08.11.02, The Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Fransisco
It was the end of a frankly hellish week. Having spent the previous eight hours staring blankly at the computer screen, I hopped the BART and fled Berkeley. The Haight was shiny with recent rain which had seemingly washed away the acid casualties and chased the bonged-out white rastas from their stoops. I entered the store.
I was about half an hour early, so I took my time with choosing which cover I wanted for my version of “Dangerous Visions”. I paid and took my seat; it was still reasonably empty, save for a few diehards. I felt out of place. Slowly, the Booksmith started filling up. I didn’t notice it was full until it was about to start. There was a commotion at the back; then, a short, portly shape blurred past us:
“Jesus, it’s like a fucking church in here!”
Ladies and Gentlemen: Mr. Harlan Ellison. The fantasist’s fantasist. 68 years, 5 feet, 5 inches and a good potbelly’s worth of of ideas, of words, of attitude. Most importantly, some would argue; of genius. The man who told Bradbury “You’re not so much”. 76 or so books, screenplays, teleplays and 2 cardiac arrests to his credit.
“First off: Is there any old business?”
It took less than a minute: A guy my age, mid-twenties, at the back asked about Ellison’s involvement with “The Terminator”.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that, miss?”
“Oh, SORRY! It musta been the hair”
The impish grin. The fan smiled; hey, it’s Harlan! And he’s just like you’ve heard! So what followed was a spectacular putdown of mr. James “asshole king of the world” Cameron. Anne Rice got a thrashing too. Somehow he get her mixed in with Judith Krantz. Oh, my friends, it was truly wondrous to behold. At one point he even interrupted himself to ask if he was being too offensive:
“You know, I’d be offended by me.”
After getting worked up enough, he talked about his ongoing lawsuit to outlaw copyright breaches on the web; for three years, he said, he’d been tied up in litigation with AOL in order to not to implement, but siimply to uphold the copyright laws. The copyright laws that they have already implemented. For some reason, he’s pissed off with people stealing his livelihood. Then again, if you took my paycheck from me , I’d be pretty angry too. He went on about the CD-burning generation.
“I’m sorry, but you’re thieves. You’re fucking thieves. This generation…for some reason, they think the world owes them everything, that the world in fact owes the anything.”
Matter-of-factly. Can’t really argue, can you? Something about music, movies…we don’t care so much. We’re getting fleeced, right? Fight the power. Death to corporate domination: Defeat the soul-killers, the machinery of consumption, manufacturers of consent. Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me! But the writer? No such luck. Nobody reads much, so the word gets shafted. Not enough to make it worthhile pursuing, perhaps? Imagine what kind of overhead you have in order to let something like that slide. Not to mention your willingness to feed off yourself. I started feeling bad.
“And I’m talking about YOUR generation, boy!”
said Harlan, and pointed at right at me, eyes asmoulder. Oh boy. I felt the weight of a hundred disapproving eyes in the room; I threw up my hands and tried offer a sufficiently contrite countenance, but which I am terrified looked like smugness. A nuclear glow emanated from my cheeks; a mild Chernobyl, in fact. I could feel it. I often blush, I’m told, though I’m still quite surprised when people tell me this, as I’m usually not aware of it, it just happens. But this time I was very aware of it. Oh, very, very aware. Harlan went on to relate typical late-night phone call from the average bonged-out dorm jock who needed to tell him he was uncool for totally whaling on his right to partake of the work and how information is free etc.
“Information: yes, creative endeavours: no!”
It’s a mystery to me that more people are incapable of grasping that distinction.
“This guy was calling from Exeter…What the fuck? It costs something like 83 million dollars to even get in there and you’re telling me you’re too cheap to pay for a fucking CD?”
So: on to the story. I will not divulge secrets. Harlan would undoubtedly chase me down and cut my balls off, so suffice it to say it was offbeat and funny, very Harlan Ellison. Indubitably so: If you’re curious, buy the next edition of McSweeney’s. Half the joy was in the narration: No dull recital, this. He clowned, he lived in the words; we laughed; he had us in the palm of his hand, and he milked us for all he could.
After it was over, we dutifully got in line for his John Hancock: It took time. People had multitudes of things for him to sign. He knew half of them, spoke to them and inquired abour recent events: He may be lippy, but he cares. Then I was up. I handed him my copy of the book. He smiled slighly, probably because someone had actually purchased something rather then lug old shit over for him to sign. I said nothing, though it burned inside me. Look, no downloads here. I kept silent. He recognized the guy behind me and started talking. I stood there, helpless, my book in his hands, waiting for the nib of his pen to mark the white of page. He realized I was there, signed the book and gave me a sceptical look before returning to the conversation at hand. Who is this guy weird, quiet guy? I thanked him, even though he wasn’t listening.
I went to get my bag from behind the counter. The girl with looked up from her book. She gave me a smile:
“Sorry, just spacing out”
Quick, think of something.
“Don’t we all?”
Ugh. Both of us holding my bag now, justa smidgeon too long. A voice:
“Hey. John Constantine…you in the trenchcoat there…didn’t you hear me up there? Carpe the fucking diem, willya! It’s painful to watch you two.”
I looked at her, realizing I was blushing profusely, as was she. Oh, hell.
“So…would you like to go out sometime?”
“How about now? We close in twenty minutes.”
I blinked, the dayfream faded. But not her stare. Do something. I turned slowly and walked out the door. Ellison was yelling something, followed by copious laughter. In San Francisco, the rain stopped, again.