The Most Frightening Thing. Ever.

It’s Halloween weekend. We’re writers, and we do stories. It’s story time. So tell me: what is the most frightening thing that ever happened to you?

I have a number of candidates from which to choose. When I was a kid I walked into a spider web with my mouth open when the owners were home and accidentally swallowed one. It didn’t give me spider powers but I was crawling walls for weeks. I was almost carjacked in the French Quarter a few years ago. Sobriety and a 9 mm. enabled me to put a stop to that. I was almost robbed in the French Quarter at midnight, walking toward Bourbon from North Rampart on St. Ann Street, with the same result as the attempted carjacking for the same reason. The one incident that stands head and shoulders above the others, however, occurred when I was but a wee lad of twenty-one years of age in San Francisco.

I was a FM radio DJ at the time — it was too much fun to call a “job” — and one of the perks was that it enabled me to meet any number of attractive women. One of the most attractive was a Chinese woman who we will call “Mei.” I was smitten with her, in great part, alas, because she was able to tutor my body in ways that it has not been schooled before or since. There was one problem — there is always at least one — and that was that Mei’s brother, who we will call “Max,” was the leader of one of the Tong youth auxiliaries. The fact that his sister was dating a white man did not sit well with him. This bit of information was communicated to me one afternoon when I walked out of Tower Records on Bay Street and found Max and a few of his friends waiting for me. He told me that I wasn’t able to see his sister anymore. Being young and full of myself, I told him to perform an impossible anatomical act and walked away. I mean, I was on FM radio. What was he going to do? Kick my ass?

The answer to that question was a definite “yes.” That evening, I mc’d a concert at a new, small music club on the edge of North Beach, on Columbus Avenue just off of Broadway. The concert was an unmitigated disaster, an event in itself that I may describe another time. For our purposes, let it be known that after a number of small near-riots the show concluded at 2:45 am. I stumbled out of the club and onto Columbus Avenue, took a couple of steps, and noticed Max and a somewhat larger group of friends about ten feet away. I did what anyone would do. I panicked and started running down Broadway, toward the tunnel.
I had reached the tunnel mouth and thought I was in the clear when I heard shouting behind me. I threw a glance over my shoulder without slowing down and saw a group of figures running toward me. Max. And his friends. I picked up the pace — I weighed exactly half of what I weigh now — and pounded through the tunnel on the pedestrian walkway. I frequently used the walkway to get from my apartment on Russian Hill to get to North Beach and knew that there was an emergency phone about halfway down the tunnel. This was before the days of cell phones and 911 and even cordless phones, mind you, so this emergency phone was quite innovative. Pick it up and take it off its cradle, legend had it, and police would come. I never found out. As I approached the phone, I saw the cardboard sign underneath it, bearing the professionally lettered legend “OUT OF ORDER.” An unnamed but aspiring comedian had scrawled an admonition in crayon right below those words: “RUN FAST.”

I started crying. And kept running. I thought of my parents and my friends and women that I loved and that I intended to and my dog in Ohio and knew I would never see any of them again because these guys were going to catch me and kill me. That was their reputation, something which had seemed quite remote when I saw them on Bay Street, a painting of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin on the wall behind us. And I wasn’t quite as full of myself as I had been earlier that day, if you catch my drift. I ran faster than I ever had in my life. I came out the other end of the tunnel and turned left, ducking into an area known then and now as the Tenderloin. It was and is a colorful but horrible place, a spider’s nest of the crazed and the drugged, where pain is the chief currency and waking up intact in the morning is a victory. I ran down alleys and tripped over sleeping, God-forsaken souls and in a sudden fit of genius hid in a trash dumpster until morning. I spent three days on the streets, Turk and Eddy and Larkin and some alleys I’ve forgotten the name of. On the third day I happened to see a friend coming out of an adult book store and approached him and told him what was going on. He had a little street influence. He got to Max and communicated my apologies and assurances that I wouldn’t see his sister anymore. I was permitted to resume the life I had been living, or a semblance of it. But things had changed. And not all for the better.

I moved back to Ohio a month later and started law school. I have no idea what happened to Max or Mei, or if we would recognize each other if we were to have an accidental, casual encounter on the street. I still have dreams about running through the Broadway Tunnel, however, dreams where I can never quite reach the end of the tunnel and make that left turn.

Paint Me Blue and Call Me Stupid, But I Want One

Paint Me Blue and Call Me Stupid, But I Want One

I was in New Orleans and Baton Rouge for several days. The high points of the trip included hanging with my new friend Doug Woolfolk, who very kindly took time out of his extremely busy schedule to give me a tour of the state capitol building, including the hallway where Governor Huey Long was assassinated (or accidentally shot by his own bodyguards, depending on which story you care to believe) in 1935, and to visit Spanish Town, a revitalized neighborhood on the edge of downtown. When I reached New Orleans, I was able to visit with my dear friends Toni McGee Causey, author extraordinaire, and her husband Carl Causey, who may well be among the five most brilliant minds on the planet. Seriously. I also attended a legal seminar, had lunch with video and film director Jason Furrate to discuss a new project, and made some new friends. Oh, and I discovered that Louisiana sells Barq’s root beer by the glass bottle, and it’s different from what they ship in cans to Yankees up north. All in all, not a bad ten days. The downside was that my computer’s motherboard fried on the second night of the trip so that I was reduced to operating my practice and writing by swipe-typing on my smart phone. This is not recommended for those of us on the wrong side of middle age; I am hoping that at some point very soon my left hand comes out of the claw configuration in which it seems to be frozen.

My computer is replaced (it was actually cheaper to buy a new one than to have the old one repaired) and I am busily uploading dis, dat, and de udda to it so this is going to be a short offering this week. So, I’ll take the easy way out and just ask a question: are you going to buy a Kindle Fire, the soon-to-be-released multi-media tablet? Do you want it? Do you need it? To answer my own questions: I am not going to buy one. I might when a 3G version comes out but it really doesn’t do much more than my phone does, from an application standpoint. Do I want one? Yes. Do I need one? No, and hell no. How about you?

On the Road Again

I feel as if I am the only person in the world who is not at Bouchercon this week. I had planned to attend, but a music law seminar in New Orleans which I need to attend to keep my continuing legal education hours current and which has traditionally held in August was inexplicably switched to September, butt-up against Bouchercon. So it is that as you read this I will be in my car, somewhere between Ohio and Louisiana.

I have not flown commercially since 1997. I never liked flying to begin with — when you get down to it, I have control issues — and between the hassles of transporting an unloaded firearm in checked luggage and the thought of a jihadist with a LAWS rocket in hand staring longingly at the silver undercarriage of my plane I made the decision to drive everywhere I need to go. I have never regretted it. I probably will never get to Europe, and getting to the West Coast to serenade Michelle Gagnon with “Happy Birthday” in person will take some planning, but folks who fly everywhere miss a lot. It takes me fourteen hours to drive from my front door to the French Quarter, and that’s with stops for gas, coffee, and draining the crankcase. Westerville to Cincinnati — I can see the house my father where my father was born in from I-71, just after I cross the bridge into Kentucky — to Louisville where I switch over to I-65. The next big crossroads is Nashville, with its amazing intersection of interstate highways right in the middle of the downtown. You best be paying attention to where you are going or you might find yourself heading to Memphis, Chattanooga, or, if you’ve really cocked yourself up, back toward Louisville. I figure that if I can traverse it successfully then Alzheimer’s Disease remains at bay. Less than three hours later I am in Birmingham. With luck and good fortune I stop for lunch with Michael Garrett, with whom I have been friends for a half-century and who was the first editor for a bespeckled, quirky-looking guy named Stephen King. After lunch or otherwise I dog leg down to I-59; south of Tuscaloosa, the state of Alabama slowly melts into Mississippi, which after three hours or so becomes Louisiana. Or so the signs say. Once the swamp starts it is hard to tell the difference. And strange things happen. On a number of occasions, mostly late at night or very early in the morning, a pack of wild black dogs will run onto the freeway south of Picayune, Mississippi and chase my car for a few hundred feet. I almost wrecked the first time it happened; now I toss Milk Bones at them. Eventually, however, the swamps and the dogs gradually give way. I take the entrance ramp to I-10 west and isn’t too long at all before New Orleans rises to the south like a fever dream, as close to a foreign country as you will find within the borders of the United States.

Each trip is much the same, and each trip is a little different. I’ve actually made friends with gas station attendants and waitresses along the way who know the names of my wife and children, even though I see them infrequently (the gas station attendants and waitresses, that is). I would have missed a lot if I had flown, and not just with respect to traveling to and from New Orleans. I’ve gotten speeding tickets in Liberty Hill, South Carolina, been propositioned in a Baton Rouge hotel parking lot at 5:00 AM by a prostitute in a cheerleading outfit, and crammed a Pulp Fiction week’s worth of adventures a few years ago during a road trip to Phoenix with Marcus Wynne driving with a trunk load of machine guns, knives, hand grenades, and other assorted and sundry weapons. For demonstration purposes only, mind you. When the country is passing underneath you at 500 miles an hour, you can miss a lot; on the ground, every mile holds a potential story.

Dum da dum dum…

I am writing this while sitting in a hotel located in what is known as the Central Business District of the open-air insane asylum called New Orleans. I am here for a music law seminar, listening to people much brighter than myself (and yes, a couple who, well, aren’t) discuss how to build a bigger butterfly net to use when chasing the fewer and fewer dollars that are available in the music industry. My mind was starting to wander this afternoon when one of the seminar speakers brought me back on task by saying, “And here’s another revenue stream. You all have heard of e-books? And Kindle? There’s talk of adding music to e-books.”


Now, newer versions of Kindle have an application which will let the user upload (download? Sometimes it’s not clear in which direction the digital river flows) music to the unit to play while reading. You connect your precious up to your computer via a USB port and uplo…er…downl…uh, transfer the music from computer to Kindle. What the speaker was talking about, however, sounds like something else entirely. This is music that would come with the e-book. As contemplated, it would be 1) genre appropriate (romantic for romance books; spooky for horror novels; and heavy metal for John Gilstrap); and 2) instrumental, so as not to distract those of us who cannot walk across the room and hold a thought at the same time.

This raises a couple of questions: 1) where is the music going to come from? 2) who is going to pay for it? and 3) will the author have controlling, or at least some, input into whether they want their precious to have musical accompaniment? It is questions 2 and 3 which should concern the wordsmiths out there. If you have signed away control of how your e-books are marketed, the answer to #3 may be “no.” And as for the answer to question 2, it may or may not be the author who is passed the check directly or indirectly, depending on how things shake out on the whole thing. Music on television and in movies and video games is not free; someone paid a lot of money to put that catchy song you walk around humming into a commercial, or at the beginning of CSI: Miami. It won’t be free for e-books either.

It is not my intent to give you something else to worry about. But authors: keep your collective ear to the ground. And you eyes open.

My New Orleans sojourn is part of a ten day trip which began with three days in Franklin, Tennessee at Killer Nashville. A smaller conference which is very user friendly, Killer Nashville is aimed primarily at hopeful authors and is a wonderful way to network and learn writing tradecraft. P.J. Parrish was seemingly on every panel (that’s an exaggeration, but not by much) and showed us how a P.J. Parrish book created. Different color Post-It notes affixed to a cardboard backing are involved and it was truly a wonder to look at. It was an extremely interesting and marvelous over-the-shoulder glance at how the collective Parrish team gets the job done. Jeffrey Deaver was the guest of honor, and was extremely friendly and easily accessible to all, including his multitude on Number One Fans. He generously spent over an hour telling a jammed-to-capacity ballroom how he works his magic, from idea through completion. Jeffrey began his presentation with a basic premise that is sometimes forgotten: writing is a business. He spends eight months outlining and four months writing and when he is done and turns in the manuscript he sits down and does it all again. There is more to it than that of course but it was great to hear a strong and basic fundamental advocated so forcefully.


What I’m reading: THE THOUSAND by Kevin Guilfoile. Pythagoras meets a girl with a dragon tattoo who kicked a hornet’s nest while playing with fire. If I hadn’t been so busy these past ten days I would have read it in one night.

Next time: The coolest place in the world is in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Seriously.