Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Category: Uncategorized

Detective Story #13 — Of Time & Office Space

You know how it is: try to picture someone you have only talked to on the phone and when you finally meet they look nothing like the person you imagined. The nature of your surprise is different, though, when you’ve spent hours imagining a hypothetical person know you will someday meet. By the time I opened for business I had spent hours imagining as many possible first clients as I could. I imagined their faces, their bodies, their clothes, their voices, their temperaments, and the types of investigations they would carry in with them. I must have conjured thousands of clients. Maybe millions. Who makes little hashmarks every time a new variation of an old idea flashes through their mind? I’ve been a detective long enough now to have met many of the people I imagined in those early days. Or so it seems. In truth, you can never really imagine a person. You can only reconfigure memories of the people you’ve already met. And these amalgams always lack definition, like someone who is just a little too far away.

When she walked through the door I was surrounded by strips of paper. I had been working on another map and had decided to indulge a bit of fantasy, drawing scale pictures of the furniture I hoped to have in my office some day on scraps paper and arranging them on my map of the office. The exercise reminded me of a movie I had watched when I was a kid about a boy growing up poor in the Depression who cut pictures of his favorite foods out of magazines, set them on a plate, and pretended to feast.

I heard a light tapping and looked up. A woman was standing at the threshold, gently rapping the extended knuckle of her index finger against the doorjamb. A bemused smile pulled at my lips. She was nothing like I’d imagined. She was too average to imagine.  Imaginations gravitate toward the exceptional — the tall, the short, the fat, the skinny, the ugly, the beautiful — but fail to account for the ordinary. The ordinary is familiar and because it is familiar we mistake it for simplicity.  See something every day and soon you forget its complexity. We only truly notice the ordinary when it is forced upon us.

She was around average height with a face that had probably made her look older throughout her teens and twenties but now, in her early forties, made her look a bit younger (I would have guessed she was 35). She had a vague chin and thin lips that disappeared when she spoke. Her skin was fair but splotchy. She had a medium shag haircut that was tucked behind the ear on one side (left). Her black blouse drew out the sparkle from a pair of large, gold rectangular earrings. Her pumps were flesh colored (though not the color of her own flesh) and cut in a sort of lattice work design. She was apologetic and a bit embarrassed about coming in, convinced that her case was too trivial.

“Who am I to decide what’s important?” I said, hoping to set her at ease as I ushered her into a lawn chair.

“There are two coffeehouses in my neighborhood,” she began in a voice that started off resigned but became sheepish as she went on, “and most days I grab a coffee on my way to work. It’s expensive but it just tastes better than anything I’ve been able to make at home.”

I nodded and lifted the small wire-mesh recycling bin I kept behind my desk to show her the jumble of paper coffee cups it contained. She laughed.

“If the first coffeeshop looks too busy when I drive by, I just go to the other one. They both use the same coffee supplier — a local roaster — so, in theory, there shouldn’t be much of a difference. But there always is. At the first place the coffee tastes unbelievable — I must drink it two or three times faster than usual — while at the second place it’s still very good, just not quite as good. Always. Every time. It doesn’t matter who the barista is, or what time of day it is. Are they using better water? Are they brewing it longer? It doesn’t taste stronger, just . . . deeper, fuller. Anyway, you can see how ridiculous this is.”

She had come to me, she admitted, because no one else would take her case. Luckily, I had no paying clients, no money coming in, nothing at all but time and office space.

You might expect that I spent hours, even days, researching coffee — and the related techniques and equipment — before surveilling the two coffeeshops to determine what they were doing differently. When I told my brother about my first case he was surprised I hadn’t tried to get hired at both coffeeshops. I would have happily done all of this but it wasn’t necessary because I happened to know the owner of the first coffeeshop personally — we had gone to high school together — and, in her enthusiasm for her business, she had already explained why the coffee tasted better at her cafe: they pre-infused their grounds. That is, they poured hot water over the grounds to release any carbon dioxide before putting putting them in the coffeemaker. She was adamant: if you skipped this step the carbon dioxide in the dry grounds would repel water during brewing making the final product less flavorful. She was appalled by how many coffeefeelingshops skipped this step and made a point of drilling it into her employees.

When I told my client, she was stunned.
“You just happened to know that?”
I shrugged.
She reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet.
“How much do I owe you? Do you take credit cards?”
I told her there was no charge but she insisted on paying for my time.
“That would come to about a dollar,” I said.
She wrote a check for $51 — my hourly rate plus a bonus.

I never cashed it. The most important thing about her case had not been the money or the feeling of validation or even the triviality of the matter she asked me to investigate — it had been her embarrassment. She had been turned down by other agencies — four of them, in fact — and yet she had kept asking. I was lucky she had come through my door at all. How many people had been turned down by a more established agency and given up, resolving to live with some unanswered question? How many more had never bothered to ask, had simply ruled themselves out?

After she left I sat and looked at the check she had given me and tried to settle on a criteria for the kinds of investigations I would accept. There are plenty of valid reasons to turn down an investigation — ethical reasons, logistical reasons — but as I tried to imagine declining a case based on merit, I found only my own values and preferences. Overcoming preconceptions was one of the main reasons I had decided to succumb to family tradition and become a detective. So, I said again, this time to myself: who was I to decide what was important enough to investigate?

The next morning I put a new ad in the newspaper and changed the language on my web site:

NADIE FARRAGO, DETECTIVE
NO MYSTERY TOO SM
BRING ME YOUR UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
LIFE IS A MYSTERY AND YOUR CASE IS THE NEXT CLUE
REASONABLE RATES

My father and any number of well-meaning colleagues advised me against this direction. The industry standard was for small agencies to narrow their focus and specialize while large agencies divided themselves into departments that basically did the same thing. It was one thing to accept “minor” cases when business was slow but to actively seek them out was seen as demeaning to the profession. The phrasing of my ad offended them as well. Referring to myself as a “detective” rather than a “private investigator” (or, better still, simply as an “investigator”) was considered old-fashioned, my use of the word “mystery”  amateurish and vague. But vague was what I wanted. I wanted to appeal to people who had mysteries in their lives, people who were baffled or bewildered or simply curious — not just people who were worried that their spouse was cheating or that their employees were stealing.

There’s an old adage among detectives that clients desperately want an answer until they hear it. Like most adages, it’s absolutely true part of the time. I’ve had plenty of clients who are grateful, even relieved, to receive my results. Quite a few are bemused. Still, true to the adage, many of my clients — probably a third, give or take — are disappointed. What came as a surprise (to me, at least) is the number of clients who are irritated, even angry. The angriest make wild, peevish accusations, or even refuse to pay.  Some seem to be angry because they feel the solution was something they should have figured out for themselves, but many, I suspect, feel cheated because gaining an answer has cost them a mystery. I rarely press the issue and often, after a few weeks or months, I’ll receive an apologetic phone call or a remorseful note with a check enclosed for the full amount.

If a client doesn’t pay, though, I make no effort to collect. It’s not worth the time and effort. Besides, the clients bring mysteries with them but they are also a mystery themselves. They come to me with some question they hope I can help them answer but the mystery they secretly, unknowingly, want me to solve is the unanswerable mystery of their selves. When I look at it that way how could I ever expect a client to be satisfied?

 

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Happy Bloomsday! ReJoyce!

Happy Bloomsday! What am I talking about? Bloomsday is a celebration of Ulysses, James Joyce’s modern epic of everyday life, which takes place on June 16, 1904. Bloomsday is named for the novel’s main character, Leopold Bloom, a modern-day Odysseus who echoes that Homeric hero’s long journey home as he strolls the streets of Dublin.

Ulysses was published on 2 February 1922, Joyce’s birthday, but the impulse to celebrate the novel on June 16th seems to have been immediate (in a 1924 letter Joyce mentions “a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day—June 16”). In 1954 a group that included two Irish writers (novelist Flann O’Brien and poet Patrick Kavanagh) inaugurated the intention (if not the practice) of celebrating Bloomsday by retracing Bloom’s journey across Dublin and re-enacting events from the book—ultimately they settled for accomplishing the equally Joycean feat of getting drunk in a pub. In the ensuing decades, though, those intentions have been realized by Joyce admirers the world over in the form of festivals, walking tours, public readings, radio broadcasts, informal gatherings, and countless tributes on social media.

The Bloomsday Project is my own contribution. Beginning with Episode 1 in 2006, I have paid tribute to Ulysses every Bloomsday, one chapter at a time, by posting an excerpt prefaced by my own commentary and observations. My goal is to share some of the pleasures of Ulysses with family, friends, and whoever else might find their way here. All of my previous Bloomsday posts can be found in the archives.

This year we dip into the one-eyed world of Episode 12: the Cyclops.

Detective Story #10—Terra Cognita

On days like today—lazy, quiet, empty days that settle like dust in corners—I can’t help but think of my teachers.

Professor Lu began the first lecture of his Business of Detection class by saying, “When you first open for business, you’ll have all the solitude you can bear. Waiting for that first client to come through the door is a unique form of loneliness. No matter how much confidence you have, no matter how carefully you have prepared, it will feel as though your success has become concentrated on the question of whether or not someone will discover a small point in space that only you know exists. You will feel powerless. Which is why this period of solitude and emptiness is the ideal time to start an investigation.”

The students, many of them still settling into their seats, fell into awkward silence. Professor Lu was elderly and during those first few classes many of us assumed (partly due to misinformation spread, with his encouragement, by former students) that he was a bit senile. “Investigating what?” some student asked, trying to conceal her irritation. Professor Lu looked perplexed. Later, after watching him deliver this same lecture many times, I came to see that this was all teacherly theater. After a pause he said: “Your next case, of course.” Slipping into the gentle condescension young people often use with the elderly, another student asked if it didn’t make more sense to wait for a specific client to arrive in order to avoid making assumptions. Professor Lu shrugged, saying, “What are you waiting for, exactly?” Then, in the tone of a man quoting himself, he went on: “All of life hangs together in once piece, everything is connected with everything else. Don’t you already have enough to get started? Don’t you always have enough to get started?”

His method was simple. We should sit in our bare offices and investigate whatever came to mind: “Spread your thoughts as wide as you can and dive as deep as possible.”

“Spread wide and dive deep,” a male student said in a lewd stage whisper.

Professor Lu didn’t acknowledge the joke but he didn’t ignore it either. With the timing of a comedian he held his delivery until the brief spell of tittering subsided. He showed no sign of disapproval or annoyance, only a gentle, subtle generosity that demonstrated his point: a skilled investigator allows for everything. “Start your investigation before your client comes through the door and you’ll already have some clues.”

He was right. There were many empty days when I first went into business, days when I had nothing but myself and the world around me to investigate—so that’s what I did. As if it were no small thing. At first, I stood at my casement windows and fixed my gaze towards Chao’s Restaurant across the street; watching the customers come and go, watching the passers-by pass by. It was too much. So I turned around and looked at my own office. I investigated everything that came to mind; every inch of the room around me. At least that’s how it felt at the time, though I’ve come to see how superficial those investigations actually were. Still, when my first client finally showed up—a middle-aged man trying to remember a pun he had thought of the previous day and then forgotten—I found that I already had some leads.

I also think of Professor Arkpafisto. I still listen to my recordings of her Art of Investigation lectures: “The unknown begins with the known. Think of old maps with large zones of empty space labeled Terra Incognita. Why in the world would a map include uncharted territory? What purpose can this serve? I can’t speak to what those old cartographers were thinking but I believe there is a beauty in marking the transition between the known and the unknown, in conceding that knowledge is bounded on all sides by frontiers of ignorance. Why does this matter to us? Because a detective is an explorer in the terra incognita of other people’s lives. When a new client first steps into your office you know nothing about them or their situation. Which begs the question: why do clients seek the assistance of someone who knows less about their problem than they do? Remember: people don’t hire detectives because of what they know—they hire us because we are comfortable navigating within the unknown. And that comfort only comes with practice.”

So, on empty days like this one, I chart the terra cognita of my office. I do this to prepare and to combat boredom—not only in the moment, but generally. If you see life and the world around you as a mystery, boredom is impossible. The flat, static, familiar objects you believe you already know become clues leading infinitely outward.

For a long time I worked with lists. I picked a spot in the office that felt unfamiliar and stood there, clipboard in hand, while I wrote out an inventory of every item in my office. I reflected on each item, considering where it came from, how long I had owned it, what purpose it served, until I became intrigued by some idea or question. Then I tried to follow that idea or question wherever it might lead, for as long as possible. It was rare for me to work through the entire inventory. Usually I became engrossed by a particular item. On one memorable occasion I got no further than my clipboard. Regardless, the process was time-consuming and resulted in some expensive phone bills and convoluted browser histories. But it worked: my metal filing cabinet lead me to the life of Sir Francis Bacon; my aspidistra directed me to a history of Japanese Bento boxes; the glass ashtray I keep as a decoration (smoking has never been allowed in my building) resulted in my reading a biography of Anton Chekhov; the armrests on my couch took me to the Levant States and the history of French Colonialism, while the upholstery pointed me to special effects in theatre. And, over the years, those same items have taken me in dozens of other directions.

Gradually, my interest shifted, became less literal. The inventory became an annotated list. Then I annotated my annotations. The objects were forgotten in favor of the list itself. Word-by-word, I consulted my reference books, noting each definition and listing synonyms. Using an X-Acto blade like a scalpel, I extracted each word, then sat at my desk and rearranged the cut-out slivers into poems and horoscopes. I made enlargements of each word so I could cut out individual letters to make new words; I made anagrams and palindromes. It wasn’t long before working with text began to feel too abstract and I shifted my focus back to objects. With the graphite pencils I had left over from my art course at the Academy, I made small line drawings on index cards of each object in my office. One day I laid these sketches side by side on my desk and stepped back to look at them. Laid out at random they looked like puzzle pieces and when I began to rearrange the cards to reflect the layout of the room, I saw that I had the beginnings of a map.

So now, on empty days, I draw maps of my office and annotate them. The maps have evolved—are evolving. The first maps were little more than floor plans with lists attached. As I’ve slowly taught myself to draw and paint, what began as an attempt to itemize a room and its contents has become an investigation in itself. With each map, I explore both the contents of the room and my experience of it. With pencil and ink I record the facts of the room and with brush and color I try to capture some of its essence.

Today:  


Note: Three mottos hang on the walls of my office. The most prominent, which I have already mentioned several times, hangs directly behind me: “Life is a mystery and these are the clues.” The second also hangs on the wall behind me but it is much smaller and less prominently placed.  They are Professor Lu’s words: “It’s all one case.” The third (and longest) motto hangs on a small patch of the opposite side of the room, blocked from view by the office door whenever it is open. This motto, a quotation my brother found and had printed and framed, is just for me:

Mystery is in the morning, and mystery in the night, and the beauty of mystery
is everywhere; but still the truth remains, that mouth and purse must be filled.


—Mark Winsome

*       *      *

Acknowledgements: For making Nadie’s map a reality, my sincere thanks to Acey Toothypegs, beloved sister and dearest friend. Lovely as it is, this map only hints at her creative talents. Take a moment to explore Acey’s work at www.toothypegsart.com.

Detective Story #11 – The Complemental Op

“Can I count on your discretion?”

His first words. Even before he introduced himself.

Not that an introduction was necessary. I already knew his name — we all did. He was a legend. 

This was my first time seeing him up close. His figure was slight but he didn’t seem small. He seemed economical: absent any extraneous details. His pants were perfectly cut; pressed without looking too crisp. His cream colored shirt looked so comfortable I wanted to wear it. His shoes were worn but clean and well-maintained.

I tilted an open hand toward the two chairs in front of my desk, a vague gesture that seemed to imply he was welcome to sit in both chairs simultaneously. He took a step forward but didn’t sit down right away. Instead he stood between the chairs, the fingers of his left hand grazing padded upholstery. 

I nodded.
“I prefer vocal confirmation,” he said. “I’m sure you understand.”

He waited, his body not so much still as it was neutral, like a car: engine running, gears disengaged.

“Yes, of course,” I said in a clear, deliberate voice. “You can absolutely rely on my honoring the code of confidentiality between detective and client.”

“Thank you,” he said. Then his body flowed into motion, stepping between the chairs, then easing himself into the chair on the right. Standing still he had seemed light on his feet but in motion he was so graceful that his movements nearly escaped notice. 

“How can I help you?” I asked, sitting back in my chair.

“I’m working on the wrong case,” he said.

I resisted the urge to nod. Most clients need to feel that I understand their problem right away and a quick nod, even if it is a little premature, can help. This situation called for something different. He was a veteran detective. I had studied several of his cases, attended his lectures. No professional tricks: that was the best way to proceed.

I opened my mouth to ask what he meant but he stopped me by raising a finger.

“I have several active cases. High-priority, paying cases. I have operatives helping me, of course, but there is an expectation — a perfectly reasonable expectation — that I will attend to each investigation personally, if not fully. My operatives are not intended to act as surrogates for me, they are surrogates for my time. They allow me to conduct more investigations than would otherwise be possible. Recently, however, I have become distracted by what I have come to realize is another case, a non-paying case.”

Now I nodded. This was a situation I could understand. 

“Do you know why I became a detective?” He asked.
I shook my head and said nothing. I make it a rule to never answer rhetorical questions.

“I became a detective,” he said, “because I wanted to see the sadness in all things.”

I raised my eyebrows. Many detectives leave the profession because they find it too depressing. We spend most of our time in the double darkness of our clients’ uncertainty and our own. Guiding people through the mysteries in their lives can be disheartening. I had never heard a detective cite sadness as their reason for joining the profession. No wonder he was such a natural.

“When I started out I understood my motivations quite differently,” he continued after a pause. “Over time I’ve come to better understand my own impulses. I thought I was seeking truth and beauty and all that abstract, philosophical silliness. But all I really wanted was to find the sadness that lies at the heart of some things and covers the rest like a veneer. Sadness is the truth and beauty of this life: it is the vessel of beauty and the marrow of truth; what isn’t born of sadness ends in sadness — and there is much that is sad through and through.”

I nodded, noting the melancholy his words had triggered in me. Sadness was the core, the marrow, of life. How any times had I been on the verge of having this same, lovely realization?

“And how do you find it?” I asked.

The question seemed to surprise him and he smiled. 

“It’s about how you approach cases, how you approach witnesses and clues.” He paused, then went on: “I’m sure you’ve already figured this out — that’s why I’ve come to you — but many of our colleagues approach everyone and everything they come across with so-called skepticism. Everyone is a liar until their story checks out, every clue might have been planted until you can confirm to your satisfaction that it wasn’t, every suspect is guilty until you have determined that they’re not (and even then they’re still guilty of something else). Tiresome nonsense. Skepticism is a fine approach for science but it makes for a hollow way of life. And, like living, investigation is an art. Each case is a work of art. The crime, if there is one, is a work of art, and so is our investigation.”

“And you don’t see a place for skepticism in approaching a work of art?”

“Of course not.” He said. “Art requires openness, a willingness to overcome your point of view. Skepticism, or what people call skepticism, is usually a withdrawing into one’s point of view based on the assumption that what has worked in the past is all the truth there is to find. We’re all chauvinists and if art has any value it’s enabling us to see and understand another point of view. Too often skepticism is an extension of anxiety. We fear being wrong, so we hedge our bets by being skeptical of everything — which usually just means being unwilling to accept the value of a new idea. Frankly, what most detectives characterize as their skepticism is only cynicism. Challenging and questioning during an investigation should open doors not close them. The jaded, trust-no-one, hard-boiled persona is a product of ego and there’s no place for ego in this busines.”

“That’s true,” I nodded. “Is that why you’re here?” I asked trying to bring the conversation back into focus. “Because your ego has gotten in the way of a case?”

“Not exactly. At least, I don’t think so. I’m here because I want you to investigate me and how I’m investigating a case.”

I raised my eyebrows again.

“I can see potential confidentiality issues. Has your client given his or her authority for this — or would I be retained as one of your operatives?”

“It’s not like that,” he said. “As I said, this is a non-paying case. In truth, this is a case without a client. No one has hired me, I’m not being paid, so there is no expectation of confidentiality.”

I waited.

“You use silence well,” he said, smiling. “I’ll explain.”

He lowered his eyes for a moment. 

“There is a hot dog vendor in front of my building. He’s been there for years. We’ve been on a first name basis for most of that time. He’s friendly and amiable and moves easily between conversations with his various customers. I’ve spoken briefly with him about the weather, sports, politics — all the standard, casual topics. I’ve also spoken with him about life, death, spirituality, philosophy, aesthetics. We’ve had chats that lasted twenty seconds and others that lasted twenty minutes. Lately, however — for about the last six weeks — I’ve been unable to focus on my work because of an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with him. We talk for long periods of time, sometimes more than an hour. I order a hot dog, we talk, then I wait when other people order and he and I continue talking whenever there is a lull or whenever he is able to do his job while also conversing with me. Sometimes I do most of the talking but sometimes I just listen. Increasingly, time I should be spending on my investigations is spent talking to this hot dog vendor. Whenever our conversations end, I feel a real sense of regret and often find myself going over them in my head, rehashing what each of us has said and rehearsing what I’ll say next time.”

“And you say this has been a single, ongoing conversation for the past six weeks?”

“For the most part, yes.”

“May I ask what the conversation is about?”

“It doesn’t matter.” He said and shrugged. “Besides, you’ll find out soon enough.”

I agreed to take his case. We spent fifteen or twenty minutes discussing terms. He wanted to waive the customary rate reduction within the trade but I was unwilling to charge my full rate to a colleague. After some pleasant back and forth we agreed that I would receive part of my payment in future referrals.
I expected him to leave after we had signed the contracts but once he had returned my pen and clipboard he settled back into his chair.

“Before I leave, I have a request.”

“Yes?”

“Whenever I work with another detective I ask them to tell me the Parable of the Assassin — I assume you know it?”

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve heard and read it many times. At the Academy, of course, and from my father before that.”

“Tell it to me,” he said, gently.

I took a deep breath and then began. 

Happy Bloomsday! ReJoyce!

Happy Bloomsday! What am I talking about? Bloomsday is a celebration of Ulysses, James Joyce‘s modern epic of everyday life, which takes place on June 16, 1904. Bloomsday is named for the novel’s main character, Leopold Bloom, a modern-day Odysseus who echoes that Homeric hero’s long journey home as he strolls the streets of Dublin.

Ulysses was published on 2 February 1922, Joyce’s birthday, but the impulse to celebrate the novel on June 16th seems to have been immediate (in a 1924 letter Joyce mentions “a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day—June 16”). In 1954 a group that included two Irish writers (novelist Flann O’Brien and poet Patrick Kavanagh) inaugurated the intention (if not the practice) of celebrating Bloomsday by retracing Bloom’s journey across Dublin and re-enacting events from the book—ultimately they settled for accomplishing the equally Joycean feat of getting drunk in a pub. In the ensuing decades, though, those intentions have been realized by Joyce admirers the world over in the form of festivals, walking tourspublic readings, radio broadcasts, informal gatherings, and countless tributes on social media.

The Bloomsday Project is my own contribution. Beginning with Episode 1 in 2006, I have paid tribute to Ulysses every Bloomsdayone chapter at a time, by posting an excerpt prefaced by my own commentary and observations. My goal is to share some of the pleasures of Ulysses with family, friends, and whoever else might find their way here. All of my previous Bloomsday posts can be found in the archives.

haiku

The cherry blossoms
billow softly in the breeze
like flakes of pink snow.

Another Poem?

He remembers dim and darker days
As a child sprawled on the floor,
Ringing ochre carpet stains
(With plastic men of war).

He thought sometimes about the world
Whose walls loomed wide and huge
Whose popcorn ceilings capped the sky
(By keeping it from view).

The world beyond the window frame
Was far too broad to see
So he made his memories with miniatures
(And made them quietly).

Life’s spaces have grown larger
But the toys have grown to scale
And a world still waits beyond the walls
(Where he still fears to fail).

Aphorisms

Never trust someone who won’t lend you a book.

I don’t believe in trickle down economics but I do believe in trickle down aesthetics.

Nothing is more easily warped than love.

Originality is inevitable. So is plagiarism.

Title For A Stoner Buddy Movie

Bromancing the Stoned

Moments (1)

While reading a biography he came across the Latin motto Larvatus Prodeu. The phrase was translated as “I go forth disguised” but he misread it as “I go forth disgusted.”