I spotted my literary idol as I walked through the back of Costco; an aura of long, lightly wavy hair. Cheryl Strayed has the best hair. Like, you know it’s got to be soft and smooth and not all hairspray-crusty like mine, and you just want to touch it. Not clip it and hide it under your bed. Just a little, appreciative “what shampoo do you use?” pat.
Be cool, my rational mind hollered at my racing, spaztastic heart.
The first time I met Cheryl—at Powell’s for her Torch signing in 2006—I was not cool. I was the only mad fan at the signing table, shaking like I’d been wound with a key. As she lowered her pen to the title page I blurted out, “I listed you as my hero on my MySpace page!”
It was my husband who had picked up this Costco book signing tip. He spotted the in-store announcement poster the weekend before while picking up a rotisserie chicken. In the years we’ve been together I’ve trained him to recognize three writers’ names: Judy Blunt, Debra Gwartney and Cheryl Strayed. He sent me a text message, Pavlov style. He even snapped a phone picture with all the details, like a perfect writer stalking sidekick. For a guy whose last book read was assigned on a college final, I was impressed.
This time around, a month after Wild’s release, I pretended to look at the crate of hams and buckets of potato salad as I glided toward the book flats. Oh, fancy meeting you here! I practiced in my head. Instead I blurted out, “your south Portland fanbase is here!” Not cool, but a step in the vague direction of poised wit.
When she looked up, a genuine burst of recognition flashed across her face. “I’m so glad to see you,” she said. I was a stable fixture at her last year of events, so it was flattering to be familiar. “I thought I was just coming down here to sign stock—no one told me it was an actual event signing.”
Instead of the back room she was end-capped in the middle of the store with a pallet of Wild hardcovers. At a suburban Costco, twenty miles south of lit-happy inner Portland. It was early in the weekday lunch hour, and what little foot traffic moved through the store seemed much more interested in the free caramel corn samples across the aisle than the memoir titan gracing their presence.
A store manager came by offering a minimalist version of help. “Here’s a roll of stickers,” she said, dropping a roll of “Signed by the Author” emblems on the table. There was no red carpet, not even a PA announcement—ATTENTION SHOPPERS! Step away from the bulk Velveeta and bow before the great Cheryl Strayed!
“How long is this supposed to last?” Cheryl asked, dutifully sticking and signing.
“11-5.” Without any more reverie, the manager was gone.
“I don’t think I can stay that long,” she said. Six hours was a Taco Bell shift, not a book signing.
A middle-aged man in a trucker hat slowed, munching his free caramel corn. “What’s this about?” he asked between crunches.
“My hike on the Pacific Crest Trail,” she said for what must be the hundredth time.
“It’s wonderful,” I added. “You should buy the whole pallet!”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” he said, walking away—walking away! I itched to scream after him: don’t you know who she is! She who has achieved every fantasy of anyone opening a Word document to empty their soul! A movie deal, gazillions of copies sold, Oprah’s Book Club membership.
And yet, as meteoric as a writer can rise, she’s still a writer. She’s not a rock star or a screen queen. She is a celebrity of bookworms, students, librarians. And our literary arts budget has no room for glitter. Jennifer Lopez gets a trailer full of white furniture, but a famous writer gets a folding table and a pallet of busywork. Even at the top of the heap, in our world, the free caramel corn wins.
But then, in our world I have a chance to spend a whole lunch hour at Costco with Cheryl Strayed, who asks how my graduate thesis is going and discusses the evolution of the memoir genre with me between stickers and signs. Like the real-life, nice person that she is. And she gives me a hug before I leave, so I get just a brush of that brilliant head’s hair.
And god damn, is it soft.
more from the superhero issue:
UNKEMPT: MISADVENTURES IN MOTHERHOOD AND SUBURBIA:
Two Peacocks Are Never a Mistake, by Lisa Robinson
Cheryl, Costco and the Celebrity Caste, by Tabitha Blankenbiller
A FRENCH GIRL’S VIEW DU MONDE:
French Women and their Bad-Girl Rep. Should they own it? , by AK Small
THE (FE)MALE GAZE
Dana Scully, by Ling Ma
GENRE DIVES: MUSIC YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT
Illbient, by Molly O’Brien
What is it About Dudes and Their Hair?, by Tony Mancus