The book was mid-level old. Yellowing paper and intermittent water stains from a less than cautious past library patron. The cover was wearing, the spine shifting back and forth, back and forth in my hand.
It was a scuffed brick-red, featureless but for some printing on that shifting spine in what was once gold, aged over time to brass.
“Cream of the Crime,” the spine read. “Mystery Writers of America Anthology.”
The Case of the Weird Shirt
There are mysteries in the world of course. Crimes and dismay, scandals unhinged by shady witnesses met in dark alleys or by a touch of blood where there shouldn’t be.
I once covered a murder trial where a key bit of evidence was a footprint.
But the public doesn’t see those, mostly. We aren’t pushed into situations where our untested wit and pluck are the only things that can unravel a chain of cause and effect. We don’t go to spooky mansions, bleak moors or gay soirees. We will never have Holmes’ logic, Marple’s keen eye, Whimsey’s whimsy or Encyclopedia Brown’s random-ass trivia knowledge.
So we read about them. In early ’60s anthology collections picked up from libraries and checked out by women in weird public radio T-shirts.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, smiling at the question. “My husband got it for me.”
She was older, maybe in her 50s, and looked down as she smiled. It was a slow, kind smile that started in the middle and pulled outward.
The shirt was black with blue writing advertising a radio station with call letters I had never seen. It said it was a progressive workers’ station or somesuch.
“He knows I like cool T-shirts,” she said. “He came home and said, ‘Here you go,’ and handed it to me. ‘It’s your favorite color,’ he said. Because he knows I like blue.”
I left her smiling and looking down. I left her thinking about the husband who knows her favorite color.
The Case of Gideon Welles
A Rex Stout, a Margery Allingham, a John Dickson Carr, two beers and a hamburger later, I sat in the shade.
It was the outdoor area of a bar I’ve been to before, although the menu has changed. Hidden by potted plants and shaded from above by long-branched trees covering the poorly named Sunnyside Avenue, the outdoor area allowed food, conversation and overheard cheers and bat-cracks from the Little League game in Welles Park, adjacent.
The waitress ran ragged.
She was youngish, maybe late 20s or early 30s. She had long, brown hair pulled into a ponytail. Her pretty face was showing the first signs of the puffing that will be her fate, just like my face is starting to see the sagging that will be mine.
She moved from table to table in the outdoor area, delivering food and beverage and perfect recitations of the specials perfect, perfect, perfect cheery professionalism.
She was the only server covering the outdoor area.
I got the bill. The name at the top was “Gideon Welles.” That’s not what the bar is called. I asked.
“We’re changing our name on Sunday,” she said. “Gideon Welles is who Welles Park is named after.”
“New owners?” I deduced.
“Yes,” she said.
“I guessed so because the menu was all different,” I said, astounding her with my deduction.
“Yeah,” she said, looking over to see if the next table needed water.
We talked a maybe 10, 20 seconds, which is a long conversation when a busy server is involved. We covered the date the sale went through, when the name change happens, what she thinks of it all, the like.
“You seem excited about it,” I said.
She smiled perkily and said, “Yes, I am.”
She left to do her job. She left thinking about the new beginning ahead.
The Case of Sign Language
Book, beer, burger. Now bike.
I pedaled home, looking at the other mysteries around me. The Case of ‘How’s That Other Biker at the Red Light Doing?’ (Solution: Good.) The Case of ‘Is That Driver an Asshole?’ (Solution: Yes.) The Case of ‘How Did That Nerdy Looking Guy End Up With That Girl? Because, Frankly, Nice Work There, Buddy.’ (Solution: Unknown, due to a sudden onslaught of detective politeness.)
And finally, The Case of ‘Why Are They Changing That Sign?’
There’s a bar on Damen I’ve never seen anyone in. By a fire station, in a residential neighborhood, I’ve seen that place go through two names. Now it had none, just a cantilevered light box exposing bulbs next to a rickety ladder.
On the ground, a stocky young guy in a T-shirt and jam-length shorts wiped off a sign blaring the first name, the one abandoned long ago. I asked.
“Changing the name,” he said.
“New owners?” I deduced.
“No,” he said. “The chef left. He wanted it called _____ when he was here, but now that he’s gone the owner wanted to go back to _____.”
I thanked him.
“Thank you for asking,” he said sincerely, continuing his work.
That’s the solution, I guess. That’s why there are no mysteries for most of us. There are secrets, of course. And there are unknowns. But for most of what the daily world offers – radio shirts, name changes, emotional states and cooks – the answer is there for the asking.
I left thinking about the book in my bag and about the mysteries it offers.