The Thing About King
(I originally posted about it three years ago on my journal blog, which I've since deleted. The notes have been edited for clarity -- those were the early days after having my second child and I was still very much in the baby bubble).
I wake up early and, with my luggage prepared the night before, there's no rush so I have enough time to have a snack, coffee, and to joke with John about weird start-up ideas.
I feel strangely guilty for leaving my kids at home only so that I can go away and have fun, so I kiss Julian a thousand times. Johnny comes with us to the airport. The plan is to see me off and get dropped off at daycare afterwards. We arrive exactly two hours before my flight and I say an unceremonious goodbye as I don't want to upset Johnny. He's too busy gawking around and being intrigued with the airport telephones/conveyor belts to care.
Flying domestic and without kids is a walk in the park, I discover. I had already checked in online and I only had carry-on bags, so getting through security and reaching my gate took me less than 15 minutes. I grab some breakfast and I stop at a news stand, where I see that Revival, Stephen King's latest book, is out and already discounted at 20% of the shelf price not yet a week from publishing. I don't know how to feel about this, but I am excited at the prospect of taking a personal part in the promotion of the book.
At the gate, planes come and go, and the sun slowly rises over the San Francisco fog. There are rainbows. They make me smile. I feel lucky. Then, a passing though: "I hope I don't use all my luck too early in this trip..." It's the 13th, after all, and I am not superstitious, but I get nervous when I travel. I usually have a pretty good 13th, but the 14th makes up for it by being super crappy.
Spoiler alert: that remained true.
As I sit and wait, I go in full "writers are voyeurs" mode and I begin people-watching intensely. There's a middle aged guy nearby talking on the phone. I can't help but overhear his conversation (actually I try really hard to overhear his conversation). He's from Colorado and is going back after a short business trip (I fly to Wichita via Denver). He looks nothing like the local businessmen. He is almost bald, sports a goatee, and wears tan colored slacks and a dress shirt (The Bay Area tech-world dress code is, of course, company-logo hoodies and skinny jeans). I notice numerous other guys waiting to board this flight looking identical. I conclude that's the formal business fashion in Colorado, but only because I am snooty enough to assume that, besides New York, California is the stylish-est American state, and that all other states are 20 years behind. That's a bad habit if mine, leftover from growing up in Europe where people seem overdressed while taking the trash out.
The guy spends almost an hour on the phone, and through his account of his trip I realize how unique the Bay Area is. People come here from all over to learn new technologies, to get up to speed, to try the latest innovations and practices. His company had just spent hundreds of thousands on software licenses. He is worried that whatever hardware technology he was trying to buy here will not work well in the Colorado's freezing climate. Wait, what? I have packed sweaters and hats and scarves but I still question my choice of attire when I hear him say how warm San Francisco was. If rain and overcast skies felt warm, how cold exactly it must be in the middle of the country?!
Soon we board and to distract myself from the claustrophobic environment (the plane is of medium size but the flight is full and the seats in Economy class are really crammed together) I continue to people-watch. Highly contrasting my Colorado businessman friend, a young man sitting in the front row catches my eye, as he seems to be the living embodiment of a Silicon Valley start-up executive. He's busy swiping left and right on Tinder. It's almost comical, and I am glad that my dating days are over so I won't have to ever sit next to him and listen to him talk about the excitement of entrepreneur life. I am an artist. I can't be bothered.
He's equipped with a laptop, an iPad, and the latest iPhone; his red Beat earbud headphones match the color of his iPad case; he's wearing a fancy baseball cap, designer prescription eyeglasses, a very expensive wrist watch, J's, and distressed hipster jeans. He's simultaneously e-mailing, working offline, watching a light comedy (something with Owen Wilson), playing a video game (something with dice) and shopping for dress suits online. The suits are not high-fashion but still luxury, limited edition brands. It's all very San Francisco. He looks very smart, and twice as obnoxious.
We take off. The pilot announces that the temperature in Denver is minus 14 degrees Celsius. Fuck.
It's only been a few hours since I left home but I realize that it's been eons since I last had the chance to freely observe the word around me, and think. I suddenly have my brain and my senses to my own disposal again and it's great, almost overwhelming. Without the stress and frantic rush of life with children, reality seems easy, accessible. Without an oversized diaper bag, a stroller, a crazed toddler in tow, and sleep deprivation-induced anxiety, one could just go out there in the free world and... do things. Wow. Must be a cool feeling. Ironically, I begin missing my children right there and then.
I look outside to find something else to think about, but there's nothing there. Literally nothing. Below, America looks like one gigantic desert with hundreds of miles of empty, flat land stretching in all directions. No roads, no towns, no nothing. I miss the bird view of the cultivated farm fields of Europe, the green forests and blue mountains, the rivers and the cute towns with little white steeples. I page through the in-flight magazine and the funny things I find in it give me the urge to turn over and share it with John....only John is not there, so I start missing him too. They sell a $1000 LED-lit "serenity pod" beds. For cats. And "our Lord" trinkets. I wonder if that stuff is only featured in magazines on flights going to the Midwest. Kansas is just in the periphery of the Bible Belt, but still....
Two hours or so later we land in Denver. The exit gate is conveniently adjacent to my connecting gate. I am surprised by the notion, but I find myself impressed with United Airlines. They have entire designated terminals and staff offering information to all connecting passengers, which is great at a place like Denver, since it is the largest airport in the country. Denver, seems like it, is also the land of tornado shelters masked as bathrooms. The prevailing fashion here is trucker hats, flannel shirts, beards, and camouflage everything. I see people wearing actual John Deere jackets. Oh, and it's SNOWING outside! I haven't seen snow in over four years and I am way too excited about this. When it gets time to board my Wichita flight, I reach and scoop a handful of snow that was blown under the pathway walls. People look at me funny, but some smile. Once without my kids, I regress from an adult to a teenager, and I make no excuses.
The second leg of my trip is short -- 55 minutes to be exact, and I learn that "Double Ding" means we've reached 10 000 feet altitude. I watch the flight attendants and I decide that their job is equal portions super boring and extremely dangerous. I drink only tomato juice, the obligatory beverage against air compression-induced dehydration. I also found a Shelby hair on my sweater and I smiled at the idea that a part of my cat is flying up in the sky with me. I am tired now. I start abusing the privilege of having my brain to my own disposal and random questions begin circulating my head:
Which are the major Bulgarian rivers? I can think of only three: Struma, Maritza, and the Danube river.
Are children allowed in First Class?
Where's the longest zip-line in the world? (I googled that one, it's in Mexico).
In Wichita at last! It's dark and very, very cold. I remember the winters in Bulgaria but this is somehow worse. In Bulgaria it can be below zero and still feel pleasant when there's no wind and the snow is falling in big fluffy rags. This here is bullshit and I don't care for it. A taxi takes me to the Hilton Garden Inn which is a pretty okay hotel, and most importantly, deserted. It all feels like in the movies, surreal but fun.
I have lost a couple of hours because of the time difference, but I am hungry so I decide to go out for dinner. There's a shopping mall next to the hotel, and after I check with the receptionists, I am assured that it's safe to walk there, given that I am willing to brace the cold. I grab a cup of hot coffee from the lobby and I march outside, pass by a frozen pond, scare some sleeping ducks, slip on a patch of ice, and watch in amazement as my breath comes out in big white puffs. The sensation is not new to me, but it's a long forgotten one. I reach the restaurant just in time before my hands go completely numb.
It's a deli, so I thaw fast in the entrance area, which is near the grills. It's tropically hot inside. I go through the menu but I don't see any vegetarian options, so I order a jacked potato and some salad, and I remove the meat... from both. The food tastes good, but also heavy and very caloric. I realize that if I lived in Kansas (and given my terrible eating habits) I'd be double my size in a year. This, along with the weather, awaken me to a new-found appreciation of how lucky I am to be living in California.
On the bright side, very few of the people at the deli joint were staring at their phones or scrolling through the screen like zombies. And amazingly, most people truly liked to talk. Also, everywhere, the music was great. No Katy Perry or whatever hipster crap they sell for pop these days. In that regard, Kansas appeared to be perpetually stuck in the 90's. All I heard was cute rock like the Goo Goo Dolls and the old Sheryl Crow.
Full of carbs and still mulling on such thoughts, I returned to the hotel, took a hour-long hot bath, watched trashy reality TV, video-chatted with John and the baby, and went to sleep. Of course, I had a terrible trouble falling asleep away from home, on this strange bed, which was ironically too soft for me. Ah, the things I'm willing to do for Stephen King...
I wake up late and decide that, if I am to have enough energy to wait in the cold for hours later that afternoon to see Stephen King, I should forgo exploring the city and have an early lunch in the hotel's restaurant instead. I am the only staying guest; the rest are a large group of elderly ladies playing cards. Some wear track suits, others -- formal skirts and shawls, and they all have make up on. An old lady in a bright blue track suit has a Louis Vuitton purse. They chew on candy, sip hot coffee, and make jokes. None of them makes an eye contact or attempts to talk, and while I eat my solitary meal, I google the history of Kansas. This is what I learned:
"Kansas is also known as the Sunflower State. It is a home of a little less than 3 million predominantly white Christian people with average income of $50 K. (Suddenly the list of Houses of Worship at the back of the informational booklet upstairs in my room starts to make sense). Kansas is mostly an agricultural state, but there's something called "Rural Flight" which has rendered about 6 000 settlements into ghost towns. It used to be a violent place - from the first settlers in the 1830's, to the abolitionists who prevailed in the 1860's."
Bleeding Kansas. How terribly fitting the occasion of my visit!
And of course, Kansas is also the home of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Superman; the setting for In Cold Blood by Capote... and the stage of the gruesome murders by the BTK serial killer. This last subject is (understandably) still quite raw for many of the people I meet. My cab driver suggests that Stephen King is in town to interview the killer, and criticizes him for trying to exploit the tragedy (King's novella, A Good Marriage recently got attention after being adapted to a movie for bearing similarities with the murder cases).
I feel more and more like we're not in California anymore....
Fast forward. I arrive at the KU Metroplex two hours before the announced door-opening at 5 pm, to be met with an impossibly long line that wraps all the way around the building. I walk to the very end of it and I can't help but grin. There are at least 700 people, and by the look of them, some have been waiting here since the previous night. There are people in folding chairs, people wrapped in blankets, people holding Thermoses, people camping in their cars. They are of all ages, color, and social status. I see kids and people in wheelchairs. Many of them are reading various King novels and talking excitedly. The sun is still up so the cold seems bearable, but the sky is darkening from the north and the gusts of wing hint about an upcoming temperature drop. I am excited -- it feels a bit like I'm at a rock concert, and the fandom vibe is strong. I don't even mind being last in line.
I don't remain last for long -- people keep coming. The line expands behind me and stretches both ways beyond the reach of sight. I think I expected this, but if I knew there will be such a great demand, I'd have left the hotel much earlier. There's a disgruntled talk about Watermark Books overselling the venue, and people express doubt if we will be able to get seats in the main auditorium. The general notion is that the organization is far from good. I keep my hopes down -- odd resignation is spreading through my mind and I credit it to fatigue and the cold. I am usually so pumped up before such great events, I can't sleep or eat and I'm painfully nervous, but even though seeing Stephen King is high up on my bucket list, this time I'm just going with the flow and waiting to see what happens.
It takes us exactly two hours to get to the main entrance, during which I make friends with the lady in front of me, and the family before her. They are all local, and extremely nice. It's fun to talk about King, Kansas, writing, books, and the weather. We make jokes and we laugh, and this helps us deal with the dropping temperatures. At last I get a wristband, go through a brief security check, and I'm in!
My line buddy and I get seats together approximately in the middle of the auditorium. If I had decided to go solo, I probably could have found a single seat further in the front... still, I decide to stick with her, partially because she offered me a ride back to the hotel afterwards, but mostly because I don't feel I have it in me to push my way through the crowd and fight for a seat with a better view.
It suddenly seems like it's too much. The anticipation, the flights, the hotel, being my myself and missing my children, the cold, the wait... So I sit down and I count my blessings. The seats are not bad at all. I can see the stage fine. We wait again. Behind me there's an old man in denim overalls who's wiping his nose with a red bandanna. There are so many people here, and more keep coming in, even though it's past 6 pm. There are academics and writers, there are goth teens and young parents in their 30's, there are people older than King himself, climbing the stairs to the second level balcony. And all the while, rock'n'roll oldies are playing from the speakers! It's all great, really.
I wish I could describe the sensation I felt when I saw this guy. The closer I will ever get is this: a mix of a perfect calm and frantic (though quiet) scream. It was like a part of me was yelling, oh god, oh god, here he is, and another was stating flatly, yep, that's him alright. It was strange, surreal. I attribute the feeling to the fact that I was not very close to him physically, so I knew I was seeing him, but I couldn't believe it. Everyone stood up and started taking pictures at once, so my view as well as my concentration was momentarily broken. At any rate, here I was, and there he was, too.
He began the show with some jokes, told some anecdotes, then talked about how his creative process works, read an excerpt from Revival, and finished by answering questions from the audience. The event lasted exactly a little over an hour. I didn't realize why until later in my hotel room, but while I was excited, happy, and curious to hear King talk, I did not get the satisfaction I needed from the whole thing. I had heard the jokes before. I've watched many YouTube videos of similar talks with him, and it appears that King has a standard format. He reused these today, and I just couldn't find them as funny as the first time. I have read the anecdotes before, too. Most of it is from On Writing, and from various interviews (since most journalists basically ask the same questions over and over again). I know how his creative process works. I've studied King in detail for my final year university dissertation. Otherwise, hearing him read the excerpt from Revival was lovely, it sounded like a solid work.
So guys, it felt like a rock concert, yet is wasn't. During a live music performance you can not only see and hear your favorite band, you can also sing back and dance and scream and express all those feelings you have. It's still not exactly a conversation in which you could get answers, but it is a form of communication. It goes both ways. This here was very one sided, singular. I took it in, but I could not respond, could not give back. It just wasn't enough for me... I always want more.
Stephen King is a funny guy. He's a character -- a liberal from rural Maine, an everyday multi-millionaire, a geek superstar, an old-fashioned guy who embraces the future. It's crazy to think he remembers the fifties (quite fondly, I should add), and uses Twitter at the same time!
There's no denying he has this very powerful charisma about him, partially stemming from his tremendous talent, and partially from his big personality. He is, in a way, the quintessential hero of his own work -- an ordinary man who had an extraordinary life, full of tough, controversial, scary, and almost supernatural experiences. He will always remain my favorite author and the closest thing I have for an idol, but now I can separate the man from the writer. And while some of the mystery surrounding him has dispersed, I continue to see in him a model for integrity when it comes to the ways of the craft. King writes about scary things because he's just wired this way. However, he also writes about love and adventure and bravery and the human soul. He writes from the heart, and I applaud that.
After it's all over, my companion and I walk out. We pick up our Revival copies on the way, none of which are signed. I am done here. I am ready to go home.
Back to the hotel. I order room service, take a hot shower, get my bags ready, read a few pages from my new book, and I go to bed. My neighbors, however, have different ideas about their Friday night. It's getting late and I still can't fall asleep. The banging, laughing, and screaming from next door becomes ridiculous and I call the front desk to complain. Long story short, the people - a group of four - got kicked out, but not before one of the men threatening me with a bodily retribution (he said he's going to his truck to get his gun) and verbally insulted me. I called the police, and by the time I was safe and calm again it was 3 am. I managed to fall asleep only to wake up again at 5:30 am and vomit my entire dinner.
I blame it all on Stephen King.
I guess that if you succeed in mustering a laugh in a tough situation, you win. In the cab, I shiver a little as I remember the face of the cop when he asked me "What do you want me to do about it?" the previous night. He rolled his eyes so far in his head I was afraid they'll fall out. Gun-toting idiots must be commonplace in Kansas, but as scary my run-in was with one, it was also the perfect Stephen King-esque culmination of my trip. And that deserves at least a (nervous) chuckle.
I get to the airport in time (I love small airports), and I spend a couple of hours staring through the window at the grey, overcast sky, thinking about what would it be like to live here. I met some genuine, kind, and fun, people in Kansas. I suppose I could even get used to the cold -- I remember my cold Bulgarian winters well. But I know will never be truly happy without the cutting edge technology, environmental policies, and forward thinking of California. In California it's all happening. I am happy to be going home. I miss my kids painfully now.
We take off, land in Colorado, then take off again. They have to spray green slime (I later figure out it's antifreeze) onto the plane. I watch the special machine trucks that manipulate the plane and I smile because I know Johnny would have gone crazy about those. Up in the air is something out of a sci-fi movie. There are clouds below and above the plane, and waves of clouds all around. We are in a pocket of snowy clouds. It's a perpetual winter up in here. Humans are so fragile... There's no visibility, no protection from the winds... Nothing grows out there, nothing lives. I close my eyes and I try to nap.
At last in San Francisco! The three days I have been away feel like three years. I am grateful for all the impressions and emotions, but I'm glad to be away from all those strangers and the smell of airport fast food. John and Johnny pick me up, drive me home, and I give my babies hugs and kisses. I have a cute fuzzy creature in every room of my house.
I am a lucky woman.