Prior to last Wednesday morning, I had never camped outside a store for anything. By the time I was interested in going to concerts, the days of camping outside a music store or a Ticketmaster outlet were nearly over and there has never been a deal good enough to slice through the fog of my Thanksgiving food coma to get me out on Black Friday. Last week I was finally presented with something that I would wait in a line all night for – a chance to meet Stephen King and have him sign a book.
Stephen King is one of the world’s most popular authors. He’s written dozens of books, hundreds of short stories and has had films and television shows based on his work. He was also a regular pop culture columnist for Entertainment Weekly and quickly became the best thing in the magazine. He is my favorite author of all time and it is highly unlikely that anyone will steal that title away from him. I read a lot of great books by some excellent writers, but I get King’s books the first day they are available and devour them like they will go bad if I let them sit too long.
The greatest living author (in my opinion) was scheduled to arrive at a Walmart Supercenter in Alpharetta at 7 p.m. last Wednesday. Fans were allowed to start lining up the day before to receive a wristband at 7 a.m. on Wednesday. The wristband, of which only 400 would be issued, would guarantee that Mr. King would sign one copy of his latest novel, “11/22/63.” We were told that he would not pose for pictures, although you could take pictures from your spot in line without the use of a flash.
Early Tuesday morning I started to worry about what time I should head up to Alpharetta. Surely, there were hundreds of fans that would jump at this chance to meet Stephen King. What if I didn’t get there early enough? The other worry was that not a lot of people knew about this book signing and that I would drive over an hour to get there, ready to brave hours in the cold, and there would be no one else there. Would there be a Waffle House nearby where I could sit and try and pump myself full of enough coffee to keep me awake? My wife was not thrilled with the idea of me going alone so she asked Jared, a friend of ours, if he wanted to go with me. Always up for an adventure, Jared agreed and we left Fayetteville at 11 p.m. Tuesday and arrived at Walmart around 12:30 Wednesday morning. We were not alone. In fact, one of the fans who had been in line for hours already told us we were somewhere in the 130s.
Those first few hours with the fans, more arrived later in drips and drabs, were wonderful. Everybody was there for the same reason and we all had one huge thing in common. Conversations flowed freely and it was like we were already very good friends with decades of shared experiences. We started chatting with a young couple from Columbia, South Carolina next to us – Matt and Elizabeth – and giddily dreamed of what we would say to King or ask him if we were given the chance later that day.
By 3 a.m., the novelty was starting to wear off. It was being eroded by dropping temperatures and the realization that there were four more hours to wait. Every passing minute was a reminder that we could have arrived much later than we had and still received a wristband. I huddled beneath a fleece blanket, sporting a parka over a thick hoodie over a technical shirt. I wore flannel pajama pants beneath my jeans and had my feet resting on pocket hand-warmers. The cold, and it wasn’t arctic or anything, still found a way inside my layers to chill me and tighten my muscles. I was also up later than I had been in a long time and the exhaustion was causing me to dose beneath a constant cloud of cigarette and cigar smoke from some other members of the line. It was not great.
The euphoria re-emerged as 7 a.m. approached. People took down their camping gear and started milling about in their little areas in line. As the line started snaking towards the Outdoor Center where the Walmart staff was stationed, I noticed that even more people had lined up. There were hundreds of us now and I realized that receiving a wristband was not assured for the people at the end. I was glad we had arrived when we did, even though I was tired, hungry and cold.
I realize that a lot of this sounds like first world complaining, but it really did make me realize that there are hundreds of thousands of people in this country who sleep outside every night in conditions like this and much worse. They aren’t waiting to meet an author or buy a television. They’re just waiting for another day to start. We focus on a lot of problems in this country – mainly because we have a lot of problems to solve – but this is one that needs to be a priority. Why worry about gay marriage when people are living in terrible situations?
But I digress.
We made our way inside the garden center and bright neon yellow wristbands were taped around our wrists. The staff members told us to arrive back at the store around 4:30 p.m. that afternoon. Zombie-like, we made our way through the morning gridlock on 400 and back to Fayette County. After trudging through a few hours of work, we made our back to Alpharetta and into yet another line with the King crowd. This one was inside, which was unfortunate because it was now beautiful outside. They crammed all 400 of us into a small area near the books and we waited two and a half hours for King to emerge. A lot of the people were reading King’s new book, but I had finished it weeks ago. Thankfully, I had my iPhone and “The Art of Racing in the Rain” on my Kindle app.
As the time for King’s appearance got closer, the excitement in the crowd grew. People stood up taller, laughed louder and watched the staff set up the stage with an intensity usually reserved for a championship game, craning their necks to see if they would be able to glimpse him first.
He came out in a black t-shirt advertising “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” the musical he wrote with John Mellencamp which will premiere in Atlanta in the spring. He talked about the traffic getting to the Walmart and the different flavors of pork rinds available at the 7-11 by his hotel. And then he signed books, quickly, moving with a speed and efficiency that was surprising to the crowd which was dulled by exhaustion.
Before I knew it, I was feet away from him, my hero, and the butterflies in my stomach felt like they were trying to lift me off the ground. I noticed that he was talking to everyone in the line, sharing a word or two, and I wondered if I would get a chance to say the words I had planned on saying.
A staff member took my book, opened to the correct page and turned the right way, and slid it in front of him.
“Thank you,” I mumbled, so quiet – where had my voice gone?
He looked up and saw my red Boston Red Sox t-shirt.
“Go Sox,” he said.
“Yeah, hopefully, they’ll have a better offseason,” I remarked, finding the calm and easy rapport with another New England sports fan.
“Yeah, hopefully,” he said in a tone I understood all too well. It was tinged with the disbelief and bitterness of the playoff collapse that is still lingering a little bit. He turned the book around and pushed it towards me. The staff members gestured for me to move out of the way for the next person in line to get their turn.
It was over. I moved down by the craft section of the store, out of the way of the throng, and stared at the autograph. It wasn’t written in blood and there was no personal message, but it was proof that I had met Stephen King face to face.
I wish that I had more time with him. I’ll bet everyone in line did. They all had something they wanted to say, probably how much they loved his books and how they felt like they knew him after reading them all.
What I had really wanted to say was “Thank you for everything.” It may not have been anything but four words to him, but what it means to me is so much more.
For me, it goes back to when I read my first King book – in elementary school – (“Firestarter,” in the fifth grade) and how it turned me on to not only his writing but books above my grade level. I would still read books by Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, but there was now the promise that there was something more out there when I was ready. Stephen King made me a horror fan and that led me to more authors and movies and television shows. It also gave me common ground with other people, some of whom became my best friends.
The biggest thing that I got from Stephen King was encouragement to write and tell stories. Not only have I read his book, “On Writing,” which tries to give aspiring writers the proper toolbox, but I have seen the lessons in there taught on the pages of his books. I have also learned to tell the stories that interest me and to let my imagination wander. I have five novels in various states of completion and levels of quality and I seriously doubt that I would have ever tried to write one if I wasn’t a huge fan of such a prolific and talented author.
I spent almost 10 hours in lines over the course of 19 hours and I slept for maybe one hour between 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and 10:30 p.m. Wednesday. It was worth it though. I would do it again and next time, if there is a next time, I’ll get those four words out.