The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Harlan Ellison Story

“For a brief time,
I was here,
And for a brief time,
I mattered.”

--Harlan Ellison, 1989

Harlan Ellison is, far and away, my favorite living American writer. I first became a fan when I was about fifteen and I read Strange Wine, an anthology of wonderful science fiction stories. I was hooked immediately and proceeded to procure and read everything the man had written. I even own a huge tome called The Essential Ellison, in which appears stories, essays, and a screenplay.

Why, then, have I never blogged about him before?

There are two answers to this, actually.

First, the majority of readers of my blog all hang out on a certain message board that I absolutely love, and I consider them to be extremely intelligent and enlightened people. I’ve mentioned Ellison a few times in my posts, and it seems that the overwhelming majority of my friends there have had unpleasant, frightening, and disturbing experiences with him, which makes me very sad. I can’t really defend him, though, because it’s true that while he’s a brilliant writer, he’s kind of an asshat.

The second reason I haven’t told The Harlan Ellison Story before is that my ex-husband has a prominent role in it, and frankly, writing about him upsets me. It upsets me so much that I’m going to call him Floyd in this entry because he doesn’t deserve to have his real name blogged.

In 1998, Floyd and I were living in a suite of rooms at the New Jersey shore. One day, Floyd came home with the local newspaper which was sporting a picture of Harlan Ellison (he was actually smiling!) in a huge ad which advertised “An Evening With Harlan Ellison.” Apparently, Ellison was going to give a talk at a local (and crappy) college.

I was extremely excited, and more than a little nervous. Unlike most of my encounters with celebrities where I just suddenly ran into them, I had time to think about it before meeting Ellison. I decided to open the conversation by telling him that, as a professor, I often taught his work. Then I’d flatter him shamelessly and get him to sign my copy of Slippage.

So, off we went to see Harlan Ellison in all his brilliant asshattery.

It’s important to know that during this time, Floyd was working as an Assistant Prosecutor in the county in which we lived. In this capacity, he knew a lot of people in law enforcement, mostly cops.

The auditorium was pretty packed when we got there. There were a great deal of college students, and as we settled into our seats, the Dean of Students introduced Ellison. I still couldn’t believe I was actually seeing him, and that I would for once have the opportunity to tell a writer I admired how much his work meant to me. (Being that I specialize in Early British Literature, the vast majority of my favorite writers are long dead).

Ellison got going. He opened with an extremely funny story about the cab ride he had taken from the airport to his hotel—apparently there had been some confusion as to how much the trip would cost and Ellison didn’t have enough cash on hand. The cab driver, who didn't speak much English, completely freaked out and called the police. Ellison mentioned the name of the police officer who showed up and Floyd kind of snapped awake and whispered to me; “Oh my God, I actually know that cop.”

Ellison told a few jokes and said; “If, by the end of tonight’s talk I still have managed to somehow not offend you, your religion, your intelligence, or your nationality, please come up and tell me and I’ll do it personally.” There was giggling. He took some questions from the audience, talked about his latest book, discussed the sorry state of television programming, and made some general statements about politics. The whole thing lasted a whopping three hours. (The person I felt the most sorry for was the Sign Language interpreter standing next to him. Ellison talked so fast that I thought the poor girl was going to start a fire from waving her hands around).

“I’ll be happy to sign anything you’d like,” he said, wrapping it up. “Thanks for having me, I’ve had a good time!”

Having seen Ellison in action made me a little less nervous about meeting him. He didn’t actually breathe fire or spew bile. I got in line, clutching my copy of Slippage, praying I wouldn’t screw it up. I could hear him conversing at the front of the line with other fans and he didn't seem to be cannibalizing them or anything. Floyd had a condescending “she’s so cute when she’s nervous” look on his face.

It was finally my turn! Ellison smiled at me and offered his hand. When I shook it I said, “I’m so happy to meet you, Mr. Ellison. I’ve been teaching your work for some time now.”

He smiled. “Oh, please,” he said, “Mr. Ellison is my father’s name.”

And this is where it got weird. As soon as he said it, my mouth opened in confusion and I said, automatically, “No it’s not. Your father’s name is Louis Laverne.”

Ellison’s blue eyes opened so wide I could actually see his brain. He looked completely thunderstruck. He took a few steps back. “Louis Laverne! How do you know that?”

Because I’m an obsessed fan who knows everything about you, including the fast that your mother’s name is Serita Rosenthal, I thought, but managed to save myself by telling him I had remembered it from an essay he had written after his father’s death. Ellison still looked kind of freaked.

In an effort to regain equal ground, I introduced Floyd. “This is my husband, Floyd,” I said. “Interestingly, he actually knows the police officer you were talking about earlier.”

Ellison said, politely, “Oh? Are you also a policeman?”

“No,” said Floyd, shaking Ellison’s hand, “I’m a pros…a pros…a pros…” Floyd couldn’t remember the word “prosecutor.” His brain kept trying, though, as he held Ellison’s hand in a deathgrip. “I’m a pros…a pros…” He had gone completely white and he looked absolutely terrified.

“He’s a lawyer,” I interjected, wishing I hadn’t brought Floyd with me.

Floyd managed to get out: “I’m sorry, usually I can speak the English language.” He looked mortified.

Ellison grinned and said, “Well, you seem to be having no trouble with it now.”

Floyd finally detangled himself from Ellison and, in abject horror and humiliation, walked away and started looking at the pile of books for sale.

Ellison, apparently deciding that talking to someone who knew his father’s name was better than talking to an obviously mentally impaired attorney, asked me what, exactly, I taught. He seemed genuinely interested and when I asked about his heart condition (he had had a heart attack the year before, requiring a quadruple bypass) he said, “How nice of you to ask! I’m doing very well, thanks. I need to drop a little weight, though.”

I handed him my copy of Slippage and he happily signed it. We shook hands again, I wished him a good evening, and walked off the stage to collect Floyd, who was beating his head against a wall. “I can’t believe I did that,” he moaned.

“I am never taking you out in public again,” I said, irritated. He didn’t say a word on the trip home.

I was proud of myself. I had survived meeting my favorite author, and my autographed copy of Slippage sits on my shelf with Ellison’s other works. Occasionally I take it down just to look at it.

So, I hope my friends on the message board I mentioned at the beginning will forgive me when I say that my encounter with Harlan Ellison was pleasant and memorable. Unless I just managed to catch him on a good day.