Sunday, March 26, 2023

A Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Wiseass

You never forget your first time.

I remember mine as if it were yesterday.

I was a sophomore in college, reading the local alternative weekly, when I saw it: a paragraph stating that the paper was looking for TV critics. It said those interested should write a review and submit it. At that time I knew a lot about network TV; I was the one in the family who, at the end of a show, would often say “Don’t turn yet — I want to see the credits!”

So I reviewed a new variety show hosted by Bill Cosby. I wish I could say that I wrote that there was something I didn’t like about the guy, that someday we’d all find out that there was something evil behind his mellow Jell-O vibe, but instead I concentrated on the behind-the-scenes personnel. I said the show’s director had previously directed “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” and that the Cosby show, while not as fast-paced as “Laugh-In,” did look as if it had spent a fair amount of time in the editing room as opposed to looking like a continuous performance, like Carol Burnett’s show. (Did I sound like an insider, or what?)

My “first time” came a couple of Saturdays later: an envelope from the paper containing a handwritten note from the editor, inviting me to write more, and, more important, A CHECK!

I doubt any writer anywhere would deny that the first time someone tells you that something you wrote is worth paying money for is a moment you never forget, no matter the size of the check.

Which, in my case, was $5.

As I continued to write for the paper, the checks grew to a whopping $15. I figured this was because the paper had just launched two other, short-lived editions in two other cities. Three editions times $5 equaled $15. Let the good times roll.

But this bonanza ended when the paper stopped printing my stuff. No one ever told me why, and I was too naive to call and ask, but I noticed that the paper’s “news hole” — the space reserved for editorial content — had been significantly reduced, apparently because of a shortage of newsprint, and I’ve always figured that this was why I was dropped.

But it was fun while it lasted — and more important, I now had what every budding journalist back then craved: clips that I could show to any potential employer.

And as a bonus, the paper gave me one of the best writing lessons I’ve ever received.

I had reviewed a syndicated sitcom called “Ozzie’s Girls.” It starred Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in a continuation of their long-running network show. The premise: Sons David and Ricky (now calling himself “Rick”) have moved out of the house, and Ozzie and Harriet decide to rent the boys’ rooms to two female college students.

It was an awful show. And as a young smartass, I relished the chance to disembowel it. I began with two or three paragraphs that I was sure were so clever that I almost stopped in the middle of typing them so I could shake hands with myself.

When the next issue came out, I eagerly turned to the review to see what the copy editor — the paper had a good one — had done with it.

When I found the review, my jaw went into free fall: Those golden grafs were gone — it was as if someone had lopped off my head.

And I realized that I deserved it — those paragraphs were merely me goofing around in print.

I believe that copy editor is still around. If I ever meet him, I’ll thank him and ask him to dinner. I’ll foot the bill, of course.

Even if it’s more than $15.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Newsroom Memories: Another Sunday night

It’s near the end of another Sunday night in the newsroom, more than 30 years ago.

Once the first edition is done, Sunday shifts are usually dull; my job at this point mainly involves sticking around in case something breaks, especially something that needs to go on Page One. Aside from the Sports folks, the staff at this point consists of me; a guy named Woolsey, who is night city editor; and a reporter named Grogan, who’s covering the late-cops beat.

About a half-hour after midnight, I see Grogan, notebook in hand, hurrying out of the newsroom.

Something’s up.

I ask Woolsey what it is.

“Stabbing at the Clinton Street News!”

The Clinton Street News, a few blocks away, sells newspapers and magazines. Behind a curtain behind the counter, it sells a lot more: an assortment of toys that consenting adults can use to amuse themselves at home after they’ve finished reading the newspapers and magazines, assuming they bought any newspapers or magazines after they visited the back room.

I’ve visited the Clinton Street News only once, but without going into the back room. I may be the only person who has ever bought a copy of The Washington Monthly at the Clinton Street News. I bought it just to be nice because I happened to be visiting the guy behind the counter — my older brother, Michael.

Who is probably there tonight. And my blood pressure spikes as I realize that he may have been at the wrong end of that knife.

I tell Woolsey this.

“Great! Call him!” says Woolsey, who, had he been born earlier, might well have auditioned to play Perry White on the “Superman” TV show or Walter Burns in any of the incarnations of “The Front Page.”

I look up the number and dial it. To my relief, Michael answers, which he probably wouldn’t do if he were bleeding to death. He confirms that someone was stabbed outside the store. I try to get him to give me details, but the investigating cops are almost surgically removing him from the phone, so he has to hang up. I don’t mind; at least I know he’s safe.

Turns out the victim isn’t seriously injured, so the story won’t go on Page One; more likely, Woolsey will make it a brief in the Local section.

As I type this I feel as if I am describing something from the Stone Age. The newsroom is no longer a newsroom but is part of an ad agency that took over the space after the newspaper company sold the building. (Not long ago the agency advertised for a proofreader. I was tempted to apply, just to see if I could get a look at what the place is like now, but I was afraid they’d hire me and I’d wind up spending another few decades there.)

Grogan is now an editor. Woolsey has since gone to that big City Desk in the sky.

At some point the Clinton Street News closed, leaving my brother unemployed. He eventually died of COPD.

And I don’t know whether any local store sells The Washington Monthly these days — with or without a dildo to go.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Newsroom Memories: Dan Carey

I last saw Dan Carey 45 years ago and I knew him for only a year, but I remember him more vividly than I remember many people whom I worked with longer.

If you were new to the newsroom it was hard not to notice Dan as he walked down the hall. Below the waist he looked pretty much like any other guy, but the upper part of his body was smaller and always bent to one side as he walked.

Dan had polio. Only one of his lungs worked. What to you and me would be a simple cold — a pain in the ass, but you’d get through it — could be a disaster for him.

I’m sure he knew how unusual he looked to the new hires, especially the younger ones. I’m told that sometimes, to put them at ease, he’d ask them where they went to school, then say something like this:

“After I got out of college I applied for a job as a piano mover. They rejected me. I sued them for discrimination. I said they were biased against me because I was Catholic.”

I can hear him saying this in his usual, rapid-fire delivery, out of the side of his mouth. His voice was soft and you sometimes had to strain to hear him, but it was worth the effort because he was funnier out of the side of his mouth than any loudmouth comic with a full set of functioning lungs.

One Sunday afternoon at work, he told me he’d been to Mass that morning. That day’s Gospel, printed in the missalette, was the one about the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus says: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” This was followed by the sermon, which included a pitch for money.

In response, “I tore the page out of the missalette and put it in the collection basket.”

I’ve also heard about the time Dan’s alma mater called him at home to hit him up for money, inspiring Dan to pose as his own father.

“My son is dead. He died of syphilis. He caught it at your school.”

A pause.

“Well, sir, would you like to make a memorial donation?”

After I’d been at the paper for almost a year, Dan taught me the basics of newspaper layout; our boss wanted me to be able to fill in for Dan when he went on vacation. He was a calm, patient teacher, and I’ve always been grateful for his lessons.

A few weeks after he taught me, Dan got sick and I had to fill in for him. He was back the next day, but a few days later he was out again.

On a Saturday morning soon after, I received word that he had died.

Dan was from Alexandria Bay, and his mother still lived there, so a few days later some of us got up early and went up there for his funeral.

The priest had known Dan, so I was grateful that Dan didn’t get one of those one-size-fits-all eulogies. I don’t remember many details, but I think the priest captured Dan well, the way I have always remembered him, as someone who met the huge challenges of his life with courage and an invincible sense of humor.

I do remember what the priest said at the end.

One day, he told us, Dan would walk straight.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

I must have been clueless to do this

I’m sitting at a table in a hallway at a hotel in Baltimore. Bouchercon, the annual gathering of mystery writers and fans, is underway. This isn’t my first Bouchercon, but this time I’ve volunteered for a stint at the registration table, just to be a good guy and maybe meet some people. I and a few other volunteers are supposed to greet new arrivals, sign them in and tell them what they need to know.

Next to me is a woman I have been paired with. We make pleasant conversation and greet newcomers until a friend of hers stops by and she decides to take off with her and blow off the rest of the shift, arguing that things don’t seem that busy. I could try to find a rope and tie her to her chair, but I figure the hell with it.

At one point a writer whom I’ll call Floyd comes by to register. I’m thrilled to meet him — I’ve read a lot of his work, including one book that became a movie — and he reacts to my gushing with a warm smile.

I also notice that Laura Lippman is talking to another registration volunteer a few feet away, and I’m hoping she’ll come my way and introduce herself — she’s an ex-reporter and now a major writer. Her husband, also an ex-reporter, created “The Wire.”

But things get busier. A continuous tide of people, heading this way or that, keeps the hallway full. One of them, a young man, detaches himself from this maelstrom to report that he has lost his iPod. We tell him we’ll let him know if anyone finds it.

At some point Floyd returns. He wants to know if he can leave his luggage behind my table. I hesitate, not sure that this is a good idea, and his smile is replaced by a dark scowl; I have morphed from adoring fan to disobedient lackey. Intimidated, I say OK.

Another figure emerges from the crowd: Someone has found the iPod. We thank him and hold the device for safekeeping.

Across the hallway, outside one of the meeting rooms, a woman is beckoning to me. I cross the stream of people and walk over to her. She points to one of the lights in the room. It’s flickering. I say I’ll mention it to someone, but this doesn’t seem to satisfy her. I don’t know why she’s so bothered about it; I don’t think she’s a presenter, and besides, I barely know a circuit breaker from a salami. And now, as I glance at the passing parade, I see the guy who lost the iPod.

Excusing myself, I run over and grab him, and the man and his music are reunited.

Judy, the woman who is in charge of the volunteers, stops by to see how things are going. I tell her about Floyd’s luggage, and she seems OK with it. I also tell her about the lady who’s upset about the light.

Turns out the lady has been bugging Judy about it too.

I’m then assigned to spend the rest of my shift standing guard in a room that is filled with bags of free books; each attendee gets one bag.

It’s much calmer here, and it occurs to me that I hadn’t worked so hard since I left my newspaper job, where I had to meet five deadlines a day.

I never do get to meet Laura Lippman. As for Floyd, I haven’t read any of his new books because he doesn’t seem to have written any. Maybe he has writer’s block.

Gee, wouldn’t that be too bad?

Saturday, July 30, 2022

One burrito, please -- and hold the erudition

I’ve just asked for a Burrito Supreme (with soft taco) at the food court, and the Taco Bell guy wants a name that he can place on the order.

After I tell him my name, he decides to edify me.

He tells me there is a movie called “Interstellar” that includes a character named Murphy, who he says was named for Murphy’s Law, which he says is “Whatever can happen will happen.”

I have no idea why he’s telling me this. Perhaps he is a film school grad who is biding his time slinging quesadillas while Mr. Spielberg reads his screenplay.

I’m tempted to tell him that a) I was named for my father and b) Murphy’s Law actually is “If anything can go wrong, it will.” (At least that’s how I understand it, and my name, after all, is Murphy.) But I don’t want to spark an argument; there might be several hills that I would be willing to die on, but a taco stand is not one of them.

At my table in the food court I notice that the bag containing the elements of my repast has a seal that bears this message: “Worth the Wake.” Hmm. I know that the Triple-A ball club in my town has a promotion in which an opposing player is dubbed the “K-Man,” and if this player strikes out, all the fans have 48 hours to exchange their tickets for a Taco Bell taco.

This, combined with the message on the seal, makes me wonder whether funeral directors now have a similar promotion to boost attendance at calling hours.

But I now see that underneath “Worth the Wake” is another message: Taco Bell is now serving breakfast until 11 a.m. So I suppose the slogan should be “Worth the Awakening.” (It had never occurred to me that anyone would eat breakfast at a Taco Bell. I myself am not inordinately proud to be eating my lunch there now.)

And I’m wondering whether the putative Oscar-winning scribe behind the counter would be interested in an idea my friend Dan once had. It’s based on the old movie “D.O.A.,” in which a poor schlub played by Edmond O’Brien is poisoned because of a document he notarized. There’s no antidote, and he spends the rest of the picture trying to nail his killer before going to that big civil service office in the sky. (Come to think of it, my old man had what we would now call a side hustle as a notary public. Who knew that he was taking both his stamp and his life in his hands whenever he walked across the street to notarize a loan application for a neighbor?)

Dan has proposed a remake in which O’Brien’s character is at a local ballgame when the K-Man strikes out, but he then faces all sorts of sinister obstacles when he tries to get his free taco before the 48 hours run out. (“Whaddya mean this is a Chick-fil-A? It was a Taco Bell just yesterday!”)

Think of it — the taco as a Hitchcockian maguffin! I can just see Sir Alfred drooling. (And it’s far from a pretty sight.)

The title of our opus? Obviously it would be “Taco on Arrival” — “T.O.A.”

Saturday, April 30, 2022

How blue was my recycling bin

On a recent Thursday afternoon I’m watching a movie on TCM — “The Drowning Pool,” starring Paul Newman — when I hear a big truck outside.

Without getting up I know from experience that it’s the folks from the recycling crew. They’re two days late. The city blames this on a lack of trucks, which it in turn blames on a problem with the supply chain. I accept this explanation, but I can’t help thinking that before long this will become a catchall excuse. (“Jimmy, your report card says you flunked math!” “Not my fault, Mom — supply chain problems!”)

I’ve seen “The Drowning Pool” a number of times; it’s a sequel to Newman’s film “Harper,” both films based on books by one of my favorites, Ross Macdonald. “Drowning Pool” isn’t as good as “Harper,” but it’s not bad, and as the truck passes I decide I’ll finish watching the movie before I retrieve my blue bin.

After Paul Newman nails the killer, I go outside and am faced with a mystery of my own: My recyclables are gone, but so is my blue bin.

I call the city, and a polite woman listens to my problem; after I mention that one side of the bin was cracked but the bin was still serviceable, she theorizes that the crew took it, believing I meant to throw it away — even though I’ve been using it for five years.

Oh well.

The woman takes my address and tells me I can get a new bin at City Hall within the next week.

A few days later I report to City Hall and am greeted with a metal detector and a clerk behind a desk who tells me to empty my pockets of metals and place them in the usual plastic container. As I surrender my keys and change I explain why I’m there.

“Oh,” the clerk says, “you don’t have to go through the detector!” Which I had suspected after spotting the stack of blue bins by the desk. (It would have helped if the clerk had asked me the purpose of my visit first.)

“Oh, and you didn’t need to remove your change!” (It would have helped if … oh, never mind.)

After checking my address against a list, the clerk hands me a new bin.

Mission accomplished!

But not quite.

As I exit the building a man in a truck across the street is calling out to me. I walk over to him to see what he wants while managing to duck an oncoming vehicle on the narrow street.

“What number do I call to get a blue bin?”

Once again I have been cast in the role of Someone Whose Obligations in Life Include Answering Strangers’ Questions on Demand. How should I know what number to call? I don’t work for the city, let alone have all the city phone numbers engraved on my brain at a time in my life when I’m lucky to remember where I left my keys.

I politely explain this to the guy. He seems to understand, and I go home with my new treasure.

The next day is Trash Day, and I get a pleasant surprise: The recycling crew comes on the right day, and comes early too.

As I carry my emptied bin back to the porch, I notice some printing on its side:

“Need a blue bin?" And it's followed, of course, by the number to call.

Oh well.

Monday, April 11, 2022

No thanks for this memory

The free anti-virus software on my computer wants to get to know me better.

To be more precise, it wants to get to know my wallet better.

Every once in a while it puts a pop-up on my screen, telling me of a problem it has supposedly found, a problem it can “resolve” if I allow it to do so. Of course I know that if I press “resolve” it will ask me for money.

I usually ignore such messages, but the other day it sent a pop-up that has me thinking about a problem that the software, as good as it may be, can’t resolve, no matter how many credit cards I max out.

The pop-up said my computer is cluttered with all sorts of files that I don’t need and which are clogging up the works. The software wants to get rid of them.

Considering that I could probably fit the entire contents of “Moby-Dick” several times over on my hard drive, I didn’t pay much attention to this message.

But I thought about it recently as I was waiting for a bus.

You know how it is when you’re killing time waiting for something to happen: Your mind wanders hither and yon (does anything ever wander yon and hither?) and your brain cells carom off the sides of your cerebellum. (Or maybe they carom somewhere else, if they carom at all.)

One thought led to another, then another, ad almost infinitum, and suddenly I found myself, God knows why, remembering something I hadn’t thought of in years:

The theme music for “The Galloping Gourmet.”

Remember that show? It starred a guy named Graham Kerr, and on every episode (I can even remember when it aired and what station aired it, God help me) he would spend a half-hour preparing a recipe while kidding around with the audience and brandishing a glass of wine. He seemed to want us to think he was sozzled, though I’ve read that he didn’t really drink much; apparently he was stealing a page from the Dean Martin Cookbook.

A few of the jokers at school made a meal out of Kerr’s mannerisms, although I suspect a lot of female viewers who watched the handsome young chef wouldn’t have minded a few extra helpings.

Graham Kerr spoke softly and carried a big shtick, but even the biggest of shticks eventually bows and breaks under the winds of public taste, and one day the show served its last course.

I was surprised to find that Kerr is still around — he’s 88 now — and in the years after “The Galloping Gourmet” he became a born-again Christian, repenting both his sins and the high-fat feasts he conjured up for his viewers.

Which is probably more than you want to know about Graham Kerr. I know it’s more than I want to know.

And I can’t help wondering why, at a bus stop on a cold April day, my brain couldn’t come up with a better memory: me sitting on my grandmother’s lap, playing with her bracelet that had the names of all six of us kids; or me sitting in a second-grade classroom and watching a pretty blonde — was her name Jean? — as she came in from the rain, wearing the kind of shiny yellow coat that all of us kids wore in such weather, the kind of coat that always had a distinctive plastic smell; or me sitting on a floor in my sister’s house, trying to amuse my infant niece with Playskool props as she graciously pretended that I really was amusing. (Thirty years later, she’s still gracious — and engaged to be married next year. I’m tempted to ask where all the time goes, but I’m not sure I want to know the answer.)

Memo to The App Store: If you ever come up with a program that can defrag my brain, my Visa card and I will be first in queue.