The Other Side of Life

A blog based on participation in a motorcycle swap meet may seem like an unlikely reason or place to write about some of life's bigger issues, but here it is. The blog is based not so much on the venue, a very chilly ice rink in Kalamazoo, or the event - a chance to get hard to find parts for your antique motorcycle restoration project, or early Christmas shopping for a biker buddy or spouse, as it is about the opportunities such forums create for interesting human interactions.

At least in my instance as a vendor I'm there less for commercial success as I am to talk with folks. When people walk in the door they have no idea some bloke is going to be standing behind a card table selling books about exploring the Great Lakes region by motorcycle. If they do happen to be interested in such a product or concept then it's a serendipitous event for them. If not, then it still might be a chance for me to talk with them about the books and the rationale behind them. Either way I get to talk with dozens of strangers, some at great length. Sometimes we talk about shared passions, other times I actually am in a position where I can share some new concepts with a stranger and maybe change by just a little bit how they view the world around them.

When I attend a swap meet or similar event as a vendor I generally sell enough just to cover expenses; sometimes perhaps cover lunch as well, or maybe actually make a small profit to justify my continued status as a struggling writer to my wife and friends. But a large reason I attend these events is to show the flag - a fancy term for crass commercial advertising and marketing. The more folks that are aware of my books the more word of mouth advertising that takes place, and in a world that is based on the exchange of goods and services for money, that's important.

But it's not my favorite part. The best part of selling books, whether at a swap meet, bookstore, or a dealer's open house, is the interaction with others that I get to enjoy. It's the sharing of stories and adventures, ideas and knowledge, tips and tricks, and sometimes even life stories, that is the reward for standing behind a table for 6 hours.

By a great margin most folks who stop at my table (sometimes by my urging, sometimes out of their own curiosity) do not end up buying books. Most just want to hear about the books, and then talk about their stories. Sometimes the conversations project far beyond motorcycling or travel.

I'm a sucker for sentimentality, especially as it involves the passage of time through our lives, and the lives of those close to us. Stories, songs, or movies about the inexorable passage of time from birth, adolescence, young adulthood, maturity, and ultimate death, always get to me. Songs like Que Sera Sera or Turn Around always choke me up or bring tears to my eyes. It's a powerful feeling. This 'true confessions moment' is going somewhere - - one of the most compelling stories that I was privileged to hear involved a woman who was probably near 80 years of age. I was selling / signing at a Barnes & Noble bookstore and she approached me to see what kind of books I had. We talked a bit and then when she felt comfortable around me she shared her story, and it was marvelous.

She and her late husband spent their life together touring the country, and abroad, on motorcycles. She spoke of the many years following World War Two until they became too old to ride any longer, and of how they traveled together seeing the world on two wheels. She told of specific trips and places they saw, and of the various adventures they had that provided the inevitable spice to any mode of travel. They were obviously a loving and happy couple and her story brought tears to her eyes as she was telling it. I was glad that no response was needed from me during the telling because for some reason my throat was quite constricted and not functioning correctly. This wonderful woman really appreciated the unexpected opportunity to tell somebody about her sweet memories and I appreciated the opportunity to have her trust me enough to share them with me.

Not all conversations are as compelling as this one but I have been privileged to hear about aspects of the lives of complete strangers that they felt comfortable to share, all because of our shared enjoyment of motorcycles and motorcycle travel.
People who share something in common often use that shared quality, activity, or condition as a means toward friendship. In my instance, I will likely never see the great majority of the folks I interact with at these events, but we both leave the chance meeting slightly changed. Their stories affect me and what I have to tell them just might change their outlook or their life a bit. And it really does work both ways.
The elderly lady I mentioned earlier had a chance to share a wonderful and obviously important part of her life with a total stranger. I think it was no doubt cathartic for her to share her stories. A couple years ago I had a chance to be on the giving side of someones life story.
At the AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days event in Ohio two summers ago I had a chance meeting with a woman in her 30s who stopped by my table to look at my books and ended up staying nearly an hour talking about a very important part of her life. We didn't talk about motorcycles at all; we talked about her aspirations as a writer and whether she could really pull off her lifelong dream of writing a novel that she had in her head, but hadn't dared to take the next step of actually putting pen to paper. Like me she didn't have a degree in English Literature or other related education that many assume necessary to be a successful writer. But she did have obvious intelligence and most of all - passion. She had a story to tell. All she needed was someone she could relate to that made it possible for her to believe that she really could do it. I was the fortunate person that was able to interact with her for that moment in time and was able to serve that purpose - to be a living example for her and show her it could be done. She didn't buy any books from me but her exhuberant 'thank you' upon leaving was all the payment I could ever hope for. I wish I had got her name when we finally said our goodbyes because I have no doubt but that her book will be in print very soon.
No matter the surficial or obvious appearances, there is always a deeper and more interesting story just waiting for the chance to be set free. And to think that most people just call them swap meets!