In Defense of Gary Soto

I hadn’t heard anybody mention Gary Soto’s name in quite a while, nearly 20 years, in fact, until this afternoon. I was hanging out at The Bookery, the only independent bookstore in El Paso County and a treasure I’ve written about in this blog before.

A group of old women were perched like pigeons along the front porch, chatting up a storm as I made my way into the adobe building. They were talking about Gary, one of the stable of writers I’ve enjoyed reading since I was a kid, and from the sounds of their squawking, poor Gary was taking a beating. To further illustrate the point, piñatas don’t get pounded the way Gary was.

“He read a few lines from a book and then said, ‘There, I read to you. Now go home!'” one of the women said.

Another one chimed in, “He was so rude that even his illustrator was embarrassed.”

That’s when I felt compelled to step into the fray, first of all because these women were talking about one of the people responsible for me becoming a writer in the first place. Secondly, the man wasn’t able to defend himself, him living in Northern California, and all. Third, and equally important as the first, is that I revel in getting a rise out of certain people, especially those old birds that bask in the pool of ignorant bliss. I have no idea why, it’s just fun.

“I was 14 when I met Gary Soto,” I interrupted, knowing that the women would want to hear more. “He asked me if I wanted to write books when I grew up and I told him, ‘yes.’ So he signed his book, Baseball in April, for me. It read:

To: Phillip, future author.

Sincerely,

Gary Soto

“He couldn’t have been nicer to me. In fact, thanks to him, Margaret (she runs The Bookery) has already sold 70 copies of my book – in February.”

And, of course, my little spiel was followed by that awkward silence, the one where I usually regret something I’ve said or wonder how much of a douche I may have sounded like. Not this time.

On my way back to the office, I thought about what those ladies had said, about how Gary was rude when he made his way down to El Paso for a book signing. I thought about how rock stars and actors get excused for such behavior. Hell, some are like Teflon – Winning! – They keep getting work and we end up liking them the more they misbehave.

When I was 14, to me, meeting Gary Soto was like meeting a rock star; if he pulled a jerk move to anyone I didn’t see that side of him. And thank God, too, because maybe that would have turned me off to this whole writing thing. Gary even invited me (more as a courtesy, mind you) to tag along to some posh invite-only reading someone threw for him in the Sunset Heights part of town, some 18 years ago when he was promoting his children’s book, Chato’s Kitchen. I’m sure he didn’t think I’d show up, but somehow I found the nerve, pulling up to some huge house on a hill in a beat up Mercury Lynx. Gary made sure they let me inside.

Since my children’s book, Night Rhythms, came out late last year, I have thanked many people, including Mrs. Scott, my old third grade teacher. But I hadn’t been able to thank Gary for writing what he wrote in my book and helping me believe in myself.

That is, until now.

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