The Idiot Diaries: Davy Rothbart Launches His 79-City Book Tour
Over the next few months Davy Rothbart will be touring around America to promote his new book, My Heart Is an Idiot. These are his diaries from the road, updated every few days or whenever he feels like it.
Part I: 79 Cities or Bust
One hour before I hit the road with my brother on a 79-city book tour, I’m racing around my hometown—Ann Arbor, Mich.—at nine in the morning in my mom’s beat-up minivan, trying to locate a gift for a friend in Buffalo, where we’ll be performing the following night. The friend is Dr. Jerry Erion, a philosophy professor at Medaille College, who has hosted my brother and I at his school several times before, and the gift is a rare, special-edition Public Enemy box set that I scored a year before but have failed to ship to him, which I’ll now have the opportunity to present to him in person, if I can find it in the next 30 minutes.
The search necessitates a brief, nostalgic dash to a few old, favorite haunts: the house in downtown Ann Arbor where I lived the past eight years, before moving out to L.A. a year ago; the house of one of my best friends, a guy named Brande Wix, who I’ve known for 25 years and who helps me run Found Magazine; and finally, the Salvation Army Thrift Store south of downtown, where my ex-girlfriend, Sarah, also a Found employee, is an assistant manager. She has been using the old Found tour van to get around town, now that its touring days are over and it’s been put out to pasture. It’s in the back of the van that I find the box for Dr. Erion. Fuck yeah.
I pause for a minute, peering around the van for anything else I might need on tour this year. In past years, on previous cross-country tours, I’ve lived out of this van—slept inside of it dozens, maybe hundreds of nights. It feels odd to be leaving it behind and hitting the road in some soulless Enterprise rental. I also feel kind of homesick for my hometown. I miss my old house; I miss my old friends; I miss driving this van. There’s no time to get too reflective, though. I grab my lucky bottle opener and the Living Colour Vivid CD from the center console, and head home to help my brother pack the rental van. We’re due in Pittsburgh in six hours.
It’s Tuesday, Sept. 4. The date has been etched in my mind for a year—the release date of my book of personal essays, My Heart Is an Idiot, and also the start date of our massive tour. Now, a couple of hours later, as my brother, Peter, pilots us south on M-23 toward the Ohio Turnpike in a soft rain, I hazily watch the windshield wipers in motion, dazed from two all-nighters in a row (filled with furious preparations for the trip) and from the notion that a day that always seemed so far in the future has actually arrived.
What does an author expect from Publication Day? A call from the president? An HJ from every stranger they meet? Kind of, yes! Pub Day means the culmination of years of hard work, and it doesn’t feel unreasonable that the world would stand up and take notice. But even if it’s been circled on your calendar for months as this magical Holy Day, you soon discover that it’s still just another day to the guy cutting you off in traffic or the girl at the gas station who shorts you a buck in change. That’s all right—I’ll settle for a few generous texts from friends and a contented feeling in my gut as we leave Michigan and enter Ohio, and I begin to doze off in the passenger seat, the sleeve of my hoodie wrapped around my head, listening to the squeak of the wipers and the fevered voices of some fantasy football podcast my brother is listening to over the van’s speakers.
This, though, is part of the reason I’ve scheduled a 79-city book tour: I won’t let My Heart Is an Idiot’s publication pass unnoticed. I’ve worked on this book for five years and I want motherfuckers to read it, even if it means me going to every town in the country and personally beseeching people to pick up a copy. Going to 79 cities also means I’ll get to celebrate the book’s publication on 79 separate nights, not just on Pub Day. It means I’ll get to see old friends in dozens of cities, and roam around the country for a while, which is my favorite thing to do. Also, it’s my hope that with enough luck, determination, and positive word of mouth, I can will the book to success. All my life I’ve wanted to be a writer—and now I guess I am one—but I know that if I ever want to get paid to write another book, I’ve got to move some serious units. My whole life, I’ve been scraping by as an artist—doing the work I love to do, yes, but always half-broke, always hustling, relying on my Discover Cashback Bonus and Subway Club Card to get me through the next day. Whenever I see old-timers working the streets in L.A., hawking baseball tickets outside Dodger Stadium, I fear I’m looking at future versions of myself, since I’ve been in and out of the ticket trade myself since I was in sixth grade.
The dream is this: My book becomes a bestseller. I never have to scalp tickets or fill in at Bell’s Pizza again. But books become bestsellers only through a perfect storm—having the right content that really resonates with people and the right media coverage to get the word out. In a way, authors have very little control over the success of their own books, and when lightning strikes it often strikes unexpectedly, as I’ve been told by Elizabeth Gilbert, who had no clue that her book Eat, Pray, Love would have the run that it’s had. Still, I’m going to do everything I can do to give my book a chance for success, even if it means cramming myself in a rented minivan with my brother for 99 days. This book and this tour represents my best hope for a move up in life, and I’m gonna take my goddamn hacks at the plate and see if I can’t will the ball into the center-field bleachers.
First stop. Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School is located in a town called Midland, Pa., one of a series of small, ragged, postindustrial hamlets between Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, and also home to the Beaver Valley nuclear-power plant, which belches clouds of white steam from its cooling towers across the gray sky as we roll down 9th Street, into the high-school parking lot. It’s past 5 p.m.; our opening show of the tour is in the school’s auditorium at 6.
Peter and I scramble inside, and he gets the sound system going while I spread out our merchandise on an eight-foot table in the lobby—copies of Found Magazine, Peter’s new folk album, and my new book, My Heart Is an Idiot. This is the first day the book has been out, and it gives me quiet pleasure to see the bright green covers sprawled across a table, available, potentially, for someone to purchase and take home and read.
Usually I like to arrive two hours before a show, so there’s time to set up and then cool out in the van for a while and get my notes in order, figure out what I’m going to read, listen to some hype music, and down some drinks. Today, we’re running late, and there’s time only to change from my sweaty T-shirt into a fresh one, take a brief “tour shower”—some hastily applied Old Spice deodorant and a few spritzes of coconut body mist—and rock one Living Colour track (“Cult of Personality”) while pounding a PBR. Then it’s in to the show.
Dan Leroy, the school’s literary-arts director (also a badass jazz musician) gives me a generous introduction, and I get up onstage and do my thing. There’s about 75 students in the small theater, plus some older locals, drawn in by a feature that just ran in the Beaver Country Times. It may seem random to celebrate Pub Day with a bunch of high-school kids in a remote Rust Belt town, but in a way it also feels incredibly appropriate, since My Heart Is an Idiot is largely about adventures I’ve had with strangers in some of the most lonely reaches of the country. I read a bunch of favorite finds from Found Magazine and two essays from the new book; Peter sings a few beautiful, haunting, and ridiculous songs based on Found notes.
Out in the lobby, afterward, I find myself signing copies of my brand-new book—born that day—for the first time. It’s a thrill, though I realize I haven’t yet invented anything clever to write inside. For a book that includes so many stories of misadventures in love (and in life), this phrase, cooked up on the spot, seems to fit: “Learn from my mistakes!”
Peter tells me—once we’ve packed up the van and are tooling toward a nearby motel—that we sold 33 copies of My Heart Is an Idiot. The book has existed only on my laptop for the last five years, read by my editor, Sean McDonald, and my mom, and nobody else. Now it’s an actual book, and 33 people have copies of it in their hands. It’s an encouraging start.
I drop Peter off at our shambling inn, and zoom off down a two-lane highway in our rental van on the hunt for food, blasting Ice T’s album Power. After 10 miles, I reach the town of Beaver, Pa., nab a sub sandwich from a pizza shop right before they close, and sit on a wet bench in a misting rain, enjoying my dinner, sipping on a bottle of Corona, and reflecting for a minute. I can’t believe this day is actually here, that this book is actually out. Soon, I’ll head back to the hotel, maybe phone a friend or two out west, but for now I’m happy, watching traffic saunter past on Main Street on a rainy night in Beaver; for now, I’ll just chill here for a few and finish this beer, and maybe one more.