A great volunteer experience

What are you reading? wall
What are you reading?

Awhile back, whilst on a search for new friends in LA, I decided to volunteer at the Festival of Books.

Today dawned my first of two shifts at the LA Times Festival of Books and although I’m not so concerned with making friends now as I’m about to embark on a great American roadtrip, I came away from the day after having talked to a number of Americans and having a great time.

Wearing my wide-brimmed hat I’d bought in Venice Beach, I opted for an outdoor volunteering role (in spite of the suddenly 30ºC heat) and found myself being line monitor for a number of book signings with authors I’d never heard of before. My job description said I had to ensure that the lines were orderly, people were happy and that they only had three books for signing. I also had to hand out little post-it notes for the people who wanted their books inscribed with their names. Just so’s the authors could spell it correctly.

I was kind of surprised to note that the other volunteers in my area avoided people. They avoided speaking to them and they avoided being in places where they might be asked a question from a guest at the festival, like behind the signing booths, or sitting under a tree. I put myself out there. I made, or in some situations, tried to make, conversation with people in the lines. Not only was I helping their time in the line move along faster, but I was staving off the boredom I would feel if I didn’t have conversations with people. I also used this opportunity for my own good, and found tips and suggestions from people for my roadtrip.

Most of the people I spoke with were probably of the RV crowd, and they were excited to share their thoughts on various destinations across America. I used the Sharpies and post-its to take notes. I heard about national parks and cities and various routes. It was great research.

When the authors and book signings had thinned out a bit, I stood near the stack of programs and maps to help people out. Most were looking for the children’s area. I wasn’t just going to sit about. I had volunteered because I wanted to meet people. I want to note a few of the characters I met:

  • The guy who asked me what my native language was then wore a surprised look when I said “English”. He thought I was Asian as he’d taught a number of Chinese, Malaysian and Korean students. This is the first time someone has told me I look Asian. I think this guy just looked stupid.
  • The ebayers. This type of festival goer can be easily picked by their trolleys and canvas bags laden with books. They are professionals and linger all day to get all the signatures. They are typically older- say in their fifties – are plain looking, overweight and have ruddy faces.
  • The young guy wearing a black CAA cap (Creative Artists Agency – a major Hollywood agency) perched on his black hair, a green t-shirt and jeans that gaped to show the elastic of his underwear when he sat down. He also hung around the signing area for a good portion of the day. He struck up conversations with others in the line about whether they’d read the book and then spoke at length to one of the more popular authors who said to call him after he’d read a couple of books.
  • The volunteer from Christian College with short blonde hair and tattoos circling her forearms who looked like someone from home. Her and her friend hardly said boo.
  • The volunteer author escort with shaking hands who barrelled up to me and said at rapid-fire, heightened-stress pace “I have the mystery panel here, where are they supposed to go?” I pointed him in the direction of my bookworm supervisor because I had no idea what he was talking about. I had equated mystery with potluck, and so I thought it was like some kind of mystery hotel deal, you don’t know who you’re seeing until you get there. In reality, it was a panel of mystery authors. I think the yellow t-shirt I was wearing reflected onto my hair making it look blonde.

After my shift finished I wandered through the festival, still being stopped and asked where the nearest restrooms were and the children’s area. I got to sit in on hearing a woman demonstrate how to bind books, pick up a free postcard, buy a stack of discounted Lonely Planet guidebooks and enter a competition to have a private screening of a Focus Features film. It was really fun. And I get to go back tomorrow.


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