with stark black, wide-tipped ink pen: a historical novel, probably a bitter memoir of the '60s. My bibliography would consist of short stories in magazines like Fate or Barely Legal or Romance Times and a clutch of novels from Greenleaf Press -- or was it Honeybee Books? -- with titles like "Trucker's Chicken" or "Wet Housewives."
In those days -- Chicago in 1968 and 1969 up around the Loyola University neighborhood, next to Evanston, Illinois -- David seemed the hip heir to the realm of Bennett Cerf (now I wonder how many reading this know who Bennett Cerf might have been). And I was sure to be a cult favorite as a white blues man, like John Hammond, Jr., say, but gradually building my literary reputation as a cross between Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and William S. Burroughs. In other words, David Sipnick was one of us, one of those for whom greatness was destined.
Thirty-six years later, here in that coffee shop/tobacconist where both Sipnick and I could smoke pipes (a passing sight these days unless you mean hookahs), I made the mistake, in an awkward moment, to peek at my old friend's manuscript. "You mind?"
After a page and a half I couldn't breathe. I was experiencing an anxiety attack that I did not understand. I could try to reproduce Sipnick's prose here, and I could probably do a fairly representative job of rendering the gist of it, but the attempt, I think, would be cheap. It would be terribly easy to parody. "Fish in a barrel!" That was the line Jose Ferrer used in describing the difficulty as far as depicting Bogart/Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny as insane. Dave Sipnick was scribbling reams of dissasociative drivel. He had eliminated punctuation and was clearly obsessed with what he described as "The Ultimate Transcendence via the bowels and Crown Chakra." He put it several ways, none of them any clearer.
I am not proud to say that I made my exit as hastily as I could. My old imagined comrade in the Acid Wars had taken a 40-year bullet. He was mad, a casualty. He still reminded me too much of myself, my fears and my lack of grace in dealing with mental illness. I don't remember what I muttered to him as I gathered my things and left. I don't want to remember.