Wednesday, January 12, 2022

50 years ago this week...

It’s Wednesday morning, and my brother Martin and I are walking in a parking lot, toward the spot where a friend and his father are going to pick us up and take us across town to school. The weather isn’t bad, but there’s some leftover “black ice,” which can the treacherous if, instead of wearing real boots with decent treads, you are, like me, sporting a pair of flimsy overshoes that have slightly more traction than a fresh roll of wax paper.

One moment I’m walking along, perfectly fine; the next, I’m on the ground, spouting words that my brother will later swear he had never before heard me utter.

Our ride comes. In the car I notice that my left ankle is swelling. Just a sprain, I think, but the look on my friend’s face (he’s on the basketball team) tells me he’s not so sure.

At school I’m stupid enough to climb two flights of stairs and walk all the way down a hall to my homeroom, where the nun, who unlike me is no fool, immediately notices my limp. My mother is called, and eventually I wind up at home, my ankle in a cast.

Thing is, the following Saturday I’m supposed to appear on a TV quiz show with two classmates. I’m incompetent with crutches, but the cast has a rubber heel that I hope I can get used to.

On the morning of the taping my folks take me to the TV station, which is part of a shopping center. I’m still wobbly on the rubber heel, but my mother has cut a hole for it in a ski hat and placed the hat over the cast, and my father helps me up a tall flight of stairs to the studio.

Eventually I’m sitting on the set with my teammates, a guy and a young woman. Another classmate finds an empty pack of smokes on our desk and kids me about it.

Before the show we tape a promo. When the host botches the name of one of the schools I hear a muttered “Shit!” behind the wall in back of us. So now we know where the control room is.

The show includes several rounds of questions. The questions are long and involved, apparently in the hope of tricking you into answering quickly — and incorrectly.

The final round is like “Jeopardy!” All nine students can press a button, attached to a light, to answer.

Going into the final round, we’re in second place. At one point, the host says something like, “This movie, about a mode of transportation, stars Burt Lancaster — ”

I press the button. “‘The Train’!”

“No,” the host says in his best I’m-making-an-example-of-you voice, “if you’d listened to the entire question, you would have found the answer was ’Airport’!”

So now I’ve put us in third place.

But a little while later my big moment comes, my shining hour, the nerd’s equivalent of the last-second jump shot from halfway across the court that goes into the hoop and wins the game.

“Celebrating her 80th birthday with her 80th book — ”

I stab the button again. “Agatha Christie!”

The host, astonished, confirms I’m right. (Ha! Make an example of me, eh, buster?)

Someone in the audience gasps. A swooning cheerleader, I hope.

We’re back in second place. Then my teammates correctly answer two questions, and when a buzzer signals the end of the game, we’re the come-from-behind winners.

Some weeks later we return for the semifinals, but we’re blown out of the water by an aggressive team from another city who apparently spent the previous night finishing a new translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls while munching on steroids.

Maybe if I’d broken my other ankle that week….

Monday, September 13, 2021

Reunion

As I carry my tray to the table where my Aunt Dorothy and my sister Mary have begun to eat lunch, a woman who has stopped by to chat with my aunt looks at me.

When I get to the table she tells me we’ve never met and introduces herself.

And I wonder whether I will be guilty of a mortal sin if I contradict a nun.

We are in the dining room of St. Joseph’s Provincial House, near Albany, about 15 years ago. Aunt Dorothy lives there with other retired sisters. My great-aunt, also a nun, also lived there. Some younger sisters, like this woman, work there. Mary lives in Albany, and when I visit her we often visit Aunt Dorothy.

I am not offended that the younger woman doesn’t remember me — it’s a nice change. I have visited the Provincial House many times since childhood, and years ago it was not unusual for some really old nun to come up and tell me she remembered me as a baby. One nun told me that once, when she visited my family’s house with one of my aunts, my mother was giving me a bath in the kitchen sink. “Oh,” I think I said, as if I could have politely said anything else.

I tell the younger woman that she and I have indeed met, and that there was a time in her life when she saw me every day.

This puzzles her until I provide her with the time and place: 1969 at St. Vincent de Paul High School. I wonder whether she has suppressed the memory; I suspect it was her first assignment, and it was a badly run school that would close after my sophomore year because a newer public school was siphoning off so many students. I think there were maybe 25 kids in my class, and the young sister served as our homeroom teacher in addition to teaching biology.

Or, rather, trying to teach biology.

Her teaching style wasn’t exactly polished, and she wasn’t much of a disciplinarian. The kids in the class weren’t nasty, but a fair number of them liked to joke around most of the time, with one exception: During the sex-education part of the curriculum you could have heard a zygote drop.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she tells me in the dining room, her tone indicating that she now has a sense of humor about it — or is trying to pretend that she has one. But I can still remember one afternoon when it was my turn to stay after school — along with Louie Morelli, Class Cut-Up No. 1 — and clean the chalkboard erasers. He and I got silly about something, and while I was chuckling I noticed that she was quietly crying. I didn’t know why, and we never found out; she told us to go home.

After my final exam at St. Vincent’s I left without getting to say goodbye to her, and over the years I sometimes wondered how she was doing; was she still a nun, or did we drive her out?

After the internet came along I looked her up and was happy to find that she was still a nun but not a teacher. She became a pastoral life minister for a rural church where a priest wasn’t always available, leading communal prayers and other services when necessary. Good for her.

Yesterday, after writing most of this, I looked her up again and found out some other things:

Her ministry included service in parishes in rural Tennessee.

She was also a hospital chaplain.

She died almost two months ago.

Yes, it does startle me to learn that her passing just about coincided with my decision to write about her. Is that a coincidence, or Something Else?

I’ll leave that question to more theologically qualified minds. In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me, I have a memorial check to write.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Dog Days

I’m walking to church on a Saturday afternoon about 30 years ago.

I’m only a couple of blocks from the church when I hear a dog barking across the street. The dog soon runs across the street, toward me, still barking.

There was a time when I would have run away, with the dog in pursuit. But I have learned that in this kind of situation it’s best to ignore the animal and just keep walking until it goes away. And this is exactly what happens here.

I’ve learned a lot about dogs because of my older brother, Michael. He himself was terrified of them when he was a kid. But this changed after he grew up and married a woman who had a German shepherd named Sheepdog.

Eventually Michael would even work at a pet store. One night, at the newspaper where I worked, I was going over the first edition, looking for errors, when I turned the page and saw Michael looking up at me, holding a huge snake, in a photo accompanying a feature story. I can’t remember exactly what the story was about. I can remember thinking that for once it was a good thing my mother, no fan of reptiles, wasn’t alive to see the photo.

After they got married, Michael and his wife, Judy, would bring Sheepdog to my family’s house. He was exceptionally friendly and would put his paws on my shoulders — after he had jumped on the couch, much to my mother’s dismay. He helped me get over my fear of dogs.

Eventually Michael and Judy adopted a white runt named Little Ripper (Michael had something of a flair — for want of a better word — for names). During his first visit Little Ripper distinguished himself by getting stuck behind my family’s refrigerator.

Then there was the time my mother gave Michael and Judy some baked ziti to take home. When they got home they looked at the back seat at Sheepdog and Little Ripper, who had been exceptionally quiet. Sure enough, their faces — and the sauce stains on them — provided ample evidence of what they had been up to. They probably never understood why Michael and Judy were so mad at them.

By the time of my Saturday encounter with the barking dog, Michael and Judy have accumulated even more dogs. A few Saturdays later, my sister and I pay them all a visit.

The dogs don’t always get along — Michael and Judy have to bring them out two at a time to meet and sniff us.

The menage now includes Frank, who is quite large; a black dog named Nora; and Michael’s pride and joy, Simon, which he describes as a “Staffordshire Terrier,” but to me he’s a pit bull, the one breed of dog that even today still scares me. Michael delights in separating Simon’s jaws and placing his head between them, like a lion tamer.

Last but never least, there is Sheepdog. He’s very old, but when I get on the floor with him he seems to remember me and once again places his paws on my shoulders, which Judy says isn’t easy at his age. This is the last time I see him.

Later that day I walk to church again. When I’m a couple of blocks away from the church I once again hear barking.

It’s the same dog, still trying to show me who’s boss. He once again runs across the street toward me, still barking.

Then he sniffs me — and apparently realizes that I have had visitors.

No longer barking, he scurries back across the street and never bothers me again.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Straight from the patient's mouth

My dental appointment is almost over, and as I wait for the hygienist to bring me my usual “goodie bag” of toothpaste, a new toothbrush and floss, I can gaze out the window and look at the State Tower Building, the tallest building in town, and indulge in some remembrances of appointments past….

I’m about 15 years old as my mother and I get off the eighth floor for my first appointment with a guy I’ll call Dr. G.

I need an orthodontist. My parents can’t afford one, but they have heard that Dr. G, a regular dentist, dabbles in orthodontics and isn’t that expensive, so here we are.

We check in with the receptionist, who is young and quite cute. The office’s music system is playing “The Fool on the Hill” by the Beatles.

Dr. G is a pleasant man who favors Hawaiian shirts. He also resembles Robert Benchley, whom I like and who once wrote a funny essay about his own dental woes. The room where Dr. G works is dominated by teeth — sets of choppers (maybe a couple of hundred?) line the walls. They’re molds taken from the mouths of his other young patients.

Dr. G says he is going to make a mold of my teeth and put it on one of the walls, and every time I come in he’ll have me try to pick it out on the wall. Dr. G doesn’t seem to realize that I’m not a little kid and that at this stage of my life I’m far more interested in the cute young receptionist.

He makes the mold (the cement tastes a little like sherbet), and weeks later I begin wearing an “appliance” fastened to the top of my mouth with a loathsome substance called Fasteeth, which definitely doesn’t taste like sherbet. For a few years after I stop wearing the appliance I will sometimes dream that it is still in my mouth, Fasteeth and all. And whenever I hear “The Fool on the Hill” I will always think of Dr. G and that cute young receptionist, though never in that order….

Years later I am taking another scary trip on the elevator that goes all the way up to the top floor of the city’s tallest building and the lair of Dr. X, who is a gum surgeon. Alas, I have developed gum problems. Who knew? When I was a kid the toothpaste commercials only talked about cavities, and I almost never had any, which ticked off my sister Mary, whose teeth would begin to rot if she looked at them sideways.

Dr. X slightly resembles Lionel Atwill, an actor you’ve probably seen if you watch a lot of old movies. Atwill was the go-to guy if you wanted a mad scientist, and at least once he played Professor Moriarty (and a character actually named Dr. X). Dr. X has an assistant named Inga, and if that isn’t a mad scientist’s assistant’s name, I don’t know what is.

Having performed gum surgery on me a while back (I’ll spare you those details), Dr. X is about to check my progress by “charting” my gums. This involves measuring the “pockets” of my gums (in millimeters, I think) with a small device that is not pleasant. As he charts the gums, he calls out each number (anything above three isn’t good) so Inga can write everything down.

During this process, Dr. X, his tone sometimes accusatory, sounds as if he is running a bingo game in hell: “Two … three … two …. FOUR! … Three … two … three … FIVE!” And so on.

After this performance, he turns on a machine and theatrically dictates a note to my dentist, telling him that despite a few FOURs and FIVEs I am on the whole doing OK and will not need any more gum surgery. For now.

Whew! That’s a relief. But I still have to face the elevator ride all the long way down to the lobby. Yipes!

I wonder whether Sir Isaac Newton looked like Lionel Atwill.

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.

“DO YOU HAVE CHILDREN?”

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.

Nothing.

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.