“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.” Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury would have turned 95 tomorrow. One of the great writers of the 20th century, Bradbury was an absolute machine, releasing a plethora of stories and novels over more than eight decades. Bradbury had a profound effect on the culture, helping to popularize science fiction and fantasy (although he also wrote mysteries) in the public imagination, writing such classics as Fahrenheit 451, which you probably remember from high school English class, as well as The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, and so many other short stories it’s actually hard to count them all.
Bradbury did not attend college, relying instead on the books he found inside libraries to serve as his teachers. As he said “I spent three days a week for ten years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves – you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of ten years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.”
Bradbury was also one of those rare writers equally as comfortable writing for the screen as he was for the page. He wrote for a number of classic television series including Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as The Twilight Zone, and of course many of his novels, plays, and short stories were adapted into films.
The Illustrated Man
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Bradbury was also an Angeleno, forever aligned with Los Angeles, one of those astonishing people you sometimes run into in LA. When I met Ray Bradbury, my fiancé and I lived in Hollywood in a run down shack practically perched over La Brea Blvd, one of the main avenues that cuts right though the heart of the city. Pink’s hotdog stand was a block down near the corner of Melrose Avenue. The neighborhood was otherwise filled with restaurants, bars, production facilities, recording studios and the Hollywood tow lot. My fiancé and I had lived in there almost four years at the time, before we would eventually move over the hill to the gentler life of Burbank and then on to New York.
I loved life in Hollywood. I loved the action, the weirdos, the car chases and crash-ups, the view of the Hollywood Hills through the power lines at night. And I loved the fact that you never knew who you might meet there. During the very same week I met Ray Bradbury, I met Stevie Wonder. He was just standing at the corner in front of my apartment with a bodyguard, waiting for the walk signal so he could hit Jetrag, a used clothing store, across the street. I put out my hand and his bodyguard tapped his shoulder and he shook it. It was just that kind of neighborhood.
A couple of days later I was looking in the Los Angeles City Paper and I saw a line item that said Ray Bradbury would be appearing that night at the Rocket Video store that was approximately sixty yards from my front door. I couldn’t believe it. Why would one of the most famous writers on the planet like Ray Bradbury be appearing in a video store that, while popular with connoisseurs of cinema owing to it well curated selection of titles, was what you might call a dump, complete with a section of fifty low-rent porno video cassettes blocked off with a black curtain. But that was the thing about Rocket Video, all sorts of people showed up there. Including Ray Bradbury.
I have written about my handshake list before, the list of famous folks who I have been fortunate enough to meet through the years, hopefully leaching some of their power from their fingertips. Ray Bradbury’s handshake was going to be a veritable goldmine of secondary forces, ionic transmissions from many of the world’s luminaries, too numerous to name, whom he had met though his long and distinguished career.
So I dug through the bookshelf and found my paperback copy of Fahrenheit 451 and walked down the street, still somewhat skeptical that this event was going to happen. But then sure enough, there he was sitting behind a card table at Rocket Video, dressed in a coat and tie. There were only about ten people in the whole store and half of them were there to rent movies. It was almost like I had him all to myself. I shuffled forward extending my hand. “Mr. Bradbury, my name is Tony Shea.” I said. “It’s a great pleasure to meet you.” He took my hand in both of his own. They were as soft as a baby’s cheek. “It’s a pleasure to meet you too, Tony,” he said. I handed him the book and he signed it.
I knelt down on one knee beside him, since he was in a wheelchair. He had had a stroke about a year previously. He was old and at the end of his life, but he radiated kindness and warmth and wisdom; it was like what I imagine meeting Buddha might be like. His speech was a little labored and he spoke softly. I was close enough to him that I could smell his breath. And as I smelled it, I remember the old saying that odor is matter. I was actually breathing some part of Ray Bradbury into me. Better than a handshake.
At the end he finished by saying, “It must all be about love, writing, everything.” And then he looked at me and he smiled.
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