Death haunts an evening: Harlan Ellison and the Annapolis shooting

I am writing this from a lonely hotel room in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It’s less than five miles from my home, but it feels like it may as well be on the other end of the earth. A contractor is renovating the bathroom, and today’s the day he removed the toilet and, for various reasons, won’t be able to install the new one until tomorrow. There’s only one bathroom and only one toilet in the house, and the last thing I want is to wake up and need to go (especially if it’s more than a 3 a.m. urination).

So here I am. 

And I’m sad. Not just because of the hotel room. Not just because I had to leave my cats — to whom I’ve become frighteningly attached — behind for an unexpected night. (I’m sure they care less than I do.) But because death is haunting the evening.

Earlier today, a gunman shot up a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. At least five people are dead. And Harlan Ellison, one of the formative writers of my youth, has died.

Harlan first. I seem to recall meeting him many years ago, and he was as impish and fiery as I’d imagined. Or maybe I DID imagine it, because I inhaled his books in college — not just the short story collections and “Dangerous Visions” (which he edited), but his fine, pointed essays on television, collected in “The Glass Teat” and “The Other Glass Teat” — and talked to him in my head so often it felt like I met him.

He was singular, Ellison was. He was relentlessly cynical and yet startlingly optimistic. He had the balls to tussle with Frank Sinatra and the bleeding heart to write heartfelt appreciations to his heroes. He sued at the drop of a hat and laughed about everything.

His stories were much like him: sprawling, laser-hot, unkempt, brazen, challenging, empathetic. 

I haven’t read more than an interview with him in years. But he made his mark. I’ll miss him.

There’s a perverted irony that he should die just hours before the shooting in Annapolis. Irony because he would have expected such an act in this razored country, but he would have howled at it, too, just as he always howled at injustice and meaningless violence.

Once I was a journalist. I wore the description reluctantly, because I worked among the real thing — people who’d worked their way up to CNN through a half-dozen local newspapers, who made calls to cops and widows, who could crank out a perfect 600 words with the deadline dragon breathing on their necks. Me? I was an old English major who loved to write, but thought I’d end up in a safer, less frenzied place. Nobody was more surprised than me when timing plucked me from free-lance “content” writing and quickie features and placed me in the CNN newsroom. I tried to earn my keep every day.

CNN, you may have read, is an “enemy of the American people.” I don’t know how that can be said. The CNN.com newsroom is full of hard-working staffers who simply try to tell the truth. And if the TV network side can get sensational — and I have my complaints, too — blame the medium and its corporate masters, not the folks in the field.

I’m still a journalist, I guess. Not a daily grinder and not for a media organization, but still a guy trying to tell stories and stick to the facts. That’s all most journalists do. And most have spouses and children and live where they work and do their jobs the best they can. That’s harder than you think given the hits local press has taken, financially and otherwise.

Think of them. And think of Harlan, that old storyteller. They make a difference in this cold world.