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Our California Trip, Pt. I

Last week, we went to California. Our publisher, William Morrow/HarperCollins, had determined that Freakonomics wasn’t selling as well there as elsewhere. It may have been a simple case of late adoption — Levitt and I are based in Chicago and New York, respectively, two cities where the book started strong — but Harper was taking no chances. (For the record, let me say that the people at Morrow/Harper are extraordinarily good at what they do, and we also happen to like them a great deal. I would say this even if Freakonomics had been a giant dud.) So, having to this point avoided anything resembling a book tour, we were shipped west for three days. This was more of a hardship for Levitt than for me. He hates human interaction (or so he says). Our first day there, in L.A., he constantly claimed to be feeling suicidal. But he said this casually, and with a bit of a smile. I felt like Mandy Patinkin* in The Princess Bride, when he tells Wally Shawn “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” But hey: Levitt is more of a numbers guy than a word guy. Maybe what he meant was “homicidal.”

I should note here that physical circumstances don’t seem to matter to Levitt. He would be just as happy working in a yurt as an air-conditioned office; to him, a Motel 6 is as good as the Four Seasons. I claim no such agnosticism; I have real preferences. Levitt heckles me for this. “Why does everyone from New York care so much about food?” he’ll ask when I’m looking over a menu. But here’s the thing: when Levitt was in college, this is what he sometimes ate for lunch: a beef jerky, a dill pickle, and a grape soda. (I would learn this over dinner in Oakland from one of his oldest friends.) So if that’s the alternative to my dependence of creature preferences, I can live with it.

Day One: Los Angeles. In the morning, we had two radio interviews and one TV interview. A car picked us up at the hotel. It was the fanciest car I’d ever ridden in — a black BMW with retractable window shades, etc. I enjoyed it. Levitt could have been in a Pinto for all he cared. Charlie, the driver, liked to listen to a CD called “Trends,” an expensive ($130/year) series of lectures on business issues like the coming wave of HDTV or the implications of population growth. Charlie had recently driven Jack Welch, and loved him. We were clearly not as entertaining as Jack Welch, but Charlie was still very kind to us.

Our first interview was at KPFK-FM, a good 45 minutes’ drive from our hotel. We were in the middle of closing our latest N.Y. Times Magazine column (about crack cocaine; it comes out Aug. 7), so I stayed on the phone with our editor, Paul Tough, while Levitt went inside and did the interview. Seemed like a fair trade. Next stop was Pasadena, for an interview on KPCC-FM. On the way, we had time to stop for lunch (it was only 10:30 a.m. but our body clocks were on eastern settings). We ate at Quizno’s. To Levitt, this is fine dining. Here are the places we ate during our California trip: Quizno’s, McDonald’s, Denny’s, McDonald’s. I will say this: a McDonald’s scrambled egg on a biscuit is really, really good. (When I ordered “an egg biscuit,” the clerk asked if I wanted my egg “round” or “folded”; it took me a while to figure out that “round” meant fried and “folded” meant scrambled.) During the KPCC interview, we took a call from someone who started arguing quite vigorously against our findings on child car seats vs. safety belts. Although she didn’t identify herself on the air as such, the caller turned out to be a professional car-seat advocate.

From Pasadena, we drove back to Hollywood to tape The Tavis Smiley Show. The show’s offices and dressing rooms are housed in a long, low-slung brick building, sort of like attached bungalows, very old-Hollywood style; it wasn’t hard to imagine Faulkner drinking away his afternoons there. Our room had a basket of snacks and drinks. I needed caffeine, so I opened a bottle of Starbucks frappuccino. I was on the phone at the time — still closing the Times column — but I thought I detected the lack of that distinctive pop when you open such a bottle. And was the lid’s plastic seal missing? I wasn’t paying much attention but the moment I took a sip — BLEH! Very bad news; curdled frappuccino is something to be avoided. Levitt somehow found my mishap funny. He thinks my taste buds are too sensitive. I disagree. I think I’ve developed an excellent early-warning system. I think that if we were both cavemen, he’d be the guy to swallow a fistful of poison berries. Anyway: the Smiley show tapes five days’ worth of shows every two days, so the place was swarming with guests. Among them were Halle Berry and Alanis Morissette. Levitt poked his head into every doorway trying to catch a glimpse of either of them, but failed. Smiley himself was very welcoming, enthusiastic about the book and armed with smart and sensible questions. As parting gifts, we each got a Smiley coffee mug and a photo of the three of us during the taping, taken just moments earlier.

We then hustled to Santa Monica, for an appearance at The Milken Institute. We were sure that Michael Milken himself wouldn’t be there; we were wrong. It was Milken who led the Q&A after we spoke. He seemed pretty enthusiastic about the book. When we were beginning the talk, we admitted that we’d never actually given such a talk before. We’d done lots of media interviews, etc., and we’d each given some solo talks, but never together. It seemed to work out fine … for the most part. During a telling of the “Bagel Man” story from Freakonomics, I for some reason felt compelled to say that “even the SEC didn’t have the kind of data that the Bagel Man had.” Probably not the most appropriate comment to make at the Milken Institute.

Now we needed to get back to Pasadena for an evening talk at Vroman’s bookstore. Traffic was typically bad. Charlie started off on Sunset Blvd., then worked his way onto the hilliest, curviest back roads imaginable. By the time we finally got to Vroman’s, we were a little carsick and a lot punch-drunk. In the cafe, we lined up to buy some drinks. A woman joined the line — a woman with strange demeanor, strange hair, a strange vibe all around — and for reasons that remain unclear, Levitt and I looked at her, then at each other, and broke into one of those uncontrollable laughing fits that you have when you’re 14, and maybe pass milk through your nostrils. It was debilitating. After about 90 seconds of this, I thought maybe I was having an accidental drug overdose (not the way Rafael Palmiero accidentally took steroids); I was doubled over, helpless and more than a little idiotic, to be sure. We finally cooled out and went upstairs to give our talk, which seemed to go over fine. Whichever patrons might have recognized the two babbling, giggling fools earlier from the cafe were kind enough to not mention it.

More tomorrow, or maybe the next day, from San Francisco and elsewhere.

*I originally attributed this quote to Andre the Giant, but was duly corrected in the comments; thanks to the commenters.