BOOK TOUR BABY = Part 2
After a slight delay, I board the plane and begin the mantra uttered by seasoned travelers and solo mothers throughout the world …………..”please don’t let me sit near a child, please don’t let me sit near a child…” I have already done my time.
Over and over again, the Gods of Airport Seating get it backwards. They see me and think “she has four kids, she can handle the screamer.” But flying with a young child, especially a toddler, is my own personal definition of hell. Children and confinement are not two words that belong together in the same sentence.
I see an exhausted mother and her three-year-old enter the cabin. I’ve watched this kid. I’ve racially profiled him in the departure lounge as he screamed, threw himself on the floor, and knocked his mother’s McFlurry onto the carpeting.
“Don’t let it be me,” I chant inside my own head again. If I were Catholic, I might cross myself. I contemplate telling the stewardess that I have an upset stomach and need to sit near the bathroom in the back aisle, but then the mother and child pass. I begin to relax and then WHAM – I realize that they are seated directly behind me as the kid begins kicking my chair. He lets out a scream as his mother tries to buckle him in and I snort in disgust. I realize with horror that I am becoming “Sky Mall Guy.”
I met Sky Mall Guy eighteen years ago on my first solo cross-country flight with my newborn son. You know the type, the ones whose lives are so orderly and contained and full of “me-time” that they arrive on the plane with nothing to read. Until the movie and the beverage service begins, they pick up the seat copy of the in-flight shopping magazine and glance lovingly at the array of must-have items from the swinging tailgate chair that hangs off the back of your pick-up to the talking BBQ fork that calls out when the meat is ready. Sky Mall guy clearly didn’t have kids.
He was young, probably in his first managerial job and was traveling for business with his newly shined shoes and natty suit. During our initial pleasantries he informed me that he was headed to an important meeting back East and he made some blustering remarks about how business class had been full and they’d stuck him in “cargo.” He eyed my sleeping baby like a virus.
As the hours ticked by, Mack began to squirm and mewl. He grew heavy in my arms, no matter how I held him. It began to feel as if I were carrying a small watermelon. Here I was, trapped on an airplane with my own living Tamagachi and there was no one sympathetic to hand him off to on a five-hour journey.
Sky Mall dozed on and off, his head turned slightly toward me, his mouth slack, and I could see his back fillings. He made gentle wheezing sounds; the way cartoon characters snore on TV. About halfway through the flight, after breast-feeding, Mack sat up, began to cry, and in one neat move, blew small cottage cheese curd-like chunks on the shoulder of Sky Mall guy’s suit. I had a situation now. Sky Mall was watching the movie with headphones, oblivious to the deposit on his suit shoulder.
I couldn’t ignore it. The smell alone would begin to tip him off. There were still two hours left of the flight, so I tapped him on the arm and apologetically pointed to the barf. His eyes widened in surprise and then he examined the shoulder of his suit as if I had just dumped raw sewage on him. As the reality dawned on him, his eyes narrowed to evil cartoon like slits and his mouth curled in disdain.
I began to babble profusely. I hung my head. I prostrated myself with my apology. I offered him money for dry-cleaning and gave him my address. I turned on my nicest smile and tried to charm him. The stewardess came over with a damp rag and club soda and tried her best to clean it off. He would barely look at me. His frosty, shocked attitude in the face of my new-Mom helplessness wasn’t helping the situation. I changed tactics.
“I’ll bet you had a mother,” I said defensively, burping Mack, who was beginning to cry again. “And I’ll bet she had to take you on a plane once.” He nodded and looked out the window as if to dismiss me.
That first flight with my first child had scarred me forever. But I had made a mental note never to be as callous or unhelpful to other travelers as Sky Mall guy. Now, here I was preparing to land in Chicago with a child-sized kicking mule behind me. I realized I had become “one of them.”
The pilot tells us the temperature in the Windy City is hovering around 50. Even though it’s May, it feels freezing when I walk up the gate ramp. My “never check a bag” policy means there isn’t room for a coat, but I realize I will have to break down and buy one in Chicago.
At the end of the escalator, near baggage claim, a man is holding a sign with my name on it. A copy of my book is crooked in his arm, with the photo of me on the cover. Only I don’t look like that. Right now I have on no makeup, nothing is airbrushed and I’m wearing sweatpants. He has already looked past me and appears confused as I wave to him at the bottom of the last step. I roll my sturdy carry-on directly toward him.
“Lee?” he says, looking back and forth between me and the cover of the book.
“That’s me,” is all I can manage, pointing to the book. “But this is really me.”
“Is that all you have?” he says somewhat dumbfounded. I have, in fact, packed for a week in one carry-on, an accomplishment which seems to absolutely stun most males for a few long seconds as if I have hit them in the buttocks with a taser. The various drivers who pick me up at airports, or media escorts cannot seem to comprehend how a woman could travel with one bag for a week. It might be more believable to them if I were a gold medalist in shot put or the biathalon.
Throughout the journey, the baffled men who encounter me with one bag will turn to other people, especially women and nudge them, “can you believe she’s traveling for a week with one bag?” The married ones make comments to their wives like, “Boy honey, I wish she could teach you to do that.” The women narrow their eyes into slits and glare at me as if I’ve personally betrayed them, like I have left the sisterhood and become a corporate whistle-blower.
In Chicago I am scheduled to go on a radio show with a host called “Mancow.” I am told it’s a national show, and from what I can tell he is Chicago’s version of a young Rush Limbaugh; opinionated, libertine. During the break I am ushered in the studio and he talks sweetly to me about his twins and asks how my husband is doing. But when the red light goes on, his entire face transforms. Immediately the studio breaks into controlled chaos as he stands at the control panel like a conductor, ranting so hard and adding high-octane sound effects that I am afraid he will forget to breathe. I quickly realize he is more interested in how my husband is doing after his injuries in Iraq than he is in my book of personal essays. Now it makes sense why I’m here- -it allows him to get into a tirade about the war’s detractors, those greasy haired liberals who drive around in busses powered by celery juice and believe in greenhouse gasses.
When I lamely try to insert my pitch for helping America’s wounded veterans, he interrupts me. This isn’t the direction he has mapped out. He smears me with a wilting look as I pipe up with my do-gooding plug.
His co-host, an older man who must have surely known Chicago’s golden days of radio, looks miserable as he stands to the side of Mancow in front of h
is own microphone. This is not where he intended to be in his last years before retirement. He has already learned he can’t get a word in edgewise. He reminds me of an obedient, golden retriever tied up in the back yard. He hates this job.
Perhaps most disturbing is that I learn, during the interview, that the man in the corner is Drew Peterson, the cop who allegedly killed two wives. He is obviously still roaming free since no one has been able to find the bodies or pin any evidence on him. A month or so later I will read that he was be hauled in jail.
Apparently Peterson and Mancow are friends, as in perhaps, save your soul kinds of friends, the way certain people stuck by OJ’s side. But I have to believe Drew Peterson is good for ratings too. As I continue to lamely attempt to interject one or two words about my book, I am keenly aware that my bare legs are right in Petersons line of sight as he lurks in the corner. I can’t quite see him but just knowing he is there, like a human coat rack, unsettles me. This is a person who knows exactly how to make a woman’s body disappear. I can’t wait for this to end.
On the other hand, the marketing savvy part of my brain percolates an idea. If it helps sell books, maybe I could offer to go out on a date with Peterson and Mancow can promote it on air. Anything to boost sales.
Onto a lunch talk at the Union League Club and an interview format with my friend and ABC anchor Kathy Brock. I can let my hair down a little here. As I talk and look out over the crowd I see faces I know from college, from living in Chicago, from some of the people I have met since. I get a laugh, at my own expense, answer a question, vamp with Kathy for fun.
An author book reading is a little but like a cross between the show “This is Your Life” and the experience of meeting all of the people from the various parts of your life in heaven. Of course, this is because you have emailed your entire address book and asked everyone you know to pass your email on to everyone THEY know in their town. You have made yourself viral. Each time my plane touches down I become a one-woman spam machine, blasting out my “I’m reading in a city near you…” email to everyone I can remember in the tri-state areas of the cities I visit. You have facebooked and twittered and social media-ed yourself to death until you have carpal tunnel syndrome. There is one point during the book tour when I cannot feel the top of my thumb.
You are hoping against hope for some kind of critical mass at each reading. You’ll take anyone; the homeless man who frequents the library, the lonely, rumpled lady whom you know attends every Barnes & Noble reading because she wants to hear herself ask a question. You add the five people who actually work at the bookstore as legit. A fanny in a seat counts. A body is a body. You aren’t going to be picky. If only you could make them all buy a book.
And at every single speech or reading, the people are always the best part. I see friends from 6th grade, Sunday School in Albany, NY and summer camp. I hug people I used to work with, someone I had exchanged emails with over a brain injured spouse. I meet medics and nurses who helped my husband in the hospital in Iraq or Bethesda Naval Hospital. I meet reservists and service members who simply want to thank me for caring. It is overwhelming and humbling and because we have lived so many places in our marriage there are times my memory scrambles to catch up. Although I have a great ability to recognize a face, there is always a moment when I rifle through the filo-fax of my brain for a name, determined not to let anyone down or make them feel less important in any way.