My (Imaginary) Meeting with Philip K Dick
I was staying in Anaheim, which is a suburb of Los Angeles, in the Hyatt Hotel across the road from Disneyland with my wife and son. We had done the Grand Canyon, Aspen, the Durango-Silverton Railroad and Las Vegas, and were in Los Angeles for a few days before driving up to San Francisco (on the self-same highway where James Dean crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder; but this came later - the drive, not the crash).
Anyway. A warm Sunday evening. September 1978.
Americans are considerate drivers and so I had no qualms about taking the freeway down to Santa Ana where Philip K Dick lived. However, streets in the US being several miles in length and divided into "East" and "West" Edinger or whatever, finding Civic Center Drive almost the minute I came off Interstate 5 seems like a miracle, but is no guarantee of locating Number 408 without asking directions, backing up, reversing, wrestling with the hired Ford Fairmont, and generally building up a head of nervous exhaustion.
Being at large in an American city after nightfall is an adrenalin-secreting experience. You stop outside the mesh-impregnated window of a liquor store with the notice on the door in red: WE KEEP NO CASH OVER $200 ON THE PREMISES AFTER 7PM and a tremor shakes your spine at your temerity even in entering such a place and inviting their hostility and suspicion when it is tacitly understood (by you if not them) that you're only there to rifle the cash register and thump the proprietor into a raw pulp suitable for hospitalisation. This is the unspoken assumption of the visitor - "My God, how will they react when they find out I'm here to buy something?" What a schmuck! Look-a-here, Mabel, he actually wants to purchase a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label. What in tarnation is the world a-coming to?
So it is with some surprise and even more relief when I stop outside a white stucco four-storey building with Spanish-style wrought ironwork barring further access to the interior to check on the house number only to find, by amazing happenstance, that this is the address I seek. The very same.
Amazing that out of an avenue of a thousand numbers I should have chanced upon Number 408; relief that, despite the balmy evening and the gently gathering dusk, I am no longer prey to the dark prowling streets and the flashing red "LIQUOR" signs beckoning in the gloom like signposts to hell.
(Melodramatic prose verging on the purple - but then it is already a melodramatically purplish kind of evening.)
I scan the typewritten and scrawled names in the rank of mailboxes. Alongside each name is a button and a grille. I am stunned to find the legend "Philip K Dick" in the slot reserved for Apartment C.1. No subterfuge, no pseudonym, no alias: one of the world's greatest SF writers, whose name emblazons from a million paperback stands, is right there on a piece of pasteboard for any common-or-garden passing stranger to read and identify without let or hindrance.
My sense of alienation and trepidation tightens round my chest like barbed-wire, constricting my breathing. What to do - turn and run? Retreat down Interstate 5 to Anaheim and Disneyland (but this is Disneyland!) or stop at the nearest liquor store and grab a six-pack of Bud?
I press the button and ease my mouth close to the grille. Ten stumbling introductory phrases jostle in my head ("Explain who you are, what you want, and why you've come six thousand miles to press the button on Philip K Dick's mailbox in a single concise and comprehensible sentence that doesn't make you sound like the Bloody Lancashire Axe Maniac brought up on "H" certificate Universal movies) and lay gasping like stranded fish on my lips. None is required. The gaspless introductory phrases remain unvoiced, for a click behind my back tells me that the Spanish-style wrought-iron door has been released from up above and is even now swinging open on noiseless hinges.
What else to do but enter?
I do so and climb concrete steps between brown stucco walls to the first floor (second in American parlance), turn a corner and come upon a corridor of doors, the first of which is marked unequivocally "C.1." This door is not even shut. It is wide open - as if One of the World's Greatest SF Writers had been expecting, indeed looking forward to, a nocturnal visit from the Bloody Lancashire Axe Maniac. Well, relax, Phil, here I am. Don't go for your blaster - my blood-rimmed hair-matted axe is faster and ten times more deadly than any intergalactic toy you could ever dream up.
I tap timidly and shuffle in on creaking knees. A short dim carpeted passage leads to a door slightly ajar with a crack of light on three sides: just as this is your short dim uncarpeted passage to an eyeball confrontation with P.K.D., who sits on a low sofa in a smallish-to-medium-sized room gazing up at me, eyes quickening with nervous inquiry as they flicker for the sawn-off shotgun/flame-thrower/machete/howitzer this unknown intruder must surely be toting.
I stand on the threshold, my right hand gripping the doorknob.
He is as I expected him to be, the reason being I hadn't expected anything. He might be tall/short, fat/thin, bald/hairy, bearded/beardless, and in retrospect he is all of these things, because to tell the truth I can't for the life of me recall his physical appearance at all, which must come as a disappointment at this point in the story to those waiting keenly to learn what the late great Philip K Dick looked like in the flesh.
Sorry. Wish I could be more exact, and possibly I can be. He is taller than me, older, greying, bearded (I think), stoutish, wearing T-shirt and crumpled corduroy trousers, caught in the act of taking a pinch of snuff from one of twenty or thirty small round tins contained in an upturned cardboard box lid balanced on his knees. He might have said, "Who the (expletive deleted) are you?", but doesn't, merely looks at me with a marginal crinkling of eyes I remember as being somewhat Asiatic in cast.
Knowing his history of drugs (A Scanner Darkly) I am taken aback by the innocuous snuff-taking, but still retain sufficient presence of mind to introduce myself with a few abrupt, stumbling, breathless sentences which, to all intents and purposes, do the trick, ring the bell, hit the jackpot.
The calm purple evening takes on a deepening mood of strangeness and ambiguity. If the journey to 408 East Civic Center Drive was unreal, sitting in Philip K Dick's rocking chair in Philip K Dick's apartment looking at Philip K Dick is bizarre; no other word for it, unless it's other-worldly, which is two words.
So we talk. Not for long, because in minutes my phantom-like access to Apartment C.1. is explained by the arrival of the friend Mr Dick had been expecting and into whose spacetime vortex I had blundered and indeed slotted into with uncanny fortuitous precision, with not a nanosecond to spare either side. (What a splattered blood-red opportunity any passing axe maniac had missed! What fun and gore might have ensued had he had my coincidental good fortune - doors springing open at the touch of a button!)
The new arrival is also a writer of science fiction, younger than me this time, a friend and acolyte of the master. They exchange coded familiarities while I nod and smile and rock and drink beer from a can the friend has brought ...
Travelling through America is for the visitor like playing a supporting role in a "B" movie. So much one sees and hears has a celluloid familiarity, and the distinctive ring of an American phone is enough in itself to render the entire experience fictitious. Just as now the ringing of the phone in the small apartment (surely far too small for a writer of Dick's stature; the place is almost poky) almost leads me to expect Bogart to lurch from the shadows, hitch up his pants, and answer it with a wet-lipped sneer. Panic too, in that although Bogie might know his lines to perfection, no one has bothered to hand me a script. I rock on, nodding, smiling and sipping, in a quiet funk of desperation, hoping my cue never comes and that I shan't be called upon to utter a syllable.
Thankfully I'm not. Phil exits left to bedroom. Door closes.
"Probably his third ex," says the Young Science Fiction Writer, sotto voce.
"How many exes has he got?"
"Five. Or it could be his second having school problems with their daughter. One or other of them calls all the time."
"That must make life complicated," I say fatuously.
The Young Science Fiction Writer shrugs and tips Bud down his throat.
"How does he manage to get any work done with all these interruptions?"
"He works at night, loads the deck with six hours of classical tapes, plugs in the headphones, and rattles away till eight in the morning, grabs a bite of supper and goes to bed. Two thousand words a night, average."
I am impressed. I understand this practical talk. It deals with tangibles and comforts me. Reality siphons in and hardens the purple prowling California evening, holding the phantasmagorical shimmer in freeze-frame. So it is the real Philip K Dick after all. The man actually works, here, in this room, to produce the books I have read. He is not an imposter under an assumed name. This really is good old Phil Dick's apartment in Santa Ana and I'm in it with cordial Young Science Fiction Writer, a burn-hole in the carpet and a cardboard boxlid of snuff.
"Does he have anyone now?" I ask for something to say. "A woman I mean?"
The Young SF Writer touches a quick finger to his lips. Casts a rolling glance towards the bedroom door.
I want to protest - no, to explain. It was merely a simple innocent inquiry, nothing more, honest. Have I stupidly said something I shouldn't, blurted it out? Stumbled unwittingly into a Forbidden P.K.D. area?
"No, sorry - what I meant - "
"He won't talk about that and he won't thank you for mentioning it, so if I were you I wouldn't. OK? Huh? Otherwise."
Otherwise what? Is this a threat? Otherwise he'll send a slime mould under the door to envelop you in a grey-green goo? Reality is sliding away from me again and I want it back. Why am I always, invariably, inevitably, prone to say the wrong thing? Is it genetic?
Twenty minutes later and still no Phil. I have plundered the Y.S.F.W. and
sucked him dry of revelations regarding his friend. Intimate details have
been laid bare, personal and professional secrets vouchsafed and verified
(not a single one of which I can now remember). Yet Phil remains stubbornly
absent. I can hear his muttered voice from the bedroom and assume that this
crisis with Ex 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 has thus far to be resolved.
Rocking and drinking leads to urination. I stand with British sobriety and make my way to the bathroom, which is a grandiose way of saying I pad the nine paces from the living-room and through a door into a cluttered and claustrophobic sanitary cubicle and pee into Philip K Dick's lavatory bowl, examining as I do so the toiletry artifacts of mid-life bachelorhood in Twentieth Century America. There are no surprises. He brushes his teeth like any other mortal man, showers and bathes and leaves the detritus of personal hygiene scattered about ... yet the thought of my urine splashing into his lavatory bowl revives once again the audacious unreality of who and where I am: a Lancashire lad pissing in the bathroom of One of the World's Greatest Living Science Fiction Authors.
It also brings with it, as this soothing, cogitative experience often does,
5 wives x alimony = 1 small poky apartment.
Phil has been sucked dry too. He has been, as they say, through the mill.
He has suffered and lost and soldiered on, writing his books despite - perhaps
because of - the assault course of his personal affairs, his five exes, his
dangerous flirtation with the Californian drug scene - and beached himself
here in this tiny Santa Ana apartment, still miraculously sane, sober, working
through the night, producing unique, mind-bending work, and taking snuff in
moderation. The man is an object lesson. I feel chastened and sadly wiser.
The rest of the talk, upon Phil's return, is about what writers invariably talk about whenever they meet: advances, contracts, royalty percentages, subsidiary rights and the avarice of publishers. I get bigger advances in the UK for my books than Phil gets in the US for his, which astonishes me and further explains his life-style. The three of us swap apocryphal anecdotes and become mauldin. In the course of this he happens to mention to the Y.S.F.W., in a coded phrase, something or other to do with the conversation he has lately had with 1,2,3,4,5 (take your pick) of his exes. I sit quietly, barely rocking, saying nothing, privileged and honoured that Phil feels easy enough with me, a complete stranger, in his company to discuss an intimate matter of relationships.
He wouldn't do it with everyone - or just anyone.
At once I spy an opening. I can be of help. Knowing nothing about any of the 1-5, and being ignorant of his situation, I feel it my duty to share the breadth of my worldly wisdom concerning women and how not get trapped by their wicked and deceitful wiles. Phil listens politely as I lecture him on the dangers of giving in to them, on being tougher, not bowing to their demands at the drop of a hat, and definitely not spending nearly forty minutes on the phone listening to their moaning and demands for attention and money when there are people around, other writers, say, who he could be chewing the fat with, swapping experiences with, having a laugh and so on. Phil digests this, it sinks home, as I can tell from his thoughtfully blank expression. Not now, not tonight, but tomorrow he'll thank me. In the morning he'll think, "That English guy didn't say much but what he did say makes sense. He's right. I should be harder, not give in so easy. I've been a jerk. I'll change."
I'll have made a difference, which is the most any of us can expect in this
Before I leave, the Y.S.F.W. kindly gives me two of his books, which I will never read, which with the beer makes three gifts in return for none.
I can't even leave him a bloodstained axe (or ax) as a memento.
It is after midnight in Room 108 of the Hyatt Hotel on Katella Avenue. My wife and son are sleeping. I sit down at the dressing-table and on hotel stationery write a letter to Philip K Dick, 408 East Civic Center Drive, Apt C.1., Santa Ana, California 92701, saying that as I'm in the vicinity I would very much appreciate the opportunity of meeting him, though I do realise of course how busy he must be, that this is something of an intrusion by a complete stranger, etc, etc, etc.
I fully intend to mail the letter, but somehow don't. Next news, I hear the man is dead, heart job, and I never did get to meet him, except in my imagination, did I?
© Trevor Hoyle 2008
[Author's Note: I did meet him. The final two paragraphs are a fiction. All the rest is true. T.H.]
This fragment is dedicated with respect and gratitude to the memory of Philip K Dick (1928-1982). One of the World's Greatest Science Fiction Writers.