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 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.


Review: ‘Poisoning the Press’ by Mark Feldstein

Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal CulturePoisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture by Mark Feldstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am fascinated by Richard Nixon.

The man is straight out of Shakespeare — sometimes Iago, sometimes Lear, sometimes (in his better, though rare, moments) Prince Hal himself. (Never Falstaff, though.) Nobody doubts his brilliance or cunning, but oh, what venality. He could never get over the contempt he had for the kinds of people LBJ called “the Harvards” — those golden boys who effortlessly controlled the levers of power and sneered at awkward ladder-climbers like Richard Nixon.

Mark Feldstein’s “Poisoning the Press” pairs Nixon with one of his fiercest critics, muckraking columnist Jack Anderson. In Anderson, Nixon had more than a foe in the media — he had someone who was surprisingly like the 37th president himself. Like Nixon, Anderson had a ne’er-do-well brother and a fractious relationship with his father; like Nixon, Anderson was a working-class striver; like Nixon, Anderson grew fond of a wealthy lifestyle at the expense of his ethics. (One of Anderson’s early gets had to do with payoffs Nixon received from rich benefactors. Anderson would later sacrifice much of his regard for money.)

Naturally, the two became mortal enemies.

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Your occasional ‘Judge Parker’ update: Was Ces giving up?


I didn’t expect “Judge Parker” to turn into a Quentin Tarantino movie, but that’s the comparison that came to mind after I read Sunday’s strip, featuring two characters pointing guns at each other. Two women, yet.

But there was also a sense of fatigue revealed in a bit of meta-dialogue between those two characters, Sophie’s kidnappers. (I’m still thinking, “kidnapping”? What about the car crash? Was that part of the plan? Awfully destructive if all you wanted to do was kidnap Sophie.) Early on, one character tells the other, “You never had a handle on this plot!”

I can’t help but think that’s writer Francesco “Ces” Marciuliano talking to us, the readers.

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Ralph Branca, RIP

Image from USA Today.

Ralph Branca won 21 games in 1947. Ralph Branca had a respectable lifetime ERA of 3.79. Ralph Branca pitched for all or part of 12 seasons in the majors, was a three-time All-Star and a respected member of the Brooklyn Dodgers pitching staff for years.

But almost all of his obits lead with the same thing: Ralph Branca, gave up ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World,’ dead at 90.

Some baseball players are forever associated with one pitch or one event. I know a guy who spit every time he heard Calvin Schiraldi’s name because of Schiraldi’s role in losing Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. I think of Donnie Moore as a Braves reliever, but most people probably remember him for giving up that home run to Dave Henderson in the 1986 ALCS.

And Branca? He gave up the most famous home run of them all, the one by Bobby Thomson that won the 1951 pennant for the Giants in a game they were losing 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth.

Branca, though devastated by the home run, was a true sportsman. He appeared at card shows with Thomson and helped form the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), which helps former major leaguers in need. The priest he visited after the homer had it right.

Later Branca recalled sitting with a priest and family friend, asking why this had happened to him.

“Because,” he was told, “you’re strong enough to bear it.”

P.S. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a link to Red Smith’s column about the game, still one of the greatest deadline-written pieces in journalism history: “Now it is done,” it begins. “Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again. …”

Sunday read: Ladies and gentlemen, the Great Zucchini!

This is Gene Weingarten; image from Washingtonian magazine. For a picture of the Great Zucchini, click here.
On any list of great magazine stories, you’ll find a few featuring the byline of Gene Weingarten.

He’s the guy who wrote the piece about violinist Joshua Bell playing for commuters at a Washington Metro stop. He’s the guy who explained why people sometimes leave their children in hot cars. He’s the guy who hired Dave Barry and helped make the Miami Herald Sunday magazine, Tropic, into the home of Pulitzer Prize winners. (That was back when major metropolitan newspapers had Sunday magazines.)

For some reason I was thinking about one of Weingarten’s most famous pieces. It’s about a children’s entertainer, the Great Zucchini. Back in 2006, when Weingarten published the story, the Great Zucchini was considered perhaps D.C.’s best preschool children’s party entertainer, a man who made $100,000 a year and only worked weekends — yet the rest of his life was incredibly disorganized, even sad. I won’t say why — you’ll have to dig into today’s Sunday read for that.

The Great Zucchini now has a website. He may be better organized than he used to be (though at least one 2014 reviewer thought he sucked at his job). Gene Weingarten, however, is still very much Gene Weingarten, even if these days he mainly does a humor column.

Long may he write.

You can read “The Peekaboo Paradox” here.

Your occasional ‘Judge Parker’ update


I don’t know what to make of today’s “Judge Parker.” Is that Sophie? I’ve already forgotten what she looks like. I guess it could be that cunning Honey. But isn’t Honey a blonde?

And how did she end up in the hospital? Weren’t the cops still going through the woods?

Well, I know it’s not Neddy. She’ll soon be hauled up on felony charges of negligence and skirting the permit process, since an upstanding corporate honcho wouldn’t have placed their factory — a shipping container! — over a sinkhole. Looks like money can buy you a lot of things, Spencer-Driver clan, but it can’t buy you ethics.

And then there’s that whole mess with the hitman and the mercenaries and …

Somebody tell me, why do I keep reading this strip? Hmm. Maybe it’s all a dream.

Oh my God! Somebody IS going to die in ‘Judge Parker’!

Image from
(Update, 9:14 a.m. Friday: You know things are bad when a character is saying “Oh God oh God” over and over, as in Friday’s strip.)

Look at that panel. Just look at it. Look at the terrified, eerily lit faces, the flying vodka bottle, the bespectacled passenger in back screaming for dear life.

I haven’t seen anything so frightening in the funny papers since the heyday of EC horror comics.

Less than a month ago, writer Francesco Marciuliano said on his blog that he would be taking over the writing duties on “Judge Parker” from Woody Wilson. I was hopeful, if skeptical, that he was going to make some major changes.


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Judge Parker may die in a fire?

Image from

I have a confession: I read the comics.

And not just the cool comics, like “Pearls Before Swine,” “Pearls Before Swine” and “Pearls Before Swine.” I read every single strip that appears in my local newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In fact, the comics page is one of the main reasons I still subscribe to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, despite the fact that there’s only one page of comics now (down from two full pages in the ’90s) and they still carry “The Lockhorns.” (On the other hand, they’re running “Peanuts” strips from the late ’60s, a golden age for Charles M. Schulz.)

(Note: Yes, I know I can read a whole ton of them online. Yes, I know there are lots of oddball independent strips that would never make a major metropolitan newspaper — or even the New York Press in its glory years, which is where I discovered “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.” Sometimes we just like to remember things the way they were, when we were 11 and the comics page was the best part of the whole morning.)

Among the comics I read: “Judge Parker.”

Now, I would never confuse “Judge Parker” with high quality. It’s a soap opera strip, better than “Mary Worth” (which is not part of the AJC comics page anymore) and “Mark Trail” but still stupid, with impossibly good-looking men, surprisingly buxom women and no cares beyond horses, rock bands and poor RV driving.

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