Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Night Ray Bradbury Kissed Me

Last night, Ray Bradbury died at his home in Los Angeles.  I remember as a boy reading "Farenheit 451," "Dandelion Wine," "R is for Rocket," "I Sing the Body Electric" and "The Illustrated Man," and adored getting lost inside his imagination.  But my most vivid memory of Bradbury is the evening I got to meet the man himself.

It was 1981 and I was living on Sutter Street in San Francisco, working at my first real job after college, the first where I was paid to be a writer.  Bradbury came to town to give a lecture as a fundraiser for the San Francisco Public Library.  A friend was a high-level volunteer at the library and invited me not only to the lecture, but to the reception afterward, which was to be held at Arion Press, a well-respected publisher of limited-edition books.  I can't say I remember much about the lecture itself, but what happened at the reception will stay with me forever.

Arion Press at that time occupied a smallish upstairs space on Commercial Street in San Francisco.  The room was filled with the tools of a fine press: the mechanical presses themselves, drying racks for the printed pages, plus bin after bin after bin of lead type.  The Arion Press was, and still is, one of the best publishers of limited editions.  At that time, they were celebrating the publication of their edition of "Flatland," a 19th century satirical novella by Edwin Abbott Abbott, about a two-dimensional world and what happens when a character from a land of three dimensions appears in Flatland.  The book was bound in an accordion fold so the entire book could be laid out flat.  Bradbury wrote the introduction, and signed each copy. (Only 275 were printed.)

While at the party, I was offered the opportunity to purchase a copy of "Flatland," as well as a copy of Arion Press's edition of "Moby Dick."  If I remember correctly, the price for "Flatland" was $400, and a copy of "Moby Dick" would have set me back $600.  Today, a copy of "Flatland" goes for more than $6000, and a copy of "Moby Dick" recently sold at auction for more than $25,000.  Missed opportunity; but at that point, $600 was probably close to my take-home pay for a month.

When Bradbury arrived at the party, two lines formed immediately.  The great man stood at the north end of the room, backed by a couple of presses.  The guests queued up to chat with him or shake his hand.  He would talk with one person in one line, then turn to the person at the head of the second line, chat with them, turn back to the first line...

I waited patiently until it was almost my turn.  I was first in my line, and Bradbury was talking to a woman at the front of the line to my left.  She gushed something like, "I've admired you for so long and always thought you were so attractive and that maybe one day you I and would..."  It was at this point that she extended the index finger of her right hand and formed a cylinder with her left hand, curling the fingers and resting them on the left thumb.  She then proceeded to insert the index finger into this cylinder, withdraw it, insert it, withdraw it, insert it...

Bradbury blinked, recoiled and instantly turned to me and said, "Well - how are you this evening?"  I gushed about how much I enjoyed his talk, how it had inspired me as a writer, blah blah blah.  The old man (though he was only 61 at the time, he seemed ancient to me) broke into a broad smile, reached out with both his hands, grabbed me by the back of the head, pulled me close and gave me a giant kiss right on the lips.

I think I said "thank you," and shortly thereafter stumbled out into the San Francisco night.

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