Through the Night, or, Why I Passed on Neil Gaiman’s Autograph

Posted: July 12, 2013 by barberjo in Book Reviews, John, Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

The year was 1995. I’d just graduated from high school, and to bridge the summer gap, I was working at a swanky restaurant called Steak & Ale. I was a short timer – I knew that I’d be moving to Arkansas in a couple of months for college, but I needed something to do in the meantime. At Steak & Ale I was a busboy and, get this, a salad bar attendant. The salad bar job paid 50 cents an hour more than bussing. I was good at my job.

That summer was chocked full of expectation and hope for something new. I never liked high school, mostly because I wanted to fit in so badly that I never could decide who I actually was. That’s called going about it backwards. *Sigh*

Up to this point, I’d had exactly one girlfriend. She’d broken my heart a year or so before, and I hadn’t been able to convince anyone else to give me a shot (not that I actually asked, you understand). I’d given up on Katie Furlong – when you’re out of your league, you’re out of your league. But at Steak & Ale, I met Allison Semones. Allison (also entirely out of my league, of course) smoked. I mean, she was smoking hot, of course, but she actually smoked. This was a new thing for this church boy. We were friends and I made her the obligatory mix tape or three (I was really good at that). And then one day, she invited me over to her house. Now, before I continue here, you’ve got to understand something: I had absolutely no shot with this girl. None. And I knew it. But I didn’t care one measly bit. That night, we watched a movie and just generally hung out. But here’s what’s stuck fast in my memory: this time she’d made me a mix tape. I’ve still got it somewhere, I think. And while I couldn’t tell you the track listing, I’ll never forget one particular song from it.

After dark, we went outside and lay in the back of her pick-up and listened to the tape. She hit play, and I heard the voice of Emily Saliers or Amy Ray (I never knew which) telling a story about being a kid and buying a ring for a boy because “it seemed the thing to do,” followed by what’s still my favorite song of theirs, “Least Complicated.” That was my introduction to Indigo Girls. I left for college that fall and said goodbye to Allison, but Emily and Amy have never been able to shake me.


Now, the year is 2013 and I was in Nashville to hear one of my heroes, Neil Gaiman, read from his new book. I met my friend Matt Conner just before show time and we ended up on the back row. That was just fine with me. Matt’s a good friend and one I don’t get to see very often. Neil was on his last signing tour ever.

I’d told myself (and anyone who would listen) that I didn’t care about an autograph. What I really wanted was a picture with Neil. Autographs hold no mystery or mystique for me. But a picture, one I can make my Facebook profile picture… now that I can truck with. I knew from talking to Kelly (our fourth hand around here) that it was going to be a late night if I waited in line to see Neil. I also knew, because he said it over and over, that these late nights of signings were killing Neil. He mentioned how he’d had to ice his arm lately just to dull the pain.

Matt and I drank up Neil’s droll, dry humor with divine smiles on our faces throughout. When the thunderstorm outside raged, Neil told us that he’d promised himself that if a thunderstorm happened during one of these shows, he’d read a special passage from the book – the one that happens during a storm. We were the only stop on the tour to get this passage. Every other city had heard a part from the beginning of the novel. We got a part from the middle, and it was deliciously scary.

Then, when we knew the evening was coming to a close, I realized that there had been a second chair on the stage the entire time. During his customary Q&A session, Neil called out a friend from backstage to help him out with something. We knew it was a musician, but until the last second, we were in the dark as to his identity. When Neil said that his friend Bela Fleck was going to accompany him on the banjo while he read from his new, new book, “Fortunately, the Milk,” the joint flipped out. We were a lucky city, Nashville. Nobody else got this part. Neil was wry and wonderful. Bela was plinky and light. It was magical.

Then the show was over. And I had a decision to make. I could stay to see Neil. Matt said he’d hang with me, but I knew that it was going to be a late night. I still had a two and a half hour drive home, too. Matt said I could crash with him and then drive home the next morning. And I’d get my picture with Neil!

But then I thought about it. I thought about Neil’s arm hurting. I though about how little I get to see Matt. I thought about how good a cup of coffee sounded right then. So I made my decision. I’d spare Neil a few seconds of time, and instead, I’d live for the present, not for a picture.

Matt and I went out for pizza and we caught up on years of a neglected friendship. We talked about books we were reading and records we loved. We planned what show we’d see together next. It was lovely. I’d almost missed it for a picture.

I got to my car at about 11:00 and headed home. It’s a lonely drive from Nashville to Knoxville at night. It’s dark. Very dark. And it was rainy. I hadn’t brought any music with me – I left in such a hurry that I plum forgot. So I scanned the FM dial for public radio. Maybe I’d get lucky. And boy howdy, did I.

That night, Nashville’s public radio station was channeling CBC’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi, a sort of Canadian Fresh Air. And after a delightful interview with Rick Moranis, Jian played his interview with the Indigo Girls and I was cast into the vivacity and breadth of their catalogue. Emily and Amy were redolent with the light of social change and their love and admiration for each other. They made me forget how lovely that road can be.

And it struck me again. If I’d stayed to get that picture with Neil, I’d have missed this moment. This intimate moment of crackly radio that led me back home through the gloomy night.

What’s a picture? What’s a picture of me with an author but a posed memory? Instead of hours of waiting for thirty seconds with my hero, I got an hour or two with my friend. Instead of being able to change my twitter avatar (for what?), I got to participate in a march through the night with two beautiful women. Instead of a fake memory, I got two real ones.


I have a picture somewhere of that night in Allison’s pick up. I shot it on black and white film and it’s exposed poorly. You can see her face, but that’s about all. I’ve no idea where it is – probably in a box somewhere in the attic. But what I remember – what’s indelible – is hearing that song in the night. The Indigo Girls stayed long after Allison was gone. And go figure, there they were again, on another dark night, to sing me home.

Turns out I made the right decision. Sometimes the hardest things to learn are the least complicated.

  1. kmriad says:

    Beautiful post, but 1) “When the thunderstorm outside raged, Neil told us that he’d promised himself that if a thunderstorm happened during one of these shows, he’d read a special passage from the book – the one that happens during a storm. We were the only stop on the tour to get this passage.” – no fair and, 2) i’m pretty stoked still about my picture with Neil. I may make it a t-shirt.

  2. kmriad says:

    Oh and 3) Banjos? Again, no fair.

  3. Matt says:

    Awesome post man. Of course I’m biased, but seriously this is great!

  4. barberjo says:

    Fair enough. I may just be making myself feel better about the picture. Then again, I may just photoshop my face onto your picture.

  5. kmriad says:

    Please do. I’ll make a t-shirt of that instead.

  6. Latonya says:

    Mr. Barber, Kevin’s fondness for the Indigo Girls caused me to step back and take notice of him in our younger days. It was the summer of 99. Kevin was the men’s leader at our summer camp so time with him was both rare and in high demand. I’d been able to have a few short chats with him but not much more. One afternoon, I was afforded the opportunity to accomplish a task in our director’s home under the coveted breeze of air conditioning. I sat on the living room floor with “least complicated” wafting in the foreground and my hands busy with a task. Kevin appeared and quickly struck up a conversation about The Girls and their lyrical genius. I’d never known a man who appreciated or acknowledged their poetic talent. I must say, that conversation caused me to pause and take notice of a long haired, fast walking gentleman. I left the cool room wanting to know him more.

  7. mwerntz says:

    Count me among those who woud have been flipping out with Fleck took the stage. The Flecktones haave all but quit touring, so any chance to see him perform is a great one.

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