Wednesday, December 28, 2016

This looks like a post for Superman

Although I seem to be plodding relentlessly toward codgerhood, one sentence that you will never hear pass my lips (I hope) is “Hey, you kids, get off my lawn!”

There are two reasons for this. The first is that my house (where I also grew up) doesn’t have much of a lawn anyway, and I well remember how my siblings and I often parked our bikes, trikes, wagons and what-have-yous on what little grassland we had – and there wasn’t really any grass on that land precisely because we often parked our bikes, trikes, wagons and what-have-yous on every available inch of it.

Eventually, as we edged closer to adolescence, our parents finally decided to plant some grass on this not-so-vast wasteland of dirt. This was the closest they ever came to landscaping.

The second reason I don’t disrespect my juniors is that I don’t mind being around young people. I worked with a lot of them during my 30 years at a newspaper and three years at an ad agency. I appreciated their talents and, dare I say it, sometimes I even learned from them.

One thing I especially admire about them is their ability to do something that I will never be able to do:

Talk on a cell phone in the middle of a lot of noise.

I don’t know how they manage it – maybe it’s a part of evolution that Darwin didn’t envision – but you could put any one of them and their phones in the middle of a boiler works at peak production time, surround them with bands simultaneously playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “St. Louis Blues” at competing decibels, and they wouldn’t miss a single syllable uttered from any end of the earth.

I was thinking about this for the umpteenth time while I was downtown today and needed to make a couple of calls.

I needed a quiet place – as quiet as possible. So I went into one of downtown’s oldest buildings, figuring that its marble lobby would provide the most amenable acoustics – or, better yet, no acoustics at all.

I figured wrong.

Because a big radiator near one of the two main staircases had decided to sound off. Not a very loud sound, mind you, but loud enough.

So I ducked behind one of the staircases and found something that I hadn’t realized still existed.

A line of old phone booths.

I have no idea what they were doing there – there were no phones inside them – but you could still sit inside one of them, pull the door shut and quietly go about your business.

I can’t possibly describe the looks on the faces of the people who walked by as I was using my cell phone, mainly because no people happened to walk by as I was doing this. But I must have presented quite a minor spectacle – anachronism as performance art.

I suppose I’m grateful there were no witnesses – perhaps one of them would have taken a picture of me with their phone, and presto! Instant clickbait.

Maybe I would even have made the evening news shows, which are always looking for anything to put on instead of, God forbid, actual news.

And of course there then would have been enormous public pressure on me to top myself, maybe by perusing my iPad while perched in a Tin Lizzie. Or piloting a drone in the Sistine Chapel, and thereby stirring up a theological hornet’s nest. (Is a flyby a mortal sin or is it just venial?)

And my heart stops and my blood pressure surges to new heights as I come to realize how close I might have come to becoming – gasp! – a cultural icon.

Then again, these days it seems that every man Jack, every woman Jill, every dog Fido and pretty much every existing being, animal, vegetable or mineral – yes, even including you and me – is either an icon or is on its way to becoming one. Just stay on the line, and we’ll get to you shortly.

And as always, your call is important to us.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Hey, New Yorker fans: Check this out

“You make sure that the names and dates are right, but then if it is a John McPhee piece, you make sure that the USGS report that he read, he read correctly; or if it is a John le Carré piece, when he says his con man father ran for Parliament in 1950, you make sure that it wasn’t 1949 or 1951.”

-- From a lecture by Peter Canby, New Yorker fact-checking director, Feb. 28, 2002

As I was growing up and aspiring to be a writer, I read the classics, which for me included Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and E.B. White.

All of whom wrote for The New Yorker.

Eventually I read Thurber’s “The Years With Ross,” about Thurber’s days at the magazine and his dealings with its founding editor, Harold Ross.

I liked this book so much that over the years I reread parts of it. The world he described seemed like so much fun. It was only years later that I read that E.B. White and others weren’t too pleased with what Thurber had written.

In 1975, Brendan Gill published “Here at The New Yorker,” which I didn’t like as much as the Thurber book. To some extent, Gill’s book seemed like a rebuttal of “The Years With Ross,” and he took the opportunity to take a few shots at Thurber. The shots were well-aimed, but I thought Gill himself came off as a jerk.

But over the years, during visits to the library, I sometimes reread parts of Gill’s book, too, because I was still in the thrall of the New Yorker mystique.

In later years, I’ve enjoyed reading – and rereading – “About Town,” a history of the magazine, written by Ben Yagoda. It’s a great book, written by a very nice guy whom I've been lucky enough to meet.

Anyway, if you’re steeped in New Yorker lore – even if you’re in it only up to your knees – chances are that you know about the magazine’s fabled fact-checking department, to which no nit was too small.

I say “was” because something I saw in the magazine recently made me wonder whether that department has been downsized.

I’m referring to “The Film J.D. Salinger Nearly Made,” by Jill Lepore, in the Nov. 21 issue.

The article tells how the reclusive author gave a TV producer permission to make a movie out of one of Salinger’s stories, “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.”

The article identifies one of the actors cast for the film as “Ted Bessel.” He’s referred to by name four times, each time as “Bessel.”

I immediately knew this was wrong. And if you grew up in the 1960s, there’s a good chance that you know it’s wrong, too.

The guy’s name was really “Bessell.” And it’s not as if he was some really obscure actor – for a number of years he played the boyfriend of Marlo Thomas in the hit show “That Girl.” Granted, after that he didn’t do very much, and his starring role in a short-lived series, “Me and the Chimp,” didn’t help. (And no, he didn’t play the chimp.)

I realize that a New Yorker fact checker’s job must be a tough one. I wouldn’t want it, even though my longtime job as a newspaper copy editor often involved fact checking.

Thing is, names are very easy to verify, especially these days. Checking whether it’s “Bessel” or “Bessell” is nowhere near as hard as checking whether, say, the Orinoco River has any fish and if so, what kind, and how many there are of each.

And checking a performer’s name is painless and easy; I won’t say the Internet Movie Database is 100 percent reliable, but for my purposes it’s almost always close enough.

The Salinger article is still on the magazine’s website.

And it still says “Bessel.”

Mr. Bessell, unfortunately, can’t stick up for himself – he’s been dead for 20 years – but I’m surprised that apparently no one has brought this to the editors’ attention.

(By the way, if you happen to be fact-checking this article, you might discover that, strictly speaking, I have spelled “Esme” wrong – the poor girl needs an accent over that last “e,” but I don’t know how to put one there. Perhaps one day I’ll get better at this word-processing stuff and I’ll throw her a bone – or maybe a tilde, or even an umlaut or two.)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Yep, the rich sure are different

I don’t watch a lot of TV, and when I do watch, I religiously avoid so-called reality shows.

I don’t care who gets voted off the island or thrown out of the house, and I’m hard put to muster much sympathy for would-be chefs who weep in their tureens as they and their deflated soufflés are sent packing.

But my limited viewing schedule does allow for one exception: “Shark Tank.”

It’s not that I particularly enjoy watching five entrepreneurs rip apart wannabe tycoons – and one another. After a while the arguments and insults seem like just so much shtick.

But I like “Shark Tank” because, all bantering aside, it’s educational. I like watching the entrepreneurs’ business minds work and seeing how they analyze proposals, even if at least some of what they say goes a wee bit over my pointy little head. And I like to think that other viewers can learn from the show too; I fear that our current educational systems fall short when it comes to teaching how things work in the real world.

However, there is one thing “Shark Tank” cannot teach me – something I have already known for years:

Rich people love to get free stuff.

If you’ve seen “Shark Tank,” you probably know what I mean. Whenever a would-be entrepreneur’s product is food or hats or whatever – but especially food – the Sharks respond with an enthusiasm that would put Pavlov’s dog to shame.

Especially Robert. Offer him free food and he’ll jump at the chance to eat it but not invest in it. (“These are the best oatmeal cookies/cupcakes/spare ribs/porterhouse steaks in the universe! Unfortunately, I’m out!”) Call him a sharp entrepreneur, call him a shrewd investor, maybe even call him a freeloader, but don’t call him late for snack time.

Yes, rich people love to get free stuff.

But I would like to add what I modestly call Murphy’s Corollary:

Rich people love to get people to do things for them for nothing. That’s one reason why they’re rich people.

I learned this lesson from a distant cousin of mine. I’ll call him Edward.

Many years ago, Edward wrote a letter to my Aunt Helen, who, like me, had never met him. Edward told Aunt Helen that he was researching his family genealogy and mentioned that the two of them were related. Aunt Helen, who at that time was the closest thing my family had to a senior matriarch – if a Roman Catholic nun can be called a matriarch – knew enough about the family to know that Edward wasn’t a fraud.

So she wrote back.

Eventually Edward, a lawyer, invited her to his family’s home in the Washington, D.C., area. Apparently, judging from what I heard about his home and its surroundings, the law business had been very very good to Edward. He also knew some well-known people, including Ethel Kennedy and Andy “Moon River” Williams.

Although I can’t say with certainty that Edward lived high on the hog, I’m sure he had at least one foot in the stirrups.

Edward also became acquainted with my younger aunt, Aunt Dorothy, who was also a nun and who also visited his home and kept in touch with him.

My one encounter with Edward occurred some years ago during the week of Thanksgiving. I had traveled out of town to spend the holiday with relatives, including Aunt Dorothy. Unfortunately, my aunt had taken ill and was in the hospital, but her condition was improving.

When Edward called my relatives to see how Aunt Dorothy was doing, someone told him I was visiting, and he asked to talk to me.

I spent the better part of the next hour (OK, maybe it was only a half-hour, but it sure felt like an hour) answering what I would call a slew of questions about my family – that is, I would call it a slew if calling it a “slew” weren’t such a ridiculous understatement.

What were my brothers’ and sisters’ names? How old were they? Were they married? How old was I? Was I married? And so on. And so on.

The next day I visited Aunt Dorothy in the hospital and told her about my talk with Edward – or, rather, his talk with me. And I told her about the grilling I’d endured.

My aunt was surprised, to put it mildly. She told me that Edward had asked her all those questions some time ago, so why did he put me through the third (or maybe third and a half) degree?

Looking back, I suppose the obvious answer was “because he could,” but I never would have said it out loud because Aunt Dorothy and Edward were on such good terms.

So I would have forgotten about Edward and gone on with my life if it weren’t for one thing.

During the conversation, Edward had also asked me to do him a favor.

When I got back to my hometown, could I try to dig up a couple of things for him?

One of them was a news story about an accident that killed a family member at the state fairgrounds during the 1920s. And Edward also wanted me to try to find this same relative’s immigration certificate.

Edward said nothing about paying me to do this or reimbursing me for any expenses, but I said OK anyway. I was, after all, brought up to be polite.

A few weeks later, I visited my local library’s Local History department and was able to find a story about the fatal accident. That seemed easy enough.

Getting the immigration certificate was more of a chore. It turned out that such records were kept in the basement of the building that was then the county courthouse. I had to go there and find someone to help me look it up. One of the clerks gave me a book that he said contained what I needed, but he nervously warned me to be careful because the paper was old and easy to tear. I got the impression that the slightest rip would cause his supervisor to rip him several new orifices.

I found the certificate – I will say that looking at it did give me a low-grade thrill, considering that it was literally a piece of family history – and I was able to order a copy of it without committing any archival mayhem.

At one point – I can’t remember whether it was before or after I went to the records office – I was walking through the basement when a sheriff’s deputy politely asked me to step aside.

I did so, and then watched as a small parade of prisoners was marched from the jail – there was an underground passageway – to the courthouse. My memory isn’t always reliable, but as I recall they were shackled. I couldn’t tell what they were accused of or how dangerous they were just by looking at them because I simply avoided looking at them. Of course there was always the possibility that one of them would overpower a guard, grab the guard’s gun and hold me hostage.

Yes, I sure hoped Edward would appreciate how I took my life in his hands just so he could graft part of another branch onto the family tree.

Eventually I mailed all this stuff to Edward. As a bonus – and a subtle hint – I enclosed, without comment, a list of professional genealogists from my hometown area. That’s “professional” as in “people usually pay other people good money to have this stuff done, El Cheapo.”

I’ve been racking my brain, but to the best of my knowledge I don’t think Edward ever acknowledged what I did for him, though – my memory again being what it is – maybe he did send a card and I forgot about it. But I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

And I can definitely state that he never sent me any money or other tokens to recompense me for my time and expense.

Not even a “Let me know if I can do something for you sometime.”

Not even an autographed picture of Andy “Moon River” Williams.

So maybe he didn’t think my subtle hint was all that subtle.

But what did I care? Although I didn’t go so far as to check every last follicle each night before I went to bed, I figured that Cousin Edward was now out of my hair, for at least a while.

As it turned out, “at least” was putting it mildly.

A few years later, I was visiting Aunt Dorothy when, just to make conversation, I asked her if she’d heard from Cousin Edward lately.

To my surprise and shock, her face collapsed in tears.

“Cousin Edward died!”

I immediately went into Consolation Mode, mumbling the usual “Gee, too bad, sorry to hear it,” and similar sentiments.

And I must say I’m proud of myself for having enough self-control to not say the first thing that popped into my head when Aunt Dorothy told me Edward had died:

Well, that’s one way to find out about your ancestors….

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

This just in from the (unsubstantiated) literary rumor mill....

Word has it that Harper Lee left yet another unpublished manuscript.

It's based on the life of John Cameron Swayze.

It's called "Go Test a Watch, Man!"

Friday, May 6, 2016

Coming soon: 'Percy Kilbride at Colonus'?

Seen in the DVD section of my local chain bookstore:

"Ma and Pa Kettle: Complete Comedy Collection."

(Not to be confused with "Ma and Pa Kettle: Complete Greek Tragedy Collection.")

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Fun at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re on the list to receive this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles by mail but haven’t worked on them yet, you probably shouldn’t read this. Whether the rest of you should read this is something I’ll leave to you and your conscience, not to mention your tolerance for bloggers who write cutesy intros.)

While preparing for the trip to Stamford for this year’s event, I realize with some surprise that it’s my ninth attempt at crossword immortality and my second at Stamford, where the tournament originated in 1978 and where it returned last year after seven years in Brooklyn.

As always, I aim to improve my overall score, which last year was 153 out of 566. (My best overall score, a few years ago, was 142 out of 592.)

And as always, everyone does seven puzzles -- six on Saturday and one more Sunday morning. This is in addition to the puzzle for the championship competition, which takes place early Sunday afternoon and features only the finalists.

After so many years, even someone as dense as I am knows one of the big secrets to competing: Get into the tournament room early and grab a seat. Yes, it’s a big room (they don’t call it “ballroom” for nothing), but it fills up awfully fast.

After tournament founder Will Shortz’s introductory remarks, the competition proceeds with its usual efficiency, and I am faced with the first puzzle of the day, which is usually easy.

This year it’s “For Cooler Heads,” by Kristian House, containing puns about jails. (“Jailed, like a mixologist?” is BEHIND BARS.) For the most part it’s easy, but there’s one part of it temporarily costs me my cool.

I should explain that in this tournament, accuracy and speed count. Last year, the championship was decided by a handful of seconds. In all the puzzles, you get a bonus for finishing early, depending on how much time is left on the clock. But if you hand a puzzle in without checking it, you risk missing an error – and missing the 150-point bonus you get for a perfect solution.

My problem comes with 4 Down, “One of the things little boys are made of.” This pertains to a rhyme from my childhood. Little girls, we were told, were made of “sugar and spice and everything nice,” while little boys were made of “snakes and snails and puppy dog tails.”

So the answer is SNAKES, right?

Except that according to the grid, the answer has only five letters.

So I examine the Across answers for that part of the grid and realize that the answer is supposed to be SNIPS.

“Snips and snails?” That’s not how I remember it. But that’s what it has to be, and that’s what I put in, after spending a lot of time (in tournament terms) checking and rechecking.

Of course you’re not allowed to use the Internet during the tournament, and if you try it one of the proctors will probably catch you.

But nobody cares if you use it two weeks later, so I just did and found that, according to The Word Detective, it is indeed SNIPS, though another version has it as SNAKES.

To me it was always SNAKES. I guess that compared with Ms. House, I grew up in a rougher neighborhood. (And it might bear noting that Mr. Shortz lives in a place called Pleasantville.)

I later find out that as a result of all this, my score for Puzzle 1 is 1,080, compared with 1,090 last year.

Puzzle 2 is usually quite hard. I’ve often thought of it as being the second-hardest puzzle of the seven that everyone does, with No. 5 the toughest.

And “‘T’ Time” is by Patrick Blindauer, who can be tricky.

But I don’t find the puzzle to be all that tough, once you see that all the groupings of black spaces are shaped like the letter T, and each answer contains a T.

But then I hit another wall.

8 Down is “Talkative Windows assistant.” Seven letters.

I have no idea. I’ve used a Mac at home for years, and though I’ve used Windows at my workplaces, I don’t remember this “assistant.” Is it that little figure that used to jump out annoyingly at me when I used to hit the “?” icon in Word and “talk” in the form of balloons? I remember that guy, but he never told me his name.

OK, so we hit the Across words again:

From too many years of French classes, I know that “ ’Tis in Tours” is “C’est.” Note the capital C.

“Tale from medieval times” would seem to be CONTE. I don’t know it for sure, but I do know that the French term for “short story” is “conte,” and the other down clues are giving me “onte,” so CONTE seems to make sense. (Or, for our purposes, “cOnte.”)

“‘The Sopranos’ restaurateur.” Uh oh. Sorry to say I never got around to watching that, but supporting clues seem to make it just about certain that it’s ARTIE (or, again, “aRtie”).

“Tenants” is obviously “renTers.”

“Tatum and Hill, in ’21 Jump Street.’” This takes me longer than it should (no, I never watched that show either, let alone the movie). Then it his me (and I almost hit myself literally): “cosTars.”

“ ‘Three Sisters’ playwright Chekhov”? ANTON (or “antoN”).

Finally “ ’Twixt 12 and 20” is TEENAGE (or “teenAge”).

Add up the letters I capitalized and you get C+O+R+T+A+N+A. So that’s the name of the Windows assistant. Has to be. (Unless I’m wrong about “conte.”)

Later, in my hotel room, I Google “Cortana,” and I’m right. It also turns out that Cortana looks nothing like that assistant I was used to seeing. I feel dumb and out of touch until later in the tournament, when Will Shortz indicates that I wasn’t the only one stymied.

I later find out that my score for Puzzle 2 is 1,335, compared with 1,100 last year. Not bad.

Puzzle 3, “Series Cancellations,” causes me some worries because it’s by Mike Shenk, The Wall Street Journal’s puzzle editor, who can be tricky – and who on at least one occasion has composed the championship puzzle.

But, as is usually the case with Puzzle 3, it’s not bad. Sample theme clue: “TV series about a boorish fraternity?” is HOUSE OF CADS.

But although I don’t seem to hit any roadblocks, I somehow lose ground: My score on Puzzle 3 is 1,335 (yes, same as for Puzzle 2), compared with last year’s 1,555. Then again, it was the largest puzzle yet (96 words, compared with 78 and 86 words, respectively, for the other two puzzles), so maybe that, and my fear of Mr. Shenk, worked against me.

During the lunch break I find out that my ranking, so far, is 199, which is a surprise; I hadn’t known I was doing that badly.

But there’s still the afternoon. And Sunday morning.

I perhaps could have done better on Puzzle 4, “Symbology” by Zhouqin Burnikel, if I hadn’t psyched myself out upon seeing that the clues for the theme answers were along the lines of “[ ]” and “/” with (in these respective instances) the not-so-difficult answers TAX LEVELS and CUT SHARPLY. (In other words, “Brackets and Slash.”)

So my score is 1,180 compared with last year’s 1,185.

And now we come to Puzzle 5, commonly called “The Bastard Puzzle,” and usually with good reason. It’s called “Changing Lanes,” and it’s by another sometimes challenging constructor, Patrick Berry. (I consider myself a First Amendment absolutist, but if someone wants to pass a bill barring people named Patrick from making crossword puzzles, I’m sure I can easily arrange to look the other way.)

The themes of “Bastard Puzzles” are often, to put it kindly, convoluted, so my rule of thumb is to attack Puzzle 5 by finding non-theme clues that I can easily handle, racking up as many points as I can, and hope that when I’ve filled in all the straightforward clues I can get a glimmer of what’s going on.

In this case, some of the answers are going all over the place. One example: 37 Down is “John Updike novel that won the Pulitzer.” The answer is RABBIT AT REST, but there are only seven squares. Turns out that you’re supposed to fill in RABBI at 37 Down, then turn right (changing lanes, get it?) so that 58 Across is ITATRES and then go one space down for the final T.

And now you know why so many of the folks who make puzzles for this event attend the tournament but somehow manage to sneak out of the ballroom while their handiwork is torturing the contestants.

With maybe five to 10 minutes left I figure out what’s going on and furiously try to fill in the theme answers, but this is the only puzzle I don’t finish on time. (Though I had plenty of company, to put it mildly.) I think I did get more answers than most people (104 out of 118), leaving me with a score of 1,040 compared with last year’s Puzzle 5 score of 790.

Puzzle 6 is usually one of the easiest ones in the tournament. Shortz calls it a “palate cleanser” for contestants who wouldn’t mind being Patrick Berry’s “clock cleaner.”

Puzzle 6, “I’ll Be There,” is by Joel Fagliano, and the theme answers consist of familiar phrases with an “I” added, so that, for example, QUAKER STATE becomes QUAKIER STATE. I breeze through this pretty well, scoring 1,600, but apparently my breeze wasn’t gusty enough to match last year’s Puzzle 6 score, which was 1,800.

I later find that my overall ranking is 226. Again, why so much lower?

But some things are more important than crossword puzzles, and one of them is celebrating the life of a man who made a lot of entertaining ones. His name was Merl Reagle, and he died last year. On Saturday evening, Patrick Creadon, one of the people who made “Wordplay” (and a nice guy too, I discover while sharing an elevator with him) presents humorous outtakes from the film that feature Merl.

A surprise guest is Jeff Walters, who tells how he and his late wife, Clara, loved to solve crosswords together. After Clara found out she had cancer, Jeff approached Reagle about putting together a puzzle that contained answers relating to Clara’s life. Reagle managed to do this in a syndicated puzzle that to most solvers was just a typical puzzle. (None of the clues referred to Clara or her life.)

When it came time for her to solve the puzzle, Clara gradually figured out what was going on and was delighted.

Merl Reagle did all this free – all he wanted, he told Jeff, was to be told how Clara reacted.

Yes, I guess there are some things that are more important than crossword puzzles.

But I still want to clean up on Puzzle 7 on Sunday. It’s the tournament’s biggest puzzle – Sunday size – but usually not all that hard. We have 45 minutes to do it, and I’ve been known to finish it with 25 minutes left on the clock, meaning a lot of bonus points.

This year’s Puzzle 7 is “Page-Turners” by Lynn Lempel, who has fashioned many of the Monday puzzles (the easiest of the week) for The New York Times, where Shortz is the puzzle editor.

The theme answers are puns about book titles, so that “Novel about wickedly good aces? (1988)” is THE SATANIC SERVES. (Think tennis.)

I fill all the spaces carefully but as quickly as I can, then look up at the clock and see that I don’t have 25 minutes left.

I have 28 minutes left.

In the past I’ve maybe taken too much time checking my answers. This time, at 226 in the standings, I decide to take a chance and give my puzzle a very quick check before handing it in.

This strategy pays off: I score 2,250 compared with 2,160 for last year’s Puzzle 6.

A couple of hours later, it’s time for the championship rounds. I’m sure you’ll be thunderstruck to find out that I’m not one of the finalists.

Before those rounds, Merl Reagle’s widow, Marie, presents a new memorial award – the MEmoRiaL – for lifetime achievement in crossword construction. The award goes to veteran Maura B. Jacobson, who for years was the creator of Puzzle 6. She’s unable to attend, but her husband, Jerry, is on hand to accept the award.

The big finish of tournament is basically a duel between longtime champ Dan Feyer and frequent also-ran Howard Barkin. How did it end? You can see here.

And – as I’m sure you’re asking – what about me?

I originally finished at 220 overall, though the other day, as adjustments were made, I was upgraded to 219 out of 575 contestants. (I’m usually downgraded.)

Thing is, I scored 9,820 points this year, compared with 9,680 last year.

So why did I sink from 152 to 219?

A closer look at the standings provides the answer.

Last year, 126 contestants scored at least 10,000 points and 39 contestants solved all seven puzzles with no mistakes.

This year, 194 scored more than 10,000, and 67 had perfect scores for all seven puzzles. (I was perfect for every puzzle but No. 5.)

If I’d had this year’s score last year, I probably would have finished at 139.

But either the puzzles are easier or a lot of the contestants are smarter.

Let’s just say that, as far as I’m concerned, the puzzles aren’t getting easier.

So what’s a poor schlub to do?

Maybe next year, if he hasn’t won the presidency, I can legally arrange for Donald Trump to build a wall around the Stamford Marriott to keep out undesirables. (“Undesirables” meaning people who are much better solvers than I am.)

Who’s up for a referendum?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

At the (old) movies: Chaney and Chan

Some notes from a mystery double feature presented by the local cinephile society:

In one special way, “Calling Dr. Death” (1943, Universal) is a rare film.

I don’t mean that it’s a film that for years was thought lost. Or that it’s a film of rare quality, for Lord knows it isn’t that.

“Calling Dr. Death” is a rare 1940s movie because one of its leading players is still with us.

I’m referring to Patricia Morison (note to any fellow copy editors out there: yes, there’s only one “r” in that last name), who plays Stella, assistant to Dr. Steel, who is played by Lon Chaney Jr.

Ms. Morison, I’m happy to say, last month celebrated her 101st birthday.

I mostly remember her as the villainess in Basil Rathbone’s last Sherlock Holmes film, “Dressed to Kill.” She later found more fame as a member of the original cast of “Kiss Me, Kate.”

“Calling Dr. Death,” directed by Reginald LeBorg, was the first in a series of “Inner Sanctum” mysteries produced by Universal. These movies were spin-offs of a radio show called “Inner Sanctum,” which was a weekly anthology of suspense plays, none of which were adapted for the movies.

The “Inner Sanctum” radio show began with one of the medium’s most famous sound effects: a slowly closing, creaking door that suddenly slams. Each radio drama was introduced by a narrator whose cheerful remarks were larded with so much campy gallows humor that you could almost feel the rope burns.

A year later, Columbia launched a series of B movies based on a similar radio show, “The Whistler.” These films, a few of them directed by a young William “House on Haunted Hill” Castle, hold up better than “Calling Dr. Death.” I haven’t seen the other Inner Sanctum movies, but I suspect that the folks at Columbia looked at them and figured out what not to do.

For some reason, the folks at Universal did not use (or weren’t allowed to use) the creaking-door sound. (Decades later, that effect was used to open each episode of the “CBS Radio Mystery Theater.”)

Instead, Universal came up with a different opening. We fade in on what looks like a library room. In the middle is a table. In the middle of the table is a big glass jar. In the jar is a distorted, dismembered head that introduces the movie.

I don’t know how “Calling Dr. Death” did at the box office, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the number crunching, that disembodied head had plenty of company.

Lon Chaney Jr. was known for playing characters who, like the Wolf Man, were caught in and tortured by circumstances not of their own making.

In this particularly tragic case, the circumstances are Edward Dein’s script and Mr. Chaney’s agent.

The script tells how Dr. Steel, who specializes in hypnosis, comes to believe that he has killed his unfaithful wife. He is dogged by a Columbo-style police detective played by J. Carrol Naish, an actor who was Irish and who was known for playing roles that capitalized on dialect humor. He played Charlie Chan on TV and the title role in “Life With Luigi,” a stupefyingly stereotypical radio show. When I was a kid, I first saw him as an Indian chief in a short-lived TV comedy called “Westward Ho.”

I don’t remember seeing Naish ever playing an Irish guy. (He’s also in the first “Whistler” movie, too.)

I can’t fault Chaney, but there’s not much good he – or anybody – can bring to a film that incorporates the worst of bad old-time radio, particularly the overwrought interior monologue, which we hear during a close-up of an (understandably) agonized Chaney.

When the plot is finally resolved and we’re finally told what was really going on, well, let’s just say it happened it bit too fast for me. Then again, it probably couldn’t have happened fast enough.

I must have seen the second feature,"Charlie Chan in Panama” (Fox, 1940), before; 40 years ago, one of the local TV stations used to run all the Chan films, then all the Rathbone Holmes films, so again, I should have been at least a little familiar with it.

So imagine my delight when the film got underway and I realized I had no memory of it. It was like watching a new Chan film, so I could play along and try to solve it as the great detective tried to stop a plot to blow up the Panama Canal.

One nice thing about the Chan films – including those I do remember seeing – is that most of the time the supporting cast consists of actors who are forgettable or whom I’ve seen so many times elsewhere that I forget whodunit anyway.

This film has its share of famous heavies – Jack LaRue and the often-employed Lionel Atwill, who also played Professor Moriarty. (I endured gum surgery many years ago, an experience not made any easier by the surgeon’s uncanny resemblance to Mr. Atwill. When the doc died, I was tempted to attend the wake just to make sure.)

The production values and direction (by Norman Foster) were solid, the film moved along likely, and the cluing (as we mystery writers call it) was fair, though right near the end I had a pretty good idea who the baddie was.

And, as you might have heard, the Panama Canal was not blown up.

How to feel 2 inches tall in 10 seconds

So I'm sitting at a table at the public library, reading a book, killing time.

I've turned my chair so that it is facing left. My legs are crossed, and one of my feet is dangling past the left side of the table.

A man walking past the table almost stumbles on my foot.

He apologizes.

Engrossed in my book, I acknowledge the apology.

The man continues on. I look up and notice that he is walking with the aid of a tall stick.

In other words, I almost tripped a blind guy.

And he apologized.

Perhaps I should check my calendar for tomorrow to see whether it says "Wednesday, April 6: Burn down an orphanage."

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Across and down to Stamford again

This weekend I'll be competing once again at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. It'll be my ninth year at the tournament and my second one in Stamford, Conn.

The tournament started in Stamford in 1978 but moved to Brooklyn in 2008 after a documentary about it, "Wordplay," attracted a lot more competitors than the Stamford hotel seemed to be able to handle. My first tournament was the first one in Brooklyn, but the folks who'd been with it since the beginning (or close enough) liked the Stamford hotel better and the attendance seemed to be down enough, so it moved back to Connecticut.

I had some misgivings about the move to Stamford (changing trains, among other things), but I had no major problems last year -- the traveling was actually more pleasant -- so here I am, about to try it again.

As always, I'll let you know how I did. Last year I finished 153 overall out of 566. My best overall showing, back in 2012, was 142 out of 592.

I'll get back to you as soon as I can -- after the tournament, it usually takes a while for the scores to be finalized.

And besides, I'm probably going to need some rest. I usually do.

See you later.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

"Easter '51"

Watch for him
walking in the dawn
along the silver lawn.

Hail him hushedly
lovingly
laughingly:

A surging
gurgling
rising of joyousness
be gracefully yours.

- The Rev. Robert H. Flood, C.S.B. (1919-1974)
(my uncle)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

At the (old) movies: 'Three Blind Mice'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s first get-together of the new spring season….

You’ve almost certainly seen “Three Blind Mice” (Fox, 1938) before.

Even if you’ve never seen “Three Blind Mice” (Fox, 1938) before.

This is because the basic plot of this movie has been used a lot.

How often is “a lot”? Let’s just say that several entire forests probably gave their lives so that the screenwriters could have enough carbon paper.

The most famous version of this plot, filmed many years after “Three Blind Mice,” is probably “How to Marry a Millionaire.”

At this point I could describe the plot, but I have too much respect for your intelligence to believe that you haven’t already figured it out.

The three “mice” are Loretta Young, Marjorie Weaver and Pauline Moore. The prospective rich husbands are played by Joel McCrea and David Niven.

But the women learn soon enough that things aren’t always as they seem.

That’s about all the plot I’m going to give you. There are some twists, not as much wit as one might like, but a lot of charm. The director, William A. Seiter, had a lot of experience with comedy, and he does fairly well here.

Niven is another of those performers whom I have come to appreciate more as time goes by. Perhaps I took him for granted because as I was growing up he seemed to take any role he could get. And he was always so good that he made it look easy. It couldn’t have been.

McCrea is on my short list of unappreciated actors. He didn’t always get the best parts, but he always did his best and, in my view, was always welcome.

In “Three Blind Mice,” McCrea turns in his customary professional job, but you get the idea that he’s doing this film as a favor for an aunt whom he couldn’t turn down because, well, he’s always been such a dutiful nephew. But I couldn’t help thinking that I could almost hear him saying under his breath: “Geez, I can’t wait for Preston Sturges to come along and do this kind of movie the way it really needs to be done!”

The real life of this cinematic party – and she comes to it late, but boy, is she welcome – is Binnie Barnes as Niven’s sister, who is, to put it mildly, outgoing.

I think Barnes was mostly known for comedy parts – I especially remember her as Fred Allen’s wife in “It’s in the Bag” – but she also played Catherine Howard, one of the wives of Henry VIII who didn’t live to a ripe old age, and she is very good playing opposite Frank Morgan in “There’s Always Tomorrow,” a moving domestic drama that I wrote about here.

Barnes made a comeback of sorts in the 1970s in the movie “40 Carats.” It helped that her husband, M.J. Frankovich, produced it, but although I have yet to see “40 Carats,” I suspect it proves that nepotism is not always a bad thing.

A friend of mine recently saw her on a “Tonight Show” repeat from that time and reports that even then she was a hoot.

In all, “Three Blind Mice” is a pleasant enough film, and though it may seem trite (because it is trite), it’s well worth the wait for Binnie Barnes to come in and kick it into high gear.

Before the feature: “In the Sweet Pie and Pie,” featuring The Three Stooges – Moe, Larry and Curly – as three unjustly accused and condemned murderers who wind up married to three sisters in a plot to save their inheritance. Imagine the sisters’ surprise when the three guys are exonerated and set free.

There’s some welcome gallows humor – I mean that literally – in the first reel, and as you’d probably expect from the title, flying pastries take precedence in the second reel.

Custard pie fights were old hat even in the late 1920s – the high point probably being the famous sequence in Laurel and Hardy’s “The Battle of the Century” – and by 1941, when “In the Sweet Pie and Pie” was made, at least three quarters of the old hat were already moth-eaten.

Still, the cinephile society's audience seemed to enjoy the pie fight, and although it’s not my favorite kind of humor, I can appreciate the skill required to correctly throw a pie, not to mention what it takes to take one in the face.

I mean, think of it: Someone is going to throw a pie at you, hitting you square in the face. You know this is going to happen. But you have to pretend that you have no way of knowing it’s going to happen.

Could Sir Laurence Olivier have done it? Quite possibly, though I never saw him try, and doesn’t the fact that he was able to avoid flying pies by hiding behind William “No Whoopie Cushions Here” Shakespeare at least hint that, when it came to dodging cream-filled discs, he didn’t want to be a poor second to Curly?

Or even Shemp?

Monday, March 21, 2016

A sales pitch that doesn't in thrall me

As I was trying to call up a web page a few minutes ago, an ad appeared across the top of if it:

Making your home beautiful

You in vision it we create it

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Another opportunity for 'Motive'

A few years ago, during the summer, ABC presented episodes of a Canadian police drama called “Motive.”

The next summer, ABC presented new episodes of the show.

Then it stopped, even though more new episodes were being produced for Canadian TV.

But I found out this week that new episodes of “Motive” will be presented at 10 p.m. Fridays (Eastern Time) on the USA Network.

I’m telling you all this because “Motive” is one of the finest mystery shows I’ve ever seen.

The setup is a bit like “Columbo”: You know who done it, and you know whom they done it to, and you watch as Detectives Angie Flynn and Oscar Vega try to solve the crime.

The setup differs from “Columbo” in that you don’t know WHY the killer done it. Not until near the end, anyway.

In lesser hands, this could be just a gimmick.

But “Motive” plays fair with the audience in terms of clues, and it plays more than fair in terms of the quality of the writing.

Although it’s a little like “Columbo,” it’s more like a series of short stories, well-known in the mystery field, by a British writer named Roy Vickers. Vickers’ stories were about people who got away with murder – or thought they did, until some stray, obscure, unexpected clue tripped them up, and they were brought to justice by a detective who often wasn’t so much brainy as lucky.

What makes Vickers’ stories memorable (to me, at least) is the quality of the writing; without any pretensions (but sometimes with a welcome dry humor), Vickers gives us a well-rounded portrait of the killer, to the point where you occasionally almost want to take his or her side. We’re not talking Shakespearean tragedy, of course, but sometimes we’re not far from its outskirts.

“Motive” often has this same quality.

But even with all this going for it, “Motive” would be nothing without Kristin Lehman as Angie and Louis Ferreira as Vega. And the rest of the cast is fine, too.

I don’t normally plug TV shows – that’s what the networks have promotion departments for – but I think that “Motive” has been flying under the radar for too long.

And I hope I’ve motivated you to watch it.

When Matt and Kitty and Doc and Chester were young

The other day I bought the first season of “Gunsmoke” on DVD.

That’s 39 episodes – remember when a TV show had that many episodes per season?

I didn’t buy the DVD set because I’m a huge fan of “Gunsmoke.” By the time I was old enough to be allowed to watch it, it had expanded to an hour. And although I remember some things about it – Burt Reynolds, when he was a regular; an episode in which Aneta Corsaut, Helen Crump on Andy Griffith’s show, played a nun; and an episode that introduced me to Bruce Dern, as a killer (surprise!) who, in the show’s climax, wielded a pitchfork as he chased after a little boy who had seen him commit a murder.

Of course Marshall You-Know-Who shot Bruce down, but I probably came close to wetting my pants as I watched that scene, being at that time about the same age as the kid Bruce was tormenting.

But “Gunsmoke” never meant that much to me, especially as the years went by and as the episodes more and more seemed to be produced in a molasses factory.

Then a couple of things happened.

First, one of the cable stations showed a few episodes from the show’s early days, when it was only a half-hour, in the days when most dramatic TV episodes seemed to be only a half-hour and seemed to work better that way. The shorter “Gunsmoke” was better and had scripts by people like Sam Peckinpah.

Then I began listening to some of the “Gunsmoke” radio episodes that preceded the TV show. Matt Dillon was played by William Conrad, later better known as Cannon (and to me as the narrator of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s adventures). Parley Baer, who was everywhere in those days, was Chester, and Doc was played by Howard McNear, better known as Floyd the Barber on (once again) Andy Griffith’s show. As Doc, McNear was tougher and more sardonic than Floyd. (Then again, pretty near everyone was tougher and more sardonic than Floyd, except maybe Barney Fife.) Georgia Ellis was Kitty.

Conrad portrayed Dillon as a lonely man with a sometimes grim outlook on life. That’s no surprise, considering that some of the stories were grim. I particularly remember one in which several guys robbed a family and scalped all its members, hoping that Indians would be blamed, until Matt saw through the scheme.

“Gunsmoke” is one of a number of examples of how dramatic network radio became much better, much less hokey just as TV killed off big-time radio.

So far I’ve watched five episodes of the first season of the TV version of “Gunsmoke.” They all hold up.

I had known that John Wayne introduced the first episode – he’d worked with James Arness and liked him – but I’d never seen the intro, which is cute, with Wayne in full Charming, Self-Deprecating Mode.

The first few episodes begin with Matt walking around Boot Hill and speaking to us in a philosophical voiceover. Mad magazine kidded the pants off this in its satire of the show. (“This here is Boot Hill. Many men are buried here. Some ’cause they were good, some ’cause they were bad. But all, ’cause they were dead, by George!”)

A couple of things I noticed right off on these early shows:

1. Doc, especially in the first episode, looks as if great (if somewhat obvious) pains have been taken to make him look old, which isn’t surprising, considering that Milburn Stone, who played him, was a little past 50 years old at the time. (The comedic corollary might be Andy Clyde, who played an older guy in Mack Sennett talking shorts while Clyde was still quite young – he also was Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick – but needed less and less old-guy makeup as time went by and he became a semi-regular on “Lassie” and “The Real McCoys.”)

2. In addition to being a fine performer, Amanda Blake, as Kitty, was really really cute, not quite as seemingly hard-bitten as the Kitty of the later shows. (I don’t blame her for being hard-bitten – all those years, and she still hadn’t lassoed Matt.)

Of course there’s also Dennis Weaver, doing a fine job as Chester, though I’m not surprised he eventually left the show so he could play characters whose IQs had at least two digits.

The original producer-director of the TV show was a guy named Charles Marquis Warren. I’ve heard that he was fired because he was apparently something of a martinet and the cast hated him. He wasn’t banished from the TV prairie for long, though: A few years later, he was running “Rawhide.” (I don’t know what Clint “Rowdy Yates” Eastwood thought of him.)

And if that name seems familiar, Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful 8” is Major Marquis Warren. From what I know about Tarantino, I doubt this is a coincidence.

Four of the five episodes I’ve watched feature the kind of journeyman character actors who seem in short supply these days.

In the first episode, Paul Richards plays a psychopath who likes to goad guys into drawing first so he can kill them. At one point he wounds Matt pretty badly. If you wanted a psychopath back in the 1950s and 1960s, Richards was one of the go-to guys, though he differed from some of the others because he sometimes showed at least a hint of vulnerability.

Another episode featured the incomparable John Dehner. If you watched television for any length of time back then, Dehner was hard to miss. He could be a psychopath or an executive or an amiable con man or, hell, just plain anything you wanted.

Also appearing in separate episodes: two of the big bad guys of early TV, and I mean that literally: the heavy-set (to put it mildly) James Westerfield and Robert Middleton.

Westerfield wasn’t the psycho type; he was more apt to be the town’s chief mover and shaker, a guy who could afford to hire psycho types to work for him. His characters probably had file drawers full of resumes of especially dangerous desperadoes.

Middleton could go either way – he could play a businessman (he was even a judge accused of murder once on “Perry Mason”) or one of the scariest son-of-a-bitches you could ever meet. (I’m thinking of his role in the movie “The Desperate Hours,” in which he breaks out of prison with Humphrey Bogart.)

The last actor on this list was a true one-of-a-kind: Royal Dano. He was tall, dark and often poignant. He plays the title character in “Obie Tater,” a good-natured but touchingly naïve and pathetic guy who might or might not have a lot of gold hidden away.

I know what you might be thinking: Why doesn’t this lousy so-and-so post pictures of these guys so I can find out whether I’ve seen them?

That’s a good point, and in years past I used to post such pictures. Then the company that’s behind this blog “improved” things, which made it more difficult for me to do that. (And I’m not the most technologically gifted person around anyway.)

So I apologize and just ask that if you’re really interested, Google these guys, and chances are you’ll find a picture and say, “Hey, now I know who that lousy so-and-so was talking about! But he’s still a lousy so-and-so!”

I’d like to mention one last name, and don’t waste your time looking for his picture because he wasn’t a performer but a writer:

John Meston.

He was the guy behind most of the radio scripts, and at least many of those scripts were adapted for episodes of the TV show. I don’t know what if anything John Meston did before and after “Gunsmoke,” but given the superlative quality of his work, I’m not sure he ever needed to write anything else to prove that when it came to this kind of material, his aim was truest.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

He hates to eat and run, but when duty calls....

From USA Today:

Poughkeepsie: Mayor Rob Rolison chased a suspect in a graffiti case as Rolison and his wife, Lori, watched from the window of a nearby restaurant.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Two books and a blog

After hearing of the death of Bob Elliott of Bob and Ray earlier this month, I finally decided to buy David Pollock’s book about the pair, aptly titled “Bob and Ray, Keener Than Most Persons.”

Before giving you my verdict, I should tell you that Bob and Ray Goulding have been a part of my world since I was a kid. Matter of fact, I first new Bob and Ray as Bert and Harry.

Bert and Harry were the Piel brothers in a series of animated commercials for a beer by the same name. I could tell that the ads were funny – the grown-ups around me seemed to find them amusing – but I was too young to get the humor. That youthful ignorance was a continual source of frustration, like the time I saw the dour-faced (to say the least) composer Oscar Levant on Jack Paar’s Friday night show and couldn’t understand why the things he said made my visiting uncle roar with laughter.

I didn’t really get to know Bob and Ray as Bob and Ray until Dick Cavett featured them on his ABC morning show during the political conventions of 1968. My older brother and sister found them hilarious and, lo and behold, by now I was old enough to get the jokes, too.

A few years later they were on Broadway in “Bob and Ray: The Two and Only.” Naturally my family bought the original cast album. (I’m sure I have a cassette of it somewhere, along with other cassettes of their material, including a prize I won in a local radio contest: one hour of 15-minute broadcasts they did for CBS in the late 1950s.)

The cassette I won includes my favorite Bob and Ray bit, “The Feb. 8th Parade,” in which Wally Ballou and Artie Schermerhorn are broadcasting the parade for separate networks and wind up on the same frequency, battling over who can see which parade floats first and other stuff. It’s a masterpiece of comedy and audio engineering.

In the mid-1970s Bob and Ray had an afternoon show for a New York radio station, and I remember trying to bring in the signal on an old radio of hours.

Pollock’s book is probably the best one we’re likely to get about this duo. It helps that Pollock, a veteran comedy writer, has a pro’s understanding of what the two were doing. And speaking of writers, I should point out that some of their greatest bits (such as “Slow Talkers of America”) were written not by them but by Tom Koch, who also wrote many pieces for Mad magazine.

I suppose some might say the book could have used some trimming – some people might not be as interested as I was in the pair’s personal lives – but if you’re a true Bob and Ray fan, you won’t mind a bit.

Another broadcasting personality’s life is covered in “The Matchless Gene Rayburn” by Adam Nedeff, who previously wrote a good biography of Bill Cullen. The Rayburn book is better – not that there was really anything wrong with the Cullen book, but Rayburn’s life had more ups and downs.

I hadn’t known that Rayburn and then-partner Dee Finch created the morning drive-time comedy duo format back in the 1940s. They were wildly successful, and Rayburn went on to host many shows, mostly game shows, most famously both versions of “Match Game,” which began as a rather staid show in the 1960s and resurfaced years later in the better-remembered format that featured Richard Dawson, Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly. (I first saw Rayburn in a game show called “Dough Re Mi,” in the late 1950s.)

More and more I find in my reading that successful entertainment personalities are dissatisfied with their lot. Groucho Marx, for example, really wanted to be a writer. Rayburn really set out to be an actor before he got sidetracked into game shows. He did have one fling on Broadway, as Dick Van Dyke’s replacement in “Bye Bye Birdie.”

And now I’d like you to say hello to Sister Celluloid, whom I recently added to my blogroll. If you like old movies – and especially enjoy the Self-Styled Siren’s blog – I’m 99.9 percent sure you’ll spend a lot of time visiting with the good sister.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Did St. Peter give him a mulligan?

I changed the name and fixed the punctuation, but otherwise here is the first sentence of an obituary that ran recently in my local newspaper:

"On Tuesday, January 26th, Don Newbert finished his final round of golf and entered God's great Club House. He played strong and courageous right through the final 18th hole. It was the best round of golf he ever played."

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Of course you already knew this, right?

A Facebook friend pointed out yesterday that the word "automysophobia" means "the fear of being dirty."

This would make a great spelling bee word.

Of course, to have this in a spelling bee you would have to have a sample sentence.

I wonder whether a sample poem would be OK:

Otto was her boy toy.

She had automysophobia.

But when he stopped using Lifebuoy,

She said, "Otto, I'm so over ya!"

Monday, January 4, 2016

Newsroom memories: Wendy and me

Part One

Near the end of another night shift more than 30 years ago, a man named Rollie walks toward the copy desk. He is carrying a piece of paper and wearing a devilish grin.

Rollie is in charge of what is called the Telegraph Desk, which handles copy from the AP, UPI, the Los Angeles Times and maybe one or two other wire services. This piece of paper is from one of the many wire service machines that sit in a nearby room, tapping out the day's news.

Within a few years these machines will be removed and the paper will get its news by satellite dish, but Rollie's department will still be known as the Telegraph Desk for a few more years, perhaps out of habit and perhaps because nobody wants to answer the phone by saying "Dish Desk!"

Rollie hands us the piece of paper. It is a news story. At the top of the story is a note from the wire service: "Editors: Note nature." Translation: Be very careful about running this story lest you get a slew of angry phone calls -- or worse, an unhappy note (to put it mildly) from your bosses.

No one will argue that this story merits that note. It is about a man who went to a hospital for an operation to have something removed but afterward found that, um, something else had been removed.

Of course we're not going to run the story, but news folks are inclined to gallows humor -- helps them cope with the awful stuff that they find out about during the course of the job -- and the story makes the rounds of the desk as people try to come up with a headline for it.

Mine is "No jack, no play makes man a dull boy."

Part Two

It is some months later, and I have been reassigned to the Telegraph Desk. Rollie is now my boss.

It's a Monday night, and the person on the desk who handles the makeup chores in the composing room has Monday nights off, so I have to fill in for her.

During this era, the job of makeup editor is one of the most unsung tasks in journalism. I eventually get to the point where I am good at it, but as the automation of the newspaper business proceeds inexorably, the time will come when this will be like saying that I can make a top-notch buggy whip as well as anybody else.

Being makeup editor means that after taking care of my regular duties -- editing the people news and the weather report and laying out and editing stories for a few more pages -- I have to go out to the composing room, where printers are pasting up the next day's pages, and troubleshoot problems for the next couple of hours, often at breakneck speed, always under deadline pressure.

Among other things, I have to keep an eye on what is called the "slop class page." It is many years before Craig and his list and other Internet desperadoes will raid newspapers everywhere and steal most of their classified ad business, so there are still a lot of ads to be pasted up, and for the next day's paper they are pasted up on deadline.

Because of this, you never know exactly how much space these ads will take up until close to the last minute. In anticipation of this, someone from the ad department usually calls the managing editor with an estimate during the afternoon. These estimates might be right on the money or a little off either way.

Tonight the estimate is way off, and I suddenly have a big hole to fill, maybe two columns by 14 inches. I need to find a way to fill that, and fast.

I rush back to the newsroom and find that Rollie has placed a story on my desk. He often does this if it's an update to a story I've been handling, or if it's something else he would like to get in.

The story is about Wendy O. Williams, a singer, who has been arrested and accused of obscene behavior. More precisely -- but not too precisely -- police say she inappropriately placed her hand microphone in a certain place on her body.

From glancing at the hard copy I know it'll be enough to fill that space, so I call it up on the computer, do a quick edit, slap a headline on it, push a few buttons and send it to the composing room so we can make the headline.

And by now I'm sure you're way ahead of me: The story was one of those "note nature" stories (can't remember whether that note was on top of it, though it might have been), and Rollie had put it on my desk just for my amusement.

And you won't be surprised to find out that when I returned from the composing room a little while later, laden with page proofs but flushed with pride after meeting yet another deadline, Rollie took one look at the "slop class page" and, in a voice that I can still hear 35 years later, said:

"You put THAT in the paper?!"

I don't think we received any angry calls, and we didn't get a note from the executive editor because he almost certainly never saw it. Our newspaper at that time had five editions, and at the earliest opportunity we replaced the wandering microphone with something that was less likely to make the boss cough up his Cream of Wheat.

I wish I could say this was the only time I ever messed up in what used to be called the newspaper game.

There was the time I wrote "China" in a headline instead of "Japan." (Or was it the other way around?) Or the time I put together an obit for Ira Gershwin, with a good picture, a story edited to a fare-thee-well and even a sampling of his lyrics.

My supervisor said it was a very nice package, well laid out and all, but, um, it never said the guy died. (Luckily, we again had time to fix it.)

And there was the time that one of our star columnists, who often ran caption contests whose winning entrants received special T-shirts, misspelled “T-shirt” and I didn’t catch it.

Yes, that misspelling.

It's just as well I never became a surgeon -- my prowess in the O.R. would probably have been enough to convince that poor guy in Part One that he'd been let off easy.