a couple of years ago I spoke at an event in San Francisco at the Books By the Bay Festival, where, just as I started to speak, an elderly woman shouted from the back of the auditorium, “Talk into the mike!”
“Sorry, I don’t have monitors up here,” I said. (It was in a theater. The year before it had been outside and I’d killed.)
She says, “Well you’re mumbling and talking into your neck.”
I said, “Well your hat looks stupid.” (It did, by the way. A big red cowboy hat on an elderly woman in an electric wheelchair.) But I said it to get a laugh. No one laughed.
So I said, “Sorry, I’ll try to speak up.”
“Good, ’cause you’re mumbling up there. No one can understand you,” she said.
So I said, “Well your hat is still stupid.”
(Hint: Don’t try a joke that hasn’t worked a second time on the theory that they must not have heard it because you were mumbling.)
She and her son left, both yelling at me as they walked out. The son says, “We were coming to your signings when there were only four people!”
So, you know, I felt good about myself.
The whole thing really threw me. I gave the most uninspired, lack-luster, unfunny presentation of my life. They didn’t invite me back to Books by the Bay the following year, after saying I’d been the highlight of the event the year before. I was so mortified by the event that the next time I spoke in San Francisco I had Charlee (wife-like girlfriend) give me a Xanax they’d given her to deal with her insane siblings after her mother’s death.
That night, I ended up sharing things with the audience that Charlee said she hadn’t known after 11 year with me. To top it off, I don’t remember a word that I said, but evidently, people had tears in their eyes. Presumably not because I insulted their hats.
So, the kicker of the story is, Charlee and I went to a Terry Pratchett signing in The Haight a couple of weeks ago at the encourgement of my editor, who also edits Terry. We are sitting in the middle of the audience, waiting for Terry to start, and he’s arrived a little early, so he steps up and says, “We’re not supposed to start until 7:30, so if you’ll que up, I’ll sign for a half hour, then we’ll start.”
And from far behind us we hear this angry screech: “Talk into the mike, you’re mumbling!”
Terry was obviously thrown. He growled something back, but he looked sort of shocked.
I look at Charlee and say “Wouldn’t it be funny if it was the woman in the stupid hat.”
Charlee looks back, turns around, and says, “It is.”
And she was still wearing the stupid fucking hat. And Terry Pratchett did not yell at her, which is why he is the best-selling author in England and I am not. And I went through the line, and introduced myself, and said that we have the same editor, and he said, “Then we’re both very lucky.” And I moved out of the way for the next guy, which is exactly, I’m sure, how it went when Oscar Wilde encountered George Bernard Shaw. But there were a not of interesting crazy people on the bus back to North Beach where we were staying. (Yeah, I take the bus. You can only meet one crazy person at a time in a cab — in a bus, it’s like crazy people buffet. Besides, it’s not like I’m the best-selling author in England. And not only that, it’s hard to find a cab big enough to fit my ego into after an event like that. And I had a thirty-day bus pass, so — value –duh.)
It all puts me in mind of an amusing poem:
When I get old, I shall wear a red hat, And totally fuck with authors, In lieu of getting a hearing aid. I shall wear purple. And learn to spit. And if there is a god. A bus will run over me.