I live and work in San Diego, but sometimes I have to put myself in a fictitious world to do my job. I take on the persona of a character in the book I'm reading at the time. This week I'm reading the Maltese Falcon, and I'm Sam Spade, private detective. Spade goes about San Francisco in pursuit of a jewel-encrusted gold statuette of a falcon. The bird's worth millions. And a lot of folks—mostly opportunists—are also trying to get their hands on it.
In my line of work I'd be depressed if I didn't fantasize occasionally. It's the opportunists, wanting something for nothing, who bring me down from my otherwise noble profession. Sure, I get the sincere client once in a while, but most of the time I'm approached by chumps. If I didn't put a little spin on the day-to-day—like wear sunglasses, fake an accent, or imagine I'm Sam Spade—I'd go bonkers.
I'm in the grant biz. You know, the go-between for donors and hard-working charities. It's no job for the unimaginative or the easily irritated. The phone calls can drive you up the wall. Like the guy who suddenly realizes his mission in life, and wants me to find a grant to finance it.
"I saw on TV that the government is giving money away so people can study in Europe, write a book, or start their own business. I want to do all those things. How much money can you get me?"
Or the guy who comes up with a new-found sense of charity: "It says right here in the paper that Qualcomm gave a million bucks to a local charity. I'm gonna start a charity. Can you get me a couple hundred thousand?"
"I don't know. What's your charity going to do?"
"I'm not sure yet. Got any ideas?"
Those are the knucklehead calls I get daily. I'd go postal if I didn't occasionally replace reality with fantasy.
So right now I'm Sam Spade. Sam Spade with some differences, of course: Spade wears an overcoat and a fedora; I sport flowered shirts and I don't own a hat. Spade rolls cigarettes and tosses back shots of whiskey; I chew gum and drink coffee by the bucket. Spade gets around on foot; I'm a public transit geek. Spade works the streets of San Francisco; I do San Diego.
I'm at my home office reading with my feet on the desk when the phone rings. I put down the Maltese Falcon, annoyed by the interruption. What's this guy gonna want? A grant for a yacht to study fishing?
The voice is a kid's.
"We need your help, Mr. C."
I sit up in my chair and tell him to give me the facts. He needs a trombone. Other kids at his school need musical instruments, too. They attend a non-profit music academy after school in Southeast San Diego. These days, the kid says, the academy hardly has enough money to pay the rent much less buy musical instruments.
Sounds sincere. I'm interested.
"What's your name, son?"
"Kareem Fonseca Langenhurst Nygueng."
"Right. Mind if I call you "Kid?"
"You got transportation?"
"I can take the bus."
"Good. Meet me at Denny's in Mission Valley. Take the 928 and get off at Friars and Frazee. Four o'clock."
Sam Spade would roll a cigarette at this juncture, toss back a whiskey. I drain my coffee cup, pop a stick of gum in my mouth, and head out.
My neighbor Hank has his door open and hears me in the hallway.
"Hey. Can you give me a hand. My printer's stuck."
"Not right now, Hank. On a case."
"Who are you this time?"
"Sam Spade, private detective."
"Wait a sec." I hear him rummaging in a closet. He returns with a fedora. "This'll help."
I take the Green Line to Hazard Center and walk to Denny's. I expect to see some kid so short that his eyeballs rest on the table. But the only kid I see is black kid, sitting upright, wearing spectacles. He sees the fedora.
"Mr. C?" he says, and sticks out his little hand.
We shake hands.
I order a cup of coffee for me and a coke for the kid.
"So how do you think I can help you?" I ask the kid when the waitress leaves.
The kid tells me about the after-school music program at the academy. It gives him and a lot of other kids something to do after school and keeps them safe. Best part is they can learn to play a musical instrument, to sing, to dance. I can see he loves it.
"Sr. Jorge started the academy 14 years ago," the kid goes on. "He says money is always tight, but he's never seen times so tough. Even for kids that need musical instruments. I found your name in the phone book. Think you can help us?"
I got a soft spot for sincerity. Besides, how do you say no to an erstwhile kid?
"I'll see what I can do. I'll call you tomorrow."
Back home I fire up the coffee pot and buckle down to internet research: demographics of South East San Diego; success of after-school programs; benefits of music instruction for kids; costs of band instruments. I peruse the academy's website. It's a non-profit in a tough part of town. And judging from the kids' smiles, doing a damn good job. I begin to draft a narrative with needs statement, program description, brief history, success stories. I'm building a case for the kid's school.
Shortly before sunrise I'm ready to hit the street. I pull out the flash drive and catch the trolley to the 35 bus from Old Town. There's an all-night diner on the corner of Rosecrans and Midway, where I got an eye on the waitress, who always ignores me.
"Coffee?" she asks when I sit down.
"Cream and sugar?"
"Nah. I like my coffee the way I like my women."
"Oh. I get it. Black. Right?"