I had one of those weeks at work where everyone was stressed and tasks that should have been easy were impossible. Here’s a helpful tip: if you are looking for an engraving company that will put a nice looking plaque on a block of metal of a specific size and only have a few weeks to do it, choose another kind of label. Just sayin’. As my coworkers and I were working frantically on the alternate labeling option, I was transported back to another task that should have been easy and wasn’t. (Cue the “Wayne’s World” wavy hand thing that indicates a trip to the past.)
In the 90s I worked at the Boston Center for Adult Education and we had an annual writing festival. It was always a difficult task trying to find a headliner big name writer who we could afford. One year we totally lucked out with John Irving, and had been having a hard time matching that success. Trying to think outside the box, we decided on Harlan Ellison. Some of you will know his name—if you’re a hard core fan of science fiction or of the original Star Trek. Harlan wrote one of Star Trek’s best episodes, “City on the Edge of Forever.” Non sci fi fans may know that episode because a gorgeous young Joan Collins was the guest star.
Writers, like rock stars, can come in all kinds of temperaments, and so we weren’t sure what to expect. The year before I started working there, they had landed Kurt Vonnegut and I was still traumatized by the stories of how difficult he was. John Irving was much nicer, and just as detail oriented in person as he is in his fiction. We had a discussion about the very old, defunct alarms on the windows of the room he was waiting in before his talk. The center was housed in a former mansion built in the early 1900s. “Must have been one of the first home alarm systems,” he mused, eyeing it intently.
Harlan Ellison was no household name, so I expected a humble, nerdy, sci fi guy. What we got was a big ego who blew into the center unannounced on the afternoon of his talk and started issuing orders to us about what he wanted, where, and when. The phrase, “You’re not famous enough to be this bossy” came to mind. Then he thrust his jacket at me and told me to get it pressed for the talk at 7pm. He instructed me to make sure the sleeves were “rolled,” not pressed, and before I could even scrape together my feminist dignity and regally refuse, he blew back out the door.
Great. After a quick huddle with my coworkers about my best shot at getting this done, I set off to find a dry cleaners. There were easily half a dozen within walking distance of the center, so I wasn’t too worried. I was more annoyed than anything and wished he could have asked for a bowl of M&Ms with the green ones picked out. However, it soon became clear that I wasn’t getting that jacket pressed. One after another the dry cleaners looked at me blankly and said the presses were all shut down. Apparently it was common knowledge to all but me and my coworkers that one doesn’t get clothes pressed after 12 noon. How awkward and uncivilized of us to ask! Each dry cleaner sent me to the next: “Well, we don’t do it, but Charlie’s down the street might still have his press on.” They knew damn well Charlie was sitting there, presses off, scarfing up coffee and cookies, but they had some sort of code, and I was obliged to cover a six block square area with a crumpled jacket for naught.
Then I tried his hotel. Of course they use the same dry cleaners, so the answer was the same, with the additional tease of, “Well, one of the maids might be able to iron it by hand…” Briefly raised hopes “….but we couldn’t take responsibility if anything happened to the jacket…” were dramatically smashed. And what a jacket it was. Vintage cream linen with a psychedelic lining of brilliant swirling colors. I didn’t want to think what Harlan might do to me if that jacket came to harm.
But the hotel did give me one final option. Being an adult ed center, we had all manner of household items at our disposal, including an ironing board and an iron. So there I was at 5 pm, appropriately enough on the upper floors of the center which would have housed the servants, sweating over Harlan’s damn jacket. The sweat was due to both the unusual June heat and nervousness of accidentally marring the jacket—I mean there must be a fact-based reason why so many cartoons and comedies feature clothes with a burned hole in the shape of an iron. And did I mention I avoid buying clothes that need ironing? I ascertained that “rolled” sleeves meant no crease down the length, which is a lot harder to do than it sounds. Then at one point, the iron steam sputtered and made a small mark on the one of the sleeves. I panicked and tried to get it up with a wet cloth, but it stayed fast. Luckily, it was more on the bottom of the sleeve than the top. And then the clock struck the appointed hour and it was time to go.
I carried it as carefully as I could to avoid any additional wrinkles, which you know is impossible because linen wrinkles when you sneeze on it, but I managed to get it there and hand it to him. I waited for him to ask me who the hell had done such a shitty job pressing the thing and/or rip me a new one for the mark. He whipped it on without so much as a thank you or a fuck you and got ready for his talk.
So far, so good.
Honestly I can’t tell you what the hell he talked about. All my concentration was on that mark on the jacket and replaying the ghastly afternoon in my head. I was also trying to come up with smart retorts if he called me out. And then it was time for Q & A, and after a few questions about I don’t know what, he called on a guy, who simply said, “I like your jacket.” The world stopped.
“This old thing?” Harlan answered nonchalantly. I was having trouble taking in breath. He rattled off something about getting it in the 70s and my life started passing before my eyes, much like the Guardian in the episode Harlan wrote that shows the passage of time. And then he slipped off the jacket in one fluid motion: “Here take it.”
Time stopped. I felt like it would have been the perfect time to jump into the Guardian so I could go back to that afternoon. When Harlan tried to hand me his coat, I could tell him to take his jacket and stuff it up his Jeffries tube. Actually I was more like McCoy who had just injected himself with cordrazine and was going crazy. My coworkers had to hold me back from lunging at both Harlan and new coat owner. But what was the point? Harlan left the stage with his big ego intact, perhaps even bigger for being so generous to a fan. The fan was happy to have landed the fabulous jacket. I had to be like the Guardian at the end of the episode. (Spoiler alert my ass, that episode is 48 years old, get a grip for god’s sake.) Kirk wrenchingly lets his lover die so that Hitler won’t win in World War II, and the Guardian says, “Time has resumed, all is as it was” (or some such, I’m a fan, not a mechanical recording device). But Kirk isn’t as he was and never would be. And neither was I.
Memories light the corners of my mind. Misty watercolor memories of the crap we took. I did not know about the press crisis. Now, bring me a cup of herbal tea and a lettuce leaf. I’m not talking to any students. Ha. Styron had no idea how he lit up our lives.
Oh god, I forgot about lettuce leaf!! Or rather I blocked her out! There is certainly a lot of blog material in those festivals!!
Memories…(cue Barbra Streisand). Didn’t he also storm out on Christopher Lydon that morning when Lydon referred to him as a science fiction writer? As another, more famous author once said, “when you meet an author, you don’t meet what wrote the book, you meet where it lives.”
I think he did! He was a piece or work, but he made a nice blog entry 🙂