"The 3 Most Important Things in Life" copyright 1978 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
This work appears online via special arrangement with the the author, Harlan Ellison. You can thank him by visiting the HERC Store. Copying or distributing any part of this piece for personal use, commercial use, or any other use you can come up with is strictly forbidden. Breaking this rule will result in the author coming down on you like the proverbial Hand of God or, barring the author finding out, your being forced to spend 15,000 years in Purgatory watching the same three episodes of "Perfect Strangers".
I've looked everywhere, and I'll be damned if I can find it, but I know I read that passage somewhere; I think in Kerouac; but I can't locate it now, so you'll just have to go along with me that it's there.
Would I lie to you?
It's a scene in which a young supplicant, an aspiring poet, somebody like that, seeks out this knowledgeable old philosopher -- kind of a Bukowski or Henry Miller figure -- in Paris or New York or somesuch bustling metropolitan situs . . . and the kid comes to the old guru in his ratty apartment, and he sorta kinda asks him that old saw about the meaning of life. Correction: LIFE. He squats there and says to the old man, "What's it all about? What's it mean? Huh?"
And the old man purses his lips and beetles his brow; he perceives the kid is really serious about this; it's not just jerk-off time. So he nods sagely, and clasps his hands behind his back, and he walks to the window and stares out at the deep city for a while, just sorta kinda ponders for a while. And finally, he turns to the kid and he says, with core seriousness, "You know, there's a lotta bastards out there."
Now that's pretty significant. I think. On the other hand, I have never made my residence in a stalactite-festooned cave high up on the northern massif of Chomolungma (Everest to you). I have never been sought out by fawning sycophants, whimpering to abase themselves before my wisdom, hungering to prostrate themselves and to offer ablations at the altar of my Delphic insights. In short, unlike the Great Thinkers of Our Time who appear regularly on talk-shows -- Merv Griffin, Debbie Boone, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Jim Nabors leap instantly to mind -- I doubt that the Oxford Encyclopedia of Philosophy will ever crib from my notes.
Nonetheless, having become something of an ingroup cult figure among those with a high death-wish profile and a taste for cheap thrills, I am often asked, "What's the big secret, Ellison?" At college lectures, for instance, bright-eyed young people, the great hope of our society, come up to me and murmur in reverential tones, "Wanna buy a lid of tough Filipino Scarlet?"
Naturally I try to demonstrate a certain humility in the face of such trust and innocence. I try to explain that Life is Real, Life is Earnest. In my own toe-scuffling fashion I attempt to encapsulate in three or four apocryphal phrases the Ethical Structure of the Universe. The better to aid these fine young people as they set out to change the world.
And from this long, terrifically fascinating life of encounters and adventures, I have selected three examples of what I think are the most important things in life. Notes should be taken; this will count as sixty per cent of your grade.
I could have started with one of the more esoteric of the three, but I know your attention-span is short and, in lieu of playing The Saints Go Marching In, I decided it was best to catch your notice with instant sleaze.
Sex is one of the most important things in life. It comes built into the machine. Understanding sex is real important, y'know. And it's not enough just to say, "All men are shits," or "What the fuck do women want?" That's good for openers, but one must press on to deeper insights. As an aid to your greater search, I offer the following anecdote from my own humble experience: an only-minimally exaggerated retelling of the single kinkiest sexual encounter I ever had.
When I got to Los Angeles in 1962, I was well into terminal destitution. Poverty would have been, for me, a sharp jump into a higher-income bracket. Consequently, I wasn't getting laid much. More astute observers than I have charted the correlations between one's D&B rating and one's attraction for members of the same or opposite sex.
Anyhow, I met this young woman at Stats Charbroiler one afternoon, and somehow conned her into accepting a date. It has been fifteen years since that encounter, but I remember her name today as clearly as if it had been intaglio'd on my brain with a jackhammer. Brenda.
A substantially constructed female person, honey blonde of hair, amber of eye, insouciant of manner and expansive of bosom. We exchanged pleasantries, I explained that I was new to L.A. and was, in fact, a published author.
She went for it.
I took her phone number and address, and promised to pick her up the following Saturday night around 8:00 for a rollicking evening of camaraderie and good times, cleverly scaled to my nonexistent finances. Long walks in the bracing night air, that kind of thing.
Came Saturday, and I hand-washed the wretched 1951 Ford that had brought me to California from Chicago and New York. I dressed as spiffily as I could manage, aware at all times of the fact that having postponed a good number of meals had dropped my weight to about ninety pounds and I was beginning to take on the appearance of a card-carrying rickets case.
I drove to her home, which was in the posh Brentwood section of Beverly Hills. I walked to the ornate apartment door of the garden lanai, and rang the bell. Nothing happened. I waited and rang again. Nothing happened. Minutes passed, and I began thinking unworthy thoughts about Brenda's ethics. Finally, I heard foot steps from within, and the door was flung open.
There stood Brenda in her slip, with machines in her hair. "Come in, come in," she said huffily, as if I had interrupted her at the precise moment when she had been decoding the DNA molecule or something equally as significant. "I'm running a little late. I have to finish doing my hair. Well, come in already."
I stepped into the foyer, standing on a ribbed plastic runner that stretched out into the distance. As she closed the door behind me, I began to take a step off the plastic stripping so the door wouldn't hit me. My foot was poised in mid-step as she let out a shriek. "Aaarghh! Not on the carpet! Mama had the schvartze in today!" I spun, widdershins, barely managing to balance myself on one leg like a flamingo. I steadied myself on the plastic runner and looked to my right, the direction my errant foot would have carried me.
There, stretching off to the distant horizon, flooring a living room only slightly smaller than Bosnia and/or Herzogovina, lay the pluperfect lunatic symbol of the upwardly-mobile, nouveau riche household: a white carpet, deepest pile, a veritable Sargasso Sea of insane white carpet -- who but nutcases would carpet a room in which human beings are supposed to relax in white, fer chrissakes? -- with the nap pathologically lying all in one direction, clearly having been carpet-swept by Nubian slave labor so it was anal retentively flowing in one unbroken tide. Hours had been spent making sure each bloody fiber lay in that north by northwest direction.
"Stay on the runner. I won't be long," Brenda commanded.
"I've got to stay on the runner?"
"Sure. Just stand there. I'll be out in a minute."
And she vanished. Back into the bowels of that cyclopean domicile, leaving me standing frozen and tremulous in my baggy pants while she went off to complete her toilette. The plastic runner extended out beneath my feet, back into the dim and vaulted interior. To my left a closed door. To my right the inviolate expanse of white carpeting and a living room in which Xerxes could easily have assembled his armies for an attack on the Hot Gates. I stood there, shifting from one foot to the other like a grade school troublemaker waiting for his audience with the Principal.
And time went by. Slowly. I waited and waited, and heard nothing from the back of the residence. The living room looked invitingly comfortable with all those massive sofas and the huge baby grand piano. But I had been denied entrance. I felt like Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon standing at the doorway to the antechamber of Tutankhamen's tomb, faunching to enter a space unvisited for three thousand years, but fearing the terrible wrath of Beware all ye who violate this sacred place . . .
Now I don't know about you, friends, but if you leave me all alone someplace, with nothing to amuse me, for any extended period of time, I will sure as shit get in trouble. And so, possessed by some devil-demon from my childhood, I became obsessed by the purity of that goddam carpet. I stared at its unblemished white expanse, that sea of bleached grass rippling away to forever. And finally, when it was either do something or go bugfuck, I stepped to the edge of the plastic runner, crouched, and jumped as far out into the carpet as I could. There was no way of knowing where I had come from. My footprints just magically appeared out there.
I hesitated only a moment, and then, scuffling my feet to produce impressions in the carpet, I began spelling out the classic Chaucerian PHUQUE. In letters four feet high. In virginal white carpet.
And I was just putting the . on the ! when I heard a strangled, "Aaaaarghhh!" behind me. I turned, and there stood the missing Brenda, looking really pretty terrific, but with this, how shall I put it, uh, green expression on her face. "OhjeezusOhmiGodOhshit! My mother'll kiiiill me!" And she ran off, leaving me standing there rather shamefaced, wondering just which mental gargoyle had taken possession of the cathedral of my mind, knowing that there was no way I was gonna get laid.
Then, in a moment, here she came, schlepping a carpet sweeper, not a vacuum cleaner, just one of your basic handpushed carpet sweepers, and she starts sweeping the nap back north by northwest!
And I watched this demented scene for about thirty seconds until it got more than I could handle, and I yelled at her, "This is nuts! How the hell can you be a slave to a fuckin' carpet?" But she was in the grip of more powerful forces than my charisma. She was under the unbreakable spell of toilet training, and if the Apocalypse had come along just then she'd still have finished laying that nap back.
I went crazy.
I grabbed for the sweeper. She pirouetted out of my reach. She never broke stroke. I lunged for her again, and got my hands around the sweeper. We struggled back and forth across the living room, caroming off the furniture, lousing up the carpet worse than before. She fought like one of those lady barbarians out of a Conan adventure, punching and kicking.
Then the sweeper went that way, and we went this way, and we fell over and wrestled over and over across the floor, thumping our heads and legs. Over and over, and I came up on top for a moment and pinned her arms and stared down at her, trying to catch my breath . . .
And in that instant I perceived a mad light glowing out of her eyes, and she murmured huskily, "Hit me."
Now you gotta understand: I'm a quiet, well-mannered, Jewish kid from Ohio. Not even years sunk to the hips in the fleshpots of New York, Chicago, London and Billings, Montana have been able to sully the rigidly Puritanical morals that have led me to the pinnacle of success and clear complexion you see before you today. To put it simply, I was terrified. After all that time, at long last, despite my best efforts at avoidance, I had encountered one of those kinda ladies.
"Uh . . . beg pardon," I said weakly.
"Hit me," she said again. The light in her eyes strobed.
"H-h-huh-hit you?" and
"Punch me around a little bit. I love it."
"Don't leave marks. Just hurt me some . . ."
She was watching me, naked lust in her face, her lips wet with unconcealed desire. Nice quiet Jewish kid from Ohio. But what the hell, I'm adaptable.
Bogart asserted himself. My voice dropped four octaves. "You like a little smacking around, right, shweetheart?" She nodded, bonking her head on the carpet. "Okay," I said roughly, "get naked."
She looked troubled for a moment. "Naked?"
"Now!" I said, my voice a brutal rasp. I got off her. I stood over her as she stripped out of her clothes. My eyes slitted, my jaw tensed. I watched silently. When she was naked -- and pretty terrific she was, I might add -- I said, "Okay, lie on your back." She lay down again. (For a crazed moment I wanted to tell her to "make an angel" the way we used to do it when there was a heavy snow in Ohio. You lie on your back and flap your arms up and down, making angel wings. But I didn't. That would've been really crazy.)
The heavy drapes on the living room windows were secured by thick gold cord ropes with tassels. I unhooked four of them. I wrapped one around her left leg, secured it, and tied it to one leg of the baby grand. Then I did the same to her right leg and attached it to the piano at the other side. Then one arm stretched above her head and fastened to a leg of the massive sectional sofa. The other arm to another post of the sofa. She was spread-eagled, right in the middle of the word PHUQUE! (without the .) out flat on her back, her perspiring body trembling with barely-restrained passion.
"Can you move?"
She tried, then shook her head.
"Tied down tight? Can't get loose?"
She nodded again, breathing raggedly.
"Terrific," I said, heading for the door. "Say hello to your mama for me, and thank her for the chicken soup."
And I ran for my life.
All I could think of was when her mother got home that night, found her baby girl staked out like a gazelle at the waterhole, take one look at this monstrous scene and start screaming, "My caaaarpet . . .!"
You ask me if sex is one of the most important things in life? Absolutely. But the lack of it is even likelier to drive you nuts.
Not the pale, pallid nonsense Starsky and Hutch indulge in every week. Real violence. Sudden, inexplicable, ghastly. How seldom we see it. How unhinged we become in the face of it. Because when it really happens, when it manifests itself on its most primitive, amoral level . . . we understand just how fragile is the tissue of social behavior. In a life singularly filled with violence, only one sticks out without even close competition as the most horrendously violent moment I ever witnessed. I'll tell it briefly; even today, years later, my blood runs cold remembering . . .
New York. Early Seventies, maybe '73 or '74. I was in the city on business. Business taken care of, I got together with a friend, a writer from Texas who loves movies as much and as indiscriminately as I do. The ritual: the movie crawl. Load up on junk food, start at the first movie theater on the downtown side of 42nd Street, and just work our way from Times Square to 8th Avenue, cross the street, and work our way back to Times Square. Days. Endless days. Twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight hours straight time in the dark. We eat in there, sleep in there, piss and daydream in there. Hot dogs, popcorn, slabs of cheese, munchies, French bread, anydamnthing. And we see them all: the good flicks, the bad flicks, the kung-fu operas, the porn jobs, the superfly stomp the paddy flicks . . . all of them. One after another, till our eyes turn to poached eggs, staggering from theater to theater like refugees from a Macao opium den.
I don't remember the name of the particular theater, but it was on the uptown side of 42nd Street, close to Broadway. It was something like four in the morning. My buddy and I were almost totally cacked-out. I remember the double-bill, however. The lower half, the B feature, was Fear is the Key, a really dreadful action-adventure turkey based on a crummy Alistair Maclean novel. The main feature was Save the Tiger, a contemporary drama starring Jack Lemmon. He won the Oscar for the role in that film.
And there we slumped, way the hell up in the balcony, our knees jammed under our chins, best seats in an almost empty house. Four ayem. Two rows below us -- and it was steep up there, what I'm talking here is damned near per-pen-dic-u-lar -- some black dude was juiced out asleep, lying across three or four seats, snoring.
My buddy the Texas writer is dead asleep, having polished off a recent meal of three boxes Good'n'Plenty and a frozen chocolate covered banana on a stick. And, blessedly, Fear is the Key ends, and Save the Tiger begins.
About ten minutes into this serious, sensitive study of a garment center guy who is killing himself with floating ethics, and from the very first row of the balcony, below and to the right of us, but still very high above the floor of the theater, I hear a shrieky black voice start mouthing off. Dialogue straight out of ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR MISUNDERSTANDING.
"Muh-fugguh! Gahdamn muh-fugn stupid piece'a shit. Dumb sunbish cah-suckin' piece'a shit garbage . . . Leroy! Hey, you sumbish niggah prick Leroy! Le's get th' fuggoutta here, Leeeeeroy!"
Clearly, the critic in the first row of the balcony found this deeply penetrating study of middle class morality as seen through the dissolution of Jack Lemmon's knock-off sweat shop less than relevant to his existence as a mid-Twentieth Century denizen of the shitty slum to whence he would wend his way once this stupid kike film about muh-fuggin' honk paddy bastids ended. Which wasn't soon enough for him. "Leeeee-ROY!"
I had the feeling that Leeee-ROY was the terminal case lying over the seats two rows below us. Out of it.
Well, I peer through the gloom and see the dude down there in the front row of the balcony, his feet up on the brass rail, his partner beside him, silently watching the film but not stopping the noise. And I watch the two of them for a little while, hoping the third member of the group, good ole Leeee-ROY, will bestir his ass and go rejoin them there sepia Athos and Porthos, and maybe just maybe vacate the site quietly so I can watch the goddam muhfuggin' movie.
But no such luck. The critic only gets wonkyer, yelling at the top of his lungs. Leeee-ROY don't twitch a bun.
And just as the critic is reaching a pitch that will cause sonic tremors, squealing sunbish and muh-fugguh at the top of his lungs, from behind me I hear The Voice of Doom:
"Shut your face, nigger, before I come down there and kill you."
Pause with me for a nanoinstant. This was not one of those angrily shouted shutups one encounters all-too-frequently these days in pillbox-sized Cinema I/II/III/IV closets filled with slopebrowed, prognathous-jawed pimplebrains who jabber endlessly as though they were still in front of the tube in their living room. This was -- trust me -- the most blood-curdlingly threatening voice I have ever heard. It was the kind of voice one suspected would accompany the body attached to the moving finger writing mene mene tekel in letters of fire. This was an abominable snowman, a tyrannosaurus, a behemoth, a stone righteous muh-fuggin' killer. Deep, resonant, commanding, powerful . . . and very very black.
I don't want to belabor this but whoever or whatever was sitting back up there behind my Texas buddy and me, it was bad.
Beside me, I felt the hand of my Texican partner on my wrist. Softly, he asked, "What the fuck was that?"
"Voice of Doom," I said. "Pretend we're black. Better still: pretend we're at another theater."
All this happened in a second. And only an idiot would have talked back to the owner of that voice. Guess whose name was in the envelope in the category of Most Outstanding Performance by an Idiot? You got it: Leeee-ROY's buddy with the scoop shovel mouth.
Is violence important in this life?
The critic started shrieking, "Who said that? Who said that gahdamn shit t'me? You c'mawn down here, nigguh, I'm gonna cut'chu! I gonna cut on you, nigguh muh-fugguh!"
And he did go on. And on and on. "Oh shit," I murmured, slumping down even deeper in the seat, till my knees were up around my ears like a grasshopper. Beside me, my Texican buddy was praying in High Church Latin, Yiddish and Sufi, all at the same time.
I do believe that the joker down in the first row of that cockroach-ridden movie house was the single dumbest sonofabitch I have ever encountered; and what happened next was the swiftest, most deadly moment of violence I have ever seen.
Motormouth was still working over the conjugation of to cut when suddenly and without warning there was a rush of wind past me, down those steep steps, fast, fast, so damned fast I couldn't make out whether it was a human or a yeti or simply some terrifying force of nature, and all I saw was a dark blur as something BIG went smoothly down to the front row, something GIGANTIC moved into that row . . . and that stupid sonofabitch joker just stood up, still working his wet jaw . . . as if he could do something against that HUGE dude come to silence him . . . and that monstrous black fury just grabbed Motormouth by the shirt front and yanked . . . and pitched him headfirst over the rail.
I heard a terrified scream as the guy fell, and then a sickening crack! like the snapping of a T'ang dynasty chopstick, and then there was silence.
The only sounds were Jack Lemmon talking about what emotional violence he was suffering.
Shut up, Lemmon.
No one in the theater moved. There weren't that many people anyhow. Just my buddy and me and sleeping Leeee-ROY and the buddy of the guy who'd taken the dive . . . and that humungus shape. In the balcony. And if there was anyone down below, they weren't saying anything.
The diver's buddy didn't move or look around or say a word. He just sat there staring straight ahead, as if he could not possibly have found anything more interesting in the universe to think about than Jack Lemmon's problems. The dark shape moved back up the aisle . . . I didn't look left or right . . . I saw nothing, Jim, nothing . . .and it went up past me and was gone.
I watched that entire flick in silence. No one moved to see if the diver was still alive. After a moment's wait the diver's buddy slipped out of the balcony like oil washing down a gutter, and gone. From below . . . nothing.
And when the film was finished, and the lights came up, we rose, and turned slowly. The balcony was empty. Leeee-ROY was still tabula rasa. Just us, all alone. I looked at my buddy from Texas, and he looked at me, and without saying a word we walked down that precarious stairway and came to the railing and peered over.
The diver lay across the back of a shattered seat. He was bent double. Stomach up. His spine was broken. He didn't move. The theater was empty. We walked back up the aisle, through the upper vestibule, down the winding staircase, into the lobby, and out. We didn't look back. No one could help the diver. We wanted to get away.
We never spoke of it to each other.
It was sudden. Not a word. Not a second threat. No false heroics like two stumblebums in an alley outside a bar. No feinting, and no swinging. He just threw him; launched him out into eternity. And walked away from it. Because he was being disturbed in a movie.
Violence, real violence, not the Jack Armstrong nonsense we all play-act at . . . genuine, mindless violence is very important.
Because there is no knowing when it will strike.
And there is no escape from it.
I warn you, it's terrible.
3. LABOR RELATIONS
At least half our waking life is spent trying to make ends meet. Slouching after the buck. Keeping the rain off our heads. That means earning a living. Aren't you glad I clarified it for you? And whether you're on the paycheck or self-employed, whether you wait in line for the dole or cat-burgle through windows in the wee hours, relations with Them As Has the Money are vital. Not getting the Employer pissed-off, maintaining a posture that makes you indispensable, cannot be too strenuously stressed.
One of the most important lessons one can learn in this tragic life, therefore, is what it takes to stay employed. And since almost any job will eventually drive you to erratic behavior, thus precipitating getting your tuchis laid off, I offer the following heart-rending anecdote from my virtually cornucopial stock of life-experiences . . . as a classic example of what not to do.
One day about ten years ago, I was sitting in this little treehouse I rented in Beverly Glen, a sort of arboreal BambiLand section of Los Angeles just on the Tobacco Road side of Bel-Air and Beverly Hills, what I'm talking here is artsy-craftsy but poor as a shulmouse,* [*A shul is a synagogue. As a Jew I'm not allowed to have churchmice. That's okay, they're trayf.] really a treehouse I'm not making this up, see, because half the house sat on a rock ledge up a private little street called Bushrod Lane that was mostly only a kind of paved pathway better suited to fugitives from a James Fenimore Cooper book than this upwardly-struggling young writer trying to bludgeon his way into movies, and the other half -- of the treehouse, that is -- am I going too fast for you? -- was in the crotch of a big eucalyptus tree, and it only cost me $135 a month, which was back then at a time before everything was crazy in terms of what it costs to live decently these days and $135 was not the biggest rent you could pay but I wasn't all that cushy either, and so I was sitting there when the phone rang, and it was Marty. Marty the Agent. And he says to me, he says, "Walt Disney wants you!" Now I don't know what you think constitutes an ominous remark, but as Walt Disney had gone to collect his reward from that Great Consortium Organizer in the Sky at least two years prior to this phone call from Marty the Agent, immediate thoughts of some Lovecraftian horror beckoning to me from the crypt . . .Whooooooo ... Walt waaaaants you ... ! . . . went pitterpattering through my tiny brain. But, as it turned out, I was never to find out if there was truth to the much-bandied underground rumor that Walt had been flash-frozen cryogenically, with an eye to restoring him in the 25th Century or, at worst, stuffing him and putting him on display like Trigger. What it boiled down to, improbably, was that someone had read one of my science fiction stories somewhere and thought I'd be a terrific li'l fellah to have write a kinda sorta sf film Disney was thinking of making.
My first reaction to "Disney wants you" was horror, and then stark amazement. "There's been a mistake," I said to Marty the Agent. "I'm a crazed, radical, bomb-throwing loon who writes stories about things that come up out of the toilets to bite off babies' asses . . . are you sure they don't want Bob Ellison? He writes comedy. Very clean-cut guy. Drives a late model car. Shaves regularly. Never says fuck in mixed company. You sure they mean me, Marty? I'm Harlan Ellison, remember? The one with the hook for a hand."
No, says Marty the Agent, who has been my theatrical agent (as opposed to my literary agent, who is Bob the Agent) as well as my friend for over fifteen years, no, they have clearly lost their minds and they want you, and I have made a nice little week-to week deal for you, with a guaranteed six and options . . . and he named a figure that might not purchase San Simeon in these crazy days of lettuce going for $3.00 a head but back then ten years ago was more money than anyone had ever offered me for anything, including my body.
"Contracts are coming," Marty said, "but go over to the Disney Studio tomorrow morning. They have an office for you."
I was in heaven. So okay, it wasn't writing The Great American Cinematic Answer to Potemkin, so what?! I was on my way. I was going to work in the Studio! It was the big time. And just to get up in the part of a successful scenarist, I dragged out my complete collection of Uncle Scrooge McDuck Comics and re-read them all, till the night had passed away and the morning had come. I dressed smartly, put on the one tie I owned, looked at myself in the mirror before leaving the treehouse and went back in and took off the tie and put on a shirt first. Okay, so I was excited, shoot me.
I drove out the Ventura Freeway to the Buena Vista exit, drove up to the front gate in the disreputable 1951 Ford I mentioned earlier, which hadn't been washed in so long that strangers wrote cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness obscenities in the dirt, and gave my name to the spiffy guard at the kiosk. "Oh, yessir, Mr. Ellison," he said, validating my existence, "your office is in the Writers Building." I beamed. "How do I get there?" I asked. He smiled exactly the same smile as Doc of Seven Dwarfs fame and said, "Well, you drive in here and take the first left, that's Mickey Mouse Avenue. Then you go down Mickey Mouse Avenue till you get to Thumper Boulevard. Turn right on Thumper to Clarabelle Cow Way and take another left. Go straight down Clarabelle Cow Way till you hit the corner of Horace Horsecollar Drive, and the Writers Building is second building on your right."
I think I nodded dumbly, refusing to believe what I had just been told. But I drove in and, sure as shit, there was Mickey Mouse Avenue and Thumper Boulevard and all the rest of them, and I said to myself, Ellison . . . you has fallen down a rabbit hole, keed.
But right there, in front of the building to which I'd been directed, was a parking slot that said H. ELLISON. Right there, on the blacktop, between the thick white lines, some industrious Audio-Animatronic robot (possibly cobbled up in the image of Matisse or Lindner) had stencilled my name for Eternity or six weeks with options . . . whichever came first.
To those of you out there in the Great American Heartland, that may not be such a significant thing, but in the world of studio sinecures, a parking space of one's own is dearer to the heart than never being put on "hold" when calling the networks. I know Sammy Glick manqués who have given up perks and titles and even a Bigelow on the floor just for a parking space with the name thereon. So there I had it: authentication of my elevated status in the universe of the soon-to-be-hot-stuff.
I walked into the building and on the register I found my name and office number. Walked upstairs, followed the numbers till I found my office, and opened the door. It was a two-room suite with bathroom. The room I entered was antechamber, and there, sitting behind her desk, reading a paperback nurse novel, was my secretary. No, change that from . to !!!
You shoulda seen her. This remarkable creature was so clean I could see dust motes taking 90' turns as they fell, just so they wouldn't mar her perfection. A smile that would solve all the energy dilemmas of the TVA. Peter Pan collar on the blouse. Malibu blonde, periwinkle-blue eyes, a goyishe nose that would make Streisand climb a wall a freshly-minted six-pak of dimples most of which were visible.
"May I help you?" she said.
You're probably too young to remember, but the part of Adelaide in the original stage production of Guys and Dolls was played by Vivian Blaine, an accomplished actress who had the most amazing dumb-blond voice ever bottled. Not even Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday could approach the level of stupidity aurally conveyed by Ms. Blaine's rendition of the nitwit. Only once in the more-than-a-quarter-century since Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway, have I heard a voice, male or female, that rivaled for strident, full-out dumbness, the voice of Adelaide.
"May I help you?" she said.
"Uh, I'm Harlan Ellison," I replied. "I think this is my office."
Such instant attentiveness. Such perky willingness to serve, we don't do windows or floors. Could she get me coffee? Could she type some script? Could she file some reports? Could she read my Tarot?
I pointed out that I was just arriving and that it was my first day on the job and, since I had no idea what I was doing, nor even what the nature of the project was to be, I really needed only one bit of assistance: "Is that my office in there?"
She indicated that the connecting room was, in fact, the Holiest of Holies where, she was certain, I would create great moments in cinematic history. I thanked her, suggested she return to the contretemps of Nurse and Doctor and advanced post-nasal drip, and I'd call her when I needed her. In the background I heard mental riffs by Dan Hicks & his Hot Licks.
I went into my office.
They could have staged the World Cup soccer matches in there. One sofa, too short to sleep on; one wall of bookcases empty save for a well-thumbed copy of the 1948 WORLD ALMANAC; one framed painting depicting beanfield hands laboring under a blistering sun (I wondered if that was intended by the management as metaphor); one desk the size of the battleship Potemkin (and I wondered if that was intended by the management as metaphor); one typing table supporting an enormous IBM Selectric, already humming with life; one rollaround typing chair.
And on the desk, an even dozen #2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, sharpened to such a piercing sharpness that they seemed to strobe off into invisibility at the points. Tony Curtis could have dueled with those pencils.
I didn't have the heart to tell anyone I type manuscript straight onto the machine. My handwriting is in the top 1/10th of the top percentile of illegible scrawls.
I sat down and waited. For someone to come and tell me what they wanted me to write. To tell me at least the name of the picture. But an hour went by and nothing happened.
As I've pointed out earlier, left to my own devices, I get into trouble. Deep trouble.
So, bored out of my brain, I rose, went into the office where Barbie sat with furrowed brow pondering the mysteries of infections and abscesses of the submaxillary parotid gland, and I said, "I'm going to look around. Be back in a bit."
The smile fried my eyeballs like a ping-pong ball in a cyclotron, and I stumbled into the hall.
I started checking out the other offices. And to my utter delight, there were at least half a dozen writers I knew, ensconced in Plaza Suites similar to mine. The wonderful thing about it was that most of them were loons like me. I'd name them, but since most of you can't even remember the names of authors of books, names of scenarists like Albert Aley and John D.F. Black and Mary C. McCall, Jr. won't mean shit to you. Suffice to say, we all found ourselves gathered in John's office, shucking and jiving till almost noon. At which point someone said, "Okay, let's break for lunch."
I thought that was a terrific idea, having put in an exhausting three hours working in the Disney vineyards.
So we went to the commissary and shoved in around the Writers' Table.
What I did not know was that the Writers' Table was right behind the Producers' Banquette. That was my first big mistake. As it turned out, it was also my last big mistake.
Oh, what fun, sitting there with intellectual companions, cutting up touches and laughing at the drolleries! Born again: the Algonquin round table. Wit beyond compare. And, naturally, as the youngest member of the group, striving to make my mark as worthy of their camaraderie, their respect, I suggested a droll, witty lunchtime conceit . . .
Two things you must know. First, I do a terrific Mickey Mouse imitation. Absolutely phonographically perfect. If the publishers of this book had the money, they ought to bind in a record, one of those little plastic jobbies, so you could hear my spectacular Mickey imitation. When I tell this anecdote in person, it really enhances a lot. But just pretend you can hear it, okay?
The second thing you need to know is that the Producers' Banquette had filled up with Roy Disney and the other heads of the studio, behind me; a fact of which I was unaware; a fact no one bothered to impart.
At the top of my voice I suggested, "Hey, listen, what a kick! Why don't we do a porn Disney flick?"
Everyone smiled. "It'll be terrific," I said. Loudly. "I mean, everyone knows, for instance, that Tinker Bell does it . . . what they don't know is how she Does It." They all looked at me expectantly. "She flies up the head of the penis and flaps her wings like crazy," I said, proud as hell of myself at this bit of fantasy. Everyone chuckled.
I went on, oblivious to the sudden hush all around me in the commissary. "I'll be Mickey, and I'll be the director; John, you do a good Donald, so you can be the male porn lead, sort of a duck-style Harry Reems; Mary, you can be Minnie, the female lead; and Albert, you can be Goofy . . . and Goofy, of course, is the producer."
Their smiles were frozen; the way the smiles of bit players get frozen when they see the monster creeping up behind the hero in a horror flick.
"Hey, gang!" I squeaked in my terrifically accurate Mickey voice. "Everybody ready to shoot the ultimate Disney flick? The film that rips the lid off the goody two-shoes hypocrisy that lies sweltering beneath the surface of G-rated true-life adventures? Okay, you guys, let's get that hand-held Arriflex right down there between Minnie's legs! I wanna see closeups of quivering labia!"
A silence as deep as that at the bottom of the Cayman Trench.
I went on, oblivious, carried along by my enthusiasm. In Donald's quack I said, "Goddam sonofabitch! Pluto, get outta there, you're steaming up the lens!"
As Goofy, in the dumbest voice possible, I said, "Yuck, yuck, yuck . . . hey, fellahs, I'm a highly-paid, extremely-inept producer person . . . c'n I play, too?"
As Mickey: "Fuck off, Goofy, fuck off! Get those Seven Dwarfs in here . . . I don't care ff they don't wanna gang-bang a mouse, tell 'em they're under contract . . . and fer chrissakes, Minnie, will you take off those damned shoes?!"
The meal came. Everyone addressed their plates like inmates of the Gulag Archipelago. When lunch was over, everyone vanished very quickly. I was confused, but felt good. What a nice little shtick I'd invented. Wished they'd joined in. Oh well.
Went back to my office. Noticed first that my name had been whited-out in the parking slot. Upstairs, the secretary and her paperback were gone. On my desk: twelve sharpened #2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencils and a pink slip.
I had been fired after working for the Disney empire for a total of four hours, including lunch.
The lessons here cannot be avoided.
Big business is humorless.
And . . .
At Disney, nobody fucks with The Mouse.
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