Flashback Friday: Otto's Night Watch, 'Days of Dreams and Hunger'
Here’s the next installment in our continuing series of republished “Otto’s Night Watch” columns by Otto Boutin, which appeared monthly several years ago in Printing Impressions. Written in Otto Boutin’s typical humorous style, it drives home our society's fascination with wealth and power, and the extremes people will take to achieve celebrity status. That's as true today as it was 50 years ago. Enjoy!
Days of Dreams and Hunger
Back in the days of my foolish youth I bought an old Intertype and decided to become a captain of the typesetting industry. Within a few weeks I had to choose between feeding myself and feeding metal into the Intertype. Both of us were hungry. And so I bought another hundred pounds of metal.
Business was hard to get in those days, especially when I had nothing to offer except four fonts of Cheltenham with hairlines. I was able to work cheap because my overhead was low. My heating plant consisted of a small iron stove that used to fall apart now and then, spilling hot coals on the floor. I always kept a bucket of water beside it. In extremely cold weather I kept my feet wrapped in blankets while I pounded away at the keyboard.
Bills were piling up, customers weren’t paying and I was ready to quit when an old gentleman walked into the shop. He was elegantly dressed, from gray spats to a genuine silk top hat. Graciously he took off the stove-pipe hat, carefully put his white scarf into it, and slowly peeled suede gloves off his blue-veined hands.
“I’ve heard that you’re a typesetter,” he said in the clipped Oxford English of Ronald Coleman. “I am Mr. Queekie, an author. I publish my own books.”
“I’d be glad to do your typesetting,” I said. “I specialize in books. I run night and day, just setting books.”
I showed him samples of my four type faces. He agreed that 10-point would be all right, on an 11-point slug.
He opened a package and showed me a manuscript for a novel. I gulped when I considered the financial problems of setting the book.
As if he understood, he extracted two crisp $20 bills from his wallet. He said he would be back in a few days to look at the proofs and pay me more money.
“I’ve inherited a tea plantation in India,” he explained casually.
He came to the shop every Tuesday and Friday, always with two crisp $20 bills. In those days, money went a long way.
Sometimes I felt guilty about taking the money. I was convinced that the novel was corny, but I didn’t have the courage to tell him.
“What do you think of the book?” he’d always ask.
“Pretty good,” I’d be forced to reply. “It’s quite different from other books.”
“I’m going to sell it to Hollywood,” he said. “I’m already contacting beautiful girls to play the role of Myrtle.”
“Myrtle gets killed,” I pointed out, anxious to impress him with my deep study of the book.
He nodded. “It will be the only time in Hollywood history that a girl will get her head chopped off right in front of the camera. It will not be a dummy or a double. It will be a real Myrtle, as real as the axe.”
I shook my head. “Where will you get a girl to play the part?” I asked.
“Any healthy American girl will be glad to lose her head for the privilege of being a movie star. I’ve got 15 candidates already, eager to be glamorized in cinematic history. It’s better than letting their lives go down the sink.”
Before the book got off the presses, Mr. Queekie brought another bundle of typewritten copy. I looked through the pages, shaking my head.
“It’s a dictionary,” he explained, “in which the words are listed backwards. For instance, the first word is baa, because it ends with two a’s. It will be listed as aab. One of the last words is Auschwitz because it ends with z. It will be listed as ztiwhcsuA.”
“But what’s the advantage of such a dictionary?” I asked timidly.
“It’s original,” he answered, staring me straight in the eyes. “Nobody ever tried it before.”
It wasn’t an easy job typesetting a dictionary in which the words were inverted, but the crisp $20 bills were keeping me alive. Then I got a bellyache which turned out to be acute appendicitis.
I lay in the hospital ward with 13 other patients. Reconciled to bankruptcy, I finally found time to read “War and Peace.”
But, at every opportunity, my eyes wandered from the verbiage of Tolstoy to the undulating hip movement of Gwendolyn, the beautiful blonde nurse. This morning she was coming toward me, carrying a huge bouquet of red roses. To my surprise, she stopped at my bed.
She showed me the card. “To my publisher,” it said. “Get well soon. From Mr. Queekie, Author."
Gwendolyn had taken my pulse a few times before, but had never shown any interest in its quickened tempo. This time, after settling the roses in a vase, she held my wrist for a thousand beats.
“I didn’t know you were a publisher,” she whispered in a throaty tone.
I would have laughed, but I was afraid of splitting the stitches. So I merely patted her hand.
Suddenly I was getting a lot of attention. The nurses kept washing me as if I were a prize exhibit.
In the afternoon there was a hush throughout the ward as Mr. Queekie appeared at the door, holding his top hat like a duke expecting obeisance. A retinue of fluttering nurses followed him to my bed. Solemnly he unwrapped a package that contained a dozen cloth-bound copies of his novel about Myrtle. With a masterful flourish of penmanship be was autographing the books and passing them out to the nurses. Holding up his hand to silence the commotion, he announced that he was looking for a beautiful girl to play the part of Myrtle in Hollywood.
Then he nodded toward me and said that I was financially involved with the film. He explained that I was having my appendix removed incognito because I liked to play poor, to avoid publicity. Then, putting on his gloves, he said that he had to catch the Santa Fe Chief for Hollywood.
A flock of nurses escorted him to the elevator and then came back to stare at me.
Gwendolyn puts screens around my bed as if staking a claim. She kept fussing over me, taking my temperature, fixing my pillow, bending over me, tantalizing me with her bountiful feminine attributes. Every few minutes I would reward her with another rose, one at a time.
She wanted to accompany me home as a private nurse, but I didn’t want her to see my shabby room, nor my ridiculous typesetting establishment. She wrote her phone number on the inside cover of Tolstoy and sealed it with the lipstick imprint of her luscious lips. I promised to take her to dinner in a week or so, maybe to Palm Beach.
At the shop the unpaid bills were stacked high and I needed 10 spacebands. I didn’t have the nerve to call Gwendolyn. I decided to wait until I became more prosperous.
So instead of taking her to dinner I bought the 10 spacebands.
That just goes to show you that I was quite an idiot when I was young.