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.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Once upon a time in seventh grade....

This is a tale of two nuns.

Sister Robert was my seventh-grade homeroom teacher.

Sister Clara taught eighth grade.

Sister Robert was fairly young, short and chubby, and generally good-humored. If the word had existed in 1967, you might well have also described her as “ditzy.”

Sister Clara was middle-aged, tall and thin, and definitely not ditzy.


Sister Robert taught most of our seventh-grade classes, and Sister Clara taught us English. Every morning at an appointed time she’d come into our classroom, and Sister Robert would leave and teach another class elsewhere. (Apparently the principal didn’t want the hassle of moving students from room to room.)


For maybe twenty minutes after lunch, Sister Robert would read to us. I don’t remember all the books she read — “The Yearling” was definitely one of them, and maybe “Bambi” — but her literary choices had one thing in common: They were maybe a bit too young for us seventh-graders. Sister Robert’s classroom also had a small bookcase against one of the walls, below the windows.


While Sister Robert was usually in a good mood, you never knew what you were going to get with Sister Clara. When she came into our classroom I could instantly tell, just from the look on her face, what kind of session we were going to have.


If her face was pleasant, placid and even borderline smiling, I knew things would go well — or at least not badly. I might even learn something.

But if she came in with a scowl — the Reverend Mother of scowls, the kind of scowl you could see from the Sea of Tranquility — I knew we were in for trouble.


(Fortunately I myself was seemingly exempt — it helped to have two aunts who were members of the same order.)

One day as she entered, Sister Clara was almost frothing at the mouth. She had assigned us all to choose a book, read it and then write a report on it, and now she had read the reports and for the most part was almost violently not pleased. What really set her off was that one of us had chosen to report on “Homer Price,” a humorous opus about a boy who, among other things, has a misadventure with a doughnut-making machine.

She must have blown a gasket and a half as she told us what a stupid, asinine and infantile choice “Homer Price” was for students as old as we were. She spent so much time, energy and pure rage telling us how incompetent we were that after she finally stormed out of the room at the end of class you could almost smell ozone in the air.

A few hours later — I can almost swear it was that same day — we seventh-graders returned from lunch, and as we began to settle in, one of us, whose name was Nick, was examining the contents of the bookshelf below the windows.


“Hey, Nick,” Sister Robert said, her voice bright and innocent, “why don’t you try that book about Homer Price and the doughnut machine? It’s really funny!”

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.