Thursday, October 29, 2009

If you haven’t heard from me for a while, it’s because my wife Donna and I just took a sentimental journey to Cincinnati to visit some dear friends who moved there a couple of years ago. With our busy schedule, who knows if we’ll ever be seeing them again.
On the drive back, after spending a day with Donna’s father in Virginia, we realized how long it had been since we took a “vacation vacation.” With Donna’s 92-year-old dad in Virginia, a son and grandson in California, and a daughter in North Carolina, we devote all our vacation time to visiting family, and our only one-on-one time is en route.
So we decided to treat ourselves to a lunch of Maryland crab cakes in a restaurant we’ve stopped at before, in Crisfield, and then the night at an interesting looking bed & breakfast in a town called Princess Anne. Donna had found a “Booklovers’ Bed & Breakfast” with a long list of positive reviews on the Internet, and we thought we’d give it a try.
Well, our familiar old crab-cakes restaurant in Crisfield was no longer there, which was a blow. We have recently lost several favorite restaurants back home in Connecticut and come to believe that the god of restaurants must be mad at us. It was in a cautious mood that we proceeded to our bed & breakfast.
What we discovered, was a creatively decorated 1880’s house with rooms named after writers and appointed to reflect each one’s personality. Ours was the Langston Hughes room, with dramatic photographs of old New York and Harlem on the walls and books by and about Hughes on the bureau. There was even an old typewriter on the desk with a half-finished poem in the roller.
Hosting us was Elizabeth, the owner, a charming lady, who urged us to take off our shoes, then showed us around the house, including the Robert Louis Stevenson room, the Jane Austen room, the Mark Twain Library and Parlor, and French Café Colette, where afternoon tea and breakfast would be served. There is also, we were told, a cat named Dr. Hobbs who would, “upon request,” come and greet us.
Elizabeth is a warm and charming retired journalist, who has recently written both a novel and a play, and who does not actually live in the house. She does, however, spend a lot of time there, and there are bells that will summon her immediately. As it happened, we were the only guests that night, due to cancellations, and had the whole place to ourselves. An author named James McBride was scheduled to be there the following night and speaking at the library.
We enjoyed the afternoon tea with freshly made brownies and read in the Mark Twain library, well stocked with good books. Elizabeth had urged us to read any of them, except for the leather-bound set of Shakespeare on the top shelf, since the bindings were coming apart. I had to fight an urge to carefully take one of the Shakespeares down and examine it. We had a good seafood dinner at a local restaurant and returned to find brandy and sherry set out for us in the Café Colette.
The following morning Elizabeth served us the breakfast we had ordered the afternoon before. Donna had crepes stuffed with peaches and I a spinach-and-mushroom omelet. When we ordered, I had forgotten to ask our hostess if she could serve some sour cream with my omelet. I always have sour cream with my omelet and the prospect of an omelet without it was like sleeping without a pillow. But, lo and behold, there was a generous pile of sour cream on my omelet anyway. It seems that Elizabeth had Googled me, learned that I was Polish, and decided – on the basis of two former Polish boyfriends – that Poles ate sour cream on everything. (That’s only a very slight exaggeration.)
During breakfast, Donna, a cat lover, asked when we might meet Dr. Hobbs. Without a word, Elizabeth returned to the kitchen, we heard some whispered urgings through the closed door, and she reappeared to hold open the door. In a moment, a black-and-white cat came into the room, walked up to Donna, allowed himself to be petted, and, having performed his duty, marched right back into the kitchen.
A few weeks ago I wrote, in this blog, how much I enjoy the serendipity human contacts that my activities expose me to. The job of a B&B hostess, of course, is to make the kind of contact with people that makes them feel cared for and appreciated. Elizabeth accomplishes this in great style. We left with our spirits well lifted and stories to tell. Should any of you be planning to drive along the Maryland Eastern Shore (I-13) I strongly recommend a visit to www.bookloversbnb, a night at the Booklovers’ Bed & Breakfast, and the gracious hospitality of Elizabeth and the hard-working Dr. Hobbs.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I love to banter. I don’t know how universal this feeling is, but, when I find myself bantering with someone, when we are both saying things that we don’t really mean and that we both know that the other person knows it, I feel that I have an intimacy with that person that gives me great satisfaction.
On a recent Valentine’s Day, I was just coming out of the front door of the Greenwich Town Hall, when I found myself facing a man coming in, carrying a bouquet of flowers. My response was the same as, I’m sure, many of you would have given: I said, “For me?” Without missing a beat, the stranger answered with, “And you thought I didn’t care.” We smiled at each other and continued on our way. But, for the rest of the day, I had a warm feeling about having reached a stranger on a certain level of intimacy.
Over a lifetime, I have had a number of such experiences with both men and women in stores, on subways, wherever strangers rub shoulders. My wife and I banter a lot, and I see it as a sign of the health of our relationship. There wasn’t a lot of bantering in my first marriage.
Going out on my daily run/walks, accosting strangers to spread the news of my book, I look forward to the opportunities to banter. When I ask a woman in a car, at a stop sign, if I might give her something, I hope that she asks me what it is that I want to give her. When she does, I say, “Well, I’d like to give you diamonds and pearls, but I don’t have any.”
This leads to my saying, “But what I do have is this letter about my book.” But I pause first, hoping that she’ll jump right in and say something like, “I’m so disappointed. I was really hoping for diamonds and pearls.” One woman said, “Well, you have some nerve, getting me to roll down my window when you don’t have any diamonds or pearls to give me!” This not only makes it more likely that they will, eventually, buy and read my book, but it also leaves me with a nice glow for the rest of the day. When I meet someone who tells me that I’ve already given him or her my flier, I ask, “And have you read my book?”
Frequently, to my great satisfaction, they tell me that they have. But if they say that they haven’t, I ask, “How do you expect me to become rich and famous, if you don’t read my book?” Of course, my becoming rich and famous wasn’t one of their expectations, nor would their reading my book make a significant difference in that respect – unless, of course, their name is Oprah. But we do part smiling, and it does remind them to read my book.
The other day, I had an interesting chat with a woman who promised that she would buy my book and read it. As she drove off, I saw a second car pull up to the same spot and signaled the driver to open the window. This one turned out to be a man, so when he asked me what I proposed giving him, I said, “I’d like to give you a million dollars, but I don’t have any.”
His response was, “I’ll settle for a couple hundred thousand,” and I felt I had a good thing going with this one.
“Gee, I’m sorry,” I said, ”I gave my last hundred thousand to the woman in that Buick that just drove away. Maybe if you catch up to her, she’ll share it with you.” At which point the man stomped on his accelerator and took off after the Buick.
I don’t want to know what happened a couple of minutes later, a mile or so down the road.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

As I look for people to give my flier to, on my daily runs, I discovered that I had the best luck at the entrance to a private school, two miles from here, in New Canaan. I found that at 8:30 in the morning, mothers and a few fathers would be coming out, right after dropping their child off for school. Reaching the road, they would stop, and I could walk up to the car and ask if I could give them my flier.
I realized that I would have to be careful about this. If there were several cars coming at once, I could not approach one because the drivers behind him or her would become annoyed at the delay. Nor did I want to stand around waiting for a car – I didn’t want to give the appearance of “standing around,” but rather that I just happened to be running by when that particular driver was coming out.
For about a year, this worked very well. I always made sure that I was well shaven before leaving the house, and I would find most people to be quite receptive to my polite approach. After a while I would meet people to whom I had already given my flier, who had found it interesting, and who had either gone on to read the book or were, certainly, planning to read it. Only rarely would someone tell me that, no, she didn’t want me to give her anything, and I would smile and wish them a nice day.
One day, last spring, I came across one of the people who were not receptive to my offer, and, as usual I waved her on and continued on my run. On my way back, however, as I approached the school’s driveway again, I saw a policeman standing there. As I got close, he asked me whether I had been on that private property, earlier that morning. This was not totally unexpected. I told the officer that I may have stepped a foot or so into the property, but that I hadn’t been any further.
“What were you doing, sir?” came the inevitable question.
“I was just handing out a flier about my book,” I said. I had had this conversation in my head many times before. But as I reached for the fliers in my pocket, I heard, “Take your hand out of your pocket, sir!” and saw a Tazer gun pointed at my stomach. “Walk over to that car and put your hands on the roof,” he said.
My fantasy had never extended to this point, but I realized that New Canaan police had little to occupy their time. Having seen this maneuver many times on television, I walked to his car, keeping my hands well in sight, and assumed the familiar position. When I had been patted down, I heard, “Now turn around and let’s see that flier.”
I did as I was told, and handed a copy of my flier to him.
As the policeman read the two-sided flier, three more police cars pulled up to investigate the disturbance. Within minutes, I was surrounded by three policemen and a police woman, all reading my flier.
“My father-in-law comes from Poland,” the police woman said. “May I give this flier to him.”
I told her that she could.
“Isn’t Kowalski Polish?” I heard one officer ask another. The answer was in the affirmative, and the fist officer asked if he might give his copy to Officer Kowalski. Soon it turned out that each of the officers had friends and relatives with some kind of Polish connection, and my entire supply of fliers was quickly consumed.
Then it was explained to me that it was illegal to hand out fliers on private property. In addition to which it did not look good for a man to be hanging around the entrance to a school. I had to agree with this logic and promised not to stop cars coming out of that school anymore.
This was not a problem for me through the summer, but now that a new school term is in session, and I see cars that I can no longer approach, come to a stop in front of me, I feel a little pang of longing for the good old days.