Archive for the ‘Narratives’ category

A change of heart

22 August 2011
Categories: Chicago, Narratives

About five years ago, a builder in our neighborhood announced his intention to knock down a house on our block and build a three-story, single-family home on the site. This triggered a spasm of consternation among the neighbors. The house to be demolished wasn’t particularly significant—just a solid, brick two-flat, around ninety years old, like all the others on the block. In fact, that similarity was what caused the greatest worry: The houses on the block made a tidy, unified whole, each house with its own distinctive features but close in appearance and age to the rest. And this guy, a local to the neighborhood, was proposing—what? It wasn’t clear, but the proposal implied something quite divergent in style and mass.

A meeting with the alderman was called, and soon a push for the establishment of a “Landmark Historic District” was under way. It would actually be an extension to an already-existing district, and would unify two non-contiguous areas of that district. The executive director of Preservation Chicago was a strong advocate for its creation, since he lived within the extension area too, just around the corner from the lot in question.

At the time, I was firmly in support of landmark status. My biggest reason for support was the very real possibility that this one new construction would be the vanguard in a wave of knock-downs, much like occurred in the neighborhood immediately adjacent to the east. There, in the course of just a few years during the height of the pre-mortgage-crisis building craze, similar workman’s cottages—some mediocre and dilapidated, but many solid and stylish—were razed en masse and replaced with dull, enormous multi-unit condominiums. The loss of rental property forced most of the lower-middle-class residents to be priced out of the area; population density skyrocketed, and the neighborhood lost most of its character, both architectural and demographic.

The city council approved the landmark designation four years ago. It couldn’t prevent that one piece of new construction, which is at the very least not a complete eyesore on the block. (I’d still be more appreciative of the house had it been built on any of the many vacant lots within a three-block radius instead.) Nevertheless I liked the fact that I lived in a Landmark Historic District.

That was then. Today, however, my house is in need of tuckpointing. Badly in need, if truth be told. I have a brickmason—a local guy, who does good work at a fair price, and who has worked on many houses in the neighborhood. He’s ready to go. So ready that he calls me every other day to ask, “can we start?”

But this is the city, and I need to pull a permit. Fair enough. The city has an online site for permit applications. It’s not the best user interface in the world—particularly when it responds “exception error” without explanation and forces a total restart of the application process. But ultimately, after several attempts, it allowed me to complete a permit application.

Except—of course—when I printed it out, it contained the troubling notation:

Holds: Landmark

So I have to go to City Hall, and provide the Landmarks Commission with all sorts of documentation on the work to be done, including photographs, to get the hold removed. I pray that won’t be an arduous process.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal except that, with a few more years under my belt, I now understand this fact: In the city of Chicago, landmark status is meaningless. The landmarks ordinance—and, for that matter, the commission—lacks the teeth to prevent demolition of any building in the city, no matter how historic it may be. Developers are free to do as they please, as long as they have the savvy to file the correct paperwork and to say the right words to the right people. (And, if need be, to grease the right palms… or so it’s said.)

Meanwhile, the one thing that’s preventing me from engaging in actual historic preservation, from performing sympathetic repairs to keep a (nominally) historic building from crumbling into dust, is a historic-preservation ordinance. How ironic.

A smooth-sailing surprise

Now, I wrote the preceding while staring down the gauntlet of the city’s permit process—which, by all accounts, is an arduous journey, fraught with arcane rituals performed before secretive committees that meet in hidden chambers with no doors in or out. I would need architectural plans, notarized letters of intent from all contractors, samples of bricks and samples of mortar and a full accounting of any tools that might be used during the job. Oh, and bring along my first-born—and those of three of my neighbors—neatly wrapped in banana leaves in order to feed them to the Sarlacc.

I called the Landmarks office and spoke to a friendly woman who told me where to go and what to bring: specifically, photographs of the building that illustrate the work to be done. I asked if I should include a close-up of the bricks and mortar joints. “Yes, that’s a good idea,” she said. “Do I need samples of the new mortar?” I asked; I was certain I’d been told this by someone in the permit office when I’d been thwarted in my initial, desultory attempt to secure a permit one year ago. “No, that’s not necessary. Be sure to bring actual photos, though—not print-outs of images taken from the Internet or anything like that,” she said.

Her advice carried a modicum of reassurance, but I still had my doubts. There’s no way this could be easy. And yet…

I arrived at the Landmarks office and was told to wait while the receptionist called to the back office for someone to handle “a walk-in.” After a few minutes a guy came out and I showed him my permit application and my photos—two of them, one the full front façade of the house, the other a close-up of eight or nine courses of bricks (as shown above). He looked them over quickly but intently.

“Now, what we’re concerned with is this: We want to be sure that the replacement mortar is of a similar type and color, and we don’t want the width of the mortar joints to change. You see how narrow these joints are?” he asked.

He pointed at my close-up. I was already well aware that the joints were narrow—typical construction style of the era—and I assured him that I have every intention of matching the existing work, to the very best of my contractor’s ability.

“Okay,” he said. “Let me just go and write this up, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Five minutes later he returned, with a signed, typewritten letter stating that the Landmarks office had released the hold on my permit application. “Take this to Permits, you’re all set.”

I was gobsmacked. “That’s it?” I asked.

“It’s good that you brought those photos in. That makes our job really easy.”

Easy. No kidding.

Off to the Department of Buildings and Permits, in an upper floor of City Hall. As I walked through the door, I found myself in a perplexing space. The waiting area was full of people who obviously knew the ropes. Architects toting thick rolls of blueprints and diagrams. Builders and general contractors with satchels full of file folders, folders full of cut sheets and specifications. People whose job it is to navigate this very office; people who do this every day.

There was no “take-a-number” system; no clear sign of who was next and where the end of the line was. I wasn’t even sure that anyone was staffing the counter; if anyone was in charge, they had gone in the back for something. I stood in the middle of the waiting area for a minute or two, pondering my next move. Then I saw, off to one side, a wide desk with three people facing me, each appearing to look busy at a computer terminal. Each had a chair facing them; each chair was empty. The big sign above their heads read, “Easy Permit Applications.”

I looked at my online permit application. “Easy Permit Application,” it read across the top. I strode over to the middle of the three workers, smiled, and set my paperwork in front of him. “I think I’m supposed to bring this to you,” I said, with just a hint of questioning in my voice.

He looked it over, punched some info into his terminal, looked at the screen, looked at my papers again. He scribbled a couple of numbers onto a slip of paper. “Take this to the cashier, you’re all set.”

Holy shit, I thought, suppressing the desire to do a happy dance. There’s light at the end of this tunnel—light I had never expected to see so readily. In all, my time in City Hall totaled less than 45 minutes.

I went to the cashier. I didn’t care what it cost; I didn’t care—though I still wonder—why the amount I paid was $25 less than the amount written on my slip of paper. I stood there with bald amusement as I watched the cashier, who between each step of the payment process would write something on a notepad next to her keyboard. This woman must have figured out long ago that her job entails a lot of brief interludes of downtime: waiting for the computer to call up the correct data; waiting for applicants to complete their payment by filling out a check or using the credit card terminal; waiting for the old HP LaserJet printer to spit out the completed permit. Twenty- or thirty-second pauses, interspersed throughout her day.

So to fill that time, she writes. And writes, and writes. She filled half a page of the steno pad while I stood there, never wasting my time—I could see the printer doing its thing behind her—but not wasting her own time either. I tried to read her handwriting upside-down, but only got the barest gist of it. It was either a personal journal, or she’s writing the next Great American Novel. I’m hopeful it’s the latter.


The work is now complete, and we couldn’t be happier with it. The house looks absolutely gorgeous—like new, if only they built new houses today as pretty as they did ninety years ago. The job cost a lot, but we feel that we got every penny’s worth.

All in all, I’ve learned not to be daunted by the city’s permit process. If you have your stuff together, it’s a breeze. (I’m told it also helps to have a cheery, friendly, and mildly deferential attitude.) And I definitely now have a masonry contractor that I trust and would strongly recommend to anyone in the Chicago area.

During the job, we had the chimneys rebuilt from the roofline up. I asked the contractor to include a bit of corbeling at the top—nothing fancy, just something similar to what one of the original chimneys had had. One of the other chimneys was ugly beyond sin, extended with a bare ceramic flue to reach above a nearby rooftop. We corbeled that one too, something that is not quite in accordance with the landmark district ordinance since it doesn’t match the pre-existing conditions as seen from the street. But it’s oh-so-much better. The chimneys suit the architectural character of the house and the neighborhood, and add just a touch of interesting detail to what would otherwise be boring shafts of brick.

The result: Our new chimneys are the talk of the block, and more than one neighbor has asked for our mason’s business card.


Sweet Mysteries of Youth

12 August 2010
Categories: Narratives

August always makes me think of my childhood, of those fruitful late-summer days spent busy or bored, always struggling to maximize summertime fun against the constant reminders that “Back to School” time was just around the corner. Part of that memory stems from the perennial noise that emits from the trees this time of year. That insistent buzzing-whining drone.

When I was eight, playing in the backyard sandbox, my friend and I heard that sound and wondered what it was. Looking up to the trees and seeing as well the power lines strung along the nearby road, I hypothesized that it was some kind of electrical noise from the wires. My friend wondered why we only hear it in the summer, and I further conjectured that the summer heat caused the wires to leak electricity, or some such.

Hey, to an eight-year-old kid, it was plausible. There’s something special about the age of eight. It’s the age where you have a few years of elementary school under your belt, giving you the sense that you know a bunch of stuff. What you don’t know, you can find out from a friend. And if neither of you have an answer, you can always make one up.

I think my friend might have bought that explanation about buzzing noises caused by leaky wiring. It was a few years before I learned the true cause: cicadas.

Walking the streets of our subdivision (which lacked sidewalks), we would often find these thin, stiff pieces of steel, usually around 5 or 6 inches long, lying near the gutters. Where did they come from? I wondered. A friend’s brother informed me they were car parts, some part of the suspension or leaf springs or brakes or something, and they fell off of older cars.

Again, plausible. They were usually rusty, like the undersides of cars, and I could imagine some old Chevy (or not-so-old Gremlin) hitting a pothole and spewing these strips of metal from its fender wells. But fifteen years later I noticed they were still around. Couldn’t be a car part, I realized. The technology has changed too much for these things to still be as frequent as in my youth. It took very little research to find that they’re bristles from the brushes of street sweepers.

But here’s the greatest mystery—and apocryphal tale—of those long-gone summers.

One day, I and a few friends were patrolling the neighborhood on our bikes. We wandered over to the very edge of my allowed-without-informing-mom-in-advance range. Perhaps a bit further than that, even; I wasn’t 100% sure I knew my way home.

We had reached a point at the eastern edge of town where one of the main avenues crossed a road at the city limits and abruptly changed from a paved thoroughfare to a dusty gravel track that faded into chest-high weeds and grasses. Beyond a rudimentary traffic barricade was a desolate, eerie land of deadly garter snakes and rusty beer cans; of gargantuan tobacco-spitting grasshoppers and dense, impenetrable second- or third-growth woodlots.

As I stood there with my cohort, pondering this unknown realm and whether the reward from its exploration outweighed the risk of getting grounded upon my return, a kid ambled out from the tall grass. He was an older kid, but whether that meant he was 12, or 15, or more, is unclear to me now. Someone in our party knew who he was; a classmate of an older sibling or some such. He approached, stopped, and casually looked us over.

“You know,” he said, with a hint of a grin and a conspiratorial glance over his shoulder, “there’s a nudist colony back in those woods.”

This revelation was dumbfounding. It was so utterly implausible that we launched into the obligatory chorus of “no way” and “yeah right.” He insisted it was true: “I saw it myself.” Naked people frolicking in the woods, he averred, though not in those exact terms. “Go see for yourselves.” And with that idle challenge, he walked away.

Did we meet that challenge? I cannot vouch for my compadres, but I, for one, did not. I figured I was already in enough trouble for straying this far afield. To go beyond that point, in search of a fabled den of iniquity, was inconceivable. My eight-year-old moralism said that if those people were depraved enough to be naked in public, there was no telling of what they might be capable—selling an eight-year-old boy into slavery, perhaps, or (worse yet) stealing his prized purple three-speed banana-seat bicycle. I turned away, and rode home, intrigued but fearful.

Over the years, this mystery stayed in the back of my mind. I sometimes heard further, similar rumors, reinforcing the possibility that a nudist colony really was tucked away amid the trees. Yet by the time I was in high school that area had begun to be developed into a subdivision; the gravel road was replaced by a winding extension of the avenue, and I frequently drove through the area without spying any hint of a naked body or an enclave of debauchery. My gentle skepticism turned to firm doubt.

Finally, when I was in college, I learned the truth: there was indeed—even then—nudity happening out there, but not a “nudist colony” per se. Hidden in what remained of the woods was a deep, roughly rectangular, spring-fed quarry pond. To access it one would park in back of an unremarkable apartment complex, cross over a railroad embankment, and follow a series of unmarked trails that meandered through clearings and skirted low marshes. College students, mostly, used the pond to go skinny-dipping. Those in the know called it Bare-Ass Lake.

In the years since then, the area has continued to be developed, and “Hidden Lake Drive” now passes right by the no-longer-hidden Bare-Ass Lake, stringing together little cul-de-sacs of tidy condominiums. The developer had a sense of humor, however, and left us with a sanitized, punning in-joke: the nearest cul-de-sac is called “Bear Lake Drive.”

A plumbing saga

30 November 2007
Categories: Narratives

We have a house with two-pipe forced hot water heat. I think it’s the best. It has consistent warmth, it’s virtually silent, and it doesn’t reduce the humidity in the air like forced air does even when a humidifier is attached to the blower. Plus the big cast-iron radiator in the bathroom is a great way to dry bath towels and keep them warm for the next use.

Recently, I had to do some maintenance work on the boiler. This house and I have a karmic attachment, so whenever I perform work on it, the house responds positively and the result is beyond satisfying. Of course, each job still usually requires more than one trip to the hardware store, and is never complete until I’ve managed to draw at least a little blood… but that’s par for the course.

Anyway, I discovered the boiler had some plumbing issues when I stumbled across a quirk of its operation while firing it up in the fall. If the control system at the boiler has no power, and the thermostat upstairs is sending an “ON” signal, when the control system is powered up the boiler will immediately start firing—but the control will then ignore any subsequent signals from the thermostat, most notably the “OFF” command. This of course can lead to the boiler firing continuously.

I discovered this the hard way, by leaving the boiler unattended for a few days. When I returned, I found the radiators hot to the touch, the room temperature about 20 degrees above the thermostat setting, and the boiler running dangerously over pressure.

Obviously, the pressure relief valve, which should have opened wide at 30 psi to dump hot water all over the floor, was shot. To replace it, I had to drain the entire system, which took a while but not nearly as long as I’d feared. Then I pulled the valve off and drove over to my local Home Depot.

The Home Depot takes a lot of flak, much of it justified, for killing off mom-and-pop hardware stores. But that’s not my issue with them. My issue is that if you’re looking to build something new, Home Depot is an adequate place to start; but if you’re looking to repair or restore anything in a house more than about ten years old, you’re probably going to be SOL there. I’ve even been unable to find something as simple and basic as a round cover grate for a basement floor drain.

I showed the dead valve to two Home Depot associates, one supposedly the “plumbing department guy,” and neither had a clue as to what they were looking at beyond guessing that they didn’t have one to sell. They pointed me toward an Ace hardware several blocks up the road. The folks at this Ace had to shrug too.

So then I did what I should have done in the first place: I went to my favourite hardware store in town, Clark–Devon Hardware. This place is a sprawling collection of interconnected smaller buildings, seemingly cluttered but really just stocked to the rafters with everything a homeowner or contractor might need. The staff there is usually very helpful—there’s even one guy who hangs out in the nuts and bolts section, ready to spring into action to help you find exactly the nut or bolt or screw or washer that you need to complete your job.

That day was no exception. I showed the valve to the guy in the plumbing department, he took one look at it, said “OK,” and went to a cabinet where he pulled out an exact replacement. No problem at all.

I took the valve home and installed it on the boiler, only to discover the problem was bigger than I had imagined. When I opened the shutoff valve on the supply pipe, the sound was not one of rushing water but rather the quiet hiss of a mere trickle through a constricted opening. Turns out a pressure reducing valve just downstream of the shutoff valve, meant to fill the boiler at 12 psi and then act as a check valve in case of a drop in supply pressure, was barely functioning. A lever on the valve to force it open (i.e. “fast fill” mode) would not budge. It would have taken hours, probably days, to fill the entire heating system with this valve in place, and the fact that it was incapable of correcting for low system pressure was dangerous as well. I had yet another valve to replace. (A later autopsy showed the valve’s innards to be caked solid with rust.)

Knowing better than to waste time again, I returned to Clark–Devon directly. Actually, my wife went for me, since it was rapidly getting cold outside and I was unwilling to wait until the weekend rolled around again before continuing work. Unfortunately, she did not have the valve with her, since I had left it attached to the boiler—I’d found that the shutoff valve was also worn out and passing water, so I felt it best to allow it to drain through the system rather than directly onto the floor. She found a guy who seemed helpful, and she put me on the phone with him, and between us we were able to determine that they didn’t have an equivalent valve in stock, but could get one in within a day. So I gave him the go-ahead, and he said he’d call when it came in.

That was the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week. The following Sunday morning, not having heard from them (but having been out of town during the holiday) I headed to Clark–Devon. There I found a service desk with no trace of the part nor any paperwork on it, and a guy in the plumbing department—oddly, the same guy who had found my relief valve in about two shakes—who was utterly unresponsive and unwilling to help us, suggesting we come back the next day when the guy who had placed the order would be in.

This is the first time Clark–Devon has ever dropped the ball on me, and I’m not going to let it colour my overall positive opinion of that store. I’ll go back there in the future, but probably not for plumbing parts. Likewise, a small neighbourhood hardware store that I stumbled across on my way home was also unable to help. (It seems like part of the problem is that in order to compete with the big boxes, mom-and-pop hardware stores have had to shrink their basic hardware supplies and now try to bring in customers by focusing more on housewares and small appliances.)

So on Monday, instead of dealing further with Clark–Devon, I called a local plumbing supply house. The place opens at an ungodly early hour, and is one of those places that caters almost exclusively to working tradesmen, a dingy brick building with a decrepit sign out front and a heavy steel door that rings a shockingly loud klaxon bell every time it’s opened (in case everyone is in the back and not manning the front counter). I won’t mention the company’s name, not because they weren’t helpful—ultimately they were, and had the part I needed—but because I’m going to have to mock them a bit to tell this story, which in my opinion gets a little goofy now.

I called them and explained that I had a feeder valve for a boiler that needed replacing, one that reduces the inflow pressure to 12 psi, with 1/2-inch threaded fittings on both sides. I called it a “boiler feed valve” because that’s the term the original manufacturer used for it. I had the tag from the original valve and told the guy on the phone the manufacturer’s name and all the specs I had. The guy said they didn’t carry that brand and started talking about a powered feed valve, i.e. one that would need an electrical connection to operate. This didn’t sound right to me, so I explained further what the valve did and where it was located in the system. He said, “you’re talking about a pressure reducing valve.” I said, “yeah, I guess I am,” and he replied that they had plenty of those in stock, so there would be no need for him to set one aside for me. I said I’d be right over and hung up.

When I got there it was still early, the dawn clouds making a gorgeous pink-and-purple display down Milwaukee Avenue toward the city. In front of the place an overweight guy was standing in the alcove, having perhaps his first smoke of the day. That he was nearly blocking the entrance and had a distinctly unwelcoming mien is neither here nor there.

A Bell & Gossett FB-38 Pressure Reducing Valve, looking beautiful in fire engine red... too bad mine came in plain, unpainted brass.Inside, I explained—again—what I needed. The young man at the counter deferred to an older guy, in his forties, who better knew the ropes. I said, “it’s a pressure reducing valve.” He pulled out a valve that didn’t look right at all, with 3/4-inch fittings that were oriented all wrong and with specs that didn’t add up for my application. I said, “this looks more like the relief valve I already have, except the direction of flow is reversed.” He said, “this is on a steam system?” and I said, or rather repeated since I’d already told him this, “no, two-pipe hot water.” He said, “and this valve is where, exactly?” I said, “on the supply side, just downstream of the city water cutoff.” He said, “oh, you need a feeder valve,” and handed over the exactly right part.

One which, according to the box it came in, is a Bell & Gossett FB-38 Pressure Reducing Valve.

I felt like I’d been dope-slapped, or had fallen through the looking-glass. It was one of those situations where specialists (and this is true in any field) have their own argot, a specialized language that they think only they understand, and when a civilian (i.e. non-specialist) appears, speaking the specialists’ own language, the tendency is to think that they don’t know what they’re talking about, even if they do. Which would mean I was caught in the trap of knowing exactly the specs of what I needed, and calling it by its proper name, and having everyone I spoke to hear something completely different.  It didn’t help that the specialists were inconsistent in the terminology of their own specialization.

Either that, or I was dealing with a bunch of idiots.

Anyway, following the replacement of a few other pipes in the feed line that were quadruple-bypass-sclerotic from rust, I succeeded in putting the boiler plumbing back in working order. With the new feeder—ahem, pressure reducing—valve, the system was quickly filled and bled of air, and I fired the burner up once again for another bitter Chicago winter.

It’s now Friday. The boiler has been happily cooking away—and shutting off on cue—for two days now, and all is well. Meanwhile, my supposed parts order from Clark–Devon still has not resulted in a phone call from them.

My 22 Minutes of Fame, part V

10 December 1999
Categories: Narratives

The following is the last in a five-part narrative about my appearance on Jeopardy! in 1997.

Part I: “How do you get to Sony Pictures Studios?”
Part II: The Mecca of Nerds
Part III: Showtime!
Part IV: December 10, 1997

Part V: Aftermath

As an episode of Jeopardy! closes, the three contestants stand with Alex and chat. Ever wonder what it is they’re talking about? Me too. I have almost no recollection of our little conversation that day, despite the appearance on tape of being engaged in some witty banter. It had something to do with lunch being next on the agenda; the one word I remember Alex saying, believe it or not, was “gravy.”

It wasn’t until I stepped off the stage and was handed the post-show release forms that I found out I had won a trip for two to Jamaica. Not my first choice for a vacation, nor my tenth, but it was a lot better than a bunch of furniture we don’t need, or a pair of his-and-hers watches, or a bunch of other second-place prizes they gave away that week. Plus, of course, they gave me all the random shit they always mention—Centrum Silver, Denorex, an Aiwa portable tape player, a Looney Tunes pocket watch, a dozen coupons for free bottles of Mrs. Butterworth’s, the electronic home game and the Jeopardy! scorekeeper (“so you can play along at home”). Piles of the stuff, most of which would arrive in various separate packages during the months following the air date. I’ll never understand why they sent the cough drops and Denorex samples via overnight FedEx. Like I couldn’t wait.

The show broke for lunch, and since I had no reason to stay I gathered up my stuff and met my girlfriend at the studio door. The audience was exiting through that same door, in clumps, and I got a lot of congratulatory and sympathetic comments from a number of senior ladies. Turns out she had made friends with them before the taping and they had all been rooting for me.

The next day I dropped her off in Beverly Hills to spend the day with her sister, and I drove alone down to Long Beach, where the Queen Mary was docked alongside a huge hangar housing Howard Hughes’ second-largest folly, the Spruce Goose. Except when I got there I learned the giant wooden flying boat had been packed onto a barge a few months before and shipped off to a museum in Oregon.

So, not having satisfied my aviation jones, I drove back north along the coast and stopped in Santa Monica at the Museum of Flying, built on the site that was the birthplace of the greatest aircraft in history, the Douglas DC-3. Except the museum is closed on Tuesdays.

I decided LA was trying to tell me something. I stayed in my hotel room the rest of the day, and the next morning we caught a flight back to Chicago.

It was gratifying to learn, once December rolled around, that the actress had been blown away in Thursday’s game, and wasn’t even a contender during that day’s final round. So much for the lucky reindeer.

Having had my shot at fame and fortune on Jeopardy!, I am now precluded from ever appearing on that show again. Which is fine with me. Having seen behind the curtain, I don’t even find the show all that interesting any more, and rarely watch it now. It may be the king of trivia game shows, but to me it has become old and stodgy. Still, I recommend that anyone who likes the show should give it a try. What do you have to lose? Me, I’m gunning now for Ben Stein. His show rocks, and I think I have a chance, albeit a small one, to win his money. Wish me luck.

My 22 Minutes of Fame, part IV

10 December 1999
Categories: Narratives

The following is the fourth in a five-part narrative about my appearance on Jeopardy! in 1997.

Part I: “How do you get to Sony Pictures Studios?”
Part II: The Mecca of Nerds
Part III: Showtime!

Part IV: December 10, 1997

Image ©1997 Sony PicturesCaution: spoilers. Watch the tape first, or check out this analysis from the J! Archive fansite, and see the truth. Then read this, and find out what really happened.

From all appearances, it would seem that I was going great—tearing up the board—and then overextended myself on a Daily Double wager, causing me to panic and crash and burn. Not quite.

Let’s be honest. I kicked ass in the first round. I had confidence and knew virtually all the questions. Thanks to the actress’s psyche-out I avoided the Shakespeare category, which was a mistake because I knew all 5… but that didn’t matter because they handed me Let’s Play Clue, a board game I know all too well. (The player moving Colonel Mustard has the best odds of winning.) By the end of the round, I was leading by $200 over the actress. The returning champ was a distant third. The game was mine to win, or to lose.

Midway through the first round came the contestant chat, and my bullshit came back to haunt me. Alex could have asked me about my interest in space exploration, my rocketry web site, my history of bus trips through hell. But no, he went straight to the bottom of my list and asked about my unique hobby of collecting bricks from demolished historic buildings. So I chatted him up about the nostalgia (if not historical value) of the bricks I’ve collected, and managed to slip in a little commentary about the tragic loss of so many works by such great architects as Louis Sullivan.

I neglected to mention that one of the primary reasons I have these bricks is for the twentysomething outlaw thrill of sneaking into cordoned-off demolition sites.

I also failed to mention that the “collection” numbered, and remains, 2.

Then came the Double Jeopardy round. And tragedy struck.

It was going really well. My confidence was high, and I had the button under my thumb, both literally and figuratively—five times in a row I was first to ring in. Somehow I was managing to keep my knees from locking up. Then, from somewhere in the back of my head, or perhaps the ghost of the reindeer sitting on my shoulder, I’m not sure, came a voice:

“There’s a Daily Double behind Record Producers for $600.”

All through the orientation, the producers kept telling us, run the board top to bottom. That way you can get a feel for how the category is going to go, and even eliminate some possibilities since no two answers will have the same correct question. But I said to myself, what the fuck. I know rock and roll. So I asked for it.

Sure enough, a Daily Double. I freaked. Suddenly a sizable portion of my brain was shunted into answering the question, “how the fuck did I know that would be there?” I was surprised to see that I was well ahead and, rather than risk a sensible and tactical $1000, made a big mistake, wagering the margin between myself and second place. And then, the answer:

This person produced the all-time best-selling album in rock history.

Okay, I knew the album was “Thriller.” I also knew that Quincy Jones produced most of Michael Jackson’s albums. But the part of my brain that could put these two facts together was still busy looking for voices in my head, and the random name generator attached to my tongue said “who is David Geffen?”

From then on it was a lost cause, and a lead—I mean, a tie for the lead—dissolves pretty quickly when you start guessing at $800 and $1000 questions. When it came time to wager on Final Jeopardy, I didn’t have enough left to catch the leader. With the distribution of scores and the wagers I expected the others to make, I figured the best I could possibly do was second place, and a category as vague as Women didn’t leave me with any additional hope. Deep Space Probes would have been nice. I wound up betting that one of them would be wrong and would have bet a lot, so I only wagered a portion of my money in case I got it wrong as well. I anguished a while over the decision but never wrote a single number on my scrap paper, crunching numbers and logic in my head to try and find a solution that would let me win. It wasn’t there. In retrospect I should have just had the balls to bet it all, but even in my morose state I couldn’t bear the thought of having that goose egg on the front of my podium. (Not that the amount really matters. Only the winner takes the cash. Second and third places get the consolation prizes, but no money.)

I had a little vindication when I wound up being the only one to get the question right. The answer was:

One of three women, in the only statue that depicts women, in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.

I was stumped for almost all of Merv’s little song. Why a trio of women? All I could think of were temperancers, suffragists, and war nurses. Just in the last few moments I thought, well, she was important enough to put on a coin… and jotted down her name as fast as possible. I didn’t have time to change the weird phrasing (“What is Susan B. Anthony?”) that was in fact caused by the producers admonishing us to fill in those words during the wagering phase so that we wouldn’t be disqualified for not phrasing it in the form of a question. (They claimed “What is” would be the correct phrasing, but obviously they had their heads up their legally-protected asses.)

I wound up in second place, just as expected. The champ shot his wad and came in third. The actress/witch and her goddamned reindeer got the cash.

Part V: Aftermath