Farewell, Harlan, y’old so and so

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I remember the only time I met Harlan Ellison.

Well, “met” is perhaps too strong a word. Talked with. Listened to. Got a signature and shook his hand. I was nervous as all hell.

I was living in Boston at the time, working for a Jewish community weekly newspaper (one of only two goyim on staff). A reporter I had a mild crush on had told me she wanted to go to an open lecture by Harlan, so I managed to get two tickets for the limited audience event.

In the end, she had to undergo surgery and couldn’t attend, so I invited my housemate instead. We met after work at a great big Anglican cathedral downtown. I had on my typical button down shirt and slacks. My roommate had come from the bronze casting foundry, covered in bronze dust and looking exhausted.

He was none too happy about going into a cathedral. He was Jewish (my mom is Catholic and my dad is Methodist, so I’m naturally a “free agent” agnostic). But we went in, showed our tickets, and sat down in a pew towards the front.

Just a few minutes later, without any announcement being made, Harlan came in and walked past our pew. A guy seated behind us suddenly hailed Harlan, offered a brown envelope, asking Harlan to look at his manuscript.

Harlan shook his hand and sat down next to me, explaining over the back of our pew that he couldn’t look at the manuscript because he might get accused of stealing ideas if he happened to write a similar story in the future.

“I’m sure it’s a great story…” he started, then corrected himself. “No, it’s probably a piece of s$#t, but anyway, sorry. Keep writing.”

Then he winked at us and got up again to begin his sermon. It was all we could do not to bust up.

And what a sermon it was. The stories. The stories! His argument with Star Trek. Training with Bruce Lee. Being briefly in the Army and going AWOL. Staggering into a Born Again Christian revival tent, arms spread, shouting that once he’d been blind but now could see, hallelujah, he’d been saved.

Going into a hotel in Indiana and seeing “a dead Jew hanging from the back of the door” (audience collectively caught our breaths).

Asking the front desk to take down the crucifix (we breathed out in relief). And at the concierge’s bewildered expression, adding with a Boris Karloff flourish, “And turn all the mirrors around, too.”

He finished by pontificating from the elevated lectern, preaching down at the speculative fiction congregation. We lined up to mount the spiraling stairs, books under each arm. He signed one book, and I asked if he’d sign another for my colleague in the hospital.

“What’s her name?”

“Fern.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“Fern, sir.”

I gulped. “Sir.”

“And please.”

“Yes, sir. Please.”

He cracked a devilish grin, scrawling a crooked signature with a practiced hand.

“There you are, sir,” he quipped, handing me his own books.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. He shook my hand and motioned for the next in line.

I returned to the pew, shaking a bit and sweating. As I sat, my roommate turned to me and spoke for the only time that night.

“This guy’s a complete asshole,” he said. “He’s awesome!”

Farewell, Harlan, you cantankerous bastard. You were brilliant, obnoxious, abrasive, and funny as hell. Of course you had to go and die on my birthday. Repent!

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