AND THEIR HAIR
BY ZADIE SMITH
Ms. Smith wrote this piece expressly to be read aloud in Philadelphia, PA, July 26, 2001, at Neal Pollack's Timothy McSweeney's Festival of Literature, Theater, and Music.
Hello. Some of you may know me as an English writer of third-person comic fiction, a scribbler of epic narratives populated by a colourful crowd of zany characters battling with a range of cultural issues, all speaking in the ponderous dialects of a world far removed from your own. Or, on the other hand, you may not.
I have just completed a book tour, which is somewhat like being on safari but without the attendant dangers of thick bush-land, extreme heat, guns, or wild animals. But book tours offer their own perils to the young writer. I have been on an American book tour before. Four things come out of an American book tour:
1. The writer gains 15 pounds.
2. The writer can find a minibar within five seconds of opening a door, irrespective of wood-paneling camouflage.
3. Any original thought the writer ever had – every pretty black mark she ever made on a piece of white paper – is replaced by the endlessly reoccurring phenomena of the writer’s own name rising up at them in embossed font on the front of a book they have come to despise.
4. The writer is reduced to embracing the only creative subject she has left: writing about writing and writers. And, if she is lucky, hair.
But I have killed those demons. In a bland Kansas hotel I fashioned a stake out of two Sharpies and the elastic in a shower cap – I used it to stab them in the heart; I ran them through to the hilt. And it is in this spirit of triumph that I offer you my latest piece of extended prose. Every word of it is true. Every word is rendered in the popular Garamond font. It is in the first-person. It includes no fictional characters or ideas. It is divided into seven sections and it documents the seven American writers I met in seven cities while travelling on my American book tour. It is also an odyssey through many hair styles. I call this piece On the Road. I subtitle it: American Writers And Their Hair.
1. New York: Toni Morrison (almost)
In a Barnes and Noble in Union Square, I sign books for a really long time. In the queue is one young man holding a giant sign that reads: Zadie Will You Marry Me with no commas or discernable punctuation. I tell him no – he is on the short side, and only seventeen years old, and his hair is left too long at the ears – also, I have in mind a man who knows what a question mark is. He steps aside. I feel relief – and yet there will come a time when that boy seems, in retrospect, to be the great highlight of this particular queue. For in his wake come a seemingly endless line of sweet, spiky-haired, insistent women who want to give me presents. They give me earrings made out of amber, Annie DiFranco CD’s, and plot suggestions. They wear khaki shorts and t-shirts representing either the city they came from, or a cartoon cat. They say things like:
“Can you sign it for me? I’m Helen. Actually sign it to Helen and Mary.”
When I say fine they say what they said before, but louder:
“OK? SIGN IT FOR HELEN AND MARY.”
They lean in to check I’m doing it right. They say, “RIGHT. NOT MARVIN, MARY. ACTUALLY PUT MY DARLING MARY. RIGHT.”
And then they look at me funny and press the CD into my hand. Most of these women are pushing 60. In New York, one of these women is followed by a circular white-haired black guy with a fluffy moustache and two huge hands that he claps on mine, pinning me down. His stomach has made the half-leap out of his trousers like some desperate animal, and is now collapsed on my desk, heaving. He grins. He says:
“I got two words for ya.”
I say, “Ok.”
He says, “Toni. Morrison.”
I say, “Ok….”
He steps back, catches his belt with two hooked thumbs and rides his trousers back up his belly, one side at a time until he has things back under the control of a big gold buckle.
He says, “You don’t understand. She likes you. I heard her on the radio. She lives in New York. Upstate. You could go to her house. That would not be outside the realms of possibility – do you see what I’m saying? Look, don’t put none of that fancy stuff, just put For Jim,” he says, frowning, passing me my own book, “But I guess you’d need to know where she lived, before you could progress.”
We look at each other for a long, meaningful moment, and then Jim turns to the next woman in the queue, an elderly woman in a headscarf who’s looking at me like you loser, and Jim says to her, “Yeah, I figure she’d have to know where Toni lived. Christ, she’d probably meet Oprah round there too. If it was a weekend. But she’d have to know where first. She’d have to make some effort. You can’t just spect Toni to come ringing on your door. No way.”
The woman steps up to me, slaps a post-it note with the name Ethel on my desk, and puts a disapproving, shaking finger in my face.
“I saw her on Charlie Rose! Zadie, she’s very friendly! She’s got so much hair, up like this, like in a coil – she looks like a queen! I’d be innerested to know, you know, how she does that. I was very impressed, very. And really, Zadie, who are you to snub her?”
“That’s what I said,” says Jim, thumping his fist into his open palm, “It’s no good to get to big for your boots.”
“Everybody has gotta start somewhere,” says Ethel, “And really, would it kill you to go on Oprah?”
The story is now travelling some way down the queue that I think I’m too good to go pay Ms. Morrison a social call. Women in cat t-shirts leading all the way back to the Self-Help section are craning their necks to give me looks of motherly disappointment. I upturn my palms and lay them flat on the table. I explain to Jim and Ethel that I just don’t know where Toni Morrison lives. She’s not in the phone book. We’ve got no friends in common. She has her own personal hair-stylist. She never calls, she never writes.
“Well,” says Jim, stepping away from the table like I have a disease, “ If you don’t know where she lives, then that’s kinda it then, isn’t it?”
And Jim is right. That is kinda it. I don’t meet Toni Morrison in New York. I will never know what went wrong. The coils of her hair, winding black to grey and black again – they remain mysterious to me. Maybe she dyes it that way. There’s just no way of telling.
2. Philadelphia: Neal Pollack
In Philadelphia, when the question and answer section rolls round, the first question comes from the third row, second from right.
The question is: “Why did you leave Destiny’s Child?”
The answer is “Religious differences.”
But I am cheered to find the questioner is that greatest of all living American writers, Neal Pollack, who has made the fair city of Philadelphia his new home. With the understated renaissance-man gentility for which he is rightly famed, Pollack greets me afterwards with a hearty American handshake, and some simple advice on this meeting-and-greeting signing process I have such trouble with. “Use a pen,” he says, as I take my place behind the desk, “And remember the kids love you. And then when you’re done, come eat with me.” The smile he gives me, the toothy beam, is that smile which almost converted Gertrude Stein, which won Pollack the MacArthur Fellowship - the self-same smile that has brought us all here today in lieu of a fee. I smile back. He laughs at my overbite, hands me a restaurant address and disappears. I turn to my public.
I see that sixty percent of my audience are wearing t-shirts with cats on them, but, refreshingly, forty percent are clinically underweight and encased in distressed denim and/or shirts bearing the stitched names of people who worked in gas stations many years ago (none of my public have ever worked in gas stations.) There they all are, waiting. Their hair is shiny and impressive. Some of these kids have such great hair they might as well be writers themselves. In front of my desk they wait, reaching back to the horizon, like a long line of wandering souls waiting to cross the red sea, that is if you are willing for a moment to think of Philadelphia as Jerusalem, and autographs as manna and book-sellers as roman centurions and Neal as Jehovah and readers as wandering souls. I clutch my pen. Is Neal right? Do the kids really love me?
It’s hard to tell. The first reader is a kid – a good-looking short haired kid with a heart-face and a pointy nose and a gas station shirt that says Billy - but she’s not actually, strictly speaking, a reader.
“I haven’t read your book?” she says.
“Right,” I say.
“To be honest with you, I’m not, like, a big reader.”
Actually, you know, she’s not so good-looking. Her nostrils need thinning or narrowing or something. I can see her brain from here.
She says, “I sort of think the novel’s pretty, you know, dead. Basically.”
I smile and keep clutching the pen like Neal said.
“But it’s like you’re 25 and I’m 25 and my Mom thought I should come, so…”
I nod. When you get down to it, the girl is deformed. She has a little suspension bridge of freckles leading from each ear and over the peak of her freak-nose, combining in some sort of freckle-reservoir, some sort of freckle sludge on her right cheek..
She says, “And then she, like, got all on my ass about how I had to come and like be ‘inspired’, and I was like, oh Jesus…and then she was like all making me feel shitty because I haven’t written a book…and I was like, damn and then she was all trying to say I could be doin’ better…and then I was like, well, whatever, and then she was like…”
A charming oral panorama of modern American family life is then painted for me via the magic medium of words. For a young lady who doesn’t read, she is indeed a master of simile …and my mom was like…and then I was like…and then she was like…
“Well,” I say, at the end of it all, “ You know . . . I’m . . . sorry.”
“Nah, don’t sweat it. My mom’s a bitch. Look, just sign it to my great-aunt, Molly? She’s, like, 104, but she loves you.”
The 15th reader wants me to check out their website. Ditto the 20th, the 24th, and especially the 29th, who is called Loretta and also wants me to check out her novel, zine, operetta, short-film, poetry, and her performance art.
“Actually, I’m doing it right now,” she says, making weird faces at me.
Loretta makes a face like a demented fish.
“Yes. This conversation we’re having right now – that’s all part of it.”
Loretta makes a face like a monkey.
“This is all integral to the performance. Now, don’t be alarmed if I start singing,” Loretta says, “That’ll be part of it too, and you musn’t feel challenged by that.”
The 37th reader, a young man dressed like a Japanese train guard, is good news. Oh, he is good news. He is both a kid and a reader. He just doesn’t read me.
“So, how’d you meet Neal?”
It is a question I get asked all over this great land. I have learnt to take it with good grace.
“Well,” I say, “ I was working in Thailand on a barge, smuggling pineapples to Morocco, and Neal was just a young boy, in trouble with his pimp…”
The 37th reader is not in the mood for my bullshit. He sighs, and rolls his eyes at my attempt to draw a snail in the fly leaf of his book.
“Er…ok. Riiiight. Funny. Well, look . . . I don’t know . . . could you just tell Neal that he’s the bomb? For me? From me? Could you do that? You’ll say that to him, right? You’ll say those exact words, right - the bomb - like that?”
When I started this book tour, a lot of people warned me that the kids would try and use me to get to Pollack. And when you come to Philadelphia, I don’t care who you are, you could be the poet laureate – you could be the Queen of England’s main couplet composer – but the Nealaratti are the Nealaratti and they cannot be slighted or ignored. So I promise the young man I’ll pass on his salutations, promise 50 more readers the same thing, put the top back on my pen, and go into the night to eat with the man himself.
So. The world knows what an appetite Pollack has for women, for words, for literary awards, foreign travel, dare-devil pursuits, trinkets from the Aztec period and silken neck-scarves. But of all his bohemian appetites the most significant - to his work and personal life - is often forgotten. I speak, of course, of the most mysterious of all human appetites. The one for food. No-one speaks so much about the chicken-wing thing. I too was ignorant. But after consuming four chicken wings the size of my head, a whole spiced rabbit, and many quarts of Belgian ale, I learnt to respect the mighty power of the American literary digestive system. Long after I had blacked-out in the bathroom, Neal continued to sparkle and entertain. My publicist, Russell from Random House, a man who adds body to his thin hair with deceptive layering, recalls an unforgettable night where Neal kept the bar rapt with talk of Kafka, Hasidic fable, Sufi spirituality and the anthropology of Caribbean voodoo (in which Neal has produced what must surely be the definitive work). I missed all of that stuff. Last thing I remember was the two of us mapping out the future of modern literature by drawing a barometer on a tablecloth with a sharpie and then putting ourselves and all our friends at the top.
“In many ways,” as Russell wrote, when I e-mailed him, hoping he’d help jog my memory for this piece, “ Pollack is like Updike. Except shorter. Also, his hair is thick and dark and vibrant. In terms of facial hair and basic raw masculinity he reminds us of the young Burt Reynolds. And of course, he too was married to the buxom Loni Anderson for a short period.”
All this may be true. For my part, I only remember watching the ceiling revolve and both Neals waving their arms in the air, describing an annual Philadelphia chicken wing contest they meant to enter, while I did one of those crazy liquid burps which makes the rabbit redux.
3. Washington: Matt Klam
In Washington, I eat with Mr. Matt Klam, one of these counter-culture types who writes about sexy stuff and grows his hair too long. From a block away, I can see him, carrying his hockey sticks and nervously hugging a street corner, lavish blonde curls spiralling away from him in the gentle Washington breeze. Up close it is worse than I had imagined. His face is entirely obscured by a curtain of hair I quickly perceive to be in need of either product or accessory. Coming from two cultures, as I do, both with hundreds of years of hair experience between them, it has become my habit to give hair-product advice to American writers, who – let us be honest – spring from a younger, immature grooming tradition, vibrant though it may be. If we can save nothing else from our old and beautiful Europe we must pass on what we have learnt. It is with this pedagogic mission in mind that I have taken such writers as Easton Ellis and T.C. Boyle aside and discussed the dangers of excessive gel and spray, respectively; I do not shy from sitting Sontag down and discussing the possibilities of subtle highlights. My advice is not always heeded, but I am English and so continue to give it.
“A band?” says this Klam, mind blown wide-open by the concept, “Like, what? Like an elastic band?”
“Possibly,” I say, and then keep a Buddha silence for a couple of blocks.
At the door of the restaurant, I speak again.
“Dax?” demands panicky Klam, echoing me, “ Is that some sort of a …wax? ”
“A light wax,” I say calmly, carefully, “Klam, there are three grades, and I’d recommend the lightest. Now, someone like Toni Morrison needs a stronger product, naturally. If I learnt nothing else in New York, I learnt that. But you need something lighter so as to avoid any sticky residue. You need grade one. It comes in a blue tin.”
Poor guy. It’s a hard thing to hear, and I can see he’s having trouble with it.
He says, “A wax? You think I need that?” He touches his hair furtively, “You know, I’ve been in The New Yorker nine times. That’s almost as much as Nabokov. And I always think, if it ain’t broke…”
“Blue tin,” I say again, and then motion gently for a waitress, signalling that the conversation is over. He accepts this and soon talk leads to other things, to matters of love and land, lethargy and loss, lust, lepidopetry, lemons, lingerie, linguine - many things beginning with the letter L, for Klam teaches creative writing and understands the importance of alliteration. We eat; we drink; hours pass; and all of this so elegantly; in one simple sentence, separated by semi-colons.
“I’m drunk like a . . . like a . . . skunk,” says Klam, employing a simile from the natural world to illuminate an idea.
“I say we get in your car and blow this joint,” I say, making ironic reference to a culture other than my own, and by extension, an oblique reference to the LA gangster novels of the mid 1940s.
Soon after, we find ourselves sitting on Klam’s suburban porch smoking a joint, having cleverly avoided the tedious detour of a long paragraph of narrative description explaining how we got there.
“Now you see, in that house opposite mine you’ve got Mrs. Chan,” says Matt softly, setting up both atmosphere and local colour, “She used to be a high-class hooker in Hong Kong, but she married a Washington pen-pusher and now she’s bored all day in that house. And Mrs. Chan’s having an affair with a Mr. Slofski, a Polish undertaker who lives on the corner and pops out of his front door to water his garden every day at the exact same time, like a cuckoo out of a precise swiss clock, a worm emerging from the coffin of his house, a butterfly who cracks open his chrysalis each and every – ”
“Ok, Matt,” I say, editing the flowery stuff, trying to get to his real voice, the voice that is his and his alone, “That’s all very nice,” I say, “ But what about Mrs Chan’s arse? What does it look like? Don’t tell me it looks like two grapefruits wrapped in plastic – just tell me this: is it good?”
“Oh, it’s good,” he says, “It’s an ass and a half.”
We smile at each other. Klam takes a deep funnel of smoke into his lungs; a few seconds later it exits in two great curlicues from his nose like a phantom moustache, a flourish I allow him because the punctuation’s tight. Now we can both see that the end is in sight. But something’s missing.
“Look, Klam,” I say, “This has been fun. But if you want to make the real dollars out of short stories, good hair isn’t enough. You have to make some kind of thematic or symbolic extension in the last few lines, the way Sedaris does…you need to make some signal – however faint – that you’re more than just a hokey joke-teller.”
Matt nods. And at that moment Mrs. Chan and Slofski pass below us and flush red like teenagers, Slofski straight from the funeral parlour in his death garb, Mrs. Chan all in leather – they separate immediately and walk now in two opposite but somehow identical directions; off in a hurry to hide sex and death in some nook of this American suburb, in a cupboard (comma), a garage sale (full stop).
4. Chicago: Aleksandar Hemon
Aleksandar Hemon is a young Bosnian writer who left his homeland to visit a friend in Chicago six years ago. Two weeks later a war started and he never returned. Instead he made a home in downtown Chicago, learnt English, and then wrote a book called The Question of Bruno which is alright I suppose if you appreciate multi-lingual genius types who learn the language in six months, write with great humour and style and then get compared to Nabokov in the New York Times. If you’re into that sort of thing. Personally, talent is not what I look for in my writers. I look for hair. And Aleksander Hemon is as bald as the day is long. But bald in a strong, big-guy way . Or, as he might put it, bald like the insolent back of a dolphin breaking the foamy surf, unashamed. But that’s talent for you. Always trying to shove its self in everybody’s face.
Aleksander, who is called Sascha by his friends, is a big, bald, handsome, mountain of a man with a passion for Soccer. In my opinion, he is one of the best of the new European writers, shaving his head out of choice, a tribute to his great talent that requires no adornment. For no reason that I can figure, Aleksander Hemon doesn’t sell that many books, and so does not make so much money, and so, as, he speeds through Chicago in his little red car – he drives like a guy in a war zone – the two of us try and think of things he could do to get a little more cash. Now, when you talk to most writers about extending their horizons, moving into new ventures and media – writing a movie, maybe, or teaching, or getting involved in theatre – they will hum and haw. Fretting about what effect any change might have on their aesthetic integrity, public image, yada yada yada – all that stuff. Sascha doesn’t give a shit for that stuff. There’s a larger obstacle in his path. Soccer. Sascha fits his writing around his soccer. Sascha got into writing because he considers it a soccer-friendly profession. Three times a week, irrespective of weather, Sascha pours himself into some long shorts, laces up his boots, and charges through midfield knocking defenders over like skittles. He plays with a mixture of Chicago bankers and Hispanic bus-boys. He knocks them all down. His is the hardcore, Bosnian, Eastern-block, full-contact version of the game.
“You talk to me of these various opportunities,” he says, yanking the steering wheel, taking a sharp bend like a Duke-of-freaking-Hazard,“ – and certainly, I could use some more money – but I say this to you: can I still play football three times a week? Can I still play football three times a week? You look at me with your monk’s face, full of an infinite pity, yes, but without understanding, loosened from the realities of this life like a boat that has slipped its rig and floats in the bay. Because you know the truth as I know it. The aesthetic, political, journalistic, academic opportunities afforded a writer in these Unites States of America – all of them are sadly incompatible with playing a game of football, three times a week.”
He speaks like that. The most elegant English you will hear in these United States of America. He makes you want to puke.
After about fifteen minutes of this I am jerked forward so viciously I almost go through the windshield; a second later I realise that this is what people in Sascha’s country call “parking”.
“A quick breakfast,” he says, “ In. Out. I have football in an hour.”
In a roomy Swedish café which serves up an old-style European breakfast with plenty of espresso in tiny china cups, Sascha has a lively argument with himself about the literary world’s determination to try and stop him playing football versus his determination to play no matter what. When he thumps the table to make a point, things slide and shimmy to the floor; when he calls for waitresses, they stand at a distance as if dealing with a bear. After a certain amount of coffee, it is possible to see Sascha himself as one big, tanned, soccer ball, with the world positioning itself around him in elaborate formation. It’s a joy being in his presence; he eats like a horse, he hates things and loves things with no medium-ground, he has five hundred years of European writing and history and spy-history ( don’t ask me; he’s got a thing about spies) all in that football-sized head of his, not to mention the outcome of finals and semi-finals and quarter-finals and friendlies – and not just between men on a field kicking around a sphere of leather. For Sascha, Chekov beat Stanislavski 2-0, but then again, Tolstoy beat Chekov 3-2, and on the other side of the world DeLillo beats Pynchon 1-0 every time they play, while, as far as he’s concerned, everyone in the English writing team post 1960 should do the world a favour and remain on the bench. I try not to take it too personal, and when the cheque comes he says something that lifts my spirits.
“You play football?”
I say no. He examines my calves, bent at angles underneath the metal table. They are big, with two globes of muscle tensed for inspection.
“Women play now, you know,” he says, thoughtfully, “And some of them are quite good.”
5. Madison: Lorrie Moore
In Madison Wisconsin, Lorrie Moore drives me to the airport. I swear to God. Just as I am about to call a taxi, Lorrie Moore calls and asks if I want a ride. She had been at my reading, apparently, the day before, though I had not seen her; she’d left a note suggesting coffee, but we’d both run out of time.
“So,” she’s saying on a phone somewhere, “Do you need a ride to the airport?”
“Sure. I’ll just get Norman Mailer to bring my bags down.”
At least, that would have been a whimsical thing to say – and when I put down the phone I think of others too, like: Ok, Lorrie, but I have to wait for Maya Angelou to come back with my dry-cleaning. As it is I just say something coolly witty like,
“Are you serious? Seriously? Bloody hell – ok, that would be really . . . bloody hell, that’s great!”
“I’ll be over in ten minutes,” she says.
“I didn’t realise you lived in Madison,” I say.
She says, “I try to forget it myself whenever possible.”
In the flesh, in the car, Lorrie Moore is very pretty and petite and dark and altogether like a slightly older version of Belle from the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast. Her hair is off-the-scale healthy and neat. There is nothing about product that this woman doesn’t know. In many ways, she seems to have transcended product. I doubt she even uses it. Too in awe to have a trichological discussion, I can only sit there like a freak not saying anything. Having recently read her short story collection Birds of America, I am now staring at her as she drives, using my sophisticated hermeneutic skills to try and work out in which way every single story in the book is really about her. I don’t get it, though. When she chatters merrily about her son, there’s no mention of the baby she accidentally killed in story three; when I ask about her early years, I get nothing about how she was once a minor movie star dating a mechanic like in the first story. And don’t you hate that? When people just lie for a living?
At the airport, she helps me heave my bags out of the trunk, and waits with me in line to collect my e-ticket. I think she might be wearied by my insistent autobiographical questions. She keeps trying to change the subject.
“So, you know Nick Hornby, right?” she says, reminding me of a running gag that was meant to go through this piece except I couldn’t get it to work structurally. It was about the one writer I didn’t meet on my American book tour because he was also on an American book tour and always one city ahead of me. Nick Hornby. Every city I turned up in, readers, literary escorts, booksellers, bellboys and concierges, would tell me that Nick Hornby had just passed through and said ‘hi’ to me. When I asked where he was, they’d say “Oh, he left yesterday”. When I asked how he was they’d say “Oh, really nice” and always somehow inferring, Much nicer than you. Nick Hornby is much nicer than me or most people. Where I shout at booksellers, he charms them, where I’m twenty minutes late he’s twenty minutes early and so on. He’s funny, generous, kind, self-effacing. There’s a great line in a great old movie where Katherine Hepburn defines a writer as an upstanding, honourable man and Cary Grant responds: I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives….actually, do you know, I think once upon a time I secretly wanted to be a writer. Nick Hornby is the opposite of this model. He secretly wants to be the Dalai Lama.
“So, how was he?” I ask Lorrie.
“Oh my God, so nice. He’s just the nicest guy. But he left yesterday. But really: so nice.”
“Right,” I say, “ Of course, he has male-pattern baldness for which there is no earthly cure.”
With a little frown, she accepts the wisdom of this and we head to the airport lounge. Here we buy two pints of some strong, nasty coffee.
“So, says Lorrie, “Is there anyone you really like, who you really wanted to meet?”
Charged by caffeine, I tell her I want to meet David Foster Wallace. I want to meet him so much it’s giving me a hernia. I want to meet him so much that I have had a dream where I meet him sitting on the pavement and he says that we’ve already met and it wasn’t so great and neither of us had much fun and he doesn’t want his hair cut so why don’t I just go home and stop bothering him. In the dream I try to convince him that he could afford to lose at least six inches from underneath that bandana. Maybe we could even do something with the colour. But he walks away without a word. In this dream, I am around thirteen years old, and Mr. Foster Wallace is in his mid-twenties.
Lorrie Moore looks at me queerly. She says, “You know, he’s a perfectly nice guy – I’m sure it wouldn’t be so hard to meet him if you really wanted to.”
I ask her wouldn’t it be more like that his genius meant that he was maybe a bit crazy, you know, like along the crazy-genius model like in the movie Amadeus or also in the movie where Kirk Douglas played Van Gogh, and then there was that journalist I met who said he would only agree to meet her if she came to a McDonald’s outlet by the side of the freeway in the middle of nowhere.
Lorrie arches an eyebrow, very amused, “And you believed that?”
“It seemed plausible,” I say, and then, as my plane begins to board, I find myself babbling, digging a larger hole than the one I’ve already dug right here, in public, where people are saying farewell to other people, at the crying mouth of gate 49. And Lorrie stands there with her beautiful hair lying flat on her head, just sort of watching me do it.
Finally, she smiles softly and eases my industrial strength coffee from my grasping hands. She drops it into a bin. A stewardess with a terrifying electric perm, so rust-coloured and cork-screwed it looks like she has an open toolbox on her head, warns me that the gates are closing.
“Well,” says Lorrie, “ To be honest, I’ve always found Dave to be just a very nice, normal kind of a guy –”
Wait. Dave? Not even David? Dave? She knows him?
Sometimes, when I am very embarrassed, language leaves me and only one word comes to my aid. That word is: thing.
And so I end up saying to Lorrie: “Oh, no…but when I said the thing I didn’t know that you and thing were like thing… and the thing is if I had known the thing about the thing I never would have gone on about the thing like I was some kind of a crazy thing who just does things as if saying that kind of thing was in any way …”
But Lorrie is smiling and waving in the same distant way we wave and smile when seeing the elderly and insane off on their journeys, and the last stewardess, the one with curious hair, is beckoning me aboard.
6. Kansas City: Woody
Kansas City is oven hot, dead metaphor or no dead metaphor. And for some reason it is God’s plan to have me read in an inter-denominational all-faith meeting house, the better to offend all his children in different ways. By the time I get back to the hotel I’m washed up. The Jews hate me. So do the Catholics, the Muslims, the Hindus and the Jehova’s Witnesses. The Buddhists aren’t so crazy about me either. It turns out Kansas is not the city for religious comedy. Who knew?
I sleep. At three in the morning the collected bad karma comes down a phone line. I pick it up. A young man, with jolly serial-killer intonations, informs me that I am not, under any circumstances to put down the phone. He hopes I don’t mind him calling so late. Also, we must have breakfast together. Also, he hopes I don’t mind him calling so late. Also we must have breakfast together. We must have breakfast together. It’s imperative that we have breakfast together. He’s written a novel that we must talk about over breakfast. Don’t put down the phone, Zadie. Don’t under any circumstances put down the phone. His name is Woody. His novel is called Love and Hate. We must have breakfast. Don’t you dare put down that phone.
Shaking, I put down the phone.
Half an hour later, the concierge rings up to my room to inform me that Kansas City’s burgeoning new literary scene has turned up at my hotel barefoot, wearing a string vest and demanding to get into my room.
I explain to Dirk, the concierge, that Woody has written a book.
“That might be true, Ma’am,” says Dirk, “But I think he may also have taken some bad acid.”
But Woody was not all bad. Woody had plenty of skills. He spoke well, he could write words on paper, he could drive and he was able-bodied. Unfortunately he combined all these to drive to the hotel at 4am, jump up and down and scream, and then leave me two mad letters, written in a fury when they wouldn’t let him into my room. But by far the greatest thing about Woody the novelist was his linguistic acrobatics, particularly his fine way with that most neglected of comic devices, the pun. For Woody’s novel was called Love and Hate – and folks, he spelt it H A I G H T. He claimed, in his letters, that he wanted my advice on his writing. Woody, if you’re out there, the writer who hits upon a title of such genius, needs advice from no man.
7. San Francisco: Some Guy
Ah, the end of my tour! Ah, San Francisco! It may seem just like New York to the naive traveller, but I can tell you it’s cleaner, greener, with more hills and water and its on the other side of the country. Who knew! People say there is no literary scene in San Francisco, but as I’d made my way from state to state I’d heard a whisper in the breeze that the writers had gone west. I’d heard the birds trill it in the high boughs. I’d heard the raindrops beating out the message on the pavement. More specifically, a New York publisher had scribbled down the name of some guy with problem hair who wrote some book with a long-ass title and told me to go find him and do what I do best. He wanted to give me a stun-gun - I said I could handle it without unnecessary force. God knows, there are no lengths I won’t go to for a literary anecdote, but I don’t require horse tranquilizers to get the job done. And so, after a few days of readings and signings and group hugs, I made my way up into the hills, looking for some guy. I forget his name.
Now, I’ve had some experience in the wild, so I found his particular hill soon enough and started to climb it. I was fully prepared. In my knapsack I carried three jars of medium hold wax, a flattening serum, some coconut oil, a tube of Frizz-Ease, some wet-look gel, and a tin of pure ammonia – something I use in only the most extreme cases. But nothing could of prepared me for what I saw as I approached that little wood cabin. You need to wear a baseball cap for two, three, months at a time to achieve that sort of cap-hair. There’s no product in the world that will un-kink the kind of curl I saw that day. This guy was waving at me and yelling hello, but my own hair is problematic enough – I don’t need anybody else’s frizz issues. I turned around, started walking downhill – and even though he threw little pebbles at my afro, I never looked back.
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