By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"As for Literature with a capital, L," Kahm says, "I am incapable of it. I would have liked to be Dostoevski or Mark Twain, but I'm not. I'm me. I am a polished writer. I know what readers want to read. Some of them want to be shocked. Some want to experience mystery. Some romance readers want to relive old passions. Sometimes I would like to live another 1,000 years to write all the books I want to write. There can't possibly be enough time."
The room where Kahm spends most of his day is on the second floor of a house he owns in which there are three other apartments. The house is located at the northernmost tip of the Wedge neighborhood, on a small hill, next to a building once called Franklin Heights. The rooms are usually fairly dirty, especially the closet-sized kitchen that Kahm calls "the galley." The walls are yellow from grease. A bag of caramel puffcorn sits half-eaten on the stove. "Don't go in there," he says, "or I'll make you clean it. You'll have to excuse the mess, but my housekeeper went out for a cigarette and she hasn't returned." He pauses, counts silently to three: "That was 30 years ago." He has lived in the building, which his father bought, for at least that many years. There are two gas lights on the wall behind Kahm, which he says may or may not work, and an ornate iron grating on the floor outside the galley that once delivered heat. Kahm does not point these features out and regards them with complete indifference.
Kahm's father managed the large apartment building next door, too, and Harold lived there for about 40 years. That building once housed a store in its basement, but it has been replaced by locked storage and a laundry room. I live in this building now. Across the street, there was once an Episcopal church called St. Paul's. Down the block, caddy-corner from Kahm's house, stood a garage for recharging electric cars. A half a block east is Burch's Pharmacy, which years ago was Ball's Pharmacy; Burch's stationary store fills a space that used to be home to an upscale meat market called Mettler's. A block south, and across the street, is the roof where I believe the Replacements posed for the cover of Let it Be.
From the rounded, wraparound porch of the house--which Kahm claims is practically unequaled in size and circumference anywhere in the city--all the way to his door, the building smells of stale tobacco. Kahm smokes Dutch Treats, a small, fragrant cigar of the Dutch Masters brand, and has done so since he was 16. But never inhaled. When Kahm talks--which he likes very much to do--the Dutch Treats wobble up and down like a conductor's wand, often expanding to two precarious inches of ash before collapsing. Many of Kahm's shirts are pocked with holes from cascading ash, and the floor under his chair has several small anthills of the stuff. "I always try to get shirts that match different color ash," he says.
Despite the cigars, Kahm is in remarkably good health. Sometimes he wobbles when he walks, and when he coughs, the sound is wet and loose. He is mostly bald except for a wispy fringe of hair near his collar that seems to have eluded his barber. When he smiles, he sometimes extends his neck and vaguely resembles a turtle. "My body is so fucking old," he complains, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his arms, as if disgusted with his flesh and bones. "But I'm still a young man. I don't have any friends my age. None of my friends is even half my age. I have engagements almost every night of the week." One of these engagements is a weekly bridge game, which now has been going on for a decade. Kahm usually loses and loses big, but he doesn't mind. A coterie of young friends takes him to dinner with some regularity and help with shopping in the winter. Kahm has a driver's license and a car, a dark red Ford Escort, but he avoids driving after dark. When I ask him how he is doing, he usually answers "as many people as I can." He is equally apt to say: "I am 90 fucking years old--well, 90 years old, at least."
Kahm's bed, which is in the same room as his chair, is always neatly covered with a bedspread and there is never any sign of sheets or a pillow. I have never seen anyone sit on this bed, nor is the bedspread ever wrinkled. Above the bed is a Picasso-inspired painting by a friend who died in a San Francisco bar fight, and next to that, a cherry-colored guitar of unknown make, it's headstock obscured by thick dust. The strings are badly out of tune. On the wall across the room hangs a whimsical nude that Kahm bought in Paris for $50 ("which was a lot of money then") from an artist on a houseboat. Kahm also has a Duke Kahanamoku ukelele from Hawaii, and he used to have a piano, but he lent it to a friend 30 years ago and has not seen it since. Kahm likes musicals--he owns a small collection of videocassettes which includes Carousel, Fiddler on the Roof, and La Cage aux Folles, and he bursts into song easily.