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?"
Corny, I know. But Sam Spade would have liked that.
After breakfast I walk to Liberty Station and the San Diego Foundation Library. Their computers have search engines for philanthropic foundations, corporations and individuals, and using them is free. My contact there is Mitzy, sharp as a tack. She could write the definitive book on grant writing if she weren't so busy giving free advice and helping grant seekers navigate the search engines. She's heard all the stories, including the absurd and the sincere. Her heart of gold is guarded by a jaded attitude.
She both groans and smiles when she sees me walk in.
"First thing in the morning? Must be something hot, Mr. C." She notices the fedora. "Or is it Mr. Spade?"
"I got a bunch of school kids in southeast San Diego who need musical instruments."
"And you're the music man."
"If I can be."
"Let's see what we can find."
An hour later Mitzy and I narrow the search down to a handful of local philanthropic organizations. They give grants to programs for kids in performing arts from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in San Diego.
"Trouble is," Mitzy adds, "these grants won't be available until next year. Can the kids wait that long?"
"Doesn't look like they have much choice," I grumble.
Then Mitzy's eyes widen. "Hey, I just thought of something." Her golden heart is gleaming. "Did you hear that Mr. Biggs is coming to San Diego today to give a speech? He's supposed to arrive later this afternoon."
I'm outta there like a blood hound on a fresh scent.
Girls Galore on Midway opens at noon, and I go in to see an old friend and ask a favor.
"Whaddup, Mr. C?" His eyebrows raise. "What's with the hat?"
"Howyadoin', Jack. On business today. Can I borrow your laptop?"
I take a seat at the bar and immediately look up flight arrivals. Then I make a call.
"Kid. Can you meet me at the airport by 4:30? Take the 932 bus from downtown. And bring a copy of the academy's IRS Determination Letter, 2011 Budget, and list of Board of Directors."
"What's all that stuff?"
"Ask Mr. Jorge. He'll know."
Jack sets a pot of coffee at my elbow. Then I plug in my flash drive and begin to write. I write feverishly for two hours. Folks have no idea what goes into a grant proposal. A detailed explanation of the problem, a compelling argument how a grant will fix the problem, a lot of compassion, a little flattery, and, if the grant is going to get funded, a modicum of luck, too. And I'm always heartened by the number of people who want to get involved, want to be part of the solution. It's not like they're jumping on the band wagon; rather, they're getting behind and pushing.
After a pack of chewing gum and a stack of empty coffee cups, my draft has evolved into a respectable grant proposal. Then I call my neighbor Hank.
"Your printer working yet?"
"Better than ever. Fixed it myself."
"Great. I'll see you soon."
Later that afternoon the kid and I are waiting in the Lindbergh terminal as the deboarding passengers come down the corridor. Sam Spade private detective would be wearing an overcoat, but I'm standing there in a flowered shirt, cut offs, and fedora. I look like a lost Hawaiian. Under my arm I got a manila envelope bulging with documents. The kid's holding a sign the size of Mission Bay that reads "Here we are, Mr. Biggs."
A man in a suit walks towards us with an apprehensive grin. "I'm Mr. Biggs. What's all this about?"
I let the kid do the talking, and when he's finished he hands Biggs a flyer.
"There's a concert tonight, Sir, if you have time."
Biggs smiles. "I would if I could, young man. But I've got to make a speech downtown."
I hand the manila envelope to Biggs, who accepts it with genuine interest.
"I'll look this over in the limo."
Then the world takes a fortuitous turn. A transformer somewhere downtown sparks and hisses, then explodes.
The kid's concert begins on time, and rolls along on schedule. The choir's singing its heart out and the band, despite missing several instruments, plays its heart out, too. When the show concludes, Mr. Biggs gets up from the back of the auditorium and comes backstage.
"I thought you had a speech to make," I say.
"Got cancelled. Power outage."
The kid shakes Mr. Biggs' hand vigorously, then introduces him to Mr. Jorge. Mr. Biggs and Mr. Jorge have a chit-chat at the edge of the stage for about 15 minutes. Then Mr. Biggs takes out his checkbook.
Yesterday we're all sitting at that academy. Mr. Jorge, the kid, his mom, Mitzy, Jack, Hank, me. Mr. Jorge slides an envelope over to me. "Here's for your work, Mr. C."
"Keep it. Buy another trombone or a snare drum."
"But you got us a grant."
"Actually, the kid got the grant. I just wrote the proposal. Always works when you have a good program that matches a philanthropist's heart. Most folks want to help a worthy cause."
Sam Spade would have liked that.
Next week I think I'll read Robin Hood.