In junior high, my best friend moved to Houston and I sobbed for days. Her mom had a thing for John Wayne, tumbleweeds, baked beans and rodeos. They used to raise chickens in their suburban backyard. Today they've traded hens for horses and steers.
I didn't see any ten gallon hats in the Heights--the neighborhood where I stayed during my quick trip to the Wild West. After checking into the Sycamore, I tossed my suitcase on my bed and took a walk. Lots of brick warehouses and galleries crammed with sunset-colored pottery. A sleek cafe with a minimalist name, Shade, that might have beamed itself from Miami (if you want to sip a glass of vino in this "dry" section of town, you must pretend the cafe is a country club and sign up for membership).
"Where have all the cowboys gone?" I asked the kids at my signing.
They groaned in stereo surround sound.
Over a hundred and thirty students from four different high-schools had piled into the sprawling library...though "library" doesn't do it justice. My high-school library never had its own coffee bar. The place boasted a loungey vibe, along with butterfly chairs and plenty of space to stretch with a good book.
The kids were a rainbow-colored bunch. I made sure to peek at their ID cards before scribbling in their copies of TCO. I tried to connect with each of them, if only with a doodle or a special shout-out ("I like your shoes...") and then a smile for the next face in line. I could've chatted with them all day.
"How much money do you make?" one girl wanted to know.
I just shrugged. "I got paid when I sold my book and after I finished my revision."
"How does it feel to be famous?" a boy asked.
"I don’t know...because I'm not famous," I told him, and we both collapsed into giggles. (For some reason, the kids were under the impression that authors are rich and famous, on the same level of rock stars. Although this is far from the truth, their countless hugs made me feel like a big deal).
After my slide presentation ("Birth of a Book") a girl raised her hand, then lowered it and whispered, "Never mind."
I smirked. "Was it a bad question?"
"Yeah," she said. Later in line, she spit it out. "I just wanted to know if you're related to Dave Chappelle." (a question I've heard a million times, although our names are spelled differently, mine is pronounced, "chapel," like a church, and we...um...don't look alike).
"This is not the Chappelle show," I said.
A few kids asked questions about the business of becoming an author. One girl wanted to write a story about the apocalypse. "But that's been done."
"Everything has been done," I said, glancing at the rumpled stack of notebook paper in her arms. "Is that your novel-in-progress?"
"Yeah," she said, surprising me.
I encouraged her to keep writing her end-of-the-world tale, as long as she made it personal.
A punk rock chick modeled her home-sewn coat ("Definitely not Hot Topic.") Another girl showed off her piano-themed laces.
I asked, "What class are you cutting to be here?"
She said, "Band."
"I used to play clarinet," I told her.
"I almost played that," she said, "but I thought the sax was cooler."
"You still get splinters in your tongue," I said. "Is music going to be your life?"
"No. I want to make money," she said, skipping off.
I drew a cello for another musical kid--a boy who bounced up to me and announced, "I have ADD."
"That just means you're smart and creative," I told him, and he beamed.
They asked a lot of tough questions. In fact, one girl wanted to know if I had "seen a shrink." (They're often surprised to learn that I wasn't born in Vermont, my parents aren't divorced, and my mom and I are best friends).
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a teacher shaking her head, as if to say, "Don't go there." I told the girl, "Yes. But my shrink wasn't as cool as the one in the book." Just then, an alarm buzzed and I said, "I must be crazy because now I'm hearing things."
The librarians arranged the teen book club with a stellar indie bookstore, Blue Willow (shout out to Valerie, aka "girlboss"). In order to attend the event, the students had to read my book and discuss it together. Apparently, the discussion was a hit because they had a ton of stuff to talk about. Guess I'm not the only person with lucky numbers. The librarians told me that the kids were talking about their own quirky habits and rituals. I always felt like the only one. Now the kids have taught me something.
I was never alone.