Flashback; we're going back a year or so. Move it.
It's a warm May morning on San Francisco's Haight Street. In a bookstore called The Booksmith, maximum-occupancy regulations are being not merely violated but actively sodomised by camera crews, boom-mike operators and a crowd---of which I and my friends are a part---which is literally increasing by the second. We're all fixing our attention on a display-window facing the street, devoid of anything but a rickety card table, the manual typewriter thereupon, a chair, and a tiny plastic boombox playing the kind of snakey horn jazz you might expect to hear during the credits of a Woody Allen movie. Harlan Ellison is going to perform his now trademarked act of sitting in the window of a bookstore and writing, completely on the fly and under many scrutinizing eyes, an original work of fiction.
Harlan Ellison is one of the most ferociously prolific writers on the planet, and when his 35-year career isn't inspiring me, truth be told, it's kinda pissing me off. The winner of the Silver Pen for Journalism, the Edgar Allan Poe Award and numerous Hugos and Nebulas, Ellison has written 45 books, episodes for The Return of the Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Star Trek, as well as some completely other number of short stories articles, essay and teleplays (last I heard it was around 1100, but who's counting?).
To ensure that Ellison hasn't smuggled in some general mental notes on the story he'll be writing, the subject will be sprung on him, may-I-have-the-envelope-please style, by an independent party.
"Let me just begin by saying," Ellison announces from his perch by the window, "that if there is any group I do not offend here this evening, you will raise your hand, yes? I'll be more than happy to get to you."
A group of perhaps ten people have formed a ragged line within the milling mass; since Ellison can't begin his story until the subject matter is presented to him, the reasoning seems to be that he might as well sign some things. He waves us in closer to get our obstructive butts out of the doorway, looking amazingly in this moment like the Pope calling the faithful forward for a benediction. I don't relay this image to him, of course, because I don't want him to give me that creepy look, like the one he reserves for those who call him a "sci-fi" writer to his face.
I'm last in line. He nods a cheery hello, holding out his hands for whatever material I've brought, and whatever pen I'd like him to sign it with. When I stick the silver-paint pen in his right hand his forehead wrinkles in confusion; but when I try to put my PowerBook---which I'd like him to sign near the signature of William Gibson---in his left, his eyes widen and he takes a half-step back in something very close to horror.
"What is it?" he asks. "I mean, I know what it is, but what the hell am I supposed to do with it?"
"You're supposed to sign it," I reply. I expected a reaction something like this. I point out Gibson's signature on one side of the laptop. "You'd be in good company."
Ellison is looking at my proferred PowerBook like it's a large fish of some kind. "Yeah, but I don't wanna work for this company. I don't even like these things!" Somebody way in the back barks with laughter, and in a few moments I'll understand why. "Look, are you really gonna be, you know, personally wounded if I don't sign this...this thing?"
I don't have time to answer, because at that moment a voice yells "Okay, we've got it!" from the back of the room, and the crowd starts parting, letting the subject-bearer through as if he were a messenger to a king. "You're going to like this!" the man holding the secret envelope announces, moving forward and grinning in a way which indicates that Ellison is clearly not going to like it, and furthermore, that's the point. I'm a little surprised that the bearer of the subject is Ellison's good buddy Robin Williams, but---as I will soon learn---this is by no means the biggest surprise waiting for me today.
The envelope is opened, the verdict is read, and Ellison buries his face in his hands, shaking it slowly from side to side and muttering "I want to kill you" in a voice only audible to those of us standing closest in the crush.
The subject for Ellison's impromptu story, written on the piece of paper in Williams' neat hand, is announced and held up for all to see: Computer Vampire, or, The Byte that Bites.
A low, fraternity-style whoa runs through the crowd. They know that Ellison--- whose tales have over the years covered such diverse topics as hyper-space journeys, alternate realities, robots and mad computers---does not own a computer, does not use computers, and generally doesn't want to come near the things with a ten-foot floppy.
Ellison on laptops and the like: "I don't own a computer, or a modem, or anything like that; I still work on a manual typewriter, by choice, and to those who consider me a Luddite I say: Fuck you and yo mama. I operate at the level of technology that best suits my needs. And I type at 120 words per minute---two fingers---I make no mistakes, and my manuscripts are real. You can pick them up and hold them. My typewriter doesn't dump it's memory---I don't lose a book."
Determined that Williams' subject choice will not deter him, Ellison hunkers down at his battered manual typewriter and flexes his fingers before it, like an organist preparing to launch into Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor....but he hesitates, and turns back to the waiting crowd.
"I need a name for the main character," he says. "Somebody gimme a name."
People begin to hoot and raise their hands, like 250 kindergarteners who know an answer or have to make tinky. Ellison starts jabbing his fingers into the crowd, summoning reactions like the Sorcerer's Apprentice conducting pyrotechnics in Fantasia
"George Bronsen!" bellows the first person Ellison points to; Ellison chews his lips and shakes his head.
"Alice Williams!" yells another, and perhaps it is because Ellison is still amiably ticked at Robin Williams that he points to another.
"David Smith?" says (presumably) David Smith, and Ellison just stares at him for a moment, stunned by what dull name this is.
Next to me, a girl taps me on the shoulder because I'm standing on her foot, and I mistake it for a prompt. "Uh, Something-Hudak!" I say, instantly regretting it because now Ellison is staring at me.
"What did you say?" he asks, in a voice which has the effect of silencing the store.
"Uh, Something-Hudak," I repeat.
"What's your name?" he pursues.
Ellison whaps his hands together and points at me again, like I've just scored the winning basket. "Great name, sounds like a real name ! Good, good!" Then he leans over the typewriter and hammers out the first line of "Keyboard": Chris Hudak knew he was in trouble when his computer bit him. And just like that, like it or not, I was part of the Harlan Ellison universe, forever.
I turn to face the applauding crowd, and the first face I see is that of David Smith. "How about that?" I ask, hooking a thumb over my shoulder. "He---"
"Oh, shut up," David Smith mutters dejectedly, and walks away.