I’m so embarrassed. I really shouldn’t have accosted Sarah Vowell that way.
Let me explain.
On Saturday night, I attended a fabulous literary event at Bumbershoot, the chaotic and eventful arts fest held over Labor Day weekend in Seattle. Writers extraordinaire Dave Eggers and Sarah Vowell, the indomitable Mike Doughty, and hot-at-the-moment Seattle band, Death Cab for Cutie (thinly disguised on the bill as the Transatlantic Orchestra). All of it emceed by the esteemed Daniel Handler, better known to literate children around the world as Lemony Snicket. This was an incredible bill, all of these towering, hilarious characters gathered together to benefit 826 Seattle.
A little more background. 826 Seattle, for which I am a devoted volunteer, is the Seattle offspring of the San Francisco parent, 826 Valencia. It was the brainchild of Dave Eggers, a young master of irony and internet tendencies, author of the intriguing memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and progenitor of my favorite literary magazine and clever internet site, McSweeneys. A few years ago, Eggers started this wonderful tutoring/writing/homework help center for disadvantaged kids in San Fransisco. Rather than being staffed by slightly older kids, or people with good intentions, 826 Valencia offers writing classes taught by working writers. David Sedaris teaches there sometimes. Sarah Vowell works at 826NYC. Because, now, there are 826s in several cities, and Seattle is the latest one. And I’m thrilled to be one of the writers/teachers volunteering my time there.
Well, I will be. It isn’t actually open yet. But it’s opening soon, in the next few weeks. And so, we’ve been trying to spread the word, in various ways.
For example, on a hot evening in July, I walked down a street in Seattle, pelting candy at the heads of children.
I was asked to do this.
For the first time in my life, I appeared in a parade. The Greenwood Seafair parade, to be exact. Most years, I have little to do with Seafair, other than craning my neck at the unexpected shrieking of the Blue Angels flying over my head on practice runs. But this year, I marched with ten members of the burgeoning 826 Seattle group, trying to alert people that the tutoring center, with the space supplies store out front, opens its doors in the fall at 85th and Greenwood
So a group of us disparate writers gathered on 101st and Greenwood, in the surging Seattle heat, somewhere around 6 pm. We all met each other, happily, warily, ironically. We donned t-shirts with the telescope icon on front, and “Don’t forget to write” on the back. We exchanged ideas and quips. Mostly, we tried not to complain about the fact that the parade seemed to not be going anywhere for nearly an hour. And that the Sultan marching band and drill team, dressed in green polo shirts and pressed white slacks, practiced Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” incessantly behind us.
Finally, we began moving. Pirates (most of whom seemed to be drunk, honestly) bellowed from their pirate ship on wheels, passing us with impunity. The Baby Dangerettes, the drill team made up of four-year-olds, kicked their pom-pommed cowboy boots and gleamed their smiles. The baton twirlers in front of us–ten little girls and one awkward ten-year-old boy–threw their silver sticks in their air to the Mission Impossible theme, and “Great Balls of Fire,” over and over again. And the obviously overheated mascot for the local hockey team worked the crowd into a frenzy by just showing up. I didn’t know that Seattlites were that excited about hockey in July.
We marched, our little, bedraggled group, gainfully waving at the large crowd sitting on the curbs. Two of our members held up a banner (sadly, it was vertical, and thus improbable for a parade), with the words 826 Seattle and the telescope icon. Whenever I saw an adult staring at us, with head cocked sideways, and a confused look in her eyes, I ran over and gave her a lime-green brochure.
Still, it wasn’t the same as candy. One of my fellow writers had a booming, side-show-carny voice, and he yelled at the clamoring kids, “Who wants sugar?” It was strange to see how much the kids were willing to prostitute themselves for a Tootsie Roll. “Me! Me! Me!” they would shout up and down, their faces already smeared with chocolate.
We quickly ran out of literate brochures and just gave in to the tenor of the day. Who wants a blue raspberry Jolly Rancher? Melting Butterfinger? A smooshy Snickers bar? Oddly, middle-aged men with large moustaches seemed to want the candy most.
So it was fun. And strange. All for a good cause.
And on this past Saturday night, I met up with those writers, and even more of them, to do the grand work of volunteering: stuffing flyers into envelopes. I showed up at McCaw Hall (the site of Seattle Opera, a grand acoustical place) at 5:45 to stuff flyers into envelopes, so we could shove them into the hands of 3000 people. Most of them were already lined up outside the hall, reading copies of The New Yorker and peering at each other through hipster glasses. Hundreds of people lined up for a literary reading, two hours early? Cool!
Dave Eggers’ piece about the little spiders of the heart lining, coming out to weave a web of connection between the teacher and student, deeply felt and gorgeous, all told through the perspective of an Irish setter, actually made me cry. Way to go, Dave.
Sarah Vowell read a richly textured, hilarious essay about the history of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And every time she went to read a line, the members of Death Cab for Cutie blared the line behind her.
Lemony Snicket was possibly the funniest emcee I’ve ever heard. During a rigged quiz show, he asked a young boy, “What celebrity is not a member of Death Cab for Cutie, but it would be so cool if they were!?!!“
The young boy hemmed and hawed, then said, “Tom Cruise?”
“No. You are wrong,” answered Handler. “The answer is Toni Morrison.”
At the end of the quiz show, Lemony Snicket made an impassioned and hilarious plea for people to stuff cash into the little envelopes on their laps. “Seattle 826 volunteers will be coming among you to collect your donations. And have you seen these Seattle volunteers? They are hot!” This made it a little awkward for me to walk among people, demanding donations, while they checked out to see if he was right.
We rushed backstage to count cash, as Death Cab for Cutie played onstage. I was sorry to miss them, but we could hear them through the tinny speakers in the green room. After all, we had money to count. Daniel Handler, in his tuxedo, ran among us, then stopped beside me. “Didn’t I say these Seattle volunteers are hot?” Good lord, Lemony Snicket is flirting with me! Later, as I ripped open envelopes and stacked up twenties in piles so high they almost toppled over, he kept coming back to talk to me. We bantered about “69 Love Songs” (did you know that Lemony Snicket played accordion for Magnetic Fields?) and talked about the show. Lemony Snicket is my new best friend!
Within a few moments, in barely contained chaos, we reached a tabulation. $18,000! The good people of Seattle gave us $18,000!
After counting the cash, I didn’t really have anything else to do. We were all too dazed to figure out what to do next. So I figured I could go. But I couldn’t remember my way out, because I had been led through a maze of doors and hallways with Lemony Snicket by my side. So I wandered down a hallway that looked like it might be right, and found myself.….nearly onstage. I was on stage right, with about ten stage hands and two other 826 volunteers. I caught the end of “Hungry Like the Wolf,” then stood there grinning as Sarah Vowell, Lemony Snicket, Dave Eggers, and all the members of Death Cab for Cutie came offstage, triumphant and smiling. Some of them gave me high fives for just being there.
I love this town.
So, feeling elated at the evening, and sated with people and the Bumbershoot scene, I figured out how to make my way to the lobby, to go home. When I opened the secret door to the lobby, a thousand people shuffled behind a velvet rope line, waiting for a book signing. All the authors sat behind a long table, waiting to sign books for all these fans. Sarah Vowell sat at the end. Here was my chance.
Now, you may be wondering, “Shauna, this is all sort of interesting. But what the heck does this have to do with a gluten-free girl? Why are you writing about this on a food blog?”
Well, here goes.
In June, a friend of mine from school stopped me in the faculty room to say that she had heard Sarah Vowell read at Town Hall the night before. “I think she might be a celiac! She talked about not being able to eat all the cereal other people were eating at breakfast!” Well of course, since celiac is the least-talked-about common medical disorder, I grew excited. One of my favorite writers has the same disease as me? That means the rest of the world might actually hear about it!
It just amazes me, continuously, that I have a medical disorder that has affected every aspect of my life, all of my life, and I hadn’t heard of it before April. And yet, when I talk to people about it, and say that I can’t eat gluten because I have celiac disease, 9 people out of 10 say, “Oh! I know about that. My boyfriend has that.” And in that sentence, replace boyfriend with aunt, or best friend, or wife, or nephew. It’s unusual for me to meet someone who doesn’t have any experience of this. And yet, in the medical community, in the standard expression of how we take care of our health, celiac seems like a rare and scary spectre. Or, culturally, those of us with food allergies are perceived as tiresome bores, like the nebbishy boyfriend of Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle, the one she clearly needs to leave for Tom Hanks, the one who’s always sneezing and trying to avoid wheat.
That needs to change. And of course, that’s part of what I’m trying to do here. Please help spread the word for me.
So standing there in front of the bulging velvet rope on Saturday night, but a wide-open space in front of my favorite writers, I took my chance. I dashed over there to say hello. Dave Eggers was taking a swig from a water bottle, but he still smiled and shook my hand when I told him how grateful I am that he started the 826 centers. Lemony Snicket looked at me and said, “No, thank you!” And then I turned to Sarah Vowell.
There were a hundred other comments I could have made to her. I could have told her how I heard her writing for the first time on NPR, when I was driving home from the Catskills with three of my friends, years ago now. After a weekend of picking apples and playing MadLibs in our room, we were filled with hilarity, ready to make jokes at everything. Sharon turned on the radio, fiddled the knobs, and found This American Life in progress. We happened to catch the opening of Sarah Vowell’s essay about what she had learned about life from being in band. Sharon and I grew silent, then laughed hard, then wanted to not laugh so we didn’t miss a word. The boys in the back kept talking, bantering, because they were both stand-up comedians (and in fact, one of them is now on The Daily Show), and they didn’t know how to stop making jokes. But Sharon and I shushed them, and prettty quickly they grew quiet on their own, because the essay was so damned good. So we drove home through the dark, heading toward Manhattan, quiet in the car, listening to Sarah Vowell read her work.
I could have told her how avidly I’ve sought out her work ever since. How much she makes me laugh. How thrilled I was that she wrote op-ed pieces for The New York Times this summer, because she’s astute and political without being polemical, because she’s smart as hell and I love seeing a smart girl writer gaining accolades.
I could have just said thank you.
Instead, I bounded up to her, immediately feeling lumberingly large, since she’s remarkably petite. I squatted down in front of the table, to make myself at eye level, but I must have looked hilarious. And then I said, like a gushing twelve-year-old, “Oh my god, I just want to say: I love your writing.”
“Thanks,” she said, fairly neutral. I’m sure it’s always good to hear (I’m still thrilled when someone says it), but she also hears it all day long. And don’t forget that massive line behind me, waiting to fawn on her too.
“Um,” I said, knowing already how strange this was going to sound, “I have to ask you. Do you have celiac disease?”
She looked a little startled, but said, “Yes. Yes I do.”
“So do I!” I blurted it out and then instantly regretted it. Not the connection I had made but the rampant enthusiasm with which I nearly shouted it at her.
We talked about it for a moment, which seemed fairly calm. And then I did it. “Yeah, I have a website all about it! You should read it!” And then I actually recited this website address. Oh my god, I gave her this website address.
I felt so gauche. So pandering. So stupid.
I gave her a restaurant recommendation for Seattle, then bolted away. In the midst of my own conversation, I was so embarrassed at my own chutzpah and adolescent beaming that I just turned and walked away. It took everything I had to not run.
I was so embarrassed. On the bus ride home, I wanted to smack myself on the forehead and say, “Doh!”
But then I started laughing at myself. How could I not? In my mind, here was the thread of the conversation:
Hey, you’re a writer, I’m a writer.
You have celiac, I have celiac.
We’re so much alike!
No we’re not.
Oh god, I’ve embarrassed myself.
But here’s the deal: I’m so dedicated to making the world safe for people who have to be gluten-free that I’m willing to look like a putz. (That’s right—I’m Celiac Superwoman!)
And obviously, there are much worse situations in the world than me embarrassing myself in front of my favorite writer.
But all of you out there, you should buy Sarah Vowell’s books. They’re brilliant. And she’s a celiac!
And hey Sarah, if you’re reading this: um, hello. Thanks for stopping by. And I’m sorry I accosted you on Saturday night. I promise, I’m not really as spazzy as I seemed.
p.s. I know that this post didn’t contain as many luscious, sensual descriptions of food as my regular posts do. That’s why I included the photos throughout, as interrupters, and as reminders of the summer that has just passed.