Saturday, February 17, 2024

Two Women Named Barbara: Part Two

I don’t remember where I first heard of Barbara Lakey (better known as “Babs”) or Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine (better known as “FMAM”), which she founded and published.

I do remember that I had written a mystery story and I was looking for a place to send it.

You have to be careful when you’re marketing your work. Not every publisher is honest; there’s a reason there’s a website called Writer Beware.

But as I read about Futures, I saw a name I recognized: Henry Slesar, who was one of FMAM’s advisers, had written stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine; had adapted some of those stories for Hitchcock’s TV show; and had served as the head writer for a daytime soap, “The Edge of Night,” for many years. And on the side he ran his own ad agency.

So I figured I could trust Babs Lakey, even if she could have chosen a better name for her magazine. She meant “futures” in the sense of investments, like gold futures; she felt she was investing in new writers. Unfortunately, after I began selling stuff to Futures, some people I know thought I was a science fiction writer. Oh well.

Not long after I found out about Futures, Mr. Slesar died and Babs launched a short story contest in his memory. I entered it, won third place, and had the option of submitting it to the magazine, which I did.

The fiction editor surprised me by rejecting it, so I wrote to Babs.

“Why don’t you email a copy of this story, would you?” she wrote back. “I always enjoy seeing what we turn down.” So I did.

I also submitted another story, based on my experiences as a newspaper copy editor. By this time there was a new fiction editor, “an old newshen” who said she really liked the story, which was about 8,000 words, but could I cut it to 5,000 to 6,000?

Gulp. Then again, I had sometimes slashed the hell out of reporters’ stories, and those who live by the delete key must die by the delete key. And of course the shortened story was much better.

But after a few months went by with no word from the new fiction editor, I wrote to Babs. Turns out that the new editor had left and there was still another fiction editor. Because of a problem with the file system, he had only the original version and liked it but wished it were shorter. So I told Babs about the shorter version, she told me to send it, and he immediately accepted it.

And within a few hours I received word that the story from the contest had been accepted for the magazine. Babs even put my name on the cover of that issue.

Two sales in one night! (I also remember that this was the same night that Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California. I was at least as happy as he was.)

I wish I could say I sold many more stories to Futures, but it folded despite Babs’ tireless efforts. She lost a lot of money and, from what I’ve heard, her health. I’ve read that she is retired now, and I’m sorry to say that we’ve lost touch. I hope she is doing OK.

And I’ve always kept the note she sent me about my newspaper story, “An Eye for Detail,” which is probably my best mystery so far:

“Just did the layout for your story and wanted to tell you what a GREAT one!! FABulous job, Mark!!


Could anybody ever ask for a better editor?

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Two Women Named Barbara: Part One

I owe a lot to two women named Barbara.

First there was Barbara Clarkson, a published poet who taught creative writing at my alma mater.

Her creative writing course was open only to juniors and seniors, but I used to see her around the campus before I ever took it. On the surface she seemed friendly and pleasantly eccentric.

When I finally got into her class — I think I was a senior — I found out she was indeed friendly and pleasantly eccentric. But when she handed my stories back I learned that she was also a friendly, pleasantly eccentric and damned hard-nosed editor. If she saw a word that she thought didn’t belong, or was redundant, she’d circle it.

She circled a lot of my words — so many that as I think of it now, I’m surprised I ever became an editor. I’m sure that she herself would have been a godsend to the copy desk at the paper where I eventually worked.

But she did like my work. When the college’s annual literary magazine came out, she saw to it that the issue began with one of my stories.

As my graduation approached, Ms. Clarkson wanted me to get the college’s commencement award for writing,

The head of the English department wanted somebody else to get it. The college had recently added a minor in communications, and the department head, apparently in an attempt to promote this new focus, wanted the award to go to the editor of the college paper.

I could see the department head’s point. I knew the editor. I had even worked for him on the paper; he was a good guy, and he had led the paper during a time of controversy on the campus, and the stories he wrote about the controversy were about as professional as you could get at a school that didn’t have a journalism department. Not surprisingly, he is now the president of a corporate communications company.

But Ms. Clarkson pushed for me, to the point where the department named two recipients: the editor and me. As much as I still appreciate this, I remember Ms. Clarkson more as the person who let me know, without ever explicitly saying it, that I was indeed a writer, that the career choice I had made in the late 1960s was not a stupid one.

I wish I could say I kept in touch with her through the years, but several months after my graduation I began a 30-year stint at the local paper, and that, among other things, kept me busy.

One New Year’s Day, she died. She hadn’t been sick; the way I heard it, she was here one moment, gone the next. Someone else who knew her told me it was the perfect way for her to go.

Before she died, I did have one more, quite unexpected encounter with her.

A colleague of mine had become an adjunct instructor at the college. One night at the paper, when he wasn’t there, the phone rang.

“Is Dan Valenti there?” I knew the voice immediately.

I explained that Dan wasn’t there, then hesitantly asked her if she was Ms. Clarkson.

“Yes! Who’s this?”

Filled with pride at being a successful (so far) alumnus, I told her.

“Mark! What are YOU doing there?”

I still laugh at this, while remembering how I sometimes asked myself various versions of the same question over those 30 years.

Next time: The Second Barbara.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Where I was when the lights went out

It’s a Tuesday evening in November, 58 years ago.

My family is home. My mother, as I recall, has cooked “soft steak,” consisting of meat in gravy and maybe some onions. Years later, I can still smell and taste it. My younger sister still knows how to make it. It’s especially nice if you place a piece of bread underneath the steak and gravy.

At some point after dinner, Father Smalley from St. Vincent’s, our parish, is coming over to talk to my mother about something. Although he’s never visited our house before, I don’t have the impression that anything is wrong.

At 5:22 p.m. our power goes out — lights, TV, everything.

Turns out we are among 30 million people, from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, who are literally and figuratively in the dark.

Were we in the middle of dinner? Maybe, maybe not. I do recall candles being brought out and lighted. And someone turning on a transistor radio; one of the radio stations is still broadcasting, on “auxiliary power.” Not that this does much good; nobody at the station seems to know what happened either.

We stay calm, and after maybe two hours the power comes back.

And we’re still expecting Father Smalley.

Father Smalley is an assistant pastor at St. Vincent’s. He’s a young, pleasantly down-to-earth guy whom everybody seems to like. My mother knows him because of his involvement with the parish’s Mothers’ Club, and they get along well. Father Smalley’s boss is Father Hearn, the pastor, a much older man who has an unpleasantly acerbic and not particularly funny sense of humor. A few years later, when the hippie movement takes hold, Father Hearn will refuse to give Communion to a boy who has long hair. (He’ll also give me grief for sporting long sideburns, which I have grown mainly to prove to the other guys that my chemical makeup really does include testosterone.)

Father Smalley is also into show biz. When it’s time to stage the parish’s variety show, he is the auteur. When “folk Masses” come into vogue, he introduces them to St. Vincent’s. I don’t know how Father Hearn reacts to this, but I’m sure I could guess.

Not long after Father Smalley arrives he talks to my mother. He has come to ask for her help. Every Tuesday the kids in our Catholic school get out early and kids from public school come over for religion classes that are taught by volunteers, all women. Thing is, some of these women are also mothers and need baby sitters, so Father Smalley is asking my mother, who is in the process of raising six kids, to let one or two of the women drop their children off at our house and baby-sit them while their mothers teach. My mother agrees to this.

But before Father Smalley talks to her, and in an apparent attempt to break the ice, he looks at me and immediately, apropos of nothing whatsoever, launches into a letter-perfect rendition of “You’ve Got Trouble, My Friends, in River City” from “The Music Man.” He’s no threat to Robert Preston, but he isn’t bad.

Father Smalley will eventually leave St. Vincent’s, leave the priesthood, move to San Diego, get married and become a fundraiser for nonprofits.

And I will always remember the night of the soft steak, the blackout and the transistor radio, with a show tune thrown in — no cover charge.

Just another night in the Murphy household.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Halloween night in the old neighborhood

It’s a typical Halloween night in the 1960s, a time when most of the folks in my neighborhood knew each other; when kids could roam from one backyard to another, even to the end of the block, without any fences blocking their way; when the worst thing a trick-or-treater’s parents had to worry about was the next dental bill — and not the cost of an ambulance ride necessitated by a purposely misplaced razor blade.

On this particular night I and my three younger siblings, accompanied by at least one of our parents, have stood on the thresholds of neighboring homes while people tossed goodies into our bags. If there’s an easier gig, I don’t know what it is.

But now we’re at the home of Annie and Pearl Kallikack, where Halloween is a bit different. (As you may have guessed, those aren’t their real names. I’m not afraid they’ll sue me — they’re well beyond that — but they could theoretically haunt me, so why take chances?)

Annie is at least on the cusp of middle age, and Pearl is her mother.

Annie is good-hearted, but tactfulness isn’t always her strong point. I was somehow able to read long before I entered kindergarten, and Annie, convinced that this ability was some kind of trick, was not above shoving a Newsweek in front of my pre-k puss and demanding that I read it out loud, which I easily did, though I probably didn’t understand the words.

Annie is also not overly fond of modern entertainment. Years later she will go to a Steve Martin movie called “Pennies from Heaven,” thinking that it’s the kind of innocent musical she grew up watching. When she finds out that the movie is the exact opposite of what she was expecting, she will angrily flee the theater.

My two aunts will find Annie’s moral scruples ironically amusing, saying that in her younger days, Annie had a reputation for being “fast.” Then again, my two aunts were nuns, so their idea of “fast” might be considered life in the slow lane today.

As for Pearl, she too is kind-hearted and definitely not shy; had she lived a few decades longer, she might have been a shoo-in to play Sophia on “The Golden Girls.” But when people talk about Pearl, they are more likely to mention her eyesight. I think I remember them using the phrase “blind as a bat” more than once, especially regarding their concern that she is still driving. The thought of Pearl Kallikack operating any motor vehicle scares the neighborhood mothers more than any nightmare Stephen King could dream up. If you don’t believe in miracles, please consider that, as far as I know, she never had an accident — or at least anything that made the news.

On Halloween, you can’t just stand on the Kallikacks’ threshold. You have to come into the house, where the dining room table is loaded with enough sweet treats to give an earthworm diabetes.

And there’s another rule: You can go around the table, grabbing all the treats you want, but only once — no second helpings.

As we promenade around the table, things are peaceful until Pearl erupts. “Hey!” she says to one of my siblings. “You can’t do that! You’ve already been around once!”

“No, Mama!” says Annie, rushing to put out what, for her, is probably the latest of umpteen fires. “He didn’t go around before! This is another boy!”

Pearl calms down, we eventually leave, and another Halloween at the Kallikacks’ is in the books.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Roughing it in black and white

On Sunday mornings one of the cable stations shows episodes of “Batman,” the campy series from the 1960s.

Sometimes I watch the beginning of an episode and feel a mixture of pain and nostalgia. The pain comes from remembering what a doofus I was back then — one of the few people (if that) in the country who didn’t realize that the show was a tongue-in-cheek spoof. Yes, reader, I took it seriously for a while. Then again, I’ve read that Neil Hamilton, who played Commissioner Gordon, also didn’t get the joke. At least he had something of an excuse: His career stretched back to the silent era, when scripts and performances weren’t always subtle, and his over-the-top theatricality added to the show’s fun.

The nostalgia I feel comes from each episode’s intro, when we are informed that “Batman” is “In Color!” This was after ABC and CBS finally caught up with the NBC Peacock, which had ruled the panchromatic roost for ages; for a couple of seasons the two also-rans always trumpeted their shows’ color at the beginning of each show, as if we stupid viewers couldn’t have figured it out for ourselves.

“Batman” was one of the first color programs I ever saw — but not at home.

We still had a black-and-white TV. I think my parents knew that we kids wanted a color set, but there were six of us youngsters, and given the cost of clothing and feeding us, we sensed that for some time to come we were going to have to take CBS’ word that Lucy had red hair.

In an attempt to make us feel better about this, one day Mom brought home a rectangular plastic sheet that was supposed to simulate the joys of color TV if you placed it over the screen of your black-and-white Zenith. The top third of the sheet had a blue hue, the bottom third was green and the middle section had another color — orange, I think. I remember that most of us kids were kind enough to go along with this, at least for a while.

Then, around the mid-1960s, my dad got a membership for a huge store, kind of a pre-Walmart Walmart, with every kind of department you could think of, including toys, electronics and groceries — not to mention the bags of extraordinarily tasty popcorn you could get as you were leaving; the memory still makes my mouth water.

The store’s membership was open to government employees. My father wasn’t a government employee, but his company, an auto-parts warehouse, had government contracts, so he slid through that way.

On Thursday nights, while he and Mom shopped in the grocery department, we kids would hang out in the color TV section, watching “Batman” and other shows. It was a thrill to see all these characters in color; for a little while each week, we got a taste of How The Other Half Lived. And we also learned fairly quickly that these 1960s TVs had a knob you could turn if you wanted to futz with the color. I still remember seeing an ad for Kellogg’s blue cornflakes.

By the time we finally got a color set I was entering college, and although I still lived at home, my academic workload tended to keep me away from the TV.

I now have a 52-inch set that can do all sorts of things; problem is, I’m too dumb to figure out how to make it do all sorts of things. On a good day I could maybe figure out how to plug it in. But the color is sharp and the audio is state-of-the-art, even if some of those Brits on the PBS shows still haven’t learned to speak up.

Of course the manual says nothing about blue cornflakes.

But you can’t have everything.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Trouble at the ATM? You can bank on it

It’s supposed to be a simple bank visit — go in, get money from the ATM and catch my bus.

As I cross the street, I’m not even worried by the guy who’s waiting at the other corner. From the look in his eyes I know he’s going to put the bite on me. I’ll just ignore him.

When I get to the corner he asks me for a dollar. He says he wants a beer.

It is a few minutes before 10 a.m.

I walk past him. He follows me as I approach the ATM entrance. No guards in sight. Fortunately he doesn’t try to follow me in, and I never see him again.

I put my card in the ATM and push all the right buttons. But when the time comes to return my card, the ATM holds on to it. It tells me I’ll have to notify the bank, which will send me a new card. The hell with that, I think, especially considering that the bank is open.

A banker whom I've often dealt with -- with varying results -- passes by. I tell her my problem and she tells me she will look for someone to help me get my card back.

I keep an eye on the outside door so I can warn any newcomers about the machine.

The banker approaches another banker, who is meeting with a couple of customers. Then the banker, who is beginning to resemble a chicken with half its head cut off, goes to another banker.

Soon a guy comes in to use the ATM. I tell him not to use it and explain that it ate my card.

The guy, who reminds me a little of Eb, the farmhand on the old “Green Acres” show, asks me if I was using a card from the bank.

“Yes!” I say, perhaps too forcefully, but I was merely trying to do the guy a favor and wasn’t expecting a countrified Joe Friday. (And did I mention that I have a bus to catch?)

He begins to tell me why he asked about my card. From his leisurely tone I fear this will be a long story, so I tune him out as I focus on the banker, who has now approached a fourth (or maybe fifth?) employee, a teller who is now, with no apparent eagerness, following her to the little room behind the ATM.

A few minutes later, the banker hands me my card. And then, just to show that she is on the ball, she assures me that they’re going to put a sign at the machine to warn people not to use it. It’s been eating people’s cards, she tells me.

So, I say, this has happened time and again and NOW you’re putting a sign up? I am in full ballistic mode; if J. Robert Oppenheimer were here he’d be hiding in the vault.

I shake my head and storm out. A guard sitting in the lobby tells me to have a nice day.

I walk to the bus stop. It is now a few minutes past 10 a.m., and despite the bank’s best efforts, I am on time for my bus.

And come to think of it, I sure could use a beer.

Friday, June 16, 2023

One for the book

On a pleasant afternoon long long ago, the neighborhood mail carrier delivers a letter to me, a brief missive from someone who has never before seen fit to write to me.

Namely the public library.

Adopting what I’m sure it thinks is a lighthearted, nonthreatening tone, the library informs me that a book I have borrowed is significantly overdue and that I should consider returning it because other patrons might want to read it.

Oh, and by the way, the library has placed a “stop” on my card.

And what is the title of this great work of literature that I am accused of holding hostage?

“Japanese Decorative Art.”

Now I have nothing against the Japanese.

And I have nothing against art.

And I have nothing against decorations — as long as nobody is asking me to put some up.

But present me with a book that combines all three of these elements and you will see a yawn that is wide enough to easily accommodate the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

And I have a hard time believing that other patrons are clamoring to get their mitts on this opus.

But I need to make it clear to the library that I don’t have it. More important, I need to get the “stop” removed from my card in case I might someday want to borrow a book that is not called “Japanese Decorative Art.”

As I head to the downtown library, I suspect I know what happened.

In those days, whenever I took out a book, a clerk would open it and run a penlike device over a little code — the forerunner of what we now know as the ubiquitous Universal Product Code. I can’t help thinking that someone ahead of me in line borrowed “Japanese Decorative Art” and somehow it wound up on my card because the clerk screwed up. (Not to be uncharitable, but on previous visits to the library I have had the impression that when it comes to brightness, some of the clerks aren’t exactly operating at the highest wattage.)

But the woman in charge of the desk today obviously has no problems when it comes to brightness — or that pesky little thing called humility. When I tell her that I don’t have and never have had the book, she checks the stacks and says they still don’t have it. And when I tell her my theory about what really happened, she tries to humor me by saying that it could have happened, but it’s extremely unlikely. A computer making mistakes? Now really.

But she deigns to do me the great favor of taking the “stop” off my card anyway. “And if you happen to remember that you lent the book to your Aunt Minnie, you can return it then!”

Hmm. Here I thought I was supposed to be patronizing the library, not the other way around.

Some weeks later I present my theory to a longtime friend, a veteran librarian who works at the Albany Law School. She says that yes, the scenario I put forward is quite possible.

On later visits to the library, I never happen to see the woman who was at the desk that day.

Perhaps Aunt Minnie is holding her hostage.