Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas in New Jersey

I am in the frozen north now picking my way carefully through the frozen tundra of New Jersey. Ever the Florida patriot, I proved my bonafides once again last evening when I fell asleep during The Winter’s Tale at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. I should have known something was wrong by the way they spelled "theater."

Napping is the Florida tribute to culture. There is always someone sleeping. When I give speeches, I judge my success by how many are dozing. Two I consider a triumph, more than six and I seriously consider shortening my talk.

Last evening even the frolicking Bohemian peasants on stage could not prevent me from nodding off. If my brother Ed had not nudged me brutally in the ribs when I started to snore, I would have been beaten to death by outraged theater goers. I have my excuses. I had awakened at six that morning to catch the 6:45 train to New York City. My other brother Bob, who is a saint in lawyer’s clothing (if that’s possible), got up to drive me to the train station in Chatham.

I was wide awake since I was heading into Manhattan for an important meeting with the two top executives at Hyperion concerned with my forthcoming book, Madness Under the Royal Palms. Will Balliett, the editor-in-chief, and Kristin Kiser, vice president and associate publisher. I had asked Hyperion to do a few modest things to promote my book including pithy thirty-second ads during NFL games, sky writing over major cities, handbills on commuter trains, and an advertising insert in the New York Times, and Hyperion was balking. As the sad eyed commuters perused their newspapers, I came up with the perfect zinger that would open up the long closed vaults of ABC, the parent company. “You people aren’t publishers,” I intended to say. “You’re printers.”

Alas, the meeting went exceedingly well. I was meeting Kristin for the first time, and she was professional, charming, and astute, an ideal person at the helm of a publisher in difficult times. “The least you can do is after the first of the year announce a second printing three weeks before pub,” I said, drawing from my massive publishing acumen. “That sends a signal out." Kristin said they had already pulled the trigger on a second printing almost four times the number I had suggested. That angered me. It was getting harder and harder for me to see how I could use my immortal zinger, but when an author has a phrase he loves, which usually means it’s garishly overwritten, he’s going to use it. So at a momentary lull in the conversation, I said it: “You people aren’t publishers, you’re printers.” That said, we moved on with the conversation.

After my triumph at breakfast, I moved onto Carnegie Hall rehearsal studios to prepare for my debut as a violinist that evening. Actually, I was there at a studio to be on On Point the NPR radio program hosted by Tom Ashbrook. The subject was Caroline Kennedy seeking the Senate seat soon to be vacated by Hillary Clinton. My three books on the family have made me what is called an expert. That is an unenviable position to be in these days. It means when I talk about the Kennedys, I have the misfortune of being grounded in fact, when so many others on the air are not limited by that disability. Katha Pollitt of the Nation attacked Caroline as if she were only slightly better than a serial killer. I had a massive mike and a competent technician on the other side of the glass booth, and she had what sounded like a cheap cell phone talking from the bathroom of a garret in Soho. I’m sure she considered that another sign of the massive, brutally unfair inequalities of American life.

After that melancholy hour, I plunged out into the frigid, icy Decmber morn and searched for a nonexistent cab. On 57th Street, I ducked into a bank to look for phone numbers on my computer. When I jumped out into winter again, I spotted a cab and as we headed north, I realized I had lost my cell phone. The driver, the first decent human being I had met in a while, gave me his cell phone to call my number. The man who answered shamelessly squandering my minutes was the bank guard. Outraged at this abuse of my property, we drove back to the bank where I wrestled the device out of the man’s hands, and headed out into the blizzard again.

When the driver left me off in front of ABC at Columbus Avenue and 66th, I gave the man a big enough tip to allow him to move back to China. And then after moving through security worthy of the White House, I made it up to Brian Ross’s investigatory unit.

The week before Brian had interviewed me for ABC World News and Nightline. He was in New York and the producer, cameraman, and soundman were on the roof of my condominium in Palm Beach. I said, “Brian, I’m delighted to do this but when we finish I’d like two minutes of your time.” He agreed and when we finished I pitched him 20/20 doing my book. My publicist, SallyAnne McCartin, one of the best in the business,had already pitched the program and been turned down but I believed that it was a great idea and such perfect timing that I had a shot at convincing the top investigative reporter in journalism. I don’t think I even used my two minutes when Brian said, "It’s a must.”

We all know that’s not the way things work in the world, but it worked that way this time. Brian was off in Italy skiing. That’s why I was sitting in hisoffice with Anna Schecter, a young producer who will be working on the piece. She is made for the Palm Beach world and when she gets down to the island, she will have almost everyone wanting to be interviewed. And when Brian gets back to the States and flies down, the two of them will put together by far the best thing ever done on Palm Beach. Remember, you read that first here.

So after that I took the train back to Chatham where Mary Frances, my sister-in-law, picked me up. She is an unbelievable cook, but alas this evening we went out to one of my brother Bob’s discoveries, a tiny restaurant in a strip mall. New Jersey’s greatest contributions to civilization are a law that an attendant must pump your gas at service stations and a progressive policy so that few restaurants are allowed to serve wine or liquor. Customers bring their own bottles and drink them dry. The result is that by nine o’clock half the people on the roads are drunk, and it’s a good thing that there is someone to pour gas because the customers can’t see to put the fuel in their cars.

This was a tapa restaurant. “Tapa” is a Spanish word for “overpriced appetizers.” There was only the chef and one waiter and most of the waiting was being done by the customers. My ninety-one-year old mother travels on her stomach. She must be fed or she grows unbelievably grouchy and starts throwing glasses and plates. So we gave her every bit of food that arrived at the table, all of which she devoured shamelessly. All I did was drink. Most of the food arrived just as we were leaving. I ate a few quick bites burning my mouth in the process, deadening the pain with another glass of a decent Pinor Noir. I should know. I bought it.

So that’s why I fell asleep. Today I have to go Christmas shopping, so in this moment let me wish Merry Christmas to the two people, one of them a lifer in San Quentin, who are reading my blog.

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