“Have it say, ‘To a fellow writer.'”
That’s what I said to Harvey Pekar as his black Sharpie hovered over a shiny American Splendor poster in 2003.
He sat in an unbalanced plastic folding chair, his plaid belly smashed against the card table, his hair a dry mess of brown grass, the bags under his eyes so heavy they would have required an extra $25 each to be loaded onto a United Airlines plane.
I stood over him in the Cleveland Heights video store wearing cargo shorts and a ripped T-shirt, my fingers twitching from whatever terrible short story I had been working on that morning at the Caribou coffee shop up the street.
When it was my turn in line to get an autograph, I just blurted it out: “Have it say, ‘To a fellow writer.'”
Now, I’ve said similar things to more-established writers, never feeling the slightest bit embarrassed. When David Sedaris autographed my copy of “Naked,” he wrote, “I look forward to reading your book someday.” (His underline.) Dave Eggers smiled and wrote me a thank you on the inside cover of “How We Are Hungry” for volunteering at 826 Chicago. Robert Bly scrawled something about being a writer in my beloved copy of “Hunger.” And I received a remarkable letter in the mail from Chuck Palahniuk when an ex-girlfriend told him at a reading that I was toiling away up in Fargo getting my MFA in writing.
But when I asked Harvey Pekar to autograph that poster “To a fellow writer,” the man dropped his forearm onto the table with such resentment and turned his entire body toward the talking penis above him with such disgust, by the time he shot me the evilist of evil eyes I had ever been the victim of, I was wishing I was instead blowing a party favor onto the bridge Robert Mugabe’s nose.
It was as if Pekar had punched me in the gut, pulled down my pants and played the “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” drum solo on my ass cheeks with a couple of hot spatulas.
All with a simple evil eye.
Both of us speechless, seconds passed like a Mel Gibson tirade: awkward, threatening and in need of a laugh track.
Defeated, Pekar sighed and slowly pushed his Sharpie across the bottom border of the poster: “To a fellow writer, Harvey Pekar.”
I walked out of the door both dazed and geeked.
I never did hang that poster, though.
It’s still rolled up in a tube, forever waiting to be framed.
But that eye, that evil eye of Pekar’s has meant more to me than any autograph I’ve ever stuttered for.
Because in that one moment, I wasn’t a fellow writer, but an object of such scorn that it was the author who probably remembered meeting me just as much as I remembered meeting the author.
I figure that’s a pretty tough feat.
Rest in peace, Harvey Pekar.