Another Short Story

BALTIMORE

The locker room flat screen is showing the World’s Cup. Myron says something about “a corner kick.”
“You must know this game,” I say.
“My kids played,” he says.
“I went to a school with compulsory sports,” I say. “By 8th grade, it was clear real men played football.”
“I’m surprised to hear you say that, Bob,” George says.
“You see any men up there?” I say.
George laughs.
“I remember,” I say, “when girls – women – couldn’t cross half court in basketball.”
“Progress,” Myron says.
“On the other hand,” I say, “they could hit each other with lacrosse sticks. No one else in Philly could do that.”

Adventures in Marketing: Week 160

[Author’s Note: For new readers – or old readers with spotty recall – let me explain. Every morning, I sit in a café with a selection of my work spread around a sign of The Checkered Demon saying “Buy Bob’s Books.” Then I issue regular reports.
Think of it as performance art.
It sure ain’t a recommended business model.]

Sunday, the city closed Shattuck to traffic and parking for a street fair. I figured I’d sit at an outside table and take advantage of the hordes. Unfortunately, my hours preceded the fair’s by a couple, so the only horde I attracted was a fellow who felt compelled to tell me about the time – it was in ‘63 or ‘67 – when he ran into Buffalo Bob at the Chicken Delight on Harmon in Richmond, where Bob had gone for chicken nugget fritters and a Nehi, after escaping from Napa State Mental Hospital. This story, with its side tracks and circumambulations took about 20 minutes and included a request for a couple dollars (I obliged), which made the day a net loss.
The week’s only actual sale was Adele’s, who made her café (a different one) debut. I’m hoping for a “Guest Adventurer” report from her, so I won’t “appropriate” (as we artists say) her material – but if you run into her, ask about the fireman.
I swapped two “I Will Keep You Alive”s, one to a basketball buddy for his latest poetry collection and one to mountain biker for a tube of super-powered sore muscle relief she smuggles in from Germany.

` In other news…
1.) I squeezed out of the distributor the number of copies of IWKYA and “Cheesesteak,” which have been ordered (not “sold”). Dauntingly minimal. On the positive side, a second library has acquired one of the former. In Wellington, New Zealand. (Don’t ask. We haven’t a clue.)
2.) Faithful readers will recall my college buddy who’d called IWK the best book he’d read this year, leading me to wonder in print how many that was exactly. Well, he’s checked and said “At least ten” – though, he adds, “It’s a good thing I finished ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ in December, or you’d be Number Two.”
3.) Words-of-Mouth. From a lawyer-pal, on “The Schiz.” “It’s like reading a cross between Mickey Spillane and Ismael Reed, with a little flavoring from Bukowski, just to kick up the language.”

Adventures in Marketing: Week 159

In the café, I sold an “I Will Keep You Alive” to our first botanist and to our first resident of Montana, which, unfortunately gross-sale-wise, consisted of the same woman. But a pleasing encounter all the same.
And in the health club locker room, Adele sold one to first Israeli, a woman who’d tipped us to “A Touch Away” and to whom we’d recommended “Shregim.”
I also gave away two “Cheesesteak”s. The first was to a Mended Hearts chapter president in North Carolina after she’d said she’d buy an IWKYA and revealed that she’d grown up near the art museum. The second came about after a fellow beside the club pool remarked favorably upon my 1982-83 76ers “World Championship” t-shirt. When I told him I was from West Philly, he said his father’s claim to fame was, while pitching for Overbrook, giving up a “mammoth” home run to Reggie Jackson, which put his dad, though a couple years my junior, squarely within my book’s ideal demographic.

In other news…
1.) Speaking of MH chapter presidents, we have now e-mailed over 180 about our book – and received three replies, Two (from N.C. – see above – and Georgia) say they will buy it, and one (from Idaho) says he couldn’t open the attachment that describes it.
2.) And word-of-mouth-wise, a fellow with (and against) whom I’d played tennis and basketball over three decades but never shared intimacies, unless you count sitting nude in the same backyard hot tub, after finishing the book, reached out for a coffee over which we discussed life, death and relationships. About his reading experience, he said that, after resisting them at first, he’d enjoyed Adele’s portions more than mine. He’ been “touched” by her willingness to expose herself, the rawness of it, the fears exposed. She’d been, he said, “Very courageous.”

Adventures in Marketing: Week 158

Sold an “I Will Keep You Alive” to an anaesthesiologist just back at the café after a stint in Ireland.
And one to a pal/ex-client/ex-employee/fellow ex-West Philadelphian.
And one to an even-longer friend as a gift for his psychologist French son-in-law.
And a “Best Ride” to a chemistry grad student (“I’ve been looking for a book”).
And a “Cheesesteak” to a just-turned-30 (“Call me ‘a healer’), who went for it because of its likely humor which he needed more than the probable “stress” of IWKYA, despite its endorsement from Ram Dass.
And didn’t sell one to a fellow who announced his presence at my elbow, “What do you know about cheesesteaks?”
“I know they didn’t use to have cheese,” I said.
He was from southwest Philly. He knew Pat’s, Geno’s, and South Street Jim’s, but he didn’t know 62nd Street Jim’s, and I didn’t know his favorite.

In other news…
1.) Had a long conversation with a UCB undergraduate – something to do with computers – who hopes to write. How did I get started? What was my advice? All the gratifying questions that imply an exalted status on the answere. But no hint of interest in a purchase.
2.) And Adele and I e-mailed about a hundred notices of IWKYA to presidents of Mended Hearts chapters around the country. Aside from a half-dozen or so “Undeliverable”s, we received zero responses. Can you believe that? ZERO! Well, we still have a hundred to go.
3.) But some Word-of-Mouth responses:
a.) “I appreciate the honesty of it, the no bullshit. That’s what makes you turn the page.” A medical social worker.
b.) “The best book I have read this year.” A college friend. (Full disclosure: I am not sure he’s read that many books.)
c.) “I knew the basics, and, I think I told you, I was scared to read it. Now I have read it – and I want to kiss you. But not enough to do it.” A retired architect/author.

I recently read…

Since the first of the year, I’ve read Julian Barnes’s “The Noise of Time,” (Recommended by high school classmate), Russell Shorto’s “Amsterdam,” (Recommended by guy at health club), Nathan Hill’s “The Nix,” (Recommended by friend in L.A.) Mark Jacobson’s “Pale Horse Rider,” (Based on NYT review), James Salter’s (“A Sport and a Pastime” (Found on Free Books shelf in cafe), Susan Orleans’ “Rin Tin Tin” (Impulse buy at Moe’s), Don Winslow’s “Power of the Dog” (Recalled good review in NYT), John Bowers’ “Stonewall Jackson” (Free Books shelf), Stephen Ratcliffe’s “Selected Days” (Folliowng his reading,) and Ed McClanahan’s “Congress of Wonders,” “Natural Man,” and “Famous People I Have Known” (Was writing about a novella of his and got into his stuff.) I am prepared to discuss any or all of the above.

Adventures in Marketing: Week 157

Sold an “I Will Keep You Alive” and a “Schiz” to a lawyer/pal from my workers’ comp days. Shared some past, some present, and got on so well we decided we’d have a lunch.
Swapped an IWKYA to a fellow at the health club for his primer on Buddhist meditation. (You can never have too much Buddhist meditation.) But then he threw in his more scholarly interpretation of early Buddhist texts, so, to restore balance, I gave him “Cheesesteak.”
And a high school classmate reported her sister had picked up her IWK and couldn’t put it down. “Sweetly suggest,” I answered, “that she do so long enough to buy her own copy – or one for a friend. (Preferrably an influential one who can get it reviewed.)”

In other news…
Inquiries to our distributor and the expressor of interest in foreign language rights have been ignored. But the president of my Mended Hearts chapter has offered to recommend our book to all 200+ chapters nationwide (Talk about shrewdly targeting an audience); and our local-est bookstore is flaunting five copies, front cover-facing, in its Biography section between Vladimir Lenin and Nelson Mandela. Adele and I were so excited we signed all five, offered to read, and each bought a book – Kate Atkinson thriller for me; memoir by a neuroscientist who experienced madness for her – purchases which, incidentally, set us back about twice what we’ll net if the store sells our out.
Finally, in a burst of when-one-door-closes…, just when my current project had reached a stymying when-you-can’t-say-something-nice… stage, an exceedingly sui generis cartoonist announced at FB the publication of his new book, which garnered a “Like” from me, and a “We were proud to do it” from his publisher, followed by a “Get Bob Levin to write about it” from said artist, which got a “Like” from an equally sui generized cartoonist, at which I said “Who am I to deny the public?” and the publisher said, “What’s your address again?”
And just that evening, I reached the point in the wonderful “Book of ‘Weirdo’” where its editor designated Adele and I “honorary Weirdos” in recognition of our contribution.
My heart is warm and full.

Adventures in Marketing: Week 156

i.
“Hello, Monsieur…” She stood beside my café table, latte in hand, looking at my books and sign. “…Levin.”
“Bonjour…,” I said.
“…Lorelai,” she said.
Fiftyish, green baseball cap, shades, tie-dyed back pack on a luggage cart. I had seen stranger. “Wanna buy a book?”
Alas. She had spent her last $80 on a four-concert, no-service-charge package. Elvis Costello, Beck, Alice in Chains… I forget.
Popular culture trumps literature again.
She had not seen Alice in Chains in 20 years.
ii.
Faithful readers may recall the woman who had told Adele she was withholding judgment on “I Will Keep You Alive.”
“You and your husband are excellent writers,” she said, standing between the health club’s massage tables and the basket for the yoga mats.
“But…?” Adele said.
“But… I didn’t care for the frankness.”
“Can you give me an example?” Some people, Adele thought, like frankness.
A personal trainer and the young woman he was massaging smiled.
“I could have done without the sex.”
“There’s not a lot of sex.”
She turned back. “And the incontinence.”
“You and your husband wrote a book?” the young woman said. “What’s it about?”
“You mean, besides sex and incontinence?” Adele said.
iii.
Adele was talking with Sunshine, a buxom woman with dyed black hair. She and her husband, a commercial litigator, have belonged to the club for 30 years, but she spends half her time at a retreat in Taos. She held our book, and I thought, Oh, good, a sale.
The Ram Dass quote on the cover, Sunshine was saying, balanced the “Cardiovascular” in the below-the-colon portion of the title. The red lettering balanced the black. The spiritual, in other words, balanced the scientific. Both sought truth, but neither, in isolation, could find it. She had been talking to Adele for 10 minutes when I arrived and continued another 20. She discussed the concept of “journey.” The concept of “romance.” The “I” that would “keep” the “You” “Alive.” (It was only about this time that she realized Adele and I had written what she held.) Her process involved pauses during which movements of her arms seemed to search for words. It involved sharp, audible inhalations, like those I have been instructed to take when feeling dizzy upon getting up too quickly. The point, Sunshine said, was that there was no “I” that was not dependent upon or subservient to a greater power.
I explained from where our title derived. I did not argue the point though. I was enthralled. Her discourse was Sunshine’s excellence. I wondered what her conversations were like with her husband, whom I only knew from talking work-out routines and muscle cars.
“So would you like to buy a copy?” Adele said.
A silly question, she later realized. Sunshine already had it.
iv.
In other news…
1.) IWKYA has been acquired by its first library. The University of Illinois (Chicago) School of Health Sciences. (Circle Campus, I assumed. When I was in VISTA, I played basketball in its gym. So the mind associates.)
2.) Adele has steered a woman who reads many books to a neighborhood bookstore to buy ours, and I sent one as a gift to a friend who, while laboring under many disabilities, cares for a husband who is even more disabled. And we heard from another friend whose husband’s cardiac condition has disabled him for years. By page 50, she said, she had succumbed to PTSD.
I often wonder how people who have not been as lucky/blessed as Adele and I will react to our book. But, I thought, if you are a writer, you write what life brings you. You are not entirely responsible for how people react, and where some may find distress, others will find inspiration.
So far, more have mentioned the latter.

Adventures in Marketing: Week 155

“I avoid bookstores. I’ve got books,” said the elderly gentleman of pleasant disposition but dubious cognitive capacity, on leaving my table’s display at the café. That began my week. It ended with the place so crowded I was sharing space with three others when a mother and daughter joined us. This gave me two options: (a) scrunch my stuff closer to me; (2) sell them all my books. I was offering them this choice when I knocked over my water glass, triggering many apologies and much swabbing with napkins.
In between, things went better.

At the café, I sold an “I Will Keep You Alive” to a woman who had previously bought one and wanted another as a gift for a friend with heart problems. Following a six-person reading at the café in which I participated, Adele sold one to a writer/real estate agent/lawyer/painter of long acquaintance, and I sold one to a poet we had just met. And another morning I sold a fourth to a woman who had come down from Davis on Amtrak with her family to eat at Chez Panisse, plus a “Cheesesteak” she wanted for a friend and a “Schiz” for her punky 23-year-old daughter.
Sold another IWKYA to a family practitioner (ret’d) at the health club and checks for it arrived in the mail from a director/screen writer/teacher friend in L.A., an 83-year-old Mended Hearts e-mail buddy in South Carolina, and a similarly aged MH member in Oakland. (Five copies for her.)
So lots of gratification.
And a few laughs.

Adventures in Marketing: Week 154

A woman in late middle age, who works at UC, bought a copy of “I Will Keep You Alive” from me in the café. She had previously bought a “Schiz,” and now she told me my writing had reminded her of Charles Bukowski. I was, of course, pleased – and both impressed and surprised by how catholic was her reading taste, since she had not struck me as someone who would read Bukowski, let alone “The Schiz.” When we spoke a couple days later, she told me how much she admired Adele’s portions, for, as primary care-giver when her husband had cancer, she knew all that entailed.
Our niece in Tustin reports buying a copy of IWKYA for a friend who, like us, co-authored a book with her spouse.
A woman in my Mended Hearts chapter ordered five copies.
A friend of Adele’s brother’s wife has selected it for their book group’s selection sometime in the fall. (Our first book group! Let others take note.)
A woman at the health club, whose husband has had two stents worth of heart problems, reports he bought a copy, based on the recommendation of a mutual friend.
A friend gave us a second Five Star Amazon review.
And here are some additional words-of-mouths:
1.) “Inspiring and empowering.” Adele’s sister.
2.) “I have to confess I haven’t read it.” Friend of Bob’s.
3.) “I could hug you! Oh, my God! Thank you for writing this!” Another woman at the café.
We also gave a copy to a fellow at the health club who’d recently had abdominal surgery. This led another member to ask if I would speak to yet another’s 18-year-old grandson, who wants to become a writer. “I figure [Name of Prominent Author Member] is too busy,” he said. “You’re probably right,” I said. “Okay.” Anything that makes me feel like a REAL writer is good with me. In fact, I was semi-flattered to be playing only second fiddle to the other guy. But I did take note than neither the fellow nor the grandmother expressed any interest in buying anything I’d written.

Still no reviews or requests for interviews.
But I am putting this in perspective.
This week, at the Author’s Guild forum, a woman was complaining about treatment by her publisher. Her first two books had been widely reviewed, still brought her requests for interviews, had sold out their 5000-copy printings, and more than repaid her advances, but it had rejected her third book.
She was, I thought, justifiably aggrieved. But all that, and she only sold 5000 books. So she made, what, ten, fifteen thousand, less expenses, and each book took her a year or two minimum to write. Hell, I can publish my own book and only lose a couple thousand with no reviews. “You’re in the same ball park,” my friend Budd said when I told him. Exactly.
And then I read about Nelson Algren and what a disaster his life had been. I had been a fan of Algren’s. I owned seven or eight of his books, and this article reminded me that when my first novel was to appear, I asked if he would look at a review copy and maybe provide a cover quote. He wrote back “Sure,” probably I now surmise, from some flop house in Newark, where he was working on his published-posthumously Hurricane Carter book, and then probably cashed in my book for whatever he could get as soon as it arrived. But what struck me the most in this exchange was that it was the only time in my life I received a letter from someone in an envelope, recycled, after it had originally been sent to him.
Anyway, the point is – and this may not be what I tell the 18-year-old – sale numbers are interesting – but essentially meaningless – statistics, like WOR or WHIP. The best thing is to write the best you can, have a good time writing it, and savor whatever reactions come your way. You may even create something that means something to someone.
“But keep your day job,” added Flea Market George, a guitar player, when I voiced this at the cafe