METH on ELLISON
The following originally appeared in three installments (on May 10 through 12, 2005) as part of THE PIG OF DEATH's Tough Questions for Tough Jews series (http://chazarmaveth.blogspot.com)
METH: The first thing I read of yours that knocked me out was the intro to Approaching Oblivion where you talked about...
ELLISON: (interrupts) “I’m sick and tired of the world, and fuck the lot of ya.”
METH: Yes, that’s what it was. But there was a strong Jewish message in there. Here’s this little Jewish boy and his very Jewish experience. An experience that still affects you.
METH: You’ve always been conscious of being a tough Jew.
METH: Did you have Jewish role models who were tough Jews, because in the 1930s it would have been guys like Bugsy Siegel and Dutch Schultz representing that image.
ELLISON: No, I’ve never had a Jewish role model of any kind.
METH: So you thought Jews were a bunch of wimps.
ELLISON: No. You want to ask the questions and answer them, too? You can hang up and you won’t need me and I can go back to work.
ELLISON: So, are you ready?
ELLISON: Okay. I was a Jew in a world where there were no Jews. The only Jews I knew were my mother and father, and they weren’t all that Jewish. They were High Holy Day Jews. We would go into Cleveland and we would go to the synagogue there, and I would see all these people and they would be mumbling in a language I didn’t know. So I didn’t have that much contact with them. The way I knew I was a Jew was when I first learned that I was a kike, and I learned that at the end of Jack Wheeldon’s fist and feet, and his pals at Lathrop Grade School in Painesville, Ohio.
In my grade school, I was the only Jew for some while. I couldn’t have been any older than four years old when I moved to Painesville, and we lived on Harmon Drive, and there were no Jewish families at that time. Soon thereafter, there were Jewish families, but the kids were not in my class—I was a little bit older than them. And when I went to grade school, which was right around the corner from us, I was the only kid. Now, this was Ohio in the 1940s—‘39, ‘40, ‘41 that kind of thing. And these kids were the products of their parents inbred anti-Semitism. If they believed anything, they believed that Jews had horns and killed Christian babies to make their matzos. Now, you hear people sometimes talking about this, and they say it as a gag. I actually heard it. It was said to me.
Jehovah’s witnesses were big around there and I remember very clearly one day when I was walking home from school and this little girl started following me. And she started saying, “You’re gonna’ go to hell because you don’t believe in Jesus Christ. You’re gonna’ go to hell, and when you’re in hell, you’re gonna’ want water, and I won’t give it to you!” And I started crying and I ran on home.
Years later, I had to laugh: What a terribly loving, “Christian” attitude that was on her part.
I knew I was a Jew because they would not let me forget I was a Jew. We’re talking here about the middle-America version of The Protocols of the Elders of Fucking Zion. And I became a tough Jew because I had no alternative. I was very small and when we were all small, I was able to hold my own and I could brawl pretty good with the best of them. But as they got older and taller, and I stayed a dwarf, they were able to beat on me like a big door. When I got to high school—Champion Junior High School in Painesville—one day I was sitting in an auditorium because there was an assembly, and behind me were Wheeldon and Beckwith and Jividen and the rest of those assholes whose names, of course, are burned into my memory because they were those memories that never leave you, no matter how well-adjusted you get. And people say, “Well, let it go, let it go.” Fuck you, “let it go.” You let it go. I think bad memories are as valuable to a writer as good memories. Pain is a much greater friend to a real writer than pleasure because the pleasure takes care of itself—it’s what sustains you. But what gets you passionate and angry enough to write are the hurtful memories. And one of ‘em behind me called me a kike, and I turned around and I slammed the guy—I think it was Wheeldon, but it may not have been Wheeldon; it may have been another one of his no-neck cronies. I slammed him in the face with a geography book. And when he recovered from being hit, he punched me, and he hit me so hard, he tore the chair out of the floor. It was an old wooden high school, and the chair was pulled straight out of the floor.
So did I have any role models? Yeah. Me. Is that tough enough for you?
METH: You talked about Avram Davidson with great affection. He was a tough Jew.
ELLISON: Yeah, Avram was a very tough Jew. He was also frequently as crazy as a Jewish bedbug.
METH: Tell me again, that story you told me once, about what happened with you two in New York City.
ELLISON: Well, Avram had been in the Israeli Merchant Marines and he’d been all over the world. But Avram, when I knew him, was a pudgy, little Jewish guy wearing a yarmulke who used to walk down from the Upper West Side with rye bread for me when I was living in the Village. And one time we decided to travel together to a science-fiction convention in Philadelphia, and I was going to drive. I had an Austin Healey—an open-air little convertible, nifty set of wheels, very sexy, gun-metal blue, with a louvered bonnet. And, as always, I was going to take my typewriter with me. (suddenly starts to laugh) So I told you this story?
METH: Yeah, you told me once upon a time; so tell me again.
ELLISON: (laughs hysterically) It’s the G-d’s truth! Avram came up to my apartment. I was living down in the Village at 95 Christopher Street, right at the corner of Bleeker, and I had packed my bag, but I had my typewriter out. I used an office manual in my apartment, but I had my portable way up on the top shelf of a clothes closet and I had to get up on a little stepladder to pull it down. Avram was behind me and he was catching these things that I was throwing down for the car—he’s standing behind me and he’s catching them. I didn’t quite turn around—I just assumed he would grab it because I was turned awkwardly on the top step of this short ladder, so I held the typewriter out for him and it clearly said “Olympia” and that’s a German-made typewriter (laughs so hard he can barely continue). And as I let go of it, I heard Crash! I turn around and the thing has fallen on the floor and smashed open. I said, “What the fuck was that all about?” He says, “It’s German.” He wouldn’t touch a German typewriter. He wouldn’t even touch it!
Avram would not allow his stuff to be printed in Germany. He would not sign a contract with a German publishing company. Avram knew that… You know that great quote from Owen Miller, the poet? “Of all liars, memory is the sweetest.” Avram knew that as time passed, schmucks like that neo-Nazi who shot the 10 people in Minnesota recently would resurface and the lies would start being told again—the Holocaust deniers and all of that. Avram understood that, and he held a grudge almost as well as I do. Anybody who wants to see how tough I am should read the piece I wrote called “Driving in the Spikes,” which is in The Essential Ellison. It’s an essay on revenge. I’m still working on grudges from 1962.
METH: That’s why I love you.
ELLISON: Look, Clifford you know this to be an absolute. I mean you can attest to this personally. As good a friend as I am—and I am loyal to the death—a guy who treated me well last year when I went to lecture in Phoenix had a little traffic accident; he got hit by a guy and I was in the car as he was taking me to my lecture. I said, “Fight it and I’ll come back and I’ll testify.” He said, “You’ll come back from L.A. to testify?” I flew back to Arizona at my own expense to go to traffic court with him. But as loyal a friend as I am, that’s how implacable an enemy I am.
Most sins against me are so minor and stupid, I can ignore them, and I do ignore them. I just cut that person out of the world. But every once in a while, something will happen where somebody evokes the kind of anger that I would feel as a Jewish kid in Painesville, in the school yard when they beat me up. You know the story that I tell. This is not long after the Depression, and we were not very wealthy. I mean we weren’t destitute by any means; my Dad worked and had a job, but it was very, very hard times. And one winter they ganged up on me and beat me up and tore my clothes off. I was buck-naked. If you’ve ever known an Ohio winter, they are terrible. The only place worse is Chicago. But I was so ashamed that my clothes had been torn off and that they were ripped, because my mother was very fastidious and very conscientious that because we were Jews, my clothes were always clean and never patched. You know, you had to look like a mensch. And I was so ashamed and so chagrined to go home and show my mother the torn tatters of clothes that I was clutching, that I hid in the snow in the bushes for about four hours, until it was dark and they came and they found me. Blue. I was fuckin’ blue. Hypothermia. Pneumonia.
METH: I know Beckwith shows up as a character in “City on the Edge of Forever,” but whatever happened to Wheeldon?
ELLISON: Wheeldon died. Wheeldon shows up in my story “Final Shtick”—that’s me going back to my hometown. It’s a Lenny Bruce character, but it’s actually me. And the town is Lanesville... Wheeldon is dead. He wound up as a used car salesman; he was a milkman for a while, then he was used car salesman, and then he died. If you look at The Essential Ellison, you’ll see that photograph of me and my 3rd or 4th grade class and I’m smaller than everybody. I’m smaller than the smallest little girl. And we’re standing in rows on the steps of the school, Lathrop Grade School; and if you let your eyes track up to the top row, where the tallest kids stand, almost directly behind me is Jack Wheeldon, you can see him. It’s in the caption—there’s all the information there.
METH: I remember that picture of you smiling.
ELLISON: Actually, I’m not in fact smiling—it’s really very strange. Every kid either stands with hands at sides, or with hands clasped in front of them, little Dutch girl style. At the end is this little pugnacious-looking kid with his hands on his hips, leaning forward, wearing a Captain Midnight Secret Decoder badge, and a bandage on his face from some brawl. He looks like an escapee from The Newsboy Legion or one of the other kid gangs Jack Kirby used to draw. He’s looking right into the camera and his lips are skinned back like a feral animal. And it’s me. It is not a smile. There I am at age what? Nine? Ten? And I’m already a tough Jew.
METH: The story that I recall about you and Avram Davidson had the two of you facing off against a bunch of guys down in the Village—
ELLISON: That’s in print. It’s in Partners in Wonder and it’s the introduction to the story that Avram and I did called “Up Christopher to Madness.” Avram tells the true story about how I stood off an entire gang of Italian street kids.
METH: It wasn’t a Jewish thing?
ELLISON: Nah, it had nothing to do with being Jewish. It had to do with they came on broyges with us, you know—“on the muscle”—trying to give me a hard time, or they were bothering Avram, or whatever the hell it was, and I went after ‘em. And I drove off the whole goddam gang. There must have been 12 or 13 of them.
METH: Last question and I’ll let you go. You’ve told me this before but I don’t think it’s ever been printed. Your solution for Israel and the Middle East, please.
ELLISON: Okay. Here’s the story. It’s got to be 10 or 15 years ago when I get a call from the USIA, the U.S. Information Agency, the ones who do all the propaganda for the United States. They said, “Mr. Ellison, we’ve had a request for you to come and lecture in Israel. As an American-Jewish writer who is very popular—your works have been reprinted over there—they’d like you to come and lecture in Haifa at the university. So I said, “Yeah, that’s all right.” Now, in truth, I have about as much interest in going to Israel as I do in going to Germany, into which I have never set foot. That’s one of the three or four things I’ll never do. I did a list of things I will never do in my life: I will never do an ad for McDonald’s; I will never step foot in Germany; I will never eat lima beans; I would never harm a child; and I will never voluntarily read a book by Judith Kranz. Those are five of the things that are uppermost in my life. So then when I say voluntarily, I mean if you put a gun to my head, I probably would read a book by Judith Kranz, but I wouldn’t like it. As for lima beans, as I have often said you show me someone who will eat a lima bean without a gun to the head, and I will show you a pervert.
So, to get back to where I was: An entire nation of people who are like my relatives, a whole country of yentas and kvetches, is not my idea of a good time. Now, I would love to see Petra, I would love to see the pyramids of Egypt, but I really have no interest in going to Israel. But, what the hell? Free trip, and Susan and I would go and we would do whatever. And maybe I could get to Petra while I’m there. So, I say, “Sure, I could do that.” And they’re going to pay me a nice fee. Okay.
About a week goes by and USIA calls again and they said, “They would like to do interviews with you prior to your arrival so that they can warm the country up for your coming” and I said, “That’s terrific.” They said, “Well, The Jerusalem Post will be calling you, which is one of the biggest newspapers in the world,” and I said, “Great” and “Thank you very much” and “I’m looking forward to going” and blah, blah, blah and all that bullshit.
So one morning, soon thereafter as the crow flies, I get a call from a guy and I can’t remember what his name was, but let’s call him Eleazer ben Yehudi. And he calls and he says, “Hello, this is Eleazer ben Yehudi and I am the senior editorial reporter for The Jerusalem Post and I would love to interview you.” And I said, “Just fire away.” And the first question out of his mouth is: “What do you, as an American Jew, think of the situation in the Middle East?” And I said to him, “Well, why would you ask me that? I’m a writer. I write amusing little fantasies. I’m not a political commentator. I don’t know what you people are going through over there. I have no opinion.” “No, no!” he says. “We’re anxious to hear what you think!” And he nuhdjes and nuhdjes and nuhdjes and pushes at me—already I know I’m going to hate Israel—and he keeps saying, “I want to know what you think! We want to know you want!” He sounds like Jackie Mason. So I say, “Listen. Trust me. You don’t want my opinion.” “Yeah!” he screams. “We want your opinion! We’re dying for your opinion! We’re plotzing to have your opinion!” He goes on and on and on; he will not let me off the hook. So finally I say, “Okaaay… but remember the old Chinese adage, ‘Be careful what you wish for because you might get it!’” And he goes, “Ha, ha, ha! Extremely clever… So? What is your opinion?” And I said, “Here’s my opinion: all of you guys out there in the Middle East are out of the same melting pot, and you’re all as crazy as a butterfly on absinthe. I don’t know whether you’re all Canaanites at the base, or you’re all Jews at the base, or outa the Land of Nod, or whatever the hell you were at the git-go—Semites or what not—but you’ve been fighting there now for something like 8,000 years! You’ve never had five minutes of quiet and peace; you’re forever killing each other over the Holy Grail, or whatever the hell it is, and the rest of the world has had to suffer with this. Great things have come out of the Middle East, but stupidity seems to be your chief export—stupidity and violence are your cash crops, all you.” (And this was before September 11). I said, “My solution to the problem in the Middle East is this: We erect a wall 26 miles high around the entire Middle East. That’s Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Egypt, all of you—the whole bunch of you—26 miles high with one door, like a regular door in the front of a house. And every 10 years, we will open the door and look inside. If you’re still fighting, we close the door. Loz ze gein, you should live and be well—go and fight and kill yourselves. But if we peek inside and it’s safe, if it’s nice, if you’re not fighting, and you’ve got peace and quiet, you can come out and play with the rest of us like human people.”
And the guy says, “What?” And I said, “Do you want me to repeat that?” He says, “No, thank you very much.” Bamm! He hangs up on me. Within an hour—an hour—USIA calls up and says, “Tour’s off. Pffffft!” And I tell you, I was relieved!
Being a tough Jew is like being a tough Oriental kid in an all-black neighborhood. When you’re an outsider, you’ve got two choices: You either become a target for people to hit you, to bully you, and con you, to take advantage of, and you wind up marrying people you shouldn’t, and you wind up in a job you shouldn’t have with people who bully you, or, you get tough. Now tough doesn’t mean hard. I’m not a hard guy; I’m a tough guy. That means that I take no shit and I’m wrong more often than I’m right, and when I am, I admit it. And that’s another part of being a tough guy. When you’re in the wrong you’ve got to face up to it and you’ve got to take responsibility for it. You can’t keep pushing it off on other people, and you can never blame the fact that you are a Jew! That’s what gets the goyim pissed off at us.
We just had a little fender-bender up here and I’m talking to the woman at AAA and she starts talking about “You people.” She was a black woman so she probably didn’t know that she was actually quoting the thoughts and philosophies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but that’s what she was doing. I tried to straighten her out but it was impossible. It’s widespread common lore that Jews own everything, to which my response is, “Well, if there is actually a great international Jewish money conspiracy, there’s some Jew out there with two shares, because I’m working my ass off!”
You’ve got to be able to accept responsibility for what you do, and you’ve got to be able to try and convince a lot of people who aren’t bad people, they’re just ignorant—not stupid, just ignorant; big difference—that Jews are not the arrogant, all-knowing “Chosen People.” That is as elitist bullshit as the Christians who think that when the Rapture comes, they’re going up and we’re going down. That’s just elitism, and it’s a bad kind of elitism, as opposed to my elitism, which is based on intelligence. Which is a good elitism.
And if you don’t like it, I’ll punch the shit out of you.
© The Kilimanjaro Corporation, 2005