Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Big Delete

Many years ago a friend of mine had an idea that he said might someday benefit his survivors.

When the time came, he said, the survivors could place the following prerecorded greeting on his answering machine:

“Hello, this is Lou Rappaport. I can’t come to the phone right now because I am dead.”

I think there was more to the greeting, but I’ve forgotten it.

Back then the idea would have been simple enough to carry out; this was before answering machines — and seemingly everything else on the planet — went digital, when both the outgoing and incoming messages were recorded on easily replaced cassettes.

In addition, “audiotext” services were the new thing — you could call a number and find out seemingly anything you wanted to know, sometimes for a nominal fee.

Lou hoped that his recording — truly the ultimate in outgoing messages — would turn into a fad, especially among college students (“Hey, let’s call the dead guy!”) and that the nominal fees forked over by these folks would provide at least a nominal nest egg for his survivors.

Lou’s plan never went beyond the idea stage, but I thought of it not long ago when a little sign on my landline phone (yes, I still have a landline) told me that there were too many messages on it, and if I didn’t erase them I wouldn’t get many more messages.

So I went to work — hitting the Play button, then erasing one message after another.

Then I came to a message from Lou.

I remembered it. He’d left it a few weeks ago. He’d taken care to assure me that nothing was wrong — we’d reached the stage in our lives when phone calls more and more often meant that something bad had happened to one of our former colleagues. Lou said he’d just called to chat.

After I received the message I called him back, partly because we hadn’t chatted in a while, and partly because — you guessed it — I wanted to let him know that someone we knew had died.

And now, after hearing his message again, I paused before hitting the Delete button.

Normally I would have just hit it and gone on to the next message. But it felt strange to hear his voice again, even though there was nothing unusual about it.

It felt strange because less than two days after leaving the message — and less than 36 hours after he and I had talked — Lou himself died unexpectedly, apparently of a heart attack.

I wished that his message had been on a cassette — I could have removed it, replaced it and saved it. And maybe I could have kept the message and erased the ones that followed it, but I didn’t think about that at the time.

Instead, after a moment, some instinct told me to just hit the Delete button and move on.

I really wish Lou had followed through on his money-making scheme.

It sure would be nice to call the dead guy again.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Happy 10th birthday to whatever this is

Ten years ago this week, I shot an arrow named Murphy’s Craw into the blogosphere.

I did this some months after accepting a buyout from the newspaper job I’d held for 30 years.

Although I was a copy editor at the paper, and although I still do freelance editing and proofreading, I’ve always considered myself to be primarily a writer.

In my youth I was inspired by folks like Robert Benchley, who had worked at newspapers and magazines. From Benchley it was a short trip to the worlds of S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, E.B. White, Dorothy Parker and many other folks.

And even before I made Mr. Benchley’s acquaintance, there was Rob Petrie, who wasn’t really a real writer but a character played on TV by Dick Van Dyke. Rob was able to hang out all day with other funny folks like Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell. Gee, writing sure looked like fun!

During my time at the paper I was occasionally permitted to write humorous articles that sometimes were published. This made me feel even more like Benchley and his colleagues.

So after I left the paper, I figured I’d start this blog, and I figured that it would function like a newspaper column.

Has it worked out that way?

Well, not quite.

I found out that it’s hard to come up with something new to say every day. Or even just three times a week. This unpleasant insight gave me a new respect for the columnists whose stuff I’d worked on at the newspaper.

Take 47 weeks (assuming five weeks off for vacation), multiply it by three times a week and and multiply the result by 10 times a year, and you have 1,410 newspaper columns.

During that same period, I’ve produced 362 blog posts, including this one.

And this year alone I’ve produced only four posts, again including this one.

So there’s obviously been a whole lot of slacking going on.

Of course there is a difference. The folks whose columns I edited had considerably more motivation — namely the fear of starving.

But that’s really no excuse.

Nor is the fact that I had a really bad summer, which included a catastrophic accident and the resulting death of someone very close to me. Not to mention that since that someone’s funeral, three close friends have also passed away. I guess as one gets older, life seems more and more like a deadly game of dominoes.

My relatively paltry output raises the question of whether Murphy’s Craw should continue.

I invite your opinions on this.

In the meantime, I’d like to think that I have more to say. Then again, is it a lot more, and is it worth saying?

I can’t tell you because I don’t have the answer yet.

So for now I’ll write on, blogging against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past — which is where I get a lot of my ideas anyway.

Thanks again for listening.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Dear Valued Customer....

You recently received a survey from Bank of Omnipia because:

• You visited a Bank of Omnipia banking center (formerly known as a bank — ah, those quaint old days!).

• You visited a Bank of Omnipia banking center and used the Bank of Omnipia ATM.

• You didn’t use the Bank of Omnipia ATM because there were already 14 people stuck in that little hellhole of a room, waiting to use the only available Bank of Omnipia ATM within 500 square miles, so you instead walked a couple of blocks to the M&U&L&C&T Bank’s ATM, which was inexplicably free. (Of course, we mean “free” in the sense of “not being used,” not “free” in the sense of “not costing anything to use” — you didn’t really think we meant that, did you, you big silly?)

• You completed a transaction with the help of one of our few remaining tellers. (Yes, it’s amazing they’re still around, isn’t it, but once we finally get that pesky Endangered Financial Minions Act scuttled, it’ll be merely a matter of radioing that friendly guard who always stands outside the building and wishes you a pleasant day, and he'll finally be able to show what he can do with that Sig Sauer he’s always been itching to use.)

• You had a consultation with one of our two remaining Banking Counselors after sitting on a bench for 30 minutes and wondering why we don’t get rid of all four of those unused desks and use the vacated space as a dance club. (Not a bad idea, actually, and we thank you for suggesting it, although you do, of course, realize that by opening this email you automatically gave up any rights to any profits realized from this or any other suggestion.)

• You walked past a Bank of Omnipia banking center.

We have received your completed survey, and we thank you for your time and input.

And now, to help us further enhance your banking experience, we ask that you complete the following survey about your survey experience.

Please rank each of the following statements on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Begone from my life, you scum-sucking usurers!” and 10 being “MM-MMM! What a delicious bowl of buffalo excrement that was! May I have another?”

a. I was delighted to receive your survey.

b. I was so delighted to receive your survey and so eager to complete it that I immediately closed the porn site I was looking at.

c. I deleted the survey and refocused my attention on the porn site I was looking at.

d. Ten seconds later, I received the survey again, along with a snotty note from you referring to my apparent “predilection” for oxen, orange marmalade and Moms Mabley, though not necessarily in that order.

e. I threatened to report you to the Federal Reserve Board.

f. You threatened to send screenshots from the porn site to my employer.

g. I completed the damn survey.

h. You thanked me for completing the survey and informed me that the "whoosh" I had just heard was the sound of those screenshots zooming through the internet to my employer’s HR department.

i. I said, “Hey, that isn’t fair! I did what you asked! I completed the thing!”

j. You emitted a chillingly diabolical laugh, which you then permanently installed on my hard drive so that I would always hear it when I boot up my computer. You then said, “You actually expected us to be fair? We’re a bank! We don’t have to be fair! My, you’re even a bigger silly than we thought!”

We again thank you for your time and input.

And we also hope you will consider establishing a brokerage account with our affiliate firm, Commodities R Us, Except When They’re Not. We can easily set up an appointment with our Account Representative. True, the amount of money you have to invest is at best negligible and your credit score is a little lower than the average January temperature in Verkhoyansk, Russia, but our Account Representative just went through the mother of all messy divorces and could really use a good laugh.

And as always, thank you for being a Bank of Omnipia customer.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Queen of the Palace

Late on a Saturday afternoon some years ago, I settle into a pew at a local church where a vigil Mass is to begin in a few minutes.

In the pew in front of me, a woman sits by herself.

It’s Frances from the Palace.

That’s not her real name, of course. It’s not what it says on her Social Security and Medicare cards, or on the property tax bills that she gets for a fairly sizable chunk of land that (I’ve been told) she owns in the Eastwood business district.

But to me, my family and perhaps countless others, she is, has been and probably always will be Frances from the Palace.

The Palace is the movie theater that she owns – part of that fairly sizable chunk of land.

The theater was founded by her father in the 1920s, and when he died, she took it over.

You might say that my family and the Palace have a sort of history.

According to family legend, many years ago Frances from the Palace’s father threw my uncle out of the theater for laughing too loudly.

At a comedy.

As absurd as this seems, I’m willing to believe it. My uncle, who grew up to be a Catholic priest, a librarian and a published poet who was acquainted with people like Marshall McLuhan, was a sucker for comedy, both high and low – more often low. As an adult he would often visit my family when I was a kid, and if his booming laugh didn’t cause an unthinkable amount of damage throughout the city, I suspect it was because the elephants at the local zoo were probably too old to even think about stampeding.

I can still remember lying in my bed upstairs at night and hearing him shamelessly roaring downstairs, probably at something Ernie Kovacs or Victor Borge had just said or done. It’s a wonder that my bedroom floor, and me and my brother’s bunk beds with it, never came crashing down into the living room.

The other Palace legend involving my uncle was recounted every so often over the years by his victim – his sister, otherwise known as my mother. They were kids and had just been to a nighttime showing of “The Mystery of the Wax Museum.” Afterward they walked home, my uncle tormenting her in the dark every step of the way. The family house was probably less than a mile from the Palace, but from the way my mother told the story, it might as well have been in Australia.

Frances from the Palace’s father was gone by the time we six Murphy kids discovered the movies. By then the Palace was well established as something that is rare these days: the neighborhood theater. On special occasions – a new Disney release or re-release, for example – we might go downtown to Loew’s, RKO Keith, the Eckel, the Paramount or the Strand (where I saw my first film, “Tom Thumb” with Russ Tamblyn), but otherwise “Let’s wait till it comes to the Palace!” was a familiar phrase in my non-affluent family, perhaps running a distant second to “Children are starving in China!”

And now I need to mention that there was a time in my life – please understand that I was very young, though that’s hardly an excuse – when I would go to the Palace with my older brother on Saturday afternoons for the express purpose of seeing movies that featured Jerry Lewis. Perhaps I should send some of my spit to Ancestry.com for one of those tests they’ve been advertising; perhaps my DNA would reveal that I have a wee bit of French blood, and perhaps this would explain why I was eager to see “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” “The Errand Boy” and “Who’s Minding the Store?”

But there was something special about these matinees – something I don’t think Mr. Muscular Dystrophy Telethon would appreciate. For at every matinee he was upstaged by Frances from the Palace, who would patrol the aisles with a flashlight, looking for kids playing cards or – the big mortal sin – putting their feet up on the seat in front of them. And when she caught one of these kids in the act of defiling her family trust, she was, shall we say, not exactly quiet about it.

I especially remember the time she swept the stage – while the movie was playing. I can’t say for sure whether this was during a Jerry Lewis opus – surely he would have noticed her mid-scene and yelled “HEY LAAAAAAAAAADY!”

Years later, I underwent a traditional rite of passage at the Palace: going to my first movie that was rated “M, for Mature Audiences” – “In the Heat of the Night.” I would like to be able to report that my girlfriend and I really got into the spirit of the thing in the balcony, but I didn’t have a girlfriend, I was with my older sister and my aunt (my uncle’s other sister, a Catholic nun), and as long as Frances from the Palace ran the place, she never let anyone into the balcony.

After I moved to an apartment in Eastwood, I went to the Palace more often. Frances from the Palace was still there; she no longer gave out tickets, but just took your cash when you came in the door. She especially liked it if you paid her in dollar bills.

A colleague of mine once told me that she had been to the Palace with a male friend of hers. After they came in the door, the friend had the audacity to ask Frances from the Palace if she took credit cards. He might as well have shown up at Kitty Hawk and asked the Wright Brothers if he could have a window seat with extra legroom. And to this day he probably doesn’t know how lucky he is that Frances from the Palace didn’t arrange for him to have special seating in the parking lot, under the cement.

Frances from the Palace died almost 13 years ago. A nephew took it over and did a great job of refurbishing it before selling it last year. It no longer regularly shows movies but is available for special events. I even attended a party once in the balcony area, which looked great.

And I still sometimes think back to that Saturday afternoon in church.

I remember Frances from the Palace as she turns and sees me in the pew behind her. I respond by giving her my best polite smile. Surely she must recognize me. I’ve been coming to her theater off and on for decades. And I always remember to bring dollar bills.

Frances from the Palace doesn’t return my smile.

Instead she turns around.

And picks up her purse.

And places it in the pew in front of her.

I boycott the Palace for at least the next six months.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

If Stanley Kubrick had been a game show director....

BUD COLLYER: Welcome back to “To Tell the Truth”! As you’ll recall, our panelists – Tom Poston, Peggy Cass, Orson Bean and Kitty Carlisle – cast their ballots before the commercial, so now it’s time to turn to our team of contestants and ask: “Will the real Roman slave please stand up?”

CUT TO CONTESTANTS: Three men, all wearing togas.

The three look at one another. Then NUMBER 2 stands up.

NUMBER 2: I am Spartacus!

Applause.

Then NUMBER 1 stands.

NUMBER 1: I am Spartacus!

Then NUMBER 3 stands.

NUMBER 3: I am Spartacus!

CUT TO A LONG SHOT OF THE PANEL.

After a pause, KITTY stands.

KITTY: I am Spartacus!

A moment later, TOM gets up.

TOM: I am Spartacus!

Then PEGGY stands.

PEGGY: I am Spartacus!

ORSON, still seated, looks around at the other panelists.

Then he shrugs and gets up.

ORSON: What the hell – I guess I am Spartacus, too!

CUT TO BUD as he holds his head in his hands.

BUD: Oh shit….

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 CarrĂ© 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.)