Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Book Signings I Have Attended (And Other Encounters With Notable Writers)

Seymour Hersh, investigative reporter. October 2004
He had an event in the New Yorker Festival, promoting his book, "Chain of Command," which was great even the revelations in it about the Bush administration didn't end up making much of a difference, politically speaking. He comes across as intense and possibly crazy in a lot of the profiles you read of him, but was really sweet. When I got up to his table I told him that he had spoken at my journalism school commencement a couple of years earlier. He smiled and asked what I was doing now. I actually wasn't doing half bad at the time, but got embarrassed and stammered something about writing very short things in the Times, nothing nearly as important, of course, as what he did. He said, "That's OK -- you just have to get a toehold in the business, do whatever you can do. Stick around and you can write the things you want later."
Inscription: "For Jake -- Thanks for coming. Seymour Hersh, New York, Oct. '04"

Robert Caro, biographer. April 2007
He gave a talk at the journalism school and they invited alumni to attend for free -- which was nice, because Columbia usually tries to wring every last dollar they can out of you, even though you've already paid them $30,000 or so for a degree in a field with no jobs.  Ahem, anyway.  I took the train uptown from Brooklyn on a Wednesday afternoon and there he was in the lecture hall, looking dapper in a tailored suit as always. The hall was, depressingly, about 40 percent full. (J-school kids: The Worst.) I remember he talked about Lyndon Johnson a bit, and the Power Broker a bit. This was during a time when there was a lot of Robert Moses revivalism going on -- "Does New York need another Robert Moses?" and other such silliness. He seemed kind of peeved about it. When somebody asked him about a historian who had disputed one of the facts in the book, he said, "What historians don't understand is that you can call people up on the phone and ask them these things," and he detailed how one of Moses' cronies had been the direct source of the disputed information in a conversation they had. I had previously found a hardcover first edition of the Power Broker at the Strand, and brought it for him to sign. I tried to say something about how important his work was to my life and career but got way flustered and just sort of thrust it at him and robotically told him my name. Meanwhile some undergrad, the editor of the Columbia Spectator or something, asked him if he'd meet their staff for a beer, and he said yes without hesitation.
Inscription: "To Jake, from Robert A Caro"
Bonus inscription, from the book's original owner: "To Maria, Merry Christmas 1974, Your husband with love," with an arrow pointing to a spot in Westchester on the map at the front of the book. Next to it, it says "our house."

David Samuels, magazine writer. Winter/spring 2003 sometime
OK, so it's a step down in famousness, but the guy is great. Check out his piece about Woodstock '99, or about Stevie Wonder playing the Super Bowl halftime show (both available in his book, "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," though not, alas, for free on the internet). He talked to my j-school class about how hard it is to make a living as a magazine writer, recounted having lived in Jersey City with heroin addicts to make ends meet. He's fine now: In Cobble Hill, I think, with equally successful journalist wife. And I didn't ask him to sign anything. But I still think about that story, even though the lesson in it seems to keep changing on me.

Jonathan Mahler, magazine writer. 2005 sometime
Went to hear him read from "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning" at the Barnes and Noble in Park Slope. Afterward waited in line to get it signed, hoping to strike up a conversation with him about 1977, the year of my birth and the subject of his book. Thought I might tell him about this story my mom tells, about how she, pregnant, was driving in the city with my young female cousin, and their car broke down, right around the time the Son of Sam was still at large. They were fine, obviously, but it was scary at the time because basically everybody was totally freaking out about everything. I was almost at the front of the line, thinking all this over, when the guy directly in front of me struck up a conversation of his own with Jonathan Mahler. I guess they were neighbors or something. Mahler, still talking to the other guy, reached for my book to sign it without even looking up. For some reason, like it was a really important thing to tell him, I said, "I'm really interested in your book because I was born in 1977." He looked up then, and said, "Oh, in the city?" and I said, "No." He looked at me for a second, confused, and turned back to to his neighbor, handing me my book.  A while later I read it and thought it was just OK, kind of a missed opportunity. A while after that I sold it for a dollar at a stoop sale.
Inscription: unknown.

Tom Vanderbilt, magazine writer. December 2010
He writes about transportation issues for big magazines. It's a good gig, because if some nobody off the street pitches a story about transportation issues to one of these places, that person gets told thanks but no thanks because that stuff is generally regarded as boring as hell. But this guy does it well, and has made a real career out of it, which is great. He wrote a book about traffic. I didn't go to any kind of a signing, though, and in fact haven't read the book, though I keep meaning to. When I met him was when I bought a used office chair from him -- a white mesh knockoff (but a pretty good one) of an Eames "Aluminum Group" management chair. His wife turned out to be Jancee Dunn, also a writer, who I very specifically remembered from when I was obsessed with Rolling Stone as a teenager, and also from when she was an MTV VJ. Got a little starstruck, to be totally honest. They lived in a building I had always wondered about, a converted church I used to walk past, and they actually knew my stuff somehow, and said nice things about it. I mentioned that my wife was pregnant and we talked about babies for a while. I left their place thinking, "Jeez, you really can, theoretically, make a living doing this." The chair is still in good shape.
Side note: Around this same time I also sold our portable dishwasher to Bryce Goggin, a record producer best known, to me, as the guy who played piano on Pavement's song "Range Life." Craigslist is amazing.

David Simon, former journalist and creator of The Wire. March 2007
He talked at the j-school (it was free, too, though I think as alumni we may actually have had to sneak in). Most of what I remember is the incredibly pompous moderator, a student, naturally (j-school kids: Terrible!), who mostly held forth on why, in his opinion, the Wire was important to society. But Simon got to speak too and it was probably good -- though, from what I vaguely remember, pretty ornery at times. I had recently read his first book, "Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets," which had been the basis for one of my favorite shows in high school, "Homicide: Life On the Street." NBC aired it on Friday nights so basically nobody watched it. But I was a dork and never had plans so I sat home with my mom and caught basically every episode. Anyway, the book was good, and I brought it to the talk. There was no official signing and I was a little bummed, but then afterwards I happened to see Simon on the downtown subway platform at 116th Street. I psyched myself up and went over to him and asked him to sign my book, and he did, and it would have been great if things had ended there. Unfortunately the train came right then, and we ended up getting on next to each other, and standing near each other, awkwardly. For some reason I tried to make conversation by saying something like, "Man, j-school kids -- terrible, huh?" He looked annoyed. I realized, too late, that he couldn't know I was a former j-school kid, and therefore that I was being at least a little bit self-deprecating. He muttered something like, "I thought it was a nice event," and then I didn't know what to say. After a long pause I asked him if his show about New Orleans had gotten a green light, and he said they weren't sure yet. Then he looked at me and I looked at him and I decided to go sit at the other end of the car.
Inscription: "All Best - David Simon 3/26/07"

Dan Barry, New York Times columnist. 2007 sometime
His columns about New York City, when he wrote for the Metro section, were great. (Check this one out for a taste.) They're compiled in a book called "City Lights: Stories About New York," and I went to see him read at a Barnes and Noble, I think, near NYU. At the time I was writing for the City section, and was about to start writing the section's front-page column, and he was somebody I specifically wanted to model my work on. There weren't a ton of people there, and I spotted a few people I recognized from the Times, but there were also some people who were obviously very devoted readers. Afterwards I got in line to get my book signed, and when it was my turn he started asking me all kinds of questions about myself, and acting sincerely interested, too. I didn't even get a chance, until after he had signed the book, to mention that I also wrote for the Times (though as a freelancer, as they were always careful to make sure I understood), and was starting a column. Eventually I got brave and told him, and he was really nice.  There was talk that we'd have coffee sometime and talk more, but it never worked out, for boring scheduling reasons. I still make a point of looking for his stuff, though.
Inscription: "To Jake -- From Long Island, now in Brooklyn -- like me. Dan Barry"

Carl Bernstein, reporter. April 2007
I was in Sag Harbor to write a story for the Escapes section (R.I.P.) about a rich guy's vacation home. At first I thought it was Bob Weinstein, the movie producer, but then they said no, it's a different Bob Weinstein. As it turns out, this Bob Weinstein probably has much cooler furniture -- not that I'm familiar with the movie producer's furniture, but this Bob made a pastime of scouring antique stores and Manhattan flea markets for mid-century modernist pieces: Eero Saarinen tables and whatnot. So I'm in Sag Harbor to see this house, and we decide to take a walk over to a design store that he particularly likes -- partly so I can get more of a sense of his decorating sensibility and partly, I imagine, so he can get his friend's store in the paper. In the store, a sort of schlubby older guy is browsing the driftwood candle holders or whatever, and I think, "That dude looks familiar." Bob Weinstein apparently had no such thought, but being in a chatty mood said something about the weather. They before you know it, they're hitting it off, going back and forth on the virtues of in-town vs. waterfront property in the Hamptons.  (As I recall, the feeling was that waterfront is nice but then you've got to worry about global warming.) All the while, my mind is locked in on a question: "Hey, is that Carl Bernstein?" I didn't want to interrupt, for some reason, and we were actually about to leave the store, when finally Bob Weinstein introduced himself to the guy. And the guy was like, "Nice to meet you. I'm Carl." I finally couldn't take it anymore, and said, "Carl Bernstein?" He said yes and I said, Oh hi, I'm a reporter and a big fan -- Watergate, etc. -- and I'm writing a story about this guy's house ... pointing over at Bob, who has kind of a blankish look on his face while he tries to remember who Carl Bernstein is. He caught up, though, and I think we then talked about whether Hillary Clinton was going to run for president. (Did he say no? I think he might have said no.)  And then Bob Weinstein, having fully recovered his bearings, invited Carl Bernstein back for a tour of his house. Bernstein -- who if he wasn't wearing flip-flops might as well have been -- said what the heck, and we all trouped over there on some narrow village street, and checked out the work in progress on the pool house. The Hamptons are so weird.

Pete Hamill, famous writer. March 2008
My friend and fellow reporter Jeff and I went to see a panel on column-writing that the Times put on. It was a thing they sold tickets to, to the public, but I somehow wrangled free ones, on account of being a freelancer with a column myself. Not that getting the tickets was easy for a person in that position, but they did materialize. Dan Barry was there and Jimmy Breslin, who was pretty cool, and Pete Hamill and some others. My dad is a big Pete Hamill fan, so I had tracked down this memoir he wrote about how he gave up drinking (I'm fuzzy because I didn't actually read it myself).  It was not super easy to find in my local stores but I got it, and went to the talk, which was good. Afterwards I waited in line to see Hamill, and when I got up to the front, tried to say something about how I always admired his writing and my dad was a big fan, but he just sort of grunted and held his hand out for the book and looked past me at the next person in line. I dunno, I don't want to say he was a jerk. Bad day, maybe? I had planned to borrow the book from my dad and read it, but decided nevermind.
Inscription: unknown.

Jon Lee Anderson, New Yorker writer, biographer, international journalist. September 2005
This guy writes incredibly ballsy stuff from places that most people generally try to avoid going to. I'm thinking of one piece where he hung around with gangsters in Rio, basically risking his life. Also Iraq, Egypt during their uprising, etc. And it should be said that this is not a young guy, or one who especially needs the money.  He was doing a talk at the Union Square Barnes and Noble, I think about his Iraq book, and we really wanted to go. Laura, having read him more, especially wanted to go. Anyway, we missed it for some reason, but went to the Barnes and Noble anyway and were hanging around and happened to spot Jon Lee Anderson, alone, sort of packing up his things to go home. Laura didn't want to bother him, but I, being generally the pushy one in the relationship, said I'd go over. I grabbed a copy of his Che Guevara biography off the shelf and walked up to him and said, "Excuse me, are you Jon Lee Anderson?" He said yes and I explained that it was almost my wife's birthday and we were big fans, even though we had missed his talk for whatever reason. He signed the Che book, and was really nice!
Inscription: "For Laura, With my best, on your birthday. Jon Lee Anderson, NYC 9/25/05"

Saki Knafo, Caroline Dworin, Greg Beyer, Katie Bindley, me. November 2010
We were all in a compilation of stories from the City section, which I think it's fair to say we all loved working for and missed a lot at that point. And still do, though I guess if you said some of us (me) need to move on, I'd concede your point.We all read our stories (and Helen Benedict, too, who is a way bigger deal than us but was totally gracious about that), and then afterwards there was a stack of books for us to sign. I remember a moment, when I was writing, "Thanks for reading! -- Jake Mooney" in book after book, when I thought to myself, "How is this not vandalism?" Though of course now, those guys are basically all legit famous, with hundreds of Twitter followers and whatnot, and I'm Pete Best or something. Still, I'm just saying that writing your name in a stranger's book is weird, and I wonder if it ever stops feeling that way.

Robert Caro, biographer. May 2012
He was at Barnes and Noble (who I swear is not paying me a fee for mentioning them so many times in here). I got there at the last minute and sat in the literal back row, about 50 yards away from him, before deciding to stand up, in an area behind that. The guy next to me let me borrow his binoculars, and later leaned over to say that he had been a teenage volunteer, in West Virginia, on some of Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty programs. Caro's talk was great as always, and actually made me a little teary-eyed when he talked about the poverty Johnson came from and how, consequently, he hated injustice for the rest of his life. (Not that he, Johnson, wasn't a complete dick a lot of time too, which Caro also chronicles in detail.) At the end of the talk they let people up to get their books signed, row by row, which meant that I was one of the last people to go up, out of hundreds. I decided it would be cool if my friend Wolfgang could take a picture of me with Caro, and gave him my camera. I got up to the podium, which was when I realized just how fast Caro was signing these books -- really fast, faster than you might think possible. It was a whole system: One of his assistants took the book from you and opened it to the proper page, then lined it up on the table next to all the other people's books, sliding the whole row down every couple of seconds as he wrote. Then a different assistant whisked each signed book away from him and handed it back to you. Maybe because it was getting late, I was getting serious Santa-Claus-in-A-Christmas-Story vibes. With the angry elves (though in this case, with degrees from Brown or wherever) herding everybody along. So I put my book down for the one assistant, took a deep breath, and said, in my friendliest voice, "Mr. Caro, could I take a picture with you?" He smiled and said, "Sure," and I said, "Well, my friend is right over ..." at which point both of the assistants, and I think maybe some other people too, started whisper-shouting, "He can't pose for pictures! He can't pose for pictures!" Before I knew it my book was signed and back in my hands and I was down from the podium, standing next to Wolfgang, who is a great computer programmer but maybe not the quickest photographer (though to be fair, my camera is crap).  Long story short, here's the picture he took:

Inscription: "Robert A Caro"

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jake,

    I loved this post--and your Dispatches column. They were for me what it sounds like Dan Barry's columns were for you.

    Anyway, I'm writing to see if I could discuss those pieces with you over a coffee or beer. They were my absolute favorite thing to read in the Times. I'm a Brooklyn writer and would like to do something similar--even if it is only for my blog.

    My email address is aparna.n(at)

    It would make my day to hear from you. Thanks so much.