You likely just thought of Fahrenheit 451 or perhaps The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes or another of his very famous works.
If you’re a nerd, you might also know that they named the Curiosity Rover landing site on Mars after him.
Me – I think of a vanilla ice cream suit.
1987 1989, around twilight, and I was walking down Post Street in San Francisco.
I mean “down” Post Street in the sense that I was headed towards the city’s center. Local geography was making my casual walk an uphill climb that would have claimed all my attention if I hadn’t become acclimated by then.
You see, there’s something about the layout and the people of San Francisco that’s exhausting, if you’re new to town. You either leave or get your footing.
I hadn’t left and instead had found an inner balance that turned all the steep hillsides and all the crazy people into a sort of park ride. I’d bought my ticket, was getting what I paid for – training as a medical transcriptionist – and would leave when the time was right.
So I was walking along a busy sidewalk on Post Street in San Francisco and the light was dim. Then there was a glimmer up ahead. It was a man in a vanilla ice cream suit. He was walking toward me, and I saw nothing but the darkness and the faceless mass of people and that beautiful suit approaching and then passing by like a full-rigged sailing ship on parade.
It reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.” You should stop right now and go track that down and read it, if you aren’t familiar with it yet.
’87 ’89, many years had already passed since I’d read the story. Until that moment on Post Street, though, I’d never known there actually was such a thing or that it could be so beautiful.
The years passed and I forgot about it again until just now while trying to find a way into a discussion of Ray Bradbury for the Thursday Lit post.
Today I re-read “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” and have now kidded myself into believing I can remember the look on that man’s face – an exultant joy and smugness not too dissimilar, I imagine, from what radiated from the faces of Martinez, Villanazul, Vamenos, Gomez, Manulo and Dominguez during their time in the suit.
Whoever that man actually was, I hope if he had friends like them, too.
The suit in the story is the arresting image that one usually finds in a Bradbury tale. It’s a focus of wonder – in this case, set not in fantasy or science fiction but in a culture different from his own – and unforgettable.
The real tale, though, is always the human story, told simply and with beautiful clarity.
The equivalent of a Bradbury story in our physical world would be the sight of Venus near the horizon at dawn or twilight…something very ordinary (planets are not unusual in our night skies, any more than words are rare in human communication) but instilled with a special awe because of its setting and how we perceive it.
Sometimes our culture latches onto one of Bradbury’s arresting images and misses the human story, just as I recalled the vanilla ice cream suit but not really the man who wore it.
In the case of Fahrenheit 451, for example, most of us focus on the book burning rather than the cautionary tale of a society intentionally dumbing itself down until it’s only able to experience pleasure (that “fiery smile”) through destruction.
“Strange. I heard once that a long time ago houses used to burn by accident and they needed firemen to stop the flames.”
She glanced over quickly. “Why are you laughing?”
“I don’t know.” He started to laugh again and stopped. “Why?”
“You laugh when I haven’t been funny and you answer right off. You never stop to think what I’ve asked you.”
He stopped walking. “You are an odd one,” he said, looking at her. “Haven’t you any respect?”
“I don’t mean to be insulting. It’s just I love to watch people too much, I guess.”
“Well, doesn’t this mean anything you?” He tapped the numerals 451 stitched on his char-colored sleeve.
“Yes,” she whispered. She increased her pace. “Have you ever watched the jet cars racing on the boulevards down that way?”
“You’re changing the subject!”
“I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly,” she said. “If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass! A pink blur? That’s a rose garden! White blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows. My uncle drove slowly on a highway once. He drove 40 miles an hour and they locked him up for two days. Isn’t that funny, and sad, too?”
“You think too many things,” said Montag, uneasily.
That helps me understand a little better why this tweet I saw yesterday made me feel uncomfortable:
— SPACE.com (@SPACEdotcom) February 4, 2014
I don’t want this – ever.
Most of life and all of our environment happens beyond the screen you’re reading this on right now, and it always will. This is why we call it the real world.
So – what will happen once we lose all desire to look away from the computer glow because it’s so pretty and our mechanical cocoons are so comfortable?
Sixty years ago, Ray Bradbury suggested one possibility.
The jury is still out on whether we will actually be able to come up with anything better than the world of Fahrenheit 451, but two things give me hope – for America, anyway.
One is our tradition of immigration – a fair number of the people who come here (legally or illegally) do so because they would like to be able to afford a house, a lawn and maybe even a garden. They surely do take the time always to admire such things rather than succumb to the culture of “need, speed and greed” (Buster Keaton, The Three Ages, 1923).
Secondly, we have a strong religious tradition.
Religion is remarkably absent in Ray Bradbury’s work (at least in the parts I have read). Perhaps his view was skewed slightly because he lacked faith.
After all, we currently choose to forget that the important things like peace, law, empathy, and a healthy society overall – those very human creations that make our shiny toys and mechanical cocoons possible – are actually rooted in faith.
Don’t believe it? Well, G. K. Chesterton was a Christian, but he could (and this Buddhist believes he did) include all religions when he said in Orthodoxy:
[T]hey really were wrong, in so far as they suggested that men had ever aimed at order or ethics directly by a conscious exchange of interests. Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, “I will not hit you if you do not hit me”; there is no trace of such a transaction. There IS a trace of both men having said, “We must not hit each other in the holy place.” They gained their morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous. They did not cultivate cleanliness. They purified themselves for the altar, and found that they were clean.
We’ll remember that again, I suspect, hopefully before the electrical power goes out forever.
For a variety of reasons – not least of which is the difficulty in pinning down the personality of a writer who could in his youth and middle age write some of the most beautiful prose in the English language and yet be so mean in his old age – that’s all I know how to say about Ray Bradbury just now.
I’ll return to him some Thursday in the probably rather distant future.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for vanilla ice cream suits…
…and remember, money isn’t everything.
“Mr Shumway.” Martinez heard Leo hissing. “Ain’t it dangerous precedent, to sell it? I mean, what if everybody bought one suit for six people?”
“Leo,” said Mr.Shumway, “you ever hear one single fifty-nine-dollar suit make so many people happy at the same time before?”
“Angels’ wings,” murmured Martinez. “The wings of white angels.”
Categories: Thursday Lit