Fear and Loathing on the Book Tour, Part 2: Postcard From New York City

Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott

Ah, springtime in New York City! That ineluctable smell! What is it, exactly? Curry and fish sauce, garbage, perfume, rotten eggs, fresh bread, urine, incense, stale tailpipe, shish kebab, body odor. (I am estimating.)

We arrived in one piece, Julianna and I, and immediately set about showing just what hicks we are. This involved a brief period of disorientation in Penn Station, followed by a brief period of disorientation on the corner of 28th and Lexington, followed by me asking a guy coming out of a McDonald’s for directions.

A quick tip for the savvy traveler: Don’t ask the guy coming out of McDonald’s for directions. He is from Oklahoma.

I’m going to skip over the part where I get briefly disoriented on my way to the reading, because the reading itself rocked so very hard. Julianna had brought a posse, including a woman in the front row with a baby who appeared to have been born some hours earlier. The baby was very well-behaved. I was slightly less so.

Two other quick notes:

Note one: Julianna and I continue to do a lot of arguing during readings. Oddly, the crowd seems to enjoy this. I can’t figure out if they think we’re just “pretending” to argue for show, or if they’ve realized that we are, in fact, arguing.

Note two: I was not drunk.

After the reading, we signed a bunch of books. Two incidents bear mentioning. First, Kyle Weaver made the trip from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with his pal Ken. I have no idea how far Harrisburg is from New York City, but I can tell you that Kyle is on my list of New Favorite New People.

And not just because of my abject, insatiable desire for Pennsylvanian groupies, but because Kyle is an editor at Stackpole Books, an independent press and the publisher of what ranks as the single greatest book in the history of culinary literature.

I speak (of course) of Country Scrapple, the definitive guide to the pork product that has been setting tongues aflame for more than sixty years. I don’t know that I can convey how deep my worship of Country Scrapple runs without oinking. I have memorized entire chunks of the book, along with a mental image of the cover, which features a shiny, presumably soon-to-be-scrappled snout.

“You have no idea how hard I fought for that cover,” Kyle told me.

“You have no idea how much that means to me,” I said, not joking.

A friend of my aunt Alice, Julie Gancher, also showed up with her husband and daughter. Julie is one of those people who has known me since I was a baby, which gives her a quasi-familial right to harass me about whatever she so chooses.

Sample dialogue:

Me: Can I sign your book, Julie?

Julie: That’s why we waited in line.

Me: Okay. (Signs book).

Julie: (Examining my signature) That’s your signature? What are you, a doctor?

Julie’s Daughter: (Slightly mortified) Mom, you can’t say that to him. He has to sign a lot of books.

Julie: I’m just asking. He’s a writer and this is how he signs his name? If he was a doctor, that would be one thing…

After the reading, Julianna’s friends led a forced march down to a bar in the East Village that one of them part-owns, and that was so far away that I eventually peeled off with a few pals and ducked into Katz’s Deli for a big bowl of matzo soup and a turkey sandwich the approximate width of Kansas.

I was joined in my porkfest by the kickass novelist Laurie Foos—pregnant and looking ravishing—and her hilarious husband Mike, whom, for some reason, I believed to be a fireman and introduced to a bunch of my friends as a fireman, because I find the idea that he is an actual fireman mysteriously thrilling.

He is, in fact, a corporate lawyer.

Four thousand calories later, we joined Julianna and her posse at the bar. Julianna began calling out to Laurie, “We’re gonna dance! Let’s dance!” an invitation that did not extend to me. Two Caucasian coauthors co-dancing? Maybe not so much.

This morning we made our way to JFK for a nine A.M. departure aboard—I am not making this up—American Airlines Flight No. 1. The cab ride included one noteworthy moment. Despite my effort to get Julianna to pay for every single expense while we’re on tour together (in keeping with the theory that she will actually not lose her receipts for reimbursement), I volunteered to pay the cab driver. As I was pulling a series of small, crumpled bills out of my wallet Julianna leaned close to me and murmured, “Remember to tip.”

I can hardly blame her; I did spend the ten minutes before we got into the taxi loading my computer bag with several dozen muffins from the hotel’s free buffet. Fear not, I tipped the driver, though not the somber gentleman manning the buffet.

There are limits even to my generosity.

Looking to lay down my base tan in LA,


New York is filled with New Yorkers—you can usually count on that—but when Steve asks for directions he never seems to find one. The people he stops on the street don’t look like tourists. No cameras and flapping maps. No. But they answer in southern drawls and Canadian yips. I fear they are fake New Yorkers. Decoys of some sort, meant to further disorient prey. (We would be the prey.)

After falling for a few of these knock-offs, while still at a very early sign of disorientation—maybe having wandered fourteen steps from the spot the cabby dropped us off—Steve calls the hotel and asks for directions. I have lived under the assumption that asking for directions was strictly feminine behavior and so this seems, well, distinctly unmasculine. But there’s a gender reversal at work. I have to admit to myself that I would have wandered for blocks in the stuffy heat, my little suitcase on wheels tottering behind me. Anywhere else in the world, I’d have quickly asked directions. But I wouldn’t give New Yorkers the satisfaction—New Yorkers with their intimidating bustle and strut. I lived in New York for part of a summer in the ’80s when it was dirtier and meaner. And my older sister would tell me, “Never look up at the buildings or someone will know you’re from out of town and rob you—or worse.” I still keep my head down in New York, which does nothing for my feeble sense of direction. Not to worry though. No full-tilt wandering necessary. Steve has humbled himself—as I see it at least. When he gives the person at the desk our coordinants, it turns out we’re only a cross street away.

This getting to the hotel is a little milestone for us. I don’t know if Steve sees it as such. But I do. We have other places to go, of course, but this alone...well, we’re beaming at the front desk—a little shiny with sweat. There’s a bowl of Hershey minis sitting there in anticipation of our arrival. Steve palms a few.

We make our way to another duo gig and then part company. I spend the afternoon with my best friend from childhood and her newborn—who is compelling advertising for me to have another—though he isn’t doing this on purpose. You can’t blame him, really. I know it’s dangerous, but I hold him and he smells sweet and milky and all baby-fied.

This is when the missing takes hold—my husband, Dave, and our three kids. Last time I toured New York, we were all together, plus my parents and my grandmother who was 86 at the time. I have a distinct memory of walking down the Avenue of the Americas, holding hands with my older two, Dave and the youngest just behind us, and I was crying. The book I was on tour with, The Madam, was about the women who came before me, our family’s history in prostitution, survival. That tour was tough in its own way. Each book, that handing-over to the public, has its own brand of heartache for me. I miss my kids. I miss Dave. I have a feeling now that the missing has just surfaced, and it probably won’t ease up.

The reading is at a Barnes & Noble—upstairs, amid books, where readings tend to be. But I’m dismayed. I miss the bar from the night before. When books line walls, people tend to go library quiet. It’s stifling. This book is best suited to be read in bars. Steve and I read different parts than the previous night. We banter, maybe even spar? At one point he told the crowd that both of his parents are psychoanalysts, and I leaned into the mic and said, “Big fucking surprise there!”

To sidestep some sex question—these are inevitable—I find myself telling the crowd about a dream I had a few weeks ago. It goes: I’m in my hotel room and I’m told that I’m to race Steve in the lobby—a sprint. I get fully dressed in sports gear. I was always a fast runner, so I'm feeling pretty cocky—dream cocky. I'm warming up, taking it all quite seriously, when Steve walks up in a seventies-style, wide-collared shirt and says, “Smell me. It’s the new Drakkar Noir.” And, in the dream, I realize that this isn’t a race like I thought it was going to be. I’ve got it all wrong and I'm bound to lose.

The point was, I think, to say that Steve and I don’t have a sexy relationship. It’s a competitive one—though I guess competition can be sexy. But the competition I once felt doesn’t seem right now that we’re on the road—finding our way through train stations, on subway lines, through a maze of fake New Yorkers. It feels more like being on a team, which I think was how it felt way back (way, way back) when this whole novel started. Two crazy kids. An experiment. A lark. A game. It was, once upon a time, sporting.

Still and all—full sprint.


P.S. Steve doesn’t smell like Drakkar Noir, and he’s yet to break out a wide collared shirt—but the tour is still young.


This is the second 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.