The Pope Is Funny
And Other Lessons from My Reading in Seattle
Venue: Elliott Bay Book Company
Date: Friday, June 3, 7:30 pm
Being somebody nobody has ever heard of, I was glad that what looked like a couple dozen people showed up to hear me read from my memoir, Oh the Glory of It All, at Elliott Bay Book Company two weeks ago, during a Mariners game. I had expected 10 people, and this was only because I had commitments from four.
Commitment number one came by way of a couple who'd attended a reading I'd given outside San Francisco. These were parents of a kid I'd gone to school with. As I was sitting at a desk signing books a woman handed me her copy and said, "Don't you recognize me?"
I said, "Mrs. Warburg!"
She said, "Yes. That's right. Mrs. Warburg, on page 84. We have a new car now." I smiled. Had I insulted her car? She leaned close, hissed, "You shit!" and smiled back twice as wide.
A subsequent check of page 84 revealed the passage in question (a description of car shopping with my mother): "We were in the Oldsmobile showroom. Who'd ever even heard of an Oldsmobile? The only one I'd ever seen belonged to the parents of the dorkiest kid in my class, who'd tried to befriend me, until I realized he was only going to make my life worse and mercilessly ditched him. His parents were even older than mine. The Oldsmobile was like the car of the dead."
The Warburgs didn't look that old, and they couldn't have been that pissed, since they were buying a book. Mr. Warburg was actually very hale and handsome, though he seemed embarrassed by me and my writing, and remained silent throughout my interaction with his wife. I signed Mrs. Warburg's book and congratulated her on the new car. She told me her son lives in Seattle and would be coming to my reading. The one-time dorkiest kid in my grade-school class was commitment number one.
I flew into Seattle the night before the reading. The plane was only a third full, but for some reason my row was completely taken, and they wouldn't let any of us move. My seatmates were honeymooners. They lived in Buffalo and were taking a train back home from Seattle in a couple days. I told them I was a writer.
She said, "Let me guess, sci-fi."
I told her I was a "memoirist," which is always a good way to assassinate a conversation. Then I asked what they did. He was a New York State National Guardsman just back from Qatar. She was a "transcriptionist."
"Mostly sci-fi?" I asked.
"Touché," she said.
So I invited them to the reading. They wrote all the information down, and I figured they'd come, we'd have dinner afterward, and I'd probably wind up knowing them for the rest of my life. The honeymooners were commitments two and three.
When I arrived at the very swank Alexis hotel, at 1:00 a.m., someone else had been given my room (the "Author's Suite") in what the concierge described as "highly irregular" circumstances. He then asked to see my ID just to make sure I really was the unknown memoirist I claimed to be. Satisfied that I was, he put me in the last remaining room. The next day, before the reading, a much friendlier concierge, with the unlikely name of Crystal Gallant (she had never heard of the short-story writer Mavis Gallant, but later Googled her and left me a charming phone message about their shared last name) kindly upgraded me to the "John Lennon Suite," where I am presently writing this account.
I put on "Give Peace a Chance," accessed the Lennon wi-fi, and received the following e-mail, from my mother-in-law: "Lexie Hook is looking forward to attending your reading in Seattle. In case you don't remember her, she is about 5'10", thin, and pretty in an interesting way." Hey! (For my mother-in-law, this is Understated Midwestern Code for "stunning"-which Lexie is universally acknowledged to be.) Lexie is the daughter of Jim and BG Hook, my in-laws' good friends. We'd met a bunch of times. I was glad she'd be there, not least of all because she's a nurse and could handle any unforeseen medical emergencies. Also, she was born in San Francisco, like me, and once dressed up as the Golden Gate Bridge (several hundred feet tall, thin, and also very pretty in an interesting way) for a costume party. Nurse Lexie was commitment number four.
At Elliott Bay, bookseller Clayton Joyner gave me an introduction, in which he paraphrased the generous staff recommendation he'd written for my book, a recommendation that contains the words "fanfare," "throttled," and "jugular." (Thanks, Clayton.) Meghan, whose last name I failed to get, but who knows a lot about Erasmus, adjusted the sound. I realized that none of the people I'd expected to come to the reading were there. No Warburgs, no honeymooners, no Lexie. Everyone was a stranger.
I read a passage about the pope. People laughed about the pope, which is always heartening. A blond woman with glasses like Cadillac fins smiled beautifully every time I looked at her (also heartening). During the Q&A, a man who'd been silent throughout the reading asked if I had any questions for him. I asked what had brought him out to see me. He said, "I heard you were funny."
A guy named Ryan asked me to sign his book, told me he only buys one or two hardcovers a year, and that he'd picked mine, spending one quarter of his "weekly allotment" on it. Then he asked if maybe I had no plans and wanted to get a drink. I said I was supposed to meet a family friend. I looked around for the absent Lexie. As I did so-losing track of Ryan-the heartening woman with the smile and the Cadillac glasses stepped up for a signature. I wrote something in her book and she told me, "My neighbor comes to these all the time. He gets me to come and then he fidgets." She paused, then continued in a much quieter voice, "I think he's got psoriasis."
Failing to find Lexie-she was surely saving lives at a Mariners-game-related brawl-I looked around for Ryan, intending to take him up on the drink. He had disappeared. I ended up going out with Clayton, who, judging from our conversation, should definitely write his own memoir. ■
Sean Wilsey is the author of Oh the Glory of It All and an editor at large at McSweeney's.