Remember when air travel was glamorous? Remember when it was at least somewhat fun? Okay, but remember when it was tolerable? Remember when it wasn't a series of slaps in the face and kicks in the teeth? Remember when "traveling" meant "traveling" and not "waiting for traveling to end"?
I know: that's pre-9/11 thinking and pre-9/11 remembering. But having just returned from our hyper-swanky East Coast Book Tour '06, we feel we've learned a thing or two about transporting oneself across these Still United States that bear mentioning and that can be summed up in two simple words: Turn Back.
And don't pretend this doesn't apply to you or somehow isn't relevant to significant numbers of the population. Thanksgiving week is the Most Traveled Week of the Year; everyone, counter-intuitively, wants to travel long distances to be with his own or someone else's family in order to express thanks ? presumably for the fact that we don't live with those people all the rest of the year. Families (as we explore in our best-selling Yiddish With Dick and Jane, and its newborn sibling, Yiddish With George and Laura) often resemble social experiments as scripted by Sophocles, translated by Pinter, and directed by George Romero. People measure the success of their lives by how much they don't resemble the conditions in which they grew up. Isn't that what is meant by the American Dream? And isn't it therefore worth it, to travel for hours, breathing brutalized air while strapped into the forcedly rigid posture of a scolded second-grader while watching, or pretending not to watch, some movie you have no intention of watching, in order to return to the scene of the crime to celebrate one's escape therefrom?
You bet it is. And that's why you, or at least someone, will be traveling this week just as we'll be getting back from our own soi-disant "East Coast Tour." May we share our impressions and offer some "notes"?
It came off, if not without a hitch (because there were many hitches), then without a hitch resulting in loss of life or property. The plan was simple: have various Jewish organizations fly us from L.A. to and around the east coast. Rent a series of cars in which to drive from city to city, from relative to relative, and stop off at assorted venues to give public readings of Dick and Jane or George and Laura. Dedicate and autograph copies of the books. Visit certain bookstores and sign "stock." Meet the faithful and cultivate new friends, or vice-versa.
We were upbeat and optimistic. We were flying into a region dense, not only with friends and relations, but with Jews. One scheduled reading would be at a Hadassah meeting, another at ? get this ? the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, yes, the D.C.J.C.C., ground zero of the political conflict that had obsessed us for years and resulted in our writing George and Laura in the first place. ("The country is polarized" is another way of saying, "It's a civil war in all but name.") We imagined a big auditorium with hundreds of shouting, exulting Jewish Democrats.
Financially, the trip was an exercise in voodoo economics. The thinking, to the extent that there was any, held that we'd draw sufficiently large audiences and inspire them to purchase (and to tell their friends to purchase) enough books, as to make the trip ultimately break even financially. (We were paid basically nothing for these appearances, but our hosts did cover most expenses.) Besides, we hadn't seen our parents in months and months, so what the hell. We hand-made our wised-up sophisticated-traveler sandwiches for the flight, and drove to LAX.
Everyone by now has a favorite nightmare anecdote about getting through Security at a major metropolitan airport but, for some reason, we had no problem. The flight, which threatened to leave an hour late, instead left only about 45 minutes late ? a minor inconvenience. And guess who was on the flight. Fabio!
Of course, he sat in first class, where men are men and seats are designed to human scale. We sat in coach, where men are toddlers ? or, at least, the two toddlers a few rows in front of us were. It was they who, obedient to their inner toddlerian imperative, cried and screamed for five hours straight. Or so it seemed. And isn't that what's important?
As for landing, ours can best be illustrated by posing the poignant question, When was the last time you vomited?
If you're in your teens or twenties, your answer may very well be, "Um, I think, like, yesterday. What time is it?" But we can't remember when last we hurled, and so, as the plane circled in a stalling maneuver while they "changed the runways" down at JFK, and the woman one row behind us commenced to throw up loudly and moaningly and apologetically and repeatedly and…well, liquidly, we found ourselves re-acquainted with a form of human behavior we had not seen, heard, or smelled in some years.
Of course it could have been worse. Of course we could have crashed in the Andes and ended up eating each other. Still, the woman was right behind us, the kids were still screaming, and the old, classic Cunard Line ad motto "Getting there is half the fun" had undeniably devolved into "Getting there is half the problem."
But we got there (every time we looked around at Baggage Claim, there he was, seemingly eager to be as close to us as possible: Fabio, Fabio, Fabio. He seemed very nice.) and got ourselves together for the next evening's reading, first of the series.
It was raining and eerily warm. We had spent the day meeting people and running errands and were therefore harried and worn by the time we arrived at the appointed private home to elbow our way good-naturedly through a throng of Hadassah ladies.
But there was no throng. There were four or five gals floating around the cleared-out living room. We hoped, for an insane instant, that we had come to the wrong house, that this meager little tableau that made us feel like Jehovah's Witnesses (in our nice clothes, with our precious text) was some weekly canasta group taking a break. But no. This was the place.
Then, before we had removed our rain coats or collapsed our umbrellas, the excited hostess ran up and, with tears in her eyes, told us how, two years earlier, she had read Yiddish With Dick and Jane to her father as he lay, dying, in the hospital. It afforded them both a few laughs in what otherwise had been an impossible situation.
She was moved. We were moved. She said thank you. We said thank you. Then we all had soda and cake and admired the new puppy while we waited for the other women to arrive. In the end we had an audience of fifteen. And if we didn't exactly kill ? you can't kill with an audience that small ? we certainly wounded. So it came off okay.
Next day: The Port Washington Public Library!