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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 16, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Closing Time, Fiji, Coraline, Cicero, and Block

After signing books for several hours at Joseph-Beth in Lexington, all my wife and I wanted was a couple of milkshakes before going back to the hotel.

In Lexington, Kentucky, the only place to get anything with ice cream in it is Graeter's. And we knew that if we hurried, we could just make it to Graeter's before it closed at ten p.m.

Well, we made it. By my watch -- which I check against the atomic clock online almost every day -- it was still four minutes before ten. So instead of parking, I dropped Kristine off at the curb. But as she approached the door, one of the employees stood up on a chair to shut off the "open" sign.

She pleaded with the employee -- all we want is a couple of milkshakes! Other customers who were eating their ice cream on the bench in front of the store joined in Kristine's plea.

The employee turned around and called out to the manager. The answer was a firm no.

When Kristine got back to the car, it was still a minute before ten. The store's sign clearly said that they were open till ten. Too bad it was a lie.

Amazingly, the same thing happened the very next night in Covington, Kentucky. We got to our hotel (which was the "Cincinnati Riverfront Marriott" -- I get the feeling that most of Cincinnati is actually in Kentucky) at about twenty minutes to eleven. It took a few minutes to check in and get the bags onto the bellman's cart. We hadn't had supper and we were seriously hungry.

The bellman assured us that room service was open till eleven-thirty. So when we got to the room we took a bit of time choosing what we'd order. Only then did we see that on the room service menu, it said that room service shut down at eleven.

Still, it was about two minutes to eleven when we called room service.

They told us they had stopped serving. Everything was cleaned up. They couldn't fulfil any orders.

"But room service is supposed to be available till eleven," we suggested.

"All closed down," was the heartless answer. Not even a "sorry."

You might think this early closing syndrome was a Kentucky thing, but no. A few years ago, I needed to pick up a book and rushed over to a favorite local bookstore before the nine o'clock closing time. When I arrived, it was still ten minutes before nine -- plenty of time.

Except that the door was locked, and when I knocked, the employees, who were plainly visible, pretended they hadn't seen me.

It happened that I had had a close relationship with the management of this bookstore for several years. So I phoned the owner. I fully expected that when he found out that his store had closed early, he would tell them to unlock the door and sell me the book I wanted.

Nope. He seemed puzzled that I would be so upset about finding his bookstore closed before closing time.

And at a Johnny Rockets a few nights ago, we arrived at ten-thirty and were served -- but people who got there at 10:40 were turned away, even though the closing time was eleven.

This is a widespread disease, and I'm fed up with it. When you post a notice of your store hours, that's a contract with the public. Especially with food service, that's a promise that if customers arrive before that posted time, they'll be admitted and served.

Naturally, preparing and serving food takes time. So people admitted three minutes before closing will still be there at least a few minutes, and perhaps an hour and a half later.

But this isn't a surprise. The management knew that when they posted the closing times. If they wanted all their employees to be out of the place at, say, eleven p.m., the management should have posted nine-thirty as the closing time, not eleven.

I understand the desire of employees to get out and go home as soon as possible. But they can go home whenever they want -- all they have to do is quit their job. As long as they are still employed, however, they should fulfil the contract the store makes with the public when a closing time is posted.

Many businesses that depend on the good will of the public for their very survival seem perfectly content to let their employees treat late-arriving customers as if they had committed some crime by daring to believe the posted closing time.

Indeed, if I were running a food service establishment, I would go further. "Closing time has nothing to do with your going-home time," I would tell the employees. "It is the policy of this establishment that customers who arrive up to five minutes after the posted closing time will be cheerfully served as if they had arrived two hours earlier. No one is to be turned away until five full minutes after the posted closing time. Because most people who arrive at the last minute are really hungry and have been hurrying to make it on time, and we won't disappoint them if they even came close."

*

Best bottled water I've ever tasted: Fiji Artesian Water, bottled in Viti Levu, Republic of Fiji Islands. Of course, when you look at the content listing, you find that it contains organic molecules, suggesting that this natural water really is like drinking from a tropical stream. When you think of all the things that "bio-carbonate" might refer to, it can give you pause.

But I like to live dangerously every now and then. Flavor first, then purity.

*

Neil Gaiman's young-adult novel Coraline is a deliciously scary book that we loved reading together as a family. Coraline's parents have moved to a big old house that has been cut into four apartments, and as Coraline explores, she finds that a bricked-up passage into the one vacant flat isn't so bricked up when her parents are away.

Coraline herself is delightfully authentic in her boldness and determination -- I know kids like this. The magical elements are surprising and new, and the evil that she has to fight is disturbing in ways that matter.

The book is best read aloud, with children well-cuddled, because it really is scary sometimes. It's also funny, and at the end, sweet.

Plus, it may well have the best cat in all of literature.

*

I've been enjoying Steven Saylor's brilliant series of Roman mysteries for many years now, but Saylor properly focuses on the story he is telling, and therefore I have been a bit lost about the political and military and social history that surrounds his tales.

So I was delighted to see Anthony Everitt's biography Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician. Not only is it an extraordinarily well-written biography of a fascinating man, it also makes painfully clear the tragic passage of the Roman Republic into oblivion, as Caesar overturned the constitution with the inadvertent help of those who thought they were defending it.

So many times, a few useful compromises would have kept the balance of power on the side of the old order; but because the old guard, led by the Jesse-Helms-like Cato, refused to budge an inch from "principle," they lost everything -- their own power, their own lives, and freedom itself for the nation they had thought they were saving.

And whether you read Cicero or not, you owe it to yourself to read Roman Blood, the first of Saylor's Roman mysteries starring Gordianus the Finder. I'll be surprised if you don't go on to read all the rest of the series.

*

Lawrence Block is one of the great mystery writers. Without ever being "all the rage" the way Sue Grafton or Walter Mosley or Robert Parker have been at various times, Block has quietly built up an enormous body of excellent work.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the anvil-sized Enough Rope, a collection of just about all his short stories.

Mystery short stories are usually not very satisfying -- there isn't room enough to create characters as deep as those in novels, and so the stories tend to be mere puzzles or to have cheap twist endings.

Block has a few puzzles and twists, but what is remarkable is how his wit and deft writing often give the illusion that you are reading a novel after all.

There are, of course, Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr and J.P.Keller stories, and these are among the best in the book. Most of the stories, though, are standalone works that are a virtual education in every type of mystery story there is.

My favorites in this book, however, are stories about a lawyer named Ehrengraf whose clients are always innocent. In fact, they are so innocent that things always happen to make it unnecessary for them to come to trial. The events in the stories are appalling -- they make even O.J.'s lawyers look restrained and ethical. But as long as you recognize that Block knows he's writing about a dapper monster, the tales are great fun.


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