TQTJ Talks to Harlan Ellison (Part II of III)
In this installment of our Tough Questions for Tough Jews series, author Clifford Meth interviews fellow tough Yid and award-winning author Harlan Ellison. This is Part II of III -- stay tuned for Part III tomorrow.
METH: You talked about Avram Davidson with great affection. He was a tough Jew.
ELLISON: Yeah, Avram was a very tough Jew. He was also frequently as crazy as a Jewish bedbug.
METH: Tell me again, that story you told me once, about what happened with you two in New York City.
ELLISON: Well, Avram had been in the Israeli Merchant Marines and he’d been all over the world. But Avram, when I knew him, was a pudgy, little Jewish guy wearing a yarmulke who used to walk down from the Upper West Side with rye bread for me when I was living in the Village. And one time we decided to travel together to a science-fiction convention in Philadelphia, and I was going to drive. I had an Austin Healey—an open-air little convertible, nifty set of wheels, very sexy, gun-metal blue, with a louvered bonnet. And, as always, I was going to take my typewriter with me. (suddenly starts to laugh) So I told you this story?
METH: Yeah, you told me once upon a time; so tell me again.
ELLISON: (laughs hysterically) It’s the G-d’s truth! Avram came up to my apartment. I was living down in the Village at 95 Christopher Street, right at the corner of Bleeker, and I had packed my bag, but I had my typewriter out. I used an office manual in my apartment, but I had my portable way up on the top shelf of a clothes closet and I had to get up on a little stepladder to pull it down. Avram was behind me and he was catching these things that I was throwing down for the car—he’s standing behind me and he’s catching them. I didn’t quite turn around—I just assumed he would grab it because I was turned awkwardly on the top step of this short ladder, so I held the typewriter out for him and it clearly said “Olympia” and that’s a German-made typewriter (laughs so hard he can barely continue). And as I let go of it, I heard Crash! I turn around and the thing has fallen on the floor and smashed open. I said, “What the fuck was that all about?” He says, “It’s German.” He wouldn’t touch a German typewriter. He wouldn’t even touch it!
Avram would not allow his stuff to be printed in Germany. He would not sign a contract with a German publishing company. Avram knew that… You know that great quote from Owen Miller, the poet? “Of all liars, memory is the sweetest.” Avram knew that as time passed, schmucks like that neo-Nazi who shot the 10 people in Minnesota recently would resurface and the lies would start being told again—the Holocaust deniers and all of that. Avram understood that, and he held a grudge almost as well as I do. Anybody who wants to see how tough I am should read the piece I wrote called “Driving in the Spikes,” which is in The Essential Ellison. It’s an essay on revenge. I’m still working on grudges from 1962.
METH: That’s why I love you.
ELLISON: Look, Clifford you know this to be an absolute. I mean you can attest to this personally. As good a friend as I am—and I am loyal to the death—a guy who treated me well last year when I went to lecture in Phoenix had a little traffic accident; he got hit by a guy and I was in the car as he was taking me to my lecture. I said, “Fight it and I’ll come back and I’ll testify.” He said, “You’ll come back from L.A. to testify?” I flew back to Arizona at my own expense to go to traffic court with him. But as loyal a friend as I am, that’s how implacable an enemy I am.
Most sins against me are so minor and stupid, I can ignore them, and I do ignore them. I just cut that person out of the world. But every once in a while, something will happen where somebody evokes the kind of anger that I would feel as a Jewish kid in Painesville, in the school yard when they beat me up. You know the story that I tell. This is not long after the Depression, and we were not very wealthy. I mean we weren’t destitute by any means; my Dad worked and had a job, but it was very, very hard times. And one winter they ganged up on me and beat me up and tore my clothes off. I was buck-naked. If you’ve ever known an Ohio winter, they are terrible. The only place worse is Chicago. But I was so ashamed that my clothes had been torn off and that they were ripped, because my mother was very fastidious and very conscientious that because we were Jews, my clothes were always clean and never patched. You know, you had to look like a mensch. And I was so ashamed and so chagrined to go home and show my mother the torn tatters of clothes that I was clutching, that I hid in the snow in the bushes for about four hours, until it was dark and they came and they found me. Blue. I was fuckin’ blue. Hypothermia. Pneumonia.
METH: I know Beckwith (see Part I of this interview) shows up as a character in “City on the Edge of Forever,” but whatever happened to Wheeldon?
ELLISON: Wheeldon died. Wheeldon shows up in my story “Final Shtick”—that’s me going back to my hometown. It’s a Lenny Bruce character, but it’s actually me. And the town is Lanesville... Wheeldon is dead. He wound up as a used car salesman; he was a milkman for a while, then he was used car salesman, and then he died. If you look at The Essential Ellison, you’ll see that photograph of me and my 3rd or 4th grade class and I’m smaller than everybody. I’m smaller than the smallest little girl. And we’re standing in rows on the steps of the school, Lathrop Grade School; and if you let your eyes track up to the top row, where the tallest kids stand, almost directly behind me is Jack Wheeldon, you can see him. It’s in the caption—there’s all the information there.
METH: I remember that picture of you smiling.
ELLISON: Actually, I’m not in fact smiling—it’s really very strange. Every kid either stands with hands at sides, or with hands clasped in front of them, little Dutch girl style. At the end is this little pugnacious-looking kid with his hands on his hips, leaning forward, wearing a Captain Midnight Secret Decoder badge, and a bandage on his face from some brawl. He looks like an escapee from The Newsboy Legion or one of the other kid gangs Jack Kirby used to draw. He’s looking right into the camera and his lips are skinned back like a feral animal. And it’s me. It is not a smile. There I am at age what? Nine? Ten? And I’m already a tough Jew.
METH: The story that I recall about you and Avram Davidson had the two of you facing off against a bunch of guys down in the Village—
ELLISON: That’s in print. It’s in Partners in Wonder and it’s the introduction to the story that Avram and I did called “Up Christopher to Madness.” Avram tells the true story about how I stood off an entire gang of Italian street kids.
METH: It wasn’t a Jewish thing?
ELLISON: Nah, it had nothing to do with being Jewish. It had to do with they came on broyges with us, you know—“on the muscle”—trying to give me a hard time, or they were bothering Avram, or whatever the hell it was, and I went after ‘em. And I drove off the whole goddam gang. There must have been 12 or 13 of them.
© The Kilimanjaro Corporation, 2005