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
How late do I sleep? 10am, baby! Damn, that’s nice. I haven’t slept in like this since Fin was born.
I don’t have anything scheduled today besides my Seattle reading, but my voice is a little scratchy so I decide not to test it against the icy winds and torrential rain. Instead I spend the day catching up on email and browsing the web. I also get some laundry done via the hotel’s service, but then I forget about tipping the guy who delivers it. Dammit! Now I feel guilty.
My reading tonight is at Elliot Bay Books, and I’m excited because when I was here in 2004, my media escort told me that Elliot Bay was the #1 bookstore in Seattle, the place where all the important authors read. Then she drove me to a different store, to do my reading. Now, however, I have clearly entered the big league.
The bookstore has a great room set up with plenty of seating. Then dozens of people arrive and fill these, so they need to unpack more chairs. This is terrific: I was told to expect lower numbers since it’s a weekend reading, but we have 60 people! I chat to a few of them before the event kicks off, and every single person points out that I was wrong to say in my blog that Seattle broke the record for consecutive rainy days: in fact it only got close. Clearly you don’t want to mess with Seattle residents when it comes to what’s what with rain.
The reading itself is awesome; in fact, the Q&A session is probably the best of the tour so far, with great questions and a really fun feel. At one point a guy starts a question with, “If anyone here hasn’t read the book, you should probably block your ears, but…” and I threaten to brain him with a water pitcher if he continues.
I sign books until the store closes at 10pm, during which I get to meet a guy who’s taken the trouble to stick a barcode under his eye, Jennifer Government-style, and a couple who have driven all the way from Vancouver, Canada. One of them, Milla, took a few snaps during the reading, so you can check me out in action.
On the way back to the hotel, Tina, my media escort, is ecstatic over how well the event went. She fusses over me like a proud mother. If I had any hair, I am sure she would be ruffling it.
I call home and speak to Jen, who is particularly pleased with the nice things I wrote about her in a previous blog. Whenever Jen watches an award ceremony on TV where the winner tearfully thanks his wife, Jen gets all mushy. Then she snuggles close to me and says, “When you win something, you should thank me like that.”
I order a late dinner via room service, and, still feeling bad for forgetting to tip the laundry guy earlier that day, massively overtip. There’s already a 20% gratuity added to the price plus a $2 delivery charge, but I give the guy who brings it to my room three bucks as well. I think this means I end up tipping more than the actual cost of the food. I definitely need more practice at this.
On Sunday morning I don’t get up until 11. Wow, it feels good even to type that. Let me do that again. I don’t get up until 11. Ohhhhh yeah.
Today is very relaxed: I have nothing to do but travel. Outside it’s bucketing down rain (*gasp*), but I brave this to wander up to the new Seattle Central Library. (Warning: picture appears to have had blue sky Photoshopped in.) This miracle of architecture looks like they built a tall office tower, then someone sat on it. I like it a lot, especially the sloping floors. I keep hoping that somebody will drop a pen and I’ll get to watch them chase it from one side of the building to the other.
Before I leave for the airport I carefully go through my bag, because at the last airport I got stung $25 for excess baggage. My problem is books: I am now carrying eight of them, mostly gifts from (a) the generous or (b) other writers who want me to comment on their manuscripts. I am tempted to ditch a couple, but know I will be haunted by their eager, innocent faces. So I start cramming stuff into my carry-on.
I’m flying Alaska Airlines to Portland and am alarmed to see that the airplane has propellers. Propellers! Not only that, but when I squeeze on board, I find myself positioned in the exact spot that they would intersect should they both decide to detach from the wing and go spinning into the fuselage. Although I guess if that happened, my precise location probably wouldn’t matter much. I guess I’d be screwed no matter where I was sitting. This is seat 1D, right at the front of the plane, and from here I can also see our captain, a woman who for some reason I decide looks like a Tammy. I watch Tammy carefully, looking for signs of tiredness or suicidal depression, until my staring causes the hairs on the back of her neck to rise and she closes the cabin door.
The seats are tiny and, judging from the smell, the man beside me has a dead cat concealed on his person. Fortunately it only takes about eight seconds to fly from Seattle to Portland. I’m first off the plane, but I have no idea where I’m going. I take a wrong turn after entering the terminal, and when I turn around to backtrack I see a line of passengers blindly following me. Ha! I want to laugh in their confused faces. Okay, not really. I feel a little embarrassed.
I tip so much between the airport and my hotel room that I run out of dollar bills. This may be developing into a psychological condition.
According to Jen, I sometimes run in my sleep. I must have been doing that, because somehow I have managed to strain a hamstring in my sleep. I hobble into the bathroom and start wrestling with the shower, which, in the manner of all US hotel showers, will only provide water if you turn the tap while simultaneously yanking a plunger on the bath tap. (Why? Why!?) Sometimes I find it’s possible to do this without getting a burp of cold water on the back of my head, but today is not one of those days.
I haven’t had much sleep, but it was continuous and I feel much better than yesterday. And I have a cool ride to the airport: a big black car with tinted windows, the kind that usually have screaming girls beating on them and yelling, “I love you 50 Cent!” Inside there are drinks and snacks available but, I am disappointed to see, no neatly laid out lines of cocaine.
At San Francisco Airport there are 50 people in a check-in line and nobody’s moving. I work out why: all the electronic check-in machines are showing: “Easy Check-In is available from 4:45 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.” Yep, they don’t start work this early. They must have a good union.
When the machines finally come up, there is some kind of system-wide error and everyone needs to get checked in manually. This creates an interesting dynamic, because the airport staff want to stick to the process of requiring us to all try checking in at the machines first, but the passengers quickly realize it’s faster to skip straight to the line to see a human. For a while there is lots of sneaking from the first line to the second, and then a woman—a New Yorker, from her accent—tires of the charade and starts haranguing the staff. “You think we like standing in line? You think we should stand here for fun?” After that everyone is allowed to proceed directly to manual check-in.
Naturally the flight is delayed, so I sit by the gate for 90 minutes, thinking about how much extra sleep I could have had. When we finally get on board, I don’t even try to wait for lift-off: I close my eyes and let the warm, smooth arms of unconsciousness embrace me. I wake up a few times to the alarmed looks of fellow passengers and the lingering echo of my own snoring, but boy, I just don’t care at all.
Seattle is freezing. My new media escort, Tina, tells me that the city recently broke the all-time record for consecutive days of rain (27), but then some sunshine came along and messed it all up. I get the impression that everybody is a little disappointed about this.
The reason I’m here so early is I have a reading at Amazon.com. These corporate events are different from my usual readings, because most of the audience have never heard of me. But it’s a full room—about 50 people—and they can relate to Company’s story, so I get lots of laughs. I also sign a lot of books, because Amazon.com is giving them away free to attendees.
After that it’s bookstore drop-ins. The most remarkable thing about this is an advertisement I see on the back of a bus, which says, “Avoid Accidental 911 Calls: Lock Your Keypad!” It has a picture of a man with a cellphone in the back pocket of his pants, accidentally dialing 911 with his buttocks. Let me say that again. He is dialing 911 with his butt. I wish my ass was that agile. Right now, while I’m writing this blog, it could be making me a cup of coffee.
The other thing that surprises me is a group of young people in the middle of downtown waving signs that sport words like “REPENT” and “HELL.” I occasionally see people like this back home, but they tend to be old and clearly insane. These sign-wavers are clean-cut teenagers, and I find this much spookier.
Back at the hotel I receive a package of new reviews from my publisher. Most are great, but there is also my first bad one. I should have known this was coming, but things have been so dream-like lately that instead it’s an ugly surprise. Even though it’s not completely horrible, I pay way more attention to it than to the good ones, and have to force myself to stop obsessing about it.
For dinner I’ve arranged to meet Greg, who’s an admin on NationStates. Greg and I have been in almost constant electronic communication for the last two and a half years, but we’ve never met before today. Unfortunately, when making this arrangement I forgot that I was in Seattle, because the plan is for me to wait outside my hotel. It’s raining (of course) and, according to my body’s internal thermometer, about minus one thousand degrees. By the time Greg arrives I can no longer feel my toes.
Over dinner Greg helpfully offers to educate me about how tipping works: I simply take 15 - 20% of the meal cost and add $1 - $2 per drink that contains more than 2.9% alcoholic content plus 50% of any discount provided by the barman and 1% for every Tuesday between now and the next eclipse. I think that was it. After doing the sums, I have to explain to the barman that he owes me a $4.50 tip… but in retrospect, maybe I miscalculated.
There is no reading tonight: that’s on Saturday. But I’m excited, because it’s my first opportunity for a really long, continuous sleep. Oh yeah. I’m in the fast lane, baby.
Well, I walked into that one. In theory, I should get seven hours sleep after my L.A. reading and be refreshed and ready for the big day ahead. But instead, I write my blog entry until two in the morning, then lie in bed thinking about how cool my day was. When my alarm goes off at 7 a.m., I’ve slept for about three hours, and that in roughly half-hour blocks.
I feel so seedy that I think I’m going to lose my lunch, and a radio station is due to call me in a few minutes for an interview. I think seriously about what I should do if I’m halfway through an answer and suddenly need to barf. My idea is to say, “And another thing, Carl—” then hang up. Hopefully everyone will think there’s been a technical difficulty.
Luckily, this doesn’t prove necessary. But it’s not my best interview; sometimes even I can’t work out what I’m trying to say.
LAX Airport has clearly put a lot of thought into how to best design seats that are impossible to sleep in. But I’m so exhausted I manage to grab 20 minutes sleep by jamming my head against a pillar. I sleep some more on the plane, but I’m on the aisle and get woken by a woman who can’t last the 80-minute flight without using the bathroom. Damn her tiny bladder!
In San Francisco I meet Frank, my media guide. Frank, I learn over the course of the day, has done everything. I’m serious. He’s written a series of bestselling novels, he’s lived all over the world, he’s in a rap band, he’s writing screenplays, he’s developing video game ideas—there is no topic of conversation that doesn’t prompt some amazing revelation from Frank. He makes me wonder what I’ve been doing with my life.
Frank also puts very little store in the opinions of other drivers, even for a media escort. We spend most of the day visiting a series of bookstores and radio stations to a steady background of tooting horns and people yelling, “Asshole!”
I get a couple hours’ downtime at the hotel, where I lie in bed and try not to think about the fact that soon a few dozen people will be staring at me. I still feel a little queasy, and all I’ve eaten all day is a muffin and a few pretzels. But I do get a little sleep, and on the drive to Mountain View for my reading, the adrenalin kicks in. The closer we get, the more awake and ready for action I feel.
It looks like being another big crowd, and Books Inc have to break out extra seats. Then even these run out! It’s standing room only again.
I decide to go to the bathroom before we start, only to discover that it is directly behind the podium. This means that the assembled crowd gets to watch me fumble with the men’s room door key. When I come out again it’s too weird to not say anything, so I announce, “Yes! Here at Books Inc you get to watch authors go pee-pee!”
Then we get started, and it’s a blast. There are fewer people here than in L.A., but they’re very vocal. And they end up buying every copy of Company in the store, which is something like 100 books. They also take all the Syrups and all but two of the Jennifer Governments. It’s incredible.
I love chatting to people while I sign their books, but I feel bad that there’s such a long line, because some people are waiting for up to 90 minutes. I just want to talk to everybody. It’s such a thrill to hear how people found and enjoyed something I wrote; I could do that all night.
I also get to meet Ellis! He is exactly as cool as I always suspected.
I get back to the hotel at midnight. Then there’s the moment I’ve been dreading: I request a wakeup call for 3:50 a.m. Yes, that’s when I have to wake up in order to make my flight to Seattle tomorrow morning. Even I cannot really believe it.
Now I’m hungry, so I tuck into a banana cake that one of my readers baked for me and gave me at the reading. (Oh yes she did.) The bookstore people seemed a little unsure about this, perhaps wondering about the legal ramifications of having an author killed by poison attack on their watch, but it smells pretty good to me. I call Jen and tell her about my latest amazing event in between wolfing down big chunks of banana cake. She’s almost as thrilled as I am. Jen was with me when I visited San Francisco on book tour in 1999 and no-one showed up, so she knows what this means to me.
Fin is awake so I get to listen to her blowing bubbles. So sweet. In Australia, it’s her 5-month birthday.
I’m very tempted to fire up the laptop and write the day’s diary entry, even though I’m already looking at my second straight night of three hours’ sleep. But that would be insane. I come to my senses and instead hit the sack. I continue a newly-established tradition: I turn out all the lights and use my camera’s tiny LCD screen to play a 30-second video of Jen & Fin that I recorded before I left. Jen is holding Fin and Fin is looking sleepy at first and then snuggly and then she does a little smile and they are both utterly, unspeakably beautiful.
I may be the only author in history to get more sleep on a book tour than usual. I get eight hours overnight, although when I wake at 7:30 a.m. my brain doesn’t seem to be working. For example, I look at a pair of tweezers in my bag and think, “Oh my God, I have tweezers, those are banned here!” I am confusing the United States with United Airlines.
I check my email and web site and am pleased to see no comments of the nature I feared, i.e. “Who gives a crap what you do all day? Spare us this rambling bullshit.” Excellent! So here’s some more.
After reading a funny and eerily appropriate Dilbert, I am driven by Jeff, my media escort, to a radio interview with “Marketplace Morning” on NPR. The host, Lisa, is kind and gentle and helps me get through it pretty well. This is the kind of interview where I talk for 10 minutes and they edit it down to three, which I love because it makes it sound as if I’m just constantly coming out with smart things to say. I wish my whole life was like that.
Jeff takes me past some classic L.A. monuments: the Disney Concert Center (giant metal flower, very cool), some cathedral with a carved door (not really sure what the fuss is about), and a playground with police tape all around it. Although that last one is not intentional. Jeff is a cool guy and we chat about all kinds of things, from the aggressiveness of Tasmanian Devils to David Hasselhoff. That is, the conversation ranges between those two topics. I don’t mean that Tasmanian Devils are aggressive to David Hasselhoff. Although could you blame them? I’m telling Jeff that David Hasselhoff is experiencing a bizarre resurgence in popularity in Australia, and Jeff mentions—just happens to mention—that he, Jeff, was in “Knight Rider.” Knight Rider! The coolest TV show of the 1980s! This is why I love L.A.; everyone has a filmography. Suddenly the car we’re driving doesn’t seem so great any more. I want Jeff to drive me in Kitt.
The next five hours are a series of drop-ins, where I turn up at a bookstore and say, “Hi, I’m an author, can I sign my own book?” They put AUTOGRAPHED COPY stickers on them. This can go either way: either the bookstore people are quite pleased to meet me and ask questions about how my tour is going, or, as in one store, the girl behind the counter is so utterly unimpressed that when Jeff says I’m an author, she doesn’t even bother to look up from her computer. But word from the stores is that early sales are quite strong—one has sold out all eight copies already—and that’s great news.
As we inch along freeways, it occurs to me that L.A.’s main industry isn’t film: it’s parking. Seriously, the amount of thought, money, and effort everybody puts into parking here, I can’t believe it’s not a billion-dollar industry. I also think L.A. needs some kind of mechanized freeway system, where as you approach an on-ramp, metal claws grab your car’s undercarriage and slot you into a perfectly-measured space on a conveyor-belt-like freeway. Then everyone gets hauled along at 90 miles per hour until you want to get off, at which point the machine spits you out an off-ramp and you regain control over your car. It’s good to know that if this novels thing doesn’t work out, I can fall back on urban planning.
For lunch I have a beef burrito at Farmer’s Market. I’m not very familiar with burritos, but from my observations they seem to bear a fairly loose relationship to beef. It seems more like a “beef” burrito than a beef burrito, if you get my drift.
The burrito goes down okay, but fights back when I drop in to see Brian, my film agent. I have to try to contain alarming burrito burps as I’m escorted through the hallowed halls of CAA, the world’s most feared talent agency. The thing that really amazes me about CAA is that it’s full of hot 20-year olds. Every assistant or secretary in the building is 20 and incredibly good-looking. I swear, the last time I visited, Brian’s assistant was so beautiful that I went temporarily blind. Now he has a guy, Alex, and look, I don’t want to get all Brokeback Mountain on you, but slap a cowboy hat on us both and who knows what could happen. But anyway, yes, barely pubescent assistants everywhere. There must be a giant incinerator out back where they throw them on their 25th birthday.
Brian has good news about both Jennifer Government and Company! Things seem to be developing on both counts. There has been a holdup with the Jennifer Government script development, but Section 8 is still very keen on the material and there could be an opportunity for me to get more involved.
On the way back to the hotel, Jeff says, “There goes James Woods,” but by the time I turn around all I’m looking at is his car’s tail lights. Still, a brush with celebrity! I make a mental note to bring this up later, to impress friends.
At the hotel I am stunned at how clean my room is. I left the place looking like downtown Baghdad and now it’s immaculate. All the crap I had strewn from one end of the bathroom bench top to the other is now arranged in a neat 3x4 grid. I’m so impressed I take a photo. They’ve also somehow lugged the giant table that I practically had a hernia moving over to the LAN port back to its original position. Those maids may look small, but boy, I’m sure not going to mess with them.
I practice the section I’ve chosen to read tonight, then Jeff picks me up to take me to BookSoup. I’m amazed: the place is already almost full. And people just keep coming in. By the time we start, it’s standing room only. Soon people are having trouble even getting into the store.
The event is simply awesome. BookSoup has donuts for everybody, it’s packed out, I’m excited, and everyone laughs in the right places. At the end, a huge line forms and I’m signing books for the next hour. I’m flabbergasted; the last time I was here about 15 people showed up. People have driven in from as far away as Las Vegas, and many of them want photos with me, as if I’m a rock star. What I’m feeling is part amazement and part pathetic gratitude.
As if this wasn’t already one of the best days of my life, the Fortress guys come over and say they adore my Syrup script. I mean, they rave about it. They were only lukewarm on the first draft, so this is a huge, unexpected thrill. We go out for drinks and they talk about all the people they want to take the script to and I have a sudden moment when I realize where I am and what I’m doing and it’s so absurd I could laugh. I am having a ridiculously good day.
I get home at midnight and immediately call Jen. She’s thrilled, and hearing her voice makes the day complete.
I should sleep—tomorrow’s a very busy day that starts early—but I want to get this written down tonight. Thanks so much to everyone today. Wow. Thank you. Wow.
“Going anywhere exotic?” says the guy in the blue shirt. I’m startled because I have big weepy eyes and tear-stained cheeks and surely nobody talks to someone who looks like that. Yeah, so I’m a marshmallow. I’ve just said good-bye to my wife and baby girl and all I can think about is the way Fin’s little fingers curled around mine as she lay in her car seat. I haven’t spent single a day apart from her since she was born in August, and now I’ll be out of her life for eleven of them.
“L.A.,” I say. I’m leaving it up to him to judge whether L.A. is exotic. Under normal circumstances I’d grant that, but since we’re standing in line to check-in for a flight to… yes, Los Angeles, it’s kind of a weird question.
But talking to Blue Shirt makes me feel better. So does going through Australian Customs, because they’ve opened some barriers to allow you to short-circuit the enormous queue maze, only some passengers haven’t noticed, and they’re going back and forth, back and forth. This is amusing to watch.
In line I observe that the outgoing declaration form has a big notice saying “MAKE SURE TO COMPLETE BOTH SIDES OF THIS FORM,” but only on the back. I wonder how big a problem that can really be, people filling out just the backs of forms.
I have more than an hour to kill before departure, so I browse through the airport bookstore. A couple wander past me, talking in French. They sound very cool until the woman says, “<francais francais francais> Da Vinci Code.”
I buy an amusing-looking book called HOW TO RULE THE WORLD, even though I already have three books in my bag and know I will collect more on tour. In ten days I will probably be trying to figure out how to get my excess baggage home. At the bookstore counter I see the new John Grisham paperback; it’s called THE BROKER and the tag line is: “He broke the rules, now he must pay the price.” The Broker: he broke things? Worst. Tagline. Ever.
After an hour waiting by the gate, the Captain wanders out and declares that they can’t start one of the engines, so we won’t be going anywhere for a while. Seriously. We all take him at his word because he’s wearing a natty uniform. The Captain tells us how they’re going to steal a part from another plane to get us in the air, and the plane we steal from will get a part from a plane in Sydney, and… eventually, I guess, all the planes will be in the air except for one, and its Captain will be shaking his fist and swearing. Anyway, apparently this part can be fitted to our plane within the hour. One of the passengers says, “Take your time!” This gets a laugh, so he says it again, louder. Then he sits down, to, I hope, think long and hard about what he’s done.
An hour passes. I feel tired and bored. An announcement informs us that the part has been fitted, but now the plane is too hot from sitting out in the sun, so there will be a delay while they run the air conditioning. This strikes me as the kind of thing that could have been done simultaneously with fitting the engine part, but of course I’m not an aeronautical engineer.
A guy sitting in my eye line is wearing one of those inflatable pillows. Look, okay, if you’re on a plane, I guess the extra comfort is worth looking that stupid. But we’re still at the gate. He’s wearing an inflatable pillow at the gate.
It’s not a good sign that I’m this irritable this early.
We get underway two hours late. There are babies all around me, but for some reason I find them calming. I like that I can predict that the baby that’s making little crow-like caws in the back of his throat is about to go to sleep, and sure enough, he does. When the babies are happy I wish I’d brought Jen and Fin with me and when the babies scream I’m glad I didn’t.
We hit turbulence early, which puts most of the kids to sleep. It goes away, then comes back, and gets steadily worse for the rest of the flight. By the time we start our descent into LA I feel like I’ve just spent 14 hours on a carnival ride. The Captain says it’s the bumpiest ride he can remember in 30 years of flying. I feel a little pride at being there for the record, also nausea.
I’m nervous at US Customs. I always am, ever since a Customs Officer threatened to bar me from the country in 1999. When I told him I was coming over to do a book tour, he said, “I hear money.” I said, “What?” Again: “I hear money.” He just kept saying it. Eventually I worked out that he didn’t want a bribe but rather thought I was coming here to work—to earn a salary—and I was so relieved I laughed. This was probably a mistake. Because even though I explained quite clearly that nobody pays authors to do bookstore readings, he refused to believe me. Eventually—long after every other passenger had left and it was just me, Jen, and Customs Officers looking like they were just waiting for an excuse to probe something—he said, “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear anything about any book tour.”
Every trip since then it’s been no problem. This time is no exception, although the new US-VISIT program is running, which means I get fingerprinted (left index finger on the pad, sir, now your right), and photographed by a bulbous and somehow evil-looking little webcam. I think this is the first time I’ve ever been fingerprinted. It feels strange. What are they going to do with my fingerprints? Wait until I commit a terrorist atrocity, then make sure I’m not allowed back in? I don’t like that I can think of plenty of things to do with a giant fingerprint database if you’re a government wanting to increase your power, but not many if you just want to prevent terrorism.
It’s 10:30 Tuesday morning. This time today, I was checking in at Melbourne Airport. That’s thanks to the time difference. Yikes. For me, today is 43 hours long.
I catch a cab to my hotel and mess up the tipping. That is, I do the cab driver okay (I think: a little over 15%) but the doorman rushes my bag inside and I don’t tip him straight away because I think he’s going to take it all the way to my room, but then he disappears after depositing it at the check-in counter. Tipping is a nightmare for Australians: we don’t do it at home and don’t know how to do it abroad. It’s a cultural thing: to us, it’s insulting to offer someone such a small amount of money. I know, I know: for many service workers it adds up. But still, when I give someone a tip of a dollar or two I expect them to say, “Well, gee!! Thanks a lot, Mr. Big Spender! Think I’ll buy me a stick of gum!”
First thing I do after check-in is walk down the street and buy a phone card, so I can call home for less than $9 per minute. The second thing I do is call home. It’s 7 a.m., which usually means that Fin is waking up, and luckily her timing today is immaculate. I talk to Jen and then she puts me on speaker. I am informed that Fin is chewing on the phone while I’m talking to her, which I believe because I can hear little slurping sounds. It’s wonderful; I can picture Jen and Fin exactly. For a second I can even smell Finlay. Heaven.
I grab a couple hours sleep, then am woken by a phone that I prove too stupid to answer. There are buttons everywhere, and they all seem to default to “Hang up on caller.” This must be what old people feel like. Eventually I manage to successfully answer a call: it’s Jeff, my media escort, confirming that he’s picking me up at 8:45am tomorrow. Media escorts are people hired by the publisher to drive authors around and make sure they don’t get too lost or frightened. They’re like professional mothers. Jeff says we have an interview to do, then we’ll “hit some bookstores, grab some lunch, mix it up a little, have some fun.” Whoa!
Today is a travel day: I have no other official duties. I go for a walk, buy a T-shirt, eat my first ever Butterfinger bar (not impressed, sad to say), and go over what I want to talk about at my reading tomorrow. For dinner I meet Todd, a guy I started corresponding with way back when Syrup was new. Todd used to tell me horrifying and engrossing stories about his love life and now tells me horrifying and engrossing stories about his attempts to establish himself as a director. It’s a tough call as to which are more frightening. I feel glad to be a writer.
Now it’s 10 p.m. and I’m ready for bed… after just one more phone call, to wish my girls good night.