I didn’t plan on being in a drunken stupor when I met Time columnist and author of Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity, Joel Stein, but that’s what happened. For the record, I think hiring twenty-two-year-old male models to serve free wine at your event can be considered nothing short of entrapment. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m not Joel Stein’s “biggest fan.” I mean, if his car ran off the road and he was trapped in a snow bank, I would rescue him, sure. But I would immediately take him to the hospital for the proper medical treatment. I would not strap him to my bed and hobble his ankles with a sledgehammer. I just want to make it clear that this is not a Misery situation.
That being said, I’ve been following Joel’s writing for several years. The first time I contacted him wasn’t just to tell him that I thought he was awesome, but also to send him a copy of my first post from this blog. Most people probably don’t attempt to impress another writer with a detailed account of their colon cleanse escapades, but that’s how I roll. He responded with a perfectly proportionate response – something along the lines of, “Wow. That was detailed. And honest. Good job.”
As the years rolled by, I got my weekly Time magazine in the mail and occasionally sent Joel a message commenting on articles he’d written, and he would reply. Not only is Joel Stein a writer who wins over his audience by projecting this seemingly impossible dichotomy of simultaneous superiority and self-deprecation, but he’s friendly and accessible as well. Is it any wonder I’m a big fan? (But not in a creepy way. We covered that already, remember?)
When Joel forwarded me the invite for his book signing in Tampa, I was delighted to attend. (I’m pretty sure I’ve never used the word “delighted” in real life, but it seems appropriate.) I had never been to a book signing before. I did line up to get Detroit Piston John Salley’s autograph when I was a freshman in high school. I was fourteen years old, there was no wine, and everything pretty much transpired the way I expected.
That was not the case this time around.
When I got to the book signing/free wine/food truck extravaganza, it wasn’t quite what I had anticipated. I mean, I knew it wasn’t your typical book signing based on the invitation, which mentioned free wine and food trucks, but it was still a bit strange. First of all, the entire thing was outdoors. I figured that the book signing portion, at the very least, would be confined to an indoor area where people would line up in an orderly fashion to meet Joel. After all, that’s how John Salley did it.
This was a festival atmosphere. There was music playing and people were milling about. I had already had a cocktail across the street with my friend Laura, who was with me for the evening, but I stopped at the wine table anyway for my first glass of the night. I was admittedly a bit nervous at the prospect of meeting someone I admired. In retrospect, being dorky and nervous would have been a better choice.
Laura and I hung around, drank more wine, hung around some more, and wondered why things weren’t getting started. (Everything made more sense the next morning when I described the event to my husband. He said he read the promotions for the event in the Tampa Bay Times, and it was definitely marketed as a Hyde Park food and wine festival with this and that and by the way, Joel Stein will be there too.)
I should say at this point that I had seen Joel in the crowd, talking to people. Laura and I bought our books, hung out, and I drank more wine. I was trying to play it cool, which is code for “drink enough wine to not care about embarrassing myself.” When I decided that maybe nothing more than what was happening was ever going to happen, and that since Joel was talking to random people already and I had nothing to lose by approaching him, that’s what I did. At least I had the good sense to put down one of the two glasses of wine I was carrying and approach him with only one in my hand. I’m sure that helped me make a better impression.
I had planned on introducing myself with all three names, Hillary Rodham Clinton style, since I use my maiden name and married name interchangeably online, shaking his hand, and seeing if he knew who I was without further explanation. To my surprise, he saw me standing nearby, said, “Hi, Tina!” and gave me a quick hug. That was nice. (It wasn’t as nice as if he had hugged me long enough for me to thrust my face into his neck and see if he smelled like that guy I used to work with whose cologne always made me think distracting thoughts during our supervisor meetings, but I think that might have veered into creepy fan territory, so it’s probably for the best.)
He introduced me to a woman whose name I’m still unsure of. I could have sworn he said it was “Pip” as in “Gladys Knight and the…” and Laura and I spent most of the night debating this. I’m guessing she was some kind of assistant, publicist, bodyguard, or navy seal. She was nice when I first met her, but I felt her assessing my threat level. Laura later told me that Pip asked her, “So, what does she do?“ in a way that suggested she wanted to check my back pockets for copies of Catcher in the Rye.
Joel stepped aside for a moment to talk with me, and although it was the least drunk I would be from that moment on, I was still nowhere near capable of the smart, witty repartee one imagines oneself having in these situations. At one point, I compared myself to Dorothy Parker, which I would have preferred to demonstrate by engaging in clever banter rather than stumbling around drunk. Either way, I suppose it was an apt comparison. After a minute, Pip came by and rescued Joel by telling him he needed to “circulate.” I needed to circulate too. I circulated back over to the wine table.
I accosted Joel several more times that evening, or what seems like several more times. I don’t really remember. At one point, I harassed him with something along the lines of, “When is the fucking show going to get started?” Yikes. That sounds terrible. I really wasn’t looking for dancing monkey entertainment, so let me try to explain.
I wasn’t frustrated with Joel. I need to make that clear in case any of this comes across that way. Throughout the entire evening, Joel treated me with the patience typically reserved for toddlers and drunken women, who, in all fairness, do seem to have similar temperaments and motor skills. (This explains why I have no desire to be a parent.) It all goes back to my initial interpretation of this event being Joel!Stein!Tampa! I talked to a lot of people there while I was drinking my wine, and the first thing I asked all of them was, “Did you read the book?” Nobody had. Nobody. Actually, I think one woman might have, but then she quickly segued into the Aerosmith concert she had just gone to and how great it was and how Steven Tyler was snorting coke the whole time and…I’m almost positive she didn’t read the book either. Everybody told me they were there for the free wine. So, I made it my business to do free drunken PR for Joel and tell everyone about the book and why they should read it. See? It was really in the best interest of someone else to take control of things so Joel could talk about his book and get on with the signing of the books and the uncapping and capping of the pens.
If it sounds like I was just following Joel around the entire night, I assure you I found time to do other things. I tried to hook Laura up with a guy who worked at a movie theatre while we were standing in line at a sandwich truck. I thought free movies sounded great, but she wasn’t into it. When that went bust, I talked to a very handsome EMT who told me I was beautiful but wasn’t particularly interested in discussing the fundamental philosophical differences between civil rights leaders W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. On my way to the restroom, I stopped to talk to two Tampa police officers. They were a bit older than me, but I love men in uniform and told them so. Then I did something that I never would have gotten away with if I wasn’t small, female, and white. I said, “So, are you guys carrying?” Of course they were – they’re cops. So I asked them, “What do you carry? Glocks? Or Sig Sauers?” They paused a beat and apparently decided that I was harmless. One of them said, “I carry a Glock.” The other said, “I have a Sig.” If I had drunk one more glass of wine, I probably would have asked to see them. My audacity (stupidity) is not limited to interaction with journalists.
Time slipped away and at some point Joel signed books, standing on a stage in the center of the pavilion. I was pretty unsteady on my high heels by that point so it’s lucky I didn’t break a leg getting up there. His message to me references some guy named Jose who started following me around at some point in the evening and wouldn’t go away and who I will now remember forever because his name is preserved in Sharpie in Joel Stein’s book. When Joel asked me for something about Laura to write in her book, I blurted out the first personal, embarrassing thing I could think of, which I won’t mention here, rather than the more appropriate, “She’s a brilliant aspiring author.” I’m sorry, Laura. I hope you didn’t want to show your autographed book to anyone. Ever. At least you didn’t have to explain to your husband who the hell Jose was.
At the end of the night, after Pip had forcibly shoved a bottle of water in my hand and asked me repeatedly how I was going to get home, I called my husband for a ride and waited with Laura and Jose in the empty courtyard. (Seriously, who WAS that guy?) My saint of a husband drove 45 minutes to pick me up, late on a work night, and then drove with his left hand on the steering wheel of his pickup and his right hand rubbing my back while I barfed wine into my shopping bag. (Don’t worry – I had removed my autographed book moments before in anticipation of this occurrence.) Of course, I apologized to my better half the next morning, and thanked him for picking me up and being so cool about it, but he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s what we do for each other.”
So, Joel, if you’re reading this, I apologize for acting like what I hope was only kind of an asshole. I know I joked that after reading your book I realized that my husband, who I used to think wasn’t masculine enough, was indeed a man. Unlike you, he likes to camp and hunt, watches action movies and owns his own steel toes. But the truth is, the real thing that makes my husband a man is that he has put up with my obnoxious antics for the last thirteen years, and after doing the same for even one evening, I can definitely confirm that you are, without a doubt, all man. It was a pleasure to meet you, and I’ll treasure my autographed copy of Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity. But I’m whiting out the part about Jose.