Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Illustrated Moan

As a young person, your closest friends were often a step away from such imaginary friends as Hobbes, the imaginary tiger-friend of young Calvin in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.  Your "friends" were characters from the books you'd read, most of them involving some form of journey to a difficult-to-reach place in order to carry out a goal.  Thus were two of your friends Henry Morton Stanley and the object of   his quest, Dr. Livingstone.

You had some neighborhood friends, all of whom went to a different school than you, and some friends from the school you attended, but in large measure, going to the Saturday movie (two features, a serial, and a cartoon) and reading were such serious business that you felt more comfortable enjoying them alone.

Grainy B movies, radio serials, and Big Little Books provided your greatest sources of made-to-order friends to serve as your companions as you plied the vast reaches empty lot behind where you lived on Cochran Avenue, between Sixth and Fifth Streets, and when you navigated the absolute wilderness of what has become Park La Brea Towers on your way to the Hancock Park Elementary School, corner of Third and Fairfax.

You got a quantum leap forward when you discovered the lean, no nonsense prose of the pulp magazines, notably Black Mask, but as well Dime Detective, Thrilling Wonder, Amazing, Weird Tales, and a number of other titles reflective of the Western genre.  This was about the time when you began thinking less about "staging" your own dramas in overgrown lots and writing them out on lined pads with the portrait of a romanticized Indian chieftain on its cover.

Not many years later, you were an undergraduate, desperate for girlfriends, money for dates, money for books, thus a series of jobs in which your major function was to watch something, say the cars in a parking lot, or to lift something such as bookshelves and lawn furniture, or that truly defining job available at Christmas break,the temporary deliverer of mail.  You were not so much "out" of the characters-as-friends business as you were "in" trying to effect characters on paper.

For three years, you had the same amazing route, which is to say,it was a segment of west Los Angeles defined by Pico Boulevard at its northern boundary, extending southward for about six blocks.  There was one particular delivery to which you regularly delivered manila envelopes, laden with thick interior content.  Because of the return addresses on the envelopes, you knew not only what was in them--because you'd hoped to get them as well--but who the addressee was, because you'd been reading him for some considerable time.

The envelopes were from a spectrum of pulp magazines.  Their contents were galley proofs,printed strips of paper intended for their author's reading, lest they contain any unintended typographical errors.  You well understood the ethics and issues involved. You, as a government employee however temporary were morally and legally obligated to deliver the mail to its addressee.  On the other "side" of the issue was your curiosity.  In due time, you would be able to read the stories you delivered to this author because you not only followed him, you followed the magazines in which his stories appeared.  But due time to a temporary mail deliver who wanted to be a writer was time spent in the hell of curiosity, just as similar time was spent in the hell of being between your own stories.

What to do?

One day, Fate helped you decide.  As you hefted such a thick envelope before delivering it to its rightful owner, you thumped the envelope speculatively in your hand, whereupon its flap sprang open.

Sure enough, there was a wad of folded galley proof inside, a terse, handwritten note clipped to it.  Any thoughts of rectitude were gone from you--you'd already noted the first line of the galley proof and were yanked from the streets of west side Los Angeles to the worlds out among the stars, planets, asteroids, and galaxies.  You sat on the corner curb of Patricia Street, reading the story, marveling at its energy and reach, knowing the exquisite smugness of the reader who had experienced this fiction before all but a handful of mortals.

As the days of that Christmas season and the next and yet the next progressed, many such envelopes happened to develop sprung flap.  The result was electric.  You probably read as many as thirty stories that way.  Not only was there nary a dud within them, they all went off in so many different ways that you knew you had in a kind of highly personal albeit illegal way, seen yourself as that author's acolyte, him as a kind of mentor, a mentor of wonder.

About fifteen years later, when you were regional president of the Mystery Writers of America, you had occasion to present an Edgar Award--a porcelain bust of Edgar Allen Poe--to the writer of those remarkable stories.  With him standing next to you at the podium, you told an abridged version of the opening flap syndrome.  "The only author I have ever committed a federal crime in order to read,"  you said, handing him the statue.

"You son of a bitch,"  Ray Bradbury said, "you opened my mail."

"Did you ever consider,"  Barnaby Conrad asked you some years later, "that he may have been smiling when he said that?"

Conrad and Bradbury are close enough friends to allow you some hope that Conrad was right.  There has always been somewhat of a personal edge between you and Bradbury when you were in the same room, and you like to think that some two or three years ago, when you'd chosen to write a retrospective review of Fahrenheit 451  for your weekly column, and Bradbury had called Conrad to say, "Did you see what Lowenkopftransformative crimes of a young writer's career.

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