Just got back to the hotel after a long , but wonderful day. Details, you say? Fair enough.
After availing myself of the hotel’s free hot breakfast, I caught the bus around 10 this morning, and it dropped me off near another subway station. Alas, I didn’t know where the station was, but a very kind woman a few years my senior said she was headed that way, and told me to follow her. In fact, we were taking the same train — the #5 express — and her stop (59th St.) was one before mine (86th). As we stood on the platform, she said, “I’m gonna be late for work.”
“Well, if anyone gives you static, tell them you were helping some lost out-of-towner.”
“It won’t be a problem.”
“So what do you do?” I asked.
“Cool,” I said. “My mom used to do that.” And then the train arrived, and we took our seats. When we got to her stop, we looked at each other and smiled. I waved and mouthed “Thanks.” And she was gone.
New York has a reputation for gruffness, illustrated by this joke (Language warning):
What did the tourist say to the third New Yorker he met?
“Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall, or should I just go fuck myself?”
My personal experience now tells me that this isn’t true. I’ve been about as befuddled as a guy from Mondoville can be in the big city, but the folks I’ve asked for directions have been unfailingly helpful and polite. It’s a big place, but the locals put it on a human scale.
After disembarking from the subway, I walked a few blocks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was not quite 11 a.m. when I used the pass a friend loaned me, dropped off my coat and backpack at the coat check, and started wandering around. Three hours later, I had made it through the Egyptian, Medieval, and Arms and Armor collections — well, more or less. It was clear that I was going to spend my whole day at the Met, but like the kids in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I think I’d gladly spend more than a few days and nights there, given the opportunity.
So I ambled downstairs to the cafeteria, where I had a spectacularly good double cheeseburger and an order of fries that would founder a Percheron. This was a delightful surprise — I mean, in my experience museum restaurants tend to be serviceable for a captive audience at best, and this was the Met’s basic eatery. But this was a really terrific lunch, and the portions were more than generous. It would just about be worth a trip as a destination in itself — the museum would be a bonus.
But when I finished, I plunged back into the collections and found my way first to the Lehman Gallery, and then to the Modern Art section, where I saw this:
which happens to be one of my favorite paintings by one of my favorite artists. But a few minutes after that, I turned a corner, and saw a painting that has fascinated me since I was a kid:
I fell in love with this painting before I knew about the poem that inspired it, or even who Williams was. And I had just turned a corner and there it was, like a man bumping into the woman who stole his heart at the grocery years later. I gasped and stood there for fifteen minutes.
But I knew I had other things to do, so after a quick passage through the gift shop, I sat on a concrete ledge by the museum’s entrance, cooling down before I resumed my Manhattan peregrinations. As I sat there, I texted Mrs. M and the Spawn: “We have to come here.”
It was already getting dark, so I walked a few blocks to a Starbucks at 85th and Lexington and people-watched for a little while before taking a cab to the Mysterious Bookshop, the site of the night’s event. For a fan of crime fiction, this is Mecca. Floor-to ceiling bookshelves devoted to this stuff, with a clientele who knows and loves the genre. It’s a place I had always wanted to visit, and now on my first trip, I would be reading there. I got to say hi to Otto Penzler, the shop’s owner, and I thanked him for mentioning one of my stories in Best American Mystery Stories 2016. I also got to talk to Pegasus publisher Claiborne Hancock, and I thanked him for publishing this anthology. Meanwhile, I was delighted to see Jeff Wong (who designed the amazing NoirCon program, and whose recently released Ross MacDonald Archive is an important work for scholars of crime fiction) and Thomas Pluck, a fine writer whose work you may have seen in last year’s Dark City Lights anthology, among other places. We talked for a few minutes, and then Joyce Carol Oates walked in.
Over the years, I’ve spoken to a few people who are just palpably intelligent, people who make you worry, because you really don’t want to sound like a doofus in front of them. A couple of examples of what I’m talking about? Frank Zappa and Paul Rand. Well, we can add Joyce Carol Oates to the list. Also, she’s taller than I expected.
Anyway, I introduced myself to her, and said how much of an honor it was to have one of my stories in a book with one of hers. Goofy? Maybe, but I meant it, and that should count for something.
Then it was go time, and I found myself seated between Lee Child and Jill D. Block. Larry once again acted as emcee, and decided to do the evening’s introductions in reverse alphabetical order, which meant that I had to talk about my story after…
Yep. Oates. I managed to get through my bit without dropping the book on the floor or sweating like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News, so I guess I was all right.
After we had done our spiels, it was time to sign some books. The audience was enthusiastic, and there were plenty of books to sign — and I even got to sign a couple of copies of Broken Glass Waltzes, and left two more for Otto to sell to unwary shoppers. And as we did that, the store’s employees brought out other books for us to sign, copies that had been bought in advance by folks who couldn’t make the event, but who didn’t want to miss out on the fun. And there were dozens of them. I was next to last in the queue, and that was probably a good thing, because I discovered something.
The books began to stack up tn front of me, like Lucille Ball’s assembly line bit. First two, then three, and it gave four a miss and went straight to five, and then I quit counting, just trying to give folks something that was at least semi-legible and spelled correctly. Meanwhile, I’d finish one, hand it to Lee, and ZAP! Less than a second and he was done. Of course, I’m sure he gets more practice. And “Lee Child” only has eight letters, while my name has eleven. Oh, who am I kidding?
At one point, Otto wandered down and jokingly said “OK, who’s holding up the line?” I confessed that I seemed to be the bottleneck. He said, “It’s OK — We know you’re from South Carolina; the pace is different there.” I told him that while I might write my name slowly, I had recently learned to cipher as well, but that I was glad some allowances were being made.
But eventually, I passed the last of the signed books to Lee (ZAP! Dammit.) And we were done. Pegasus’s publicist extraordinaire Iris Blasi led us down the street to a terrific Italian restaurant, where our publisher bought us dinner. (I had the gnocchi with meatballs — highly recommended.)
However, all good things must come to an end, and so we called it a night and I took a cab back here. Again, I’m astonished at how fortunate I am. Remember — it took me 20 years to get a book out there. I’m still at best a dwarf planet in the authorial sky. But for the past two nights, I’ve been able to share a stage with some of the heaviest hitters not only in a particular genre, but on the contemporary fiction scene. That’s something to write home about. Even if I do it very slowly.