Friday, October 22, 2010

Ray Bradbury Interview Raises Unpleasant Memories

I love those “Art of Fiction” interviews with authors that appear in the Paris Review. Some are chock full of great ideas about writing, really insightful stuff based on lifetimes of reading and writing, and some are fascinating mostly because the authors are delusional in some amusing way. They are almost never boring, though. This Ray Bradbury interview from earlier this year is one of the good ones.

I was very interested to find out that he shared my juvenile love of magazines, along with my inability to actually afford them, and that he also shared my solution to the problem, which was to steal them. But with a twist, as befits the great man. He claims that he carefully replaced them in the racks when he was done reading them. I suppose that it’s possible that he is telling the truth, however unlikely that seems. In my case it never occurred to me to put them back, and even if it had, my powers of risk-assessment would have led me to shit-can the idea immediately.

Over the years I filled my room with vast stacks of magazines and paper-backs, and I read them all, and cherished them. Most of them, but not all, had been shoplifted. I would purchase things on a regular basis at the places that I stole from, so that my appearance at the racks would be seen as a good thing, a normal occurrence with a business purpose. Sometimes I would buy and steal things in the same visit. I was pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. I was never caught.

Much later in my life, my mother suggested that my allowance while in high school had been twenty dollars a week or more, that being in addition to any money for going to school and having lunch. This was such a wild fiction that I had a good laugh about it at her expense. Twenty dollars was a fortune then, in those days of coins made from actual silver, when an entire large pizza cost about a dollar. Later on I wondered if perhaps she had gotten this notion while considering the value of the contents of my room at that time, and had rejected the obvious conclusion that her son was a thief. My real allowance at the time was rather low, and I spent most of it on records, which were much harder to steal. I had to save up a while to get the records.

All of this led me to a distressing memory. I left home for the Navy a couple of weeks before my nineteenth birthday, and my room was in its full flower when I left. My room was about fifteen by fifteen feet; my sister’s room was more like nine by twelve feet. Nothing was ever said about changing anything. When I returned from boot camp ten weeks later, our rooms had been switched, which was as it should be, it was only fair to my sister, the big room was much nicer. But all of my stuff was gone. Only the records survived the holocaust. Not only the magazines and paperbacks were gone, ill gotten or otherwise, but also the comic books, and things like my baseball gloves and stamp collections, even my bicycle was gone from the garage. Without a word, and it was never to be discussed in any way.

How they must hate me, I thought, how relieved they must be that I am gone.

The laugh was on them, though, because the Navy saw fit to honorably discharge me after only six months, having realized that I lacked military potential. It was like Catch 22 in reverse: I wasn’t trying to get out, so they discharged me. It was an amicable split, my service was categorized as honorable and appreciated. Back at home, I got my old room back, no discussion of that either. I had given up shoplifting by this time.

It is unfortunate that these things retain their ability to hurt over time. After all, it was eight presidents ago, and four or five popes, and that’s a lot of world’s fairs and rodeos under the bridge. I don’t dwell on the past, honestly! but the Bradbury interview reminded me.

Oh, and Bradbury had a lot of interesting things to say about education and writing too, I enjoyed the interview very much. He probably did return those magazines, he sounds like a really nice guy.


Anonymous said...

I've attended several live talks by Bradbury. He makes an annual visit to a small writer's group in my neighborhood in appreciation of the interest they paid to him very early on in his career. That's nice of him. But I found him to be a red-neck, politically, and an example of the I-got-mine, screw-everyone-else mindset, which was not so nice. He was pissed off at Michael Moore for using "Farenheit 911" to title his documentary, claiming Moore ripped off Bradbury's "Farenheit 411" book, whose title and premise is actually stolen from another work. Mainly he hated the anti-war aspect of Moore's great film. Go figure.
But I hear you about the stolen magazines and books. We grew up grindingly poor, where a 10 cent comic book a week was a luxury. Skin magazines were the great forbidden fruit desired by every red-blooded kid, but you couldn't get them except via the 5-finger discount.
Your Mom is way off--I got $2 a day fom my mom to go to all the way to Brooklyn and back on the bus and subway, buy a pack of smokes (42 cents) and lunch, usually brown-bagged tuna salad or cream cheese & jelly. Sometimes I had enough left over to buy a 20-cent knish. But not enough to buy records and books.
I bought my first LP (Blue Cheer) when I was 17. Saved up my birthday money I think. Records were about $8 in 1967, a fortune. Likewise, my mom threw out all my comic books which today of course would be worth big bucks. So I can relate. But back then, who knew these things would be valuable one day, or even had some sentimental or emotional value to us callow teenagers? Our parents were clueless, but we should cut them some slack. They really didn't know what these foolish things meant to us....
And besides, with eBay, today we can replace most of the things we held near and dear to us if we wish. It's all online.


fred c said...

I read a great interview with Walter Koenig ("Chekov") one time. The guy asked him about his collections of stuff he loved in childhood, "are you trying to recreate your childhood?" Classic response: "No, but maybe I'm trying to recreate my escape from childhood."

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Ed.