There are sitting there, these Action Line reporters at their Action Line Reporters Association convention, like the panelist on a game show, playing can-you-top-this, reminiscing about some of the weirder letters they have received.
Here's the first toss-up category: Winos.
Flowers, Houston Chronicle.
"Okay, how about this one?" Dave Flowers says. He writes an Action Line column called "Watch 'Em." (Presumably the follow-up columns might be called "Catch 'Em," then, "Hang 'Em.") Flowers speaks: "I got this letter from a wino in the Star Hope Mission. He was making five bucks a shot selling his blood, and he was mad because the wino next to him was getting 25 bucks a shot because his blood type was so rare. So our man writes us -- 'Can I change my blood type?'"
Cynthia Bercowetz likes that one.
"Now that's weird," she says.
So's this. Cynthia is "george," in the "Tell it to George" Action Line column in the Journal-Inquirer in Manchester, Conn. She is the original George, 16 years worth. "You know how everybody's always saying, 'Let George do it,'" she says, explaining the origin of the nom-de-plume. "For 10 years they tried to protect my identity. I'd go on television wearing a mask, a big purple mask with a feather coming out one of the ear holes."
"Now that's wierd," Flowers says. "That's really weird."
Toss-up category: Bugs.
"Once I got one from a woman who went to a fancy restaurant in our area and found a dead roach in her pie. Another time I got this insect in a letter, you know, all squashed. And the question is -- What kind of bug is this? I mean, how should I know?"
"You get bugs in the mail?" Dick Christian asks.
"Doesn't everybody?" Cynthia wants to know.
Toss-up category: Dead body.
Christian, Buffalo Evening News.
"You want to hear a wierd letter? I got a wierd letter," says Dick Christian ("just like the religion"). He writes an Action Line column called "News Power." They put his picture alongside it. Ever since they started doing that, he says, he has noticed a severe drop-off in romantic letters.
"I got this one from a woman whose husband had died in Florida, and she had paid to get the body shipped to Buffalo for a proper burial right? So after a week or so she still doesn't have the body. She writes me a letter, and I make a quick phone call to the State Police. It turns out that the body fell off a truck near Albany. We got it recovered that day and set it to her in one piece. That's action."
This whole convention is kind of wierd. Maybe not quite as wierd as a morticians convention, or a convention of bowling taxidermists, but when 75 members of the Action Line Reporters Association meet for three days at the Key Bridge Marriott, you've got to consider the possibilities. What if all their luggage gets lost? What if their rooms aren't clean, if their tour bus breaks down? There people get action. Their patron saint is St. Geraldo. They are not to be messed with.
In a few papers Action Line columns generate more mail than any feature other than Ann Landers or Dear Abby; Tom Sheridan of the Chicago Sun-Times says his column draws 1,500 letters a week. Most letters complain about rip-offs. Automotive; governmental; mail order; home improvement; utility companies. Then there are the letters about leaky faucets, cats stuck in trees, a traffic light that doesn't work or gypsies who take the $150 down payment and your autographed picture of Cher but never come back to repave your driveway. Action Line handles all kinds of consumer complaints.
Francis Scot Key: "Oh, say, can you see?"
Action Line: "Yes, I can. But if you can't, I can give you the name of a reputable ophthalmologist."
This is their second annual convention. Last year's was held in Corning, N.Y., sponsored by Corning Glass. The highlight of that convention was the non-appearance by Esther Peterson, the president's special assistant for Consumer Affairs. She failed to give her speech because she was bumped off her commerical flight to Corning, thus winning the Ralph Nader Passengers Who Go Bump in the Night award. This convention is sponsored by American Express. This year, even if she had been stuck in Gary, Ind., she could have called up anywhere in the world and charged theater tickes with her American Express card.
Conventions are conventions. A lot of meetings. A lot of seminars. A lot of speeches. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D.-Ohio), who was paid an honorarium of $500 by American Express, gave the keynote address. Rep. James Scheuer (D-N.Y.), gave the luncheon speech on Monday. But one of the best speeches was given by Action Line reporter Bernice Jay, who chaired a seminar on "Mail Order Brainstorming." She posed this question: "Say you bought 1,000 rolls of toilet paper just so you could send in the quality tags plus $7.98 to get a free color TV. Then they run out of TVs and they send you your $7.98 back. What the hell are you going to do with 1,000 rolls of toilet paper?"
Action Line: "Take two and hit the right?"
Although many hard news reporters consider the resident Action Line reporter little more than a lightweight, the Federal Trade Commission thought enough of this convention to send its directer of public information, Frank Pollock, to speak at the Monday luncheon, and Pollock encouraged all 75 reporters to send him everything they write, and to call him -- at home, in the middle of the night if necessary -- whenever they have a problem getting action. The days are gone when a Dave Flowers has to go to his editor at the Houston Ghronicle and complain. "It seems everything I do is such soft stuff."
Action Line can go for the throat.
"It's a good feeling when you finally get enough stuff on a neighborhood rip-off artist to bust him," says Dick Christian. "When you get one of those schlocky guys off the street and into the can."
Toss-up category: Twilight zone.
Christian, Buffalo Evening News.
"I've got someone I call The Spaceship Lady," Christian says. "A lady from Orchard Park, just outside Buffalo, who writes long, lucid letters. But somewhere around page two or three she starts talking about getting zapped at 3 a.m. by the men from the spaceship that hovers over her house. She always tells me not to bother telling the mayor because he's in on the plot."
"Yeah," says Flowers. "I got a Microwave Lady. For two years she stayed inside her house because no place else was safe. And even in her house she was sure her brain was being fried by a microwave oven down the block."
Toss-up category: You, you're the one.
"I got one from a boy who had falled in live with one of the grils on a McDonald's commerical. He wanted to know her name. Well, I finally got in touch with McDonalds at the corporate headquarters. They sent me a letter that said that while 'McDonald's believes in love' they couldn't give out the girls's name. They didn't even send the kid a Big Mac."
Toss-up category: Worms.
Griffith, Greensboro Record.
"I got one from a man who'd ordered 5,000 worms through the mail order," said Linda Griffith, an Action Line columnist in Greensboro, N.C. "After six weeks he still hadn't gotten his worms. The worm farm said is shipped them by UPS, so that meant there were 5,000 worms stuck somewhere in the system.
When the worms finally got there, most of them were already dead. The man was doubly angry because there were only 1,700 worms. He knew because he had his wife count them."
Toss-up category: Priorities.
Griffith, Greensboro Record.
"This wasn't a letter. This came in on our telephone line. A middle-aged man called because he as concerned about the fact that most of his meaningful relationships were with homosexual men. He felt he was a homosexual, too. I asked what his problem was. He said, 'I'd like to quit smoking.'"
Action Line: "Always light your cigaretts while under a cold shower." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Geo. Price; Copyright (c) 1977, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.