Top o’ the World, Ma!

I arrive twenty minutes early. This time is necessary for the climb up to the Pearl Room atop Powell’s City of Books in Portland, surely the longest flight of stairs in the continental United States now that the upraised torch of the Statue of Liberty has been classified as an unacceptable security risk.

Given the number of folding chairs thoughtfully placed in the Pearl Room, my projected audience here in the stratosphere exceeds the estimate for Harry Potter at the mall. After terror, the first thing that strikes me is the extraordinary confidence placed in me by Powell’s management.

At t-minus ten minutes, I face a sea of empty chairs. Unfailingly cheerful and competent Powell’s staff (about to be stranded on a desert island? Choose Powell’s Staff!) assure me that the rather eccentric physics of the Pacific Northwest mean any appearance of the sun slows time considerably.

At t-minus five minutes, the sea is half empty…or half full, depending on your perspective. Said perspective in my case involves looking toward the audience rather than the podium, which at the moment is satisfactorially full of writer, teacher, performer, transsexual, and a nice seersucker shirt from J. Peterman.

At t-plus three minutes the hordes descend.

While the cheerful and competent Powell’s staff go for a crate of emergency back-up chairs, I disguise myself as a mild-mannered audience member. Briefly, I flirt with the idea of remaining in this position, but vanity wins out.

Besides, I note that the still-arriving hordes are getting smaller, not in size but in average dimensions. Either I’m the new N’Sync, or something very interesting is going on.

One of my previously-unsuspected teenage fan base has worn a black leather minidress and fuschia hair for the occasion. Another has carefully waxed his moustache. My heart melts, and I spring to the podium with the strength of thousands.

There follows an extraordinary evening. For more than an hour I get to watch squadrons of literary people, trans folk, crews of gay men, cadres of lesbians, camps of straights, knots of those who nest beneath the bookshelves at Powell’s and feed on lost backstock, mixed with slews of teenagers of all descriptions and united in a single psychic wave of good will, listening raptly to me and each other. The audience, in the way of audiences, believes this wonder of the world is entirely my doing.

Silly audience. I love you.

The mystery of my new youth cult is explained as the entire contents of Lewis and Clark College’s summer literary workshops for young writers. They will return to their homes all over the country, bearing copies of What Becomes You.

I have a posse. I now have a sacred responsibility to rock the world for all time.

Afterward, I seem to have become a celebrity. Writers as young as fourteen lead the way in asking smart questions; we discuss collaborative writing, the memoir format, culture shock in encounters with gender and society, and the challenges of shaping new language for forms of experience that change with every generation. And how the heck do you write with your mom

I feel old in the best possible way.

An elderly expatriate, a middle-aged trans man, and an adolescent boy and girl all bring up questions of transition, silence, and finding a voice. Burning questions respect no borders.

An earnest young man with the face of a very young Gary Cooper and a formal skirt with kick pleats asks me to sign his book, takes my hand, and thanks me gravely. A gray-headed teacher from Lewis and Clark buys a book and gushes. I gush back. A freckle-faced boy faces me with wide eyes, takes a deep steadying breath (this is a big moment, and Lassie is mysteriously absent), explains he’s on the debate team at school, and asks for help with his homework. His ninth-grade debate contest asks the Question of the Day:

“Do you think homosexuality is an inborn genetic defect, or is it a choice?”

Lassie, come quick! Tommy’s fallen in the well.

A squadron of Radical Faeries absconds me for martinis. Then it’s off to Castro Street. In San Francisco I’ll be reading at A Different Light, which, I am assured, is the nation’s choicest LGBT bookstore.

The word for the day, saith Merriam-Webster, is onomastics: the system underlying the forms and uses of words.

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2 Comments on “Top o’ the World, Ma!”

  1. Sean-Michael Says:

    Having spoken at A Different Light bookstore before, I can tell you that yes, it is what they say, yet a very different experience from what you described above I’m sure. I look forward to hearing about your experience. Were there any Sisters in the bunch of faerie?


  2. Aaron Says:

    I fear we were sadly Sister-free, as far as I know (my brother had a sister once, but that’s another story). For those not in the know, Sister-capital-S-Sister (as opposed to Sistah, sista, and other sister-like constructions), is one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, America’s foremost organization of whiteface clowns. I bow down to the Sisters and plug their website:

    And Sisters, the nun-shaped air freshener is hung (I’ll give you that one for free…) and the welcome mat is out.

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