I like to think of myself as being unapproachable—that I walk around society with a perpetual scowl that says stay away. But apparently that isn’t the case because earlier this week while I was entering Hy-Vee I was stopped by a bell ringer just outside the entrance. Just a side note: are the bell ringers people who are working off community service hours? Because I can hardly believe that there are that many altruistic, young black men. Just wondering. Back to the story: I always shove money into the red kettles. It’s not that I care about the poor or needy, it’s because I feel guilty not fulfilling this petty obligation, and I also don’t want the bell ringers to feel like their time spent out in the blistery cold and wind was all for naught, so I try do my part.
On this uneventful day as I was pushing my money through the cross-shaped slot in the top of the bucket, the bell ringer (a white male in his late-forties with a large mustache) said, “Sir, I’m wondering if you could answer a holiday question for me.” I said sure. He then went on this long-winded preface that sounded stilted and rehearsed that seemed to be leading up to a lame joke. I hate it when people do that thing where they begin relating a story to you and its midway through that you realize this person isn’t telling you a story that happened to them but are instead telling you a joke and you have to stand there like a gullible schmuck nodding your head because it would be inappropriate to cross your arms and say, “Bullshit!!! When were you a traveling salesman staying in an adjacent bedroom from a farmer’s attractive daughter?” Thankfully, the “personal story joke” is becoming a bygone thing and you’ll rarely witness anyone under the age of sixty-five try to pull off.
Well this gentleman finally gets to the set-up and says “What is the difference between a Christmas tree and a wife?” I, being the begrudging second banana said, “I dunno.” Then, with an undeserved clever smirk, the man said, “Only one looks good with the lights on.” I forced a polite smile and perfunctory laugh at his Playboy party joke from 1974, but before I could escape he segued right into his next joke while I stood bent over next to this diminutive Jackie Mason wannabe as people walked past us and into the store where I so desperately wanted to be. The gentleman then says, “You look like a married man, what are the three words no woman wants to hear while making love.” I thought, is this peculiar bell ringer seriously telling me a dirty joke outside of a grocery store? With a plastered grin between my dimples, and my left hand hovering just above my bent knee—anticipating a good slap—I responded, “I dunno.” Then once again—with all too much satisfaction—he laid the disappointing punch line on me. “Honey, I’m home!” With my remaining scraps of patience, I shook loose one last polite chuckle and then seized my opportunity to ditch the guy. While cradling my split sides with one hand, I heartily smacked the man on the shoulder of his army jacket with the other and said, “Ha! You have a good Christmas, mister.”
I know the man was merely trying to break up the monotony of collecting people’s money while simultaneously trying to spread a bit of mirth, but the one thing I took away from the exchange is that I had to remember to exit through the other entrance when I left.
I’m not the type of person who approaches strangers, yet I had to do exactly that last Saturday while I had my first ever book signing for my children’s book Strange Tales of Wendell Worth at a Decorah bookstore. Saying that it was a book signing is a bit grandiose I admit. No, this was more like a no name dude sitting by the entrance of a bookstore leering at the shoppers. Ultimately it was a good experience for me. It was something fresh and novel that got me out of my self-imposed shell. Though, I didn’t know what to think during the first twenty minutes of my two hour appearance. I just sat there twiddling my thumbs. It felt like that scene in This is Spinal Tap when Spinal Tap was at a record signing that no one showed up for.
So there I was, a guy who refuses to approach people who give away free samples at a grocery store, ironically sitting behind a table selling his book. It took a bit of time but I eventually loosened up and began to simply chat with people as they entered, all the while keeping my book relegated to an afterthought so I wouldn’t feel like a salesman. Though I did feel like an alien. I interact with strangers so little anymore that I had to remind myself how make small talk with people, or at the very least, approximate human discourse. I did my damnedest to be polite, entertaining and as charming as possible, but as I spoke to people I simultaneously had a weird inclination to repeatedly scream the F-word for no reason other than it would be an inappropriate thing to do. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit rusty when it comes to superficial small talk.
The signing went fine, I sold a book (actually two books, but the other book wasn’t mine). I didn’t bring a pen because I thought it would be presumptuous. So when a little girl by the name of Madelyn wanted a copy of my book personalized to her and her friend Katrina, I had to borrow a pen from the front counter. It was while I was personalizing this little girl’s book I realized that I had no clue what to write. I got as far as their names and then drew a complete blank as I glanced up at this little girl who was staring at me with innocent, wide eyes. I could only think about what an unfortunate name Katrina was. I wondered if this girl’s friend was born before or after the hurricane. I figured this little girl to be five or six and I wondered how long ago hurricane Katrina was. I thought if she was born before Katrina that would be really sour luck. She might as well be named Sickle-cell or Darfur.
After realizing that I had absolutely nothing to write, I hastily scribbled the first sentiments to cross my mind that didn’t mention disease or genocide and quickly pushed the book across the table into her tiny, awaiting hands. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote. I only hope it wasn’t the F-word scrawled repeatedly in red ink like a belligerent drunk scratching on the wall of a bathroom stall with a pocket knife.