I love it when a reporter becomes a character. It adds tension to Michelle O’Donnell’s A Haunted House, Clinging To Secrets: Every winter, when the trees drop their leaves, a certain house in Laurelton, Queens, comes into full view. It is a decrepit Victorian on a cul-de-sac at 141-36 222nd Street, a structure whose condition has made it known as “the haunted house.”
To say the condition of 141-36 is woeful seems, well, woefully inadequate. Its siding is weathered to the marrow, and most of its windows are boarded over. An “X” painted on the cupola warns of weak floorboards. A locked chain-link fence seals it off from society. A small armada of boats lies beached in the yard under a sea of blue tarp.
Three yellow traffic signs posted at the corner announce, with a Cassandra-like quality, “Dead end,” “End,” “Dead end.”
Heading toward the stadium, the SUV ate up highway. Inside, O’Neil was talking about his family’s tribe in Africa, and he was asked how he had found all that out. Did you do genealogical research? Did you find old bills of sale? He laughed. He’s old enough to have talked to former slaves.
“My grandfather told me,” he said. “I knew my grandfather.”
It’s times like this that Tonya Tota, the museum’s operations director and, often, O’Neil’s driver, picks his brain. In the vehicle, she played a game with O’Neil. Word association. The first one was easy.
“Baseball?” she asked.
“Satchel Paige,” he said.
“Ora,” he said, referring to his late wife of 51 years.
O’Neil chuckled. He told the story of his father explaining the birds and the bees to him in a Sarasota pool hall. It started as another bawdy O’Neil tale. Seems Pop overheard some other kids telling him that a young lady named Elizabeth was a sure thing. The elder O’Neil pulled his young boy aside, planting the seeds that would grow into the man we know today.
There’s an energy and sense of wonder in Libby Copeland’s writing that makes me jealous. Here’s another one from Turin: The Americans just attack the snow with their fierce wills, the lactic acid burning up their legs, past the stands filled with exuberant fans waving flags from many nations, but not theirs. This is a sport for the stubborn and the strong.
“In some sense the only reason I’m doing this is because nobody else was doing this when I was young,” says Rachel Steer. She is considered the finest female biathlete in America, but when Steer is asked about this, she says: “I hadn’t thought about it.” Then: “It doesn’t matter.” Then: “I certainly hope I’m not the best ever.”
Ralph Blumenthal with the story of a big small town: What it does have is the Boot Track Café (open mornings), a post office, a gas station and the yellow Deco two-story courthouse. There are two roads. There is no operating church, although the county’s oldest building, a 1910 schoolhouse, is open for nondenominational worship. Seven children ride a school bus 33 miles to Wink in the next county.
“When I was little, I couldn’t wait to leave,” said Beverly Hanson, the county clerk. Then, she said, “I went to see the bright lights” — she became an apartment manager in Dallas — married and divorced and happily returned home. “I knew I was safe here,” she said.
Lauren Collins in Talk of the Town: Some breaches of decorum are easier to rectify than others. Perhaps you have been invited to attend a memorial ceremony at Auschwitz and you arrive in a parka and hiking boots, only to find that most of the men are wearing dark suits. Solution: Buy an overcoat and, next time, call ahead to ask about attire. Or, say, you lose your temper and tell a senior member of the United States Senate to “go fuck yourself.” Solution: Issue a statement acknowledging your frank words and let the fuss subside without attracting further attention. Vice-President Dick Cheney carried himself successfully through both of these faux pas. But his accidental shooting of the Austin lawyer Harry M. Whittington presents a more delicate question of etiquette: What is the proper way to proceed after blasting six to two hundred pieces of birdshot into the chest, neck, and face of a personal acquaintance? Mylar balloons? African violets? A casserole?