Book: Ask the Right Question

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The alarm went off at 5:30. I guess that is because in my enthusiasm from the night’s hypothesizing, I set it to go off at 5:30.

It was awful.

I struggled out of bed by a quarter of six, breakfasted to the extent of making a full pot of coffee and four pieces of toast. While the coffee brewed and the toast burned I went through the refrigerator pulling ice, milk, a very hard salami, and all my fruit, celery, and tomatoes.

While the butter was soaking through the night-sky toast, I rinsed my thermos jug and my cooler chest. While I was about it I got out some cookies and peanuts.

Then, as if one rested every seventh minute, I ate my toast and drank the three-fourths cup of coffee that did not fit in the thermos bottle.

Everything else into the cooler chest. Picnic time. By 6:15 I was ready to leave. Cunningly I had already packed a bag of nonperishables—two books, an unfinished crossword puzzle to write, from the Morning Telegraph the forms of the horses running at all the New York and California tracks, a book of paper and some crayons, a raincoat and sweater in case it got wet or cold, sunglasses in case it got sunny, mustache and floppy hat in case I got bored and wanted to laugh at myself in the car mirror. Camera and film, of course, for souvenir snapshots; a radio, a few miscellaneous tools and picks, my notebook and some money in case I forgot anything. It’s a fairly large quantity of goodies to carry, but I packed it very tidily.

By 6:38 I was parked a discreet distance from the Crystal house.

I was waiting for Leander. A typical day. Or days. I wanted to find out things about him, right?

Tailing is one of the dullest of jobs. But I didn’t have a whole lot else that I wanted to do. I didn’t really know anything about Leander Crystal. I was hoping that at least I could find some people to talk to about him by going along after him for a day or two. Ultimately to get a better idea of how he operated—if he operated. Maybe it would only take a day—if I was a little lucky. And if I was very lucky maybe I would come across something more useful. Like a written confession.

At 6:40 I had a problem. What to do to amuse myself first. I settled for radio news and drawing pictures of animals of the jungle.

At 7:15 he came out, and drove off in his year-old Buick. I followed, drawings at my side, humming “Me and My Shadow.”

For a tail I was in a pretty good mood. I draw a mean hippopotamus.

I spent three and a half hours observing the front of an office on Vermont Street. One of the plaques next to the door read “Graham Enterprises.” I kept pretty chipper almost the whole time. The sun peeked tentatively out and then arrived to stay.

Merely learning about Graham Enterprises gave me a whole new game to play. Now I could always spend a day checking up on the people Leander must come in contact with daily here—garagemen, elevator men, secretaries, colleagues.

Around 11 I had a bad daydream. I saw myself picked up by a cop for loitering. Thrust before a judge to explain why I’d been sitting in my car on Vermont Street for three hours.

But that wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was explaining to the judge why I was following Leander Crystal when what I wanted to know was who had knocked up his wife.

At 11:30 he came out. No briefcase. Of course he had had none when he went in. Back to the garage for the car. I was glad we were going for a ride.

Crystal drove with patience and courtesy. He headed north and for a while I thought he was going home for lunch. Not exactly typical of an Indianapolis executive, but millionaires have certain prerogatives.

But the north became northwest. And then became the Broadland Country Club. Not exactly a source of childhood memories for me. At a discreet distance I followed him into the parking lot. I pulled in as far away as I could get from his car. There is no guard or check station for members. But they do have a parking lot attendant. After a while he came over to give me a hard time. I explained that I was waiting for my sister-in-law who was having lunch after a swim. He bought it for a bit.

I would have ambled around the grounds for a while, never having compared an Indianapolis country club to those I’d been squired around in the East. But I wanted to minimize the risk that I would miss Crystal when he came out. At about 12:40 I drove back out to the main road.

After waiting till 1:20 at the edge of the pavement I was reasonably certain that more than lunch was being engaged in. That meant booze, bath, swim, golf, cards or broad. I sat where I was. It was the hardest part of the day. I found I had already read one of the books I had picked the night before.

He almost spotted me. The car was on the shoulder about 500 yards from the country club gate. A safe distance. But only about 10 yards from a tee. If I had realized that, I might have seen him come on it. As it happened I spotted him in the middle of his shot. Pure accident. But pure carelessness. One has to know where one is as well as where the subject is if one is to tail anybody with any professionalism.

Instead, I heard the swish of a practice stroke and looked left in time to see the man in action. His walk and his in-house bearing were nice but didn’t do justice to his grace and flexibility. He was good and a pleasure to watch. In the second I had to watch him. As soon as I thought of it, I hit the seat of the car and waited too long—to be absolutely certain he had gone away.

In this kind of “sampling” tail—when you just want to see what the man does with his time—it is essential that he not know you are there. The fact of your presence will change what he does. It’s the basic scientific problem. To observe phenomena without affecting those phenomena. And it’s the problem which is the basic limit to observation.

There are other kinds of tail. Sometimes you go out of your way to make sure the guy knows you are tailing him. In divorce stuff, for example, sometimes you can’t figure out on which stop he is making his extra woman so you let him know you’re following him and then see which place he avoids. If the guy is smart enough to realize you are following him.

On a tail you get a lot of time to generalize about being on a tail.

By 3:15 I was bored to tears. My ice had melted, my salami stank. I was listening to the same news and same records. I was not in the mood for speculation about what my subject was doing or who I might find who could get me into the country club on another day. I guess I’m just not very good on tails. I was suffering over the decision whether to continue it for another day. That’s what really hurt. Not having a ready excuse to quit.

It’s a good thing that there was little else in the area besides the country club, or I might have missed him coming out. I might have missed him anyway only he drove by me, headed back to town. He came out just in time. A few more minutes and I would have been making up some of the sleep I lost getting up so early in the morning.

We headed east and south, back to town. I was guessing the office. That’s what you get for guessing. I nearly cracked up switching lanes when he headed off to the right—south on Capital. Of course you’ve got to figure a guy can have someplace else to go in the world.

So we were heading south. And a degree of interest was creeping back into my stultified mind. I tried to suppress it. I hate being disappointed. Maybe he had a dentist appointment. Maybe he wanted the scenic route home so as not to surprise his wife in bed with the father of her child.

But the south side?

I mean, I like it because I grew up there, southeast anyway, but it’s not everybody’s notion of scenic.

We kept going, down Capital, then a jog across McCarty to Madison. It looked like we were going out of town; Madison is Route 431 and it goes to Franklin, a fine town. In fact technically maybe we were out of town, on the right side of Madison, which is the city limits for a while.

But just in time, he turned off. Still in the city, near something called Southern Plaza.

For the first time all day I was having no boredom trouble. This must be some dentist he was going to. I was interested to see the color of her hair.

At Southern Plaza we took a left on Monkward Avenue and half a block down he pulled into the parking lot of a one-story office complex.

When I saw him go into the lot I speeded up and drove by its entrance. At the first cross street I made a U-turn as fast as my aging steed allowed and I fairly gunned it the half block back to Crystal’s new office building. He got out of his car and walked toward the lobby door.

If I hadn’t seen him get out of the car I wouldn’t have known it was him. He was wearing sunglasses and he was walking underneath a newly acquired full head of hair which covered most of what I previously would have identified as his forehead.

I pulled up next to a parked car across the street to watch the spectacle. He entered the lobby and I saw him turn to his right as he left my line of sight. I waited a few minutes to see if he headed that way temporarily and then I found myself a parking place of my own. And I stepped across the street.

Inside the front door the lobby was lushly planted with plastic trees and bushes. It was utterly without chairs to hide in or pillars to hide behind. He had turned right into a single corridor which presumably ran the length of the wing. A similar corridor opened to the left.

I went back outside. I walked along the windows to the right of the front door, hoping to get a glimpse of him. I wanted to know which office he was in. Some notion of what he was doing in there.

I didn’t see a thing, even though most of the offices had their blinds open. The building was five offices long. I was now reasonably certain that he had gone into one of the offices on the back side of the building.

I went around the end of the building. There was a storm fence four or five feet from the back sidewall. I turned the corner. Without walking down the row I could see that virtually all the blinds were shut—it was afternoon—facing southwest.

I went back to the front door, and went in.

The registry bore no names I was familiar with. Most of them were businesses, presumably small. A teacher placement agency. Real-estate company. And some with unrevealing names. And by count seventeen names were listed. Which jibed with a notice which read, “Office space available. Reasonable rates. Full services,” and gave a phone number which I took down. There was not much to be done. I was back at the waiting game.

Crystal was down the right wing somewhere. I headed down the left and picked an office at the end. “Import-Export Experts, Inc. Please Knock Before Entering.”

And I stood. The idea was to wait and see what office Crystal came out of. I figured I would be adequately inconspicuous if I was quickly ducking into another office.

He was inside for forty-eight minutes. Long enough for me to check that the locks used in the building were Braversweigs, and to realize none of the offices in the group did any overwhelming amount of people-to-people business. Phones rang, typewriters wrote, but nary a soul entered or left while I was standing there. I got lonely.

I did learn that inside my office I would find at least one female with a smooth cool voice. She was on the phone for the last twenty-seven minutes I was outside her door. The call was not exactly business. It had been some time since anybody talked on the phone like that to me. I was looking forward to going in.

At 4:33 Leander Crystal, shaded and bewigged, entered the corridor from the fourth office on the left in the far wing. As he locked his door by key, I broke in on Import-Export Experts, Inc. I didn’t knock. It was not in the cards; my knuckles bruise easily.

I startled the chubby lady on the phone.

“What the fuck do you want?” Then she spoke more conciliatorily into the receiver cuddled twixt shoulder and ear.

“Some nut just came in without knocking—let me call you back.” As she hung up and righted herself from a compromising position, she tactfully inquired, “What’s the matter, mista, can’t ya read? It says to knock before you come in here!”

I went to the door and opened it in. “Oh, yeah. So it does. Gee,” I said, “I’m awfully sorry.”

“What do you want?”

“I wanted to know what countries you import from.”

“We can import from just about anywhere. What do you want imported?”

“Stamps,” I said. “I’d like stamps from any foreign countries you can get them from. I thought if you do business with foreign countries that you might get foreign stamps that I could have. I could pay you for them. Not much, but something.”

She leaned back in her lean-back chair. “Jeesus.” She rubbed her temples with her left hand. She sighed. “You don’t look like no stamp collector.”

“Well, I’m hoping to sell them. That’s why I can pay a little.”

“I’m sorry, mista. But the stamps we get here we save for the boss’s kids. He’ll be here tomorra morning if you want to come in then.”

“Maybe I will. I’m sorry I bothered you.” Then as I was leaving I said, “You have a very nice voice,” and closed the door.

I got to the lobby in time to watch Crystal pull out of the lot. I bolted across the street to my car door and saw him waiting at the light at the end of the block—Madison. The big question was whether he would be setting off back to the city, or whether he would take a new direction. The big decision was whether to keep after him, or settle for this secret recess of his life.

When the light went green, he turned right, the direction of central Indianapolis. Not that he might not have some other business I would want to find out about, but his staying in town made it all somehow more finite and contained if it did exist. Somehow more accessible on another day if I needed it.

And the idea of leaving a cozy place like Imports-Exports to go back on a tail, well …

I decided to stick around. I found a pay phone and made some calls.

The first to my office.

It was a 4:46, prime time. The phone rang twice before it was picked up. A tentative, female, familiar voice coughed and said, “Mr. Samson’s office.”

“Miss Crystal, this is Albert Samson.”

Immediately more confident she said, “Gee, you’ve never called me Miss Crystal before.”

“I hoped I’d catch you. I wanted to let you know I was on the job, and that I’d probably be in tomorrow. There are some things I want to ask you.”

“Like about what?”

“Mostly about your environmental father and what he does with his day.”

“He goes to the office in the morning and then to the country club for the afternoon.”

“Every day?”

“Yes. Except weekends.”

“Can you get in touch with him at the country club?”

“Only in an emergency. He doesn’t like to be bothered. But if we have to, we call and ask for him.”

“And when does he come home at night?”

“Sometimes early or sometimes he stays late. You can’t tell.”

“Well, we’ll talk more about it tomorrow, if that’s convenient.”

“Oh, sure, I guess so.”

“Maybe I should hire you as my secretary while we’re about it.”

She giggled. Not as charming a giggle as I’d heard through my Import-Export door. Too childish.

“Did you mind? I mean me answering the phone like, that? I thought when it rang it might be something important.”

“That’s just fine, no problem. I’m glad you did.”

“Yes, so am I.”

And thus we parted.

For my edification I looked up the number of the Broadland Country Club.

“Is Leander Crystal there please?”

A formal male voice answered passionlessly and immediately. “Mr. Crystal is on the golf course.”

“Is it possible to have him paged? It’s a matter of life and death.”

“If you’ll leave your name and number, I’ll have him call you back when he comes in.”

“About how long will that be please?”

“Should be within an hour.”

“Well,” I said huffily, “it’s not all that important.” And I hung up.

Crystal was presumably returning to the club. More prerogatives of the rich.

Loath to leave a machine which had rewarded me so handsomely, I dialed the number on the notice posted in the Crystal Secret Office Building. I got through to Armor Realtors and learned that there were two choice offices that happened to have fallen vacant last week. I inquired about the rent because one must, and made an appointment to see them the next morning.

Twenty offices and two vacancies; yet only seventeen were identified on the register in the lobby. I was willing to bet which office the odd one was.

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