The West Coast leg of my book tour starts in Albuquerque. My friends Bud and Jessica invited me to come to town and suggested Bookworks to host a reading. They’ve been out here for years now. They moved from Chicago for the weather and an attraction to the desert. I’ve visited a few times and have never quite figured out what the place is about. This time around I notice signs all over town marking former “Breaking Bad” shooting locations, including a crummy motel with an oversized message warning us not to take pictures without paying them beforehand.
We get to the store about an hour before the reading. The manager seems flustered and overwhelmed. She offers up a series of excuses to explain why, for instance, we won’t be able to project artwork as we’d been told we could that afternoon. There are apologies for the low turnout and other matters which I’ve mercifully forgotten. The reading itself comes off fine, mostly due to Bud and Jessica’s musical accompaniment. They bring a banjo, violin, drums and effects pedals to create an atmosphere that makes my stumbling over words a lot more forgivable.
We end the night with good food and drinks and a viewing of a pirated copy of Jarmusch’s The Only Lovers Left Alive with Korean subtitles.
Los Angeles, 10/18
I fly into LAX in the morning and wait at the Alamo rent-a-car complex for Brian Costello and Susan Hope Lanier to show. We’re going in on a car for the drive north. After the agent takes down my info so I can officially be one of the drivers, Susan and Brian go out to the car while I wait for my brother Max to swing by to pick me up. I stand outside in the parking lot as a parade of Ubers drops off passengers. A few feet away a couple taxis sit idling. Will they go the way of the payphone? It sure looks like it from here.
Max takes me to a gourmet burger joint in back of a liquor store near his Redondo Beach apartment. Then, after showing off the nearby views of the Pacific, he drops me off downtown at the Last Bookstore.
I’d never been to Downtown LA. This is the first time in this town that I’ve felt there was anything like a city here. It’s not just the aggressive panhandlers but the fact that there are all sorts of people walking around and all kinds of businesses opening up that strengthen this feeling. Every other occasion I’ve been here most of my hours have been spent in a car in between places and the whole area has come off as a metastasized suburb. I have drinks with my ex-wife, Deborah, who lives around the corner, then we head over to the bookstore.
The staff seems only dimly aware that there’s any sort of event going on within the hour, but eventually chairs are set up and a few people filter in, several of my girlfriend’s friends and my first girlfriend, Eva, and her husband among them.
And I read from my book…
Afterwards I sign a few books, then take our rental—a behemoth Ford SUV—from the parking lot where Brian has left it. We drop Erika off, then Susan and I head to my brother’s place where we’ll be crashing. She takes the armchair while I take the couch. We agree to get on the road by 5am so we can make it to Marin County for tomorrow afternoon’s reading. After tossing and turning for awhile I wake for good around 2:30am. I take a shower, grab my book, and tiptoe out of the darkened apartment. There’s a McDonald’s a block away, so I take the hulking Ford through the drive-thru, then spend the next hour reading while parked in front of Max’s place. Around 4am I try the front door of the apartment and find it has locked behind me. I text and call Susan several times to let me in but there’s no answer. Finally, after texting Max for the door code, I get back in. We pick up Erika and Brian and are en route to Marin before 6am.
San Francisco, 10/19-20
Being a former cabbie, it’s a foregone conclusion that I do most of the driving. It’s no great hardship. Being behind the wheel is second nature to me, though all my associations with driving are work-related. There are people who drive around aimlessly for pleasure or to ruminate or dream; I have never done this. A year after learning to drive I was driving a cab. The six hours north pass event-free, though watching the gas gauge visibly drain as we go almost makes me nostalgic for a Crown Vic’s fuel efficiency. This obscene vehicle is fairly comfortable for four travelers but otherwise has little to recommend it.
We arrive at Book Passage in Corte Madera about half an hour before our reading. The event coordinator generously pays for our lunch at the store’s cafe before we walk around the corner to where a bunch of empty chairs sit facing a podium. Three of them are eventually filled by elderly women. One of these interrupts Susan’s reading a couple sentences in to ask whether she could read without the microphone. The coordinator has to explain to her that the store pipes in the readings to the rest of the store in hopes that other patrons may wander over. This doesn’t happen, though one of our three audience members does get up and leave after Erika warns that there will be many curse words in her reading. We sign a few stock copies of our books for stock, then drive back south to San Francisco.
The reading at Green Apple Books isn’t until 7pm so we park the car and go our separate ways for a few hours. The lack of sleep is catching up with me so I find a coffee shop down the street and sit down, hoping to catch a second wind. The place is busy and makes a good spot to people-watch. They’re an attractive lot for the most part. Some work on laptops while others just sit there killing a little time like me. An older man spends about 15 minutes making his table just so, in order to be able to work on what appears to be an epic piece of verbiege, written out on a sheet-music pad. I’m supposed to meet Wendy MacNaughton for dinner before the reading but she’s running late, so I wander back into Green Apple but can’t focus on any of the thousands of books that make the place nearly burst at the seams. I’ve gotten to that level of sleep-deprivation where things are getting blurry around the edges. Wendy’s arrival makes me rally a bit. She’s one of the main reasons I was looking forward to this whole trip. We’ve corresponded a lot over the last couple years but this is our first face-to-face meeting. It’s a great and rare thing when a person exceeds your expectations. She’s charming and full of life and makes me almost forget that I’m running on two hours’ sleep.
At the store Wendy takes a picture of me with my sketchbook open to the Lena Dunham drawing. Our reading is sparsely attended but my cousin Masha shows up, as does my friend Ben, who’s putting me up my two nights in town. We shuffle the lineup and I read first this time, followed by Brian, Susan, and Erika.
After we’re done reading a few new people show up; Susan met them outside while having a cigarette and they want to hear us read. So each of us reads for another few minutes. It’s a nice moment, especially after the rest of the event seemed like mostly an excuse to visit with friends. We all pile into the SUV and head towards the Mission District. Erika and Susan hop out first to meet friends they’ll be staying with, while Brian keeps trying to reach his friend, who has seemingly gone AWOL. We park the beast and go for tacos. I want to help Brian but I’m crashing again from the aforementioned sleeplessness. He takes the keys and winds up sleeping in the car. I’m snoring before my head even hits the pillow at Ben’s.
The next day I take BART out to Berkeley for our reading at Pegasus Books. Max and his girlfriend are also in the Bay Area for the day so we have brunch beforehand. This is the first bookstore that has made a poster for our event so far. I plan to read a raunchy episode from the book but change my mind when my old art school buddy, Kent, walks in with his teenaged daughter. This tour seems to be turning into old home week with all the exes and former classmates turning up.
Brian has set up a reading at bar called Rite Spot in San Francisco this evening but both Erika and Susan beg off, saying they drank too much the night before. So Brian and I take BART back across the bay.
The bar sits on an industrial-looking corner in an area that everyone says is being rapidly redeveloped and gentrified. In fact, most locals bemoan the disappearance of any affordable housing around here. Grisha—my mother’s cousin and the man who first let me steer a car while sitting on his lap when I was about 5—shows up to give me the rundown of the local real estate situation and to talk about all the side money he makes driving for Uber (when not on his regular Greyhound route). He buys a couple books but takes off before the reading begins. That leaves the bartender, a family friend named Lana (who my brother Max texted about the reading this afternoon in Berkeley), my friend Ben, a friend of Brian’s, and middle-aged couple, who leave a few minutes in, as our audience. The good part about having only two on the bill though is that we can stretch, as Brian and I take turns reading excerpts from books. It’s probably the most comfortable I’ve felt on stage this whole trip.
There’s no event scheduled on the 20th, so Brian, Susan, and I can take our time getting to Portland. The further north we go, the more the view out the window reminds me of the opening sequence of “Twin Peaks”—it’s all mountains and trees and mist out there. My high school friend, Margot, lives in Eugene and I haven’t seen her in 25 years, so I convince my tourmates to stop there for dinner. We choose an odd place called the Pizza Research Institute, where Margot, her husband and her son meet us. We all have a good time. They generously pay for our meal—no small gesture in that this tour has cost each of us a small fortune—and we give them signed books as thanks.
We get to Portland around 9:30pm. I drop off Susan and Brian where they’re staying, then head to my friend, Dan’s, house. We’ve known each other since 2nd grade but have only been in touch sporadically in recent years. This whole tour has seemed like a time-machine back through my life in some way. Seeing Dan is as far back as I can go without getting on a plane back to the Soviet Union, and that’s not a possibility last time I checked.
The reading at the IPRC has a perfunctory vibe. This is a studio and community center more than a place for events but they set up chairs, curtain off shelves of zines, and hang Christmas lights to make us feel welcome. As with all the readings on this tour, the crowd is pretty sparse and there’s no great urgency surrounding our being here. It’s difficult for a small out-of-town press to generate a good turn-out.
Local writer Sara Woods joins us at both IPRC and Reading Frenzy. Like touring bands, it’s probably a good idea to add locals to the bill. It certainly seems to make a difference at Reading Frenzy. This is our best-attended event. It helps that the store’s owner, Chloe, has taken time and care in promoting the reading as well. My art-school classmate, Dave, and his family show up as well, to wrap up my West Coast tour with yet another familiar face. If you live long enough and continue to make art or to write, friends from the past will pop up this way. Having work out in the world allows them to stay connected with you. This is one of the privileges of longevity.
I fly back to Chicago on the 23rd, while Susan and Brian continue on to Olympia and Seattle. I’ve never done a book tour before and I don’t regret going, but I doubt I’d do it again. The economics and the ego blows of it just aren’t worth repeating. Back at the very beginning, in New York, I saw what a book event could be. Watching hundreds of excited fans snap up all of John Darnielle’s books was quite a sight. Without a crowd or much buzz or money, going from town to town trying to give your book a chance to succeed feels mostly hopeless. I enjoyed hearing others read and sketching them. It was good to see old friends after years apart and to visit other cities. But in the future if I wanna get out of town, I’ll probably just take a vacation like everyone else does.
Part 1 of the tour diary can be read here.