I’m going to dispense with a report on the weather, because I am writing to you from Los Angeles, where the temp is perma-locked at eighty-three degrees Fahrenheit. The famous smog is still here, the toxic velvet dusk, the gleaming impermanence of movie billboards. And—let us now thank the gods of good fortune—my new wife Erin!
Erin is finishing up her MFA at UC Irvine, and so volunteered to act as a designated chauffeur-concubine for the tour. (Just to keep the accounting clear: Erin is being paid by Algonquin for any mileage accrued. I will be paying out-of-pocket for any further services.)
It was an absolute delight to see her shining face, and she aided immeasurably in the not-constantly-getting lost process. She is also unafraid of driving in Los Angeles, which makes her braver than me by a factor of three.
The ruling authorities at Algonquin put us up at a hotel called The Grafton, on Sunset Boulevard, where the staff wear lime-green and black suits and practice that pouncing brand of politesse that I often mistake for daylight robbery. What the hell are you doing with my bag? Hey! Those car keys are mine!
The Grafton serves a fantastic lunch. I mention this because both Erin and I are big eaters, even more so now that Erin is twenty weeks pregnant and plumping up just splendidly. So our lives pretty much revolve around our next meal, or our next snack, or our next pre-snack nibble, which is to be differentiated from a “bite” (not quite a full nibble, but slightly more than a “taste”).
Erin ordered a grilled chicken sandwich with herb mayo and spiced chutney, a sandwich that made me want to swan dive with joy from our balcony table into the pool below. My burger was fabulous, well worth the requisite liberal carnivore guilt. The fries were my absolute favorite kind—crispy shoestrings—so Erin and I did a lot of bite-trading and exclaiming and frantic ketchup-dunking and gesturing with our hands.
Julianna watched this massacre with a kind of morbid fascination. After getting clearance, we finished off her fries and the rest of her salad. (Note: I had designs on the remains of her turkey club before the waitress swooped in and cleared her plate.)
The evening’s reading was at Skylight Books, my favorite indie bookstore on planet earth, and I’m not just saying that because there’s a tree growing in the middle of the shop or because the staffers are all these cool-ass zine dudes and dudettes or because they have a cat with no tail that roams the place. I am saying that because they have sold more copies of my story collection My Life in Heavy Metal than the entire Borders chain.
Call me crazy, but these are my kind of people.
The reading featured a great many dirty scenes, as read by me, and a great many poetic passages, as read by Julianna, and a great many bizarro questions, as asked by the audience.
Audience: “Did things ever get physical between you two?”
Steve: “You mean fighting, right?”
Steve: “No comment.”
After the reading, we proceeded to an Indian restaurant, where we sat on pillows in the banquet room and did more extreme overeating.
The next night we did a cool event organized by my pal Christine Berry at smartgals.org and held at a club called Fais Do-Do. We were the featured readers, but the real highlight was the gaggle of Los Angeles bands that played before and after us. I got to see my pal, the fabulous writer Rob Roberge, with his band The Danbury Shakes. (His wife, Gayle, played bass.) Rob isn’t some dilettante. He sings and handles his ax like a genuine rock star, albeit one who is still, at heart, a lit-nerd. A songwriter named Holly Ramos blew me away, as did The Evangenitals, who sound sort of like a cross between Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks and L’il Kim. I bought their album.
The highlight of the night was the set by The Santiago Steps. Not just because they rocked (though they did), but because, about halfway through their set Julianna got up and began dancing.
And this wasn’t some half-embarrassed swaying-in-the-shadows business. No, this was a flagrant full-body noodle-bop, conducted smack in the middle of the dance floor that was—and I want to emphasize this—totally empty except for her.
I cannot express how deeply I admire Julianna for having the cajones to do this, especially given that I do not dance in public. (Let me be more specific: My wife has forbidden me to dance in public.)
You are no doubt wondering how Julianna ranks as a dancer.
Let me just say, based on this very limited sample, that she falls somewhere between myself and Martha Graham.
And actually, before I say anything else that might get me in trouble, I am going to sign off, so I can enjoy a midnight snack of cold Indian leftovers.
Ah, the glory of the book tour!
Dialing in for the wake up call,
The reading on the first night isn’t our zing dog-and-pony show. Almond still reads the smuttiest parts, his trademark, but he’s gone soft. He’s nearly—how shall I put it—respectful. He does not, for example, translate an audience member’s question into, “What you want to know is if we’ve fucked, right?”
This, I figure, has much to do with the fact that Almond is a newlywed and his wife, Erin, is pregnant and, glowingly beautiful, sitting in the front row. I didn’t know he had it in him—you know, an off-switch. For all of his shock factor, this has been the thing that’s shocked me the most.
What’s really interesting is that he doesn’t seem to know he’s turned anything off. Later, in the pillow room of an Indian restaurant (where we sit on pillows instead of chairs, hence the name), I mention our lack of rapport, but he’s genuinely baffled. He doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
How can there be a dog-and-pony show with two ponies and no dog? That would be a pony-pony show, and nobody goes to see a pony-pony show. When I explained this to my sister who’s a director-producer type, she asks, “What’s the entertainment value?” I don’t know what entertainment value is, but I answer, “Our schtick is love-hate.”
“Well, if he’s not comfortable with the love part in front of his wife, play up the hate,” she says.
This is genius, of course. I can easily play up the hate.
Luckily, by three in the afternoon I find myself at the Saddle Ranch Chop Shop. It’s LA authentic, meaning the wait staff is grungy but gorgeous and touchy—and by touchy I don’t mean irritable. I mean they actually touch you a lot. The wide planked floors look pricey, and they’re playing “Eye of the Tiger” without irony. The crème de la crème is the mechanical bull. I watch a guy get bucked into the air. He lands kind of crumpled in half. I imagine Almond mid-air and it brings back all of my old hate left over from the bitter end of our book. Why not challenge Almond to a mechanical bull-off?
I try this material out at Fais Do-do the next night—challenge and all. It doesn’t fly. In response to “play up the hate,” Almond says that he can certainly oblige. At the challenge of the mechanical bull-off, he says, “You want to ride the bull?” There’s a sound check. The end.
Or not exactly. We’re filler between sets for five bands—the most high-profile of which is The Evangenitals. I drink gin and tonic and dance even though this is clearly a listening crowd. The dancing doesn’t catch on. I apologize for the length of the evening to my sister, my cousin, my grad-school friend. I apologize to the crowd for not being an Evangenital. I tell the host we’re going out to smoke. None of us smoke. We just want to be able to hear each other. The evening goes on and on.
The next morning I wake up with a new thought. Before the tour, I signed on to the notion that the closer Steve and I mimicked the rapport of our two main characters, the better. But I was always deeply ambivalent about this setup. (One day I’ll write with distance and clarity about writing this sexy novel with someone other than my husband of thirteen years, and how there are somewhat dark social ramifications for me—even though my husband is the greatest champion of this book.)
Maybe I prefer the New Steve. Though I wish I’d seen New Steve coming, I think I will really feel much more comfortable without the love-hate entertainment value. I'll get up and read. Steve will get up and read. We’ll answer some questions and sit down.
Plus, New Steve actually shaves, albeit ornamentally. He’s left behind this chin stuff that looks like it could turn into a handle, which, you never know, might come in handy—especially if Old Steve shows up again.
This is the third 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.