Friday, February 11, 2011

Why I Don't Volunteer

Several months ago I attended an event sponsored by the Savannah Book Festival, my first. I went because I wanted to hear James Swanson, whose book Manhunt I found positively riveting, speak about his new book. I got there early and sat up front, in the second row, and never paid much attention to the crowd gathering behind me. It was held in a church (very typical in Savannah) located on one of the squares. It was a nice cozy setting, although I would rather it had been held in a church with padded pews (Methodists!). It wasn't until afterward, when those in attendance filed into a small room to buy Swanson's books and/or have them signed, that I noticed there were a lot of middle-aged gentlemen in the group. The glimmer of a thought began to grow.

My children never really asked me for advice in matters of the heart; however, that never stopped me from offering it up on a regular basis. "Go to a bar to meet someone, and you will end up with someone who spends his (her) time in a bar. Now think. Is that really what you want?" Go to a sports bar and you will get a double whammy: The cacophony of ten or twelve massive, blaring, television screens with various games being played at once...every spray of spit and drop of sweat amplified larger than life, and in High Definition to boot, so real you can almost smell the stinky, grungy socks of the players. (Does it seem hot in here to you? Is anyone else getting dizzy? Hold on while I crack open a window and reach for my smelling salts.) Better. A sports bar is my idea of what Hell must be like; I don't want to go there.

I mention this because standing in line waiting to get my books signed by Swanson, it dawned on me that I am totally out of practice when it comes to looking for Mr. Right. In introducing the guest speaker, a fellow who was on the committee for the event mentioned that the Book Festival would be held during President's Day Weekend in February 2011 and they were seeking volunteers. That's when I had my light-bulb moment.

It made sense that I would find Mr. Right at the Book Festival! After all, there was some certainty we would at least have one thing in common, i.e. reading. Which would mean he would be, at the very least, literate. And there would be no trouble picking Mr. Right out of the crowd because I have a pretty good idea what he looks like. He's a handsome middle-aged gentleman with a strong jaw, graying at the temples, with beautifully maintained teeth (preferably his own), and he's financially secure. Just picture Mitt Romney. Well...Mitt Romney's older brother...much older brother. Okay, hold that picture in your mind. Now, allowing for the fact that I am in Savannah and not Hollywood, I do have to do a little tweaking of Mr. Right's image because, let's face it, no one here looks as good as Mitt Romney. Much as one does with opera glasses, I twiddle with the lenses until he comes into focus. Ahh. There he is: Mitt Romney's near-sighted, slightly overweight, balding, toothy-grinned much older brother. With a fabulously renovated home in the historic district. That includes a gourmet kitchen, Viking appliances, hand-turned moldings and original, refinished oak or heart-of-pine floors. On Jones Street! Isn't he a dream boat?

In excited anticipation of wonderful things on the horizon, I logged on to the Festival's website and headed for the volunteer page. But, just as I was about to hit the "send" button, a small voice whispered in my ear, "Hold on there, Pardner. Not too fast on the trigger." (The voice spoke with a Texas Cowgirl accent for reasons I can't explain.) I thought about the Festival being held on a three-day weekend. Those don't come along every week. I stared out the window, chin in my hand, fingers tapping my cheek. My desk was a vast, dry wasteland of papers and files with a phone that was always blinking - and beeping - and buzzing. But out there - stretched far into the distance - was a three-day weekend, an oasis glistening in shades of tranquil blue-green. It even had a palm tree. Did I really want to give up my entire three-day weekend to volunteer for the Festival?

I backed up a few pages on the website. It promised over three dozen "celebrity authors." Lisa Genova is the keynote speaker and I was planning on going to hear her speak anyway. (I found it difficult to put "Still Alice" down.) Karl Rove will be there. Love him or hate him, he's got to be pretty interesting. So far, so good. Volunteers were to be provided with colorful Savannah Book Festival T-Shirts. Already, I wasn't liking this. I tried to imagine walking up to Mr. Right in my chosen-by-someone-else T-Shirt rather than in an outfit that I picked because of the wonderful things the color did for my eyes. And the lure of complimentary coffee and pastries didn't seem like compensation enough for giving up a Saturday.

But the real clincher was the apprehension I would be given the task of "Author Host" which, according to the site, required "a significant time commitment." Uh-oh. Touted to be "an extremely important position, since you will be the author’s first and most intimate impression of the Festival. Requires punctuality, tact, enthusiasm and an ability to anticipate the needs of others without being intrusive." My palms began to sweat and my teeth began to itch. What if I had to drive someone around town whose work had about as much relevancy for me as, say, The Memoirs of Justin Beiber? According to the information provided, some authors needed more "hand holding" than others. It would be just my luck that I'd be holding hands with some fleshy-fingered, cigar smoker...instead of with Mr. Right. This wasn't sounding too good at all.

I envisioned myself driving around town with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding hands with a perfect stranger pointing out the sites. "Over there you'll see the monument where Tomochichi is buried." Then, of course, I would have to go into a long-winded explanation of who Tomochichi was. "And this building was used by General William Tecumseh Sherman as Union headquarters after the North invaded Savannah." "That's the house where the antiques dealer shot his young boyfriend, and then that fellow wrote that dopey book about the murder, which was turned into an even dopier movie." At some point, old fleshy-fingers would declare he wanted to be driven to that famous restaurant and have a chat with that famous FoodNetwork personage, and order up some of those really famous batter-dipped, deep-fried candy bars. At that point, I know I would slam on my brakes and come to a screeching halt. "Out! Get Out Now!" So much for tact; however, I think I could maintain some enthusiasm at that juncture.

By the time I drove myself back to the Festival and found a place to park, difficult on non-Festival days, I would arrive just in time to see Mr. Right schmoozing a middle-aged strumpet with big, blond hair, bangle bracelets half-way up to her elbow, and full theatrical make-up. Look at her batting her spidery eyelashes at my Mr. Right! And see how she's nudging him with her acrylic nails painted Hells Bells Red! Oh, dear. There they go, strolling arm-in-arm like an old married couple. I see myself standing dejected in my puce T-shirt; tears welling and dropping with a plink-plunk onto my plastic "Hello, I'm Grad" volunteer badge. Damn Book Festival! But then I notice something...something someone who was less observant may have missed...and I know my years spent in the company of Sherlock and Hercule were not wasted. I smile a Mona Lisa smile of mystery.

The blond strumpet made one fatal error that morning. And I noticed it. She should never have pulled those stretch pants out of the closet. Of course, Mr. Right, while walking side-by-side with her, all cozy, could not have noticed. Not yet. But, they were headed for that cafe on the opposite side of the square. And he, being my ideal, was undoubtedly a gentleman. As they approached the door of the coffee shop he, as I knew he would, stood back a bit and pulled the door open with his right hand, his left hand gently resting on her back to guide her in. In a moment she would be directly in front of him.

I, of course, anticipated what would happen next and I was sorely tempted to watch the drama unfold. But I looked away. I just couldn't bear to see my Mr. Right's semi-handsome face fall as his hopes and dreams of a love-match shattered into tiny pieces. Quite simply, what he would see as Big-Haired Blondie edged her way through the door would inevitably remind him of ten pounds of sausage stuffed into a five pound sack. Further, the image would ruin his appetite. He would ask for his coffee in a "to go" cup. He would be out the door in five minutes...ten at the most. Poor darling Mr. Right. But there would be someone close by...quietly observing...who would be waiting to pick up the fractured bits. Who you might ask? Why, She of course. She of the age-appropriate wardrobe and sensible shoes. She who certainly will not volunteer next year, either.