Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Daytona is Racist

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, so I thought I'd post pictures of a real Indian.  Or half of one.  

On our recent trip to SIBA.  Becky and I passed that bastion of Native Kitsch: the smoke shop.

I wrote that Daytona is the town that time forgot, and its smoke shop sported the widest variety of Indian busts and statues I've ever seen.

There are only two shots because Becky felt nervous about going inside and flicking pictures of me looking pissed.  She would have done it if I asked, but I didn't want to make her uncomfortable.

Shame on you, Daytona.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Falling in Love with a Six Year Old

The first time Dylan and I shared the day alone, we biked around our new neighborhood looking for a park Becky and I had passed some months before.  Dylan and I looked for it using the time-tested directions of "somewhere around here."  Just when we were about to give up and head back home, Dylan looked up and said, "What's that sign?"  Turned out to be a playground sign.

Not much of a park, though.  Huge banyans, benches, and much-trodden grass.  A park for romance, not play.  Still, we spent a few hours making up games and had a blast.

Sunday, on our second day alone together, I discover it wasn't so much of a blast.  Biking toward Salvatore Park, Dylan calls over his shoulder, "That last park wasn't any fun, right?"


I politely disagree.  

"But it was just a field."

"I thought we had a good time making our own fun," I say.

"I like playgrounds with lots of stuff to do."

Salvatore Park makes his jaw drop to his chest.  Tennis courts filled with couples and families to watch, monkey bars, swing sets, running paths, hopscotch, fake animals to climb, and a field thrown in for good measure.  Families play everywhere.  I get to make awkward small talk with the parents; "Look, our children are talking.  Let's you and I talk.  Actuary?  That's what you do, really?  I like your Polo shirt.  Excuse me while I elbow myself in the chin."    

Dylan meets neighborhood children.  We snack.  We pretend he's a dog and we drive around the park searching for his lost puppies.  I hold him while he flips over the parallel bars, does a handstand, and crosses the monkey bars.   We race laps around the park.  We see a couple of high school boys doing backflips off the wall.  The one named Andres is trying to teach the other student how to do acrobatic stunts out doors, but children keep pestering Andres to do tricks for them instead.  

"Can you jump over those bars without touching them?"  "Can you jump from that railing to the top of the swingset?"  "Can you do a back flip off of the monkey bars?"

Andres teaches Dylan to do a somersault without bumping his head.   

I also learn a valuable lesson: don't tell the child his father is on the way.  Until you actually see his father pull up, there's always the chance he'll bail at the last minute.

Never having kids in my life, I had a vague notion of what makes them so great.  They look at the world with (childlike) wonder, they're not jaded, they're always ready to have fun and try new things.  Guess what?  Not so much.  Dylan still believes in Santa Claus, but when I tell him that Indians are cleaners, booksellers, and dentists, he doesn't believe me.  Even at six years old, Dylan can wake up on the wrong side of the bed, his first words of the day being, "I want you to leave me alone."  Getting Dylan to try a new food is like getting the Pope to okay birth control.  He'll whine about anything and everything for sympathy, to shirk responsibility, and to stay up one second longer.  

It's not what I expected at all.  I love him because when we pass surveyors X's on the sidewalk, he jumps off his bike so we can dig for treasure.  I love him because he wakes up at midnight and thinks his giant, stuffed Very Hungry Caterpillar is a pit pull and he needs me to show him everything is okay and tuck him back in.  I love him because he forgives easily.  I love him because he loves hugs.  I love him because he believes in the Sleep Fairy, dances to Michael Jackson, and his favorite color is pink.

"Aaron, you watch me when my Mom doesn't watch me and when my Dad doesn't watch me.  Are you my family?"

I'm not sure how to respond, because  I ask him what he thinks.

"Your last name is Curtis.  You're not my family.  You have to be a King, or Quiroga."

Ouch, again.

"Okay, Dylan."

"Except from now on, there are three names in my family.  You have to be Curtis, King, or Quiroga."

I can definitely live with that.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Living el Libro Loca

In 2007, I worked the Bill Clinton signing at Books & Books.  
My Forrest Gump impression.
The crowd of hundreds was calm, respectful, and orderly.  

Nine months ago, I saw the Lauren Conrad signing.  The crowd of hundreds screamed like she was the fifth Beatle (although I doubt most of them were alive when John Lennon got shot) but they never got out of hand.  

This week I worked Ricky Martin, and I'm glad I survived.

The guys are having a beard contest; I'm losing.
PS: That's Becky's chin growing from Ricky's neck.
We should have known there'd be problems Friday afternoon.  After months of assurances that he would stay until every last person had a book signed, his people told us we'd get two hours with Ricky Martin's bon bon.

When the crowd gathered Saturday, having over a thousand books suddenly looked sparse (although we haven't sold a thousand books at single-title event since Bill Clinton's My Life).  Ricky Martin's people probably saved us from running out.  We had plenty of stock, but we had to cut people off because of the time limit.  

After months of telling and tweeting "come one, come all," folks didn't react well to hearing that we couldn't sell any more vouchers to get in the signing line.  Never mind that you could have bought a voucher weeks ago, I drove all this way to see Ricky Martin and I'm seeing Ricky Dancing-in-the-Goddamned-Rain Martin.

One woman couldn't get over the fact that our website hadn't been updated to reflect the sold-out status.  After some back-and-forth, she and Becky started to get into it.  And by get into it, I mean shout.  Using the customer service axiom which has served me for decades - namely that an irate customer will spew venom all over the first employee who helps them but be sweet as pie to the second - I asked if I could be of some assistance.

After some back-and-forth, I started to get into it with the customer as well.  And by get into it, I mean yelling.  You have to be a certain kind of bitter to bring seasoned professionals like Becky and myself to the boiling point; this woman was that kind of bitter with a side of cuntface.  

I passed her along to Cristina, our Marketing and Events Coordinator, thinking that surely the woman would be mollified by speaking to the person who put the whole event together.  Instead, Cristina and the customer got into it.  In Spanish.

The woman refused to leave, preferring to pepper abuse on Becky and I while we helped customers who had paid long in advance.  

"You can't update your website?" the woman railed.  

"No, we can't," Becky said.  

"So you sell out of books, and you don't put it online?  You don't care about your customers.  That's what you're saying?  Books & Books doesn't care about their customers."

"Lady, do you see this crowd?"  Becky gestured to the throng of people wrapped around the block, hindering traffic, standing on the window sills, trampling our flower beds to get a glimpse of their idol (who hadn't even arrived).  "When are we supposed to update the website?"

"Oh, please.  You don't have someone who takes care of that for you?  Books & Books?  Please."

"Wow, I'm glad you think so highly of us," I said.  "We have two people in charge of our website.  One of them is over there."  I pointed to Debra, co-Marketing and Events Coordinator Pluperfect, making sure boxes of Me and Yo were flapped to the signing page so folks wouldn't be delayed picking up their books en route to Ricky.  "The other one is over there."  I pointed to Noah, receiving dude Bar None, manning the front gate.  "That's it.  That's all we got."

For all the impact it made on her behavior, I might as well have given a two-year-old directions on baking chocolate cake.  

Ricky of Ricky's Bakery, the best Cuban bakery in Miami, with a Ricky Martin cake
This woman - one of several who pushed her way inside with the media to take pictures on her camera phone and got irate when asked to leave - will have to represent the whole of folks who would have been controllable only with a timely elbow to the jaw.  This post has got to end at some point.

Ricky Martin gave us over four hours, taking two breaks (during one, he peed into a bottle because the men's room was unreachable; email your Ebay jokes to; the best one will win something special).  For the most part, everyone was happy.  With so few staff members helping a crowd of thousands, this is something of a miracle.  He was amazing, upbeat and friendly the entire time.  Also, a gorgeous-looking guy.

One thing about the crowd irked me.  Seventy percent of this crowd was too busy trying to come up with the perfect Facebook update to even realize where they were.  That's no way to live.  I had to practically push people to the signing table because they were too busy memorializing the moment to actually meet him.  They'd hang back,  ignoring his greeting while trying to get the perfect shot.  If you want pictures, Google him; you'll find millions.  Instead of focusing on what you'll say about it later, why not be fully present and engaged while you talk with this man you adore?  

Thankfully, the powers that be at Books & Books decided to make this one-book, one-ticket so we could make some money off the crowds for once.  Hey, you're excited you got to see Ricky.  I don't blame you.

I'm excited I got a paycheck this week.  

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Getting Dumber All the Time

In books and stories, characters are always trying to remember someone’s name.  I’ve used it myself.  It adds that dose of realism, and it’s an instantly recognizable situation.  What’s her name? the narrator wonders.  Donna?  Diana?  Turns out to be Deena.  So close.
Truthfully, in real life it happens more like that Seinfeld episode.  

Jerry: What was her husband's name, again?  Chip?  Kip?  Skip?

Elaine: Todd.

Jerry: Oh, right.

I'm going to go ahead and blame Todd.  Todd is Chip or Skip because Todd is boring.  It’s especially confusing in a room full of people you’re meeting for the first time, all the names and faces blend together.  Shouldn't Todd help you out by distinguishing himself in some way?  

It’s not just me.  No one remembers anyone’s name.  I refuse to believe we’re too self-centered to learn a new name and face.  No, it’s something else.  

I work with women in their fifties and sixties at Books & Books who count out the cash drawers from memory.  They struggle with all the computer stuff the teens and twenty-somethings pick up like breathing, but they count change and bills without moving their lips.  Meanwhile, take away a twenty-something’s pen, paper, and calculator while she counts a drawer and watch calamity ensue.
I think the Big Bang was a mass of everything, not just matter but all the intelligence, creativity, and abstract thought that would ever be, from the beginning of everything until the end of the whole mess.  With each progressive generation, it gets diluted.  Want proof?  Read a book from just thirty years ago.  There’s a command of language, a manner of expression which even our most lauded young writers lack. 

Some would argue that’s the modern style, stripped down, bare bones, minimal prose.  They’ll tell you that all the fancy words and flowery sentences in the world don’t necessarily translate to emotional power.  To which I say. . . Billy MadisonBlack Eyed PeasGovernor Schwarzenegger.  The Da Vinci Code, train wreck television, and Hot Chicks with Douche Bags.  
As long as the right people keep making money off of stupidity and ignorance, our culture will continue to manufacture idiocy.  As long as we have cell phone coverage, cars, internet access, and televisions, no one will care.  Devices will keep us entertained every second of every day.  We will eliminate boredom and original thought.

But don’t worry about it.  We’ll be too busy watching YouTube videos of celebrity meltdowns on our IPhones to care.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

That Sounded Better in My Head

For a certain type of person, our first thought is rarely our best thought.  Not every writer is Truman Capote or Oscar Wilde, quick with a quip or comeback, irreverent yet touching toast at the ready.  The less quick-witted writers among us put perfect reposts to put into our character's mouths, but in real life we're lacking the spark.

          Them: Honestly, you looked a little nervous during that reading.
          Me: So's your mom.
          Them: Huh?

          Them: I really didn't care for the last book you recommended me.
          Me: That's what she said.
          Them: Is that a joke?
          Me: No, it wasn't.  Because that wouldn't be funny at all.  I was just... 
                 emphasizing that you said it.

So now you know my secret; if it can't be filled with "so's your mother" or "that's what she said," I've got nothing.  Ironically, I've used two examples of things no one's ever told me in real life.  But they're the only scenarios I could envision on short notice.  

The speed of Becky's mind is one of the things I love about her, like when Hilldawg held up her arm and said, "Do you know how I got this bruise?" and Becky came back with her boyfriend's name without missing a beat.  It's a kind of conversational magic, one I seldom have.

In fact, I've felt quick-witted once in my life.  It was 1995.  The Disney movie Pocahontas (subtitle: Let's Destroy Truth and Fun*) had just been released.  A group of us sat around discussing the lyrics to Colors of the Wind, and my friend Kerry turned to me.

"What does 'have you ever heard the wolf cry at the blue corn moon' even mean?  Come on, you're Native American."

"I don't know," I said.  "What does 'when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that's amore" mean?  You're Italian, don't you know?"

Maybe you had to be there.

I also felt very writerly once.  Not in the sense of crafting a piece, or reading in front of folks, but in that Capote-at-a-party way.  A group of friends were enjoying a Thanksgiving potluck dinner at an apartment on Miami Beach.   We went around the table telling what we were thankful for in the past year.  

I'd visited upstate New York over the summer and swum in Lake Ontario.  After ten years of Miami's ocean the cold was overwhelming, but the fact that I had to kick four times as hard as I was used to just to stay afloat helped me keep warm.  Come to find out, the salt in saltwater makes it much easier to stay afloat.  I knew there was a metaphor in there about life, and friendship.  I kept in the back of my mind, intending to write it down at some point.

When I opened my mouth to give thanks, that's what came out.  Since I was making it up as I spoke, the story came across as extemporaneous and sincere.  I ended by saying I was thankful for my friends, the salt that makes it easier to swim the waters of life.  Since it was a speech it lasted as long as it took to hear it, leaving an impression of love and warmth instead of mere words which could be studied to death.

Writing is what gets me out of bed in the morning, but there something to be said for the ephemery of speech. 

* All Disney animals talk. Except in Pocohontas.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Books & Books: A For Profit Business

Customers really don't understand the book business at all (given the upheavals it has gone through in just a few years, and continues to go through, some of us working here don't get it either).  As a customer, I don't really need to know the behind-the-scenes machinations which bring me an espresso to enjoy a caffeine jolt.  Still, I know every time Aaron buys espresso at Starbucks, and Dick buys latte at Seattle's Best, and Harry buys  whole bean at Dunkin' Donuts, there's not a big mountain of coffee somewhere with an office on top of it, gathering the funds and redistributing them to the coffee business as a whole. 

Because I understand these businesses are in competition, I'd never go to a tasting at Pasion del Cielo with a pound of Starbucks, or sit down to read at Cafe Demitrio with a mug of Anniversary Blend.  Who would?  People who believe there is a Book Fairy orbiting the globe, gathering book money wherever it's spent and sprinkling it over booksellers everywhere, that's who.

Before I tell this galling story, I'd like to acknowledge that I've used the words "business" and "competition."  I'm saving posts about the skewed playing field the A-word enjoys for a later date, so let's set all that aside to talk about the Book Fairy.

There isn't one.

One thing Books & Books has always wanted, and has been asked to start a time or two, is a reading group for young adults.  With YA the one part of the bookselling world which is still exploding, this wish / request seems more important than ever.  So when we were approached to host a YA book club, we said yowza.  

After a month of preparation, including a lot of back-and-forth with the Igirl running the club (and the Igirl mom) during our hectic book fair season, we were ready.  The turn out was excellent.  The decorate-your-own cupcakes portion of the proceedings was a huge success.  They chose one of the three recommended titles to discuss for next month's meeting.  You could cut the book excitement with a knife.     

Then our children's manager watched in horror as Igirl told the group they could check the book out at the library, or buy it on Amazon.

Are you kidding me?  Have you been calling or emailing Amazon four times a week for the last month about this event?  Did Amazon suggest the titles you were choosing from?  Did Amazon spend an hour-and-a-half making the bookmarks you snatched up?  Did Amazon get up at eight in the morning (on a Sunday) to bake the cupcakes you wolfed down?  Did Amazon clean up the mess you left?  You know what, Igrrrlz, if you love Amazon so much, have Amazon a clear one of their rooms and set up chairs for your next meeting.  Oh, that's right - YOU CAN'T.

Guess what?  The money you spend on Amazon doesn't go to the Book Fairy and then back to Books & Books, it goes to Seattle.  Meanwhile,  your community in general and Books & Books in particular both languish.  You've used us to play host, cost us time and money, and used our store to advertise on online retailer which really doesn't need the extra exposure.

Don't be surprised to find us less hospitable in the future.    

Thursday, November 4, 2010

I Read This and Loved It

Then I wrote about watching the author read at Books & Books for The Heat Lightning.  Check it out.

It's my first attempt to talk about one book at a time for THL, hopefully start a discussion on race, and sell hundreds of copies of Durrow's book.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Book Learnin' Don't Make You Smart

My first interview leaping from restaurants to the book business, the manager of a Barnes & Noble warned me, "People who read are very high maintenance customers because they think they know everything."  I've been a bookseller for ten years.  Cynical as they are, I haven't been able to erase her words from my mind.  

Whether readers are smarter than non-readers or we just think we are, and whether Books & Books shoppers are smarter than the average reader, we get our fair share of clueless customers.  Of course, I use the term "customer" very loosely.  According to Webster's, a customer is someone who pays for goods and services.  

Depending on whose head count you believe, 500-700 people showed up to hear Ingrid Betancourt in conjunction with the Florida Center for the Literary Arts and Miami Dade College.  Books & Books gave out 600 free tickets.  I think 700 was suggested because it was Standing Room Only, but I doubt every single seat was filled.  Let's say that for a book event, this was a Hell-a-ton O' Folks.  It's an industry term.

The good news is, hell-a-ton does not need to be exaggerated to any publisher or publicist.  I have no idea what we're telling Penguin we sold, but the bad news is our actual sales: 26 in English, 35 in Spanish.  10% sell-through?  As our events co-ordinator put it, "That's the saddest thing I've heard all day."

Lugging books downtown only to lug them back to the store might - might - have been tolerable, if not for this person:

Look, it's Ingrid's elbow!
Pardon the crappy cell phone shot.  If you can't tell, it's a Barnes & Noble bag.

I wish I could say it's the first time I've seen people bring A-Word and B-Word books to see authors we've brought to Miami, but... no.  Let's hope, after Books & Books shuts down because no one who came to our events could be bothered to buy a book, that Barnes & Noble will be there to host sixty events a month.  If they're not too busy closing stores.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Facebook: Profiles in Anger

"You ain't my friend, palooka."

I can’t get his profile picture out of my mind.  He’s filled out since high school, a rugged man replacing the scrawny boy I remember.  He needed the extra pounds, but he was supposed to get fat.  He was supposed to grow old and ugly, this smiling man fishing with his children, grinning ear-to-ear as he holds a huge lake trout up for the camera.  

As a boy, this man helped make my boyhood miserable.  He's not supposed to be happy.  High school was supposed to be the best time of his life, and Facebook should give me pictorial evidence of his slow disintegration into fat, impotent, bitter baldness.  This grinning man with the dancing eyes mocks me, as he ever did.

Along with Fish Man, Facebook shows me more people I might want to “friend.”  Fat Bad Teeth.  Ratface.  Nice Guy Who is Cruel by Association.  Roley-Poley.  The boys who made high school hell.

There are women, too.  Snide Remark.  Nose Wrinkler.  Friend One Minute Cruel the Next.  Can’t See You.  You Are Invisible.  Look Through You.

You have 85 mutual friends.

Truthfully, many of them have gained weight, just not enough to suit me.  A good start would be along the lines of, “The unemployment line starts over there, where that twenty-foot pile of demi-sentient lard is quivering.”  Triple that and you approach the misery thier lives should be, in proportion to the misery they caused.

If there is one piece of evidence suggesting that their best years are behind them, it's reunion pictures.  

Five year, ten year, fifteen year, are you kidding me?  I thought reunions were supposed to meet each decade, but I guess that wouldn’t be enough for the popular crowd.  I look at those pictures and see all the folks who made me feel inadequate.  These people are super-excited for the 20-year reunion because Facebook makes it so easy for everyone to be in touch that it will be the biggest reunion ever.   

Okay, okay, I know they only tormented me because they had issues, too, and the pain of school might be the main reason I became a writer, and popularity comes with its own set of problems, and from suffering comes art, and blah-blah-blah please mix me a damn martini.  

But seeing this handsome guy smile, winning at life, it sets my teeth on edge.  Aren’t selfish bullies supposed to get punished?  Or am I confusing life with movies written by my dorky writer brethren?  

I'm living well; the best revenge, as they say.  I know what I’m here to do, I’m doing it, and my journey is my own.  I have a girlfriend who fills my heart to bursting, and she has a boy who I deeply love.  We aren't swimming in money, but life is savory.  

Smile away, Fish Man.  The water’s pretty fine down my way, too.

(Still, don't think I'm gonna friend you.)