Back in those weird old days

There are all kinds of benefits associated with working in a modern, 21st-century newspaper office equipped with the almost-latest computer and telephone systems, tasteful lighting and an assortment of decorative plants.

Every now and then, though, I have to admit that I miss the regular doses of weirdness that used to wander into The Reporter’s cobwebbed old offices on Main Street in strategically ambiguous downtown Vacaville.

We don’t get a lot of foot traffic out here in the Cotting Lane hinterlands, but weird traffic seemed to be the order of the day when we published from a century-old building on Main Street.

Way back in the good old days (like 1990…) we didn’t worry too much about workplace security and just about anybody could wander into the newspaper office through any one of three or four seldom-locked doors to voice their opinion.

Not that we didn’t want to lock the doors, but it seemed like we lost every usable key to the place every six months or so and we’d have to start over – which could take another three to four months.

I’ll never forget the irate woman wrestler who stormed into our front office one afternoon to protest how we’d written up the arrest of a rural gunman.

Our newspaper story said the man had surrendered to police without resistance.

The muscular reader said she’d witnessed the arrest and we hadn’t gotten it right.

“Police jumped on him LIKE THIS! And they grabbed his neck LIKE THIS! And they banged his head down on the ground LIKE THIS!” she explained as she spun me around, put me in a headlock and slammed my head down on the front counter of the newspaper office.

Like an idiot, I tried to explain that although the police may have restrained the man, their actions didn’t necessarily mean he offered any resistance.

Smart move. I was promptly treated to another demonstration of energetic neck bending and head banging.

Before she could begin round three, I promised to look into the matter and limped back to my desk.

The old newspaper office used to attract a large number of unusual street vendors, too.

I particularly remember one diminutive woman who wandered into the newspaper’s creative services department – I think we called it “paste-up” in those less-sophisticated days – and launched a dozen or so flying wind-up toys into our office air space.

“Fly away! Fly away!” she trilled.”Three dollars! Three dollars!” she added.I should point out there seemed to be some sort of language barrier beyond the phrases “Fly away!” and “Three dollars!”, and repeated suggestions that she vacate the premises were met by uncomprehending grins and more waves of flying toys.

I think we finally got the plucky peddler to leave for just a tad under $75.

Believe me, amigos, it would have been a bargain at twice the price…

Originally published February 5, 2006

Random box of rocks defies explanation

Newspapers are, by their very nature, responsible for explaining day-to-day life in these United States, whether the phenomenon in question has to do with runaway brides in Georgia or runaway governors in California.

(Yes, there is correlation between the two. We just haven’t figured out exactly what it is yet…).

On any given day, newspaper people ask tough questions, crunch numbers (not one of our strong points), and demand explanations from people who’d rather not explain anything without first receiving a grand jury subpoena.

Shady politicos? We eat ’em up. Questionable business practices? We’re all over them. Scandalous celebrity antics? You read it here first – and probably second, third, fourth and fifth, too.

When it comes to solving mysteries in our own back yards, however, we members of the Fourth Estate are sometimes baffled.

Take, for example, the Curious Case of the Box of Rocks.

Events began to unfold two weeks ago when one of our editors woozily returned from a vacation in the Sierra and noticed a medium-sized cardboard box filled with rocks on the sidewalk in front of the newspaper office.”Hmmmmmmm, box of rocks…” he observed.

That was about as far as our initial inquiry went. It had been a long weekend and the editor felt no immediate threat emanating from the stationary box of grayish stones.”

On the sidewalk…” he added before trundling into the newsroom and once again assuming command of his office cubicle.

Although the editor later admitted to some generalized curiosity about the box, his interest faded as morning slipped away.

And the box of rocks, being a box of rocks, simply sat there.

But as the days passed, the questions mounted. As trained observers, we noted the location – and persistence – of the 13-by-11-by-12 cardboard box and its half-dozen quite unremarkable gray rocks.

Answers, however, were remarkably scarce.

“Box of rocks is still out there. Been there about a week,” one observer observed observantly.

“Looks like that box of rocks is still out on the sidewalk. Wonder why…” pointed out another sharp-eyed staff writer.

“Yup,” explained a third.

Seven days went by and the box remained. Some staffers became rather apprehensive about the puzzling package.

“Wonder what that box of rocks is still doing out there. Those rocks aren’t from around here. They’re from somewhere else. I know the rocks around here and those aren’t natural,” another editor remarked with ill-concealed dread.

“They’re quiet – too quiet.”

Hard to believe, but it became clear after a week of speculation that one of the most efficient news gathering organizations in Solano County had been thoroughly stumped by an itinerant box of rocks.

And then, just as mysteriously as it had arrived, our puzzling parcel disappeared. One minute it was there, the next minute – poof! Curiouser and curiouser…

Needless to say, we’ve put our best minds to work on the puzzle and it won’t be long before we have all the answers. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I’ve already identified the mastermind behind the mystery box.

Now, if I can just get Arnold Schwarzenegger to admit it…

Originally published June 12, 2005

Some things never change…

The newspaper business is, by its very nature, a place where change is the norm. Nothing ever stays the same. If it did, we’d all just fade away like yellowed headlines from the Crimean War.

Here at The Reporter, though, one thing keeps happening over and over and over again.

Whenever I’m engaged in something uncharacteristically stupid, of questionable legality or in remarkably bad taste, my corporate conscience appears as if by magic and clears his throat. Which might not seem too unusual, except that my corporate conscience is Italian and isn’t even corporate anymore.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

During the 24 years that I was employed here by the old John Rico Publishing Company I might have, on occasion, committed the occasional office faux pas. Perhaps it was heaving a brimming wastebasket at the sports editor after he’d annoyed me by existing. Or maybe it was the time I was test-driving a remote-controlled rubber rat that took off on its own and wreaked havoc on the peace and quiet of the sleepy newsroom. The firecrackers, I have to admit, also may have been inappropriate for the office – although they were a relatively short-lived amusement…

Strangely enough, whenever I was engaged in one of these singular activities, I could almost always expect that a tall, impeccably dressed chap who was directly responsible for my employment would magically appear behind me and discreetly clear his throat while arching one eyebrow.

Editor-publisher Richard Rico seemed to have an uncanny knack of knowing exactly when I was about to do something stupid and would then appear in my immediate vicinity.

“How does he do that?!” I inquired one afternoon after our then-publisher had materialized out of thin air while I was quite innocently helping a female colleague with a stuck zipper.

Co-workers simply shook their heads.

Then one day, my nemesis walked purposefully out the door en route to a new career, possibly as a Navy fighter pilot or some such similar employment.

“You won’t have Richard Rico to kick around anymore!” he declared on his way to the parking lot.

I observed Richard’s departure with a mixture of regret and relief. We’d had a lot of good times together, but no longer would somebody be looking over my shoulder every time I decided to distribute a gross of inflatable lobsters throughout the building.

Or so I thought.

Just last week I was taking a break from my hectic day of newsgathering to examine an electronic Nazi submarine search-and-destroy game on my desktop computer. Let me emphasize that this is a very, very unusual occurrence. It was, like, research. Yeah, that’s it. Research…

I’d just sent another U-boat to a watery grave when someone stepped up behind me and cleared his throat.

I was thoroughly astounded.

“This is not fair. Not. You can’t clear your throat. You don’t even work here anymore and besides I was just researching stuff. Investigative journalism…” I explained like a fourth-grader caught with a spitwad arsenal.

The retired publisher replied by raising one eyebrow and then walked slowly across the newsroom.

Some things never change…

Originally published April 3, 2005

It doesn’t get any weirder than this

One of the newspaper’s former editors was frequently heard to cry “Let the weird come to me!”

Fortunately, this aficionado of the arcane didn’t have to look too far for her daily dose of weirdness. She did, after all, work in a newsroom fully equipped with sportswriters, rubber rats and unidentifiable foodstuffs of dubious provenance.

Of course, not every fancier of freakishness is fortunate enough to work in a newspaper office, but there’s hope for the rest of you with the recent publication of “Weird U.S. – Your Travel Guide to America’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets (2004 Barnes & Noble Publishing, New York, N.Y., $19.95, 349 Pages).

weird.jpg

Written and edited by Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman with a host of co-authors and contributors from across the nation, “Weird U.S.” is more than a simple compendium of tired old Bigfoot and Chupacabra sightings.

No, this is a step-by-step, state-by-state, dimension-by-dimension guide to everything weird ever whispered about around a guttering candle or dying campfire from San Diego to Sarasota.

Within this volume’s slightly musty pages you’ll have an opportunity to meet Mercy Brown, the Rhode Island Vampire or, perhaps, strike up an acquaintance with the Goat Man of Prince Georges County.

(What, you didn’t know they had vampires on Rhode Island?)

Most of the creatures you’ll encounter in “Weird U.S.” make your everyday Bigfoot seem rather mundane.

Take, for example, the Bardin Booger Beast.

Described as “something big and hairy,” the malodorous Bardin Booger Beast is rumored to have been wandering on the outskirts of Bardin, Fla., for years.

“Locals claim this bear-sized beast has a pig’s nose, a long, red tongue dangling out of its mouth and a stride longer than humanly possible,” Moran and Sceurman report.

And unlike some small, backward communities, Bardin doesn’t fear its local monstrosity. No, sir. The plucky Floridians have embraced their hometown creature. Residents sport Bardin Booger Beast hats, T-shirts and mugs, while local restaurants feature Booger Burgers on their menus.

Hey, it doesn’t get any weirder than that, amigos.

Or does it?

While Florida seems to have the only confirmed Booger Beast, three states have laid claim to roaming Lizard Men. Sightings of the scaly horror have been reported in New Jersey, South Carolina and Wisconsin.

The Lizard Man in Wisconsin – a historic hotbed of weirdness – is not only green and scaly, but has the ability to sprout wings and leap over motor vehicles.

And “Weird U.S.” isn’t just about Bigfeet and Boogers. It’s also chock full of weird places, from Josie Arlington’s glowing grave (Louisiana) to Devil’s Road and Cult House (Pennsylvania).

Pick up a copy of “Weird U.S.” and you also can get acquainted with the cannibal albinos of Ghost Mountain (Pennsylvania) and learn more than you’ve ever wanted to know about the homicidal maniac who haunts Bunnyman Bridge (Virginia).

Weird?

You betcha …

Originally published January 2, 2005

The workplace needn’t be boring

Got those old 21st-century, corporate-office blues?

Is life in your workplace suddenly dull and meaningless? Do your co-workers seem like two-dimensional cardboard cutouts?

Don’t despair.

Office ennui can strike just about anywhere other than a carnival funhouse and the condition is rarely permanent. Fortunately, there are a variety of efficacious cures which may be undertaken by employees to breathe life back into their offices and cubicles.

(Did I hear somebody say “water balloons?”).

Yes, whether you decide to juggle a half-dozen rubber alligators in the middle of your office or fax everyone in the place copies of the Portuguese national anthem for no apparent reason, you’ll be helping to chase away the dullness that has invaded your work space.

One of my favorite office revival techniques (in my spare time, of course) is to cruise purposely through the building like a restless hammerhead shark, traveling from desk to desk, telling the same barely comprehensible joke again and again to create an atmosphere of benevolent befuddlement among my hapless colleagues.

Here’s how it works: Find a relatively new joke or amusing anecdote, revise it so it sounds like a true story about a fellow employee and then recount it in the presence of the aforementioned fellow employee and at least one other co-worker (the more gullible, the better).

modern_drunkard

I recently used an anecdote from Denver’s popular Modern Drunkard Magazine to get the ball rolling. The story dealt with an obnoxious tavern patron who got so out of control that the bartender politely asked him to leave.

“You wanna get the hell out of here?” asked the barkeep.

The overbeveraged patron didn’t exactly understand what was being asked and responded with a cheerful “Sure! What’s in it?”

To wake up your workplace, simply approach two dull, lifeless colleagues and begin to tell the story as if it had happened to one of them just the weekend before.

Keep doing this until you’ve hit everybody in your office at least twice. Before long, at least a third of your co-workers will believe that this really happened to one or more of their number.

Another third will be trying to figure out the punchline and a final third or so will be forcibly escorting you to the door suggesting you take a couple of “mental health” days.

However this shakes out where you work, your office will no longer be dull and lifeless. There will be bright eyes, witty repartee and, perhaps, just a smidgen of maniacal laughter.

(Note: If some of your colleagues begin arming themselves with scissors, broken bottles and pieces of furniture, you may want to consider a return to rubber alligator juggling or “knock-knock” jokes until you’ve got a more sophisticated audience.)

Enjoy, amigos…

Originally published May 9, 2004

They have a language all their own …

The English language is a virtual wonderland of specialized words and phrases, with almost every geographical region, socio-political aggregation and professional organization having its very own way of communicating, in written or spoken form, otherwise simple concepts like “cat” or “beer.”

America’s law enforcement community is not exempt from this practice of personalizing the English language to suit its day-to-day needs.

At the newspaper, we’ve become used to police dialect, a very specialized language partially composed of verbiage from the California Penal Code, radio communications and the occasional “Drop the weapon now!”

Law enforcement press releases routinely contain a varying amount of “cop talk” which can usually be translated into simple English by anyone who can, er, speak simple English.

Every now and then, though, a police press release arrives via FAX or e-mail that leaves us shaking our heads in bewilderment.

One such missive arrived a few weeks ago and we’re still trying to figure out exactly what it meant.

Trouble started (as it so frequently does around here) as our police reporter wandered aimlessly across the newsroom muttering to herself as she read, over and over again, a press release from a regional law enforcement agency which, to protect the innocent, shall remain nameless.

The press release dealt with one of Interstate 80’s almost daily incidents of senseless road rage, but the verbiage used to describe the incident left our law enforcement reporter at a loss for words.

“Hey, whaddya think this means?” she asked, smacking me one upside the head to get my attention.”

It says ‘One party made a verbal gesture to the other.’ I don’t get it. What’s a ‘verbal gesture’ supposed to be?” she asked.

Not wanting to get swatted again, I opined that it was “probably a gesture you make with your lips as if you’re saying something you’d like to do if you could get your hands on the other party.

“Needless to say, I almost got swatted again.

“OK, genius. Here’s another one – it says the drivers were not only making ‘verbal gestures,’ but that they were involved in ‘an apparent visual altercation.’ What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, the crumpled press release clenched in one fist.

“Ahhhhh, I think that’s where you look at each other while making verbal gestures and don’t like what you see,” I responded gamely.

My answer, apparently, wasn’t good enough, so my colleague began calling law enforcement agencies at random, hoping one of them might have a reasonable translation.

The best response she got was “Hell if I know.”

Well, I thought with a self-satisfied grin, at least people who work here at the newspaper know how to communicate without using a lot of silly buzz words. No cop talk for us, no siree. We tell it like it is.

And then one of the newspaper’s executives bustled by my desk and tossed me an invitation to a writing seminar the paper was hosting. Except it didn’t say “writing seminar” or “news workshop.” No, it said the newspaper was hosting an “Engagement & Proportionality Module.”

Like I said, no silly, er … I mean, we don’t use a lot of, ah…

Oh, maaaaannnnnn…

Originally published April 25, 2004

This was real newspapering

When the Vacaville Museum contacted me a few months ago and asked for my memories of Solano County journalism for their current exhibit “Read All About It,” I noticed a few of my newspaper cronies wincing.

It wasn’t hard to guess what was going through their fevered minds:

“Uh-oh, he’s not going to write about the, er, firetruck, is he? Or the palm tree in Judge Weir’s hot tub?”

I, of course, took the high road while reminiscing for the museum exhibit and wrote of neither of these incidents.

(Besides, I’m not all that sure about whether the statute of limitations has run out…)

The aforementioned occurrences, however, were but two small events in the celebrated history of weirdness that has traditionally permeated S’lano County journalism.

Twenty-five years ago we were all enthusiastic, idealistic and periodically rational young news dogs, ready for anything and always looking for ways to beat the competition.

The Reporter published three days a week from a 19th century Main Street office where the ceiling always leaked, the phones occasionally worked and we were frequently entertained by the antics of passing bats fluttering through the newsroom late at night.

We were a rather fluid group, living in a motley assortment of apartments, rented rooms and the occasional converted garage, most of which cannot be adequately described in the kind of language one finds in a family newspaper.

One of our temporary dwellings, however, stood out from all the rest. Located in south Vacaville, it was an outwardly unremarkable single-family dwelling that soon was dubbed “Animal House” by civilized members of our staff.

The home was occupied by a police reporter, chief photographer, news editor and sports editor, none of whom will be herein named. Suffice it to say that there are many good reasons not to name them, so we won’t.

Ah, but those were grand days. We had beer, chili and a state-of-the art fire and police scanner on the kitchen counter so that at any time of the day or night we could thunder off to cover breaking news.

Of course, there were a few preliminaries to get out of the way before we did so. First, we had to determine who was sober enough to drive. Then we had to figure out whose car would start. And find an unbroken camera. And a road map..

It was a place where anything could happen. I have vague memories of a state correctional officer, in full uniform, riding a motorcycle through the living room on Super Bowl Sunday 1982. I’m still not too clear on the particulars because somebody had had the audacity to roll me up in the living room carpet…

Then there was the dark and stormy night when the sports editor’s treacherous waterbed turned on him, pinning him to the wall until the terrified fellow could be rescued by his roommates.

On another evening, an elaborate salt water aquarium, complete with fish, mysteriously appeared by the sofa. A few days later, it just as mysteriously disappeared.

Nobody knows why.

Chaotic?

You bet.

But as we proclaimed one foggy night while pursuing a runaway beer keg through Elmira, “This, my friends, is journalism.”

Originally published April 4 2004