Monday, October 30, 2006


Milwaukee is an old Indian word meaning “My gosh, there’s a lot of bookstores here and I’m going to visit all of them immediately after getting off the airplane”. I know it seems odd that they would have such a term but they were a strange and mystical people. Later, they would form the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team. What was especially noble was that they used every part of the buck for that team: the organs would be used for the ball, the pelt for the uniform, and the antlers would be used for antlers that the players would strap to their heads, thus intimidating opposing players, especially in the low post.

I was met at the airport by Cathy (see previous day’s entry on the niceness of upper Midwest media escorts) who quickly began squiring me about Milwaukee and its surrounding areas. Something about a situation like this: they’re driving you around, sometimes even telling you the name of the town or neighborhood you’re in, but it means nothing to you. Having never been to Milwaukee, the geographical names meant nothing – Mequon? Brookfield? Wha?- so it’s just a long disorienting ride in a car with a pleasant person you’ve never met punctuated by brief drop-ins at bookstore where you make small talk, sign books, try to make a joke or say something unique about your book so they’ll remember you, and then move along. But we did have a great lunch…somewhere… and I first felt the rush of love I now have for the fine people at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop. We went to all eleventy billion of their stores and met folks like Johnny in Brookfield who had read the book, sold most of his stock, and was discussing it with a co-worker as we walked in (or at least gallantly pretended to be). We met Stacey at the Downer Avenue (not a depressing street at all, actually) who had read the galley and spent a great deal of time evangelizing it to friends. And ultimately we met Dan, who was hosting me at the Bayview store, who told me that “several of us at the store are fans of your work.” Since I doubt he had gained an appreciation of my temporary office worker placement in the mid-90’s, I’m thinking he means McSweeney’s or maybe NPR but probably McSweeney’s.

I get to the Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee around 4:30 and have a couple of hours before it’s time to go read. The lobby of the Pfister is just absurd. Palatial, grand, ostentatious, The Sun King would say “oh my goodness, this is just too much”. It looked like an ornate cathedral and featured, in two different places, the word “SALVE” in huge letters. I don’t know why. I’ll try to find out. I meant to ask. A hotel worker (I hate to use the word “bellboy”) helped me to my room and provided helpful, non-intuitive advice on how to find the light switch since I would have never thought to look on the walls near the doors. He must have been 55. I gave him five bucks.

Cathy picks me up and we head for the store, getting there a few minutes early. Since I’m not the kind of famous author who will always have 50 people get there early, this part is nerve-wracking. Will I get 30 people? 60? Any? At Schwartz in Bayview, there are some. With 15 minutes before I go on, I go for a walk in the rain, refusing an offer of an umbrella with a quick “I’m from Seattle”. On Kinnickinnic Avenue, I notice a billboard for a country music station with a picture of Toby Keith (major character in my book) (did I mention I wrote a book?) and the words “My Country”. It appears the nation has now been consigned to Toby. Of course I mention this in the reading and it goes over big because it’s right there. I love when that kind of thing works out.

The crowd is fairly large, very enthusiastic, asks great questions, and makes me feel even better about Milwaukee than I already did. I heart Milwaukee. Two extra things made the event better still. My mother-in-law, Susie, took the train up from Chicago and is in attendance. Her other two sons-in-law are, respectively, a Georgetown-trained lawyer and a nuclear physicist. So by having a book published, I’m only just now getting in the race. Also showing up: dear friend Carson, my wife’s best friend from college, who drove in from Madison. Afterwards, we all were taken by media escort Cathy, the queen of Milwaukee, to a restaurant.

Here’s something else Cathy did: when taking Susie back to her hotel, Cathy also drove the route from hotel to the train station so that when Susie had to find the train station in the morning, it would be easier. So nice. I guess that’s part of being a media escort but not really, just being a nice person.

To the Pfister, past the mysterious Salve signs, off to bed.

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