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Going to the Library with Ray Bradbury

30 August 2010 Stories and Appreciations 5,475 views 7 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

When I was three years old, I begged my mom to teach me how to sign my name. A year before I even learned to write I absolutely had to get my own library card, and I needed it right away. When I went to my city’s Carnegie-funded central branch and filled out the paperwork, my signature took up more than the allotted space. The librarian kindly gave me a second sheet for the spillover, and my life began. Sound like an exaggeration? Perhaps, but let’s just say that Reading All The Books comes close to being my holy grail.

So when Ray Bradbury’s wheelchair was pushed into the auditorium of the Los Angeles Public Library and situated next to me, I froze like a pure fangirl. I couldn’t turn my head, couldn’t take pictures like a number of other people in the room were busy doing, because I was silently “guh-guh-guh”-ing inside. It reminds me of the night that I met Sarah Vowell: Instead of the jaunty aside I planned as I waited in line to meet the author, I stuttered, “I like words. More than. Flowers.”

It’s the inner geek that exposes itself only to people I incredibly admire. Rock stars? I’ve met a bunch. Not so fazed by them. But hearing Ray Bradbury breathing a few feet away floored me.

I became an admirer of Bradbury a long time ago. After I read “Dandelion Wine” at age 14, I began seeking Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, and I still do. Bradbury’s realistic, non-fantastic science fiction had helped me realize that genres and classifications don’t have to be so concrete, and that each writer — each person — could find his or her own niche in the world.

The occasion that found me sitting so near to Mr. Bradbury was the author’s 90th birthday, held — naturally — at a library near my apartment, where some of my friends don’t want to come because it’s either out of their way or seemingly too dangerous. We were at the library to watch Stuart Gordon’s film of “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit,” supposedly Bradbury’s favorite screen adaptation of any of his works. The movie was filmed in my neighborhood in 1997 because it evokes the tenement where he lived when he was 24. The characters of “Ice Cream Suit,” five Latin men living together in a crummy apartment, remind me of the view out my window of the building next door, where I can see six people sleeping in two bunk beds in a single-room apartment…with only one shared kitchen and two shared bathrooms for the entire complex.

While the movie is much more upbeat than the stark view out my window, the Los Angeles depicted in Bradbury’s “Ice Cream Suit” is so close to my Los Angeles that I can taste it. That coincidence, along with the fact that it took 53 years for the life he lived in East L.A. to become the movie over which we laughed together tonight, makes me feel like I, too, can have hope in my life. As a disabled 32-year-old, I really needed to feel the hope and commonality the story portrays. And it’s not just me who can learn from Bradbury’s writing: “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” follows five broke men who follow a shared dream that helps them each find the best version of themselves. Right now, how many of us can’t use a uplifting, hopeful story based on the power of dreams and community?

As the film began to play I could hear Bradbury’s aged lungs sighing and wheezing, and not much else. I started to feel nervous for him, wondering if his trademark brilliance and humor were still present in his timeworn body. Then, about ten minutes into the screening, I heard him laugh when one of the characters shouted “Madre mia!”

The crowd seemed to agree, laughing and cheering more and more exuberantly until the climax of the film. When the lights went up, the applause endured through the credits, and the films stars and director joined Bradbury on stage for a discussion about the origins of the project.

It turns out that “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit”, filmed in 1997, began as a play over two decades earlier. Actor Joe Mantegna, who plays a large role in both the play and the stage production, revealed that the project had modest beginnings.

“We were each given $5 and told to get our costumes,” said Mantegna. “I went to the thrift store on Tuesday because it was half-price day, so a fifty cent shirt was a quarter.” Even the work of a genius like Bradbury can start with getting half-price thrift store costumes — inspiring.

Author and filmmakers agreed that we should all work to learn, to grow, and to read. “The library is fantastic,” Bradbury intoned. “It has books, knowledge, wisdom” — and on that night, his favorite food, ice cream, thanks to the popular Cool Haus truck. Later, he added, “I didn’t graduate from college, I graduated from libraries.”

At the end of the evening, two things were abundantly clear. One is that we all have access to libraries and we all have potentially miraculous imaginations, and it’s up to us to use them. And the other lesson of the evening was one that Joe Mantegna imparted as he sat on a couch next to the legendary author who I so strongly admire: “It’s something I’ll treasure my entire life — my relationship with this man.”

I will, too. Happy Birthday, Mr. Bradbury. Thank you for sharing your dreams with the world.

Betsy Lee

PHOTO BY THE AUTHOR

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7 Comments »

  1. Betsy, thanks for the great post. The Fahrenheit 451 screening was a memorable night (with Buzz Aldrin!) and I wish I could’ve made it to this one as well. Since I couldn’t attend the film, I re-read The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit short story the other night. I think it was even better than the first time I read it, which was probably about the same age as when you did.

  2. Mitch,

    I appreciate the kind words! It would have been so cool to see Buzz Aldrin, too! Glad you enjoyed your night. Thanks for sharing yours with me.

  3. Wonderful, thoughtful piece, Betsy! Nice job!

  4. Thanks for the compliments, Sharon! I would use those same adjectives to describe you.

  5. Hi Betsy,

    I’m so glad you wrote this, and am even more glad I got to read it. Inspiring!

    (I read Dandelion Wine at about the same age you did)

    I love that quote: “I graduated form libraries.”

    I was in Seattle last year, and got to see a few covers that a teen-age Ray Bradbury had drawn for an early Science Fiction mag. It all looked so home-grown, even amateurish. I loved that. It was proof that even people of great accomplishments had to start somewhere, and may well have had humble beginnings.

    Many thanks,
    Rod

  6. Thanks so much, Rod.

    Were you at Paul Allen’s SciFi museum when you saw that work, by any chance?

  7. Hey all: another free chance to see Ray Bradbury next week in the LA area–Pomona’s Public Library, to be exact.

    http://www.ci.pomona.ca.us/city_departments/library/bigread.php

    Have a good one!
    Betsy

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