Harlan Ellison vs the Radar Angels

Gandalf’s Den in the Atrium Building hosted an autograph party for Harlan Ellison today, ahead of his Thursday evening speaking engagement at the EMU Ballroom, an event sponsored by the Eugene chapter of the campaign to elect John Anderson for President. I joined the campaign as a volunteer because I’m a sixteen year old sci-fi freak and I wanted to meet the dark prince of American letters. I was surprised to see that Ellison was several inches shorter than me and my hope to befriend him died the minute I realized he’d probabaly dismiss me as just a kid teenager with a pedestrian taste in literature.

Ellison had a carry-on luggage bag on rollers filled with numbered editions of his new book, “Shatterday,” which was a collection of sixteen short stories due to be published at the end of the month. The book features his Hugo and Nebula award-winning story, “Jeffty Is Five,” which I’d read in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Mike Stamm, who worked at Gandalf’s Den, was tasked with the job of interviewing Ellison for the Oregon Daily Emerald, but the curmudgeon who said that Star Wars was a halfwit Wild West adventure in outer space couldn’t be corralled long enough for a one-on-one sit-down, so Mike had to cobble together an article from Ellison’s bookstore appearance.

I wish I could say that I was enamored by Ellison’s brilliance and wit, but to me he came off as a conceited jerk and a grumpy nitpicker, dumping on science fiction readers for using the term “sci-fi” and saying the genre was mostly junk. The more he spoke, the more I was left with the same feeling I had when I met R. Crumb and he criticized me for reading Spider-Man comics. Suddenly, a group of women marched into the shop like an angry mob of Transylvanian villagers chanting, “Fee Fi Fo Fum, we want the blood of an Ellison!” It was the Radar Angels.

~ Eugene, Oregon – October 17, 1980

Rumble at the chalk-in

My best guess is this photo was snapped in 1966, the year the Beach Boys played at McArthur Court. Most likely in front of the New World Coffee House near the university campus.

Brandy Feldman, the girl who doesn’t dig Mike and Carl’s music, made the local news the following year when she participated with other college students in an unsanctioned afternoon of making street art.

What happened was a group of so-called beatniks and hippies, armed with colored chalk, wrote slogans and drew flowers and other symbols of peace and love on the sidewalk in front of the student union. The backlash from the football-fraternity mentality for this “chalk-in” was swift, as members of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity (already notorious on campus for their sport of hippie baiting) responded first with threats of violence against the group, and then with spitting, shoving, kicking, and pulling hair.

By the end of the fracas, the ATO frat-bros dumped buckets of water on the sidewalk to erase the hippie graffiti that had so offended them.

The New World Coffee House opened in 1964 at 1249 Alder St.

The chalk-in kerfuffle at the EMU was on April 12, 1967.

Generation Me

British punk rock guitarist William Broad was twenty-one years old in 1976 when he took on the roles of frontman and lead singer for his band, Generation X. The band drew inspiration for their name from the book “Generation X” by British journalists Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett, which delved into the experiences of teenagers involved in the Mod subculture. Published in 1964, the book emerged during a time when the future punk icon known as Billy Idol, was still a few years away from being a teenager but old enough to begin identifying with and emulating the older kids he grew up with in the 1960s.

The original “Generation X

Canadian author Douglas Coupland was almost thirty years old when he entered the literary scene with his book “Generation X” in 1991. Coupland’s choice of title was in turn influenced by Billy Idol’s fledgling band, as he sought to capture the perspectives and frustrations of individuals born between between 1954 and 1964, a group he believed was wrongly classified as Baby Boomers. Coupland wanted to express the thoughts and challenges faced by his cohort. He felt they were a generation that was often overlooked and misunderstood. When he was interviewed by the press the year his book came out, he made it very clear. “I just want to show society what people born after 1960 think about things,” he told the Boston Globe. “We’re sick of stupid labels. We’re sick of being marginalized in lousy jobs, and we’re tired of hearing about ourselves from others.” Famous first words.

The next wave Generation X

In the 1990s and well into the 21st century, Generation X was typically considered by the mainstream in English speaking countries to include individuals born between the early 1960s and the early 1980s. Flash forward to the year 2024, as I write this, and the general consensus is that Generation X spans from around 1965 to 1980. Those dates kick Billy Idol and Douglas Coupland out of the club in which they both claimed to belong and demotes them to Boomers.

~ 2 ~

There are typically five generational cohorts that are commonly recognized in the study of demographics and consumer behavior. Generational cohorts are groups of individuals who were born around the same time that share similar characteristics. The Silent Generation (1928-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X, (1965-1980), Millennials (1981-1996), and Generation Z (1997-2012), are labels for generations that have their own unique characteristics and experiences based on the historical events and societal trends that shaped their formative years.

I was born in 1964, which places me in the last year of the Baby Boom era. However, I don’t identify with Boomers, and neither does my mother’s sister, born in 1958. In those days, my aunt might have been called a Sputnik baby, because she was born the year after the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth was launched by the Soviet Union. When I entered the world six years later, in the same month the US declared war with Vietnam, the country was in the midst of an unprecedented exceleration of knowledge due to all the technological advances from the space race, especially in computers.

My formative years really began in the 1970s, at the tail end of Vietnam during Watergate and the oil crisis, which places me in a generational limbo filled with “cuspers”—people who fall on the border or overlap between two generational cohorts. My mother is also a cusper, born in the last Silent Generation year, and she doesn’t identify with that cohort either; instead embracing the hippie counterculture shortly after I was born, which gave me a very different perspective on mainstream cultural narratives.

As a member of a generational cohort in America born between 1956 to 1970, individuals like myself (approximately 57.5 million of us) have witnessed remarkable cultural shifts and historical events, extraordinary progress in the Civil Rights Movement, and the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll music. These experiences have shaped my perspective in unique ways, offering a different lens through which I view the world compared to preceding generations.

~ 3 ~


I met Stupid in the spring of 1977 while he was selling socialist newspapers at the Eugene Saturday Market and I was working as a sandwich board man to advertise for the venue.

One of my earliest gigs at the market was working as a human billboard, or a “sandwich board boy,” in my case, which earned me a dollar an hour plus a food voucher for a meal from any food vendor. It was quick cash for a twelve-year-old on a Saturday morning. All I had to do was wear a canvas sandwich board, like a 19th-century ad man from London or New York, and leisurely stroll around downtown Eugene for a few hours, luring other pedestrians to visit the top of the butterfly parking lot where the market was located.

So, naturally, my labor drew the attention of a man named Stupid, who was an old Wobbly. The Wobblies, a nickname for members of the Industrial Workers of the World, were a labor union founded in 1905. Their aim was to unite all workers into one big union to advocate for better working conditions and workers’ rights through militant tactics and a commitment to social and economic justice. I soon learned that Stupid was also something of a local celebrity who peddled handwritten photocopied pamphlets brimming with verse and meandering musings on street corners near the University of Oregon.

Stupid was a confirmed leftist and fervent advocate for societal change with a larger-than-life backstory. He was born in a Michigan logging camp in 1899 as Russell Dell, an heir to the Dell Publishing Company—an accident of birth that might have given him a life of wealth and privilege had he not been the black sheep of the family. He claimed to have worked as a logger, sailor, machinist, writer, and printer, among other professions, and he had old-duffer bushy eyebrows. Sometime before he moved to Eugene in 1973, he legally changed his name to Stupid to amaze his friends and confuse his enemies.

Uncle Ray

On a cold winter day in Eugene, Oregon, Uncle Ray was found by a woman searching for her missing cat. His body was wrapped in a tattered carpet that lay rolled up in a garage at the corner of Lawrence and Broadway. Officer Slim Carter was called to the scene and it seemed to him that Ray had probably been dead for a few days. Slim was a local cop that had a history of run-ins with Ray, sometimes arresting him for disorderly conduct. I was shocked by Ray’s death, even though he seemed to live purely on alcohol, coffee, and cigarettes. For a dozen years I thought he was an ancient and possibly immortal hobo.

I first laid eyes on Uncle Ray at the end of the summer of ‘76, when I was a boy of twelve and just arrived in Eugene to stay. He struck me as a grizzled old drunk from a television western that stumbled out of the tube and staggered into the real world. The sort of vagrant one might find in the margins of a Bukowski novel. He was sitting at a curb on Alder Street in front of the Homefried Truckstop on campus, next to a shopping cart stuffed with clothing and other items of unspeakable origin. If you’d asked me to guess Ray’s age I’d say he was born sometime between the Taft presidency and the year they started putting prizes in Cracker Jack boxes. I figured he was just north of sixty, with an extra decade of hard living in his back pocket. Truth is, Ray was only fifty-six years old that day. Maybe he was aging in dog years.

Uncle Ray at the Kiva in Scarborough Faire (1971)

Raymond Greig was born on July 18, 1920 in Bottineau, North Dakota. The first year of the Prohibition Era. He was raised, by all accounts, as a typical Dakota farm boy. When he grew up, he married a girl named Meryl. They had a kid. When America entered the war in 1942, Ray enlisted in the Army and served in the South Pacific. Those are the facts, but beneath the layers of truth lay a tapestry of tall tales and half-truths, woven by Ray’s tobacco-stained fingers. One such tale is the claim he served under the command of Eleanor Roosevelt, who apparently led the charge at Okinawa and drove the men into battle, crying out, “Follow me to victory!”


At some point during his service, Ray received a Dear John letter from his wife. When he was discharged in ‘46 he returned to the states a lonely and bitter man.

After his stint in the army, Ray stashed away the medals that Eleanor Roosevelt had pinned to his chest and drifted through post-war America, riding the rails and living the life of an itinerant worker. The iron tracks eventually led him to the rugged terrain of Oregon, where he found himself settling in Vanport, a city of transient laborers north of Portland that was built to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyards during wartime.

It was in Vanport that Ray witnessed a merciless force of nature that swept through the city like a vengeful god, leaving destruction and despair in its wake. It was a flood that swept through the city on the afternoon of May 30, 1948. In its wake, fifteen people were lost to the unforgiving waters, and by nightfall, the city lay submerged, its streets silent and its buildings swallowed by the murky depths, casting 17,500 souls adrift in a sea of despair, leaving them destitute and homeless.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, Ray found himself grappling with the harsh reality of a world that could change in the blink of an eye, a world where even the strongest foundations could be washed away in an instant. I imagine Ray wandering the streets of Portland like a ghostly vagabond, haunted by his own past. He was only twenty-eight years old, his face aged beyond his years, and marked by war and a life filled with loss and tragedy that shattered his world and washed away his hopes.

Uncle Ray had two guardian angels in Eugene—Hershel Bloom and Poppi Cottam. Hershel, a hippie street poet who worked at White Bird Clinic during the day and cooked omelettes at Lenny’s Nosh Bar at night, was the angel Clarence to Ray’s down-and-out George Bailey. He made sure Ray was always squared away, escorting him to the clinic for medical care when he was sick. Hershel also made sure Ray got paid, by helping him sort out his social security and veteran benefits.

Poppi, the proprietor of the Greek Taverna next to Lenny’s, was Ray’s other guardian. She made sure he never went hungry, serving him chicken and hot chocolate from the back door of her restaurant. Most of the time. When Ray showed up drunk, Poppi gave him a cup of black coffee and sent him away, with orders to come back when he was sober. He’d often tidy up the courtyard as a quid pro quo gesture and Poppi invited him to her house one year for Thanksgiving dinner. She said he was a perfect gentleman, dressed in his Sunday best, and he played chess and discussed politics with her husband.

Depending on who you asked, Uncle Ray was a sage, a mad saint, and a royal pain-in-the-ass. He was a divisive figure in town, frequently getting kicked out of places for bad behavior. Some people called the cops on him when he rummaged through their garbage cans looking for bottles while others showed him kindness by buying him beers or meals or sitting with him at the curb to soak up his stories. He had a gravelly voice, a mischievous grin, and tittered like an old coot. A couple of decades of college kids living on campus would give him their empty beer bottles, and sometimes let him to sleep in their frat houses after he snuck in to get out of the rain.

When he drank socially, Ray often told rambling but coherent autobiographical stories that gradually morphed into incoherent bearded gibberish. Other times, he’d make dad jokes—like the one he said one day while standing across the street from Max’s Tavern. “I’d like to get up on that roof so I could have a drink on the house, hee hee hee!” He certainly couldn’t have a drink inside, because he was on the permanent ban list. Ray was also notoriously misogynistic. My friend Anne tells me she realized he was a woman-hater when she heard him say, “behind every man on the street is a woman who pushed him there.”

And yet, my friend Debbie loved him. She’d bum smokes off Ray and sit with him at the curb and they would drink together and get wasted while he took her on what she describes as “an odyssey of rancor, philosophy, and nonsense.” He reminded Debbie of her father, a tragic alcoholic who was a smart man that could be “as charming and glamourous as Dean Martin” one moment and “as mean and frightening as Buffalo Bill” the next. Debbie felt honored that Uncle Ray shared his curb with her.

Ray died wearing two pair of pants, two shirts, a sweater, and a jacket. In his pockets were two wallets, three pens, a corn cob pipe, a tire gauge, and a hole punch—talismans of a personal mythology known only to Ray himself. On the middle finger of his left hand was the silver ring he always wore and a harmonica was clutched in his right fist. Possibly the same harmonica he was playing at the Truckstop when I first saw him almost twelve years before he died.

The most likely explanation for the cause of Uncle Ray’s death was exposure. There was no evidence of foul play. February of 1988 began with a cold snap, with four days of weather that dropped to the low to mid-twenties. By the fifth and sixth days the temperature had risen five degrees, gradually increasing to the low to mid-thirties. By the 10th, that garage may have well been a walk-in freezer. Uncle Ray likely wrapped himself in the carpet to get warmer.

Five days later, some three dozen people gathered on the steps of Poppi’s Greek Taverna (shuttered since December) to raise a glass to Uncle Ray and share stories. I arrived with a bouquet of wilted flowers I fished out of the dumpster behind the floral shop across the street. Just like Ray used to do on the regular. I spoke about the time I was a kid and competed with him for refundable empty bottles, which I cashed in for comic books and movies instead of booze, and imagined his crusty old spirit cussing me out one last time before he faded away . . . a faint echo of music coming from his transistor radio.