I keep a list of dumb column topics that I promise myself I will never use, no matter how desperate things get. The list includes:
1. Using a computer for the very first time.
2. Watching cable TV for the very first time.
3. Anything a new baby does, says or throws up for the very first time.
Also on the list is the price you have to pay for being a celebrity. I hate it when I watch TV and see a big star complaining about signing autographs, being interrupted in a restaurant or being mobbed on the street by adoring fans.
"Hey, it pays your bills, sweetheart!" I always yell at the tube. "And if you don't like it, go back to Omaha and sling hash for a living!"
Newspaper columnists don't get big celebrity treatment like that. But every now and then, a columnist or reporter will write a book, go on a book tour, and then come back and write a piece about it.
And the piece is always the same: How tedious it is to go from city to city flogging your book. How humiliating it is to have to sell yourself like toothpaste. And how draining it is to drag yourself from studio to studio for interviews.
I have never understood these pieces. It sounded to me as if flying around the country so radio and TV interviewers could feign interest in you could be pretty nice.
And now, having just finished a book tour, I understand these "agony-of-the-road" pieces even less.
Did you know that authors on book tours get to check into hotels without even showing a credit card? That's right. And you never even see a bill. It goes straight to your publisher so you don't have to soil your hands with ordinary commerce.
In Chicago, I stayed at the same hotel the Rolling Stones stay in when they are in town. And when I checked in and the desk clerk told me to charge whatever I wanted, I couldn't believe it.
"We're talking room service?" I said. "Shrimp cocktails? Cashews? Hot fudge sundaes?"
"Anything," he said.
"Wait a second," I said. "You mean I could order the Hearty Man Breakfast in the morning? The one that comes with bacon and sausage? And I don't even see a bill?"
"You will never see a bill."
I pondered that for a moment. "Listen," I told him, "next time the Stones are in town, send up a Hearty Man Breakfast to all of them. And put it on my bill. And make sure Jagger gets a large orange juice."
It was like this in city after city. I never had to worry about money. At the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, I could actually hop into a cab for the ride downtown without taking out a home equity loan first.
The taxi fare to downtown Dallas came to something like $32. I gave the guy two 20s and told him to keep the change.
I'm not saying he was grateful, but he did promise to name his firstborn son after me. If I had given him a 50, he probably would have named his firstborn daughter after me.
So why do authors hate this? I think it is the perfect example of the trickle-down effect: Wealthy publishers supported by a few gigantic bestsellers can afford to squander money on unimportant authors who tip cabdrivers with it. If this is not democracy in action, I don't know what is.
Once in Dallas, I did not have to take any more taxis. I was provided with a stretch Cadillac limousine.
"We have a little time, sir," the chauffeur told me when he first picked me up. "Is there anything you'd like to see?"
"If we went to a showroom and saw some BMWs," I said, "do you think I could put one on my hotel bill?"
Tens of thousands of books are written every year in America, many of them pretty awful. Yet when you go on a book tour, you are given star treatment. They even have people who worry about how you look.
"Do you use your hands when you talk?" a young and very attractive makeup woman asked me before I went on one TV show.
"I never thought about it," I said. "I guess so. Why?"
"Well, if you use your hands, I've got to makeup your hands, too," she said. "Otherwise they will be a different color from your face, and it will look funny."
"I guess you'd better put makeup on anything that shows," I said. "I'll try to keep my socks up."
"I have done full body makeup," she said, sensuously rubbing my face with a wet sponge. "We had a bodybuilder on the show, and he wanted a little more definition. So I spent the day drawing mascara lines under his pecs."
I was still trying to think up a snappy comeback for that when I had to go on the show.
Some of the benefits of being on a book tour are obvious. Do you know, for instance, how many little bottles of herbal shampoo I have? Or how many scented soaps? How many shower caps and shoe mitts?
And do you know what it is like to send your shirts to the hotel laundry and get them back the same day in a wicker basket, wrapped in tissue and tied with a green velvet bow? Or to have them iron and fold your T-shirts and shorts? Every time I left home, I was very tempted to gather up all the dirty laundry in the house and take it with me just so I could have the hotel do it.
And if this is agonizing and tedious and humiliating, I would like a little more agony, tedium and humiliation like this in my life.
Which is the best reason I know to keep on writing books. And making book tours. And eating expensive breakfasts. And riding in limousines. And getting made up every day.
And if next time I have to have someone put mascara under my pecs, well, nobody said the life of a celebrity was an easy one.