"I put a five dollar Best Customer coupon on the refrigerator by the list," said Anne before she left for work. "Don't forget it. And stick to the list."
So when the first thing that caught my eye after I walked into the big Fry's Marketplace that is our not especially close neighborhood grocery store was one of those three foot square cardboard displays piled with books and topped with a sign announcing Book Bargains Up to 80% Off, I was prepared to waltz right on by. Books are my weakness. But today I was operating with a budget and a list and neither of them included a new book. Besides, I knew from extensive experience that the three by three cardboard Bargain Book bins in grocery stores almost always are chock full of cheesy celebrity efforts, unappealing cookbooks, last year's bestselling thrillers by the James Patterson Consortium, and Romances. All of those are easy for me to pass by even when the checking account is flush and the attitude is Indulge Yourself.
But sitting on the top of this pile was a book by Tim Dorsey. "Electric Barracuda. I like Tim Dorsey. Not the way I like Donald E. Westlake or P.G. Wodehouse or Terry Pratchett, but he's still a writer whose work I enjoy. And I didn't have "Electric Barracuda". There was the issue of the list and budget, but wait, this hardback was priced at a mere five dollars. The coupon would pay for it. That made it free, right? I was fairly certain that is not how Anne would see it, but then I saw it. The sticker that said "Autographed Copy". How in the world did an autographed copy of a Tim Dorsey novel end up in the Bargain Box at Fry's Marketplace? On a featured table in Barnes and Noble or Changing Hands Bookstore after a book tour stop, and maybe even at Costco, but the grocery store? I opened the book and sure enough, there it was, an autograph. Now, for all I knew it could have been signed by Brad, the produce manager, but why would he do that? No, that had to be Tim Dorsey's genuine autograph, it just had to be. And that meant I had to buy the book.
Why is that?
I'm not sure. I've never been what you could call an autograph hound. At my last job, if we don't count the four months of not selling Saturn automobiles, I saw a pretty decent crop of celebrities and for the most part managed to keep myself from pestering them for their signatures. We had everyone from Jamie Farr (Corporal Klinger in the classic movie and even more classic television show "M*A*S*H) to Shaquille O'Neal to Senator John McCain to Alice Cooper in the store and as the manager my policy was to treat them just like any other customer. Sure, I did get to know Sun's point guard Kevin Johnson a little bit, we talked literature and history, which was really cool, and I delivered stuff to his huge house on Camelback Mountain a few times and one time when we were talking I just happened to let slip the fact that our son TJ was a collector of NBA trading cards and the next time Kevin came in with an autographed 5x7 photo. And Charles Barkley was a regular enough customer that I was emboldened to keep one of TJ's cards at the store just in case Sir Charles came by and was in a particularly good mood. Before to long he did and he was and TJ's card was sporting a genuine Charles Barkley autograph. No more than a week later one of the sports columnists in the Arizona Republic wrote an entire column on the peril of asking Barkley for an autograph. Not recommended unless one was willing to risk anything from a large cold shoulder to a cracked skull. To me Charles was gracious as could be, so either the columnist had his facts wrong or I lucked out. But both of those signatures were gotten for our son, a distinction that allows one to operate at least a bit outside ones usual code of conduct.
Besides, as far as I was concerned, an autograph was nothing special. What did I care if somebody scribbled their name for me
Unless, of course, those names were attached to people who were doing one of the two things I would love to do myself. Write books or play music. And up until maybe a dozen years ago I just hadn't put myself into situations where those sorts of autographs were available.
Anne has attended book signings at Changing Hands Bookstore and had face time with President Jimmy Carter (who makes just about everyone else, even perfectly nice people, seem like the fellow with the whip mustache who ties young women to train tracks in silent movies), and Madeline Albright, one of those people both of us would just love to have dinner with, learning about the world and how it works (and doesn't) and why. My first autographed book was a copy of Donald E. Westlake's "Don't Ask". Unfortunately, I had no idea Mr. Westlake was going to be at the Border's (RIP) just down the way from my store, so the copy I got was one left from the signing. It didn't matter that I already had a copy, this one had the sticker and signature. And damn it, I wanted to write Dortmunder novels, or something like them.
And then I entered an online contest that was part of a book launch by a brand new author name of Tanya Egan Gibson. The book was "How to Buy a Love of Reading" and the title and premise looked interesting and all you had to do was submit a paragraph about the book that had changed your life and in my case it was easy because "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" had taught me or at least reinforced for me just about everything I knew about being a decent human being and I ended up winning an autographed copy. Very cool.
And then we started attending concerts, something we hadn't done much of in the early part of our marriage, what with no money and kids and all that. And when we did get to a concert it was the kind where the performers left the stage, headed out the back door to their limo or bus, and basically skedaddled right after the last encore. Then one evening, a bit over a decade ago, we got tickets to see the Mark O'Connor How Swing Trio at the Chandler Center for the Arts. The music blew me away and guess what? In the program it said that after the performance Mark O'Connor, Frank Vignola and Jon Burr were actually going to be in the lobby and there would be CD's for sale and they would sign them! We hadn't figured another twenty dollars into the evening, but it was too good to pass. I got my first autographed CD. You can barely see Frank's signature--I guess somebody had stolen his Sharpie--but after being bowled over by his playing and the joy he brought to the stage, and being a failed guitar player myself, that barely discernible signature was a treasure.
But even that one can't quite compete with this double autograph. After waiting and waiting for Frank Vignola to make another appearance anywhere close to Phoenix, finally I saw on his website that he had a concert scheduled in Cottonwood. Close enough. Tickets purchased. Then I saw that he and his partner Vinnie Raniolo had a special engagement right here in Phoenix the day before the Cottonwood concert. Email for details. So that's what I did, expecting some prefab publicist response. Instead I got a return email directly from one of the Best Guitar Players on the Planet. The special engagement was at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery and sure, even though it was, strictly speaking, a private function, it would be just fine for me to come. He even gave me his phone number. So I arranged to get off work a bit early that day, sent a text to welcoming Frank and Vinnie to the Valley of the Sun, saw a bunch of beautiful guitars that the latest graduating class had made, watched Frank and Vinnie put on an amazing show, and then went up to introduce myself to Frank. Not an easy thing for a shy person like myself to do, but how often do you get a chance like that? He shook my hand warmly, said "Alan! My new friend!" and we had a very nice little conversation before he had to go.
The next day Anne and I drove up to Cottonwood for the concert. We got there early and secured front row seats. At intermission Frank and Vinnie went to a little side room to greet folks, sell CD's and sign autographs. I had already purchased my CD before the show, so I got in line and when I came up to the counter Frank exclaimed "Hello! Vinnie, I want you to meet Alan!" I reached out my hand to Vinnie, knocked over his open water bottle and flooded the counter holding the CD's. Embarrassed? Oh yeah. A couple of rags were quickly found and I sopped up as much of the water as I could, all the while apologizing like mad. Frank and Vinnie were gracious as could be, signed my CD, and Frank even talked to me from the stage during the second half of the show, talking about the Roberto-Venn School, not the fact that I had just irrigated his inventory. So if there is an autographed item I will always cherish it's that one, because it came with a story.
An even better story than finding an autographed novel in the bargain bin at Fry's Marketplace and paying for it with a Best Customer Coupon. Although I like that story too.