I met Tony on the first day of 6th grade, though we didn’t become good friends for at least a week or two. We’ve been through a lot together and separately over the years, and it amazes me to this day that we are not only still great friends but we only live four miles apart despite the fact neither of us grew up here and we moved here for different reasons.
My first job was working with Tony at his step-grandfather’s Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge. His step-grandfather was a gruff character who I preferred to avoid. I remember him hollering at Tony and me once for throwing out a bag of trash that was only three-quarters full. Apparently, we were wasting his money. Mind you, we were probably making $3.35 an hour, so at no point were we ever wasting much of his money.
Our job was to collect and launder the dirty linens and collect and dispose of the trash (but apparently only if the trash bag was completely full). It was generally mindless work, but it was fun for two high-school kids who happened to be good friends.
The job had a few small perks. In the summers we got to spend time in airconditioned rooms (which was not something I had at home), we often found discarded adult magazines when we were cleaning, and there were three decent vending machines in the lobby. For a dollar’s worth of change you could get a soda, candy bar, and package of chips. That perk got even better when we somehow discovered that instead of depositing 35 cents, you could get the product of your choice from one machine by simply depositing a nickel. I unfortunately was not around the day that Tony’s step-grandfather went on a rant about how there just wasn’t enough money in the vending machine for the amount of dispensed food.
We screwed around a lot but always got our work done on time because we were efficient. We could fold 50 sheets and 100 towels in no time at all. We made a good team.
A couple years later, Tony left for the Big Apple to attend NYU. One summer I went to visit him, and he hooked me up with a part-time job working alongside him on a judge’s reelection campaign. The pay was $10 an hour — crazy money for a college kid in the mid ’80s. People were out collecting signatures to get the judge on an upcoming ballot. Throughout the day, they would deliver reams of the collected signatures along with the signers’ addresses. Our job, as I recall, was to look these names up on the voter rolls and record their voting districts.
The job lasted less than a week. I remember it being hot outside, but the small building we sat in was relatively comfortable. There were only a handful of us there doing this particular job, and most, if not all, of our coworkers were doing the job by themselves. Tony and I realized if one person read out the names and addresses and the other person looked up the districts, we could fly through our pile of papers and then just chill until the next pile was delivered. This seemed to annoy some of our workmates who seemed to think we were just wasting time, but we didn’t care. We were doing the job we were getting paid to do. We were just working smarter, not harder.
There was one loner-type guy working there. Through the grapevine we’d heard he suffered from agoraphobia, which is the fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult and is not the fear of fuzzy sweaters. Every day this guy came to work wearing a large backpack — not the kind that kids wear today but the kind you’d wear in the 70s and 80s if you were, say, planning to hike the Appalachian Trail. At lunch time, without fail, he would remove a can of sardines from his pack, carefully clean the top with a handkerchief, peel back the lid, and chow down.
We became obsessed with this daily ritual to the point where one day after work we went to a grocery store and bought our own cans of sardines. And surprisingly, we both actually found we enjoyed them, at least for a while. My taste for them petered out after a short time, and I never looked back. I think Tony would say the same.
It was on this original quest for sardines in the canned-fish aisle of a New York City grocery store that I came upon a can with the words Jack Mackerel emblazoned on the front. If ever there was a perfect name for a dime-store detective, that was it. And so, after living rent-free in my head for nearly a decade, he finally came to be.
I’ve written a few Jack Mackerel short stories over the years. I figured it was time to drag one out and post it here. So, starting tomorrow, you’ll get part a serialized version of Jack Mackerel and the Case of the Perished Pianist. Jack and I hope you’ll return for the story.