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June 1, 2007
You're Never Going To Believe This One
I was working the city desk on a slow night in May when my phone started ringing off the hook. It was Skip, a dish jockey at a midtown chop house; just one of the dozens of soda jerks, bellboys, elevator operators, manicurists, hack drivers, switchboard divas, pin monkeys, and counter clerks I kept on retainer to feed me tidbits of dope from which I could build stories. I was only two years on the job and still needed a magnifying glass to find something to shave every morning, but I knew this much: you're only as good as your leads.
"What's on your lip, Skip?"
"You'll never guess whose crockery I just 86'd," he said in a hushed voice. I could hear the bustle of the kitchen behind him as he whispered the name of the whiz-bang hot corner denizen of the visiting nine.
"And I should care where this guy eats why?"
"On account of who he was eating with," said Skip with that "I-know-something-you-don't-know" tone all my tipsters seem to take on right before slipping me the juicy stuff. He descripted a doll who did not fit the visual operendi of Mrs. Ballplayer. When I had picked up the phone, I'd been lounging in repose with my feet on my desk and my chair laid back nearly parallel to the floor. By the time Skip was done with his verbal regalia, I was bolt-upright with a page of notes trailed out behind the tip of my pencil.
"The best part is," he said, working up to a big finish, "I overheard 'em say where they was going. So, if you hurry, you can catch 'em on the fly."
I slammed the phone down so fast I probably woke Alexander Graham Bell in his coffin. Now here was news! Imagine: a ballplayer stepping out on his wife! I hustled down to the fetid hole where the photographers killed time between assignments. They had their usual card game going, with a pile of moldy sandwiches laid out next to the kitty. I could barely see through the cigarette smoke, and the air in the little room was practically blue from their profane banter.
"Which one of you mugs wants to win the Pulitzer tonight?" I asked. They laughed--in unison, as if they'd rehearsed it, which they probably had, knowing them.
"Sorry kid," said the one they called Stieglitz, Jr. "I'm on a hot streak here."
"Yeah," said Flash, "he's only down a hunnert."
"When I tell you what this is for, you'll swear off cards just to get in on it with me," I said earnestly--which was the wrong approach, since earnest never played well in the photographer's green room.
"What happened? Cat stuck in a tree?" asked Shutters, his eyes never leaving his cards.
"Boy Scout save a hooker from drowning?" giggled Snaps.
"No boys," said Stieglitz, Jr., "he said it was big, so I'm guessing world peace has been declared."
"Look, we've got to hurry," I said. "There's a big league ballplayer out on the town with a dame?" For the first time since I'd gotten there, they actually looked at me. Flash's mouth fell open and his cigarette dropped into his lap. "And the kicker is, she's not his wife!"
For a moment, the room was a frozen tableau of disbelief, while the lens luggers processed what I had just told them. When it fully registered, there was a torrent of flying cards, sandwiches and ashtrays. Suspenders were thrown over shoulders, jackets yanked off of the backs of chairs and thrown on, hats smacked onto heads and cameras scooped up. I was carried along with the surging mass of humanity down the stairs and out into the street where a cab was hailed.
"Where's the fire?" said the wheelman as we crammed ourselves into the backseat, a jumble of arms, legs, and Contaflexes. I told him the name of the hotel where Skip said the ballplayer and his paramour were headed. "There's an extra fin in it for you if you get us there in under five minutes."
"No can do," he said.
"What kind of taxidermist are you, anyway?" yelled Snaps.
"One what needs at least a sawbuck to make like Barney Oldfield," he said. I pitched him a tenner and we were off, careering into the city night like a windup toy with a busted spring. In less than three minutes, we decompressed in front of the hotel, and fell out into the street.
"Keep the motor running, hot rod," I said to the cabbie. "OK boys, it's like I said: Snaps, you're on the elevators, Flash, you're in the lobby, Shutters, you're on the side entrance, and Stieglitz, Jr., you're with me on the main door."
I put the concierge on the receiving end of a cash convincer, and he agreed to look the other way while four flash-poppers started patrolling his bailiwick. Stieglitz, Jr. and I hid behind an oversized flower urn. He reeked of juniper berries and Lucky Strikes. I reeked of excitement. We didn't have long to wait. In no time at all, here came the mark with his chippy.
"Jeez," muttered Stieglitz, Jr., "she's one honed palooka." He began firing away with his Contessa. Before the fence-finder could react, we were out the door and back into the cab. In no time at all, I had my fingerprints all over the keys of my Royal, smacking out a tale of deception and moral chicanery while Stieglitz, Jr. was holed up in the dark room, conjuring images out of the soup pan.
I knew the early bird edition was already in the rollers, but I also knew that I could throw a wrench in the works with journalistic dynamite like this. I hammered the last period into place and yelled for the copy boy and the layout man. I then called down to the Smudge, the print manager, and told him to hold everything. "A new page one is on the way!" I yelled, counting on the sound of the press to hide the fact that I was doing a lousy impersonation of the Editor-in-Chief. I hung up and high-tailed it the Chief's office just as the print boys were phoning him back to reconfirm.
"Have you been huffing that ink down there, Smudge? I ordered no such thing!" he screamed into the phone.
"Chief, before you think they're crazy--it was me pretending to be you who stopped the presses."
"What the devil?" he stammered, his face turning the color of the pumper truck from Engine Company Number Six.
"I had to save time. You're gonna thank me for this one, Chief."
"Thank you, am I?" He pulled a bottle of Old Guzzlement out of his desk drawer and poured the contents into a misty glass. Instead of taking a drink, though, he smashed the end of the bottle off and lunged at me.
"Who the hell do you think you are, stalling my early? I'm gonna give you a tracheotomy so deep, they'll confuse it for back surgery." He lunged again, just missing my peach-fuzzed cheek. In an act of self-preservation, I blurted out the tale of the wayward ballplayer. The Chief let the broken bottle slip from his hand.
"Well why didn't you say so?" he said, smiling.
Barney, the layout man, came rushing in with the new front page. One glance at it and the Chief waved him away approvingly. Stieglitz, Jr. had delivered the goods: a perfect shot of the bulky blonde and the towering third sacker on their way to do whatever it is two people do in a hotel room in a strange city.
"You know," he said, "I've known men in my position who've spent their whole lives in the newspaper business and never came close to a story like this. A big leaguer stepping out on his missus?" He shook his head in wonder. "If I didn't have the say-so of my ace reporter and the photographic evidence, I wouldn't have believed it was possible."
"Me neither," I offered, relaxing for the first time since I'd gotten Skip's portentous call.
The Chief broke into a broad grin and sniffed at the air. "Is that a Pulitzer I smell?"