Saturday, December 3, 2011

Field trips with Tom Bailey

For the past week, Tom has been talking about this mystery trip he was going to take his Intro Fiction classes on. He said we'd meet at 4:05 on Friday outside the library, then he'd walk us to a bus station and take us to an undisclosed location to buy us presents.

We were pretty sure we were being kidnapped.

Well, actually, I had an idea about where we were going. I knew he took his classes to the used bookstore downtown at the end of the semester, but we didn't need a bus to get there. So I was just as curious as everyone else while we waited for Tom to show up at the library yesterday. He came striding up a minute late (pretty impressive for Tom, whose classes usually start five to ten minutes late) with his daughter and started cheerfully barking out orders. Line up by class, face someone of the opposite class, hug, introduce yourself ("Did you bother to introduce yourself before you started hugging them?"), then grab hands and follow him. Oh, and did I mention he was wearing an orange hunting vest, orange ski hat, and a headlamp? He turned the headlamp on and shone it in our (amused and confused) faces, then we followed him into the road. Jaywalking, of course.

My classmates and I brainstormed possible scenarios as we walked. Hunting? He was wearing orange gear, after all. A trip down to the river? But it was cold! I suggested some sort of creative writing department initiation involving wrestling a bear. It seemed like the stort of thing Tom would have us do for his own amusement. Tom, by the way, hadn't bothered to stay on the sidewalk and was strolling down the road in his bright orange getup, forcing cars to go around him. "He's going to get killed," one of my classmates said. We were pretty sure he was intoxicated. As we walked by the downtown police station, Tom called, "We're walking by the police station. I want everybody to act natural!"

Once we passed the hunting store and realized we weren't learning how to shoot rifles, everyone got excited. Tom stopped us in the middle of the sidewalk and said, "I'm sure you've figured out by now that I have lied to you...It's my job." We were going to the bookstore after all. He promised to buy us each two books. The only catch? He had to approve them. With these rules in mind, we all bolted across the street, with Tom stopping traffic in his orange outfit like a crossing guard while we jaywalked ("I don't want anyone getting killed. I'm a tenured professor, but that'd sort of f*ck things up.") over to the store.

D.J. Ernst books is a tiny shop (we wondered at first if we'd all fit) covered wall to wall with used and rare books. Please treat the books as if they were glass, a note on one of the rare books shelves read. Almost every book I picked up was less than a dollar, perfect for college kids on a budget (or a professor buying books for thirty students). I was a little intimidated at first though, since I'm surprisingly bad at picking out books for myself. I know young adult lit like the back of my hand (what's amazing, what's horrible, how to tell from the inside flap description whether or not I want to read it), but after that, I rely solely on recommendations. Thank goodness for Tom.

"Kaitlin, read that one." He shoved Joyce Carol Oates's We Were the Mulvaneys at me. "It's not a final decision, but think about it."

I didn't have to think about it. I'd already made up my mind that if Tom recommended a book, I would get it. I planned on doing a little Christmas shopping for myself and buying some books outside of the two he'd purchase for me. I meandered around the store with the rest of the students, head tilted to the right so I could read all the spines. I recognized some titles, but I wanted more recommendations.

"Who here wants to be a novelist?" Tom called a while later. Of course, no one wanted to be pretentious, so there was no response. "Yeah, no one's going to answer to that," he laughed, before making his way across the store and handing me the book he'd been holding. Which made me feel awesome, because being a novelist is my major writing goal, and having him hand me that book sort of showed he believes in me (even if that wasn't his intention).

After people found their books and had them approved, they started leaving the store. I wound up being one of the last people there. At this point, the owner broke out the beer from his closet for Tom and the atmosphere was even more relaxed. Tom made some joke recommendations for me before handing me one, two, then three books. "Read that, and that. This one, too--no seriously, it's actually a good book."

At this point I had five books in my arms. I held them up, spines facing Tom, and said, "Which ones?" I knew he'd approve, since he recommended them all, but I was still stunned when he announced, "All of them. I'll get you all of them."

As you can imagine, mass thank-yous ensued, and I headed to the register for Homer (the owner) to check out the books. "These on Tom?" he asked, and I nodded. Earlier I'd noticed a picture of Joe Paterno hanging on his wall, and I mentioned it to him. He said, "Yup, I'm not taking it down just because of what's happened." I told him I absolutely agree, and we talked about Penn State for a while. I said I used to go to school there, and he said he was up there on a beer run a few weeks back. "We had to dodge all the news vans," he said. "It was eerie and quiet up there." After he calculated my grand total ($5.50), he wrote it on Tom's bill and slid my books into a big paper bag. As he handed it to me, he said, "If you're around on Tuesday, we're open until midnight and will have cookies. Best cookies in the world!" The entire downtown area was staying open late that night for holiday shopping. I told him I loved cookies and would stop by.

Tom introduced me and the only other guy who was still looking for books to his two kids (his son had been dropped off at the shop shortly after we'd arrived). Tom said me and the other guy were both "very talented writers," which his kids probably didn't care about, but I felt really proud. I thanked him again for the books, and he said, "You have to read them now, that's part of the deal." I assured him I would. After all, I'll be home for a month over winter break...what else is there to do but read? Tom's response: "Write. Hopefully." I agreed and headed home. The bag was too heavy to carry like a lunch bag, so I had to cradle it in my arms. People must've thought I looked so dorky, but I just got five new (well, used, but they were new to me) books! It was a happy day!

my new books!



    I already thought Tom sounded like an amazing professor from all the stories you've told me about him, but that is just ... awesome. You can tell how invested and passionate a teacher (and writer/reader) is when he does something like that. Seriously, it just has to make you smile.

    What also makes me smile? That he picked you out of everyone as the future novelist. I think he'd be insanely proud if he read the manuscripts you've already written :)

    Enjoy the books!

  2. Thanks Shari!

    I know, I was SO happy and exited when I got back from the bookstore. Tom is SUCH a cool guy, and not having him for class next semester is going to be a huge change.


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