By Michael Oates PalmerJune 14, 2012
He was portly; he didn’t look healthy. Especially not as he wolfed down a cheeseburger, his face red, while he sat to my right at the table. As he laughed and chortled, I watched those hands, their tight grip around a glass of red wine.
I didn’t think he had much time left.
Turns out, he had plenty.
We had brought him to speak at our university, and now, twenty minutes into the dinner conversation, I started to sweat.
Ray Bradbury was scaring me.
My first encounter with Bradbury wasn’t from reading one of his books. It was instead from watching his television show, The Ray Bradbury Theater, an anthology series that ran on HBO for two seasons in the mid-eighties. It was Ray’s own version of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits; I especially remember the title sequence:
A shadowy figure comes up a rickety apartment elevator, lets himself into a dark office, walks through a hallway filled with books and papers. He enters a room. Turning on a light, he reveals himself: Ray Bradbury, a white-haired 60-something in an undertaker’s dark blazer and shirt. He takes a seat behind a typewriter.
We then hear in voiceover, “People ask me: Where do you get your ideas? Right here!”
The office is filled with a thousand tchotchkes that, were we to believe this opening sequence, inspired Bradbury’s several novels and hundreds of stories: “I never know where the next one will take me,” he says.
A little hokey, sure. But to a ten year old who had already realized he wanted to be a writer? Powerful stuff. Along with the vanity credit sequence ending every Stephen J. Cannell show in the ‘80s — three seconds of Cannell eagerly typing, then pulling a page of The Greatest American Hero or The A-Team from his IBM Selectric with great flair — these were formative impressions of what writers did and what they looked like.
I didn’t read Bradbury, though, until high school. Fahrenheit 451 was on our summer reading list at Loyola High School near downtown LA. I wasn’t much of a science fiction or fantasy fan — sure, I loved Star Wars, but I preferred the funny of Roald Dahl and the relatable of Judy Blume to the fantastical of Narnia and Madeline L’Engle. But Farenheit 451’s tale of censorship and the importance of books appealed to me. Even though it had been published in 1953 — Bradbury wasn’t even 33 when he wrote it — it felt incredibly relevant to 1989, to the days of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center calling for the censoring of rock lyrics, and Charlton Heston attacking Ice-T for a song called “Cop Killer.” More importantly, Fahrenheit felt relevant to my own life, bridling as I was under the conformity and boundaries of a conservative Catholic high school that didn’t always encourage free thinking.
After high school, I headed off to Brown University. I still wanted to be a writer — that hadn’t changed — but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write, neither the medium nor the subject matter. Leaving a Jesuit boys’ school for Brown was nothing short of a sea change.
In 1969, at the apex of campus unrest, anxiety, and anger over America’s war in Vietnam, a coalition of Brown students and professors had embarked on an experiment in education reform that they called, not without a little hubris, The New Curriculum. The university shed any requirements of a core curriculum, giving students new options like pass/fail courses and the ability to design their own concentrations.
This big change meant, mostly, that any time a student met one of their parents’ friends, the student would inevitably be asked, “Brown? Do you still read books there?”
The New Curriculum also tended to draw students more from the progressive, liberal side of the spectrum. By the eighties, the university was the closest thing the Ivy League had to a party school, the freedom extending past the curriculum: a campus prostitution ring was exposed in 1986.
By the early nineties, the summer camp party buzz had mostly burned off, giving way to a bit of a hangover. This transformation was never clearer than in 1990, when female students inscribed male students’ names on the stalls of bathrooms in the library, accusing them of date rape. The “Rape List” made national headlines.
After I was accepted in the spring of 1992, I made the requisite campus visit. On the day I arrived, students took over the administration building to protest the lack of need-blind admissions. But there were also students watching from the Green, rolling their eyes, shaking their heads. This was Brown, large enough to host those who were eager to start the revolution, and those who regarded it with mocking ironic detachment. The visit only confirmed what my earlier interactions with students and alums suggested: people were happy there.
As a first year, I jumped into activities, writing for the Brown Daily Herald, acting in a few plays. And I also pitched in with the student-run Lecture Board, a group that brought paid speakers like Jane Goodall, Maurice Sendak, or Dr. Ruth to campus each year.
Then, in 1994, one of our co-chairs graduated. The other remaining co-chair was a nice, if remarkably stressed out, pre-med named Eli. He was prematurely balding, with a habit of looking repeatedly at his watch while you talked with him. Eli convinced me to join him that semester as a co-chair. Why not? He had already lobbied the members of the board — “board” gave it more weight than it was, as the group consisted of however many students happened to show up to the bimonthly meetings — to bring Ray Bradbury to campus.
It felt like a no-brainer: a speaker who would appeal both to the humanities majors and the science majors and pre-meds, many of whom were inspired early on by such science fiction pioneers as Asimov, Heinlein, and, of course, Bradbury. As far as speakers went, he wasn’t cheap, but he was at least more in the price range of Sendak than, say, Bill Cosby.
On the day of the lecture, Eli and I borrowed a car, heading over to TF Green Airport to meet Bradbury’s flight from Los Angeles. He came out, amiable and smiling, if a little wobbly, looking slightly different than he had in that HBO series years before. Which made sense — almost 15 years had passed. He wore a dark blue blazer and a white turtleneck.
He was cheerful — didn’t complain or tease us about our shabby wheels — as we took him to dinner at a restaurant called Hemenway’s that sits at the bottom of College Hill, the neighborhood encompassing both Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design. It was a restaurant you only went to when your parents were visiting.
With vouchers in hand from the Activities Office to pay for the meal, we sat, Eli and I on either side of the author.
I hadn’t read any Bradbury since high school. Eli, though, was a real fan. On our drive to the airport, he rattled off Bradbury titles the way I’d rattle off Dylan songs. He was excited to ask Ray about The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, books he had read growing up in a small suburb of Connecticut, books that inspired him towards a life of scientific inquiry in medicine.
But looking across the table, I quickly realized: Eli, always a bit tense, had now frozen up completely. Here he was at a table with one of his heroes, and he was cryogenically preserved from asking Bradbury a question. I knew I had to keep Ray talking.
After the initial small talk about his flight, Ray looked at us, sizing us both up, and said, “No one reads any of the classics anymore.”
While this was true of his bigger fan, Eli, who had taken full advantage of the Brown New Curriculum, carefully bypassing any literature or English class, I was taking a course that semester on the Victorian novel. Suddenly, Ray and I were off to the races.
Ray seemed excited, even cheered, to talk about Hardy and Dickens — and then we were on to Shakespeare. As a twenty-year-old, easily flattered by any attention, I loved that he saw me as an appreciator of the great works. And as an aspiring writer, such crumbs from famous authors were enough to sustain me. My sophomore year, I had interviewed E. L. Doctorow for the Brown Daily Herald. When he signed my paperback of The Book of Daniel, one of my favorite novels — “To Mike Palmer, who asks good questions” — I was floating high for weeks.
As Ray ordered his cheeseburger and fries, he asked us about Brown. What were students interested in? What were they excited about? Eli and I gave him the brief bird’s-eye overview: it was a campus where students were engaged in their coursework and activities, a campus that favored extroverts, and, yes, a campus where students tended to be, just a little, to the left of things.
Ray dismissively waved his big paw, and laughed: “So a bunch of bleeding hearts.”
I coughed, not quite sure I heard him right. Bleeding hearts? This was a phrase I associated not even with conservatives of 1995, but conservatives of 1964, people who voted for Barry Goldwater because deep down they knew he was right. Maybe Ray was being ironic?
Nope. Not ironic.
Ray talked about how he had once founded a small theater company in Los Angeles that staged wonderful fantasy plays. “That sounds great,” I said, happy we were off politics.
“What happened to the company?”
His smile disappeared. “We had to close when we lost our funding. Some bleeding hearts gave the grants to some black theater company in South Central LA that had never even put on a show!”
I reached for my water. I tried to meet Eli’s eyes, but he was smiling widely, still mostly frozen, basking in the glow of his idol. I did the arithmetic and realized that while I’d never discussed politics with Eli, his suburban Connecticut origins and pre-med status suggested he might not exist on the far-left wing of the campus’s political spectrum.
Over the course of our dinner, Ray took a Sunday drive through several of the political scandals and controversies of the era:
The Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, with Anita Hill’s accusations that Thomas had sexually harassed her? Ray praised one of the Republican Senators of the Judiciary Committee who had been toughest on Anita Hill in her testimony: “Alan Simpson is a hero of mine.”
Then there was the Bob Packwood scandal, where ten women, including former staffers and lobbyists, claimed that a long-serving Republican Senator from Oregon had sexually abused, assaulted, or harassed them. Ray laughed: “I called up Bob Packwood and said, don’t pay any attention to this, Bob. I sexually harassed my wife for a year — and then I married her!”
As Ray asked our server for a hot fudge sundae with vanilla ice cream, I shifted uneasily in my chair. We had brought a semi-rabid right-winger to speak, at the most left-wing university, I kept thinking, in America.
But he had written one of the great anti-censorship novels of the 20th century!
I started to process this as my crab cakes grew cold: anti-censorship wasn’t just a left-wing position. It could also be a libertarian position, and while I had grown up with a Republican Party dominated by the Falwell fundamentalists, the Republican Party of the mid-20th century was nominally predicated on government staying out of people’s lives. Maybe that didn’t apply to taxes alone, but also to laws forbidding what people read.
After all, I was involved in the student ACLU chapter, but at Brown, that made me a moderate, as we opposed the university’s de facto hate speech code as an impediment to discourse.
At the restaurant, I started rationalizing: Ray’s point of view wasn’t all that different from that of my grandfather, also named Ray. That Ray, my Ray, despite having worked for years as a union organizer in Philadelphia, became a Reagan Democrat in 1980, frustrated with how the country had changed under Nixon’s scandals and Carter’s malaise, buying into Ronald Reagan’s promise of Morning in America. Ray Bradbury, like Pop-Pop, was an older man, of a different era and sensibility.
And Bradbury’s own story, a guy who came from nothing, who educated himself not through the ivy-walled universities but the Los Angeles public libraries, to write several acclaimed books of the 20th century, seemed to owe little, if anything, to an expansive, hands-on government. How could one question the feasibility of a Horatio Alger economics system to someone who pointed proudly to the bootstraps that got him there?
Yes, he was like my grandfather. But I wouldn’t have brought my grandfather to speak at Brown either.
My sophomore year, I had attended a lecture by Arthur Schlesinger, where during the Q&A students yelled at the aging historian for his criticism of multiculturalism in academia. I now had visions of students reacting to Bradbury’s blunter views — was he going to wax complimentary on Senator Packwood and Justice Thomas to a crowd of five hundred? — by running out on a rail those students who brought Ray to campus.
At the very least, this would seal the deal on my celibacy for those sixteen remaining months of college.
As Ray excused himself to use the restroom, Eli beamed at me.
“Isn’t he just terrific?”
“Eli, I’m a little concerned.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that we’ve spent fifteen thousand dollars for a speaker who just laughed about sexual harassment.”
Eli shook his head. He wasn’t having any of it. Besides, we couldn’t cancel the lecture — it was already paid for. We couldn’t ask Ray to “tone it down” — that could result in his either getting angry and not speaking, or worse, his deciding, Screw you, I’m toning it up, and giving a speech suitable for the John Birch Society. There was nowhere to go but through.
We stopped off at the Faculty House so Ray could get settled and changed. In thirty minutes, he was ready in a beige suit with a brightly colored tie.
The lecture hall was packed, such that a hundred or so students turned away from the main hall to sit in the overflow and watch Ray on a video hook-up. All these students had grown up on his stories and novels, and many of them had been inspired enough by his visions of the future that they were now studying to be engineers, astronomers, or physicists.
That is: progressive, liberal, bleeding-heart engineers, astronomers, or physicists.
I took a seat at the front of the lecture hall, sliding down in my chair, preparing for the worst. Eli introduced Ray, and Ray emerged, holding his hands out as if to say, “How about that?” with a big smile. He stepped behind the podium, which bore the seal of the university, and the Latin that always accompanied it: In Deo Speramus.
I was living that motto.
The lecture world is a strange business, and throughout the course of my college years I had become a self-styled expert on these events. I’d seen prominent people get paid huge amounts of money to circle the country only to read the speech, barely making eye contact with the audience. I’d seen some high-profile speakers who were plain lazy, whose material quite obviously had not been updated in ten or fifteen years. And I’d seen some wonderful authors who were simply uncomfortable with reading to a large crowd.
But Ray Bradbury understood something about public speaking that was similar to what he understood in his writing. His job, more than anything else, was to entertain. As I sat there and watched, this large figure — a figure who just an hour earlier I was concerned would fall over with a coronary, a victim of the cheeseburger-and-sundae double whammy — spoke with passion and verve about his life and creativity.
He described being a young, poor writer in Los Angeles and palling around with the struggling artist Ray Harryhausen, the two of them determined to follow their dreams.
He talked about writing Fahrenheit on a pay-as-you-go typewriter at UCLA’s Powell Library, getting a half-hour of use for each dime.
He told us how he proposed to his wife: “I’m going to Mars, I’m going to the Moon. Wanna come along?”
And even though the subtext of much of the speech reflected that Horatio Alger, no-handouts kind of politics, Ray managed to steer clear of anything overtly political. It was a beautifully crafted encouragement to follow your dreams, a you-can-do-anything speech that was what we college students — not quite sure of what the world held for us beyond the Van Wickle Gates of Brown — wanted to hear.
When Ray reached the end, there was a standing ovation. He beamed, basking in it. He loved it, but more importantly, what had become clear over the course of our four hours together, was that he loved being Ray Bradbury.
I was twenty then. I had yet to work with writers in journalism and television and politics who weren’t just self-loathing, but who were committed to instilling that self-loathing in anyone below them. If Ray Bradbury suffered from any of that, he sure didn’t show it that night in Providence. He seemed truly grateful for the chances he had.
And he was happy to be there.
Following the lecture, we gathered in an anteroom for a reception. Fellow board members had prepared finger foods modeled after elements of Bradbury stories; “Dandelion Wine” was served, African “Veldt” cakes, some meatballs that had a connection to The Martian Chronicles.
At one point, Ray laughed and announced his support of Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America. This was just a few months after those ’94 elections landed Gingrich in the Speaker’s chair. There was nervous silence among the Lecture Board members — Did he really just say that? But it was okay. It was a small gathering. We made it out alive.
The next morning, we drove Ray to the airport. I helped him out with his luggage.
He threw his arms wide and gave me a big hug. “Thanks, boys. We’ll have to do this again sometime.”
I watched him walk down into the airport entrance, turning a corner, leaving our lives.
At lunch at the school cafeteria, I told my friends the story of the dinner. We laughed about it, the way twenty-year-olds laugh at everything and everyone. I felt bad afterwards: I liked the guy.
That was almost twenty years ago. I’ve now been a working writer for fifteen years, the last ten mostly in television. It can be a fun business, but it’s rarely an easy one. The rejections and often arbitrary ups and downs can leave one unsettled, frustrated, discouraged.
This week, with the news of his death, I didn’t just think about Ray Bradbury’s politics, or the nervousness I felt about his speaking to students at my university — the kind of place he never needed to become a world-renowned author. I also thought about his enthusiasm, his love not just for writing, but his love for sharing his love for writing. That he inspired and enchanted a room full of people who would have castigated him for his politics — it makes me laugh a little, even now.
Yesterday, as I was sitting here at my desk trying to think up ideas for television pilots in my own little office, I thought of that opening scene from The Ray Bradbury Theater, with Ray sitting behind a typewriter, looking around his room for inspiration.
He made it look easy.
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Michael Oates Palmer lives in Venice, California.
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