Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts

05 December 2018

Two Guns, No Waiting

by Robert Lopresti

Two guys came through my door with guns in their hands.

Logically I should have been terrified but for some reason I was mostly irritated.

"What the hell!" I said, pushing away from my desk.  "Who are you?"

The first one, a yegg, sneered at me.  "You know who we are.  The great Raymond Chandler said 'When in doubt have two guys come through a door with guns in their hands.'  That's us."

"Yeah," said the other one, a goon.  "That's us."

"I don't care what Chandler said." They gasped. "You can't just come barging into my office whenever you want."

"It's what you want," said the yegg.  He covered a corner of my desk with a corner of his sizable tush. "Obviously you're stuck on what you're writing or we wouldn't have appeared."

"Yeah," said the goon.  "You're stuck."

I frowned.  "What's the difference between a yegg and a goon, anyway?"

The yegg waved his non-gun hand in a professorial way.  "Well, the word 'yegg' comes from the argot of hobos.  It meant a criminal who traveled by train and often preyed on his fellow tramps.  Later it came to mean any low gangster."

The goon seemed fascinated.  "What about me?"

"Goons are muscle men.  Not as erudite or articulate as yeggs."

"Huh," said the goon.  "What do those words mean?"

The yegg shrugged.  "You see what I'm working with here."

"Poor you," I said.  Then I remembered that my work table was a standing/sitting desk.  I pushed a button and the motor tried to lift with the yegg sitting on it.  Irritably, he jumped off.

"Listen," I said.  "I appreciate the trouble you two have gone to but I don't think you can help me much."

"Are you saying you aren't stuck?"

"I am, but I'm writing a love story."

"A love story?" The yegg frowned.  "I thought you wrote mysteries."

"I do.  But a man can try something else."

"Sure, but you risk diluting your brand."

I stared at him.  "Where'd you get your M.B.A.?"

"Oh, a wise guy."

"The point is, having two guys coming in with guns doesn't help in a love story."

"Maybe," said the goon, "maybe you could have two beautiful women come in with... With..."  He went silent.

"Are you blushing?" said his partner.  "For Pete's sake!"

"I don't show up in many love stories," said the goon.

"That's no surprise."  The yegg glared at me.  "So we came here for nothing.  And you have no respect for the words of the great Chandler."

"That's another thing," I said.  "I just looked it up and Chandler was criticizing that gimmick, not recommending it."

"How did you look it up without us seeing you do it?"

"It's a literary device.  And another thing.  He didn't say two guys.  He said a guy."

"So," said the goon,  "you've been quoting it wrong all these years."

"I guess I have."  I did a double-take.  "Where did your friend  go?"

The goon shrugged.  "Turns out there's only supposed to be one of us.  He's probably gone off to harass some other mystery writer."

"You're suddenly much more articulate."

He scratched his forehead with the barrel of his gun.  "Probably more erudite too.  Good luck with the love story."

"Thanks."

Halfway through the doorway he paused to look back at me.  "Personally, I always preferred Hammett."






21 November 2018

Meeting Some Old Friends

by Robert Lopresti

I had an odd and  interesting experience today.

I am working on the seventeenth story in my series about mystery writer Leopold Longshanks.  This one will include several characters who have been mentioned before and I realized I needed a scorecard, so to speak. So I skimmed through all the previous stories to see what I have already mentioned about any characters who have, or are likely to, appear more than once.

And am I glad I did.  It turns out that the woman I have been referring to in my draft as Meghan McDonough is really Megan McKenzie.  Oops.

More annoying is the fact that another character I wanted to bring back is Fiona Makem.  It is an absolute grudge of mine about authors who confuse their readers by giving characters similar names.  If you have five people in your story why name them Pete, Pat, Paul, Polly, and Thusnelda?  There are so  many initial letters to choose from!

But in my case Makem and McKenzie had appeared in separate stories so I hadn't noticed the similarity before.  So in my current tale I got them on a first name basis immediately.

Another reason to make careful notes is that Fiona is attempting to write a mystery novel set in each county in Ireland.  I need to remember that she has already covered Death in Donegal, Whacked in Wicklow, and (my favorite) Plugged in Cork.  God only knows how she is going to handle Fermanagh and Laios.

My list of characters also set my fevered brain to work. What if straight-laced Officer Dereske met eccentric philanthropist Dixie Traynor?  That might provide some fun.

I always make character lists before starting a novel (for one reason, to avoid multiple use of the same initial, of course).  But this is the first time I have had to do it with a series of stories.

And I guess that's a good thing.  I like a series with a large supporting cast.  Think of Nero Wolfe or Amelia Peabody.

Now I had better get back to story #17.  Our hero is just about to reveal the solution...

07 November 2018

Snow Job

by Robert Lopresti

In September I mentioned one of the rare snowstorms my city receives.  Today I am going to talk about a different, more recent, one.

The storm was harsh enough to give both my wife and I the day off and so we decided to walk the half-mile to our closest grocery store for a look around and some lunch.

My back yard
As we trudged off through the beautiful whiteness I had a sudden thought: With our ski masks and scarves and gloves we were dressed exactly the way banks tell us not to.  You've seen the signs: "For your safety and ours remove hats, glasses, and scarves before entering." Or words to that effect.

Because I suffer from CWB (Crime Writer's Brain) an idea immediately appeared in my skull.  What if some bank robbers decided to take advantage of a blizzard to stroll into a bank unnoticed? 

Hmm.  How would they make their getaway?  Obviously they would have to steal some snowmobiles!

When you get right down to it, that was a pretty stupid idea.  But the great thing about writing fiction is that even a stupid idea can make a smart story.

And speaking of stupid, I realized instantly that this was a case for Officer Kite.  This peace officer has appeared in two of my previous stories, "A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts," and "A Bad Day for Bargain Hunters."

Kite is not a very competent cop.  In his first appearance he got run over by his own police car..  That made him seem like the perfect foil for my snowmobiling bandits.

All the "Bad Day" stories are set in fictional Brune County, and involve strangers getting involved in a tangled mess of bad intentions and worse planning.  So far each story is longer and more convoluted than the last.

If you pick up the current (November/December 2018) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine you will discover "A Bad Day for Algebra Tests."  I hope you enjoy it.  And bundle up.

31 October 2018

My Spooky Moment

by Robert Lopresti

Happy Halloween!  May you be visited by enough costumed children to entertain you and not so many that they get  all the good candy and leave you with the healthy stuff.

I have been pondering what to write about today and decided to tell about my one-and-only brush with the supernatural.

Now, I need to explain that I am not a fan of such stuff.  I have no belief in ghosts, an afterlife, or monsters.  Things that go bump in the night are, in my experience, usually restless cats.

But there was this one time...

It happened in late August, about twenty years ago.  I was bicycling home from work, my usual form of commute, and I was thinking about a couple of songs I had been invited to perform at a friend's birthday party that night.  I turned the corner onto one of the busiest streets on my city and--

After that everything fades away.  I am sure you are familiar with pointilism, those paintings made up of individual dots?  Well, that is how my memory of that moment feels.  I can see the city scene and then it shifts into individual dots and disappears to black.

As I found out later, I had fallen off my bicycle and sustained a concussion.

The next thing I remember I was in a long black tunnel.  There was a bright but fuzzy light at the end of it and I sensed that I was being drawn farther away from that light.  I heard someone call my name.

Some of you may recognize that this event contains many elements common to what are called near-death-experiences.  People who have had such events often report that their whole view of the world has been changed by them.

And indeed, if I had blacked out at that moment I imagine my philosophy might be quite different than it is now.

But I didn't lose consciousness again.  And I slowly realized that the dark tunnel was actually the inside of an ambulance.  The light at the end of the tunnel was the sunny afternoon outside.  It was fuzzy because my glasses were broken.  The sensation of being drawn away from the light was caused by my being strapped onto a gurney which was being pushed deeper into the ambulance.  And the voice calling my name?  A paramedic calling the hospital to tell them who was coming.

Disappointing, I know.  There went my one chance to write a bestselling memoir of my visit to the afterlife.

So, on the whole, not as spooky a story as you might have hoped for.  But there are pleasures to be found in the real world too.  Snag yourself a candy bar before the goblins grab 'em all.

Oh, and one last trick or treat.  What do these two book covers have to do with Halloween?  Answer will be in the comments.

17 October 2018

Based on an Untrue Movie

by Robert Lopresti

When the movie American Animals  came to town this summer it was pretty much foreordained that I would see it.  The subject is attempted theft of rare books from a college library, a subject with which I am not unfamiliar.  In fact, the flick was based on an event I had already blogged briefly about.

To summarize,  four college students decided to get rich by stealing some valuable books from the Special Collections room at the library of Transylvania University in Kentucky.  Their planning technique consisted mostly of getting drunk/stoned and watching heist movies.  The resulting event  was a disaster and about the only positive things you can say about it are: 1) The victims did not suffer lasting physical damage, 2) No books were destroyed, and 3) All four of the fools went to prison.

The movie is worth seeing but I want to bring up one specific complaint about it.  It begins by pompously announcing that: this isn't based on a true story; it is a true story.

And, of course, it ain't.

The gimmick that makes American Animals unique is that while the main part of the story is carried out by actors, it also contains interviews with the actual culprits, and sometimes even shows the same scene more than once, to reflect the version of whoever is talking.  It's clever and interesting, but like I said, you are not seeing a true story.

I have complained before about a better movie that played fast and loose with the facts.  So call me a serial grumbler.

The important things that American Animals got wrong, as far as I am concerned, involved (surprise!) librarians.  The burglars in the movie showed much more concern about harming the rare books librarian than their real life counterparts did.  And the "true story" completely erased the library director who put herself in harm's way to try to stop the theft.  Maybe she didn't give the producers permission to include her?  I don't know but leaving her out was not the truth.

A few more questions and I am not the first person to ask them: If instead of white suburban guys the crooks had been African-American urbanites would this movie have been made?  If so would the script have tried so hard to show them as Good Boys Gone Wrong?  Hell, would they have even survived their arrests?

Unanswerable, of course.

By coincidence I just rewatched another movie based on a true story, one I liked better than American Animals or Argo.  The Informant! concerns Mark Whitacre who is apparently the highest executive to ever voluntarily turn whistleblower about his company's wrong deeds.  In the 1990s Whitacre was a biochemist and high-paid executive for ADM, one of the world's largest food processors.

And he told an FBI agent that his company was involved in an ongoing world-wide conspiracy to fix the prices for corn syrup, which finds its way into everything. As one agent says in amazement "Every American is a victim of corporate crime before he finishes breakfast."  So Whitacre agrees to wear a wire.

This sounds like we are building up to a dark brooding movie with heart-pounding suspense.  That's not what we get.  The flick is full of bright colors and Illinois sunshine and most of the time Whitacre seems to be having a marvelous time doing his spy gig.  At one point he shows his secret recorder to a virtual stranger and explains that he is Secret Agent Double-oh-fourteen "because I'm twice as smart as James Bond!'

Whitacre often provides a running narration on events, which is not surprising.  But his narrative almost never relates to what's going on.  As he is about to plot price-fixing with fellow executives he tells us: "I think I have nice hands.  They're probably my favorite part of my body..."

By now you may have the idea that Whitacre was not playing with a full corn silo.  In fact, as near as I can tell the place where the movie may depart most from the facts is in choosing to show us whether he was crazy from the start, or cracked under pressure.  (As his lawyer points out, FBI agents going undercover get training on coping with a double life.  All Whitacre got was a recorder and a firm handshake.)

I have simplified the story considerably.  The complications are what makes it so fascinating.  I loved watching Scott Bakula and Joel McHale playing FBI agents looking on in stunned horror as shoe after shoe after shoe drops on their case.

One person who seems to have had a wonderful time with this movie is composer Marvin Hamlisch.  In keeping with the spirit of the film, his music usually has nothing to do with the plot of the film.  When a character is taking a lie detector test the accompanying music is -- a square dance?

In closing, let me just wish that if they make a film of your life it has a happy ending.

03 October 2018

Following in Marlowe's Footnotes

Courtesy Western Libraries
by Robert Lopresti

I don't review a lot of books but I would like to take a moment to recommend you read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

Oh,  you already have?

I'm not surprised.  But I suggest you should read the new annotated version, edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto.  I have been having a heck of a good time with it.

One reason to pick it up is presented by Otto Penzler in a blurb: "What a great excuse to read this masterpiece again!"  That reminds me:  I should say that if you have not read this classic private eye novel, you should not start with this edition.  The editors, quite reasonably, are not shy about pointing out when something in Chapter 4 is foreshadowing an event in Chapter 14.


So what do the annotations bring to Chandler's text?

* Literary context. We tend to talk about Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the same breath, almost as if they shared an office.  Actually they only met once and at that point Hammett was the champeen and Chandler  (although six years older) was a rookie.  But more to the point, The Big Sleep was published in 1939, ten years after Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, and the annotated edition points out how much Chandler borrowed from it.  (More about that later.)  The book also has passages from Chandler's earlier stories which he "cannibilized" for the novel, showing how he modified them.

* Geographic context.  The book provides maps and photographs of the places detective Phillip Marlowe visits (and when they are fictional, points that out as well). At one point Marlowe arranges to meet someone at the Bullocks Wilshire.  The editors provide a photograph and explain that this was the first department store built with its main entrance in the back, facing the parking lot.  It was a "temple to the automobile."

* Language.  What is a pinseal wallet?  What is flash gambling?  Is it a good or bad thing to step off for it?  The editors explain these and many more.

* Symbolism.  In literary criticism one always has to wonder whether the interpreters are finding more than the author intended, but let me give you an example of what we find here.  In the opening chapter Carmen Sternwood asks the narrator his name and he replies "Doghouse Reilly."  Of course, this turns out to be false, but does it mean anything?  The editors point out that it is the sort of nickname given to Irish boxers (and Carmen then asks if he is a prizefighter.)  They also note that "Doghouse" suggests someone who is constantly in trouble, true enough of Marlowe.

But let's go deeper.  The Big Sleep is famous for its knight symbolism.  (A stained glass window featuring one appears on the first page, for example.)  The editors note that "In the great heroic epics, the hero's true name and character often remain hidden until revealed by a distinctive sign or work."  Is that what Chandler had in mind?

* Movie connection.  The editors point out how the book was changed for the Bogart classic.  And of course they discuss the famous issue of "Who killed the chauffeur?"

I'd like to point out one way in which the annotated book broadened my thinking about something quite removed from Chandler.  The editors compare Marlowe's violent encounter with the gay man Carol, to Sam Spade's reaction to gay Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon.  They suggest that both are examples of  "homosexual panic."

Well, I had heard that term before, but what does it mean exactly? The editors don't find it necessary to explain.

According to Wikipedia "Homosexual Panic Disorder" was a psychological condition coined in 1920 and no longer recognized by the APA.  It referred to "panic due to the pressure of uncontrollable perverse sexual cravings," and usually included passivity, not aggression.  This does not seem to apply to Marlowe or Spade.

There is a separate entry for "Homosexual Panic Defense," now usually called "Gay Panic Defense," in which an attacker claims he suffered temporary insanity after receiving unwanted approaches by a gay man.   That doesn't seem to apply to the two novels either; neither Carol nor Wilmer were putting the moves on the PIs.

A medical dictionary gives a definition closer to what I have always thought it meant, and what I think the editors had in mind: "an acute, severe attack of anxiety based on unconscious conflicts regarding homosexuality."  In other words, someone attacks a gay man because his very existence makes them question their own sexuality.

And you could well make the case that that is what happens with Marlowe and Carol.  But does it apply to Spade and Wilmer?  Here is Spade's outburst: "Keep that gunsel away from me while you make up your mind.  I'll kill him.  I don't like him.  He makes me nervous.  I'll kill him the first time he gets in my way."

Homosexual panic?  Maybe.  But, you see, I don't believe Spade means it.  I realize now that I think everything Spade says to Guttman (and to most of the other characters) is an act.  Of course, we see Spade through a third person narration so, unlike Marlowe (or Hammett's own Continental Op), we never get inside his head.  One of the reason his speech at the end of the book is so moving is that for the first time, I think, he actually tells us why he is doing what he does.

Feel free to disagree.
Decatur Street Car Barn, now a bus barn.  Photo by Volcycle.

Speaking of which, one of the joys of a book like The Annotated Big Sleep is quarreling with the authors. especially about what they choose to annotate.  Why explain bacardi but not pony glass?  Why does jalopy require a footnote but car barn doesn't?   Since Marlowe is comparing the size of a house to a car barn, it is important that the reader knows he is talking about a building big enough to store street cars in.

I also wish they had commented on Chandler's frequent use of the adverbs savagely and viciously, most famously at the end of Chapter  24.

But those are minor gripes and, as I said, part of the fun.  The book is a job well done.

19 September 2018

Lost in the Stacks for 41 Years, Part 2

My published works.  Photo by Tamara Belts
by Robert Lopresti

This is my second column celebrating my retirement by reviewing high and lowlights of my career as a librarian.

My third professional job was at a university.  I was still a government documents librarian.  One day an older community member wandered into my department.

"So you get federal documents here."

"That's right."

"Do you have classified publications?"

I laughed.  "I can barely get them to send us tax forms."
                                                         


But let's talk about something they did send us.  One day David, my assistant,  placed one newly-arrived publication on my desk, as opposed to the usual location.

I figured out why pretty quickly.  A the bottom of the cover it said: FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT USE ONLY.  There are certain kind of publications that are not supposed to be sent to depositories, and that is one of them.

What's disturbing is that we are thousands of miles from the GPO.  Many libraries must have received that publication before we did, but David was the first to spot the problem.  Hmm.

The publication was about an organization that does not approve of certain activities and allegedly had a habit of blowing up buildings in which those activities took place.  This publication explained to law enforcement officials the methods these people had allegedly been using.

This was before email so I called the GPO.  "You didn't mean to send us that publication."

"Why not?"

"Because it's full of diagrams of explosive devices.  It's basically a manual for bombmakers."

"We'll get back to you."

Later that day they did.  "You're right.  Destroy it."  Now, I should explain that any publication the federal government sends for free to a depository library remains federal property.  They can demand it back or tell us to shred it if they want.  (What they can't do, minus a court order, is ask who has read it. Librarians are fussy about that.)

So  I destroyed the publication.

A few days later I got a letter from GPO, addressed to all depository libraries.  It said that the publication was sent by mistake and we should return it immediately.

Back to the phone.  "You told me to destroy it.  How am I supposed to return it?"

"We'll get back to you."

They did.  "Send us a letter explaining how you destroyed it."

I was sorely tempted to say "I used the method shown on page seven."  But who needs that kind of trouble?

               

I have lost track of how many offices I had in this library.  At least eight.  At one point my desk was in an open area.  A fellow employee told me that as a supervisor I needed an enclosed office.  "In case you need to yell at someone."

The view from my last office.

And speaking of moving, I supervised the shifting of the 200,000 government publications at least five times.  On the day we finished one move we had the windows open and a squirrel hopped in.  He went straight to the A 13's: the publications of the Forest Service.  "Boy," I thought, "if only the students could find their way as easily as you!"



I wish like hell I could tell you the exact day this happened.  It was one of the most significant dates in my career.  I was at the reference desk and a man asked "Do you have the German railroad timetables?"

"Wow," I said.  "No.  The best I can do is give you the phone number for the German consulate in Seattle.  But wait!  There's something brand new called the World Wide Web and we can access it from this computer."

Google didn't exist yet.  I think I went to Altavista.  He typed in the words German railroad timetables, in German.

And boom, there they were, your choice of English and German.  Up-to-date and free.

"Okay," I said.  "Right now, this moment, my job just changed completely."

And it had.  For example, my library no longer has a reference desk because people don't come with easy questions anymore, the kind Google can answer.  Now we specialize in helping with longer research projects.  But students still need help.



A student had been asked to find out everything she could about someone - anyone - who lived in our county in 1880.  I took her to the microfilm reels for the 1880 census, showed her how to use them and went back to my desk.

Soon she reappeared with a question: "What's a demimonde?"

I knew the answer but, following the old rule,  I took her to a dictionary to check that it indeed meant prostitute.

She had found an entire building full of demimondes: a brothel.  She was thrilled.

I told this to another librarian who nodded gravely.  "In Seattle they called them seamstresses."


Most of the librarians served as liaisons for academic departments.  Among other things, that meant teaching sessions on library resources.  I had recently taken that role for a new subject when I was strolling across campus and a professor saw me.  His eyes lit up.  "Rob!  Looking forward to your teaching my class tomorrow!"

"Me too!" I assured him.  Then I rushed back to my office and checked my calendar.  No mention of a class.  Had I reserved a classroom?  No.

So who was this professor who was expecting me?  I knew some of the profs in that department by sight, but not all.  This was before the time when you could find a picture of everyone in the world by going to the Web.  (I especially like LudditeHermitGallery.com)  I narrowed it down to about four.

I called the department secretary (if department secretaries ever went on strike at any university, the place would collapse within a day).  "You gotta help me," I begged.

Between us we figured out it had to be Professor X.  I sent him a grovelling apology.  Which class was I supposed to be teaching, and what did he want me to cover?

He wrote back with his own apology.  He had gotten me confused with a different Rob.

Whew.





In my city we only get measurable snow in about half the winters.  1996 was one of them.  Woke up one December morning to well over a foot of white stuff. My city didn't own a snowplow.

I normally bike to work; that wasn't going to happen. Driving was out and the buses weren't running.  So I walked the three miles.

All the way I had my headphones on and the disk jockey kept listing an ever longer list of closures.  I should explain that back then the university seemed to take a perverse pleasure in staying open whatever the conditions were.  They always sent out po-faced statements urging personnel to decide for themselves if it was safe to come to work, but they wouldn't close (so workers who didn't show up wouldn't get paid).

So I am almost finished with my two-hour trudge and am starting up the hill to the campus proper when the DJ says: "Here are the closings."  Dramatic pause.  "The university is open.  That's it.  Everything else in town is closed.  When the world ends the school paper will be the only place that reports it because the university will refuse to close."

The boss bought pizza for everyone who showed up.  (And someone actually drove out to pick it up.)  The next day the university closed and the DJ bragged that he shamed them into it.


                                                     

One day a young woman told me she was having trouble finding sources for a paper.  I had developed a quick technique for finding out how far a researcher had gotten and I applied it.

"Have you tried Database X?"

"No."

"Have you tried Database Y?"

"No."

"Have you tried Database Z?"

She burst into tears and ran out of the room.  I couldn't coax her back.

I never used that technique again.

                                          

One of our regular patrons was a Vietnam vet who was having trouble with the VA.  As he told the story he wanted to receive disability payments because his time over there drove him crazy.  The VA's defense was - again, according to him -- that he was already crazy when the army drafted him.  Not a great argument.

A member of the public is welcome to use our collection and anyone could borrow our federal publications, if they showed ID.  This veteran wanted to borrow some but he refused to show his ID because he thought the VA might be tracking what books he read.

I told him that didn't match my experience of reality but I respected his right to his own.  Nonetheless, he couldn't borrow the documents.

He used them, over several years.  I don't know how his case turned out but he started taking better care of himself and bringing in fellow vets whom he helped use the docs.  I counted that as a win.

                          

The worst and the best: someone stole more than 600 pages out of our old Congressional Serial Set volumes.  After more than a year and a half of sleuthing by various people at our university we got the evidence that led to the thief's conviction.  You can read all about it here and here.



One day I picked up the book on Occupations from the 1920 Census and read about "Peculiar occupations for women."  The introduction explained that census takers had reported women in a lot of occupations that women obviously could not have been working in, like masons and plasterers.  And so, the census bosses explained solemnly,  the records were carefully examined and if they could figure out what the mistake was they corrected it.  Or should I say if they figured out what the "mistake" was they "corrected" it.  And how many female pioneers in their fields were erased from history?

Years later, that led to my first nonfiction book.



One night I took my family to the best ice cream parlor in town.  The young man behind the counter said: "Last year you helped me with a research paper.  Not only did I get an A but the teacher kept it to use as an example.  Your ice cream is on me."

The super chocolate tasted particularly sweet that night.


 Back in January I taught a workshop on library resources and, as usual, handed out a quick feedback form.  One student wrote: "You introduced me to subjects I didn't even know to ask about."

My pleasure, friend. 


I would like to end by saying something I have not said in forty-one years on the job: Shhhhh!









05 September 2018

Lost in the Stacks for 41 Years


by Robert Lopresti

Gonna get a little off the main track here today.  I hope you forgive me.  You see, as of the first of September I am retired. I am going to tell you about some of my most memorable moments in forty-one years in the library mines.  Most have nothing to do with crime or writing.  So indulge me or go read something else.  I hear they have a lot of terrific stuff at MySpace.

                                                                         
When I was getting my Masters in Library Service degree the school urged us to call them as soon as we got our first jobs and tell them the salary.  So when I did I called them and gave them the big number: $10,300 a year.

"That's great," said the clerk.  "It will bring up the class average."



That first job was at a public library.   I was the government documents librarian but occasionally  I worked in the children's room.  I was at the desk there one day and two women walked in.  Obviously mother and grown daughter.  The mother marched up with a determined expression that said: I am going to get the answer if it takes all day.  Librarians love that look.

She fixed me with her steely gaze (why aren't gazes ever aluminumy?) and said "There's this book."

"Okay," I said.

"It's about a tree."  

 And that was clearly all she had.  No author, no title. Just a subject, a memory, and a burning desire to share it with her daughter.

I stood up.  "Follow me."  We marched to the Easy Readers.  I pulled out The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.

Her eyes went wide.  "That's it!  How did you know?"

I shrugged.  "I'm a librarian."




My assistant was Sue.  Between us sat a file cabinet and by the time I left every drawer had been neatly labeled with a misspelling of my name she had clipped from an envelope received in the mail: Robert Lopreski, Roberta Lopresti, Robert LoPresti, Robert Loparesti...

When my first short story was published I brought the magazine in and plopped it down in front of her open to the right page and pointed to my name.  "That's by me."

She tossed it back on my desk.  "No, it isn't."

Oh ye of little faith.

                                           

One day at the reference desk I got a phone call from a woman who wanted to know if we had The Power of Positive Thinking by Phyllis Schaeffer.

Now, a librarian is supposed to rely on sources.  If you ask me to spell cat I am supposed to check the dictionary.  But in this case I said "The Power of Positive Thinking  is by Norman Vincent Peale."

"No," she said with complete confidence.  "Phyllis Schaeffer."

So I checked the card catalog.  (Yup, that's what we had back then.)  Peale, yes.  Schaeffer, no.

Then the penny dropped.  The Power of the Positive Woman, by Phyllis Schlafly.  Well, the woman had been positive, all right.

                                                     

One of the longest-running science fiction fan organizations in the country used to meet at that library.  They held a special event to celebrate an anniversary and I graciously volunteered to be the library's representative.  Possibly this was because the guest speaker was Isaac Asimov.

He was, naturally, great.  His subject was a recent editorial in the New York Times saying that setting up a system to watch out for asteroids was a waste of money because, as I recall, no huge meteor hit the earth for many thousands of years, and therefore another wouldn't hit for thousands more.  Follow that logic?

Asimov gleefully reported on past NYT editorials on science.  One was an announcement that rockets wouldn't work in outer space because there was a vacuum.

This library was the largest in our part of the county and when one of the small libraries had a reference question they couldn't answer they bounced it to us.  One of those smaller institutions had a director named Miss D.  Her main characteristic, as far as I could tell, was that she was terrified of the members of her library board.

One day she called up and asked for the government documents librarian.  It seemed one of her  board members was looking for some government statistics about drug abuse.

I wrote the questions down. "Some of these I can answer," I told her.  "Some of the data I don't think is available."

"Well, do what you can."

I did.  This was long before the Internet and I had to dig through a whole lot of books.  Finally, after several hours of toil I called her up.

"I was able to find most of your answers, but not all of them."

"Oh," she said.  "Then never mind."  And hung up.



One day a patron (that's what librarians call customers, by the way) wanted to know what the phrase "the beast with two backs" meant.  I knew but I damn well wasn't going to tell her off the top of my head.  Fortunately Shakespeare's Bawdy by the brilliant Eric Partridge was at hand.



My next job was at a college library.  It was there that I found a report from the government of New Jersey that mentioned that the name of a small community in the southern part of the state, Mauricetown, was pronounced the same as a larger city in the northern half, Morristown.

Hmm...  That's the sort of thing my Atlantic City private eye Marty Crow would definitely know.  The result was "The Federal Case," Marty's first appearance in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

                                                           

Each librarian worked as a liaison for an academic department.  The acquisitions librarian told me there were several openings.  Naturally I chose English.  An hour later she was back with a file the size of a phone book.  "Read it and tell me if you still want the English Department."

Turned out two professors had come almost to the point of suing each other over an argument that involved the library.  One had written to the school paper complaining about the library and his colleague had written back, as I recall:  "Pay no attention to him.  We in the department have all had to hear him banging his spoon on his high chair before."  They eventually signed a joint statement agreeing that academic disagreements should be settled out of court.

I did take on the responsibilities for the English Department.  Didn't get sued.


                                                   
One night a college student came up to the reference desk and asked: "Is Nicaragua in Europe?"  This was during the Reagan administration when it looked like we might be invading that country any day.

I think I kept a straight face.  "No, Nicaragua is in Central America."

"Oh," she said.  "Is Central America in Europe?"

                                            
It was my Sunday to work at the reference desk.  It was snowing like crazy.

I was thinking about the next day.  I was the head of the search committee and we had a candidate coming in for a job interview.  In fact she should be flying in around now.  I hoped that the driver sent to pick her up got to the airport on time.

Then I remembered who had been given the job of arranging her transport.  Uh oh.
 
                                           
Speaking of search committees, I once went to lunch with a candidate.  He asked who was paying for the meal.  When I told him it was the college he ordered the most expensive thing on the menu.

I told the search committee: "Don't offer him the job.  He won't take it."

They did.  He turned it down.  We lost the position.

Nobody likes Cassandra.



One day the boss called me and another librarian into his office.  "I've been thinking about that meeting we had on Monday," he said.  "I want you two to run the project."  And then he spoke for several minutes about what he wanted, while we nodded solemnly.

Outside his office I turned to my colleague.  "Boy, I hope you were at that meeting on Monday, because I have no idea what he was talking about."

She said: "I was hoping you knew."

We went to the assistant boss who was outraged.  We soon got an apology for the confusion.  I never did find out what the project was about. 
                                                          

This was the time when computerized databases were first trickling into libraries.  One of the first we got (on a free-standing computer) was a list of all doctorate dissertations.  Another librarian, Barbara, and I both wanted to check out our father's PhDs.

"My father always insisted on people calling him 'doctor,'" I said.

Barbara is African-American.  "My father never cared whether people called him 'doctor' as long as they called him 'mister.'"

Which rather  put things in perspective.

                                                          


Most computer databases were expensive and you paid by the search.  Therefore only librarians were allowed to do the searches.  I remember one student asking me to search PsycInfo for peer-reviewed research articles that tested the theory that mental illness was caused by demonic possession.

I didn't have much luck.                            

One day I was at the reference desk and the president of the college walked in.  I had never seen him in the library.  He looked around, spotted me at the desk, and walked over.

I sat up straight, ready for action.

"Do you have a waste basket?"  By gosh, I knew the answer to that one.


The first computerized databases (i.e. periodical indexes) we got came from a company called Silver Platter and were literally on shiny discs, larger than LP records.  One day I was showing them to a group of adults (i.e. not college students) who seemed quite awed by the new technology.

The database froze.  I knew what that meant; a static electricity build up.  I also knew how to fix it.

While they watched I opened the case, took out the disc (by the edges!) and shook it vigorously.

"Do you know why I am doing this?"  Head shakes.

"I'm chasing off the evil spirits."  Nods.




The director of that library was Dr. Robert L. Goldberg.  He could be insanely frustrating but I learned more from him than any other boss.  For example, he told me approximately this:

"A good manager shares credit and hoards blame.  If the college president tells me he likes something in the library I always tell him who  did it, because it's important he doesn't think  this is a one-man operation.  But if he hates something and wants to know who is responsible, the only answer he gets is: me.  Because whoever did it, I am responsible."
                   

And that was the first ten years of my career. Tune in on September 19th when we will cover the remaining thirty-one years.

In the mean time, please save your files as the computers turn off automatically.  Please bring material to the circulation desk to borrow.  Safe travels.