Despite all the challenges of being on the road, there are amazing moments, incredible people, who will give pieces of themselves to me without even knowing it. There is the arresting sound of Tricia Thompson’s trach tube clearing as she sits, dignified in her wheelchair during a brain injury fundraiser in Kansas City. The story I heard of the Vietnam Vet in Baltimore haunts me. His post-traumatic stress was so devastating that he stayed in a dark room and refused to see his wife after his plane was shot down. One day they found him with shaving cream in his peanut bowl, slowly shaving an unshelled nut. There is the young couple I have stayed in touch with and their 18-month old daughter whose brain is slowly recovering from being shaken by her babysitter. There are the broken marriages, the women who have battled back cancer, the people who tell me they have laughed and cried when they read what I wrote, the people who share their stories with me after the reading. I feel swollen with a sense of gratitude I cannot precisely articulate. The stories I hear, of misery, triumph and the resilience of the human spirit remind me of how very lucky I am to be in this place, this time and space, exhausted as I am and so far from home. I am exercising my craft. Back at O’Hare airport I am ready to depart for Detroit. On the giant TV monitors CNN, is cranking up fears about swine flu to crisis levels. It looks like war of the worlds with people huddled in groups at the gates staring up at the monitors, which are broadcasting projected deaths and statistics at earsplitting levels. The woman next to me tells me they are thinking about shutting down the airports. At this rate, in all liklihood, I would be stuck in Dallas, the one city on the tour where I only know two people. The scene now on CNN is of citizens wearing hospital masks, schools closing, folks stuck inside. This is not exactly the best time to encourage people to turn out for a book reading. Taking my mind off swine flu for the moment I walk to one of the terminal bookstores. Thanks to the Random House publicists, I have finally learned to “make friends with the bookstores” as I’m walking through airports. This means walking in with a car salesman’s smile and offering to sign the copies of your book. The first few times I do this, it feels very unnatural. It’s a level of self-promotion on par with QVC huckstering, especially since the book has my picture on the cover. As I roll into Hudson News with my crepe-soled shoes and elastic waist sweats, the employee, who does not speak English as a first language, has no idea what I am referring to as I interrupt her re-stocking of miniature Advil packs to ask for my book by title. I clear my throat and tell her I am an author. “You whaaa???” she says in a heavy accent, squinting up at me suspiciously. I am riveted to the mole on her chin that has sprouted a black hair. “What you want?” I ask again if she has copies of my books and tell her I am offering to sign them for the store. Still she looks blank. At the register is a copy of this week’s “People Magazine.” As luck would have it—there is an article about the book inside with a picture of the cover. I open “People” to the proper page and point at my picture, then back to me and to the book I had stashed in my bag. She squints and puts on her reading glasses, “Well I don’t know… “ she says. She is having a hard time reconciling the professionally shot family photo in the magazine with the haggard, bare-faced woman she sees in front of her. “It’s me,” I say in a small voice. She scratches her chin mole and grabs the magazine for closer inspection. The “People” thing seems to impress her a little. “Well, maybe,” she says quickly and goes to the computer to look up the book, which turns out to be on display somewhere in the back. All five signatures completed, I gamely offer to put the books back on the shelf, whereby I immediately swap more attractive retail space at eye level with an older, better-selling book. In fact, even my husband has been enlisted in this effort. When he flies for business he goes into the airport bookstores and stealthily moves the books to a more prominent position. I have recently, shamelessly, taken to moving my books to the “Bookstore Picks” section of bookstores. These shelves are not alphabetical, and therefore aberrations are slower to be discovered by bookstore staff. Another writer friend told me that a book has a better chance of lying undiscovered there for days. The chain store employees seem to have a photographic memory of where everything goes. And on top of that, I’ve been amazed at the short attention span bookstores give each book. They become the flavor of the month for about two weeks and then are banished alphabetically to their category of fiction, non-fiction or self-help. I silently curse myself for having fallen in love and married a man whose last name begins with “W.” I am perpetually shelved at the bottom of a stack. As I head to the security screening line, alarm bells go off when I see two formidable women in gray sans-a-belt regulation uniform pants guarding the entrance to the line like Cerberus at the gates of hell. I know this type. They look me over and the bigger one immediately points to my bulging carry on. “Not gonna fit,” she says authoritatively and her one gold tooth glints. I’m not even worth enough energy to insert a noun into her sentence. The other lady shakes her head in disgust as if she can’t quite believe I would attempt something this foolish. I instantly go from somewhat chilled to red-hot pissed. My flashpoint has begun to ratchet up in airports as each new person I encounter in positions of authority tries to assert their power. “Oh, it will fit, “ I counter, a bit too off-handedly. I know her kind. This power trip is what juices her day. “Not happening,” she says, crossing her arms in front of her. I realize I have gotten lazy in my haste to pack this morning. I have been careless and the carry on is bulging with books I have accumulated on the outside zipper pocket. I silently curse at myself but I can’t lose face and re-pack now. Instead I jam my bag into the “test” area at her feet—the one with the sign that reads, “Your carry on must fit within this space.” I can already tell it’s not breaking my way. “Look,” I sputter, “I have traveled all around the country, all year and this has fit everywhere. On every plane. I have never had a problem yet.” My voice is rising in an unattractive wail. But I am speaking the truth. Somehow you can always squish and shove something just a little bit harder. “Don’t look like it fits to me, “ she huffs in a sneer. “It look like it fit to you?” she nods her head toward her co-hort, sneering, while narrowing her eyes at me. “Nope.” “You must think you’re traveling on a JUMBO jet,” she says and she laughs at her own joke. All that is missing is the slapping of a billy club into her open palm and the Doberman at her ankle. I’m smart enough to know I’m not going to win this. Not even close. But I am furious. I grab my bag and huff away, angry at myself, angry at the system, angry that these people don’t get paid a little more so they can be just a tad nicer. I flounce back to the ticket counter to check the bag, knowing that this violates my husband’s number one rule of air travel, knowing that I will add up to 30 minutes or more waiting for baggage on the other end or risk having to wear my present sweat suit outfit on TV the next day. I check the bag and realize that all of my reading materials were inside and it has just disappeared down the conveyor belt. Sigh. There is always the Sky Mall magazine, I tell myself. When I finally locate my bag in Detroit, limping along the conveyor belt, the bump of books in the outside pocket has now formed a Dowager’s hump. As I pull on the handle, it becomes stuck party-way up. The telescoping mechanism of the supposedly indestructible Tumi luggage will not extend beyond a foot. I sigh deeply and begin to roll through the airport bent like a crone.
After a slight delay, I board the plane and begin the mantra uttered by seasoned travelers and solo mothers throughout the world …………..”please don’t let me sit near a child, please don’t let me sit near a child…” I have already done my time. Over and over again, the Gods of Airport Seating get it backwards. They see me and think “she has four kids, she can handle the screamer.” But flying with a young child, especially a toddler, is my own personal definition of hell. Children and confinement are not two words that belong together in the same sentence. I see an exhausted mother and her three-year-old enter the cabin. I’ve watched this kid. I’ve racially profiled him in the departure lounge as he screamed, threw himself on the floor, and knocked his mother’s McFlurry onto the carpeting. “Don’t let it be me,” I chant inside my own head again. If I were Catholic, I might cross myself. I contemplate telling the stewardess that I have an upset stomach and need to sit near the bathroom in the back aisle, but then the mother and child pass. I begin to relax and then WHAM – I realize that they are seated directly behind me as the kid begins kicking my chair. He lets out a scream as his mother tries to buckle him in and I snort in disgust. I realize with horror that I am becoming “Sky Mall Guy.” I met Sky Mall Guy eighteen years ago on my first solo cross-country flight with my newborn son. You know the type, the ones whose lives are so orderly and contained and full of “me-time” that they arrive on the plane with nothing to read. Until the movie and the beverage service begins, they pick up the seat copy of the in-flight shopping magazine and glance lovingly at the array of must-have items from the swinging tailgate chair that hangs off the back of your pick-up to the talking BBQ fork that calls out when the meat is ready. Sky Mall guy clearly didn’t have kids. He was young, probably in his first managerial job and was traveling for business with his newly shined shoes and natty suit. During our initial pleasantries he informed me that he was headed to an important meeting back East and he made some blustering remarks about how business class had been full and they’d stuck him in “cargo.” He eyed my sleeping baby like a virus. As the hours ticked by, Mack began to squirm and mewl. He grew heavy in my arms, no matter how I held him. It began to feel as if I were carrying a small watermelon. Here I was, trapped on an airplane with my own living Tamagachi and there was no one sympathetic to hand him off to on a five-hour journey. Sky Mall dozed on and off, his head turned slightly toward me, his mouth slack, and I could see his back fillings. He made gentle wheezing sounds; the way cartoon characters snore on TV. About halfway through the flight, after breast-feeding, Mack sat up, began to cry, and in one neat move, blew small cottage cheese curd-like chunks on the shoulder of Sky Mall guy’s suit. I had a situation now. Sky Mall was watching the movie with headphones, oblivious to the deposit on his suit shoulder. I couldn’t ignore it. The smell alone would begin to tip him off. There were still two hours left of the flight, so I tapped him on the arm and apologetically pointed to the barf. His eyes widened in surprise and then he examined the shoulder of his suit as if I had just dumped raw sewage on him. As the reality dawned on him, his eyes narrowed to evil cartoon like slits and his mouth curled in disdain. I began to babble profusely. I hung my head. I prostrated myself with my apology. I offered him money for dry-cleaning and gave him my address. I turned on my nicest smile and tried to charm him. The stewardess came over with a damp rag and club soda and tried her best to clean it off. He would barely look at me. His frosty, shocked attitude in the face of my new-Mom helplessness wasn’t helping the situation. I changed tactics. “I’ll bet you had a mother,” I said defensively, burping Mack, who was beginning to cry again. “And I’ll bet she had to take you on a plane once.” He nodded and looked out the window as if to dismiss me. That first flight with my first child had scarred me forever. But I had made a mental note never to be as callous or unhelpful to other travelers as Sky Mall guy. Now, here I was preparing to land in Chicago with a child-sized kicking mule behind me. I realized I had become “one of them.” The pilot tells us the temperature in the Windy City is hovering around 50. Even though it’s May, it feels freezing when I walk up the gate ramp. My “never check a bag” policy means there isn’t room for a coat, but I realize I will have to break down and buy one in Chicago. At the end of the escalator, near baggage claim, a man is holding a sign with my name on it. A copy of my book is crooked in his arm, with the photo of me on the cover. Only I don’t look like that. Right now I have on no makeup, nothing is airbrushed and I’m wearing sweatpants. He has already looked past me and appears confused as I wave to him at the bottom of the last step. I roll my sturdy carry-on directly toward him. “Lee?” he says, looking back and forth between me and the cover of the book. “That’s me,” is all I can manage, pointing to the book. “But this is really me.” “Is that all you have?” he says somewhat dumbfounded. I have, in fact, packed for a week in one carry-on, an accomplishment which seems to absolutely stun most males for a few long seconds as if I have hit them in the buttocks with a taser. The various drivers who pick me up at airports, or media escorts cannot seem to comprehend how a woman could travel with one bag for a week. It might be more believable to them if I were a gold medalist in shot put or the biathalon. Throughout the journey, the baffled men who encounter me with one bag will turn to other people, especially women and nudge them, “can you believe she’s traveling for a week with one bag?” The married ones make comments to their wives like, “Boy honey, I wish she could teach you to do that.” The women narrow their eyes into slits and glare at me as if I’ve personally betrayed them, like I have left the sisterhood and become a corporate whistle-blower. In Chicago I am scheduled to go on a radio show with a host called “Mancow.” I am told it’s a national show, and from what I can tell he is Chicago’s version of a young Rush Limbaugh; opinionated, libertine. During the break I am ushered in the studio and he talks sweetly to me about his twins and asks how my husband is doing. But when the red light goes on, his entire face transforms. Immediately the studio breaks into controlled chaos as he stands at the control panel like a conductor, ranting so hard and adding high-octane sound effects that I am afraid he will forget to breathe. I quickly realize he is more interested in how my husband is doing after his injuries in Iraq than he is in my book of personal essays. Now it makes sense why I’m here- -it allows him to get into a tirade about the war’s detractors, those greasy haired liberals who drive around in busses powered by celery juice and believe in greenhouse gasses. When I lamely try to insert my pitch for helping America’s wounded veterans, he interrupts me. This isn’t the direction he has mapped out. He smears me with a wilting look as I pipe up with my do-gooding plug. His co-host, an older man who must have surely known Chicago’s golden days of radio, looks miserable as he stands to the side of Mancow in front of his own microphone. This is not where he intended to be in his last years before retirement. He has already learned he can’t get a word in edgewise. He reminds me of an obedient, golden retriever tied up in the back yard. He hates this job. Perhaps most disturbing is that I learn, during the interview, that the man in the corner is Drew Peterson, the cop who allegedly killed two wives. He is obviously still roaming free since no one has been able to find the bodies or pin any evidence on him. A month or so later I will read that he was be hauled in jail. Apparently Peterson and Mancow are friends, as in perhaps, save your soul kinds of friends, the way certain people stuck by OJ’s side. But I have to believe Drew Peterson is good for ratings too. As I continue to lamely attempt to interject one or two words about my book, I am keenly aware that my bare legs are right in Petersons line of sight as he lurks in the corner. I can’t quite see him but just knowing he is there, like a human coat rack, unsettles me. This is a person who knows exactly how to make a woman’s body disappear. I can’t wait for this to end. On the other hand, the marketing savvy part of my brain percolates an idea. If it helps sell books, maybe I could offer to go out on a date with Peterson and Mancow can promote it on air. Anything to boost sales. Onto a lunch talk at the Union League Club and an interview format with my friend and ABC anchor Kathy Brock. I can let my hair down a little here. As I talk and look out over the crowd I see faces I know from college, from living in Chicago, from some of the people I have met since. I get a laugh, at my own expense, answer a question, vamp with Kathy for fun. An author book reading is a little but like a cross between the show “This is Your Life” and the experience of meeting all of the people from the various parts of your life in heaven. Of course, this is because you have emailed your entire address book and asked everyone you know to pass your email on to everyone THEY know in their town. You have made yourself viral. Each time my plane touches down I become a one-woman spam machine, blasting out my “I’m reading in a city near you…” email to everyone I can remember in the tri-state areas of the cities I visit. You have facebooked and twittered and social media-ed yourself to death until you have carpal tunnel syndrome. There is one point during the book tour when I cannot feel the top of my thumb. You are hoping against hope for some kind of critical mass at each reading. You’ll take anyone; the homeless man who frequents the library, the lonely, rumpled lady whom you know attends every Barnes & Noble reading because she wants to hear herself ask a question. You add the five people who actually work at the bookstore as legit. A fanny in a seat counts. A body is a body. You aren’t going to be picky. If only you could make them all buy a book. And at every single speech or reading, the people are always the best part. I see friends from 6th grade, Sunday School in Albany, NY and summer camp. I hug people I used to work with, someone I had exchanged emails with over a brain injured spouse. I meet medics and nurses who helped my husband in the hospital in Iraq or Bethesda Naval Hospital. I meet reservists and service members who simply want to thank me for caring. It is overwhelming and humbling and because we have lived so many places in our marriage there are times my memory scrambles to catch up. Although I have a great ability to recognize a face, there is always a moment when I rifle through the filo-fax of my brain for a name, determined not to let anyone down or make them feel less important in any way.