I am obsessive-compulsive about being on time. I freak out when I know I’m going to arrive late for an appointment, a dinner date, or — worst of all — a booksigning event. So I always leave myself a comfortable margin of time for travel, preferring to arrive at a store way too early rather than cutting my arrival too close to the appointed hour.
So you can imagine how uptight I was on Thursday afternoon when I got stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic en route to my signing in South Portland, Maine. My event was scheduled for 7 PM. It usually takes about an hour and a half to drive from my house to South Portland. I left my home at 3:30, allowing myself time for a leisurely stop at McDonald’s for dinner. (McDonald’s frequently plays a large part in the life of the touring author. I make no apologies for my French fry addiction.) I was happily zipping down Route 1 when, just outside the town of Wiscasset, the traffic suddenly halted. A line of cars stretched ahead of me, all the way to the horizon.
No problem, I thought. I’d given myself an extra TWO HOURS to arrive at the store. At the very worst, I’d have to wolf down my dinner a little faster than I wanted to.
An hour later, my car had moved maybe a hundred feet. My stomach was growling. Any hope of dinner was fast fading away.
Yet another hour later, my car was still stuck in Wiscasset. Traffic had scarcely moved. Now I was panicking, because I knew there was no way I would be on time. As the minutes ticked by, I made a series of phone calls to Borders, each one more despairing.
“I’m stuck in traffic. I may be a few minutes late.”
Then: “I’m still in Wiscasset! I’m so, so sorry! I’ll be a half hour late.”
Then: “I’m still stuck in this (expletive deleted) traffic, in this (expletive deleted) town, and I don’t know when I’ll get there. But I (expletive deleted) well will get there.” (Well, okay. I didn’t really use those expletives over the phone. But I thought them.)
I told Borders that if customers had to leave, I would be happy to sign any books they left for me. I also said that no matter what time I arrived, I would give my talk, if anyone wanted to listen. I’d even stand on my head, anything to make it up to those forced to wait. I imagined my readers getting more and more irritated with me, muttering darkly that the author didn’t respect them enough to be on time. I imagined them walking off in a huff, tossing my books aside.
When I finally did arrive at the bookstore, I was 45 minutes late. I did not expect anyone to still be waiting around for me. I dashed into the store, bypassing the ladies’ room (which by that time I desperately needed to use) and headed straight for the events area.
To my amazement, customers were still sitting there, even though they’d been warned that the author might not show up till much later. “We talked about it among ourselves, and we decided you were worth the wait,” one of them told me.
It’s moments like those when I realize how lucky I am to have such wonderful readers.
Considering how unpredictable travel is, it’s amazing how rarely I’ve missed, or been late for, an author event. This is my twelfth national book tour. During all those tours, I’ve had my share of delayed flights, thunderstorms, traffic jams, and no-show drivers, but I can remember only two tours when I actually had to cancel events. The first aborted tour was halted because of 9/11, when I suddenly found myself stranded in Seattle for two weeks. The second interrupted tour was after I herniated a disc in my neck, and needed urgent surgery. (Although I confess I considered going ahead with the tour anyway, with a suitcase of narcotics in tow.)
My national tour for THE KEEPSAKE is just getting started. Airports are chaos, the weather is weird, and my bookstore events are lined up like a series of dominoes, just waiting for something to go wrong and topple the whole schedule. I just hope that all my readers are as patient and understanding as those customers in South Portland’s Borders Thursday night.
I’m trying my best to get to you. I really am.