Tue 31

Travel Diary: Days 7-8 (Portland, New York)

Writing Portland is a little kinky. I know this because people who live there keep telling me so. When I check into my hotel, the glossy booklets feature not only local attractions and places to eat but also the results of a nation-wide sex survey, which boasts about just how much more sexually active than average are Oregonians.

This crosses my mind when my breakfast arrives via room service just as I exit the shower. I’m naked except for a towel, and the usual procedure for this kind of situation is for the hotel employee to keep her eyes demurely averted, set down the tray, then scuttle out of the room. But this morning, the woman makes bright conversation, her eyes flicking all over me. I start to worry that she is going to yank off my towel and snap my buttocks with it. I am, after all, in Portland.

My media escort is Elizabeth, who has looked after me in Portland before. She drives me to a local radio station where I have a good, chatty interview, then it’s off to Powell’s and Borders for drop-in book signings. Elizabeth has copies of the local papers, the Sunday Oregonian and the Portland Mercury, and both have great Company reviews. This makes me happy.

Then, amazingly, I have six hours off. Elizabeth suggests that I go to the movies, which is a very exciting idea: that’s another thing I haven’t done since Fin was born. I end up seeing Good Night, and Good Luck, which is apparently what George Clooney and Grant Heslov have been doing instead of producing the film version of Jennifer Government. It’s very good… although, you know, not a film version of Jennifer Government.

I spend a couple of hours wandering around downtown Portland, taking photos. It’s a gorgeous city, and I keep putting away my camera only to take it out again ten seconds later when I see yet another beautiful street. I would really like to bring Jen here one day.

That night, 70 people turn up at Powell’s for my reading—my biggest crowd yet! It’s a good event, although for some reason I’m a little tongue-tied and stumble over the text more times than usual. When it’s time for book signings, the first woman in line gives me a quarter and tries to convince me that it’s customary for people to tip authors at US book signings. Seriously. Not helping.

A guy in line thanks me for a blurb I wrote for his book, and for long seconds I have no idea what he’s talking about. Then I realize he’s Paul Neilan and go totally fanboy, because Paul wrote what has become my favorite novel, Apathy and Other Small Victories. (It’s not published yet; when we’re closer to the release date I’m going to tell you alllll about it. Oh yes I am.) I’ve never met an author I really admire before, so this is a big moment for me. Everybody still waiting in line looks at me as if I have gone insane while I gush on to Paul about how much I love his book.

Afterward, Paul, his girlfriend, and I go out for drinks, where I tell him all the horrible things that usually happen when you have your first novel published, while reassuring him that they probably won’t happen to him. I get back to my hotel at 2 a.m. and call Jen. Unfortunately, after a string of good nights, Fin is resisting bedtime, and I have to call back later. It’s almost 3 a.m. by the time Jen and I finish talking, which gives me a grand total of two hours and 50 minutes sleep before I have to get up and catch a plane to New York. Surprisingly, I don’t feel as if I have been beaten with hammers. Or at least, not very large ones.

I’m waiting at the airport gate when a trio of young businesspeople sit in the row ahead of me: two men and a woman. For some reason I can’t stop looking at them, and become obsessed with the way the men are using body language to assert themselves over the woman. It is nothing obvious or deliberately cruel; they simply interrupt her more often, and engage each other more supportively. Then one of the men, who is sitting across from her, rests his arms out along the backs of the seats to either side of him and splays his knees, and I feel terribly sad for this young businesswoman, who is wearing impossible heels and a dainty scarf around her neck and now finds herself confronted with a well-pressed crotch if she wants to stay in the conversation.

Continental Airlines is apparently unaware that human beings have legs. Maybe I am expected to stash mine in the overhead compartment, because there sure isn’t much chance of squeezing them into the tiny gap between the rows of seats. I finally work out a position that involves bending one leg at ninety degrees and jamming the knee of the other into the seat in front of me. It’s pretty uncomfortable, but then my legs lose circulation and it feels fine.

I sleep fitfully, and at one point a flight attendant wakes me up to ask if my seatbelt is on, as we’ve hit a little turbulence. I tell him irritably, “Yes,” then realize it’s not.

I get some more sleep, then realize the plane has landed. But not in any airport: we seem to be on a road in the mountains somewhere. The Captain explains that we are conserving fuel by using gravity to help us along, and sure enough the plane then rolls off the edge of the road, which turns out to be a cliff, and free-falls several hundred feet before roaring up again under its own power. About then I wake up.

Every time I visit the stretch of New Jersey between Manhattan and Newark, I’m surprised that it still looks this way. I keep thinking that by now surely some mayor has thought, “Man, this is just embarrassing. We really need to clean this up.” But no: it’s still chemical plants and sludge farms as far as the eye can see.

I dump my bags at my hotel and race off to catch a drink with Bill, my editor, and dinner with Todd, my first literary agent. It feels good to walk along the streets of Manhattan. I like how everybody walks so fast, clearly expecting you to do the same or get the hell out of the way.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) is my last reading! That feels a little strange. I’m somehow surprised that the tour is almost over