Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Newsroom Memories: Ramona and the Taxi Driver

Her name was Ramona, and she liked to tell about how, when she was a little girl, an uncle told her a bedtime story about a magical land.

The uncle’s name was L. Frank Baum, and the magical land was Oz.

Ramona also said she once appeared in a movie with Mary Pickford. I have never been able to confirm this, but who knows? Maybe she did.

Ramona was the newsroom’s religion reporter. This meant that on Sundays she and her tape recorder would go to one of the local churches, where she would sit in a pew and record the sermon. After the service Ramona would go to the newspaper, sit at a desk in a far corner of the newsroom and write her story on a manual typewriter. Someone would later retype it on an electric typewriter so it could be scanned into the computer system.

Ramona had been an actress, and she was still a trouper. If an editor told her we were tight on space and she needed to hold her story to two pages, she would nod or say “OK.”

Then she would widen her typewriter margins as far as they could go.

On Sundays I ran the copy desk, which was near the other end of the room. The copy desk was actually a number of desks that were combined in the shape of a horseshoe. I sat on the inside of the horseshoe (called “the slot”) while the editors I supervised sat on the outside (called “the rim”).

There was nothing really wrong with Ramona’s religion stories, but when quoting a minister she’d sometimes omit the second set of quotation marks, and I often couldn’t tell where the quote ended because Ramona wrote a lot like the people she wrote about. So I’d insert the missing marks where they seemed to make the most sense, figuring that God probably wasn’t going to call the paper the next day and bitch.

Ramona sometimes worked on a weekday, writing other stories. On one such day I was once again in the slot while two guys on the rim, Dan and Paul, were talking about the movie “Taxi Driver,” which had come out not that long ago. Our boss, George, sat to my right.

At one point Paul did an imitation of Travis Bickle, the psychotic title character played by Robert DeNiro, who in a famous scene looks in a mirror: “Hey … you talkin’ to me? You talkin' to me? Cuz if you’re not talkin’ to me, who are you talkin’ to?”

So of course Dan had to do his version of the speech. Dueling DeNiros.

During all this, Ramona, who I’m sure was oblivious to it, kept on working, far away from us.

Fun is fun, but stories were piling up and I had to get the operation back on track. So I did the speech in French: “Eh — vous parlez à moi? Vous parlez à moi? Parce que si vous ne parlez pas à moi, à qui parlez-vous?”

That broke them up and, more important, successfully signaled that it was time to get back to work.

Maybe a half-hour later Ramona got up from her desk and slowly made her way across the room.

At one point she shuffled past the copy desk, and our boss, George, who’d known her for many years, called out to her.

“Ramona! How the hell are ya?”

She turned and looked at him.

“You talkin’ to me?”

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Newsroom Memories: Telephone Fun

For most of my newspaper career I was in departments where the phone didn’t ring unless it was someone’s spouse or kid or whatever, or unless the switchboard operator didn’t know how to route the call and took a wild — and usually wrong — guess.

The features department was different.

One day I took a call from an angry woman who sounded as if she could have been a grandmother. She was complaining about a picture on the cover of that day’s section.

The main story — with picture — was about back-to-school fashions. “

No, that’s not it!” she said. “That’s OK! I mean the other picture, lower on the page!”

There wasn’t much to see there, aside from a two-by-three-inch picture accompanying a brief about an upcoming play.

“That’s the one! How dare you run that in the paper where children can see it!”

The picture showed two men and a woman in 1920s-style clothing. One man sat in the foreground as the other man approached him from behind, holding out a rope with the apparent intention of strangling him. The woman, dressed like a flapper, looked on with exaggerated horror. Matter of fact, everything in the picture was silly and exaggerated. We’re not talking Quentin Tarantino here.

I told the caller that I doubted that kids (assuming they ever looked at the paper) would see that tiny photo and immediately begin garroting each other.


I would have liked to have said I had twelve little buggers at home, or a degree in child psychology, but lying is wrong and besides the bosses might find out if I fibbed. So I said no, and she said I had proved her point. (“Don’t take any logic classes any time soon,” I didn’t say as I went into default mode for such callers: Let them vent and run out of steam, then politely say “Thank you for calling” and hang up.)

Then there was a call I didn’t take.

In the wee small hours a security guard would often staff the switchboard. One night it was a middle-aged guy who always seemed a little screwy. He once told me he had been a dean at the local community college. Uh huh.

Late one night while I was in the men’s room one of the sports guys came in to tell me that the guard was looking for me and that I had a phone call. Some woman calling me.

A woman calling me at 1:30 a.m.? A woman calling me at all?

I found the guard. “That’s right!” he said. “She was asking for you! Asking for Mark Murphy! But she hung up before I could find you!”

Off and on over the next day or two I racked my brain trying to figure out who the woman was.

At one point I thought of one possibility, a talkative former part-timer who used to call in stories to us in the days before laptops. I got along with her, but she could be an awful pest on deadline.

I called her anyway. I almost didn’t recognize her voice because she was sober.

No, she said, she hadn’t called me.

Maybe a day or two later a friend and former colleague named Lou called me at home. He said he’d tried to call me earlier in the week at the paper.

Yep, dear reader, that “woman” was Lou. (Oh well. He was a soft-spoken guy.)

Eventually that security guard wasn’t around anymore. Maybe he got another job in academia. Or maybe not, but that could explain a lot of things.

Monday, November 23, 2020

If winter comes, can brain farts be far behind?

A few weeks ago, when Mother Nature presented a brief preview of winter, I decided that I needed to put on my earmuffs before going to the store.

So I looked in one of the pockets of my winter coat.


Then I looked in the other pocket.

Nothing again.

I had obviously put the earmuffs somewhere else. There’s a good chance that months ago I found what I thought was a great place to put them, secure in the misplaced confidence that when the time came, I would remember exactly where I left them.

But I fooled myself, and not for the first time.

And because I was in a hurry, I had to brave the elements without earmuffs.

Not long after this, the weather improved.

I still hadn’t found the earmuffs, but I knew a foolproof way to find them:

Order some more earmuffs.

So I went to Amazon and bought a couple of pairs. They came a couple of days later, and they fit well.

I still haven’t found the lost earmuffs, but I know they’ll turn up at some point now that I’ve bought more earmuffs. And I’m sure that if Sir Isaac Newton had had more time, he would have turned this idea into his fourth law of motion. (Or maybe he did have the time, but that inertia thing got to him.)

Before the new earmuffs arrived, I received an email from the manufacturer.

The message was from someone named “Sawyer.” Sawyer was writing to inform me that the earmuffs had been shipped and would reach me “very soon.”

That’s nice.

But Sawyer, bless his or her heart, couldn’t let well enough alone.

“Even though we’ve never met, I know you have impeccable taste.”

Why, Sawyer! I didn’t know you cared. But you obviously haven’t seen my winter coat. Or the rest of my wardrobe. You’re taking a huge leap of faith — huge enough to potentially teach you a particularly unpleasant lesson regarding that gravity thingy that Sir Isaac also used to talk about. (Why do you think Wile E. Coyote pays so much for health insurance?)

But that’s ultimately your problem. I can do only so much.

In the last paragraph of your message, you say that in buying the earmuffs, I “have selected a one of a kind piece that combines design and function.” No, Sawyer, I have merely bought a pair of earmuffs. And, God willing, someday you might learn about the design and function of hyphens, especially when applied to compound adjectives like “one-of-a-kind.”

But it’s the last sentence that chills me, even with my new earmuffs on:

“Thank you for choosing us and we hope to style you again soon.”

Now your company wants to “style” me?

I don’t know what it means to be “styled,” but given the general tenor of this message, I don’t even want to think about knowing what it means.

But I am glad that I recently bought a new storm door for my front porch and that it has a lock.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better check the back-porch door.

Friday, November 13, 2020

There's no place like it -- if you can get there

It’s a beautiful afternoon seven years ago, and my co-workers and I are enjoying the opening day of the state fair.

Meanwhile, the feds have taken over my neighborhood.

According to my brother Michael, who lives with me, they have been scouting the area for the last two weeks. He is home most of the time because of his COPD, and he often keeps an eye on the neighborhood. He says he has seen some unfamiliar vehicles, along with some aircraft.

The feds have been scrutinizing our neighborhood because today President Obama is visiting the high school that is a block away from my home.

I’m at the fairgrounds because the fair is a major client of the ad agency where I work. The agency has an annual tradition: On opening day, it closes around 3 p.m. and we go to the fairgrounds. Someone takes a group picture, and the boss buys us all a drink at one of the food tents.

Now all of that has been done, and everyone has scattered. I’m eventually going to get a bus home, but I hope to time my departure so that the president — and his protectors — are gone by the time I get there. So I have something to eat and wander around, keeping an eye on the big TVs that are showing the president’s visit.

At one point Obama seems to be wrapping things up, so I grab a bus downtown and transfer to one that will take me to James Street and Teall Avenue. From there I will walk to my home. Or so I think.

I walk a few blocks up Teall and encounter a pleasantly polite cop who tells me I have to stop because Obama is still around. But he tells me I can walk home through the side streets.

I eventually reach the corner of the street where I live. My home is in the middle of the block.

But another pleasantly polite cop is blocking my way.

Then I hear a voice saying my name. I turn and see that my kid brother, Matthew, who also lives with me, is also at the corner. He finished his shift at St. Joe’s a little while ago, but because of the security his cab could get him only as far as the corner.

So it’s me, Matt and the cop.

And one very pissed-off woman.

A few hours ago she and her mother came to the neighborhood in hopes of getting a look at the president. After they arrived the area was blocked off. For some reason, she left the blocked-off area, and now she is not being allowed back in. At one point she demands that the cop give him his supervisor’s phone number. He complies without an argument.

The phone conversation (her side of it, anyway) goes something like this:

“Yes, I can’t get back into this area, and I have to find my mother. She doesn’t know where I am, and this cop won’t let me in!” Her tone implies that the pleasantly polite cop is a Gestapo agent.

“And there are two older gentlemen here who are trying to get home!”

“Older gentlemen”? Matthew, who is 54, chuckles at that. So do I. Although I’m not even 60, I’m not pissed off, but I’m not thrilled that she is co-opting us.

After she gets off the phone we wait a few minutes more before the cop makes one last phone call and we get the all-clear. Unlike the woman, Matthew and I make it a point to thank him as we head to our house; after all, he has only been doing his job.

And like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” I realize that there’s no place like home — especially when the feds aren’t around. And at least I didn’t have to try to steal anybody’s broomstick.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Three pre-COVID bus stories

1. I’m on a city bus, heading downtown.

An older lady in the seat in front of me turns and gives me a once-over.

She asks if I am any relation to a priest she knows.

I tell her I am not.

“You do look a lot like him,” she says.

“Uh huh.”

She turns back in her seat.

About thirty seconds later she turns around again.

“Actually,” she says, “you’re a lot more masculine-looking than he is.”

“Oh. OK.” I don’t know what else to say, but fortunately she turns back in her seat again and that’s the last I hear from her.

2. I’m on a bus in another city.

A few seats away, another older lady is happily chatting with someone.

At one point she talks about her dog.

“He’s really smart,” she says. “He reads the paper every day.”

Then, after a moment of silence:

“Well, he doesn’t really read the paper — he just scans the headlines.”

3. I’m on a Greyhound bus on the New York State Thruway.

I’m sitting near the front. A few seats behind me a young woman is talking to someone.

And I get this odd feeling, a feeling I’m not sure I’ve ever had before — or since.

I can’t help feeling that someone is looking at me — that someone’s eyes are on me.

And I begin to get the idea that maybe the young woman’s eyes are on me, and my male vanity — such as it is — is piqued.

On the other hand, I know this is silly — she’s not talking about me at all. And there’s no reason to believe that she or anyone else is looking at me. So I go back to reading my book.

But every so often I wonder whether someone is indeed looking at me and if it’s indeed the young woman, even though she still hasn’t said a word about me. And I go back to reading my book.

We finally get to our destination. I get off the bus and go into the station.

After about a minute I hear a voice — someone’s calling out for help.

It’s the young woman’s voice.

I turn and see her. She’s tall and maybe in her thirties.

And I see that this woman, who I thought might have been looking at me, is using a cane and is about to walk right into a wall filled with lockers.

I intercept her just in time. I ask her where she needs to go, and she tells me.

I lead her to the door where someone is apparently supposed to pick her up. I ask her if she needs anything else.

“No,” she says. She’s polite, but it’s clear from her tone that I have served my purpose.

Perhaps in the future I should ride in the back of the bus.

Where have you been, hexachlorophene?

The other day, while watching the closing credits on a Perry Mason episode I had probably seen only fifty times, I noticed something quaint and endearing in the bottom left corner of the screen.

It was a collection of products made by whoever sponsored the episode when it first aired.

For the most part, they were products that are no longer available. Products like Florient air freshener and Wildroot Cream Oil. (Remember that jingle? “Get Wildroot Cream Oil, Charlie; it keeps your hair in trim.” I used to hear that all the time, even though they never said who “Charlie” was, and come to think of it, what in God’s name does it mean to “keep your hair in trim”? I guess Don Draper of “Mad Men” took these secrets to his grave.)

Another product shown still exists: Colgate toothpaste. But the toothpaste pictured was a different kind of Colgate. It contained Gardol.

Gardol. Hadn’t thought of it in years. It seemed to be Colgate’s “secret ingredient,” though how “secret” can anything be if you’re spending millions so you can blab about it on national TV?

Gardol. What the heck was it, and where did it come from? Was there a Great Gardol Mine? Did a hardy, courageous crew of miners work it every day? Did they bring a canary with them to warn them of possible danger? (“Uh oh! Tweety’s teeth are gettin’ kinda yellow — we’d best get outta here!”)

And where did all the Gardol go? Has it been secretly stockpiled by some mysterious Organization of Gardol-Exporting Countries?

I’ll have to leave these questions to better minds than mine. And once they have arrived at the answers, there’s something else I want to ask them about: Hexachlorophene.

Remember that? I sure hope you do, because I don’t want to have to try to spell it again.

It was another special ingredient. Maybe more than one toothpaste had it, but I particularly remember it as part of a product known as Stripe toothpaste.

As a brand name, “Stripe” was simplicity itself. It completely and succinctly described the product: You squeezed the tube, and out came the toothpaste — but with stripes on it!

To a generation as easily amused as mine was, this was neat stuff. No sirree, we would never think of throwing a tantrum to pressure our parents into going to the toy store to demand that somebody invent Nintendo. Who needed Atari? We had Wham-O, makers of the Frisbee and the Super Ball, whose ads ended with its logo: Wham-O, “Since 1948.” (“Yes, son, when you’re looking for the best in whoopee cushions, always go with the old, established firm.”)

As I was researching this article, I came across another old toothpaste: Ipana. And if you remember Ipana, you remember its mascot, Bucky “brusha brusha brusha” Beaver. And I also learned that Bucky’s voice was provided by that balladeer of the baby boomers, Jimmie Dodd of the Mickey Mouse Club. I found an Ipana ad on YouTube; I think they speeded up Jimmie’s voice a little, the same way Ross Bagdasarian futzed around with his own voice a few years later and gave us Alvin and the Chipmunks.

I was fond of Jimmie and the Mouseketeers, though in retrospect I’m not sure whether Jimmie hung around the clubhouse because he “liked me” or because he was fond (paternalistically, of course) of Annette.

I do remember one piece of advice Jimmie often gave us: “A wise man thinks twice before he speaks once.” An excellent philosophy. I guess it’s about time I followed it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Master of the Candy Hunt

On a rainy day in early spring, a few of my Catholic high school classmates and I are hiding small bundles of candy that have been wrapped in aluminum foil.

We’re in a room that’s on the top floor of the school, which houses students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The room isn’t used often, and if it were more cluttered it might qualify as an attic. There are some chairs and a piano, but otherwise there aren’t many places to hide small bunches of candy that have been wrapped in aluminum foil.

We were originally supposed to be doing this in the schoolyard, which is a hill about the size of a parking lot, with enough trees and other hiding places to pose a real challenge.

But I did tell you that it was raining that day.

And you’ve probably guessed that I was in charge of this event. And you’re right.

Perhaps you also think that I volunteered for this. And you couldn’t be more wrong.

A few days earlier, my homeroom teacher, whose idea this was, had placed slips of paper into a container and asked one of the other students to pick one, and my name was on it. To this day I can’t help suspecting that all the slips of paper had my name on them.

I suspect this because my homeroom teacher always seemed to be volunteering me for something. A few months earlier, she had chosen me to narrate a Christmas pageant, and although the word didn’t exist yet, she surely taught me the meaning of “micromanagement,” insisting that I read the script her way: “This (pause) is the story (pause) of the first Christmas.”

On another occasion she showed me a speech she wanted me to give at some point. I took it home, read it and thought it was corny. Eventually I brought it back to school, hid it in the cloakroom and, thank God, she never (pause) bothered me (pause) about it (pause) again.

But now I am stuck. I am the Master of the Candy Hunt.

I’m sure my homeroom teacher thought the plan was foolproof: Hide the small bundles of candy in the schoolyard. Have the third-grade teacher bring down her pupils. Tell the pupils to find a bundle of candy and take it back to the classroom, where I would let the first five kids in and shut the door. The lucky quintet would be eligible for a drawing for a chocolate Easter bunny.

Unfortunately, my homeroom teacher never thought to call the weather bureau.

So now all the candy has been hidden, and it’s time for me to go down and get the third-grade teacher and her pupils.

But I see that the third-grade teacher and her pupils are already heading up the stairs.

Hmm. Well, that’s OK. (Callow teenager that I am, I don’t know an omen when I see one.)

When they reach the top of the stairs, the teacher hands me the key to the classroom. (Why did she lock it? It’s not as if there’s anything valuable in there. When was the last time anyone tried to fence a box of 64 Crayola crayons — with built-in sharpener?)

The pupils are let loose, and I begin to amble down the two flights of stairs to the floor that contains the classroom.

I’m probably not halfway down the stairs when I hear a noise.

It sounds like thunder. But although it’s a rainy day, it’s too early in the year for a thunderstorm.

Then I realize it isn’t thunder but a thundering herd of third-graders stampeding my way.

I scramble down the rest of the stairs and down a hallway to the classroom. Then I try to unlock the door. But the lock and the key and the entire building are old enough to have been dedicated by Calvin Coolidge, and there’s no way I’m going to get that door open in time.

So I have what I think is a brilliant idea: Take the first five kids and put them on the left side of the door and keep the rest of the kids away.

I might as well try to stop the Johnstown Flood with my bare hands and divert it to Peoria.

So there’s an overflow of kids on the left side, and all I can do is try to figure out which of them were the first five. Do I guess right? Probably not, especially considering that I can still remember one boy whose face was almost hysterical with tears.

I have written the finalists’ names on pieces of paper, and I ask the teacher to pick one. She doesn’t seem eager to do this, but she does it, and for better or worse we have a winner.

But even now, half a century later, I worry that one day I will look at the headlines that incessantly zip across the bottom of my TV screen and see “Mass Murderer: ‘That Chocolate Bunny Was Mine!’”