Ahead to the Past – Crap I Think Of While Mowing the Lawn…#23

(other than This Lawn Looks Like Crap)

 

Interesting, if not always deep, thoughts often pop into my head while I’m doing battle with my lawn. And yes, I do battle with a non-gas, non-electric, old-fashioned push mower. An actual reel mower. And my mind tends to think of some semi-interesting crap while I push along.

Welcome to Volume 23 of Crap I Think of While Mowing the Lawn.

 

AHEAD TO THE PAST

I’ve always wondered why the movie, “Back to the Future” wasn’t titled “Ahead to the Past.”  Okay, the real title may be catchier, although if there were a successful movie or three with my proposed title, who knows if that would be the case.

 

What’s my point? Last Saturday, I returned as an author/vendor to the annual Collingswood (NJ) Book Festival. I’ve been there many times (perhaps, 8 out of their 12 years) with my various titles, and this was only the second year that the crappy weather forced this annual book fest indoors.

This brought back memories of the last time I was confined to Collingswood High—instead of the open air of Haddon Avenue, which is a lot more festive, and fun. So, please go ahead to the past with me, as I share my irreverent memories of my first indoor book festival.

Note: This was originally written for an online writer’s magazine called The Infinite Writer, to which I contributed a monthly piece. Due to its length, this piece was stretched into two (months). It became a chapter in my book, All That Twitters is not Goldberg.

If you have ever had the experience of trying to sell your own creations in front of (otherwise nice?) people who are either indifferent, broke or cheap—if not all three—I think you will enjoy this “action-packed” piece.

 

If a Book Falls in Collingswood… ?

(originally, October/November 2007)

A bright blue pastel flier arrived in the mail today, requesting my attendance at the fourth annual Collingswood (New Jersey) Book Festival, an event for no-name authors, never heard-of publishers, and all around swell people. Never heard of it? Don’t worry; you’re in good company. Before filling out the tear sheet with my reply, I thought back to my experience last October.

 

As last year was my third as a writer/vendor, I was well prepared for the crush of cultured Collingswoodians that figured to flood the Main Street-like Haddon Avenue to support us local scribes. In the past, my wife Ruby and I had arrived all bundled up in the early morning, gradually peeling off layers of casual clothes to be in harmony with the brilliant early fall afternoons. Great weather, the opportunity to discuss my couple books with the throngs of literati that visited us, and a better-than-average local pizzeria all awaited us.

 

We were excited for our third festival and had lined up everything we could think of the day before, prior to heading to New York City to visit her family. We actually had even made our bed and set up three alarm clocks for the early morning wakeup call. I am past the age where I can comfortably pull an all-nighter and 6:45 am was a wakeup time that had earned my grudging admiration and contempt.

 

After stuffing ourselves on her family’s delicious homemade Chinese food, we returned to our Cherry Hill home at 2:00 am. Less than five hours of sleep remained when Ruby had an idea that would no doubt stimulate book sales. She had a collection of thirty beautiful, decorative bookmarks that her sister had previously sent her from China. It was her inspired marketing plan that any Collingswoodian who bought two or more of my books would receive a free bookmark, for which she made a little display by poking metal hooks into a spongy base covered with some candy corn of unknown vintage. My anticipatory lack of sleep was now overpowered by a sense of greed.

 

Dressed as Underwear Man, I typed out a sign that proclaimed that my adoring public could buy any two books—already discounted by the way—and receive a free, beautiful bookmark. I added, quite cagily, three other words to the sign—while supplies last. I was already doing the math: 2 books for $18 times 30 = $540. The sixty books we would sell—conservatively speaking of course—would eclipse our 2004 personal record by about forty-eight books or so. There was the $25 registration fee we had to pay, and the gas, coffee, and junk food bills. But nevertheless it figured to be a profitable day in the old town.

 

Sleep-deprived, and clad in my unmentionables, I decided that it was too dark, cold, and wet to pack the car now. No, I would go to bed dry and almost rich. I kissed my generous, fellow marketing genius good night and was asleep within two minutes. Possibly another personal record.

 

About five seconds later, the cacophony of three cheap alarm clocks interrupted my slumber. How could I forget to stagger the alarm times? I admonished myself as I staggered out of bed. I quickly washed and shaved without waking up Ruby—the definition of a mean feat, as it is reliably reported that she could sleep through an air raid siren if she needed to. Since it was cold, dark, and wet, and since I had no choice, I started jamming my writerly belongings into the car. Yes, I had everything—the six-foot table, which made it into the car on my thirteenth attempt, my display board, writing tablets, pens, and business cards. What else? I found a little space for the most important stuff—my books and the invaluable and beautiful decorative bookmarks. Everything was stuffed in with as much love and affection as I could muster under the circumstances.

 

The car jam-packed, I roused the marketing guru out of bed, who greeted her lack of restorative sleep in tolerably good humor. Within ten minutes, and brandishing a small thermos of coffee, Ruby found just enough room under the long table to squeeze into the passenger seat. Ten minutes later, with windshield wipers and headlights fully activated, we arrived on a semi-deserted and fully dampened Haddon Avenue.

 

A fortyish man, protected by a bright orange poncho, saw our overloaded compact car and waved for us to stop. He then directed us to Collingswood High School, the rain venue for the event. I greeted the news with ambivalence, as a man of my conflicted nature is wont to do—well, most of the time. On the bright side, I wouldn’t have to worry about gusts of winds knocking over my display board, as they constantly did last year. On the dark side, what about the throngs of readers who welcomed a nice early autumn day, live music, and open shops nearby? Would they pack Collingswood High, and once there, be in the mood to buy some cleverly worded books of poetry and humor? To say the least, I was anxious to see which side would win out.

 

While Ruby sat in a double-parked car, ignoring the taunts of traffic cops and other writer/entrepreneurs, I started to unload my car, placing my inventory and marketing tools just outside the entrance to the school’s cafetorium. (Presumably, there is not an audeteria at the high school.) One of the festival volunteers—identifiable by her advanced age, officious nature, and fake smile—told me that I should look for my booth number (eighty-two), which was located outside the cafetorium, around another hallway, and then down a short flight of stairs. Number eighty-two, logically enough, was situated right across from number forty-seven, and in a little fifteen-by-fifteen foot area in between another flight of stairs that led to the gymnasium (Go, Panthers!), more classrooms, and some well-placed lavatories. 

 

After showing Ruby where we would be stationed, I parked my car across the street while she guarded our little store. Despite the rainy weather and half my brain envisioning a long day in Pantherland, I was excited to unpack and set up shop. Ruby left to go to Philly for an appointment; her navigation as uncanny as ever, she would make it back shortly before the close of the festival.

 

There was still one hour before the festival would open its doors to the public. Needing the brisk exercise, I sprang into action, attempting to give my space just the right amount of feng shui to pry smiles and dollars from the enchanted passersby. I found that it was a pleasure to set up my three-panel display board at just the right angle without worrying about the destructive gale forces that kept toppling it in years past. My brochures would also not get damp or lost, and I could arrange my poetry and humor books just so.

 

No doubt, the Chinese bookmarks would lend just the right amount of beauty and the while supplies last sign would add the perfect sense of urgency. Yes, there seemed to be a perfect collision of art and commerce that morning in the little town of Collingswood, proud gateway to the borough of Haddon Heights.

 

Evidently, the lighter side of my mood was winning out, a rare event for a self-indulgent poet. Soon, I was even rationalizing that it would not be such a bad thing that the new location would be out of walking distance from the pizza shop that caught my fancy last year. That meant that there would be fewer distractions for the festival visitors who would be my literary captives. And I sure did not need all the empty calories that the pizza parlor would provide. Besides, booth number ninety-five had free candy bars and there was even a hot dog cart parked right outside.

 

It’s always nice to hedge your bets if the going gets rough. And even if I did pig out on dogs, fries, cookies, and candy bars, I noticed that it was about 115 degrees within a 20-foot radius of my spot—the calories would burn off instantly. I was starting to get dizzy from all this circular reasoning, so I decided that I would take a walk. Fifteen minutes or so still remained before show time and it was nice to be able to visit a high school lav without needing a hall pass.

 

On the way to the lav, I popped by number ninety-five, feigned interest in the civic program they were promoting, and asked meekly if I could grab a Hershey’s bar or three. First mission accomplished. I then peeked inside the gym, where tables and tent cards were set up for local celebrities to sign their books. While chewing on a Hershey’s Almond, I envisioned myself in the corner of the gym underneath a banner celebrating a 1962 Panthers conference basketball championship. Microphone in hand, I was giving a reading to a group of enthralled local readers dressed in their most fashionable raincoats.

 

“Matt Goldberg, author of several books, including the best-selling So So Wisdom, has braved the elements to be with us today. This award-hoarding, nationally syndicated humor columnist has graciously deigned to give us a short reading.” Well, I could wait on the exact wording of the introduction, but I could not wait to get to the lav.

 

For a forty-four-year-old bathroom, the facilities were not too bad. I wondered what shenanigans went on nowadays in these facilities. While my dark side longed for the good old days where the cooler kids (of which I was not a member) would sneak in a smoke or two of varying lengths, my light side hoped that this era of Panthers was a little smarter. It was time to dry my hands and alas there was no rotating towel or any paper products in sight. Yes, it was time to choose between ripping off a square of toilet paper or trying my luck with the electric hand dryer—a luxury item that Lenape High School (Go, Native Americans!) did not offer back in the day. 

 

Choosing the technological route, I prepared to arrange my hands in just the right angle to coax a waft of breeze from the device. Usually, I fare rather poorly with even the crudest bathroom innovations. On many a turnpike restroom visit, I have watched as strangers cruise through the hand-drying lane like cocky E-Z Pass users. When it is my turn, I try everything from NFL referee motions to elaborate semaphore signals to no avail. As the strangers behind me vent their displeasure, I invariably slap my dampened hands on my jeans on the way to the vending machines.

 

Fifteen feet from the dryer, I did some stretching exercises to prepare myself for the task ahead. Feeling limber and confident, I decided to go with the simple, palm-up method that rarely had worked for me before. As my trusted memory is my only witness, the most amazing indoor meteorological event in South Jersey history was about to take place. At the eight-foot mark, the little white unit sensed my wet hands and let loose a blast of warm air that nearly pushed me into stall number two. Regaining my balance, my dry hands and I walked out of the lav and prepared to clasp palms with my generous and grateful readership. Little did I know then that my experience with Hurricane Latrina would be the highlight of my day.

 

With an extra hop in my step, I returned to table eighty-two, checking out my literary exhibit from all possible angles. The display board showcased a nice caricature of So So Gai—my fictitious, irreverent Chinese philosopher—along with samples of his mediocre philosophy and a chronology of his life and times. Flanking the board on the table were piles of books and brochures advertising my services as a speaker, copies of one of my poems, and samples of So So Gai’s wisdom. My new business cards were sprinkled around the bookmarks and the clever sign on the far side of the table, so the Collingswoodians would see it before ascending the stairs to the gymnasium and the bathrooms. I greeted the 10:00 am opening with positive anticipation as I noticed that there was still no occupant across the way in number forty-seven.

 

What follows are my hourly recollections of the fourth annual Collingswood Book Festival:

 

Hour #1: During the first forty-five minutes or so, I had plenty of time to sweat in the sauna-torium where I was stationed. The crowd had not started to arrive in earnest, so I also had plenty of time to rearrange my book display and crack my knuckles. A few people stopped by and laughed at a couple of So So Gai-isms, but they did not feel the urge to buy his wisdom—even at the discounted rate with personalized messages from the author. A couple kids asked if it was okay to eat some of the candy corn. I mentioned, in vain, that it was for display purposes only and I could not vouch for its cleanliness. By the end of the hour, the green sponge that was the base for the bookmark hangers was starting to reveal itself. Ruby phoned near the end of the hour to inform me that she was on the way back to Collingswood. Book sales were stagnant.

 

Hour #2: I had plenty of time to look up at the ceiling and noticed a few tiles missing, revealing a slew of exposed electrical wires. Hey, if I wanted to see that, I could have stayed home and tried to sell books from my garage. The pace of readers was starting to pick up. Most would glance at my display on the way up the stairs to the gymnasium or on the way downstairs to the children’s area in the high school basement. I started to engage in more conversations with the locals that would linger a little while at my store. Some grabbed business cards and brochures; another guy remembered me from last year and honored his proud tradition of laughing at my book but refusing to buy any copies. Still others noticed my Eagles cap and talked a little football with me. Never a bad thing.

 

Near the end of the hour, a young cutie with a tiny fistful of candy corn in her mouth asked me if she could have one of the bookmarks. The ogre in me politely explained that I could not give one to her but that they were free with the purchase of any two of my books. After conferring with her parents, she asked if she could buy one for a dollar. In a less polite fashion, I declined her generous offer. Taking inventory after two hours, I observed that while book sales were flat, there was a decent run on free brochures and business cards. But help was on its way. Ruby called to ask me if she could bring me a toasted sesame bagel.

“Of course,” I said, basking in the near presence of my wife and a snack that had always been good to me.

 

Hour #3: I was nothing if not prepared, supply-wise, for the event. The day before, I had started reading John Grogan’s Marley and Me, and I brought it along in case business wasn’t brisk. For the rest of the day, the cover shot of Marley was placed between my own books and the display board. Hey, even if I could not mislead the yokels into finding a connection between my book and this lovable bestseller, I could at least enjoy a quick discussion about the joys and rigors of dog ownership. As a marketing ploy, it worked like a hex.

 

As the day moved on toward halftime, I found it more difficult to suppress my dark side. Sure, I helped parents carry their strollers up the stairs and I directed a lot of people to the gym, but a certain acrimony had taken hold of me. To those who I thought could handle the humor, I started yelling like a Philly carnival barker.

 

“Yo, step on up, and find a bunch of overpriced books that really suck.” Some enjoyed the humor, but those same people apparently did not have any disposable income with them.

 

In between phone calls to Ruby, I started writing out a new sign that would change my fortune. Something drastic and ingenious was needed: my inventory of books and bookmarks had not changed, and even the free candy corn was only depleted by half.

 

Hour #4: My new sign was a masterstroke of genius, if I do say so myself. It read, in bold, black Sharpie lettering, as follows:

 

With the Purchase of a Beautiful Bookmark from China

Discounted to $18

You May Choose Any Two Books For Free!

 

Much as the sign seemed to bolster my flagging spirits, in due time I wondered if I had just hit the final frontier of indignity. Yes, a few people seemed to be amused by the sign, but they rewarded me with laughter—not greenbacks.

 

After only a half hour, I put the sign away for a less rainy day. My main conversations with the public involved telling some high school–aged kids that, yes, they could eat the candy corn with my compliments. In a jaded moment, I may have even mentioned that it was homemade and good for their teeth.

 

A breakthrough did come shortly after I retired the sign. A fifty-ish woman of obvious good taste leafed through my book of poetry and actually started pulling money from her purse. A sight of an actual dead president coming my way made me a little weak in the knees, but somehow I remained upright. I accepted it graciously, signed my book, and was about to French kiss the lady, when I spotted my beautiful bride carrying a bagel bag.

 

Hour # 5: Ruby handed me the bag, which I ripped open to reveal a cold, untoasted plain bagel topped with a smattering of butter. I accepted it in the best spirit and probably mumbled something unintelligible when she asked me how things were going. I figured that she could do the math.

 

Realizing that we were overstaffed, my better half asked me if she could get me something else to eat. Not mentioning my trips to booth number ninety-five and the hot dog cart, I said that I could use a hot dog and a hot chocolate. (I am happy to report that Ruby did not get lost to or from the hot dog vendor.)

 

With more time on my hands, I searched for instant perspective on what was going wrong with my marketing aspirations. Why had my delusions of grandeur been downgraded to dreams of solvency?

 

I decided—sour grapes or not—that there were only three groups of people that tended to actually sell a fair amount of books at these events:

 

  1. The “I’ve heard of that guy/lady” author, who had achieved some name recognition in at least some of the local Philadelphia-area households. The ones with the tables, tent cards, and microphone access.
  2. The people who were selling grab bags of gently mangled books for $.50 or $1, so the bargain hunters could fill up their plastic bags with these clearance items.
  3. The authors who told all their friends. I also told all my friends but am ashamed to tell you that neither of them had the courtesy to show up.

 

In between bites and sips of hot dog and warm chocolate, I did manage to sell a humor book or two and had another very sincere lady ask me how long I would be there, as she would go to the Mac machine in the meantime. A wise veteran of such conversations, I knew that I would never see Ms. Sincerity again.

 

Hour #6: The homestretch had arrived, and neither the few recent book sales nor my instant perspective were doing much to ward off my dark side. I vowed to stay until the end of the event, even as other booksellers were starting to fold their tables. After all, I am a Philly sports fan at heart who never leaves a game early despite the margin of victory or deficit. Ruby started packing up some of my stuff as my lack of sleep and surplus of bad mood was taking my mind elsewhere.

 

In my daydream, I found myself in the midst of the new musical Collingswood—a newly minted parody of Chicago. In this town of big spenders who don’t read, and big readers who don’t spend, I had become an incarnation of the invisible Amos. Here I was, the one-and-only Mr. Sell-Nothing! The refrain was running through my head as the Collingswoodians refrained from buying my books. I did all I could to stop from singing my new showstopper out loud:

 

Sell-nothing / I’m Mr. Sell-Nothing

Won’t you buy something / So I can wear some bling

But you just walk right past me/ and look right through me

And never buy a thing…

 

(I was really starting to roll now)

 

So, Mr. Hicktown shnook / Won’t you buy my book

Are you afraid to look  …

 

When Ruby interrupted my hit musical with a request that we leave ten minutes early—like almost everyone else—I found no rationale to protest. We packed up all our stuff and I started the end-of-the-day trudge through the cafetorium. I made several trips outside the high school with my precious few belongings, putting blind faith in the belief that although the locals did not buy any books, they were also not the type to steal any. 

 

Pleased with this bit of logic, I made my last trip to booth number eighty-two, when I looked up to see Ms. Sincerity and a friend waiting for me. “Matt, I was afraid you would leave, and I wouldn’t get a copy of your book,” this paragon of virtue said with a smile.

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t leave without seeing you first,” I said with all the false conviction I could manage. I looked around to see one carton of unopened humor books, from which I happily pried one loose. For one of the few times that day, I signed my collector’s item and wished her a good day. If the bookmarks weren’t on the sidewalk, I would have thrown in a few of those as well.

 

Returning to the sidewalk, Ruby’s car arrived almost on cue. Working together like Forrest and Bubba, we somehow were able to jam in the very same items that we had stuffed in early that morning. Taking the wheel of the car, I could barely see my marketing partner, obscured as she was by the table. Mr. Sell-Nothing or not, I tried my best to provide some cheer for my wife, for myself, and for unknown authors everywhere.

 

 “You know,” I said, most likely sounding somewhat like a fighter after losing a championship bout, “if you factor out the gas, the bagels, the hot dogs, and the hot chocolate, and you don’t count the money I spent for my own books, I think we made a little money again this year, honey.”

 

Our six-foot table seemed to shake in agreement, behind which my wife had evidently dozed off. Perhaps the love of my life was dreaming what I was thinking: If we get our registration fee in a little earlier next year, we can secure a prime spot in the cafetorium should it rain. As dreams go, it wasn’t much, but it did get us home safely from Collingswood.……

&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Who am I? Well, please check out my site. I am an author/speaker/custom writer/coach who loves to inspire people to laugh, smile, learn and achieve more. All those things, and more.

 

Mower and Statesman

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