Vagina-gabonding — Book tour stop #7: Kansas City, February 11

Shortly before I left for the Kansas City leg of my book tour, a second-hand email message landed in my inbox. It read: “Tell Rolf to be careful when he goes on the Walt Bodine Show. Walt is a crazy old blind man, and you never know what he’s going to do!”

Since Walt Bodine also happens to be the legendary host of Kansas City’s NPR morning talk show — a show I was scheduled to appear on — I wondered what the “crazy” appellation could possibly imply. I kept getting these images of old Walt challenging me to a leg-wrestling match, asking me to protect him from “the coyotes”, or chasing me around the studio with a broom.

I drove up to Kansas City through the soft curves of the Flint Hills, pondering the possibilities. In the trunk, I had a box full of new handouts: Vagabonding promotional stickers, which had just arrived (several weeks late) from the printer. Each sticker consists of the letters “VGB” in the center of a white oval (see the bottom right of the main page to see what I’m talking about), much in the manner of the international I.D. stickers you see on cars in Europe. “VGB”, of course, is an abbreviation for Vagabonding, much like “ES” represents Spain (Espana), “D” represents Germany (Deutschland), or “USA” represents the USA.

The VGB sticker was the result of an inadvertently complicated planning process that began when I decided to create Vagabonding stickers with the letters “VAG”. The implication was that the VAG sticker could be a little token for vagabonders — a visual promise to oneself to make time for travel. Simple enough, on the surface, but this concept ran into a snag when I passed the idea along to my editor and publicist at Random House. Initially, they both loved the idea: the international oval design implied travel, the “VAG” implied Vagabonding, and the web address could go in the white space underneath.

When they took the VAG sticker idea to a Random House promotions meeting, however, the idea was immediately shot down. This is because (in a detail that I had literally never considered until that point) Random House also publishes Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues — and “vagina” is the first thing everyone thought of when they saw the VAG sticker design. Not wanting to inadvertently promote Vagina-gabonding (though I’m sure such a book would attract lots of attention), we all mulled over alternative abbreviations before coming up with VGB. It’s a dandy little sticker, and my only regret is that I didn’t have them on-hand to give away at my first six readings.

Stickers in hand, I arrived in suburban Kansas City on Monday afternoon, stayed the night with family, and cruised to the Missouri side the next morning to meet Walt Bodine.

In a way, it was hardly fair to introduce Walt as a “crazy old blind man”, even if it was just a secondhand description. After all, the 83 year-old broadcaster is the Walter Cronkite of Kansas City — a man who interviewed John F. Kennedy before he was president, and Martin Luther King before he became a civil-rights icon. He has a huge following locally, and getting onto his hour-long NPR show was, in publicity terms, comparable to my West Coast TV appearances, or my USA Today profile. Thus, I was almost surprised to discover, upon entering his radio studio, that Walt really is blind.

Fortunately, Walt didn’t prove to be crazy, and we ended up having a splendid, meandering one-hour on-air conversation (to access this archived broadcast in streaming audio, click here ). Since he obviously can’t read (and Vagabonding is not, to my knowledge, available in Braille), Walt took cues from his producer via his headset, and asked me whatever came to mind. He asked me to name a place — any place — so we could start talking from there. India came to mind, so I mentioned Bombay. Walt asked me how I got there, and I told him I got there by hitching a ride from the Suez Canal on a container ship. Before long we were talking about all manner of travel issues, and calls started coming in on the switchboard. The hour went by quickly, the callers were very friendly, and — in spite of the warning email — Walt never once chased me around the studio with a broom.

The influence of the Walt Bodine Show was obvious that evening, when 100 or so people crammed into the tiny Fairway branch of Rainy Day Books to hear my Vagabonding presentation. I opened up with a travel story about getting drunk and splitting my head open many years ago in Kansas City. Ever since Portland’s fumbled Vonnegut anecdote, I’ve been doing this in each city: opening by telling a personal story about something that happened to me in that city on previous visits. The Kansas City story involved an incident when, at age 5, my cousin Clint dared me to drink a can of Coors, which led to a pillow-fight wherein I hit my head on a piano bench and had to get stitches. It really is a funny story — though I’ll have to practice telling it more, since the KC crowd seemed horrified as much as amused by the bloody, beery details.

The rest of the presentation and discussion went fine, however, and the small Rainy Day bookstore had the ambience of a cozy, bookish basement. Much of this ambience, no doubt, is owed to Vivien Jennings and Roger Doeren, who run the store with the cordial warmth of a family den. Even after the reading was over, lots of people stuck around to talk with one other. (Actually, in my presentation, I’ve been actively encouraging people to introduce themselves and talk to each other afterwards. I call this a “travel exercise”: overcoming your shyness and getting to know your neighbors, just as if you were on the road.)

Once the crowd had thinned a bit, Roger had me sign a book for his son, and told me stories from the times Jon Krakauer and Bill Bryson came to Rainy Day. I autographed a Vagabonding poster for the store, and told them I’d be thrilled if it was displayed anywhere near Krakauer or Bryson’s posters. Roger and Vivien asked me to stop by once I’ve written a second book — and I definitely will, since Rainy Day is such a comfortable and welcoming venue. The same thing could be said about Walt Bodine’s show.

I’ll be looking forward to coming back to Kansas City in the future.

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Category: Book Release and Tour Diary

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