Because I Love You All, Here’s a Nine Year Old Christmas Story

On December 15, 2005 I posted this story to my website about what happens when Santa Claus takes a walk on the wild side in Detroit. It holds up surprisingly well and considering I wrote it and was still surprised by it, I thought you all might enjoy it as well.

 

NICKY THE SAINT

I never would have guessed Santa Claus had a gambling problem until an elf told me he was into the Detroit mafia for over 50 grand.

We were having drinks at the Hazel Park Racetrack, a long reputed mob hangout. I was still in my work outfit of red velvet pants and black boots. The matching coat and beard were in my car. The elf was wearing jeans and a Detroit Lions sweatshirt. An obvious tourist.

“And I’m supposed to help him how?” I asked.

“You gotta find him first. He came down here almost three months ago and we haven’t heard from him since.”

“Down from the North Pole?”

“Yeah, but now it’s getting to be that time of the year…”

“Christmas is only a couple weeks away and you don’t have a boss,” I said.

“That’s not the problem. He hasn’t had a leadership role in years, he’s more of a figure head. But we’re worried about him. What if these goons…you know…”

“Whacked Santa Claus?”

The elf nodded. I got up from the table and pulled a  $10 bill from my wallet.

“I’m outta here,” I said. “This is ridiculous.”

“We figured as much,” the elf said, calmly. “So we’re prepared to offer you a hefty fee. In cash. Up front.”

As he spoke, the elf reached under the table and slid a briefcase my way.

“Five thousand dollars,” he said. “You can check.”

I kept the briefcase on the ground, but popped open the locks and looked in. It was full of bills. I couldn’t tell if it was exactly five thousand dollars but it was a lot. More than enough to get me out of my own debt hole.

“You want to pay a mall Santa Claus to find out who whacked the real Santa Claus?” I asked.

“No, no, you don’t have to find out who killed him, just if he’s dead or not. So we can start to look for a replacement.”

“And why me again? There are better people in Detroit for that. What about Amos Walker or Ben Perkins?”

“Walker is a crotchety SOB and nobody’s seen Perkins in years. You’re a mall Santa who used to be a cop. Seems like fate to me,” the elf said.

“This is ridiculous,” I said.

“But lucrative,” the elf said.

I thought about it for a bit more, wondering if I could get away with taking the elf’s money and then disappearing with it. Finally I sighed and nodded.

“I’ll look around. Where are you staying?”

The elf smiled and scribbled an address on my napkin. He was staying at the Days Inn by the airport.

“I’ve got family to visit so I’ll be in and out, but I wrote my cell phone number on there for you,” he said.

I couldn’t help but stare,

“What?” he asked. “You think elves are born in test tubes up North? I’m from Grosse Pointe. My dad’s a General Motors exec.”

“Whatever,” I said. “I’ll call you.”

* * *

The mafia in Detroit is not as strong as it once was, but there was still a cop or two who kept tabs on the drips of their activity. One of these cops is my friend Dale. I met him at the Elwood Diner by Comerica Park and he let me buy him lunch.

“I’m looking for a new guy on the scene. Not your traditional Italian goomba or anything, this guys more, uh, northern…and jolly,” I said.

“The turn over in this racket now is crazy and it’s hard to keep track of the low men as they come and go. But now that you mention it, there has been a guy out the last few months making some waves.”

“Older guy?” I asked. “White hair, kinda chubby?”

“They call him Nicky the Saint,” Dale said, “On a counta he looks like St. Nick.”

“At least their creativity has suffered.”

“He got something you want?”

“Just need to talk to him. Somebody from his old life’s looking to catch up.”

“That’s never good,” Dale said.

“I said I’d look. Didn’t say how hard though.”

“Guess it wouldn’t hurt to talk to him. Lemme make a call.”

I ordered some pie while Dale made a couple of calls on his cell phone. As I was about to ask the waitress for more coffee, Dale flipped his phone shut and said, “Hooter McGee’s, by the airport.”

“Santa Claus hangs out at an Irish strip club?”

“He looks like Santa, he’s not actually Santa. I think he might be Canadian.”

I thanked Dale and then headed out to the finest Irish strip club in Detroit near the airport.The lunch buffet crowd was dwindling when I arrived and a tall woman with a snake and bowler hat was dancing on the main stage. The everyday tacky pub decor had been covered with once a year tacky Christmas decoration. I paid the $10 cover and grabbed some of the potato bites from the buffet before being approached by a waitress wearing a short skirt, tank top, and faded red Santa hat.

“Buy a lady a drink?” She asked.

“I thought we were supposed to buy the strippers drinks, not the waitresses.”

“Jerk,” she said.

“I’d like to buy Nicky a drink though. Nicky the Saint.”

“Don’t know no Nicky the Saint, bub. So buy a drink or scram.”

I pulled a scrap piece of paper from my pocket and wrote something on it then handed it to her wrapped with a fifty dollar bill.

“If you happen to run into anyone named Nicky on your way to the bar, give him that for me would ‘ya.”

“Jerk,” she said, walking away.

A few minutes later, the waitress returned with a pink cup full of something fizzy.

“Take this into the VIP room and he’ll talk to you there,” she said.

“He’ll have his clothes on though, right?”

“Jerk,” she said.

I took my drink to the VIP room, in the back and sat down on a ratty old couch and tried not to touch it with any exposed skin. There were four couches in the room, two against each wall with a small divider between them. This is where you paid more money for the stripper to get totally naked and if you paid enough, they were rumored to do other things. Like bathe. As I continued my survey of the room, a fat man with all of his clothes on sat down next to me.

“It’s time, isn’t it?” He said.

The beard and the hair were the same white color I’d expected, but both were trimmed closely for a more elegant look. And instead of the red velvet outfit, he was decked out in a grey pinstriped suit with a crimson shirt and matching tie.

“Time for what?” I asked.

“You know. Please don’t make me say it.”

“Say it,” I said. “You know what happens if you don’t.”

He looked around the room suspiciously, then whispered, “Murder. It’s time for the murder.”

I nearly spit my fizzy concoction out of my nose.

“Murder,” I said.

“I know. I know.”

“I’m not who you think I am,” I said. “I’ve been hired by a group of your former employees…up north…to find you.”

“The elves sent you?”

I nodded.

“What do they want?”

“They’re concerned about you. Afraid you got yourself whacked.”

“I suppose I should have called them to let them know I decided to stay.”

“And take up life as a mobster.”

“It was fun at first. Break a leg here, crack a skull there. They were all naughty, I checked.”

“But now they’re moving you up the chain?” I asked.

“They want me to kill my bookie. The one who got me into this life. He helped me pay off my debt.”

“By breaking legs?”

“I’ve always been the good guy. It was fun to live on the wild side for a while. And the money is amazing.”

“You could buy yourself a lot of toys,” I said.

“The money for toys never came out of my pocket. It was all in stocks and some annuities. We got in on Microsoft early. I drew a small stipend to cover expenses and that was it.”

“So what happens if you don’t kill the bookie?”

“They kill me.”

“Are you ready to go back to your former life?”

“I’d love to,” he said. “I’ve thought about escaping to the North Pole several times but I knew these goons would follow me and I didn’t want to put the elves at risk.”

“Hmmm. I think I may know someone who can help you.”

* * *

“Jimmy Hoffa, meet Santa Claus,” I said.

“I thought you were dead,” Santa said.

“And in a couple days they’ll think the same thing of you,” Hoffa said, grabbing Santa by the shoulder and directing him toward a large couch in a huge hotel suite in a location I can’t disclose.

The two of them talked for a while and Santa explained his problem to Jimmy. When Santa was done, Jimmy poured two glasses of scotch for them both and raised his glass.

“To the death of Santa Claus,” he said.

I excused myself and left them to finalize the details of the “murder.” Since the early eighties, as mob guys started turning snitch left and right, Jimmy Hoffa has made a tidy fortune helping them disappear. Sure, the government offers witness protection, but can witness protection convince a cynical nation that a guy is buried under no less than three different sports stadiums? And can witness protection make you a legend in the process of helping you disappear? I think not. And I was more than certain witness protection couldn’t hide Santa Claus.

My suspicions were confirmed later when I read in the Detroit News that a “reputed mob leg breaker and dead-ringer for Santa Claus” had been murdered in a gangland hit on Christmas Eve. There were pictures and everything. My guy on the force said the street version had Nicky the Saint being whacked by the Russian Mob for trying to horn in on their rackets. Nobody was going to miss him.

MFA vs NYC vs JOB

I finally got around to reading a book I’d been looking forward to, MFA vs NYC, and my reaction was initially going to be a status update on Facebook but then I realized it was really part of some larger thoughts I’ve been having about the publishing industry lately and that it was about time for an update on what I think of my new job so why not combine it all into one big post here. So here we go.

First, I hated this book and only read the introduction.It puts forth the assumption that the only two paths for a writer in this day and age are to get an MFA or move to NYC. A year ago I would have loved this book and devoured it, but I’ve since lost my interest in and patience for the publishing industry. Yes, a good chunk of the blame comes from having lost my publishing job, but as I think about it, this was something that had been in the works for a while. In fact, one of the reasons I’d been so excited about the Exhibit A job was that it seemed to be bucking a lot of the bullshit I’d witnessed in the publishing industry and loved the idea of being part of the change. But then it succumbed to the bullshit and here we are.

I won’t get into a review of this book, as I said I didn’t read it (though I have read several of the essays in it previously and they were part of the reason I was already beginning to hate most of the publishing industry), but it and the collapse of The New Republic just made it clear to me what an insulated and precious world publishing is. I say this realizing that I am a white male of moderate finance with a whole heaping load of privilege, but still it’s such a twee industry and everything I eventually came to hate about university creative writing programs, I’ve come to hate about the publishing industry. And of course, I mean all of this as an employee, as an editor. As a writer, I’ve been very pleased with my publisher and how my book has been received so far.

So instead of wallowing in how much I hate one industry, let’s talk about how much I’m loving my new job. I didn’t get an MFA, I hated living in NYC, but I finally found a JOB that uses my writing skills and makes me feel worthwhile as a human in using those skills, while still leaving enough of my brain free to create horrible fictional stories for my horrible fictional characters. We’re in an exciting time in the Internet and in healthcare and I enjoy being in a job that allows me to experience the joy of both fields.

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around exactly what it is my department does and how it operates, but I’ve finally reached the point where I’m moving forward with my role rather than just playing catch up. After so many years with the University as an administrative assistant, it still takes a bit of getting used to having my ideas respected and implemented rather than brushed off.  The simple joy of attending a lunch meeting without having to be the one to order the lunch, set it up and clean it up, can’t be overstated. I love it.

My official title is Web Content Administrator and I’ve fooled around with a couple of different working titles before realizing that one is fine and it doesn’t really matter what my title is, it’s what I get to do with it that counts. And I like what I get to do. In addition to working with my own department, I’m embedded in the main Health System web communication team and get to work on some bigger projects with them which is very cool. So all around, a month and a half in, I’m loving this job and the regular paychecks it brings. The only benefit I haven’t been able to use yet is the platinum health coverage so I may need to schedule a surgery just for fun.

More Tales From The Photoshop

I’ve been having fun getting into Photoshop and playing around with the slides and levers to see what it can do. These are the results.

This one is from inside the University of Michigan football team locker room. My department had it’s Christmas party in the stadium club and we got to go into the locker room and onto the field during the party. It was cool. This is on the wall into the main locker room and I just fiddled with the saturation levels to make it look more hallowed and majestic.

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This one was taken as you enter the field. Again, I cropped it and played with the balances to try and get the sense of majesty as you approach the field as well as just how freaking cold it was that night.

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This one was taken on a walk between my house and Spenser’s friend’s house. There’s a giant field that’s kind of creepy and trashy and I always wanted to do something with it. These levels seem to represent the energy I think the towers are radiating and what our world looks like to them.

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This one was taken on the same walk and is from the sidewalk across from our house. I think it has a funky 1970s postcard from fall vibe to it.

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The Photoshop Around The Corner

Every year brings one big thing I go hunting for on Black Friday. Last year it was a new TV, the year before that a new desktop computer. Invariably though, the deals are too good to be true if I don’t want to waste all of my time in line and I eventually find what I want for a great price at some other time of the year. This year was shaping up to be the same story.

I had my eye vaguely set upon getting either an Xbox One/PS4 or a new digital camera if the price was right. The video game system was really a pie in the sky thing because there was no real chance of the price coming down low enough to justify something that would make my life harder all around by adding substantially to the things in the house that distract me. But I was really hoping I could find something good with the camera.

Right now I have a cheap point and shoot and my iPhone 6 as primary cameras. Both are okay and downright good in perfect light, up close, but as the kids get older and I find myself wanting to take more and different photos, the lack of a good zoom on both cameras has bugged the hell out of me. One of my favorite parts of being a reporter was getting to take my own photos and I’d gotten pretty good at it and then regressed. So I’ve been looking for a new camera with awesome zoom at a reasonable price. My dream camera was a dSLR, but I’m not good enough and we’re not rich enough for me to drop $500 or more on a camera. Yet. But when we were at Target on Saturday, I came across a Nikon Coolpix L330 on sale for $99 from a regular price of $229. Bam. Bought a case, took it home, and started fooling around with it. I have A LOT to learn about this camera and it still has a few limitations, but the zoom is great and I like how it’s built and feels like a real camera, not a toy.

So here is a picture of the new camera taken with the old camera.

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And here’s the first decent(ish) pic I took with it. I stylized it up a bit in Photoshop for fun and to compensate for general lack of skill.

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And here’s one I took of Spenser that I really had fun with. The original coloring was crap and really bland and he had a Kool-Aid mustache that was weird looking, so I tried this. I like it. Makes me feel artsy.

spenser&octi

I look forward to learning more about my camera every day and getting some more good shots.

I’m Stuck At The Airport, So Let’s Talk About Bouchercon.

 

UntitledI took this picture from my hotel room this morning rather than when I arrived because I just had better things to do. But I do like to look back at these later so I wanted to have it in the collection.

My flight’s delayed and over-booked so I took the option to wait for the 9pm flight and got a $300 credit and a credit for this leg of my flight. I can take that. I have Dan Miller and the Lions online and a great book waiting for me when the game is over. All is good.

 Aside from the long and exhausting flight, this was a great Bouchercon. I saw some friends I haven’t seen in a while and some I just saw a few weeks ago. But I felt good and inspired and was really excited to be back as a writer and reader and not an editor. None of the panicked and paranoid conversations about the industry I overheard (or participated in) got me depressed or angry so that was nice.
People seemed excited to hear about and buy Murder Boy. I had an author focus session on Friday and I thought I’d be lucky if five friends showed up and we could shoot the crap for 20 minutes, but when I arrived there were already 20 people in the room and they had to add more chairs and more people kept showing up. Some of them I didn’t even know. It was surreal and very cool. I’m looking forward to next year when I have a book in hand to sell and promote and lord over everyone.
I took it easy on the late night partying this year and was in bed by midnight most nights. As such, I don’t feel too bad. My head and nose are stuffed up, but that’s more to do with how poorly by body reacts to flying. Aside from that though, I feel pretty good. I do need to start exercising and eating less crap tomorrow. More about that later.

 

 

An Impromptu Trip To Milwaukee

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This was the view from our hotel room at the Potowatami Casino and Hotel in downtown Milwaukee over the weekend. And what exactly were myself, my wife, and my 3 week old daughter doing at a casino downtown Milwaukee over the weekend? Hanging with friends of course.

I’ve attended the Murder and Mayhem conference for 7 or 8 years and was sad that it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to make it this year, the first since they moved to their new digs in Milwaukee. But on Friday, with the weather being horrible and rainy and cold and windy, the trick or treating with the kids didn’t last very long. So as we sat on the couch at 7pm trying to figure out what to have for dinner, we decided to see if we could make a trip to Milwaukee work.

At first we thought about taking all of the kids and making a family vacay out of it, but when I called the hotel and they said they didn’t have a pool or a kids activity area, we dropped that idea. But if we could unload the bigger kids on grandma and just take the baby, that had potential. So with a sleepover at grandmas secured, we loaded up Natalie for her first road trip. Our kids actual have a history of going on long road trips to mystery cons before they’re a month old. Spenser went to Baltimore for Bouchercon and Holly went to Indianapolis. Those two trips didn’t work out so well, but this one did and I was happy they came with me.

Next up is Bouchercon in 10 days in Long Beach and that will be just me this time. We’ll see how that works out.

 

 

Finally, An Utterly Frivolous Post About Shopping

The pieces here lately have been weighted way too heavily toward somber, contemplative big picture crap. That’s all well and good, considering what’s happened recently in my life, but we need some sunshine. Life is good. I have a new baby and a new job and the paychecks that come with the new job (and leftover paychecks from previously completed freelance projects that seem so much more awesome now that we don’t have to depend on them solely for our survival) so let me tell you about the shopping I’ve been up to.

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We started with new furniture. Right before the baby arrived, we completed (mostly) the first stage of our pending home revamp. We repainted everything with a nice dark brown that makes the house look more modern and covers up all of the stains and damage and crayon “art” that takes a toll over 8 years on really crappy un-washable paint. Next we needed new furniture. The stuff we had was old and stained and determined to maim and paralyze us. After a bit of looking we lucked into a combo set of love seat, sofa and recliner. It’s comfortable and loaded with built in cup holders. Next will be wood floors for that room and a fireplace remodel, but I have to wait until my father-in-law is available to help me with that one.

 

1732167_PurpleMost importantly though, I’ve been updating my wardrobe. After I left my last full-time office job, I threw away almost everything I had ever worn to that job. It was a sad and depressing mix of cheap shoes, microfiber pants, cheap polo shirts, and bland, thread-bare Oxford shirts. Even though I have a new tattoo, I’ve felt the urge to move beyond jeans and t-shirts and into a more adult wardrobe. I’m almost 40 and the slobby college look has been wearing thin on me and I think contributing to some of my malaise. So I started with pants.

I had thrown away my most boring khackis and only kept a single pair of comfortable broken-in ones that I liked and a pair of cords. I got another pair of dark brown cords and a pair of blue chinos that felt wild as I bought them. I already had a couple of new shirts I bought during the interview process but I added several more patterned button downs of varying style from dress shirts to flannel. I also bought some fun socks to replace all of the boring white and black ones I got rid of.

1756930With pants and shirts taken care of, I needed shoes. I found a great pair of European-flavored utility boots that look good with chinos, cords, and jeans and are on their way to being fully broken in by now. I got almost all of this at Khol’s, which is where I’ve shopped for work clothes previously, but had much more fun this time because the clothes aren’t nearly as depressing. I also had some great coupons and store loyalty discounts that made it all even better. I think I found a nice mix of casual/artistic styling with a bit more professionalism than I needed when working from home.

j-crew-field-mechanic-jacketThe final piece I got this weekend and it’s my favorite. Until now, my fall jackets have always been zip up sweatshirts, usually gray. But I knew with this new wardrobe a hoodie wasn’t going to work, so I was on the hunt for a great light-weight jacket to top it all off. Almost immediately I locked in on the idea of a military field jacket. I’ve always loved them but I had trouble finding one that I really liked that wasn’t also ridiculously expensive. I found the perfect match at J. Crew and found it when it had just gone on sale. So I think that’s all I need for now. Once winter rolls fully in I’ll need to upgrade my sweater wardrobe a bit, but for now I feel happy and fashionable and fresh.

 

That Whooshing Sound You Hear Is All Of My Major Life Changes Passing By

Oh my.

So our baby came early, Go Natalie, and I’m sure you all saw the pics on Facebook but here’s a few if you missed them. She’s a beauty and I love her, but she still doesn’t seem real. The newborn phase has never been one of my favorites with the kids, I like them when they start developing personalities and such and doing more than drooling, but she’s already very expressive with her face and I think she gets sarcasm.

What does feel real is my new job. After a day and a half of inane and mind-numbing orientation, I got to jump in with the real work and start plotting and planning my next 3-4 years or so here (at minimum). I like having a job I’m good at and that uses my skills and experience and I also like the structure and the security of the fully-benefited 9-5 life. I signed up for dental and life insurance like a boss. I’m sure you’d all love a picture of my new cubicle so here you go:

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Tapping Out Of The Full-Time Freelance Life

I’ve known for a while that the full-time freelance lifestyle wasn’t for me. I haven’t talked about it much here because, mixed with my residual feelings about losing my Exhibit A job, I didn’t want this site to turn into a pit a negativity. But it’s been affecting me anyway. I haven’t been sleeping well, I’ve been sick and tired all of the time, and I’ve just generally been an unpleasant person. So I’ve been looking for a new job. One that I would enjoy and be good at and excel in. I set some pretty high expectations and I’m happy to say I found what I was looking for.

So as of October 13, I’l be rejoining the University of Michigan Health System as the Manager of Web Content for the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. I’m so excited to be rejoining one of the best universities in the country and, more importantly, I’ll be doing something I’m good at and doing it somewhere that will genuinely help better the world.

As for my freelance editing business, I’m taking a bit of a hiatus on new projects while I finish up with the projects I already have in the pipeline. I still enjoy this work and want to keep my hand it, but on a much more selective basis and not as my main source of income. And that brings me to the biggest reason I wanted out. I’m sick of the publishing industry. I’m sick of the gossip and the fear-mongering and the paranoia and the tediousness of it all. After seeing Exhibit A collapse so quickly, I’m gun shy about ever tying my family’s livelihood to that industry ever again.  As a reader I’m excited about all of the great new books I’m seeing and as a writer I think I’m set up with one of the greatest up-and-coming publishers in the business. But as an editor I hated the hustle and hated the uncertainty and hated the volatility and hated having to be part of another inane conversation about which publishing path is the best.

Also, despite recent evidence, I’m a writer first and I’m excited about being a professional writer again. So thank you to everyone who supported me and encouraged me and gave me the breaks and contacts that made this move possible. This has been a crazy year so far and I’m so happy to once again be on top. I was getting kind of sick of whining all the time.