At ALA last month, Toby handed out buttons that said “Last night a library saved my life,” and on Tuesday night, that phrase kept running through my head. Kind of. Instead of library, though, I heard author.
Okay, backing up.
A few days before ALA, Leah wrote to ask if I was available to help at an event on July 9th. Stefan, her boyfriend, is the manager at Unabridged Books and they were having an author event and it was going to be pretty large and would I be interested in helping and OH BY THE WAY the author is Neil Gaiman.
Let’s just pause and breathe.
I showed up this past Tuesday unsure of what to expect, or even what I would be doing. I did not expect to be heating water for Mr. Gaiman’s tea. Or to listen to him tell bizarre stories while he efficiently pre-signed hundreds of books. Or to stand at the base of the stage while he did a sound check.
I also didn’t expect the mob of people that swarmed the small table where I and another volunteer sold copies of just about every Gaiman title available. The cash and credit cards were flying and people were so excited to get just “one more book,” or “the one they hadn’t been able to find,” or “this is my favorite title and I love this cover,” or “I’m buying a copy for a friend so they’ll finally read something by him.”
But what I really didn’t expect, and what took me completely by surprise, was the level of joy that this man brings to people’s lives. Leah and I worked the signing table. Ruth was given the task of uncapping Sharpies for the author which, frankly, would have reduced me to tears just from the fear of uncapping the wrong one or jerking my hand in panicked seizure and marking the man’s face with silver. I greeted people at one end of the table, collected their books or other items to be signed, and prepped them — opening the books to the correct title page, verifying how many items could be signed, placing the item to be personalized on top of all the others — before passing them to Leah, who in turn passed them to Neil. Our main job was to keep the line moving, to prevent large gaps, and to make sure Neil was never kept waiting. There were over 700 people who would be lining up, and though I’d been told that this event was on the small side, that’s still quite a few people.
Over the course of several hours, I listened to people tell Neil Gaiman how his writing, his stories, he changed their lives. The daughter that now has a relationship to her father because of Neil’s books. The countless number of aspiring authors who credit him with helping them find their voices. The copies of Coraline inscribed to Coralines as yet unborn. The travelers from all over the Midwest who came just to shake his hand. The friends bearing books from family members and best friends too ill to make the trip. The numerous handmade gifts — quills and ink, bookmarks, a Cyberman head, an intricate papercut, pop-up Tardis card. So many photos from past Neil Gaiman signings and meetings. Notes and stories from those times, and people just wanting to come back to tell him how much they treasure the time he was able to give them.
The children. So many children. The little girl who announced that she had been waiting her whole life to meet him and his response that he had been waiting her whole life to meet her. The little boy who spoke about birthday cake for a good three minutes and to whom Neil listened intently and without distraction.
I stood and watched people’s faces when they would come around the corner and see Neil Gaiman, some for the first time, some for the hundredth. But each time the person would smile, a little awestruck, a little shy. Seeing their favorite author sitting less than six feet from them transformed each and every one of their faces. And I listened to the stories, the thanks, the tears, and the gratitude. And sometimes the silence, as a person was just overwhelmed, and Neil’s gracious thanks and appreciation in return.
And at the end of the night, when the last person had left with their books, Leah — my sweet, dear friend — faced Neil Gaiman and told him that all night, as she stood next to him, she had listened to so many people tell him that they were librarians and she just wanted to say that she, too, was a librarian, and the amazing work he has done for the field and for the workers and for the stories had not gone unnoticed. She thanked him for that, and she thanked him for “using his powers for good,” and she shook his hand. And with that small gesture, the entire weight of the night landed square on me.
I tend to be a pretty cynical person. I dislike people in general. I don’t always see the good in something. But that night, I witnessed something amazing. Incredible. Awesome in the true sense of the word. I saw the impact that a single person can have on another soul, and it was brilliant. Truly.
Last night an author saved a lot of lives.