One morning along about two bells, my body is in front of my video display terminal trying to finish a column, but my mind is at Mindy's restaurant ordering a hot pastrami on rye.
The problem with finishing the column is I wish to include in it an anecdote about a piece of solid advice that Damon Runyon's old man gives him, but our library at The Washington Post does not have a collection of Damon Runyon short stories, so I cannot look it up to quote it right.
I do not know who picks the books for our library, but on the evidence it looks like six, two and even that he is some kind of green pea in the library business. What kind of newspaper reference room can you have with nothing but books on history, music, art, government, sociology, economics, biography and language, but no collection of Runyon short stories?
I call up my better half and tell her on exactly which shelf she will find my copy of "The Damon Runyon Omnibus." She says she knows where it is, and she asks me which story do I want her to look up?
I tell her I do not know which story it is in, what I want is the story that includes the old man's advice on what to do when a guy wants to bet you he can make the jack of spades jump up out of a deck of cards.
She says to me, "You have to be kidding," she says. "There must be 40 or 50 stories in that collection and you want me to read through all of them until I find that particular one?" she says. "Do you want me to have dinner ready for you when you get home or do you want me to spend two hours reading Damon Runyon stories?"
I tell her to forget it. I can just paraphrase the story from memory, as it is well known to one and all and around and about that at age 68 a man's memory is just reaching the peak of it's acuity.
The next day at work, Rotten Bob tells me I am all wrong about the Runyon story. He says to me, "It is the jack of diamonds, not spades," he says, "and it does not just spit, it spits cider."
I shrug and explain to him, "So I make a mistake," I say. "What can I do when I am forced by circumstances to work for a paper that cannot afford a collection of Damon Runyon stories in its library?"
When the pain of knowing that I louse up a classic story dies down, a letter arrives from R. A. Ratti of Rockville, a gent I do not ever remember seeing at any race track or even up and down the main stem. Ratti says to me in the letter that the anecdote I garble is in the Runyon short story "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown," and he sends me a photostat of the pertinent portion of same.
It is about a guy whose right name is Obadiah Masterson. He is known to one and all as The Sky because he goes so high in betting on any proposition whatever.
Runyon's words are: "The Sky tells me that when he finally cleans up all the loose scratch around his home town and decides he needs more room, his old man has a little private talk with him and says to him like this:
"'Son,' the old guy says, 'you are now going out into the wide, wide world to make your own way, and it is a very good thing to do, as there are no more opportunities for you in this burg. I am only sorry,' he says, 'that I am not able to bankroll you to a very large start, but,' he says, 'not having any potatoes to give you, I am now going to stake you to some very valuable advice, which I personally collect in my years of experience around and about, and I hope and trust you will always bear this advice in mind.
"'Son,' the old guy says, 'no matter how far you travel, or how smart you get, always remember this: Some day, somewhere,' he says, 'a guy is going to show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is never broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that the jack of spades will jump out of this deck and squirt cider in your ear. But son,' the old guy says, 'do not bet him, for as sure as you do, you are going to get an ear full of cider.'"
Ratti says to me, "I think Runyon says it better than you do," he says, and I agree. I also concede that I forget about the cider when I repeat the story from memory. But you can tell Rotten Bob for me that one mistake I never make is to confuse a jack of spades with a jack of diamonds. If he does not know the difference, I would like to have him on a slow boat to China. Just tell him to bring money.