Looking back at the Italian Festival in Seattle

Nov 29, 2022 403

BY: Mary Lou Sanelli

My good acquaintance Dennis Caldirola invited me to sign copies of my latest titles at Seattle’s Italian Festa, and I was thrilled. Surnamed Sanelli, it’s a festival I love. The invitation gets better: “I can’t find another Italian author this year. People are still hesitant about crowds. You can have the table for yourself.”

Well, an invitation like that doesn’t come along all that often. Not because I don’t want to sign copies at cultural festivals, it’s that booth fees are generally too high. Even if I were to make back the fee, there is no way it would be a cost-effective venture.

Now, at a festival celebrating all things Italian—and by “all things” I mean what 99% of the people come for: the food (oh, the food!)—if I were selling gelato like the booth to my immediate right, or cannoli like the booth to my immediate left (making it pleasantly clear that this was not a book fair where table placement is determined by pecking order), well then, yes, I could afford the booth fee. I could afford the moon.

Here in the Northwest, a late-September open-air festival is so needed because everyone knows the warm weather will go by fast, faster when you haven’t even been to a festival in two years—years when I would read the news and have to stop. When I would hear the news on the radio and have to turn it off. The constant stream of fear, the heartbreak. So what I did is accept the invitation, of course, and proceed to ask (hope, long) for a fee I could afford. But first things first. I had to find enough of a display to turn my assigned space into a genuine “booth” and not just another book-signing-table-top. For days, booth-design was just about all I cared about. I figured the best thing for me to do would be to show up and be willing to navigate how to do booth interaction in the current state of covid-fear. And since people’s fear-levels are poles apart, I mean that in about a hundred different ways.      

My first no-sale of the day was a man who picked up my latest book and read the cover. I was so grateful, I tried to summarize what the book is about, which is always really hard to do, for others, for myself. It’s like asking someone to explain, briefly, who they really are. He nodded, but I could tell from his eyes that I’d lost him. You usually do, going on about your book. The key is finding balance between explanation and too much. You want to say enough to make the book appealing but leave room for imagination. All this, while live music plays a hundred feet away, so that I had to shout to be heard while struggling to stop dancing because when I hear good music, I can’t help myself. Finally, I had to stop bonding with the music and the food, although in the beginning I tried to do it all. But a couple of no-sales later, I had to make a decision: Do I want to gain five pounds and dance the weekend away, or do I want to sell books?

The man turned my book over to read the back. He read the cover again. He read the spine. He lowered his mask and took about twenty minutes telling me about his own writing. He told me about his grown children. He was talking only to talk. But this is normal. Loneliness does that. And the world is full of lonely people. If I even begin to study how many, I could cry. Too, I can feel such a surge of loneliness that it nearly crushes me and all I can think, all I can feel, is how we are all so alone in this world. Finally, I say, “Is it possible that you really want to buy yourself a new book you seem interested in?”

It was not.

He set the book down and walked away shaking his head. But not in a simple “I can’t buy your book,” way. It felt more like, “let me make this perfectly clear: this book is not for me!” The sort of headshake that might be given to the rest of the population by, say, a ruling colonizer temporarily residing among the natives of a small Pacific Island. I thought the whole encounter was funny, but not funny laugh-out-loud-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

My poise was a little ruffled. You can imagine. And in my stomach, a sad weight, like a wet bag of sand. Just this heaviness. I had hours and hours and hours to go. And a wish that I could wave a wand, just this once, and make the whole weekend pass quickly.

And then.

A woman, a teacher, looked through my new children’s book and said, “I’ll take five of these.” Oh, those words. Those generous words. My confidence soared, light with hope. I can’t help it, I thought, I love thisI love selling my books. You’d think I’d love the whole new world of internet connection, but for me, the best experience is all about facing my readers. I hadn’t anticipated this, festival ease, but it had found me. Suddenly, everything seemed possible. Maybe even a profit.

Things were starting to look up.

I’ve been selling my creativity my entire life. I know you must be thinking, really, your entire life?  But I have. Since year four. It’s been a long process of honing my skills. You can’t be a live salesperson in this digital age without a lot of experience. Painted rocks. Lemonade with a touch of anise. Popsicles with pansies frozen within, edible art long before its time. Handmade puppets, clutches, notecards. Drumming up business. Scared to death, but excited. Alive.

A woman walked by with a little dog in a harness on one leash and a little girl in a harness on another. I never thought I’d see the day. The dog yipped and yipped and yipped, the very definition of the word annoying. The woman was striking, with long red hair and a fitted, solid black dress draped with a bold purple shawl tied at the waist. She looked at once stylish and clashing. She walked right by my booth without so much as a glance, and for all the reasons I think it’s wrong to harness a toddler, I was relieved. No one should harness a child if you ask me. Maybe instead of holding a phone in her free hand, she could hold the kid’s hand and leave the dog at home? Is all I am saying. But really, I should just be happy no one was about to snatch that little girl, right?

A well-dressed man (shirt, tie, dress pants made of whatever it is that fabric with a sheen is made of these days , leather loafers, and a paunch-less physique that made me think, perfecto, even though I think part of his black, black hair was possibly not his own), chided me a little when I couldn’t answer his question in Italian. In this city, I often feel like I am too Italian compared to the general population. But today, he is not the first person who has made me feel like I am not Italian enough. I sighed and thought, what he thinks, he will think, whether I worry about it or not. Which is exactly how I feel about a few of my own Italian relatives back East.

Readers, this is why I now live on this coast.

Two men slowed down to look at my table. “Wait,” one said, “I know your name. I love your column.” I felt like I could coast on that kudo for the rest of the day, one sale at a time. Then they stared at each other. They sized each other up. “Do we know each other?” the younger of the two said. And from the other, “I think we maybe . . .  dated. Once. Just once.” Suddenly, I was standing in a place so unlike my office where stories are written and, instead, where they are made. And you and I both know that this is what makes for the best stories. And yet, I wanted nothing more than to ignore the awkwardness I sensed—but finding myself unable to. It was clear they didn’t know what to say. We never really know what to say a lot of the time, do we? Luckily, they laughed. I’ve always been an admirer of anyone who can save the day with laughter. The older man bought two books, one for himself and one “for my friend here,” in what seemed like a real moment of delight.  

Still coasting on the confidence that makes for easier everything—the feeling that I can do whatever I’m doing right—I was reminded that festivals are about getting out of the pitiful small world of our phone, our laptop, our head. They are about meeting people (or re-meeting) where no one is really focused on one part of the festivities but making their way through all that is unfolding, social lives returned to us under a remarkably clear, smoke-free, deep blue sky.

Hard to think it was the same sky that pours down so much rain today, but this is good. I spend more hours writing (which is to say that I spend more hours with my most-gratified self) about moments where my routine collides with the unexpected—in a good way. Like when a festival teaches me a lot about people, and patience. And the next one I manage to plead my way into, I hope to learn more.

On Sunday, I was out of books (out of books!), so I packed up my booth a little early, and on my way out the door, I turned back to see Dennis leaning against a wall, watching the band play the kind of feel-good music that gets people up to dance, and then they keep right on dancing. He’d just pulled off his 30th festival with knack and finesse. And a smile. He is a man to depend on. I wished I could’ve stayed and danced some more, but I had to go, and I didn’t want to bother Dennis with one more thing, not even a personal “ciao e grazie di tutto” which can take a lot of oomph, good oomph, but still oomph, so I’m saying it here.

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