I’m like most of you. I collect stuff. Lots of stuff. So much of it, in fact, that I recently ran out of space and had to move into a bigger home in another community. Had nothing to do with that rumor the neighbors told about one of my enemies disappearing and being discovered in my cellar with a switchblade in his stomach. I was nowhere near the place when they found him.
Anyway, most of the stuff I collect is comics-related. Like Randy Bowen’s gorgeous little statues, and any number of action figures, especially if Dave Cockrum designed them. I like to see the tchotchkes on my bookshelves, which are themselves overstuffed with the books I collect. Remind me to tell you a cute tchotchke story about Harlan Ellison at the end of this installment. But back to my accumulation?
The crown jewels of my collection are pieces of art. I’ve been collecting sketches and pages since the mid-70s. It started like this:
One of the first conventions I attended was MeadowCon at the new Meadowlands Arena in Secaucus, New Jersey. Built on the famous swamplands just west of the George Washington Bridge, the arena had allegedly been erected over the unmarked tomb of missing union organizer Jimmy Hoffa. I was nowhere near that happenstance either. I don’t know nothing.
Yes, and MeadowCon was a one-time, one-of-a-kind show. Too few attendees to make it worth repeating, I suppose. Perhaps it was union problems. Either way, I was a neophyte collector, a freshman in high school standing 5’1″ and 98 lbs. soaking wet. My buddy Jody tagged along. Jody could give a rat’s ass about comics, but he was a big-hearted, big-shouldered, sort of clueless jock who thought he might be able to score some girls at the convention. Pretty dumb. There’s 73 virgins in Muslim heaven; nothing but hairy legs at comics conventions of the mid-70s. Two of those hairy legs belonged to Don Perlin. At least I assumed they were hairy, the legs of most middle-aged guys being as hairy as a puck-goat’s head. Perlin, an artist of some renown in those days, knocked off an Iron Man sketch for me and also drew Conan the Barbarian holding a huge Swiss army knife. He must have been in a good mood.
Another set of hairy legs belonged to Jim Steranko. Again, I only assume the hair because Steranko was wearing long trousers when he walked in, and I realistically assume the pants, too, because he was so mobbed by fanboys that he could barely walk. Steranko was schlepping a sealed cardboard box of MediaScenes, which his company Supergraphics published, and he set the box down upon a folding table. As the fanboys swarmed in, Steranko said something W.C. Fields-like such as, “Go away boys?you bother me,” or perhaps just, “Shoo!” But no one listened. Fanboys will be fanboys. Everyone wanted a sketch from the great legend, but nothing doing. Steranko was tired and wanted to rest his hairy legs. He made it clear that he wouldn’t sketch for anyone, not even if Jimmy Hoffa himself climbed out of the swamps and walked inside the arena.
Then Steranko attempted to open his box of MediaScenes with his bare hands. He might as well have used his feet for all the good it would have done him?he was having no luck. That box was sealed tight with a pair of thick plastic strips that even a magician of Steranko’s caliber couldn’t make disappear.
My buddy Jody stood back taking in this scene. After all, there were no pretty girls to check out?what else could he watch? He just stood there, arms folded, bemused and stationary. But your humble narrator was Johnny-on-the-spot. I swaggered over to Steranko, all 98 lbs. of me, and popped a switchblade under his nose. That got his attention. Then I slit the belligerent plastic strips and opened the box of MediaScenes, and then I swaggered away. Of course in Rockaway, we don’t call it swaggering. We call it walking.
“Just a second, pal,” said Steranko.
I looked back.
“What do you want me to draw for you?”
It’s a true story, gang. That little feat of teenage idiocy bought me a Nick Fury sketch that afternoon. Steranko inscribed it, “To Cliff: Always keep your holster buttoned.” It’s under glass now, hanging in my office with the rest of the collection that it fathered.
But for now, before I forget: The tchotchke story?
Harlan Ellison was in town for “Politically Incorrect” so I joined him at NBC studios to watch the show tape. Afterwards, we went to the green room and had sodas and talked basketball with Peter Boyle and Meatloaf Aday. Bill Mahr came back, too, but he didn’t know shit about basketball. Anyway, after a bit, Harlan and I left NBC, and, it being a pleasant evening, we decided to walk around mid-town Manhattan. I can’t remember if this was before or after I got into a fight with a couple of skinheads. It doesn’t really matter?I’m telling you the tchotchke story.
So. Harlan walks by this gaping, humongous glass window on 7th Avenue just filled to the brim with tchotchkes. You couldn’t possibly have fit any more tchotchkes into that window. What I mean to say is this was tchotchke heaven. This is where tchotchkes go when they die. Wall to wall. Ceiling to floor. Stern to bow. You get the picture. And Harlan, who has a collection of tchotchkes back at Ellison Wonderland that rivals any packrat’s collection of plastic three-dollar thingies, spots a little chestnut in the midst of this mishmash that he doesn’t have?that he wants. It’s a PVC of Disney’s Goofy in a karate gi.
“C’mon,” says Harlan, grabbing me by my shirtsleeve as only Harlan is capable of doing and dragging me into this garish tourist tar pit. We look around for a human being. There in the third isle, directly between the display of two-inch plastic Empire State Buildings and glow-in-the-dark Statues of Liberty, we locate the only salesman in the room.
“How much is that Goofy in the window?” Harlan inquired.
“I’m sorry,” said the clerk. “The window items are for display only.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Harlan. “You display items that you sell in your store. Now I want to buy that one. What is it?four dollars? Five?”
“It’s not for sale,” said the clerk. “I don’t even have the keys to the window.”
“Get the manager!” Harlan demanded. He didn’t call the guy an imbecile, but it was implicit in his tone.
“There’s no other manager,” said the young man.
“No other manager?” Harlan repeated.
“No,” said the man. “He is I. I am the manager.”
Harlan was more annoyed now at this clerk than at the realization Goofy was, more than likely, going to spend the rest of its unappreciated days in this 7th Avenue window and not in his home where it belonged. But he gave it one last college try.
“I’ll give you double what it’s worth,” said Harlan. “Ten bucks, How’s that? A nice clean profit and everybody’s happy.”
“I’m sorry,” said He is I.
So we left there. And the matter was forgotten. At least for a little while. I walked Harlan back to his hotel and we stopped for pizza and then made our goodbyes. I can’t remember where he stayed that weekend. I don’t collect matchbooks.
After I left Harlan, I proceeded back to 7th Avenue. Went straight to the tchotchke store. It was almost 10 p.m. and they were getting ready to close. He is I was just about to pull down the iron gate.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Robert,” he answered.
“Do you remember me, Robert?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “You were with the older man who wanted the toy in the window.”
“And do you know who that man was?” I asked.
“No,” Robert answered.
I stepped in close and leaned over so I could whisper in his ear. “That man,” I said, “was Jimmy Hoffa.”
Anyway. That’s my story this week. I’m sure all of you have some interesting things in your collections, too. If you ever come to my house, remind me to show you Steranko’s Nick Fury.
And when you’re visiting Harlan, ask to see Goofy in a gi.
© 2004, Clifford Meth