When I stopped by a bookstore outside of Santa Barbara at this time last year, the shelves had many titles of interest, except one - mine. My father and son memoir had just been published and it was nowhere in sight.
I had given a reading the day before to a packed house in L.A., and I was riding a wave of nice reviews and Hollywood interest. How could this be? Clearly I needed to ask for the store manager and present my book and plead its case. But I was too crippled by my own dignity to do anything at all.
My father would have known exactly what to do in such a situation.
Joe Morris was a man who could talk to anybody. He could sing to anybody too, whether in elevators or supermarkets. If a celebrity was standing in front of a hotel, as Louis Armstrong was decades ago at a Holiday Inn in upstate New York, my father would engage him in conversation. I was always mortified, and told him to mind his business, even as everyone, from waitresses to fellow passengers, was charmed.
A few years ago, I was sitting with him in a park months after my mother had died, and he was in the market for new love. An attractive older woman walked past, and without missing a beat he introduced himself. How did he do it? I was single too at the time, and was always flustered by my inability to work a bar or party. Maybe I wouldn't have been so frustrated and lonely if I'd learned from him how to say hello to strangers.
Not that I'd ever tell him that. I just kept telling him to stop it.
Of course, nothing was worse than being promoted by him while waiting on line for a movie or a table at a restaurant. He would introduce me as his son, the well-known writer (to him I was) and then he'd pull clippings of my newspaper and magazine articles from his wallet to hand out. In my mind, I was unaccomplished because I had not yet written a book. But his delight was so profound with my modest career in journalism that he could not help but foist clippings upon the innocent and unknowing, with some of the enthusiasm of a father giving out cigars, yelling, "it's a boy!" It made me turn borscht red and flee. The staff at his bank had my clippings. So did his doorman and accountant. Along with hundreds of tennis balls, old x-rays, calcified doughnuts, and a cornucopia of allergy pills in a Styrofoam cup that he'd foist upon you if you sneezed, his car trunk was filled with newspapers and magazines containing articles I'd written.
As my self-appointed publicist, he'd promote me everywhere.
When he told me he had written to Who's Who in America to suggest I be included, I hit the roof.
"Dad! You can't do that! You're my father," I told him.
He looked dejected, as he so often did when I'd criticized him harshly.
"Is it such a bad thing that I'm proud of you?" he replied.
How ironic that he passed away just before there was actually something for him to promote. With visions of him in my head, I took a deep breath, stepped back into the Santa Barbara bookstore, asked for the owner and gave her a book and a review. She accepted happily, and I left, feeling giddy. Since then, my gregariousness has grown as my defenses have lowered. "Would you like me to sign some copies?" I now ask at bookstores. "I'd love to buy you one," I often say, hoping a sales clerk might become an in-store fan.
So what if the steely manager of the high-minded bookstore in my Manhattan neighborhood snubbed me? So what if my publisher recently sent a memo to authors not to harass bookstores by popping in unannounced? Clerks mostly seem pleased to meet me, as was the young woman I found reading my book at a Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Center. She told me she couldn't afford it. So, like a middle-aged book fairy with a credit card, I bought it for her, and told her, "Enjoy!" as I skipped off.
In a tough economic climate in which 200,000 new books a year fight for each reader, my sales figures could be better. But I take consolation knowing that my father would have considered being published a victory in itself, and only wish he could see me now, introducing myself to potential readers and finding pleasure in casual conversation.
My biggest regret is that I never had the grace to thank him for his pride in me, rather than chastise him for it.
You only get one father in your life, and he was mine.
"I've always been your biggest fan," he told me a year before he died.
It was mutual. I like to believe he knew that.