By Benjamin Pitt, who volunteered at the Burlington Book Festival to help people. Sort of.
The first thing you need to know about the Burlington Book Festival is that you don’t talk about the Burlington Book Festival. No, I’m sorry, I’m thinking of something else.
The first thing you need to know about the Burlington Book Festival is it’s up to the individual to make the best of the opportunity. I was a volunteer for the event and regardless of whether or not I really wanted to be there (though, actually, I did), and I’d be damned if I spent my whole Saturday bored.
The Burlington Book Festival is an annual event in which authors speak, hold workshops and readings, and rub elbows with the public. Over the course of a weekend, Vermont’s largest city is flooded with writers, poets, and publishing industry folks. I’d signed on as a volunteer.
The first job assigned to me when I got to the big brick Main Street Landing building on the waterfront in Burlington was to escort newly arriving volunteers from the Festival on the third floor to the Green Room on the second floor, so they could drop off their things and prepare for their events. This job was given to me by Courtney Triola, the student coordinator of the Festival.
In my mind, the opportunity of meeting a published author was a gold mine. It was an open floodgate of connections and opportunities; it was the Holy Grail. Meeting an actual author was my epic quest. At first this excited me; Courtney had mentioned that both the volunteers and the authors speaking at the Festival were the only ones allowed to be in the Green Room. Therefore, I thought, as my duty was literally to lead people to and from this room, I was bound to run into some famous writer, strike up a conversation, get an agent, a six-figure advance, and next thing you know be a published author.
Well. Not only did I not meet a single author in any of my dozen trips up and down that damn elevator in the first two hours, I forgot how to get to the Green Room all together.
I was mortified. Courtney had already walked away and here I was with my first two lost lambs. Responsible for only a single, simple job, and I get myself and two others lost. I led them aimlessly through the second floor. We explored the maze-like layout of the Main Street Landing, hunting for the room I knew was there somewhere. We only paused in our search for a moment. We had stumbled onto something amazingly strange; something so inexplicably unique we could not look away. At my best guess, I can only say is was something along the lines of a motivational Simon-Says seminar.
A woman in her mid-sixties standing in front of a group of about thirty people, all of whom are at least twenty years younger than her. She squared her feet and thrust her arms behind her back, forming an “X” with her body, and exclaimed proudly “I. Am. Beautiful,” shaking her head with each work like a Southern Baptist Preacher. And the audience would mimic her; shooting their own bodies into “X” shapes and replying in unison, “I. Am. Beautiful.”
After about ten minutes of meandering, I found Courtney and broke the number one Guy Rule; I asked for directions. Which I received humbly and began my slew of pointless elevator rides.
This pattern of up-down-up continued until my event began, two hours later. I was volunteering for Millennial Writers On Stage, which consisted of about fifteen poets, all from my generation. The whole event was then led by two M.C.s.; Robin Fawcett, a local playwright and acting teacher, and Rueben Jackson, a poet, Vermont Public Radio commentator, and music critic. The latter made several comments in between pieces. He continually compared the poems to music, mostly jazz, and noted how musicians often find their inspiration in a similar way as poets. He spoke in a quiet, comforting voice; clearly a veteran radio commentator. Just listening to him speak, I decided that I had to meet him. As the event continued, I thought to myself that this was going to be my great opportunity. Meeting him was exactly what my career as a writer needed.
The Millennial Writers event was very entertaining and deeply interesting. The writers performing their pieces ranged in age; most were college freshman. However, the youngest performer, Abhi Dodgson, was in the fifth grade. Abhi, who was also the final person to perform a piece, told of his experience being adopted from India and having to move to America. The whole event ended with his lines “Saying goodbye is difficult,/ But new things can happen/ when you say goodbye,” a stanza that brought Rueben Jackson to tears.
The event adjourned and was set to relocate to the second floor in the Board Room, which is where I had witnessed the motivational Simon-Says seminar earlier. I thought I would be very sly and offer to show Rueben Jackson to where the Board Room was, ensuring that I actually got to speak to him.
“Excuse me; I was just wondering if you wanted any help finding your way down to the reception, if you were planning on going.”
He peered at me over his glasses, “Is it difficult to find?”
“It’s just down the stairs.”
“Then I’ll find it.”
Okay, I thought. He said he’d find it. That at least meant that he was going to eventually end up there, right?
Again I became naively excited about the people I was about to meet and my own future prospects as a writer and again the second floor screwed me over. First thing I did was a quick fly-by of the reception, trying to see if Rueben Jackson had arrived yet. He hadn’t, so I went back to the Green Room, got a bottle of water, said hello to Sean Dever, who lives in my residence hall, and headed back out several minutes later. Still no sign of Rueben Jackson. At this point I realized that the only people at the reception at all are the Millennial Writers themselves and their families. That’s it. Which made me the awkward person trying to talk to these kids while they were trying to relish in their success with their families. But I dove in nonetheless.
The family closest to me was Abhi Dodgson’s. That was great because I had no idea how to spell this boy’s name. So I approached Abhi, who was standing next to an Indian woman and was talking to a middle-aged white couple. As I got closer, I noticed the Indian woman look up at me. She clearly knew Abhi by the way she was standing next to him, so I began fumbling through the basic banter about who I was and why I was approaching her son, the young poet.
Then, mid-sentence, she stops me, points to the middle-aged white couple Abhi is talking to and says, “They’re his parents.”
All four of them go silent for a moment and stare at me. Then erupt in riotous laughter. This had clearly happened before. And I, so stunned at their sudden outburst, stand flabbergasted; jaw dropped, arms forward as if I was reaching for something that wasn’t there.
So once again I say who I am and why I’m standing there creating a racially awkward moment. I get the correct spelling of his name and run off in embarrassment, retreating to the Green Room once again.
Seeing as this whole fiasco lasted all of four minutes, Sean Dever was still sitting in the Green Room, doing some additional research on Tracy Smith, the author for whom he was volunteering. We spent a few minutes discussing how excited he was to meet Ms. Smith, who is a recent Pulitzer Prize-winner. Then, against all odds, he and I actually met her on the elevator. So Sean, seizing his opportunity, introduces himself and informs her that he is volunteering for her event that day and I proceeded to be extremely jealous, as Courtney gave me yet another job to do and I had to part ways from them.
Though not all was great for Sean. I later found out that Tracy Smith can be kinda bitchy.
Not only did she constantly refer to him as “Steven,” even going so far as to sign his book this way, he overheard Smith complaining about how long he took to get her a free water (about three minutes, including the elevator ride). So at least I can console myself with that.
Right around the same time I ran into my roommate, Tyler Hulsizer. As he walks by me, his eyes light up and he says excitedly to me, “The author I was assigned to and I got lost getting here together!” Apparently, this haphazard moment allowed Tyler to hang out with Harper’s contributing editor and Guggenheim Fellow Garrett Keizer and develop the bond of shared experience, and Tyler was soon to be thoughtfully answering questions from Charlie Rose.
And it all happened while I wandered the halls aimlessly, talking with 10 year old poets.
Tyler is a lucky bastard, I thought.
So Tyler bought his book and was about to have it signed when I ran into him once again. I, in my infinite wisdom, followed him to the author’s signing table. This way, I also got to meet Garret Keizer. He proceeds to give us a piece of advice, apologizing as he does it. Apparently he thought we would be annoyed at advice by this point in the day. Annoyed at advice? Why was I there? It was to suck up wisdom, and ingratiate myself to the publishing world to secure my role as an up and coming writer. Bring it on, Keizer.
Keizer tells us to read more. Telling us of all the young writers he has seen with real potential but who lack the necessary skills they would otherwise gain from reading more. Then, with a very serious look on his face, says, “Take this from someone who should’ve read more.”
Then I once again get asked to help Courtney with some clean-up, as my shift is almost over. So I reluctantly leave Tyler and Garret Keizer, in order to help consolidate all of the bagels into one Tupperware container.
I thought that I would just rejoin Tyler and Keizer; maybe plan an impromptu writer’s retreat, just the three of us on the coast of Maine or something. But, as I was leaving the second floor (seriously, the second floor of this building is worse than having your birthday be on a Monday), a cute girl asks if I am about to head back to campus. She “didn’t want to walk all of the way back alone.” She pulled the sad girl card. That’s like single-man Kryptonite. So I left Tyler and my one opportunity to grab the brass ring of inclusion within the secret society of published authors (Keizer eventually purchased Tyler a book of his choice) in order to walk a girl home in the rain.
I didn’t even get her number, and haven’t seen her since.
Despite all the odds, I had a great time at the Festival. Because gaining a couple of great stories to tell is worth more to me as a writer than listening to someone else’s great story be told.
Benjamin Pitt enjoys writing when not saving the city from evil-doers as a masked crime fighter. If you require his services, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.