Flashback Friday: Otto's Night Watch. This Is One of the Funniest Ones Yet!
Here’s the next installment in our continuing series of republished “Otto’s Night Watch” columns written by Otto Boutin, which appeared monthly several decades ago in Printing Impressions. This might be one of the most humorous ones we've republished yet in the continuing series. So, settle in and enjoy his latest tall tale. And, BTW, who can post the first comment explaining who Sally Rand was without Googling her name?
Image in a Crystal Ball
We called him the Guru because his gaunt face was covered by a bramble beard and he usually remained aloof. He wore a Nehru shirt most of the time, blue or black, with a brass chain necklace which he had tucked under the high collar when leaning over the forms of financial pages.
He was a very good make-up man and worked real fast, as if he had six hands like one of those funny statues in India. When he finished he would stand silent, in deep meditation.
“You’re just the type of person,” I told him, “who should know something about ESP.”
The Guru’s hollowed eyes clouded with a mist.
“I live in the other world,” he said, “more than in this one. Through the years of meditation I have found my way into the infinity beyond sensory perception. In fact, when I am making up those pages of the Daily Bugle, the headlines seem old to me. I’ve seen them already...yesterday...last week...last month...”
My eyes were drawn to the brass pendant he was twirling with hypnotic effect.
“D’you mean to tell me,” I whispered in amazement, “that you see the stock market reports a month ahead of time? You could make a million.”
“Financial matters do not interest me,” said the Guru, bending over a form to make some corrections. “Money is a transitory thing, here today, gone tomorrow.”
I suspected the Guru was just giving me a line. So the next day I brought a two-dollar crystal ball to the lunchroom and put it on the table where the Guru was feasting, as usual, on nothing but walnuts and dates.
“Tell us, Guru,” I said. “What do you see?”
Calmly cracking a walnut, he replied. “Cheap crystal ball. Sears Roebuck bargain basement.”
A crowd had gathered around the table. Even a few lady proofreaders were staring into the crystal ball, as if they expected to see a husband lurking inside.
The twittering was silenced by the deep voice of O’Malley, the stereotype. “Who’s gonna win the Kentucky Derby?” he demanded.
The Guru absently kept nibbling a walnut. “I do not concern myself with horses,” he said. “Sacred cows, yes, but not horses. Besides, it’s not my crystal ball."
And he pointed a long, skinny finger at me.
“All right then, Yogi man.” O’Malley addressed me. “What do you see in the crystal ball? Who’s gonna win the Derby tomorrow?”
Quite frankly, I don’t know much about four-legged fillies. I didn’t even know the names of the entries because I don’t do much Linotyping for the sports section. And I was worried that O’Malley might beat me up if I gave him the wrong tip. So I tried to corn my way out of a difficult situation.
With a nostalgic smile on my face, I said, “I see Sally Rand in the crystal ball. She’s dancing with two big fans of ostrich feathers. One in front and one in back. And she’s wearing nothing else.”
A lady proofreader snorted.
“Dirty old man!” she exclaimed indignantly. And with her pointed chin high in the air she click-clacked out of the lunchroom.
An apprentice kept staring into his racing form.
“I don’t see no Sally Rand in this paper,” he complained. “She must of got scratched. Or maybe you ain’t got that thing tuned in to Kentucky. Maybe you went too far into the future and got Pimlico by mistake. But even then, I never heard of...”
“I really do see Sally Rand,” I insisted, feeling sorry for the uncultured oaf who so obviously had been deprived of the elegant refinements of yesteryear. “Ooops, she almost dropped a fan.”
Everybody had suddenly developed an interest in the terpsichorean art. They were elbowing each other aside to peek into the revealing crystal ball.
Once again O’Malley’s voice silenced the confusion.
“Quiet!” he roared. “The Yogi says he see Sally Rand. He sees the image of a dancer. The winner of the derby will be...”
The lunchroom cleared in 10 seconds flat as everybody ran down to the mailing room to place bets on Dancer’s Image. Even one of the big shot editors was there, standing in line, clutching a 10-dollar bill. He hadn’t even finished writing his editorial on the evils of gambling.
Well, Dancer’s Image won the Derby, as you know. And even though there was some argument over the kind of aspirin she had been taking, people who had bet on her got to keep their money just the same. And the employees of the Daily Bugle kept tossing their dollar bills at me, asking me to look into the crystal ball to see what I could see. I became known as Yogi Otto, a peculiar title, if I say so myself.
But the Guru kept shaking his head.
“Phony crystal ball,” he maintained. “My ESP tells me you should sell it before you get killed.”
I figured he was jealous. Then I took another look at his new chain necklace. It wasn’t brass. It was gold. And I took a double blink at the green rock in his pendant. I had been chasing rich widows enough to recognize a real emerald when I saw one.
I suspected there might be some sweet connection between the Guru’s ESP and the financial pages of the Daily Bugle. To show him I respected his advice I sold the crystal ball to O’Malley for 20 dollars. And I made a determined effort to become the lonely Guru’s best friend, maybe even his partner.
I did some reading on Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, which did me no harm. I memorized a few philosophical passages from the Upanishads and learned to count up to 10 in Sanskrit – eka, dvi, tri, catur, panca, sas, sapta, asta, nava, dasa. And I began eating walnuts and dates for a five-minute lunch.
But my greatest achievement was learning to stand on my head in the shower room, next to the Guru, for a few minutes of deep Oriental meditation.
During one of these sessions he confided that he needed a partner in the little business he had as a sideline. He needed someone to watch the store while he entertained the blonde who had suddenly come into his life. She was very beautiful, he said, not the type to mope around in sad neglect. Now and then she’d go to the beach with some bum who had plenty of time on his hands.
“Why don’t you quit this job at the newspaper?” I asked. “You seem to be making plenty of money at the other place.”
“No,” said the Guru, shaking his foot because he couldn’t shake his head while standing on it. “My job here is necessary to my business. But things would go better if I had a Linotypist for a partner. I wouldn’t have to be asking the old crabs to set lines for me. And maybe you could take care of my customers at the store while I’d be attending to important business elsewhere.”
“I’d be glad to,” I said.
“O.K. But you’ll have to learn to wear a turban.”
The Guru worked the late afternoon shift at the Daily Bugle, which gave him the greater part of the day to devote to his little store on the west side. In the store he would sit on a high velvet cushion beyond a huge crystal ball and mumble Oriental sounds while his long, exotic fingers touched the trembling hand of a lady customer. Almost always he managed to envision some glamorous prince lurking in the future, eager to carry the woman across the threshold of the Taj Mahal, or at least pay last month’s rent in the slum.
There were men customers, too, with problems that were more mathematical than romantic. They were interested in lucky numbers.
“I’ve got a good, steady business,” the Guru told me. “But I hate to think of all the money my customers are spending elsewhere. I’d like to expand into the numbers racket myself, but I need a partner, preferably a linotyper at the Bugle who could cast me a line now and then.”
“Count me out,” I said, knifing a finger across my throat. “There’s four gangs handling baseball attendance numbers and three more specializing in the daily federal deficit. They don’t like competition.”
“Those numbers are too closely watched,” said the Guru. Anybody can find them in any newspaper in the country. But do you know how many sacred cows were sacrificed in the local stock yards yesterday...cattle slaughtered that is?”
I shook my head.
“Well, the Bugle is the only newspaper that carries that figure. Our dear, departed publisher used to be a cowpoke, as well as a stickler for accuracy. So every day we carry, in agate type, the exact number of cows that were clonked, right on the head.”
The Guru flicked a ladybug off the crystal ball as be continued. “That magic number is on the financial page, under my jurisdiction. You, as a linotyper, could cast me a line now and then to protect the interests of our partnership.”
“We’d rig the numbers game?”
“We’d manipulate it in a businesslike manner,” he corrected.
“It won’t work,” I said. “The editors jump all over that financial page as soon as it’s printed, finding errors that the proofreaders missed.”
The Guru had answers for everything. “The editors jump all over the first edition only. That’s mailed out to the farmers. After that, nobody bothers much with the financial pages, especially not with the poor cows, in such tiny type.”
I bought a green silk turban to wrap around my head and some grease paint to give my cheeks an Oriental Glamor. And I did a lot of research in the lovelorn columns so I could give advice to women. We relied on the fortune-telling business to pay the overhead while we were building up the mathematical diversification.
The Guru was convinced that our enterprise was highly ethical.
“We are taking only one solitary dollar from each of these investors,” he explained. “What would they buy for a dollar? Two packs of cigarettes and get lung cancer? Two shots of bourbon and get cirrhosis of the liver? A bottle of wine and get rolled in the gutter? But we give them something good. We give them hope. Hours and hours of hope. And every day somebody wins money.”
We were not greedy. Our generous system of prizes gave 30 cents of every dollar back to the investors. Delighted, they told their friends and the money kept coming in. No salesmen. Small overhead. Every day the Guru took a hundred. I took a hundred, and we put the rest in the kitty. Nothing fantastic. Just a modest little business.
If we happened to be running short we made a slight alteration on the financial page. If we were flush, we’d let the investor win, especially if he had a loud mouth.
Like Mr. Gold Tooth. We were real happy when Mr. Gold Tooth won the first prize of $100. He was a real good mixer, a typical organization man. He made deliveries for the liquor store, did maintenance work at the pool hall, pitched for a softball team, and was a deacon at the church. When he won a prize, he sure knew how to spread the word.
We let him win the second day in a row. But when, on the third day, the financial page showed 739, I got worried. We knew that Gold Tooth had bought 739.
“I’ll change it on the Linotype,” I told the Guru. “I’ll make it 737. Nobody will notice.”
“No,” said the Guru calmly. “Let it ride.”
Next morning Gold Tooth was nauseatingly jubilant.
“I’ve got the su-preeeeme power!” he was yelping. “I always pick the lucky number. And now I want to bet all of this 100 dollars on numbah 639. At 100 to 1 odds.”
“No, no,” I protested. “We are merely small business men. We cannot afford to take such big bets.”
“Take the bet,” growled the Guru. His heavy eyelids indicated how he would chop off the head of Gold Tooth.
I couldn’t tell any good fortunes the rest of the day. The crystal ball showed nothing but guns and razors, bloodshed and murder, and 10,000 dollars shot to hell.
Late in the afternoon I was back at the Bugle, fidgety behind the Linotype. I kept wandering over to the forms of the financial pages to see if the number had come down from the editorial room. And there it was, 639. Even the Guru had lost his Oriental tranquility and exploded with an Anglo-Saxon four-letter word.
“We’ll have to let it go for the farm edition,” he said, “but all the other editions will have 638.” And he wrote the complete line for me to set.
When we opened the store in the morning Big Tooth wasn’t pounding on the door, the way he usually did. All morning nothing happened. Gradually we relaxed. In the afternoon, the Guru obeyed the call of the wild blonde and took her to the beach, letting me run the store alone.
I was feeling so good that I was seeing better and better things in the crystal ball. To bring hope to the heartbroken woman sitting in front of me, I really let myself go.
“I see a guitar,” I whispered to her. “And a handsome man serenading you...and I hear the music of love...mandolins and violins...and a cello...and...what the hell?...trumpets and tubas and crazy bounding drums...”
The lady’s eyes popped like huge brown marbles. She jumped to her feet and began gyrating her torso like a lump of chocolate jello doing the boogaloo.
“That’s sure good music comin’ oudda dat crystal ball,” she said, snapping her fingers in rhythm. “Man, oh man, when dem saints come a marchin’ in...”
Sticking my turbaned head through the drapes, I saw a bus at the curb. Two trombones were blaring brassily out of the windows. Gold Tooth staggered off the bus. He looked bowlegged in his softball knickers. I never saw so many people get off a single bus.
Gold Tooth lost no time in showing me the magic number in the farm edition of the Daily Bugle. “We played softball in Gadoonka last night,” he said. “Two hundred miles away. And we beat them so bad we had to celebrate. And the bus driver got lost in some farm house with the ignition keys. So we had to wait for him until noon. And so we bought a paper...And I’ve come for the 10,000 dollars...”
He jumped on a chair and bellowed to the crowd, “Men...I want to prove to you again...that I have su-preeeeme powah! Go along with me and you will win ball games. Go along with me and you will sin money. Cause I have the su-preeeeme powah!”
I had been backing away towards the rear exit when I stumbled over a lanky softball player who was lying on the floor, guzzling from a bottle of vodka. As I fell beside him he offered me the bottle as a token of inter-racial brotherhood.
“That Gold Tooth sure is a blowhard ain’t he?” the lanky man was saying, happy to see me drink deep. “But you know what? He ain’t got no su-preeeeme power. He’s got a su-preeeeme sister, that’s what he’s got. She’s got herself a new job in the stock yards, and she’s the one who phones in the numbers to the newspapers. Gold Tooth picks a number and she phones it in. That’s the only kind of su-preeeeme power he’s got. Well, I’m gonna tell you somethin’, mister. I’m a-gonna marry that su-preeeeme sister of his. And then I’m gonna have Su-preeeeme Powah!”