Dear Ray: An Essay Tribute to Ray Bradbury.

I walked slowly down Belmont Ave towards the tattoo parlor, taking my time with every step. It was two days after Christmas and unnaturally warm for winter, so I was enjoying the muggy air and the soft breeze. When I arrived at the Chicago Tattooing Company, I loitered around outside, staring in through the big window like a poor, orphaned child. The shop was empty and I knew once I went in I would be able to get my tattoo right away. I paced around the front for another five minutes or so before finally walking in the door. When I got my first tattoo – a small comic book speech bubble on my wrist that took about five minutes to do – I had a friend with me. Now, I was alone and, even though I wasn’t afraid of getting a tattoo, I wished I had someone there to share the moment with.

I walked up to the girl at the front and just stood there, staring at her, almost afraid to make the first move. She looked up slowly from her book with an eyebrow raised.

“May I help you?” she asked, as if I had disturbed her. Her arms were covered in tattoos, in all different colors, and she had long blonde hair with streaks of purple all over the place. She had a small ring in the middle of her lip which made her lips pout a bit more than normal.

“I’m sorry.” I finally muttered. “I wanted to get this tattooed around my wrist.” I laid the sentence that I had printed off my computer out in front of her. She picked it up and read it, her facial expression never-changing.

“And how big do you want it?” she asked, without looking at me.

“That’s how big I want it.”

“Okay, well let me make a copy and we’ll see if it fits around your wrist.”

“Actually, I already made sure it did.”

She finally smiled a bit and went to the copy machine behind her and turned back around, asking me to hold out my wrist. I did and she wrapped it around; Sure enough, it fit perfectly around, just like a bracelet. She laughed a little bit and I was relieved to have broken her wall.

“Perfect. You really thought this through, didn’t you?” she asked.

“In more ways than one.” I thought to myself. She had me sign all the paperwork and told me that Nick was ready for me. I walked through the brown, wooden saloon-style swinging door that divided the tattoo area from the waiting area. Nick was waiting for me as he patted a red and brown medical chair that looked like it had been last used some time during the 17th century in a doctor’s office or possible in a torture chamber. It was rusted, the leather had been completely faded from a once rich red to a muted pink, and one of the armrests was missing. I hesitated, but decided it was all part of the experience. When I sat down it creaked like a door in an old house. I looked at Nick, an older man covered head to toe in ink, and he smiled.

“It’s safe. I promise.” he said. I looked into Nick’s eyes, which were wrinkled around the corners and safe looking, like my father’s. This made me trust him, so I nodded and smiled, showing all of my teeth. He gently grabbed my wrist and turned it so that my palm was facing up. He cleaned the area with rubbing alcohol and shaved off the little hairs on my skin. He placed the stencil the receptionist had made on my wrist and took the paper off, leaving a purple outline of what my tattoo would look like.

“Look good?” he asked.

“Perfect”

He picked up the tattoo machine and I closed my eyes. I heard him start it up, sounding like a mixture between a small car engine and the drill a dentist uses to remove a cavity. The needle touched my skin and I felt it burn. “How appropriate”, I thought to myself.

As Nick continued to brand my skin, I kept my eyes closed and listened to the sound of the machine and the receptionist chatting with a customer; I smelled the rubbing alcohol and I felt the rough leather on my butt. It was strangely relaxing. Suddenly, Nick was wiping the ink off my wrist.

“You’re all done, lady!” he exclaimed. I looked down and there were the string of black words permanently etched into my skin. I smiled and one of the other tattoo artists walked over to check it out. He stared at it quizzically.

“What does it say?” he asked, looking at me.

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

* * * * *

I read Fahrenheit 451, the seminal 1953 novel by Ray Bradbury, for the first time my Sophomore year of high school. It was in Mr. Takahasi’s Honor’s English class; It was my favorite class that year and he was my favorite teacher. Mr. Takahasi, in his infinite wisdom, decided not to tell us anything about the book, only that it was still banned in come countries and even in some states in America. I realized, later on in life, that this was a brilliant approach because if I had known what it was about beforehand, I can’t say that I would have gone into it with such an excited attitude. I teared through it in just a few days, the whole book, which I had never done before with a book for school. I burned through the words like Montag’s fire burned through illegal books. I ran into Mr. Takahasi’s classroom a week after he gave us the book about twenty minutes before class started. He was standing by his desk, fiddling with a remote control. Mr. Takahasi was a short, Asian man with olive skin and a nearly bald head, save for a few light gray hairs. At sixteen years old, we were about the same height, so when I ran up to him, we met eye to eye.

“Mr. Takahasi! I finished the whole book in just three days!” I exclaimed

“Finished what book?” he asked.

“Fahrenheit 451!” I said, loudly. Mr. Takahasi looked at me, smiling with only half his mouth.

“You liked it that much, huh?”

“Yeah! It was amazing. Who is this Ray Bradbury guy, anyway?” I questioned. Who is this Ray Bradbury, indeed. Who is this man who got under my skin at sixteen and, at twenty-five, is now forever burned onto it.

I don’t know that I can pinpoint exactly what it was that made me Bradbury crazy when I was sixteen, but now that I know more about Bradbury, the person, I can easily see what it was about his writing that I connected to: Bradbury loved people and he wanted to tell their stories, however strange the setting may be that he put them in. I’ve always been a people person and I’ve always loved the fascinating stories people have to tell. Bradbury and I share this connection. Fahrenheit 451 is about a lot of things: censorship, literature and it’s effect on society, the future, etc. But I believe, at its core, it is about humanity and the things we will do to ourselves if we don’t take notice. Bradbury saw human nature as something amazing and spun his stories in so many different directions. This may be something that a lot of fiction writers do, but it’s how he gets those stories on that page, in his Bradburian language, that makes him such a great writer and why I adore him so.

Many people say that Bradbury was an idea writer, not a character writer. I agree with this, to a certain extent, but that isn’t to say that he isn’t able to create dynamic, insightful characters. I believe he uses these characters to show us things about ourselves. In Fahrenheit 451 he molds out amazing characters who are not unlike many people who surround us today, even though this is supposed to be set in the distant future. For instance, Guy Montag, our protagonist, has just met a young woman named Clarisse McClellan at the beginning of the book who is a free spirit and challenges Montag to look at life a bit differently. After their first encounter, she asks him if he is happy and then disappears leaving Montag to ruminate on this question. He thinks to himself “How like a mirror…her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know who refracted your own light to you? People were more often – he searched for a simile, found one in his work – torched, blazing away until they whiffed out. How rarely did other people’s faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?” (11) What a beautifully spoken thought. Bradbury reaches out and speaks to the reader, using the second person to bring us into Montag’s head. He even speaks through Montag’s voice, when Montag is searching for a simile. That is Bradbury’s voice. He is commenting on humanity and how we mirror each other; how we are all not so different from each other, despite how different we may feel or look. If you look into the faces of your fellow-man, you will see yourself reflected.

Another character in Fahrenheit 451 that I feel has a strong commentary on humanity is Mildred, Montag’s wife. Throughout the novel she is completely unaware of her surroundings and willfully absent from her life. She would rather take part in a fake conversation with her “relatives” on the wall screen, than take part in a conversation with Beatty and Montag, two real people. Isn’t that what we do in today’s society? Aren’t we much more involved in the lives of people on reality TV than we are in the lives are our own families? Wouldn’t we rather email or text than phone someone or meet them in person? We try to use the forms of communication with the least amount of confrontation possible. Despite the fact that Bradbury write this fifty years ago, he was able to see the path that humanity was taking. He uses Mildred as a model for what not to be. He makes her cold and unaffected by life; You can’t like her or sympathize with her because she is vacant. Bradbury is giving us a warning of what may be coming if we don’t wise up. I admire his ability to do this because he is not telling us that, he is showing us. He is using all of his characters to teach us things about ourselves.

The Martian Chronicles was written in 1950 and was originally written as a series of short stories and then was later put together as a cohesive novel or, as Ray Bradbury puts it, “a book of stories pretending to be a novel.” I initially struggled with this book because I read it years after having read Fahrenheit 451 and the majority of Ray Bradbury’s major short story collections. It didn’t flow the same way that Fahrenheit 451 did, but was much too interconnected to simply be a collection of short stories; It definitely fell perfectly in the middle. Despite the fact that it blurs a line of classification, a notion I’m sure Bradbury would be happy with, it illustrates Bradbury’s love and understanding of humans almost better than anything else I’ve read.

In the story “Ylla”, we are introduced to an alien couple that lives on Mars. Since the novel takes place mostly on Mars and is about the human infiltration of Mars, this is an interesting place to start us off. We are rocketed right into the world of Mars and are met with two characters that are so much like ourselves, that we are unable to question the validity of it all. Bradbury “humanizes” the Aliens so much that we can relate to all their worries and fears and joys, despite the fact that they live on Mars and are a completely different species. I am astounded by Bradbury’s ability to do this. For instance, I love that the Martians dream. Dreaming is such an innate human quality. Maybe other animals dream, but we can never really know for sure. Humans have multiple dreams every night and we can recount them to our friends. We’ve always thought of Martians as super-intelligent, highly evolved beings. Yet, in Bradbury’s world, they dream just like anyone else. Ylla, the female martian, starts having fantasies about an Earth man that she believes has come to Mars. She is having some “marital” problems with her martian husband and seems to be using this fantasy as an escape from that. Relationships problems transcend space and time here, making us feel normal, like “Oh, even Martians have problems with their spouses! I shouldn’t feel so bad for myself.” It makes this novel much less about science fiction and Mars, and more about people (or Martians).

And The Moon Be Still As Bright is another story in The Martian Chronicles that tells a cautionary tale about humanity and the mistakes we can make. Bradbury loved mankind and wants us all to be aware of the consequences of our actions. He shows us our tendencies to barrel into a society and want to tear it up and make it our own. Humans have done this with nature and foreign cultures, like Native Americans, for centuries. He shows us what we are doing through the experiences of a group of Earth astronauts. Capitan Wilder and his crew venture to Mars. They discover that the Martian race has been killed due to humans bringing Chickenpox there. Spender, a wiry member of the crew, becomes enraged when one of the men throws his bottles into a canal. Captain Wilder asks Spender what is wrong, Spender replies that “We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.” (54) This is a direct way of showing us that we, as humans, can’t parade ourselves around as owners of the universe. We can’t go around destroying things we don’t know enough about. Spender goes AWOL and eventually kills off most of the crew, hoping to delay the inevitable colonization of Mars. Captain Wilder kills him before he has a chance to kill anyone else, but understands Spender’s worry about humans taking over and forgetting what was there before. Bradbury was able to show us our flaws as filtered through a story about colonization on Mars. He has the most uncanny ability to humanize completely fantastical settings and this is something that sets him apart. He draws you in because you find yourself understanding and sympathizing with these characters, even though they are aliens or are exploring the depths of a deserted Martian planet.

Fahrenheit 451 was the book that made me want to become a writer. It changed the way I looked at literature as a whole; It was something I could touch and feel and smell and love, instead of something that I felt completely removed from. If Bradbury could do this for me, then I wanted to be able to do this for somebody else someday. I was intoxicated by the idea of being able to change someone’s life-like that. He made me see how important literature and reading is because it might very be gone in the future through Fahrenheit 451. When I dove further into Bradbury and started writing my own work, I realized how much I emulate his style. I, like Bradbury, am much more of an idea writer. I find myself lost among the ideas and plots of stories rather than the characters. Not that they are incidental, but can sometimes take a backseat to the plot. I admire Bradbury for his ability to always make this work. He has taught me so many things about becoming a better writer. I sometimes plan out my stories too precisely and that internal outline can get the better of me. Bradbury taught me not to think too much and just let the story tell itself. Don’t worry if your characters fall to the wayside or you can’t find the right words; just let the story happen. Like Bradbury says, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down.”

* * * * * *

A few months after I was inked forever with the words of Mr. Ray Bradbury, I went back to the same tattoo parlor to, once again, be branded with a “Bradbury-esqe” tattoo. I was getting the quote that I found at the beginning of Fahrenheit 451, by a man named Juan Ramon Jimenez that says “If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.” I had loved this since I first read it back in my Sophomore year of high school, when my love for Ray Bradbury was fresh and new. Now, years later, I still come back to that quote as my inspiration for the way to live my life. Even though Bradbury didn’t write it, I know that he chose for it to be at the beginning of his book about censorship because of the message it sends. Never let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do, and if they try, run away screaming. This is what Bradbury did; he didn’t let anyone tell him how to be a science fiction writer or that you can’t write a novel made up of several different, interconnected storied or that a story isn’t really a story without dynamic characters. He crumpled up that lined paper they gave him and took out a blank piece of paper, writing backwards, forwards and upside down.

I laid down on my side, back with my friend Nick, readying myself for the tattooing to begin. I was getting it on my ribs this time and I knew that it was a particularly painful spot.

“Are you ready for this?” Nick asked.

“Absolutely.” I responded. The all too familiar sound of the tattoo machine revved up and I felt Nick smooth out the skin around my ribs. As he placed the needle on me, I held my breath and winced. It was probably the worst pain I had ever felt in my life, but I closed my eyes and exhaled, letting out a long, deep sigh. I was happy with the words that were being forever printed onto my body and at that moment, it was a pleasure to be burned.

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