A week ago, the kids at Capuchino high-school invited me to chat with their book club (aka "You Say Read, We Say Party"). I hadn't seen San Francisco since I was fourteen. All I remembered were the seal lions barking for their breakfast at Pier 39, and a street dude popping and locking beside a boombox on the sidewalk.
The school was perched on a hill, layered like a wedding cake (not a coffee cup, as I'd imagined). Out of all the schools I've visited, this one reminded me of my own--due to the "al fresco" atmosphere instead of the closed-in corridors of chillier cities. But my school never had a book club like this...or a culinary class (the F.E.A.S.T. program, which provided us with cobb salad and rhubarb pastries. Rock on!)
I shared the event with another newbie Y.A. author, Cecilia Galante. The protagonist of her debut novel, The Patron Saint of Butterflies, shares a lot in common with Fin. Both girls struggle to maintain control as their worlds spiral into chaos (Fin counts numbers and Agnes murmurs prayers).
Cecelia wore a lovely silk blouse adorned with butterflies (a gift from her sister, her sewed it by hand). Like me, Cecelia is an English teacher, and we had no trouble sharing the spotlight. We decided to take turns interviewing each other while a student camera crew filmed us like an E. Entertainment newscast. The Capuchino kids asked a lot of smart questions (nothing about walnuts or my romantic status). They wanted to know how our own experiences had shaped the events in our books. They also asked if I would continue to write books about mental disorders. I said, No. I'm not going to write about OCD again. But I'm going to keep writing about outsiders, that is, characters who don't quit fit in.
"I love outsiders," I said, and the room crackled with applause.
After the Q&A session, we sat and ate lunch with the kids (one of my favorite events so far!) I scooted a chair next to Alex, who didn't have a book because "My mom stole it from me and she read, like, a hundred pages at once." So I signed a sticker for him to take home. Alex told me about being straight edge, hanging out at the punk shows, and how people tend to judge others too quickly, even when they claim to be open-minded.
"So where are the X's on your hands?" I asked.
"I had them on yesterday and they washed off," he said, grinning.
I also met Dazzy, who shared a poem with me about "riding the bus and taking pictures with your eyes." And Malena, who wrote verses about reality TV, "which has nothing to do with reality at all."
I could've stayed with them all day. When they waved goodbye, I wondered what it would be like, growing up in California. (One girl wanted to know why Thayer talks like a Cali kid. I guess we use the same slang...except for "dog," while the West Coast peeps prefer, "cat," bringing to mind the Beat Generation).
Speaking of which...in my spare time, I visited the City Lights bookstore, the notorious Beat hangout (Maybe a few are still with us...like the leather-jacketed bum outside the door. He took my leftover quarters and sang, "Check it out!" No doubt, a poet in disguise).
I cruised through Japantown, with kimono-clad drummers and wind-up sushi in the windows. Caught a train ride to the Mission district, loaded with taqueria stands and trendy boutiques. I sipped lattes in North Beach at Cafe Trieste, which was packed with bohemian people scribbling on notepads and pecking away at their laptops. A mandolin and guitar duo strummed in the corner, making music like rain. I watched a French girl tuck her Papa's shoelaces inside his socks. "What's that? What are you doing?" he kept asking, but she just shrugged.
I also had a chance to visit the Redwood forest in Muir Woods. The gargantuan stump at the front entrance, marking time through tree rings, was straight out of the Hitchcock movie, Vertigo. The minty breeze made me shiver. Only a trickle of sunlight oozed through the thick branches (which truly scraped the sky). While taking a picture on the bridge, I got a weird feeling. Someone was watching me. When I spun around, I spotted a deer wobbling on stilt legs. She plowed through the stream and disappeared. Nobody else seemed to notice.
When I flew back to Miami, I had to teach a class. On the next day, I drove four hours to Saint Petersburg, and then back again, in time for an 8am class the following morning. Insanity, yes...but I couldn't miss the Florida Book Awards or the chance to bring home my medal. (much better than the Presidential Fitness prizes in 6th grade, back when Arnold Schwarzenegger urged us to dangle our chins above the monkey bars).
Before the banquet, I drove around Eckerd college, where my sister, Caren, graduated years ago. I remembered her roommates in bikinis, sunning on the ledges outside their dorms. (I kept wondering if they would fall off).
Next week, my niece, Corin, will don a cap and gown and receive her college diploma. Her baby sister will stand in the audience, just like I did, and probably try the cap on for size. When I was her age, I didn't have a camera. I took pictures with my eyes, just like Dazzy described, and sometimes, those are the images I remember most.