Saturday, March 14, 2009

In praise of Jeanne Huie

Madison on Monday, I’m headed north, but, first, I need a new tire. Well, fine. It takes a little longer than I expect and I actually find myself on the interstate pushing it for time. And traffic is hideous, there’s construction and we’re moving about 30 miles an hour, max.

And then I notice something: I am actually nearing Milwaukee, not Madison.

“Everybody makes that mistake,” says my friend Desi, “even people who live in Madison, like us.”

It seems that I90/94 split so seamlessly, I rolled east instead of west without the vaguest idea.

Desi – a pal from Cuba – and I had planned dinner but the tire matter had nixed that. Now I faced the fact that I would be late for the reading in Madison.

I’ll confess something right here and now: All of my prior readings in Madison had been at independent bookstores and at the university, so that there has always been a culture of warmth and familiarity around them. In my experience, indies are more personal – maybe because, publishing mostly with indies myself, we all feel like we’re on the same team, swimming against the currents. And while I’m happy to be a part of the Barnes & Noble Discover Program, so far all my B&N experiences had had a kind of clean, executive veneer to them. Not unfriendly, not in any way unpleasant, but just not quite the same.

So I when I called the Madison B&N to say it wasn’t looking good, I wasn’t expecting more than a quick “Thank you for letting us know.” Imagine my surprise when the bookseller on the phone insisted I talk to the manager. And imagine my shock when Jeanne Huie, in her warm motherly voice (spiced with just a tinge of Kentucky drawl), tells me to be careful, that she’ll hold down the fort and change the reading time by half an hour.

“It’ll be fine, dear, don’t worry,” she said.

I know, this doesn’t sound like much – but even before laying eyes on her, Jeanne Huie practically exuded love.

I immediately called Desi again. “Oh, that’s Madison,” she said. “It’s the most relaxed place in the world.”

I had managed to get back on track to Madison (after various wrong moves – the construction didn’t help – there was one place where you couldn’t get back on going north if you got off the interstate, which took me on a little tour of rural Wisconsin) but then, just as I exited the construction zone, I began to notice a distinct wobbling to my car.

I don’t mean a little tremble because of high speeds. I mean, a spirited, robust, martini shaking teeth rattling wobble that felt as if the new tire was going to spin right off the axel and hurl me to kingdom come. It took me a bit to figure out that it only happened when I hit the 45-60 mph rage. Anything less, no prob. Anything more, fine – except that there were too many state troopers on the highway to risk repeating my Mishawaka experience.

I call Jeanne Huie back. “Listen, this is looking ugly. I don’t think I’m going to make it before, I dunno, eight …” I’m thinking: If at all.

“Well, you just come on in … I’ll still be here. I just feel so bad, with you making such an effort. If there’s anybody here still, we’ll do the reading, and if not, you can sign some stock. Plus, I’ve got some treats for you to eat.”


I was now beginning to wonder about Jeanne Huie.

And then I realized something else: Coming in from Milwaukee versus Chicago meant all those carefully calibrated directions from Mapquest sent to me by Akashic were, er, worthless. And, no, of course I didn’t have a map.

But then I also realized I had my groovy new phone with a GPS. So I did my best to input the info while driving as fast as I could and wobbling like a penguin on amphetamines but, alas, no -- complete systems breakdown. The GPS kept instructing me to go to “an open area” to get a stronger signal. And Desi’s phone wasn’t answering either.

I thought: I am so fucked.

I was literally sweating. My mouth was dry.

Desperate, I called Jeanne Huie again and pretty much told her we had to cancel.

“You just come on in, honey,” she said. “I want to make sure you’re okay, all right?”

As I got into Madison, I called CHACHA – one of those text services that will answer any questions (seriously, they’ll give you a response to What is love?) and begged for driving directions to the B&N from the interstate. The car was shaking so badly, the CHACHA people wrote back twice to ask what I meant because my ever more anxious texts were gibberish.

Thanks to CHACHA, I finally wobbled my way into a parking space at the biggest B&N I’ve ever seen in my life. It looked like the Astrodome. I didn’t even bother to grab my book with the marked out prepared text because, at one solid hour late, there could not possibly be a soul at this reading. I rushed inside, where the vastness was overwhelming, but one of Jeanne Huie’s people immediately grabbed me (gently) by the arm and lead me to the back reading area while another paged Jeanne Huie. They were like a tactical team in the trenches, everybody taking care of their task exactly as needed.

I was breathless, my heart beating through my chest and my adrenaline pumping like the most amazing LSD.

And then I really think I am hallucinating because Jeanne Huie – a sweet faced grandma – extends her hand to me, practically hugs me, and reveals 15 very relaxed Madison souls still waiting for me to read.

“I’m so sorry but a few of them had to leave,” she said, apologizing while I considered how inappropriate it would be for me to throw myself at her and hug her. She offered me water, marshmallow treats and cookies.

So I grabbed one of the books in stock and I read. And then, for more than an hour, I took questions and generally chatted, hung out and shared with the folks who’d waited – a diverse group of Madisonites, many of them with first hand knowledge of Cuba, others with a keen interest.

“I could have gone on for another hour,” Jeanne Huie said while I signed books, including hers. The store was closing.

Desi leaned over. “This woman was amazing,” she said. “Every time you called, she’d give a progress report over the PA. And she kept us all entertained, telling us all about you – what you’d done, your other books, the Discover program.”

“I have to tell you, Jeanne, this is just about the nicest Barnes & Noble experience I’ve ever had,” I said.

She grinned. As I gathered my things, Jeanne told me all about her journey to Madison, how she’d come up to be close to family.

“You mean you’re not from here?” I asked, a little surprised.

“Oh no,” she said, “I used to run a little independent bookstore in Kentucky. Oh, I forgot these.”

She handed me a little gift box of tea and a handwritten note thanking me for coming to Madison to share my work.

I never read in Jeanne’s store in Kentucky but, suddenly, it all made sense to me.

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