I cannot express how deftly Paul F. Tompkins handles a potentially mortifying situation.
The amazing people who run Russel E. and Fern M. Hettenhausen Center for the Arts booked Paul F. Tompkins to come to Lebanon, IL. The population of Lebanon is around 4,000.
The venue, however, is excellent. I did not know this when I set out to buy tickets. I only knew about its existence from a FaceBook post from Paul. By the time I went to buy tickets, it was nearly sold out . I was excited to learn that there was a panel discussion moderated by my friend Nicole Hudson before the show. However, I realized I wouldn’t be going to the discussion. Why? Because my daughter would never sit through that, and she really wanted to meet Paul F. Tompkins.
Imagine a comedian your parents constantly listened to when you were a child. I don’t know how old you are, so I’m not going to give a specific example. For them, though, the person is an entertainer. For you, they were an institution. They were a fact of life.
Every single time he appeared in one of her shows, I would talk about it. “Hey, that Cupid guy is Paul F. Tompkins! Hey, that were-skunk is Paul F. Tompkins!” It got to a point that when I asked her, “Hey, guess who THAT is?” Paul F. Tompkins was one of her default answers.
That is to say, in cartoons. Images of Paul F. Tompkins were unmistakeable to her, due to his, “Old-Timey Suit.” She did not like it when his mustache was not present, perhaps an extension of the betrayal she feels if I shave or even trim my beard. I will say that there have been some false positives in the past. Basically, if you have a suit and a mustache and are from an era earlier than the 40s, she may mistake your photograph for one of Paul F. Tompkins.
Obviously, she had to go. 8:30 is normally her bedtime but there was no school the next day and he was going to be in Lebannon! A half hour away from our house! I saw him at Re-Bar once for my birthday. When we left Seattle, I had simply figured I’d never see him live again unless he came to St. Louis or I happened to visit Los Angeles.
Betty had school, I had work, and after a brief dinner we went to the car. I brought along Freak Warf for Paul F. Tompkins to sign and some of my Giraffe and Elephant books because I of course want the comedian I like to like my things. He also works with Jeremy Carter, a person who had expressed interest in the books but for whom I had been unable to secure an address. So, I brought extra. It’s the equivalent of buying someone a gift that you want them to have rather than something they’d like and then asking them to distribute other gifts to people. Actually, it’s exactly that. I’m a monster.
There was brief drama when all the routes the GPS takes us on were closed. There were brief reunions with friends I haven’t seen in decades. There was the show itself, both funny and heartwarming, where Paul F. Tompkins described his relationship with his wife. When the show ended, we hung out in the lobby to see if Paul F. Tompkins would do a meet and greet. He did.
I was in line and my friend Steve told me to hold his place. I turn to look down at Betty, saying “That’s my friend Steve!” I had told her Steve’s name earlier, but parents get to annoy their children by repeating the same facts constantly.
Of course, Betty was not there.
At this moment, I was struck by the fact that Paul F. Tompkins had described a very similar situation in his act. I suspected this might be a funny note I could bring up to Paul F. Tompkins, or the police.
As a veteran parent, however, I did not panic for long. I simply looked for the worst possible place she could be. In this case, she was right in front of Paul F. Tompkins after line-jumping many many people.
I couldn’t hear what was going on, but she said something and everyone laughed. Paul F. Tompkins resoonded and everyone laughed harder. Taking a deep breath, I walked up to retrieve Betty.
“I’m BETTY!” Betty yell-sang at him.
Paul F. Tompkins replied that he was Paul. Betty informed him that I was also Paul, to which he replied:
“Paul from Twitter, right?”
I confirmed. Always a horrible business person, I put the books down on his table and said, “Jeremy Carter. Also you.”
Paul F. Tompkins made eye contact, smiled and nodded.
At this point, an usher asked me to take Betty and get back in line. I took her by the hand. The usher was asking me to take my books, and That old mortification feeling was creeping up on me.
Then Paul F. Tompkins saved the day.
“Bring Betty back,” he said. “I want a picture.”
He posted it on Twitter.
I made a vine of it.
He went to shake her hand and she missed it. He handled it like a pro.
I made a vine of that, too.
I was worried that I accidentally gave Paul F. Tompkins three of “When Elephant Met Giraffe” and only one of “A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant.” The picture seems to indicate I may have gotten the ratio correctly. Right now, I feel relief in a way that only someone foisting their wares upon a beloved idol in correct proportion feels.
So, a big thank you to Paul F. Tompkins for making a potentially awkward situation into something great.
One final image:
As we were walking back to the car, shivering against the cold, Betty turns to me and said:
“Well, I’m probably never seeing HIM again!”
I take this as a sage balm against egotism and presumption rather than a dire warning.
Bless you, Paul F. Tompkins, and safe travels.