Home Team Advantage

Linda Watanabe McFerrinA Book Passage by Rail: Home Team Advantage
by Linda Watanabe McFerrin

Quiet as a morgue, the charming little bookstore had the look of a place much-loved by the community, but there was nobody in it. The booksellers, though, were chipper and alert, and ready to fill special orders. A few Moms breezed in, followed or led by determined kids, dead-set on the next Harry Potter.

This was my first visit to Providence, Rhode Island. I was there on a book tour, for a book signing event. I disembarked that very brisk, bright blue morning at the Amtrak station on Gaspee Street and marveled at the attractiveness of the town. I phoned the bookstore, Books on the Square, to let them know I'd arrived.

"You're downtown —not far. We'll send someone over. Please wait in back of the station."

Downtown Providence, I noted as I waited, was tidy and quiet. Strangely quiet. It made me a little uneasy.

"Lovely town," I observed when teenage Reed arrived in a green SUV to pilot me to the bookstore. Reed responded by taking the scenic route back, through wide tree-lined streets edged by mansions. "Is it always this quiet?" I inquired.

"Yeah, sometimes," said young Reed, "but the weather is great, and this is a holiday weekend."

"Oh," I mumbled, the uneasiness spreading. "It looks like a ghost town to me."

Of course, I was right. Time has taught me to trust intuition. I sat on a cute mint and pink wicker couch, behind a table well-stocked with my books. I sat and I waited and nobody came.

"Sometimes people come late," said the cheerful staff. There were five of them to a customer.

"All right," I nodded heading back to my post.

A handful of people came in, bought books, and left. I looked up hopefully every time the door opened.

The best book tour story I've ever heard was one shared by well-known writer Anita Shreve. Anita told us — her large and delighted audience in Tulsa, Oklahoma —about the time she read in Nebraska. When she arrived in Nebraska, a man picked her up and took her to the site of her reading. It was a school auditorium. Anita is that good. She's a writer who packs them in.

"I'm sorry," the man apologized depositing her at the site. "My son's in a play, and I have to go. But, don't worry. Someone will be here to introduce you."

Well, Anita waited, but no one arrived. Two people showed up for her reading. They sat way in the back of the auditorium. At the duly appointed time, Anita started reading, not knowing what else she should do. She went on for some time, but before she had finished, one of the folks in the back raised a hand. Odd for someone to have questions before she was done, but Anita stopped reading to answer.

"You have a question?" she prompted.

"Yes," came the response. "We're trying to study. How much longer will you be reading?"

I thought of Anita as I sat there in Providence, waiting for my audience to materialize. The handwriting, I saw, was on the wall. It was obvious that no one was coming.

"Look," I said to the staff. "Nobody's here, and I don't think anyone's coming."

"Sometimes this happens," they muttered abjectly. "But not often. We really don't quite understand it.

Don't take it personally," one of them added. "Your work is good. Just keep going."

"Thanks. I won't take it personally," I chirped back, lying. "You've all been very nice. Well, now I have some time. I guess I can get to know Providence."

The staff suggested that I walk down Angell Street. That would eventually take me to the station. I might even catch the street fair going on at the RISD campus.

Taking it all very personally, of course, I headed down Angell. What a lovely street— broad and trimmed in grand homes. Too bad I was going to give up writing. There were plenty of shops, a mere smattering of folks — a quiet day and not crowded. Or maybe I'd write, but just for myself. It was back to the garret for me. I found one store with great vintage clothing, contemplated buying a dress. This was the last time I'd go on a book tour. I picked up a card at each establishment on route. I could always write a story on Providence. That would be great. No more books for me — only articles and short essays. I'd go back to poetry. Work on my craft. Who cared if no one was listening.

By the time I'd reached the RISD campus I'd found inner peace, or at least drawn a few certain conclusions. I took a deep breath — relaxed, resolute — then I came to a large, grassy crossing.

I had reached the intersection of Angell and Benefit Streets and the foot of the RISD campus. Looking right, then left, I let out a gasp, for there, jammed into a few short blocks, was the entire population of Providence.

Over 2000 people, by one unofficial count, had turned out to browse, schmooze, shop, and support the artists of the Rhode Island School of Design. No wonder no one had come to my signing. There was nobody left in the town. It was impossible not to join them. Wriggling into the wall-to-wall wave of townspeople, kiddies, and pets, I headed straight for the food, taking time to squeeze up to as many art booths as possible. 156 local and popular artists, all alumni and students of RISD, were sharing their wares in the street that day, and the work — blown glass, handpainted scarves, jewelry, ceramics, and much, much more — was fantastic. "It's a family thing," laughed Lynn Poray, who was manning a table for a friend. Her daughter, Amanda, was a RISD junior, her friend a RISD alumnus.

Rubbing shoulders at last with the good people of Providence, I sought out the comfort of carbohydrates, sinking my teeth into a cheesy slice of Ronzio pizza-to-go and a package of mixed nuts swished around in honey, sugar, and vanilla. I listened to the boogie beat of a group called The Loose Marbles. Why not follow the pizza and nuts with a blueberry bagel, a big M&M cookie, or a thick slice of lemon-poppy seed cake and a giant cup of hot coffee? Feeling much better about the world — perhaps I'd finish those two novels in my computer after all — I left the fair and resumed my walk to the station. It was an absolutely perfect afternoon in the beautiful town of Providence. As I all but skipped along sidewalks headed toward Gaspee Street and the Amtrak station, I came across a host of yellow-and-white-striped pavilions and another large group of friendly folk. Centercity Contemporary Arts was hosting a Raku Rhodi. This raku demonstration occurs once a year, always on the same day — a nice complement, they'd discovered, to the RISD event. If there was anyone left in the town with an interest in the arts, they were there at the Raku Rhodi.

As I crossed the street, the top of the capitol building my guide to the station, my mind wandered again to my unfinished novels. I guess I really would have to complete them. I still wasn't sure I'd do another book tour, but I bet I knew where everyone was on the day of Anita's reading in Nebraska. They were at the school play, the one that man's kid was in. They were with their community, with their children and their friends and their families, cheering the home team on.

Linda Watanabe McFerrin is a Bay Area poet, novelist, and travel writer. She is the author of Namako: Sea Cucumber, and a short story collection, Hand of Buddha, published by Coffee House. She is the editor of the Hot Flashes series and Best Places Northern California. She is also the founder of Left Coast Writers. To find out more about Linda, visit www.lwmcferrin.com.

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