26 May How to Sell a Book in America, Part VII: Road Trip Round-up

I’ve just finished the last major leg of my Kiss Me, Stranger book tour, reading exclusively at independent book stores and sharing the stage on many occasions with fellow Baltimorean and hilarious raconteur Jessica Blau. The tour took me to Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, San Francisco, Santa Rosa (CA), Alameda (CA), Denver, and Cleveland. I met lots of lovely people and, generally, had a great time. My method of book selling included give-aways of candy (Presidential toffee), bookmarks, and posters of illustrations from my novel, so every stop seemed festive to me, despite the number of books I did or did not sell. Here’s my list of travel highlights:

Things I forgot to take: nail clippers (had to use scissors), sun glasses, ear phones, one all-important computer file that contained my itinerary, compact mirror, and hard copy of my itinerary. I should have taken the time to print out the itinerary while on the road, but I didn’t and so I sweated through my guesses about when and where I was supposed to be. When you’re renting 3 cars in 6 days, for instance, it’s hard to keep the car companies straight: is today Dollar? Thrifty? Budget?

Best reading partner: Jessica Anya Blau. She’s funny, generous, and kind. At every stop, she called on her friends and I called on mine, and together we had great readings, with lots of laughs.

Most surprising element of the TSA lines: shoe advertising at the bottom of the plastic TSA bins (in Denver). Who sells the ad space? Who gets the ad revenue?

Tiffany surprise: Cleveland is home to one of the Louis Comfort Tiffany’s impressive creations, the Wade Chapel, which has a huge stained glass window flanked by two huge glass-tiled murals.

Biggest triumph in passing through the TSA lines: nobody confiscated my container of hummus.

Best walk: up the coastal hills in Half Moon Bay, CA. Amazing path through red woods and ancient douglas firs took me above the fog-line and through several eco-systems on a sun-stunned, too-blue-sky morning. The spring flowers were in bloom. My naturalist friend, Ken, identified every one. He also told me storeis about mountain lions, which have returned in significant numbers (you’ve probably heard stories of them snatching unsuspecting bicyclists from mountain parks in southern CA).

Best radio: Seattle. Hands down. It must be the alt-rock capital of the world. Denver came in a surprising second.

Worst radio: San Francisco Bay Area. Schlock, oldies, and top-forty. Where’s the rock?

Best bread: Acme bread in Berkeley and San Francisco. Substantial, crusty, with a tinge of old world smoke.

Best pizza: Pizzaiola in Okaland, CA. They have coal-fired ovens. People line up outside before they open. It’s that good.

Worst pizza: Boston. I’m going to keep trying, Boston, but you’ve got me worried.

Best toy store: Mr. Mopps in Berkeley, CA. I love a good toy store, where I can immerse myself in the giddy, kiddy world of colorful gew-gaws and endless play. Mopps isn’t looking as robust as it once looked but it’s holding on. I bought something to support the cause.

Worst swimming pool: Ramada Inn, Denver airport. The water was greenish from algae.

Most puzzling encounter: In Oakland, CA, as I was coasting to a stop at a light (in my rental car), I glanced out my open window and saw a well-dressed man sitting at the bus stop. He was staring at me. He said, “Can you spare a few dollars? I need to get to Sunnyvale.” I could hardly believe that he was a panhandler. Still, I shrugged in answer, then drove on. I don’t give hand-outs to anybody except street performers.

Biggest culinary disappointment: I missed getting focaccia at the Liguria’s bakery in San Francisco’s North Beach. Theirs is thick crust, with a light coating of tomato paste and garlic oil and topped with a scatter of scallions (a very west-coast touch). I arrived at noon, only to find the “sold out” sign on the door. Inside, the woman at the counter was reading a newspaper. I said, “How late am I?” She said, “I could give you frozen.” I asked her if anybody else had good focaccia I could try. She shook her head doubtfully, then said, “You could try the place up the street.” Then the older woman sitting nearby — she was counting dollar bills — said: “It’s not as good.” I knew this. Still, I went up the street, bought a piece, tried a bite, then put it away. Nobody makes it like Liguria.

Biggest gaff among sports lovers: In Denver, a friend mentioned the Rockies baseball team and I asked, “Are they triple-A or big league?” The Denverite said, “They went to the world series in 2007.”

Most puzzling photographic moment: I peered into a cluttered, colorful vintage clothing store in San Francisco and decided that it would make a good picture for Jill, who loves vintage clothing stores. The place had the atmosphere of a old Brooklyn dress shop, just this side of a rag dealer’s den. As I aimed my camera, suddenly a woman appeared from the dress-cluttered gloom and shouted, “No pictures! No pictures!” She was middled-aged, with long hair she had dyed blonde. She spoke with an eastern European accent, which made me speculate about her suspiciaion “No pictures?” I asked. She waved me away. “NO pictures. NO!”

Quickest ad lib at a book reading: At Books Inc., in Alameda, CA, Jessica Blau noticed that there was a child or two in the store, so, as she read an excerpt of Drinking Closer to Home, she abruptly changed the word “penis” to “menis” and “fuck” to “feh.”

Best grocery: Berkeley Bowl. If you’ve never been to California, you can’t imagine how remarkable a super market produce offering can be. Berkeley Bowl shows you produce glories east coasters can only dream of. You want root vegetables? How about ten varieties? How about seven varieties of banana? How about the season’s first peaches? (This was May, mind you.) Oh my, I wandered the aisles in a daze.

Most interesting bar: After the reading at Denver’s fabulous Tattered Cover, my friend Doug took me to My Brother’s Bar, an atmospheric corner tavern that is old enough to have been the haunt of Cassidy, one of the infamous beat poets, who, from prison, wrote a friend and asked him to pay Cassidy’s bill at the bar. A copy of the letter hangs at the back of the bar, which, with its dark wood interior and waxed paper-wrapped sandwiches, seems to have changed little in many years. The bar’s music of choice is classical.

The most amazing jewelry: Ann Marie Montecuollo makes it from scratch in her shop in Healdsburg, CA.

Silliest review from an Amazon reader: I can’t help it; I keep checking my reader reviews on Amazon and Good Reads, even when I’m on the road. Let me remind you that Kiss Me, Stranger is about a mother and her 14 children who are trying to survive a civil war in a fictional country built on landfill. The illustrations in the book are supposed to have been drawn by these children. A reader on Amazon gave the book one star and wrote the following: “The so called pictures gave nothing to writing, not to mention they were poorly done. They looked like something a young child would do in Paint.”

Most amazing natural sight: a first-growth redwood stump, twenty-feet high, from which is growing a couple of new red woods, each about fifty-feet high. Redwoods are nearly indestructible. Their wood — impervious to pests and really hard — built much of California. There are still a few first-growth, 1,000-year-old monster red woods hidden deep in the forests of Northern California. Their locations are a closely guarded secret. Thanks to my friend Alan, who took me to this impressive relic.

Best oatmeal: organic, steel-cut oats at Blue Sky cafe in Half Moon Bay, CA. I never make steel cut oats at home because they take too frigging long. But, when somebody else makes them and makes them well — moist but not soggy — I love them.

Most sentimental stop: I visited the house I used to live in 30 years ago in Berkeley. Back in the day, i shared the first floor with two Berkeley coeds. Three others lived upstairs. The house is still a rental and still full of coeds. One of the girls happened to be holding a yard sale. As soon as she heard I’d lived there, she brought out the whole house. Everyone was eager to hear what the house had been like before they were born.

Biggest musical surprise: My friend Ken, in Half Moon Bay, has a drum set in his basement. So I got to get in some drum practice.

Most interesting gallery: Out of the Blue Gallery, Cambridge: floor to ceiling paintings from artists of widely divergent abilities crowd the walls of this tiny, one room building, home to the Dire Reading Series. The gallery owner is a small, graying tweedy man who would look at home in an Irish pub.

Strangest thing overhead in passing: a teenager said to his mother: “it went out the chimney and into the night.”

Biggest surprise while flying: the huge United Tri-jetliner from Denver to Chicago offered a pillow and blanket at every seat and — are you ready for this? — a doily over every headrest. Do you remember headrest doilies?

Most exotica per square foot: San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s so authentically a Chinese melting pot, Chinatown defies its throngs of tourists and gets on with its business in the same old way. If you get off the main drag (Grant street), you could be in Shanghai.

Best falafel: Maha’s cafe in Cleveland’s Westside Market. Smooth and savory hummus with fresh-fried falafel. Did you know that the mid-west (and Detroit specifically) has the nation’s largest population of Middle Easterners? Maha’s is the best falafel I’ve had in a long time.