Cruising Berkeley in the Bourgeois-mobile — Book tour stop #4: Berkeley, January 30

I mentioned yesterday that I rented a car in Oakland, but I never included the humbling details of the automobile in question: It is a late-model gray Ford Taurus 4-door — probably the least sexy car one could imagine for one’s book tour. I’m not exactly sure what a budding young travel writer should drive in order to project a appropriately hip image (a Jeep? a VW microbus? a hitched-ride with a hot babe in a convertible?) — but I’m pretty sure this isn’t it. Somehow, I just can’t visualize Jack Kerouac cruising a Ford Taurus down Market Street with any degree of dignity (unless, say, Neil Cassady had stolen it on his behalf). Perhaps not noticing this severe hipster dissonance, however, the people at Payless Car Rental in Oakland acted like I should be happy to be driving it (they gave me special deal, since no compacts were available).

In the hopes of achieving the proper degree of irony, I’ve begun referring to this car as the “Bourgeois-mobile”. And, as it turned out, the Bourgeois-mobile was exactly what I need this afternoon.

Since today was the first day on my tour schedule where I didn’t have to travel from one city to another (I don’t count the San Francisco-Berkeley commute as travel), I indulged in the luxury of sleeping late. I woke up (still tired) at mid-morning — just in time for a phone interview with a San Francisco radio show — then headed out for a day of chumming it with travel writers.

Because I got my travel-writing start in Salon, I guess you could say that I’m part of the Bay Area travel-writing scene. This is a physical anomaly, of course, since I’ve been living in Asia since well before I started writing professionally — but I still feel an affinity with the San Francisco scene that I don’t feel for, say, the travel writers of New York or Boston. A lot of this feeling is tied into the charisma and mentorship of Don George, who I met for lunch this afternoon.

Don used to be the travel editor at Salon and the San Francisco Examiner, but now he’s moved across the bay to work for Lonely Planet in Oakland. Today was only the second time I’ve met him in person, but when I arrived I felt like I was meeting up with an old friend. He gave me a tour of Lonely Planet’s impressive warehouse office on Linden Ave., then we went off to have soup and complain about the effect of recent world events on mass-market travel magazines (when advertisers get nervous, as they are now, travel magazines tend to opt for conservative, service-oriented articles; as a result they get less interesting to read and less interesting to write for). After lunch, I jumped back into the Bourgeois-mobile and raced over to the funky little Oakland enclave of Piedmont, where Brad Newsham lives. Brad is the author of Take Me With You, the founder of Backpack Nation, a father, a taxi-driver, an erstwhile basketball player, and a certifiably great guy. I sat on the back porch with him, drinking a ginger soda, while he told me war stories about his own book tour. Amazingly, he once did a Bay Area book event that nobody turned up for. “It all gets better from there,” he told me with a grin. Indeed. I can only count my blessings at having had nice turnouts so far for Vagabonding.

When Brad left to pick up his daughter from school, I continued on in my humble rental car for Berkeley, where my evening book reading was to take place. As a vagabonder, I have a long history in Berkeley — crashing on the U.C. library balcony and breakfasting in People’s Park in ’92, watching Rancid play at 924 Gilman Street before they “made it big” during my USA trip in ’94 (Operation Ivy fans might dispute the semantics and timeline of that one), shopping the funky stalls of Telegraph Avenue just before I left for Korea in ’96.

Thus, it was no small irony that this afternoon I drove aimlessly through Berkeley — utterly lost — for upwards of an hour before I located Easy Going Travel Shop. By the time I got there, my nagging sore throat was bothering me again, and a day of driving and socializing (combined, no doubt, with my illness) had sapped my energy. Since I had a few hours until my actual reading, I hinted to the Easy Going register clerk about taking a nap in the store office, but he didn’t seem too keen on the idea. So, stashing my slide carousel in the store, I headed back out to the Bourgeois-mobile in the hopes of finding a park or library where I might catch a catnap.

Fortunately, I was able to solve my problem just moments after I climbed back into my frumpy gray rental Taurus: In a sudden moment of epiphany, I tilted the driver’s seat all the way back, and promptly, blissfully, passed out for two solid hours in the least hip car in Berkeley. (Given the counterculture vibe in that corner of California, I’m sure all the neighbors assumed I was part of a DEA stakeout.)

In retrospect, I’m tempted to feel a bit guilty about napping in a Ford Taurus when I could have been off exploring Berkeley. After all, travel is an ongoing process of curiosity and discovery — of embracing the moment, wherever you are. On that same token, however, travel is not something that should be forced. Sometimes you need to create your own personal space and get some rest — take a pause from all the stimulus and to store up energy for future experiences. And in this case, it was a good call: I woke up refreshed and ready to face another audience.

Since this was my fourth consecutive night of presenting my book, I felt confident of my routine when I returned to Easy Going: I would socialize with all the early arrivers, stay relaxed, shun my notes, keep things informal, and ride the wave of good feeling.

Unfortunately, Audrey — the gung-ho, middle-aged director of events at the bookstore — had different ideas.

Three nights ago, Audrey would have been just the person I needed to help prepare for my reading: very detailed, very structured, very encouraging. Audrey had a specific idea of how I should conduct my event, and this was perfectly fine by me. The only problem was that she was convinced an author should sequester himself before a reading, and — as I discovered in Portland — sequestration makes me jittery. I tried to explain this, but Audrey just shooed me into her office. Since my cousin Mary had come early for the reading, I waved her into the office for company, but Audrey caught sight of this and promptly kicked Mary out. Left with nothing better to do, I sat in the office getting jittery and jitterier until Audrey finally called me out and introduced me to the 90 or so people who’d crowded into the store. Nervously walking over to the podium, I looked out at the audience for a moment before something entirely odd happened: I relaxed, and gave my smoothest reading and presentation this far.

Maybe this newly discovered public-speaking ease can be attributed to technical factors at Easy Going — the wireless microphone, or Audrey’s meticulous blocking — but I’d like to think that I’m finally getting the hang of speaking before audiences. As always, we had a lively Q&A after the slideshow, and I got to meet lots of Bay Area vagabonders (including travel writers Tanya Shaffer and Richard Sterling, and fellow Korea expat-scrivener Lavinia Spalding) during the signing. A small group joined me for drinks after the store closed, including the brother-sister vagabonding team of Martin and Agnes Wierzbicki, and the recently self-published travel scribe Ken Vollmer. Since the East Bay line of the BART train was shutting down for the night, Ken hitched a ride back to San Francisco when it was all over.

And, to his credit, he made it all the way across the Bay Bridge without once giving me crap about the Bourgeois-mobile.

Next: Six degrees of country music: On the road in Texas — Book tour stop #5: Dallas

Previous: Breaking my own rules of vagabonding — Book tour stop #3: San Francisco

Posted by | Comments Off on Cruising Berkeley in the Bourgeois-mobile — Book tour stop #4: Berkeley, January 30  | April 25, 2003
Category: Book Release and Tour Diary

Comments are closed.