The “lost” Harlan Ellison meeting

I would have swore that the first time I met Harlan Ellison was at a talk he gave at the Learning Tree in Chatsworth, California in July 2005. My diary only goes back to April 6, 1996, so I thought I had no way to confirm or deny this. Until this morning.

I got into work early (because I need to leave a little early today to pick Dad up from the airport at 5 PM) and I was going through some archived files on UNIX and came across a folder of blog-like essays I sent out to friends in the latter part of 1994 and early part of 1995. There are 57 of these essays, totaling some 79,000 words! I couldn’t help but skim through them, especially since they all preceded my diary by more than a year! In the 4th essay, “Installment #4”, I read about my first encounter with Harlan Ellison, and it is amusing enough to recall here.

The Harlan Ellison Book Signing Party

Harlan Ellison arrived after we had been waiting in line about 15 minutes. We were towards the front/middle of the line, which snaked about the tiny bookstore like an &. A table had been set up with the widest variety of Harlan’s books I’ve yet seen. They had everything from new re-released hardcovers, to overseas editions of books never published in English, to a comic of Vic and Blood, to $95 leather bound editions of The Harlan Ellison Hornbook and Harlan Ellison’s Movie.

The thing was he did look like his recent pictures. He came in with his wife, Susan, a blonde woman with a slightly british accent. He wore a tee-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes, and most strikingly, a hat that reminded me of a Grandpa hat. When he came, in the whole store turned to look at him and he turned to one of the owners and said, “I need to make an announcement,” and then, pointing at someone in line behind us, said, “Oh christ! Look at that fucker with the box of books!”

The woman to whom he’s spoken shouted out, “Excuse me, Harlan has an announcement to make.” Gradually, the tiny, book-filled store settled down, and Harlan jumped in, “I’ve got a story to tell you,” he said, walking toward us until he stopped about halfway down the length of the store, “And I want you to pay attention because it is a good story and you may learn something, valuable from it.

“Last week I received in the mail twelve hundred signature sheets for the Eaton Press leather-bound edition of I, Robot, and with the twelve hundred signature sheet, a note that said, Dear Harlan, please sign these and return them to us by Friday. So I spend Wednesday and Thursday of last week signing 1200 time, Harlan Ellison, and then jumped on a red-eye–would someone turn that music down–”

One of the store owners turned down the music.

The phone rang.

“Christ, this is a good sign,” Ellison said. The phone rang again. He turned around and grabbed the phone off the hook, and brought the receiver to his ear and said, “I’m in the middle of telling a story! Call back later!” and hung up the phone.

“So I jumped on the red-eye to Houston because I had to do a book signing at a bookstore there called Future Visions and–”

The phone ran again. Ellison turned around to the owner and said, “You better tell them they’re pissing me off.

“Anyway, the owner of the bookstore picked me up from the airport, and as we walked to his car, he said, ‘Look, before we go to dinner, would you mind stopping back at the store to sign some books for some special customers who won’t be able to be there for the regular signing?’ and I said of course. And we got to the bookstore and I spent and hour and signed something like a hundred and twenty books for people who could make it to the regular signing, and we absolutely had to go, people still came up to me and said, but I’ll miss work if I have to come in tomorrow, and I said, “So quit your job!”

“Then we went to dinner and I was one of those dinners where I was the star, and if I didn’t talk, no one else would and they would just stare at me like this, and of course when they did talk, all they ever said, was, ‘I wanted to ask you a question’ so rule number one, I am not the great fucking oracle at delphi, I don’t have all the answers kid!

“So the next day, the bookstore owner came to my hotel room early and asked me If I’d mind starting an hour early because there was a line that went all the way into fucking Dallas, and I said, ‘Of course I don’t mind.’ And let me tell you, I walked into the bookstore and I wanted fifteen minutes to peruse the place, just to look around and see what kind of books they have, and if I saw anything I liked, and I told that to the people waiting in line. What do ya think they did? ‘Can I just ask you one question?’

“I wantcha to know, I sat down and with only one lousy break, and a slice of cold pizza, I signed books from two in the afternoon, until six-thirty at night, and by the time I was done, my hand was in a knot like this, like I’d gotten carpal tunnel, and I said to the owner, uh, I think my hand seized up on me, are we done?

“And he said, ‘yeah, but can you just sign these’ and handed me a hundred
and twenty books that had come in by mail order. After I was done signing, I picked out five comic books that I’d wanted and would you believe that sonnofabitch charged me seventeen-fifty for them!”

Harlan then proceeded to sign books and it took a little while, but we slowly
snaked our way forward. When it was finally my turn, I tried to think of
something to say but couldn’t. I placed my books on the table in front of
them, and he signed each of them in order. Then he hand them back to me
and I said, “Thank you,”

“My pleasure,” he said smiling. Then he turned to my mom and said, “Your turn.”

“Oh, I’m with him,” she said.

“You mean he dragged you all the way out here?”

“No, he took his mother to lunch and then we came over here.”

“Oh,” Ellison said, standing up, “well I’ve got to shake your hand for that kid.”

And Harlan Ellison shook my mom’s hand.

I got three books signed by Ellison: I, ROBOT; DANGEROUS VISIONS; and AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS. There are the first three books that I’ve ever gotten signed by a science fiction author.

So there you have it, my first encounter with Harlan Ellison. I didn’t remember it until I read it and would have sworn that I first met him half a year later. I also forgot that Mom had been there with me when I went to the signing. Or that it was the first time I’d ever gotten an author to sign a book for me.

Since then, I’ve met Harlan at least a half dozen other times, sometimes at book signings, other times at talks he gave. And, of course, I’ve passed by his house dozens of time on the way to or from strausmouse‘s parent’s house, back when I was in high school, but didn’t know it was his house at the time.