Book Tour Baby – Part 3
Despite all the challenges of being on the road, there are amazing moments, incredible people, who will give pieces of themselves to me without even knowing it.
There is the arresting sound of Tricia Thompson’s trach tube clearing as she sits, dignified in her wheelchair during a brain injury fundraiser in Kansas City. The story I heard of the Vietnam Vet in Baltimore haunts me. His post-traumatic stress was so devastating that he stayed in a dark room and refused to see his wife after his plane was shot down. One day they found him with shaving cream in his peanut bowl, slowly shaving an unshelled nut. There is the young couple I have stayed in touch with and their 18-month old daughter whose brain is slowly recovering from being shaken by her babysitter. There are the broken marriages, the women who have battled back cancer, the people who tell me they have laughed and cried when they read what I wrote, the people who share their stories with me after the reading. I feel swollen with a sense of gratitude I cannot precisely articulate.
The stories I hear, of misery, triumph and the resilience of the human spirit remind me of how very lucky I am to be in this place, this time and space, exhausted as I am and so far from home. I am exercising my craft.
Back at O’Hare airport I am ready to depart for Detroit. On the giant TV monitors CNN, is cranking up fears about swine flu to crisis levels. It looks like war of the worlds with people huddled in groups at the gates staring up at the monitors, which are broadcasting projected deaths and statistics at earsplitting levels. The woman next to me tells me they are thinking about shutting down the airports. At this rate, in all liklihood, I would be stuck in Dallas, the one city on the tour where I only know two people.
The scene now on CNN is of citizens wearing hospital masks, schools closing, folks stuck inside. This is not exactly the best time to encourage people to turn out for a book reading.
Taking my mind off swine flu for the moment I walk to one of the terminal bookstores. Thanks to the Random House publicists, I have finally learned to “make friends with the bookstores” as I’m walking through airports. This means walking in with a car salesman’s smile and offering to sign the copies of your book.
The first few times I do this, it feels very unnatural. It’s a level of self-promotion on par with QVC huckstering, especially since the book has my picture on the cover. As I roll into Hudson News with my crepe-soled shoes and elastic waist sweats, the employee, who does not speak English as a first language, has no idea what I am referring to as I interrupt her re-stocking of miniature Advil packs to ask for my book by title. I clear my throat and tell her I am an author.
“You whaaa???” she says in a heavy accent, squinting up at me suspiciously. I am riveted to the mole on her chin that has sprouted a black hair. “What you want?”
I ask again if she has copies of my books and tell her I am offering to sign them for the store. Still she looks blank. At the register is a copy of this week’s “People Magazine.” As luck would have it—there is an article about the book inside with a picture of the cover.
I open “People” to the proper page and point at my picture, then back to me and to the book I had stashed in my bag. She squints and puts on her reading glasses, “Well I don’t know… “ she says. She is having a hard time reconciling the professionally shot family photo in the magazine with the haggard, bare-faced woman she sees in front of her.
“It’s me,” I say in a small voice.
She scratches her chin mole and grabs the magazine for closer inspection. The “People” thing seems to impress her a little.
“Well, maybe,” she says quickly and goes to the computer to look up the book, which turns out to be on display somewhere in the back.
All five signatures completed, I gamely offer to put the books back on the shelf, whereby I immediately swap more attractive retail space at eye level with an older, better-selling book. In fact, even my husband has been enlisted in this effort. When he flies for business he goes into the airport bookstores and stealthily moves the books to a more prominent position.
I have recently, shamelessly, taken to moving my books to the “Bookstore Picks” section of bookstores. These shelves are not alphabetical, and therefore aberrations are slower to be discovered by bookstore staff. Another writer friend told me that a book has a better chance of lying undiscovered there for days. The chain store employees seem to have a photographic memory of where everything goes. And on top of that, I’ve been amazed at the short attention span bookstores give each book. They become the flavor of the month for about two weeks and then are banished alphabetically to their category of fiction, non-fiction or self-help. I silently curse myself for having fallen in love and married a man whose last name begins with “W.” I am perpetually shelved at the bottom of a stack.
As I head to the security screening line, alarm bells go off when I see two formidable women in gray sans-a-belt regulation uniform pants guarding the entrance to the line like Cerberus at the gates of hell. I know this type. They look me over and the bigger one immediately points to my bulging carry on.
“Not gonna fit,” she says authoritatively and her one gold tooth glints. I’m not even worth enough energy to insert a noun into her sentence. The other lady shakes her head in disgust as if she can’t quite believe I would attempt something this foolish.
I instantly go from somewhat chilled to red-hot pissed. My flashpoint has begun to ratchet up in airports as each new person I encounter in positions of authority tries to assert their power.
“Oh, it will fit, “ I counter, a bit too off-handedly. I know her kind. This power trip is what juices her day.
“Not happening,” she says, crossing her arms in front of her.
I realize I have gotten lazy in my haste to pack this morning. I have been careless and the carry on is bulging with books I have accumulated on the outside zipper pocket. I silently curse at myself but I can’t lose face and re-pack now. Instead I jam my bag into the “test” area at her feet—the one with the sign that reads, “Your carry on must fit within this space.” I can already tell it’s not breaking my way.
“Look,” I sputter, “I have traveled all around the country, all year and this has fit everywhere. On every plane. I have never had a problem yet.” My voice is rising in an unattractive wail. But I am speaking the truth. Somehow you can always squish and shove something just a little bit harder.
“Don’t look like it fits to me, “ she huffs in a sneer. “It look like it fit to you?” she nods her head toward her co-hort, sneering, while narrowing her eyes at me.
“You must think you’re traveling on a JUMBO jet,” she says and she laughs at her own joke. All that is missing is the slapping of a billy club into her open palm and the Doberman at her ankle.
I’m smart enough to know I’m not going to win this. Not even close. But I am furious. I grab my bag and huff away, angry at myself, angry at the system, angry that these
people don’t get paid a little more so they can be just a tad nicer.
I flounce back to the ticket counter to check the bag, knowing that this violates my husband’s number one rule of air travel, knowing that I will add up to 30 minutes or more waiting for baggage on the other end or risk having to wear my present sweat suit outfit on TV the next day. I check the bag and realize that all of my reading materials were inside and it has just disappeared down the conveyor belt. Sigh. There is always the Sky Mall magazine, I tell myself.
When I finally locate my bag in Detroit, limping along the conveyor belt, the bump of books in the outside pocket has now formed a Dowager’s hump. As I pull on the handle, it becomes stuck party-way up. The telescoping mechanism of the supposedly indestructible Tumi luggage will not extend beyond a foot. I sigh deeply and begin to roll through the airport bent like a crone.