Wed 28

Travel Diary: Day #4 (Denver, Milwaukee)

Writing It’s here. The scratchiness in the throat. The sweating. There are a million multiplying bio-agents in my head and they’re all manufacturing phlegm.

I get up in the middle of the night to gargle antiseptic mouthwash and discover that this stuff is much stronger than back home. I think it actually dissolves my teeth a little. But I’m prepared to take a little friendly fire. This throat needs to be liberated.

The key to getting out of a hotel room on time is to corral all your gear into one small area and not let it escape. It tries, of course. When you’re not looking, your shoes sneak under the desk and your wallet climbs onto the bedside table. Then when you’re chasing them down, your underpants run giggling into the bathroom. You have to be vigilant.

My dilemma this morning is that I have no dollar bills with which to tip the guy who will inevitably try to lift my bag into the back of the taxi. I’m not sure which is weedier: not saying anything or launching into a big sad story about how I don’t have anything smaller than a twenty because I lost my credit card temporarily and blah blah blah. But luckily I manage to get out to the curb on my own, and then the cab driver lunges for my bag before the doorman can reach it. That’s good: I can tip him with my credit card. Crisis averted.

I check-in but am not assigned a seat, instead being told to see someone at the gate. In retrospect, I should have realized right away that this meant a problem. But I’m still a little naive about flying and assume that if you book a ticket, they’ll let you on the plane. This silly notion is beaten out of me at the gate, where a woman explains that the plane can only take 49 passengers instead of the booked 50 because of weight issues. “And you’re number 50,” she says. This strikes me as a little unfair. I mean, I know I’m not a teenager any more, but there have to be plenty of passengers with more significant weight issues than me. Surely in this situation it should be surivival of the thinnest?

The solution, apparently, is to get a passenger to voluntarily give up their seat. So I stand by the desk while she makes a series of attractive offers to anyone willing to do so. Nobody bites. Finally, when everybody’s on board but me, she shrugs and just prints me off a boarding pass. I’m reminded of the movie French Kiss, where Kevin Kline says: “The pilot says there is a crack in the engine, but not to worry, he take off anyway.”

“Head through to Door E,” she says. “E,” I say, nodding. “No, E,” she says. This is the sort of discussion that could go on a while, so rather than educate her about Australian accents, I just nod. Door E is down a stairwell eerily reminiscent of my old high school, complete with chewing gum stuck to the rail. Then I am told to wander out on the tarmac for my plane. “It’s the gray one,” an assistant says helpfully.

I walk outside and there are about 18 gray airplanes in a row preparing to take off. I choose the closest one and climb aboard. It feels like catching a bus. “Is this Milwaukee? Are we going to Milwaukee?”

The answer is maybe, because while we’re in the air, a thick fog rolls over Wisconsin. The pilot tells us we might end up in Chicago. I’ve never been diverted before, so this seems quite interesting, albeit something of a problem in that a bunch of people are expecting me to be at a Milwaukee bookstore in a few hours’ time. But that wouldn’t be my problem, exactly. One of the wonderful things about being on book tour is that other people are responsible for figuring out where you are supposed to go and how to get you there. It’s kind of like they assume you are a complete moron, unable to do anything for yourself, and once you learn to go with that, it’s very pleasant.

Our pilot, who has a deep Southern accent and clearly isn’t the sort of guy to let little things like excess weight regulations stop him from flying his plane his way, decides to take a stab at a Milwaukee touchdown even though he can’t see anything. The ground materializes out of fog about eight seconds before we make contact, but it’s a pretty smooth landing. He talks the talk, our guy, and he backs it up.

Milwaukee is cold. Not as cold as the last time I was here, in January 2004, when everything was under a two-foot blanket of snow. That was awesome. But still cold; colder than it looked when I did a quick search on US temperatures before I left home and tried to convert fahrenheit to celsius in my head. Since I’m kind of sick, I don’t think I’ll be doing any sightseeing on foot today.

I have a media escort here, Mike, whose job it is to assume I’m a complete moron for the day. Mike is a great guy, very easy to talk to, and he plays tour guide as we drive around and I drop into book stores to sign stock. “The only bad thing about Milwaukee is the crime,” Mike says. “Crime is worse than it should be. But where you’re staying, downtown, that’s safe. Well… relatively safe.”

I find the bookstores a little depressing, especially the big Barnes & Noble store. There are so many new books; endless shelves of them. And every hardback has a carefully crafted eye-catching cover and amazing quotes from allegedly rave reviews and is written by a good-looking celebrity. I wonder how it’s possible for a small, good book to fight its way out of this circus. I’m glad I don’t have to see this very often: the pointy, business end of publishing. I love writing books; I don’t want to have to think too much about selling them.

My reading is at Harry W. Schwartz in Bay View. It’s a new store, and I think the unfamiliar location is probably why people keep trickling in at a steady rate throughout the reading. Either that or because I initially posted the wrong address on this web site. I’ve been changing the parts of Company I read from stop to stop, but think I’ve got a good selection now. Then we have a particularly good Q&A session, with lots of great questions. Afterward, I sign books, including about a dozen hardbacks for a guy who has laminated the covers. He’s a collector, so I ask him how that works: how does he decide how long to hold on to an author’s books, and when it’s time to cash in? I’m particularly interested in his opinion about when I’m going to peak, or if I already have. But he says he’s the kind of collector who can’t bear to sell his books. “I have 16,000 hardbacks,” he says. “My wife doesn’t especially like that.”

Back at my hotel, I have a fax from Martin at Vintage saying I have a TV interview in the morning on FOX 6. Wow. I’ve only ever done one TV interview before, a show called “Jersey’s Talking” with Lee Leonard on my first ever book tour in 1999, and I’m sure I was completely terrible. I will try to do better tomorrow.

Finally I call home and hear that earlier today Finlay crossed her arms for the first time. Crossed her arms! That sounds hilarious. I need a picture of that.