Back in the day when I sat through a lot of command-performance family Sunday drives, I made up a mental game for myself that I called Zebra/Button. My idea was that if you thought hard enough, you could find a connection between anything in the world and any other thing, no matter how unrelated they seemed — even a zebra and a button. I whiled away many a tedious hour discovering threads of connection that I was sure would relegate me to the status of savant if I ever deigned to tell anyone what I knew.
Many years later, I was working at my first job in the editorial department of North Point Press. The lion’s share of my time was spent organizing and responding to the “slush pile,” the literal piles of manuscripts stacked up in listing towers all over my office. I was all but buried in manuscripts, and periodically my bosses and I would take armfuls and read until it became obvious whether the manuscripts in question had any hope of being published by our small literary press. Most of them just didn’t fit into the categories of books championed by North Point, but as I wrote in Cakewalk, every once in a while we were rewarded “by something priceless popping up — sometimes good, though more often something so thrillingly bad it became the topic of our weekly Friday afternoon staff parties. My favorite was the epic novel about a nineteenth-century livestock drive across the western plains, a heroic tale of wanderlust and bravery and tragic consequences, of murderous rustlers and five-thousand-head stampedes and rugged male bonding that could have been another Lonesome Dove except that the earnest author’s crusty, do-or-die protagonists were wrangling a flock of turkeys.”
Regardless of the quality of the writing of the tomes surrounding my desk, I never ceased to be impressed by the physical evidence of so much blood, sweat, and tears, the vision and tenacity of so many people who had not just managed to write a whole book, but possessed the courage it so obviously took for them to send their work out into the world for the assessment of strangers. North Point was a place with high ideals, and I took those ideals to heart, writing something encouragingly personal and signing my name to every rejection slip I sent out with the manuscripts I returned to their hopeful authors.
One of those authors was a local writer named Amos Hanks, who had submitted his hand-written memoir for the approval — or not — of North Point’s editors. If you’ve read Cakewalk, you already know who Amos Hanks is. But whether you’ve read Cakewalk or not, there’s more to the story…
Amos Hanks’ memoir just wasn’t the kind of book North Point published. He was a regular guy who’d been in, I think, the Navy, and most of his memoir detailed jobs working as a short-order cook in the Bay Area and car camping with his kids. In my rejection letter I wrote that I too remembered the pre-seatbelt-law days of rolling around in the back seat of my parents’ station wagon.
Amos was an amiable guy who didn’t want to take no for an answer, it turned out, and he was willing to make a deal. If I’d reconsider publishing his book, he told me over the phone, he could set me up with his son. Tom Hanks.
That’s the part of the story I told in Cakewalk. But as I’ve said before, my manuscript got way too long, and some of it ended up in another version of a slush pile. Such as the varied enticements Amos Hanks dangled in front of me to try to get me to publish his book:
“He’s a great kid, my Tom. A really good boy. He went to Skyline High, you know it, in Oakland? But you don’t have to go to Oakland — he knows Berkeley like the back of his hand! He was a busboy at Spenger’s Fish Grotto. I bet he could still get you a discount on a nice fish dinner.”
“He’s gonna be a big star! You just watch, this movie with the mermaid is just the beginning. Maybe you saw him in his tv show, Bosom Buddies? You did? So I don’t have to tell you, he likes girls. He’s a real gentleman.”
“Well, he’s divorced. Well, not yet. But his kids are real good kids. And he’s been split up from their mother for a while. He’s been dating a real nice girl, Rita, but it’s not like they’re married or anything! I mean, married to Rita. Just the first one. But like I said, they’re just dating. He’s gonna be a big star, the world is his oyster! And what’s the harm in a nice fish dinner?”
A few years later, having not had a nice fish dinner with Tom Hanks, I was living in the tiny beach town of Pacific Grove on the Monterey coast. I had a little baby and a bad marriage to a mostly absent husband and a very large untrainable dog in a tiny, drafty house. My life was like that puzzle about the boat, the fox, the chicken and the bag of seed: all of it needs to get across the river in the boat, but only one at a time, so in what order do you take them across the river so nothing gets eaten? In my case, it was about how to keep the baby, the dog, and myself fed, safe, and reasonably sane with absolutely no help.
One day I set out with the baby, the dog, the stroller, extra diapers, snacks, and plastic bags for our regular daily walk. During the night I’d been bitten on the face by a spider, and I looked like Mount Vesuvius was angrily erupting on my forehead. It was pouring rain, and I couldn’t get through any of the police barricades that had been set up all over my little town: a movie was being shot on the main street, and I had to walk across the soggy bottom of a hillside to get to a place where I could let my wild young dog loose without having him run into traffic.
Right after my dog had run by the stroller at 50 miles an hour and sprayed the baby, me, and himself completely with mud, I heard shouting. “Hey! That dog! What is it!” It was a man’s voice. I looked up and saw two tall men in suits hurrying down the hillside. It was Tom Hanks and a bodyguard. Tom was the one yelling about my dog.
My dog responded by running up to Tom Hanks and leaping at him, rearing to his full height and placing his huge muddy paws on Tom’s lapels.
“Great dog!” Tom enthused as he tousled my dog’s filthy head. “What is he? Are they good with kids? I’m making a movie in town with a dog, but he slobbers in slimy ropes…”
As Tom and I chatted about dogs, I started wondering if I should say, “Hey, did you know your dad tried to set us up?” And then I gradually realized that not only was I dripping wet and still wearing maternity clothes a good six months after my son was born, but I looked like a three-eyed gorgon with my spider bite, and I was holding a plastic bag full of dog poo. I beat a hasty retreat as soon as I could wrestle my dog off of Tom Hanks’ suit.
Fast forward another few years. I was attending some kind of celebratory ceremony in Oakland for Rawley Farnsworth, the drama teacher from Skyline High School, and there were rumors that his former student, Tom Hanks, was going to make an appearance. Oh no, him again? I thought, and almost didn’t go. One of the authors I worked with at North Point, Anne Lamott, has a great descriptive phrase for people like me who have that combination of egotism and abasement borne of having narcissistic parents: you’re the “piece of shit around which the world turns.” Great, I was thinking about Tom Hanks, who, if he showed up, would be surrounded by hundreds of people, but nonetheless, I was sure, he’ll see me and say, Hey, there’s that dumpy young mother with the third eye and the dog poo bag who ruined my suit. But my soon-to-be second husband, Gary, was covering the event for the newspaper he worked for at the time, and he talked me into going.
So there we were in some lovely old theatre in Oakland, and as the rumor of Tom Hanks actually being in the building swelled to a crescendo of excited whispering, I realized I had to pee. I wandered around at the back of the theatre trying to find the women’s bathroom through the falls of heavy velvet curtains. I managed to pull a couple of curtains aside, and found myself staring into a room backstage, where a bunch of people with walkie-talkies were crowded around Tom Hanks. Oh god, would he never leave me alone!
“Sorry, just looking for the ladies’ room,” I mumbled as I turned and fled, though absolutely nobody had noticed I was there.
But is Tom ever satisfied? Oh no. A few years ago I traveled to Greece to meet with artist and art historian Euphrosyne Doxiadis, one of the premier experts on the Fayum portraits of Greco-Roman Egypt. A portrait in Euphrosyne’s book, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, had inspired my second novel (six years later, it’s almost done), and we were going to spend several days together at her home on a small Greek island before I traveled on to Egypt for more research.
Euphrosyne met me at the Athens airport with an apology.
“I’m so sorry, Kate, but I’m afraid our time may be cut short by some socializing. There are some friends of friends from Hollywood staying on another island nearby, and they’ve invited us to visit. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not,” I said, though I was eager to spend every minute possible talking to Euphrosyne about her own research. “Who are they?” I asked.
“Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson and their family.”
When Euphrosyne and I arrived on the island where Tom and Rita were vacationing with their family, Tom was just walking back to the house from a swim in the pool. They couldn’t leave their house, even swim in the ocean, because the paparazzi were camped out in speed boats along the beach. Even so, they’d set out an opulent Greek lunch, some of it prepared expertly by Rita’s mother, and greeted us like old friends.
“Actually, we’ve kind of met before…” I told Tom.
“Oh my god, that was Turner and Hooch,” he said when I told him that I was the lady with the huge muddy Scottish deerhound in Pacific Grove. He didn’t seem to remember the spider bite or the dog poo.
“That sounds just like your dad!” Rita said after I told them about my conversation with Tom’s father.
After lunch they gave us a tour of their house. On Tom’s side of the bed was a copy of Dan Brown’s mega-bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code.
“A friend gave it to me to read,” Tom said, smiling and seeming a little chagrined. We’d just spent several hours talking about politics and history and literature and art, and I’d given them a copy of Wintering, which Rita placed on her side of the bed. “What can I say?” Tom continued. “I’m on vacation. And it’s definitely a page-turner.”
So…what does this have to do with ingredients and what to do with them? Or zebras and buttons?
Nothing. I just like the story. I’ll get to the ingredients and stuff next time.
(And thanks to Cynthia Dobbs for reminding me of the Anne Lamott quote!)