Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Tequila Incident, or the Red Rocker does San Francisco

Before the tequila, there was Sammy Hagar.

Mr. Hagar – the Red Rocker to his friends – had just released his autobiography. He was going to make an appearance at ye olde bookshoppe in San Francisco. It’s often a combustible mix, when the famous write a book and go on tour.

Your typical book signing? The folding chairs are set up – not too many, because it’s better to bring more out than fold the extras up. A few friends of the author arrive early, eager for a seat near the front – unaware that all the seats will be near the front. With luck, a few customers - intrigued by the store’s display – will show up. If ten or twelve people are in the house, you’re golden.

Then there’s your untypical signing. Say, for someone who’s not a writer, but famous for spectacular feats off the court, on the screen or in the bedroom. First, there are the riders – the demands in a contract that bookstores must fulfill in order to secure that writers appearance. Most authors don’t have riders – they’re happy to have an audience. If pushed, maybe they’ll accept some coffee from the joint up the block.

Maybe not.

But for the famous, the rich? Indeed, Mr. Fitzgerald, they are not like you and me. The best rider we ever consented to included Belvedere Vodka (on ice) and boxes of Red Hots.

What makes these tours potentially combustible is the meeting of the two worlds. The Book World - known to booksellers, a given, no surprises here - and the World of the Celebrity. The Celebrity attracts fans, and because these fans aren’t often inside a bookstore, they can be as astonished and rattled as a bookseller would be if thrust onto the pit stop at Indy. Danica, we’d ask, kicking the tire in front of us, What am I supposed to do with that?

So when Mr. Hagar came to town, we didn’t know what to expect, not exactly. My friend Rich ran ye olde bookshoppe, and he called that day, wondering if I could come into town, supply the pit crew with another pair of hands.

It was a Friday night in San Francisco, so I arrived early. Authors don’t usually have Groupies, but there they were, like cattle at a crossing, waiting outside. One of Rich’s coworkers had written, in fancy chalk-letters outside the front door, The Line for Sammy Hagar Starts Here. And after those words were others, chalked by Mr. Hagar's patient fans: After Tom & Gayle! and then JESS & KIKI and then Janine and Amber! and then Bobby, and then Roger…all the way down Chestnut.

The line began assembling before the store opened at nine in the morning. The event was at seven that evening.

Usually, for a book signing? Customers aren’t queuing up ten hours in advance.

With the hundreds of people in line, Chestnut Street had taken on a different flavor than usual. The air was...aromatic. The liquor store on the corner busy. But the Red Rocker's fans were terrific at policing themselves -keeping doorways to other businesses clear - and as the clock crept closer to seven, their anticipation grew.

Mr. Hagar hadn't demanded vodka. He did request – bless Red! – that to get in line, you had to have a receipt from ye olde bookshoppe. The guy with the Amazon box under his arm, the guy who was late to the party? He couldn’t understand why it mattered. We didn’t have time to explain it to him because, at about a minute to seven, a Hummer limousine pulled up to the store. The line erupted. The Red Rocker himself jumped out of the limo, looked up at the cheering mass, threw his hands into the air – doing that horn thing with his fingers – and shouted, Let’s do this!

Following in the Red Rocker’s wake were five guys. Now, sometimes authors have escorts. Drivers who deliver them to signings, maybe help the staff if books need to be opened in preparation for the author’s signature. These guys? They were not your mother’s escorts. They were – tough. Not big, necessarily, not Mr. T. But, well, menacing. They had things hanging from their necks – shark teeth. A bear claw. And the great thing?

When a guy with a bear claw hanging from his neck says, Hey pal? Where’d you buy that book? Amazon? You kidding me? Listen, see that register?

And Mr. Claw points to the cash register at the front of the store.

Go buy yourself a book, he says.

When I tell the story, I add that Mr. Claw ended his admonition with the word, capiche. But that didn't happen.

Anyway - again - the great thing? When a guy with a bear-claw necklace tells you to buy a book from your local independent bookseller? The local independent bookseller who coordinated the event you've driven to? To get an autograph from one of the most famous singers of his generation? You don’t have much room to maneuver.

The regular booksellers? We’re cheering inside. Because, see, Mr. Claw has just voiced something that we think about all the time. When we host an author, and a customer comes to the store with a book he purchased somewhere else, it defeats the purpose, for us, just a bit. We keep our doors open, in part, so we can have events. Publishers send authors to us to promote the author, the book – and the bookstore. But if you don’t buy the book from us, it’s difficult to keep our doors open to host other events.

So when the guy with the Amazon box says, I don’t see what difference it makes, and my new friend with the tight silk shirt and the bear claw around his neck just stares at him until Mr. Amazon walks over to the register?

I hear angels singing.

And those angels continue to sing as Mr. Hagar and his entourage sweep through the store. We’ve got lines marked off on the stubby blue carpet with tape, lines that wend and weave to the table in the back. The line begins moving forward before Mr. Hagar has even taken his seat. Rich has me and a few other managers in addition to his regular crew – we’re guiding customers through the line, and we’ve got Mr. Hagar’s associates helping us, and that means the line moves quickly.

So quickly that one guy passes me, the opposite way, almost in a dead run, right out the door and back onto Chestnut Street. I lose sight of him for a few seconds before he pops right back in.

I’m sorry, I say, you can only go through the line once.

But, but, this guy sputters, this fan in a red t-shirt with a white 55 across the front. But look! he says. And then he shoves his hands towards me. The line's moving so fast, I didn’t get my book!

What? I say.

My book! he says. I got pushed out of there without my book!

If this was the Indy 500, and if this guy were Danica Patrick, things would be happening fast there in the pit. Cars would be screaming by – kind of like the line is screaming by me. Other crews would be on their bellies, yelling at each other as they tightened belts and loosened lugs – much as some of my coworkers are getting yelled at by a slightly intoxicated fan of the Rocker, a fan who is certain that Red would love to make her acquaintance.

You know, for later.

So while this screaming and yelling is going on, I’m replaying in my mind what happened to the guy in the I Can’t Drive 55 t-shirt. Did he have a book in his hand when he passed me? Was he out of sight long enough to hand the book to an accomplice before coming back here to scam us out of a book? And did I really just use the word accomplice?

My book! Mr. 55 pleads. Man, c’mon, that ain’t right!

Sir, I say. Honestly? You gave your book over to be signed, you’ve been waiting in line for ten hours—

Seven! he says. Just seven!

–for seven hours, and in all that time you’re preparing for one thing? To get a signature from Mr. Hagar—

Red! he yells. The Red Rocker! Yes!

–and after all that time, waiting outside, just waiting for that moment - and then when the moment finally comes, you leave the book behind? Is that what you’re asking me to believe?

And suddenly Mr. 55 looks at me kind of strange. His hands drop to his sides. His head cants to the left as he inspects me. What are you saying? he says.

I just look at him. He knows what I’m saying. I don’t want to say it again, because the line, it's moving so fast, people are wondering if they should buy more books and get back in that fast-moving line for another moment in the reflected glory of the singer, this man who’s been on so many radios in so many cars on so many afternoons, but before I answer his question, Mr. Claw walks up to me.

Hey, he says, and he holds up a copy of Red, My Uncensored Life in Rock, by Sammy Hagar.

Hey, Mr. Claw says again, and he holds the book out to Mr. 55. You left this on the table.

Right then I’m feeling pretty stupid, but Rich calls my name, asks how the line is going while Mr. Hagar’s associate heads back, and when I turn around my guy is already gone, gone and out the door.

Rich, I yell back. I’m going outside, ok?

He gives me a thumbs-up and I run outside. My guy? He’s got a sweet parking spot just across the street. Even that's possible in the Marina if you arrive early enough. I dodge an Accord and head over, get to his Firebird as he’s unlocking its door.

Hey, I call out, and he looks up.

I wanted to say I’m sorry.   To apologize.   That I didn’t mean—

My guy just smiles.  Dude, he says, it’s cool.   The Firebird is open now and he tosses his signed book inside.   It’s cool, he repeats. Then he throws his hands into the air, he does that horn-thing with both of them, just like the Red Rocker did before he yelled, Let’s do this!

My guy?   My guy yells, too.   The Red Rocker, man – I met the Red Rocker!   And he yells again, somewhere between a war cry and the mating call of, I don’t know, a musk ox.   A really nice musk ox.

It’s cool, dude, it’s cool! he says.  No harm no foul!

And he gets in his Firebird and sends me a thumbs-up just like Rich did.

When I get back to the store, Mr. Hagar is high-fiving customers as he leaves. Those still in the store cheer – their cheers are met by the cheers of the hangers-on outside. Before the cheers end the Red Rocker is back in his limo and gone. Where do rock stars go early on a Friday night in San Francisco?

That’s a question I’ll never be able to answer.

I look at my watch. It’s 7:14.

Rich, I ask, and Rich has anticipated all of us. He’s at the register checking the numbers.

285, he says. 285.

You sold 285 books? I ask.

And he signed every last one of them, he says. In fourteen minutes. Rich smiles and shakes his head. In fourteen minutes.

It’s later. We've returned the store to some semblance of its usual self. The tape's been pulled off the carpet. The chalk on the sidewalk is a little scuffed, but still readable. After Tom & Gayle!

Rich and I head around the corner to a Pierce Street watering hole. I don’t drink tequila, not regularly - I had a bad tequila incident once. Hasn't everyone? But Mr. Hagar owns his own distillery, so I order tequila for me, whiskey for Rich. I tell him about my guy, and my mistake. Rich just drinks, and laughs.

It’s cool, dude. It’s cool, he says. And he laughs again.

We clink glasses and sip.

No harm, dude, no foul.