After three weeks on the road, sometimes doing multiple appearances in a single day, I’m pretty much brain dead this morning. I’ve thinking back over the Arizona segments of the tour and considering the things about that trip that were most meaningful for me. I’ll get to those in a moment, but first I need to congratulate Dottie Dantzler of South Carolina who won that presale contest and will be receiving an autographed set of Ali Reynolds books. I was delighted to know that someone in my new book notification list turned out to be the winner. Congrats, Dottie.
I suspect that many people see book signings as an opportunity for readers to touch bases with someone they admire at a time when they can obtain an autograph from someone they regard as “famous.” When my first book was published, my daughter bought me a pin that said, “I’m nearly famous.” And maybe as far as my readers are concerned, I am “famous,” but that’s not how I see myself. I see myself as an ordinary person who loves having interactions with other people.
In Sun City, I had the honor of meeting another bowling grandma. I’ve seen her grandsons, the Strothman brothers, bowl, and she’s seen my grandson, Colt, bowl as well. That was a fun encounter. There’s nothing like a couple of grandmas standing around with their buttons popping off, comparing notes.
Somewhere along the way I met a woman who told me that her brother, an FBI agent, said that I seem to make an effort to get the law enforcement details right. I told her to tell him that everything I know about interrogating perpetrators came from raising kids.
But the most meaningful encounter of the whole trip came at the Costco in Gilbert, Arizona, where the person in question most likely wasn’t even a fan. He was a wannabe writer, and although he bought a book at the end of our encounter, I doubt he had ever read any of my books prior to that.
Signings at Costco can be soup to nuts. There can be loads of people waiting in line—or none. At one Costco event a number of years ago, the manager pointed me in the direction of a table where my books were still in sealed cartons. Opening boxes in order to sign books wasn’t exactly a “celebrity” turn. At another one, where the warehouse was totally prepared for my appearance, they seated me in what was an office furniture display. While I was there, a female customer came by and wanted to buy … wait for it … the furniture. When I told her I was an author doing a signing and I couldn’t sell the furniture to her, she promptly went to the store manager and reported me for being rude. But the signing in Gilbert wasn’t like that at all. They were completely prepared, The books were unpacked and they had me set up with a comfortable desk and chair.
Costco signings are a lot like the signings I did at the beginning of my career—in mall hallways outside B. Daltons or Waldenbooks, or in the aisles at grocery stores and drug stores. Some genuine fans turn up to have books signed, but a lot of the people are what I call happenstance buyers. As they walk by, pushing their carts and totally intent on getting where they’re going, I try to flag them down with the question, “Can I interest you in a murder mystery today?” Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes it’s no. Sometimes, the person in question doesn’t even glance in my direction. Who knew that all these decades later my years of selling Girl Scout Cookies would still come in handy?
I was scheduled to be in Costco for two full hours. Half an hour or so into the designated time period, a middle aged man walked up to the table. I have no idea what his job is, but he was a regular looking chap who seemed as though he’d be totally at home on an athletic field coaching his son’s PeeWee League or Little League team. And rather than being a reader, he was a would be writer, a wannabe, coming to me to ask for advice.
He had written a couple of things that were published in Chicken Soup anthologies. Then he wrote something he regarded to be somewhat more serious. When he gave it to a friend to read, the guy said it was “cute.” Beginning writers generally haven’t developed a way to brush off dismissive remarks like that. It’s sort of like being handed someone’s precious newborn, looking down into that angelic little face, and saying to the beaming parents, “Hey, this little kid looks like he’ll grow up to be a serial killer.” The “cute” remark was enough to make the man at Costco walk away from writing completely. I gave him my standard, wannabe writer pep talk—A writer is someone who has written today! (By the way, today I don’t qualify!)
As we continued speaking, he told me that he had finally gone back to writing during his wife’s illness, but that now he had something in mind that he wanted to complete for someone who is apparently dying of a catastrophic illness of some kind. As soon as he mentioned that, I told him he had just given himself exactly what was needed—a deadline, no pun intended—and that knowing there was a timeline on finishing what he was writing would help give him the impetus to finish whatever it was. At that point, he was so overcome with emotion that he simply walked away from the table. I was pretty sure that was the last time I would see him, but I was wrong. Twenty minutes or so later, he came back.
“Now that I’ve composed myself,” he said, “maybe we can finish our conversation.” And what a conversation it was. He told me about his wife’s illness, and then he told me about his father-in-law. The man had been a welder who spent years working on the the twin towers, welding all those steel girders together, and building the towers in six story segments.
“On 9/11,” the man told me, “once the planes hit the towers, my father-in-law told me that they’re both going to come down in another hour.” And, of course, they did. Shortly thereafter, his father-in-law had walked away from welding. He just couldn’t do it anymore. “I believe,” the man in Costco told me, “my father-in-law died of a broken heart.”
With that, he did buy a book. I signed it and he walked away. But I’ve been thinking about that conversation. We all know about the people who died inside the twin towers. We saw their photos, we read their names, we grieved with their families. And we know about the first responders who rushed into the dust and debris and horror, intent on saving lives. We know about the ones who died that day, and we also know about the others, many of whom have incurred lifetimes’ worth of health issues from that dust-filled cloud of death and destruction.
But for me, this was a new kind of collateral damage. This was one of America’s workers, an ordinary builder who took great pride in the buildings he helped create, and who despaired at the wanton destruction of what he regarded as the pinnacle achievement of his lifetime’s worth of work.
I have a feeling there are countless other folks out there for whom the destruction of the twin towers may not have resulted directly in the death of someone dear to them, but whose pride of workmanship and accomplishment were utterly destroyed right along with the implosion of those buildings.
I don’t know who those people are. We will never know their names or what they did, but my heart goes out to them today—and to the man in Costco for whom the loss of his beloved father-in-law remains an ongoing family tragedy.
This morning while I’m writing this piece, I’m hoping he’s hard at work on whatever it is that he’s writing. My fondest desire is that I gave him enough encouragement for him to pick himself up and get back on the horse.
Time’s a wasting.