By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
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Harold Kahm's first piece of published writing appeared in the American Baptist Publication Society, and it counseled children on ways to make pocket money. His first real paycheck, however, came from True Confessions magazine, which was originally published out of Robbinsdale, Minnesota. In it, he wrote about the Hilton Girls, Siamese twins on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. One of the twins desired to marry, but civic authorities wouldn't allow it. The title of the piece was "'I Want the Right to Marry,' Says Siamese Twin," and Kahm was "handsomely paid for it." "I received about $1,250 dollars in today's money," he says, "or about $125 dollars then." (Whenever Kahm talks about money he was paid long ago, he multiplies by ten to account for inflation. Likewise, when he cannot remember the year that something happened--and he usually doesn't even like to be asked, as this is quite often--he will almost always answer either 30 years or 50 years.) Kahm would go on to write short stories for True Confessions following a formula taught him by then-editor Hazel Birge. "Bad girls did and nice girls didn't," Kahm explains. "In this case, the nice girl sins, and she suffers horribly because of her sins. The only set rule that the editor told me is that under no circumstances may a girl sin twice in the same story."
Another of Kahm's articles advised wives on "How to Make a Man Stay Home." "Cook his favorite foods," Kahm says he suggested. "See to it that home is the most pleasant place for him to be. Smile. Spread your legs." Kahm says this with disgust; his own code, which is nearly as rigid as that of Hazel "One-Sin" Birge, mandates a single maxim: Don't get married. "I would rather write about marriage than do it," he says. Kahm's mother left her furniture in storage in Chicago for a dozen years after marrying, just in case she changed her mind. But Kahm believes that, with few exceptions, women are mostly concerned with securing husbands and locking them down. "Early in life," he says, "I became aware how people changed with time. A young couple couldn't stay away from each other. Three years later they were sleeping back to back. The intoxication of love wears off. I loved the freedom. Men had fought for their freedom for thousands of years and I wasn't about to give mine up." From his experiences at the Coffeehouse Extempore, where "90 percent of the people were men," Kahm has come to believe that women are indifferent to abstract ideas, which he values most highly. "Young women, girls--they're not interested in world affairs or philosophy. They're interested in getting husbands."
"Is that still true?" I ask.
"Damn right!" he says, swatting the arm of his chair. "They want to have someone to fertilize the eggs that they lay! They want babies! It's a powerful instinct from nature's point of view. That's the only reason females are here. The earth is one gigantic baby factory. By the time you've read that line, over a million babies will have been born. Mosquito babies. Fish babies. Every imaginable life form. All of them doomed to death."
Like the characters in his book The Crowded Bed, Kahm was once "informally married," sharing an apartment with two partners, Eddie, an airman at the Fort Snelling base, and Dorothy. They lived together in a basement apartment on Hennepin Avenue in the building where Kahm grew up, until Eddie moved to Florida and married; Kahm believes "it was the biggest mistake he ever made." "She was an ignorant slob," Kahm says with a sigh, "he married the wrong woman." He rubs his hand over the crown of his head in slow circles. "I miss them all, all my old friends."
He had a dog then for 14 years and three months, but it died and Kahm vowed never to get another--"I think I grieve over that dog more than anything else," he says--and he has lived alone since.
The Coffeehouse Extempore was founded by a teacher at the Minnehaha Academy in 1965, and operated at four different sites on the West Bank for some 20 years. For a while, it was located in the Triangle building on Riverside Avenue across from the Hard Times Cafe, where there now sits a holistic health center. For the first year, it was open 24 hours a day, and as a result, it harbored runaways. It was also a meeting place for cops, prostitutes, and the odd race car driver, or so says Harold. "It was a noble idea," he says. According to Kahm, the charter of the Coffeehouse Extempore--or the "Extemp," as it was called--prescribed two things: Promoting the art of conversation and keeping youth off drugs. It failed on the second count. "You could get dizzy just walking through there," Kahm says, declining to comment on whether he knowingly inhaled. But as a forum for discussion, the Extemp succeeded. Guests included two mayors, two police chiefs, congressman Martin Sabo, Leo Kottke, and a young Garrison Keillor. Kahm lists these names proudly. "I spent 20 years of my life there," Kahm says; his novel The West Bank Group (it's about an experiment in group marriage and group sex among three young women and four men) begins with a fictional lecture at the Extemp.