More About Street Furniture


One of my goals in life is to write a mystery story. I think I may have succeeded once. But most of my efforts have petered out. I’m torn between writing something with hard-boiled realism and trying something out with a Great Detective. Last week I mentioned street furniture. A couple of years back, I started a story with a Clavenesque postman as a detective. It mentions street furniture. I don’t think I’ll return to this particular story, so I might as well post what I have. Enjoy!

Mister Zip

Richter’s was a New Haven institution and Charles Bacon was a Richter’s institution. The retiring and retired professor would while away his time quaffing Guinness and reading. Yes, he would bring a small reading light into that pit and peruse tomes on the Civil War. Shelby Foote, Bruce Catton, he thoroughly devoured both of these authors and was tearing through their primary sources. Anytime he could lay his hands on a collection of letters or a diary, he would.

One day, he wasn’t feeling himself. He often muttered quietly, but this time he was loud. He started rending his garments and ran out half-naked onto College Street… where he met his demise under a conversion van. It was the topic of conversation for a week or so at the Calabash Shoppe.

I was in the mood for a nice torpedo one afternoon soon after that unpleasantness, so I stopped by the tobacconist. Mister Zip and some of the other regulars were already there and laughing like hyenas.

“Joe, listen to this story.” Zip said.

Snarky Mark regaled us with his tale for my benefit. “A couple of weeks ago, I was heading over here. On the way, a distinguished looking chap stopped me. He said that he was a director and was working on aa stage adaptation of “The Big Lebowski.” He thought that I looked like a perfect Walter Sobchak.

If you could squint you could see it, I suppose. A vivid imagination might help, too.

“I went to the casting call and I won the part! We’ve been rehearsing in the basement of Saint Rita’s. But I went there today and the church was locked. There was a note on the door saying that the production was canceled. I would have been a great Walter. That wasn’t one of you guys pulling an elaborate prank on me, was it?”

I laughed and he other guys laughed again. A lazy afternoon at the Calabash Shoppe is one of the best things in life. On the way out, I ran into an old Navy buddy on the street.

“Campbell!”

“Eric Airey! What brings you to the Elm City?”

“Business. Spying is my business and business is good.”

“What sort of international intrigue is going on in our sleepy little college town?”

“You SIGINT weenies are all the same. I find industrial espionage more lucrative.”
We chatted for a little while longer, but it was getting cold, so I went home. Airey was a sneaky SOB; the kind of guy you’d want on your side in a fight even if it left a weird taste in your mouth.

Later that evening, we were back at the pad watching Syracuse play UConn. Before the game, Zip predicted an easy victory for the Orangemen. “the Huskies have no outside game this year and Boeheim’s 2-3 won’t allow them to bang inside.” With five minutes to go, UConn was up comfortably by 20. This allowed us to focus on other matters; like Snarky Mark’s stage career.

“A play,” Zip chortled, “what an appeal to vanity. No wonder he fell for it.”

“You think it was a prank?”

“Sure.”

“Who do you suspect? Panama Bill?”

“Could be any one of the guys.”

I started flipping through the Register. “Hey, there’s a Francis Bacon exhibit starting next week at the British Gallery.”

The postman was silent for an unusually long time. When he opened his mouth he said, “Let’s take a walk.”

I met Mister Zip after I came home from the war. The Admiral introduced me to the gentlemanly pleasures of the Calabash Shoppe and Zip was part of the regular crowd there. I forget what happened. It was so long ago. Either his girlfriend kicked him out or mine gave me the heave-ho. One of us needed a place to stay. So we became roomies.

They called him Mister Zip for two reasons. One: he was a mailman (or letter carrier, as he insisted on being called) and the sobriquet was a play on the old Postal Service mascot. Also, it was an ironic jab at his phlegmatic nature and mannerisms.

The guy never took his uniform off Once, there was a fire in the laundry room of our building at 3:30 in the morning. Klaxons were going off like it was Doomsday and the Russkies were dropping the big one. Fire trucks blared down the street so we all woke up and went outside. I hurried and put on some sweats, but when I went outside, Zip was in his blue-gray jacket and pants and was helping direct traffic away from our street. He was also so gung ho USPS that when he parked his car or POV (Privately Owned Vehicle to you civilians), he would put a wheel chock behind his passenger side rear tire as per the Hartford-area regulations for mail trucks. Oh, if you’re ever around him forget ever saying that someone or something is “in a ZIP code.” You’ll get a lecture.

“It’s like this, big guy. ZIP may be an acronym for Zonal Improvement Plan, but that’s a misnomer. A number, like 90210, is a collection of points. It isn’t a zone or a polygon. This is more noticable in exurban areas, but a five digit number stands for roughly 1,000 delivery points, not some section of the map that you can shade.”

He had a walrus mustache and salt-and-pepper hair. Other than a weakness for gargantuan cigars, he had only one vice. Zip was the kind of guy you find anywhere were large groups of men congregate; the know-it-all. But he was atypical of the species. He was quite knowledgeable on a number of topics.

Don’t tell anyone this, but he was the best detective in town. He was better than anyone on NHPD, any of the Yale police or any of the private eyes in the city. I heard that he once delivered one of the Unabomber’s letters to a Yale math department bigwig. That prof was maimed; a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. Scuttlebutt was that this sparked Zip’s interest in crime, but who knows? Zip had rabbit ears, an elephant’s memory, and great powers of observation. Plus, he was invisible. Along with the traffic signals, newspaper boxes, parking meters, and fire hydrants, he’s part of the furniture of the street. No one notices a mailman. But this particular one notices all.

Soon after I first met him, he cleared two guys who were charged with the murder of a bodega owner and we’ve been on numerous adventures since then.

Mister Zip and I strolled down to Richters. “I have this theory,” Zip said, “about that night. You said that toxicology tests indicated that Professor Bacon had enough LSD in his system to turn on the whole crowd in that bar.”

“That’s right.”

“Bacon was a stodgy, tweedy type. He was from the Chicago School. Those mossbacks wouldn’t likely take acid trips and, acid? That’s so groovy. Didn’t that go out with the waterbed?”

“They still took it when I was in the service. Wouldn’t show up on a urine test.”

“Anyways, it doesn’t add up. Which leads me to believe that Bacon was drugged, but why?”

“Maybe someone really hates the Civil War.”

“Or maybe he picked up the wrong glass. He’d been there for hours, he could have been under the influence a bit. Did the lab have a BAC?”

This is another arrow in Zip’s quiver. I date a detective and she sometimes brings her work home. “.17.”

“Yeah. My theory is that that acid was for someone else. Who? I have no clue. But you did introduce me to a suspect.”

“I did?”

“Your friend Airey. Says he’s still in the biz. Wears a CIA tie clasp. They’ve been known to use chemical interrogation methods. The death was accidental. He’s no murder; at least this time. I’d like to know what he’s after.”

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