Back in 2005, I called Harvey Pekar on the phone. My reason for calling was to ask if he’d be interested in contributing an essay to an anthology I was putting together called Fame & Misfortune. I’d gotten his number from a man who used to book him for speaking engagements. He told me: “Harvey’s real cool, just give him a call.” So I did. The phone rang a few times, then Harvey picked up. I heard that same voice I came to know from his days on Letterman. It was scratchy and distinct, loaded with character.
Harvey listened patiently to my pitch. I was nervous, stumbled on my words a bit too much, backtracked and probably sounded like someone who’d been hit in the head a few too many times. When I was finally done explaining the book, and what I was looking for in an essay, Harvey asked a few questions. He told me it sounded real interesting. Then he got to the point, the million dollar question every writer needs to ask, deserves to ask: “What’s it pay?”
At the time, I had no money. Every submission I received was paid back in copies of books/zines, or by putting contributors in touch with editors and art directors I knew, people who would pay them, however measly the money. But Harvey didn’t need that. He had an outlet for his work, a means of distributing his stories and ideas. So I reluctantly admitted that there was no budget, waiting for him to thank me for wasting his time. “I need to make some dough,” he said, pausing for a moment. It seemed as if he was thinking about whether or not he could handle doing one more piece of writing for free in his life. “Yeah, I need to at least make some dough, a few hundred bucks.” I told him I would see if I could get some cash together and, if so, I would call him back. I never got the cash. So I never called.
When I think about this conversation, I cringe a little. I worry that I insulted him, even though he didn’t seem the least bit offended. To him, it was probably another phone call, one of many he fielded that day from his home in Cleveland Heights. But I wish I could have made it work. The anthology remains unfinished, half a decade later. And in that manuscript wasting away on a randomly used hard drive, there is no contribution from Harvey Pekar.