By Jason Sacks
HARLAN ELLISON: Let me preamble whatever anecdotes I may recall by telling you that, in my experience, Clifford Meth is one of the most ethical people I’ve ever known. That may sound like one of those encomiums that you read on a tombstone, but we live in a time in which reliable, ethical behavior has become almost nonexistent. And for those of us who would live or die by our word, by our ethics, extolling someone’s ethical muscularity becomes not only a compliment, but a bellwether of the totality of that person’s nature.
Candidly, I don’t care much about morality. I don’t care if you fuck chickens in the windows of Bloomingdales. (As long as they’re adult, consenting chickens.) But ethics matter to me considerably. As I’m compelled to deal, in the course of everyday business, and in my life, with people who simply have no conception of ethics, who act amorally or even casually sociopathically, someone who operates on the “my word is my bond” rigor is a mortal lock rarity midst a mass junkyard-dog population. There are ignorant webhead thugs who steal off the Internet and think it’s their holy right. There are business people who give me their word and then say, “Oh, well, gee, I wasn’t able to do that because such-and-such happened subsequently,” which is all part of the floating ethics of a world in which a “nuke-u-luhr” ignoramus like George W. Bush can be elected.
Clifford is from an earlier time, or from a better time, or from a happier, alternate universe. If Clifford gives you his word, you can make book on it. As Bobby Blake and I used to say, you can take that one to the bank. He’s very careful before he gives his word, and he stands by it to the letter. This, I think, is the strongest indication of a person’s character, and is more telling than any anecdotes, or any kind of “well, he did this for me” or “he did that for me” nonsense. Clifford Meth is an ethical, upright, straight-arrow guy, and that’s invaluable in these parlous times.
I can’t quite remember how Clifford and I first met. He’d probably remember. But one time when we got together, I was in New York to do Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect,” which was, at that pre-ABC-TV point, on Comedy Central. One of my editors, Ellen Datlow, from Omni, was with us; and another of my editors, Howard Zimmerman. And while we were waiting in that particular building?way over on Manhattan’s West Side?there were a bunch of people waiting to get into the “Geraldo Rivera Show,” that was taping simultaneously.
Well, Clifford, being an Orthodox Jew, was wearing a yarmulke. And there were some guys who made a remark. It wasn’t anything as flamboyant as, “Hey, you dirty kike,” or anything like that, but whatever it was, it was enough to get Clifford’s antennae up. He didn’t go cruising for a fight?he wasn’t particularly angry, but he was alert.
We had a little run-in with them inside, where the two lines sort of merged for a moment before we went into one studio and they went into another. It was a ragtag bunch of smartmouth “I Be Bad” boys?that is to say, they were not of the intelligentsia; what I mean, dawg, they were not matriculants from Columbia University on a field trip. After the show, Cliff, Ellen, and I went downstairs to a pizza joint next door to the studio, and we went in to have a slice and to sit and talk. I had to go off soon to do something else, and Clifford had to go back to wherever it was he was going back to. So we’re sitting there, just chillin’ and chompin’, and a couple of these mooks from the Rivera queue slouched in; and our paths crossed again as these guys flexed their inadequacies, and Clifford took umbrage at what they said?certainly umbrage enough. I didn’t hear it or I’d have been in there with him, but the next thing I knew, Cliff was gone from the table?he went Bruce Lee all over their asses and took them down? outside on the street. There were four or five of them, but Cliff only had to take out two before the others turned into the Cowardly Lion and became stroboscopic flashes of light heading for the horizon.
He’s very accomplished?he’s one of those odd creatures who is martially adept and more than capable of taking care of himself. But he doesn’t chug around making a muscle. He blows it off. He’s not looking to hassle anybody, nor let anybody hassle him. But if pressed to it, he can turn into one of Fred Saberhagen’s berserkers.
JASON SACKS: It’s a good story. Standing up for his honor.
ELLISON: Absolutely. He takes Jewishness very seriously.
Another wonderful story: After he was divorced from his first wife and he was going to marry the woman he’s married to now?her father is a rabbi, a very Orthodox rabbi; and he wasn’t sure Clifford was the sort of man that he wanted his daughter to marry. Well, I had written some stories with a Jewish background, and it turned out that the father had heard my name. And I guess it had some salutary effect on him because he was speaking to Clifford and he said, “This is a vonderful, vonderful writer, this fella.” So Clifford said, “Well, he’s a very close friend of mine.” And the rabbi said, “Yeah, sure, right, very close, right.”
So Clifford calls me and he says, “He’s very impressed by you.”
So I said I’d call him.
And Cliff said, “You’re gonna call the rebbe?”
And I said yeah, I’ll call the rebbe. So I called the rebbe and I said [in a thick Yiddish accent], “Rabbi, rabbi?this is Harlan Ellison. I want to tell you, I know this nice boy Clifford Meth. He’s a good boy, he’s a stand-up boy, he’s a very, very sincere, earnest, honest boy. He’s devoted. Your daughter could do a lot worse, trust me on this.” So he apparently was impressed enough by my rodomontade that he gave the okay to the wedding.
JS: That’s a wonderful story. It really shows the depth of your friendship.
ELLISON: (laughing) Well, there isn’t anything I won’t do for my friends. By the same token, if somebody fucks with me?
This is about as deep into philosophy as I get, but I think it’s a terrific bit of philosophy. It took me decades to come up with it, but I think it really works, and this is it: Most of what we think of as Evil can be chalked up to ineptitude. Most people do stupid things or say stupid things or get involved in bad situations because they think it’s a good idea at the time, which of course is the behavior of idiots. But since we’re all idiots most of the time anyhow, this is why we get into bad things.
“Why did you get involved with that man? You knew he was bad for you?” “Well, I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Why did you set fire to that kindling outside in the wooded area? It started a big fire.” “Well, I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“So tell me, Napoleon: What made you think you could invade Russia in the winter?” “I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
And that excuses an awful lot of human behavior.
Meanness, maliciousness, and repeated evil, like Ashcroft and the rest of his crowd, is a different matter entirely.
When somebody does something that I don’t think is right, one of two things happens: If it’s an I-thought-it-was-a-good-idea-at-the-time, or it’s just ineptitude or stupidity, I never give them a second chance, because once you’ve fucked me, that’s enough. I think them out of my universe. They just don’t exist anymore. They’re on a parallel timeline and I don’t have to deal with them. And if they keep coming back again and again and again, I just ignore it. And I ignore it on a very deep level. They just don’t fucking exist.
But every once in a while? There’s a quote from Alexandre Dumas. He said, “There are some words that close a conversation like an iron door.” And every once in a while, someone will do something that is so egregious, so insulting, so hurtful, that I am compelled to deal with them in the equal-and-opposite reaction theory. If somebody does me a favor, I am theirs forever; they can call on me at any hour of the day or night and I’m there. But if somebody fucks me to the extent of that same kind of hurt, I will eventually either piss in their open grave or their open mouth?whichever presents itself first.
So, I understand Clifford’s precariously balanced behavior, because it is so much like my own. Yet while I comprehend that it has its serious downside for a lot of people who are very egalitarian and say, “Well, you should never fight with anyone,” and “Everybody’s opinion matters; everybody’s opinion is the same,” which is bullshit, of course?I also understand that the dangers and “dark side” of this kind of philosophy represent, to some of us, a statement of cosmic balance. Order versus chaos.
I’ve always lived with this m.o. Thus, I am precisely the person I meant to be when I was a kid. I always wanted to be who I am now, so I have no one to blame. No “luck,” no “chance,” no bad breaks” or “Gawd wuz agin me!” At age 69, I figure that’s a philosophy I can live with. And others who live by the same kind of philosophy naturally have a reverberation for me that I respond to. Clifford’s one of those people. He is an incredibly loyal friend, beyond the bounds of what most people think is friendship. It’s easy to be your friend when there ain’t no shit coming down. It’s when the nails are being driven into your wrists that you find out whether somebody is a real friend and a stand-up person. And that’s Cliff.
Copyright © 2003 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. All rights reserved. Harlan Ellison ® is a registered Trademark of The Kimimanjaro Corporation.
© 2004, Clifford Meth