I sold eight “Cheesesteaks, four to a friend who intended them as gifts, a “Fully Armed,” and a “Pirates/Mouse.” (The last reduced my stock-on-hand to a bare minimum, requiring me pick up a few more from Alibris, which I shall market as “Pre-owned.”)
Three sales went to two strangers buying from my website on the same day, which was itself notable since that about equaled my total web site sales in its years of existence. (I am, by the way, now Google’s third most popular Bob Levin, trailing the investigative journalist/ex-whistle blower/former FBI agent, and the Bob Levin, who is the head of something or other at some movie studio, but ahead of the Bob Levin who advises cat owners and the former Number One Bob Levin, the ex-Yale fullback who’d dated Meryl Streep.) One of my web site shoppers was a retired folklore professor and the other was a 24-year-old, Yugoslavian-born punk musician/cartoonist, which constitutes a pretty impressive demographic spread, if I do say so myself.
One non-purchaser recognized The Checkered Demon on my sign. Another said she’d taught at Swarthmore in the ’80s. One 84-year-old reader revealed that, as an aspiring Beatnik, hanging out in North Beach while attending Cal, he’d been at the first public reading of “Howl.” A poet, disappointed by his own sales record, complimented my originality and “balls,” A professor dropped into his remarks that “Annie Had a Baby” (p. 32) was a follow-up to “Work With Me, Annie.” (I was sure he had it backwards, but, nope, he knew his stuff.) I e-mailed an on line site devoted to current news of West Philadelphia, announcing my book’s availability. It ignored me. Oh well, I thought, probably no one lives there now who lived there when I did.
I decided to work on my attitude for when no one looks or talks or buys. I am not begging; I am offering a rich experience.
Sold ten “Cheesesteak”‘s, (plus a “Best Ride” and an “Outrageous.”) Have now paid for the fellow who formatted me and am working on the printer. One sale was to a middle-aged stranger, who came up to my table at the French, looked at my display, and said, “I admire your guts.” Further conversation revealed he was an attorney from upstate New York, who’d once lost “a bundle” operating a no-alcohol club for beginner rock bands to show them they could make a go of it without a recording contract. He also’d been involved in the formation of a town of primarily Yiddish speaking Hasidic Jews, which has the youngest median age — and highest poverty rate– of any municipality in the country. The first fact had made me want to hear more from him, the second not-so-much.
One acquaintance rebuffed my pitch, saying he only read books about Nazis, preferably with swastikas on the cover. One purchaser said she would read “Cheesesteak” as soon as she finished all seven volumes of “In Search of Lost Time, which, Kindle informed her, she was 54% through. (Well, I thought, our works are similar, except Proust began with a madeleine.) One came up to my table and said, “Where’s the refund window? I thought it said ‘Cheesecake.’ I was expecting racy pictures. Like a trim ankle, at least.” One freebie-recipient revealed her first affair had been with Jim Kweskin (p. 69) and that she’d once utilized the services (unrelated to Mr. K.) of the abortionist mentioned on p. 79. Neither of these revelations had occurred in any of our every-few-years conversations of the past five decades.
All in all, I am consolidating my self-possession around what I am doing. I sit up in my chair, take in the world, and think, This is who I am. It feels more rewarding than occupying myself with thoughts of Donald Trump or the Warriors.
A revised version of my blog from a couple weeks ago, “The Message” has gone up at http://www.firstofthemonth.org/the-message/
Readers will find I have restored the identities of all but one of the previously-concealed-behind-letters-of-the-alphabet, which makes it more reader friendly, and I have punched up the style, especially the final paragraph, which, alone, makes it worth the price of admission.
Robert also wondered if, by directly selling my book, I was “perhaps messing with your own head, your relationship with others, and… your experience of having written it.” While appreciative of my “boldness and eccentricity,” he counseled I let-go and move-on.
This was an interesting observation. I certainly remained more involved with “Cheesesteak” than if I did not share my café table with my stack of copies and my “Buy Bob’s Books!” sign. I did take in if people eyed or ignored my display. And I measured the responses of those who’d read me. The presence of my books seemed to dissuade some people from asking to join me. But others, who had read or begun the book, would sit down to share their comments, which often revealed aspects of them of which I had been unaware. This felt good.
Of course, the sign and the books were more than an effort to make back my nut. Of course, it was a some-would-say uncharacteristic, exhibitionist effort to call attention to myself. And, in fact, I was redefining who I was to others at the café. “So that’s what you’ve been doing,” more than one person remarked, referring to my daily efforts at my yellow pads, as though my association with an actual bound-and-printed object had elevated me beyond the random madman one offered encountered in town, hunched over a notebook, his pen obsessively firing.
I was also redefining myself. (Any alteration of experience, I suppose, does that if you maintain awareness of it.) The books and sign positioned me differently. They changed how I looked upon the passing world. They brought to the forefront the sense of self-as-writer — the sense of self as eccentric— (in a nice way) writer — within me. I began to think of myself as a performance artist, in the line of Marina Abromovic, without the self-stabbings or setting portions of myself on fire, exploring the relationship between creator and audience.
My latest is up at http://www.tcj.com/reviews/gulag-casual/
Well, well, well.
Of course, I think, dreams.
“Something concerns me,” the Director of Marketing of the health club said.
I was sitting on the couch kittie-corner to the office he had come out of. I was near the men’s and women’s locker rooms, with a stack of “Cheesesteak”s and a “Buy Bob’s Books!” sign on the table in front of me. I had sold seven copies there. It was my second best location.
“What if ‘Joe’ wants to offer tax advise?” the Director said. “What if ‘Mary’ wants to sell her pots? You see where I am going?”
I offered the club ten percent of my gross.
“The ownership,” the Director said, “frowns on commercial enterprises on its premises. Thank you for understanding.”
I had already put my sign away. I was surprised I had gotten away with it for this long. A tri-athlete had told me she had been forbidden from selling the pain relief ointment she smuggles in from Germany when she competes overseas.
I left one book out. “What if I’m reading a copy and someone asks about it?”
“That would be fine,” the Director said.
And if I read it upsidedown, I thought, that should increase interest.
…”Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker,” by Renata Adler. I have been going through a period of intense interest in and admiration of Adler when, in reading a career-spanning collection of selections of her non-fiction, I came across a piece she’d written in response to criticism of “Gone” and realized I hadn’t read it. So I stopped reading the collection and bought “Gone.”
“Gone” is not great Adler. It is about the firing of “The New Yorker”‘s long-time editor, William Shawn, whom Adler, within limits, supported. While her book is critical of the firing, it is also critical of two books by other supporters of Shawn, Ved Mehta and Lillian Ross. With this out of the way, it settles down to a more generalized, undocumented and unauthenticated who-did-and-said-what score-settling. It is replete with, to my mind, unsubstantiated but perhaps correct judgments about “The New Yorker”‘s decline.
And, boy, does she dislike Adam Gopnik.
Bob Ingram, a writer I like, has reviewed “Cheesesteak” at “The Broad Street Review.”
Since that is where most of the contents originally appeared, I may have had a home court advantage, but once he assured the editor he’d “never met the dude,” she ran it.
Now we’ll see if anyone can figure out where to buy it, should they be so inclined.
Sales steady at three. One to a basketball pal. One to a woman at the French, on whom I’d been counting since we often discuss books and despite her shying away from old white male American authors. One to a woman on my Notice-Sent-To list. I’d considered her no more than 50:50 but she even included a sweet note.
Responses continue to interest and gratify. Readers have reacted to my mentions of Eddie Waitkus, Ma & Pa Kettle, and Richard Alpert. (And where else, I wonder, were you likely to find this trifecta?) The last of the trio led an 85-year-old woman to recount a date with him that involved psilocybin and a flight in his private plane.
One French acquaintance praised my recreating the “spirit of Philadelphia,” where, it turned out, he’d never been. A second felt I’d perfectly captured his adolescence, though he was 15-years my junior and Berkeley born and bred. A college roommate appreciated the “waves of nostalgia” unleashed. A current pal said, “All your voices evoke/resonate/reconnect the lost/smothered/disconnected/hidden voices carried in me.”
Still, I considered how to broaden my reach. I e-mailed the alumni associations of two West Philadelphia high schools, offering to contribute $2 for each copy sold to their members to their libraries. Neither replied. An on-line site offered to promote me to book bloggers. I requested contact information on two of its satisfied customers. It did not reply. Another self-publisher suggested we do a joint reading at a Jewish community center. “Deal,” I said. “You set it up.” A locker aisle friend, continually launching ventures designed to elevate h8mself into state or national prominence, counseled that I needed, “A SWOT Analysis. Look into the mirror. What do you see? What are your Strengths? Weaknesses? Opportunities? Threats?”
I looked into his locker instead and saw the unopened envelope of the “Cheesesteak” I’d delivered to him ten days before.
My admission that I judge people be whether they buy “Cheesesteak” and, if they do, by how they respond to it has troubled my friend Robert, a visual artist and man of unimpeachable ethical standards, who is not undelighted by jerks of my chain.
First, he suggests, a certain hypocrisy may lie. “Would you buy a book from someone you saw selling it in a café?” he probingly inquires.
That exact situation has never presented itself, but I once bought a book from a wandering troubadour-like North African fellow perched on the sidewalk outside Vine Street Peet’s. I have bought volumes of poetry from Julia Vinograd as she roamed around Telley, and I’ve bought homemade CDs from aspiring Rap artists outside Downtown Berkeley BART. Support the arts, is my motto.
So, yeah, pure as driven snow, I am, here.
But Robert’s second area of concern, that my actions with my book represented a moral defect, which had been recognized as long ago as Richardson’s novel “Clarissa, struck a sore spot. For Clarissa said she would be displeased with herself “if I should judge the merits of others as they were kind to me…. For is this not to suppose myself ever in the right and all those who do not as I would have them act, perpetually in the wrong.”
Okay, I am going to have to work on that one.
(To be continued…)