As I stepped off the plane at the San Francisco International Airport, a strange, terrifying thought gripped me: Julianna will be meeting my mother tonight. It would be a momentous event. The two women most capable of humiliating me in public would be in the same room—and no doubt interacting during the question-and-answer session.
I could tell from that little extra pep in Julianna’s step that she was looking forward to it.
“You’re not going to embarrass me tonight, right?” I asked her as we lugged our bags toward the taxi stand.
“I wasn’t aware you were capable of embarrassment," Julianna murmured. She was grinning in a way I would not characterize as benign. “If you’re referring to meeting your parents, I’m very much looking forward to that,” she said primly. “Yes. The Almond parents. Very interesting.”
Yes, very interesting.
Another interesting potential disaster: I was scheduled to do two readings in San Francisco, the first, with Julianna, at Cody’s bookstore, the second for a progressive group called LitPac.
The reading at Cody’s was at 6 PM and, according to my itinerary, the LitPac reading was at 10 PM. No problem. I figured I’d even have time for a leisurely dinner with my folks and Julianna, at which my mom and Julianna could share a few thousand laughs over my personal hygiene.
So I called Stephen Elliot, the writer who organized the LitPac event, to get directions.
“When do I actually need to be there?” I asked.
“The readings start at 7 PM,” he said cheerfully.
“W-w-w-what?” I said. “But my itinerary says 10 PM.”
“Hmmmm,” Elliot said. “That must be my e-mail program. When I send stuff to the east coast, it automatically adjusts to the time zone.”
There is no need to quote the ensuing exchange. The crucial thing is that Elliot assured me (in that relaxed manner Californians have) that I could show up as late as 8 PM, as there were other readers. So din-din was out.
On the taxi ride into the city, I explained the situation to Julianna, and this segued into a broader discussion about book tours.
My take on the subject: It’s an honor to be sent on a book tour (particularly by Algonquin, a company that takes good care of its authors) and you shouldn’t bitch. Not only that, you should be grateful, because the book tour allows you to promote your work more broadly and the book in question, which hopefully results in royalties down the road. I pointed out that bands are often expected to pay their own way on tour.
Julianna’s attitude ran more like this: I was paid to write the book. You are now asking me to take another week out of my schedule to promote the book, an exhausting week during which I will not get any real work done, because I will be busy lugging bags through airports and conducting idiotic arguments with my thick-skulled coauthor.
Well. I imagine having three kids and a full-time university gig (as Julianna does) might change my perspective.
Did I mention the Hotel Monaco?
It was quite possibly the nicest hotel ever to welcome me. It was certainly the only one to offer fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies at the front desk, of which I ate three, then proceeded to my room and spent fifteen minutes staring worshipfully at the toiletry items.
And the bed! The bed was so lavish, so broad, so perfect, that I didn’t even want to lie down. It seemed wrong for someone as fundamentally poor and dirty as myself to soil such a bed. So I took a bath and power-napped for ten minutes, then Julianna and I cabbed over to the Haight, where we did not in fact purchase any hash, instead opting to sign books at the local indie, The Booksmith.
Then it was back downtown for a rendezvous with my parents, those irresistible psychoanalysts Don Ricci and Babs Almond. They showed up five minutes before the reading started, fresh from their analytic chairs and beaming. I made the introductions, and they told Julianna how much they admired her writing and did not (as I might have suggested to them, during a less-balanced moment a few months back) recommend that she seek long-term therapy.
This is what I love about my parents: They are a class act.
Unfortunately, they were also exactly two-fifths of the audience, the other three members of the “crowd” being college pals.
Now any touring writer will tell you that a crowd of five is about the worst you can do. Because, really, with just three or four people you can sort of appeal to their common sense and go out for beers instead. But with five people you cross a certain invisible threshold, hopelessly beyond “a couple” status (as in, “Yeah, we cancelled the reading; only a couple of folks showed up”) but not close enough to double digits to fudge for your publicist (“It was an okay crowd, a dozen or so”).
In the past, when I was going to lots of readings and not reading at them, I could never understand why authors would always breeze in just as the reading was going to start. It struck me as rude. Now I get it.
There is nothing more excruciating—aside from writing itself—than waiting around for people to show up to your reading.
Julianna looked minorly disgusted. This was my hometown, after all. And this was all I could draw?
“It looks like you’ll have time for dinner with your parents,” she whispered to me, as the seconds ticked past miserably.
Thankfully, the San Francisco crowd was merely tardy. Pretty soon, my twin brother, Mike, showed up with a few friends. Then my aunt Alice. Then a couple of Julianna groupies. And pretty soon we had a respectable little gathering.
My mother was the first person to ask a question (of course), but the most awkward moment came when Mike raised his hand.
“I’m not sure how I feel about being replaced as a twin,” he said.
Julianna regarded him with a slightly forced expression of mirth. “I can assure you,” she said, “that I have no intention of replacing you. No, Steve is all yours. Do with him what you will.”
She and my mother laughed uproariously.
I arrived at the LitPac reading in time to see Aimee Bender and Pam Houston rock the house and even got to share a quick sandwich with my parents, both of whom were thoroughly, annoyingly, inextricably charmed by Julianna.
I don’t think they would have been quite so charmed, though, if they had seen Julianna in action the next morning, at the airport.
Have I mentioned that Julianna is an impatient person?
Have I mentioned that she doesn’t like lines of any kind?
Well she doesn’t.
And may God have mercy on any fellow passenger who tries to cut in line if she is around.
I certainly hope that God will have mercy on the elderly Chinese couple who—looking pretty disoriented, frankly—attempted to slip past Julianna, to the front of the line.
“Oh no you don’t,” she bellowed. “This is the line. Right here. You have to go to the back of the line. Yeah, you. I’m talking to you.”
I realize you think I’m exaggerating for effect.
I am not.
All this, of course, makes me grateful that my mother didn’t say anything offensive to my coauthor.
A writer of my emotional delicacy can only handle so much conflict.
Hasta la Portland,
I was looking forward to the San Fran reading because I was going to meet Mr. and Mrs. Almond. The originators. I was curious, too, about which Steve would show up. Would he be more respectful in front of his folks? It was hard to say.
We got to the reading early and while Steve got a jump on signing stock, I wandered down Stockton Street. A young pervie guy asked me where I’ve been all his life and, as I pull my pocket book in close to my body and questioned my choice of skirt, I thought: I've been in my own life, I guess.
And for some reason this doesn’t seem like such a good thing—having been so deeply in my own life. But I've got my head up now and I'm taking it all in. It felt good to be anonymous in a big city.
I must have looked like someone who's got nowhere to go and who's feeling wistful because what happened next was nothing less than a street scuffle for my soul.
The Scientologist got me first. With Mission Impossible reflexes, he handed me a ticket, a personal invitation for free personality and intelligence tests, which, according to the ticket, “have everything to do with your income, your future, your personal relationships, and your life,” to which I thought, “Duh.” Furthermore, what if I learned that I’m both stupid and a bitch. It seems like everyone should have the option of saying, "I may be stupid but at least I'm a nice person" or "I may not be nice, but I sure am smart."
Fifteen feet away, L. Ron Hubbard's peeps were offering free stress tests. Even though the Scientologist's feelings were obviously hurt, I ambled over. Did I mention that I stopped at the King of Thai Noodle House for a drink? I was feeling calm, like I could ace the test. What you do is hold onto these metal tubes connected by wires to a little lie detector-like contraption. The lady asks a question, and the needles on the contraption waver and then shoot up. Turns out Almond makes me stressed. But so do a lot of things—academia, hurricanes, tree frogs. I’m a freak, basically. I need to read Dianetics (or La Dianética). In the middle of the woman’s pitch, a young Latina walked up and announced, "Jesus loves you! He died for your sins and he's the only way you're going to get stress-free!"
This was way out of bounds, and the Dianetics lady gave her a look that said so. The Scientologist was edging in too. He’d been holding back, you know, politely, but if they were going to throw down, they could count him in.
“Okay,” the Dianetics woman said. “That’s enough.”
But it clearly wasn’t. The girl piped up a few more times about Jesus' abundant love for me, which was beginning to seem like borderline creepy love.
I had somewhere to be. I had Almonds to meet. I thanked everyone. Who knew my soul had such street value?
In the bookstore before the reading, I met the Almonds. They are wonderful. Steve’s father has a very gentle, almost shy manner and an easy smile. Steve's mother is petite, gracious, and fabulously proud of her son. She has a true radiance. At the beginning of my reading, I told them that it’s an honor to read for them tonight, and I thanked them for their workmanship, how they have shaped this son of theirs with such attention and care. I pushed it, maybe a little, when I thanked them for their really intricate work—their really complicated cross-stitching on his psyche, on the Byzantine structural underpinnings of what is Steve Almond. But I joked. It was funny. We all laughed.
I want to mention that there was a hybrid Steve in San Fran—some Old Steve, some New Steve—a gas-electric version. Let’s call him Prius Steve. During the evening, I gave him my free intelligence and personality test ticket. It is, after all, a one hundred dollar value. This is the kind of thoughtfulness that keeps the tour rolling along so smoothly.
This is the fourth installment in a series of Postcards written by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott, coauthors of Which Brings Me to You (Algonquin Books, 2006), while on tour to promote their book.