The way I met Isaac Asimov was the way I met almost everybody else who became not only important to me as a teenager but a lifelong friend. Like every other kid in the world, I met a lot of other kids in those years from, say, 14 to 19 — in school, in the neighborhood, in the YCL, in the (don’t laugh) Olivet Presbyterian Church Thursday afternoon teenagers’ class, which I attended until I was 17. But those friends came and went and were gone, while many of the ones I met through fandom were friends all their lives — Isaac, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Dirk Wylie, Dick Wilson. In fact, there are one or two — Jack Robins, Dave Kyle — whom I still count as friends, seventy-odd years later, although none of us are very mobile these days and it’s been a while since we got together.
I digress. (In fact, you may have noticed, I do it often.) In those days, the thing was that we kids had been captured by science fiction. And when a burgeoning fandom gave us a chance to meet other captives, we signed up at once.
Like most of us in the New York area, Isaac’s first clue that there was a way to join others came from reading Hugo Gernsback’s magazine, Wonder Stories. In an effort to improve sales, Gernsback had started a correspondence club, the Science Fiction League, and allowed some members to charter local chapters. One, the Q (for Queens) SFL, was in the New York area and was the point of first contact for most of the area’s newbies because they’d read about it in the magazine.
So the QSFL was where Isaac first showed up, but we Futurians kept an eye on their new blood. Anyone who turned up with an interest in writing sf as well as reading it, we kidnapped; that was one of the reasons the QSFL’s heads, James Taurasi, Will Sykora and Sam Moskowitz, weren’t real fond of us. And Isaac made it clear that he was definitely going to become an sf professional writer, as soon as he figured out how.
At that time Isaac didn’t give many indications that he would achieve that ambition, much less that he would become I*S*A*A*C A*S*I*M*O*V. He was, if anything, deferential. Isaac was born Russian-Jewish, brought to America as a small child when his father, who had immigrated early, was at last able to send for his family.
Many of the Futurians had already begun to write sf stories, showing the mss. to each other and talking about the stories’ successes (few) and flaws (many). One or two of us had actually made some tiny sales. (Including me. I had had a truly sappy poem published in Amazing Stories.) A few of us had begun teaming up as collaborators. Isaac yearned, but he had to miss most of that. His parents owned a candy store at the eastern edge of Prospect Park, and their children had to help with the work of running it. Isaac got to our meetings when he could, but seldom to the writing sessions.
Candy stores are getting scarce in this 21st century, in Brooklyn and everywhere else. They did sell candy — nickel candy bars at least — but that wasn’t all they sold. They were one of the places where you went for your daily paper or favorite magazine, or for a pack of cigarettes (or for a single cigarette, price 1¢, if your bankroll was low), or for a malted or an ice cream cone if, as they mostly did, the store included a small soda fountain. They were definitely a family business, and both Isaac and his sister, Marcia, with a little help from his young brother, Stanley, had to be able to handle all parts of the business.
The easiest part was the candy bars; hand over the Milky Way, drop the nickel in the cash register and the sale was complete. The soda fountain took the most skill, and on hot summer days, when a lot of traffic might appear, it was usually Isaac’s mother behind the counter, though one of the kids might be drafted for washing and stacking the dishes. Far harder work was the newspaper stand, especially on Sunday mornings. In those days, New York still had a dozen or more daily newspapers, with a couple more from Brooklyn itself, and nearly every one of them published larger Sunday editions.
If you have seen even an Obama-era Sunday New York Times (several sections smaller than the old days), you have some idea of what a Sunday paper might look like. It comes in12 or 14 separate sections, several of them bigger than the whole paper is on weekdays, and they aren’t all printed on Saturday night. They couldn’t be. No newspaper, not even the Times, has the press capacity to print that many pages in a single session. So they would print a few sections that didn’t have to have late-closing deadlines — perhaps the Travel section, and Books, maybe the Sunday magazine — on, say, Thursday. Then, on Friday, they would print a few more, leaving only a manageable number of pages that had to be printed for the up-to-the-minute news on Saturday night.
Doesn’t sound like anything Isaac had to worry about so far, right? But those early sections were delivered to the news dealers early, too, and then all the vast last-minute stuff comes pounding in, probably around three or four a.m. on the Sunday morning, and all the papers need to be assembled and stacked on the newsstand and begin to be sold by maybe six.
Not every copy of every paper, no. When you’ve put together a dozen copies of the Herald-Tribune you can turn to start on the Brooklyn Eagle or the Times-Union. But they all have to be assembled some time, and besides somebody has to take the customers’ money when they start arriving and, often enough, decide they might as well pick up a pack of Camels and a Hershey bar as long as they’re there. And there are more of them than on a weekday, because the customers that would normally get their News or Mirror from a subway kiosk on the way to work aren’t going to work today. (And don’t forget that Sunday night you have to start bundling the unsold copies to return to the publisher for credit.)
So Sunday was not a day of rest for the Asimov family. The good part was that it was usually financially good, but it made it tough for Isaac to get to many sf gatherings.
Back in the Soviet Union, Father Asimov had been a respected professional, something like an American accountant., but in America, held up to the world as the land of opportunity, his Russian credentials weren’t accepted: thus the candy store. He was determined that his son be respected. He was quite aware that Isaac had the intelligence to become a doctor — or any other top profession, but M.D. was his first choice. And he was determined that Isaac not be trapped into any adolescent follies that might endanger achieving that prize.
For instance, there were all those pulp magazines (comics had not yet reached their time of dominance) that lined one wall of the store.
When any family member was alone in charge of the store and business was slow, there was no particular harm in their picking up one of the magazines and reading a few pages between customers, as long as they didn’t crease the pages. But now Mr. Asimov saw that there was unsuspected harm. They were distractions for young people who should be concentrating on studies, so he forbade them all, but especially Isaac, to read any of the pulps. And for Isaac that was the worst news ever, because printed on pulpwood paper, and thus lumped in with the Westerns and the detective magazines, were Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories and, most indispensable of all, Astounding.
This could not be born. Isaac reviewed his possible strategies. The obvious one was to sneak a copy of Astounding off the racks and only read it when his parents were out of the store. The worst part of that was that the apartment they lived in was just across the street, and from any of the major windows you could see right into the store. Isaac had no doubt that his father’s commands were for his own good and didn’t want to disobey them — even less wanted to be caught at it.
So he went about it a different way. In the store with his father Isaac pulled copies of Amazing, Astounding and Wonder off the shelves and laid them before his father. He pointed out that each one was described as science fiction. That is, fiction about science, and therefore a kind of reading that would actually help Isaac with his increasingly arduous science studies. After some thought, his father saw the wisdom of that. The ban was lifted, and from then on whenever there was a lull in the store — and all the soda glasses washed and all the homework done and the floors swept — Isaac was free to take the latest Astounding down and lose himself in the works of Murray Leinster and Doc Smith, as long as he didn’t crease the pages.
(Part 2 of the Isaac Asimov story comes along, as always, as soon as I write it.)