Chris Verner: Meet the Swamp Lady and the sports fan
?"Tell the truth," I said to a co-worker recently. "Is there something about me that attracts weirdos?"
This after I had gotten off the phone with one of the local "characters" who sometimes calls the newspaper office (apparently, we're one of the few remaining businesses where mostly live people, rather than machines, answer the phones). Work for a newspaper long enough, and you start thinking of yourself as part psychologist/part crisis line manager. Journalists are like bartenders in this regard, only without the benefit of working-hours booze.
Over the years, my callers here at the Post have ranged from those who I suspect are simply lonely and want to talk (they tend to watch a lot of daytime television) to borderline crackpots (think conspiracy theorists and space-alien aficionados). Generally, I try to listen for a while, adopting an attitude that's polite but non-committal, especially regarding requests that the Post do an expose on, say, the mysterious government operatives who plan to use "fracking" to put mind-altering substances in our drinking water. (This idea was recently ventured by a caller. Personally, I think massive doses of Prozac might do wonders for the mood of the body politic these days.)
My two favorite callers, however, belong to another lifetime - the "Swamp Lady" and "Ernie the sports fan."
I first encountered the Swamp Lady decades ago while I was working the city desk at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. She was a legend among those of us who toiled into the wee hours. None of us knew her real name, but she told us she lived in the wilderness at the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, in South Georgia. She had taken refuge there, she said, to escape the shadowy forces trying to take over her life, her only companions a couple of cats and a shotgun.
She would call every few months, always speaking in a hurried whisper - this because there were microphones in the walls of her house and she didn't want to stay on the phone line long enough for the trace to take. Occasionally, while mumbling about CIA and FBI operatives, she would say, "Hold on. Do you hear the choppers overhead"?
In the ensuing lull, I would hear what sounded like bullfrogs and - my imagination, probably - someone thumbing the banjo theme from "Deliverance," but no choppers. I guess you had to be there.
While the "Swamp Lady" had, let us say, some "issues," that wasn't the case with "Ernie the sports fan." He was perfectly lucid, if not exactly legal.
I'd been working a few weeks in my first journalism job, covering sports for the Macon (Ga.) News, when the phone rang one bleary morning about 5 a.m. as we were cranking up to put out the evening's paper.
"Hey, pal," a raspy voice said. "It's Ernie. Can you give me a score or two?"
Sure, I said. No problem - only a "score or two" turned out to be a dozen or so football scores. Couple of days later, same caller, same request.
"Boy, that guy is really into football," I said after hanging up.
The sports editor smirked.
"Ernie's a bookie," he said. "That's why he's so interested in the scores."
Over the next few months, I had quite a few conversations with Ernie, asking him about his business. He was friendly but evasive. Thinking it would make an interesting sports story, I begged him for an interview, assuring him I wouldn't ask for his real name, take any pictures or otherwise jeopardize his livelihood.
When he repeatedly refused, I finally resorted to threats. "If you don't talk to me," I said, "no more scores."
He mulled it over.
"OK, kid," he said. "How bout I buy you breakfast?"
Thrilled, I agreed. He told me to be at a local all-night diner early the next morning and sit in a booth at the back, away from the windows. I got there early, took a seat in the back, as instructed, and waited. Except for me and a couple of trucker-looking types hunched over the counter, the place was empty. I ordered coffee and waited ... and waited ... and waited. One of the truckers paid his bill and left.
I waited some more. The other trucker left. Finally, after 45 minutes or so, realizing I'd been had, I ordered breakfast. Scarfing down my eggs and hash browns, I thought of how much I'd enjoy stiffing "Ernie" the next time he called.
"Could I get the check?" I asked the waitress.
"Already been paid, sugar," she said. "Guy left a few minutes ago. Told me to give you this."
She handed me a folded scrap of paper.
"Hope you enjoyed your breakfast," the scribbled note said. "By the way - you may want to take the spread on Georgia Tech this weekend."
Chris Verner is opinion page editor of the Salisbury Post. His young-adult novel "Stinkfever's Fire" is available as an e-book on amazon.com.