This story was first published on my blog here.
“Kids! Ick!” I think to myself, reading the San Francisco Litquake 2012 volunteer’s program. Just what I need. More dirty feet, belching, runny noses and loud voices. What a chore. But everything else on the program looks even worse. I mean, grown-up dirty feet, belching, runny noses and loud voices—bigger ick! So I signed up, and it was awful.
First there were a lot of Kindergarteners who didn’t even make it to Kidquake because, as rumor has it, Muni bus drivers wouldn’t pick them up. Perhaps these tots looked too dangerous. I’ve only recently learned that in California’s new era of fiscal austerity, school buses are a quaint remnant of a golden era of school transportation. San Francisco’s kids will one day tell their children how they had to squeeze between Chanel No.5 soaked commuters on the F train just to make it to school on time. Maybe by that time, their kids will fly on commuter jets to their third choice of charter schools. But can you imagine small sets of five year olds standing on sidewalks looking excited and revved to go to Kidquake, while Muni drivers stepped on the gas? These drivers should be fired immediately, arrested, and locked up in a spiderweb-filled castle, but only after being turned into tan and white spotted hamsters who are fed nothing but cold French fries for the rest of their short, miserable little lives which they will spend running away from cat-sized spiders.
Of course, those kids reputedly left standing on sidewalks like, well, abandoned orphans were actually among the luckier kids that day. The ones who did make it to the San Francisco Central Library for Kidquake were in for a nasty surprise.
You see, grown-ups tell people they love books, but it’s a bunch of malarkey. Which is Irish for a horse’s pucky. Grown-ups tolerate books, at best. They read books while they’re commuting, or right before they nod off to sleep. Grown-ups, for all their book clubs, and lit’ry talk at parties, find sleeping, of all things, more fun than reading. Snore. Kids, on the other hand, know how to climb into books like Lucy slipping into a psychedelic wardrobe, or Harry Potter standing on Platform 9¾. Ask any kid which matters more, a good, scary book or a sound night’s sleep and she will let you know that this is why God invented flashlights under the sheets. In fact, it’s kind of weird, for kids, that there are authors. They’ve heard about them like maybe they’ve heard of the Loch Ness Monster, Charybdis, Nosferatu, or Ronald Reagan. But they’ve never seen one before. So they tumble into the library a bit nervous and excited.
Of course the biggest shock of all, and it is an awful, terrible surprise for all the very small, innocent children who have never met an author before, is that authors are old. Older even than parents. They wear glasses. They can be kind of lumpy, splotchy, bald or otherwise goofy looking. Three five-year-olds clutch their hello kitty purses, trying not to stare.
“Who here has been to the library before?” First a few hands, then everyone is waving their arms like flags in typhoon weather. One cute little first grader, and I think she could be a compulsive liar, says “I been to the library one thousand times.” She emphasizes it, one thousand times, but I’m suspicious because that very day she received her first library card and she’s fist-pumping it into the air like a winning lottery ticket. Anyway, my personal rule is to never trust a child to tell you the truth when it comes to the library.
“Children, keep your voices down.” This is from one of the spoilsports known as a teacher. Everybody walks inside in a line holding his or her “buddy”’s hand. These kids are hoping that their “buddy” will protect them, should one of those gray-haired authors try to snatch them and take them home to be their own sweet children and to write a new series of popular children’s books about them. That’s probably the way these authors wrote all their other books. Every one of the authors on stage claim that they were children once, but what are the odds?
Of course, all the kids at Kidquake have a favorite author, and all the children’s favorite author wrote a book about underpants. If anyone has ever thought of a better subject for a book, not a single child in the San Francisco library at 10:15 a.m. on October 9, 2012 can imagine what it might be. The underpants author gets the most questions and the loudest applause. The other authors have to stand up on stage with him, and maybe a few get paid for showing up. But most kids spend the whole time squirming in their seats, thinking about underpants. There’s even a seven year old existentialist. She takes a while to put her question together and the audience waits, solemnly.
“Why do people wear underpants?”
And just like that, questions and answers are over. Thank-you, children. And then it’s Day Two, and there are some older kids and longer books and no authors with books about underpants. I mean, everyone assumes that the new set of authors at the very least are wearing underpants, but not one of us is courageous enough to inquire.
Lemony Snickets is rumored to be in the building. But the people who claim to have seen him may be lying. Or maybe the people claiming not to have seen Lemony Snickets are lying. Or maybe Snickets doesn’t come on stage because he doesn’t like children. Except slow-roasted with gravy, carrots and potatoes. His friend Daniel Handler brings an ice chest filled with smoke and a new manuscript. He wears pointy shoes and he’s funny. If you like funny. There are some other great authors on stage and a lot of good books to read. But this is dispiriting, because there’s only so much time in the world, and knowing there’s yet another good book out there that I have to read just makes it that much harder for me to read all of the wonderful books I already know exist. But one author on stage wrote a book about a gorilla named Ivan that lived in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington for most of his life, and he liked to ball up his poop and throw it at people. I grew up near Tacoma. When I say “grew up” I don’t mean I was ever a child. Only that I was a born shorter than I am now and I grew to my present height in Seattle, Washington which is near Tacoma, Washington. So I happen to know that Tacoma is known as a place that once smelled like gym shorts. My question is, how did a gorilla growing up in the jungle of the Democratic Republic of Congo end up living in a mall in stinky Tacoma? I must know, so I have no choice at all but to read The One and Only Ivan.
And I have to read another cool looking book about a futuristic San Francisco. Pink rats! I’d better get an early start on Bridge of Time. And the author Mike Jung liked his own book so much, when I held up the two minute sign, he just kept reading. It must be great because he was enjoying reading it even in an auditorium filled with squirmy, sweaty, giggling, cheering, and sometimes farting children. I’m bummed and this is quite awful for me, wanting and needing to read Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities, and Penny Warner’s The Mystery of the Haunted Caves too, because that one also sounded irresistible.
So overall, Kidquake was horrific. And when they weren’t laughing, squirming, cheering, smelling their feet, or thinking way too much about underpants, sleuths, superheroes, or poop-throwing gorillas, the kids looked truly sorry to be there. On Day Two a whole row of little boys and girls from the Chinese school walked out, chanting quietly to themselves “Cheesie Mac, Cheesie Mac, Cheesie Mac” which sounds like some sort of dangerous witch’s spell. And I was relieved Daniel Handler didn’t read more of his stories because most of us can’t stand his books. Or the charming voice he uses to read onstage. Or, rumor has it, that he sometimes signs books to children like this: “dear future orphan.” Ok, that last item is funny. If you like funny. But overall, Kidquake was so terrible and miserable I might have to do it again next year if I’m cursed and unlucky enough to have time on my hands. But I’m praying that that doesn’t happen, or if it does, that I’m fortunate enough to catch the wrong Muni bus to get there.