Fiction by Steve Slavin
I met Gail Olson at a very crowded New York City loft party in 1972. It was probably being held to honor some poor painter whose show had just opened, but most of us regarded it as a great singles party.
Soon after I squeezed my way into the loft, I saw Gail, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, trying to have a conversation with two very interested guys, each of them cupping their ears.
I decided to have some fun, so I passed her a note which read, “The two gentlemen you’re conversing with escaped from an institution for the criminally insane, and I’m waiting for backup. Please keep them occupied.”
She looked at me, and I shrugged. Five minutes later, we were making out in a corner of the loft. Then we shared a joint—the first one I had ever rolled without expert supervision.
I had packed the paper with uncleaned pot—stems and all—and twisted both ends. So, when I lit up, a three-foot flame shot up. Thankfully, she didn’t say anything, happy to just share the joint.
A few weeks later, when Gail and I had dinner with one of her friends, I told him the story about the joint. As the three of us laughed, he said, “Gail was too kind to say anything.” Indeed, Gail was perhaps the nicest person I would ever know.
As our relationship grew more serious, I became more and more aware of just how nice she was. A reporter for a banking newspaper, she once told me that sometimes the most important element of writing was what you didn’t say—what was purposefully left out.
She introduced me to one of her colleagues, Stanley—a big guy, almost as round as he was tall. When she had started working at The American Banker, her first journalism job in New York, Stanley more or less took her under his wing.
While he was a crack reporter, it was obvious that he had a drinking problem. But how could that be? He held down a good job, showing up on time every day. OK, Stanley was a little crazy, but he always made his deadlines and there were no complaints about his work.
Then Gail found out he was homeless. She insisted that he move in with her until he could get it together to find his own apartment. A few weeks later she introduced him to her friend Caroline, and he soon moved in with her. A year later they got married, and Gail was their maid-of-honor.
I had a long-time friend who I often invited to parties. Not the world’s greatest- looking guy, Jerry had almost no success meeting women. But one night he got lucky. Marcy was very bright and had a good sense of humor.
She was an editor at a large publishing house and always had funny stories about the writers she met. She took a rather successful author to lunch. While they waited for coffee and dessert, the author picked up her handbag, excused herself and went to the ladies’ room. When she did not return for some time, Marcy went to see if she was OK.
As she approached the door of the ladies’ room, Marcy heard a banging noise and rushed inside. The writer was hitting the door with her fist, and then trying to force it open. But because it was a pay toilet, it would remain locked no matter how hard you hit it.
Marcy was puzzled. Was someone in there? Why didn’t the author just use a different toilet?
The author’s face was beet-red. It took her a while to catch her breath. Then she held out her hand, palm up. Finally, Marcy understood. She opened her handbag and gave the author a quarter. Without a word, the author took it, put it in the slot, opened the door, went inside the stall, and left Marcy standing there.
Marcy was great company, but clearly, she was no looker. OK, she was very homely. And dumpy. Maybe Jerry got past all that and truly cared for her. Or maybe he was just very desperate.
Marcy and Jerry had been together for a month or so, when she tired of him and broke up. Two years later, he still hadn’t had other date.
I invited Jerry to have dinner with Gail and me in a restaurant near my apartment. Throughout the dinner he kept talking about Marcy, the girl who had dumped him. He was boring the hell out of me, perhaps because I was hearing this sad tale one too many times. When he went to the bathroom, I complained to Gail about how he had gone on and gone about Marcy.
Gail smiled. “It was rather sad. But she was the last person he had gone out with in years. Who else could he talk about?”
I leaned over and kissed her.
Just then, Jerry rejoined us. “Hey, did I ever tell you about the time that Marcy and I went all the way to Chinatown for some take-out? And how, even after we took three different trains, when we got back to Brooklyn, the food was still warm?”
“I’d love to hear that story,” said Gail. I scowled at her and kicked her under the table. She smiled, and then kicked me back.
Gail’s journalism career began when she phoned in the news from her elementary school to The Livingston Enterprise, arguably the best newspaper in all of Park County, Montana. Livingston, town of about five thousand, it was just a shadow of its glorious past when it was a locomotive repair hub for the railroad that passed through it.
Her dad, Clayton, was the town’s biggest car dealer—much of his business coming from renting cars to tourists who were headed for Yellowstone Park. His wife, Micky, was a high school principal, and they were among a group of what were considered the “power couples” of the county.
Clayton, a Richard Nixon Republican, loved talking politics, and anyone to his left was a “commie.” But he was very good-natured even when he was drunk, which was most of the time.
On my first night in Livingston, we dined in one of the town’s many bars. While holding forth on Nixon’s great reelection victory the year before, Clayton had asked me what I thought about it. I knew enough not to provoke him, so I cited the old adage of not discussing politics or religion at family gatherings.
Just then, a tall middle-aged guy came by our table and made this observation: “Clayton, listening to you is like trying to shovel shit uphill!”
Clayton roared with laughter, and then introduced me to the town’s mayor. It turned out that he knew almost every politician in the state, and took great pride in introducing them to whoever he was with.
Gail was torn about having grown up in such a political and social backwater, but a place that was still home. She loved Livingston, Yellowstone Park, and the friends she grew up with. But well before her senior year at the University of Montana, Gail knew that she had to get out into the world.
When I learned that she had dropped out of college just six credits short of graduation, I was flabbergasted. No one I knew had ever done anything like that. But she had a ready answer: “Steve, would you want to be a graduate of the University of Montana?” Seconds later, we were laughing.
Gail moved to Seattle and soon managed to get a desk job with The Post- Intelligencer, a close rival of the other daily paper, The Seattle Times. They had her fact-checking and copy editing. While she had been overjoyed to get this position, she soon grew quite bored.
When asked to take over the work of the society editor, who had just gone on maternity leave, Gail jumped at the chance. Her main job was to post photos of new brides on the page, write blubs and occasionally three- or four-paragraph stories about the brides and grooms.
One afternoon, when she was searching her desk drawers for a box of staples, she came across dozens of photos that had been sent in by prospective brides. All these women were Black.
At first, quite innocently, Gail began placing these photos—along with short blurbs or longer articles—on the society page. When no one said anything to her, she continuing doing this.
Soon, other columnists and reporters began dropping by to thank her. These were the first Black brides to have their photos in The Post- Intelligencer. When the regular society page editor returned from maternity leave, she continued Gail’s photo policy.
After The Seattle Times soon followed suit, extending coverage of Black marriages on their society page, Gail was especially proud. Here she was, just out of school, and already she had become a journalism footnote.
By now Gail had been promoted to being a full-fledged reporter, and was given humdrum assignments—reporting on fires, store openings, robberies, major traffic accidents and even a story about people living on Seattle’s skid row, which, for some reason, was called “skid road.”
When Gail heard about a job opening at The American Banker, she sent them her resume and was soon invited for an interview. Taking a leave of absence from The Post-Intelligencer, she flew to New York, moved in with an old college boyfriend, aced the interview, and immediately declared herself a New Yorker.
For almost the entire seven years she worked at The American Banker, Gail edited the small banks’ page, which appeared every Friday. Since the nation’s top 500 banks did over 90 percent of the nation’s banking business, the remaining 13,000-plus banks were classified as “small.”
Each week, Gail received about two dozen letters from small bank presidents or other high-ranking officers, and found room on her page for at least a truncated version of almost all of them. When she found the number of submissions dwindling, she posted an invitation asking for more letters.
Gail confided to me that many of these bank officers—and especially the presidents—were not the sharpest knives in the drawer. But rather than edit out some of their stupidest or inaccurate remarks, she would let them go into the paper just as they were written.
After receiving copies of the paper, many of these poor souls would call or write, warmly thanking Gail for printing their letters. Some even confided that they were proudly circulating copies of the small banks page to colleagues and friends.
If the managing editor or any of the empty suits in the ruling hierarchy of The American Banker had any complaints about how Gail was doing her job, she never heard them.
Actually, there really was one problem, but it had nothing to do with the quality of her work. It did have everything to do with her meeting her 6pm Thursday deadline.
Considering that her deadline was fixed, and that she did not have to deal with fast-breaking news stories, there was really no excuse for her regularly missing her deadlines. You would think that she probably could have had her page done not just hours before her deadline, but perhaps even days or weeks in advance.
But there was clearly a procrastination gene written into Gail’s DNA. If you thought that maybe she was something of a perfectionist, you would quickly be disabused of that notion had you ever visited her apartment.
The first time I was there, I asked her about the brown puddle on the kitchen linoleum. “Oh, just as I was leaving for work, the cats knocked over the coffee pot and I didn’t time to clean up the mess because I was already running very late.”
OK, that was a reasonable explanation. Later, a friend of hers told me that the puddle had been there for days.
Gail also confided that she was at least an hour late to work nearly every day. One morning, when she arrived at nine sharp, Brad, the managing editor pretended to fall off his chair, which made Gail almost double over laughing.
So yes, her inability to meet deadlines was definitely a symptom of her need to procrastinate. She finally admitted this to Brad.
He thought about this for days, finally coming up with a solution worthy of King Solomon. He moved Gail’s deadline up from 6 p.m. to 3 p.m. When Gail asked him for an explanation, Brad just passed the buck, saying that he was just following orders.
“The empty suits upstairs?” she asked. Brad just nodded.
So how did his subterfuge work out? Like clockwork, literally. Gail’s small banks’ page was always three hours late.
Growing up in a small town, Gail knew all the movers and shakers. Her father regularly did business with Duane, who extended him a sizeable loan each summer when he bought new cars to sell in the fall. Although they appeared to be fairly close friends, Clayton complained about how his buddy never cut him an inch of slack. “I have paid back every loan on time, but Duane is no different from the rest of ‘em. After all, a banker is a fella who’ll loan you an umbrella on a sunny day, and then ask you to give it back when it rains.”
And so, well before she arrived at The American Banker, Gail had a rather jaundiced view of the profession. This was reinforced by the stories that other reporters shared with her, as well as from her own experiences.
So, when Gail got the chance to research and write a series of articles about women who had been turned down for home mortgage loans, she had a field day. She got to interview dozens of women on the phone or in person—young and old, married and single, rich and not-so-rich—and many bank-loan officers as well.
What she found most amazing was that while the women’s stories varied considerably, nearly all the loan officers sounded as if they were reading from a script. Making good use of a tape recorder, she was able to publish their words verbatim. Just as she had done with the small bank presidents, she let these guys make complete asses of themselves.
One loan officer had asked a young single woman why she would want to buy a big house. She replied that in addition to needing more living space, she would like to throw some large parties.
“What kind of parties?” he asked, he asked in a lecherous tone.
Of course, when a single man with the same income wanted to buy a large house, he was never asked why he needed so much space. And it goes without saying that virtually no single women were extended home mortgage loans.
When married couples applied for home mortgages, no bank would count the income of the wife—not even if she earned much more than her husband. The reason? She might have a baby, and then that income stream would be cut off. Even women in the fifties and sixties were summarily turned down.
Did Gail’s series raise any flack from anybody at The American Banker? Not really. There was one old guy, the publisher emeritus, who said something about biting the hand that feeds her, but that was about it. The series did generate a lot of letters from female readers lauding Gail’s great investigative journalism. Brad even kidded her about editing another page devoted to all her fan mail.
“Yeah, Brad. And does that come with another deadline?”
Despite having made many friends, some very close ones, Gail never fully committed to becoming a true New Yorker—whatever that is. The city was very different even from Seattle, and a completely different world from Livingston.
Once, she confided to me that since she had moved here, every guy but one whom she dated was Jewish. “Well,” I replied, “nobody’s perfect!”
Gail was raised a Catholic, although she almost never set foot in a church. But I enjoyed pretending with her that she was still in the fold, even if she had not made mass since her twelfth birthday. Indeed, if she was truly lapsed, why did she wear that big crucifix?
One day, as we were walking down Fifth Avenue near Tiffany’s, I saw two nuns coming towards us. When they were about twenty feet away, I slipped behind Gail and cupped her breasts in my hands.
The nuns, who had been smiling at Gail were horrified. I expected one of them to ask, “See what you get for dating Jewish boy?”
A few weeks later, I took her to see the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof. Less than a minute into the movie Gail whispered to me, “Steve! This is the Jewish Oklahoma!”
But despite all the good times she was enjoying, there were things missing from her life – things that she had given up by moving here. I watched her grow increasingly unhappy, and maybe even a little paranoid.
After seven years in New York, Gail finally admitted to herself that big city life was beginning to wear her down. In addition, she had gone about as far as she would be able to go at The American Banker, which she considered just another rich white boys’ club.
While there was a lot to like about The Big Apple—especially her close friends and all the great places to shop – she knew it was finally time to leave. Street crime was way up, and when her bike was stolen, she decided to quit her job and get out of Dodge. She sold or gave away most of her possessions, and hit the open road in a ten-year-old station wagon.
Gail had always wanted to write feature stories and do local reporting. For some time she toyed with a plan of going back home and starting a local newspaper she would call the Park County Interloper. But that involved dealing with a very politically conservative population that thought a quickie before dinner was a drink and anyone from New York or California was a communist spy.
Besides, those Montana winters could be pretty brutal. So, she headed to the Southwest. After checking out a few small towns along the way, she found herself in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She liked it well enough to stay for maybe a week or so, and then move on.
When she heard about a job opening at The Rio Grande Sun, a weekly newspaper in nearby Espanola, Gail decided to apply. Five minutes into the interview, the editor said, “I’ve heard enough! You’re hired! When can you start?”
Gail wrote about local politics, cattle mutilations, traffic accidents, school board meetings, and, as she so delicately put it, “shit that I just made up.”
Circulation soon began climbing, and the editor told her she had been the greatest thing to happen in Espanola since it had become the low-rider capital of the world. He even raised her salary enough so that she could now manage to get by as long as they didn’t cut her off Food Stamps.
Like old-time newspaper reporters, Gail chain-smoked, enjoyed an occasional drink, and always had a small stash of pot on hand largely for social occasions with her growing army of friends like the Bucks County White Boys Association.
Not at all what that might sound like, these guys and their wives were Mennonites who had fled from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to escape the oppressive social mores of their tight-ass religious community. But their wives still teased them, especially in front of their friends. Gail even had Bucks County White Boys Association T- shirts made up for the white boys, their wives, and their children. In turn, they nicknamed Gail, “Montana Big Sky,” the place from which she had fled, but still loved.
As Gail’s fame spread, she began to receive job offers from other papers in Southwest, but she very politely turned them down. She was finally doing what she had been called to do—and actually having fun doing it.
I always knew she was a good reporter, but it wasn’t until she began writing for The Rio Grande Sun that Gailrealized just how good she was. Of course, she began her career when female reporters were lucky to get a foot in the door at nearly all the major newspapers, let alone become star reporters.
Now, she was finally where she was not just accepted, but doing the kind of writing she had always wanted to do. We occasionally chatted on the phone, and when I told her that justice had finally been done, she completely agreed. “But what took ‘em so long?”
When her friends threw her a surprise party on her thirty-eighth birthday, some of them raised the same question. They were lucky to have her here, writing stories about the Santa Fe area, Rio Arriba County, and even beyond. But in another life, she might have been an investigative reporter for a national newspaper.
Two weeks later, when her cigarette cough grew really bad, she finally went to a doctor. The next day she went for chemo, and not long after, radiation. But it quickly became apparent that she had, at best, just a few months to live.
When I got the news I called Gail, knowing that this might be the last time we talked. I asked her if she had a favorite of all the news stories she had written. Without hesitation, she said it was the one about the devil’s visit to Rio Arriba County.
Did this actually happen? Since no one seems to be able to say for sure, I’m going to let you decide for yourself. If you question the veracity of this story, you can google “Gail Olson,” “Rio Grande Sun,” devil. (Then scroll down five paragraphs.)
The story began when a dark handsome stranger, a young man dressed in white, entered Red’s Steakhouse in Ranchitos, New Mexico, and began buying drinks for a covey of besmitten smiling maidens. One source said the stranger ordered a Red Margarita.
The devil focused his attention on the table at which the four most attractive ladies were.
Meanwhile, reports of dogs barking on the streets of Espanola persisted, and an anonymous man called The Rio Grande Sun after deadline Tuesday night, asking to place a Lost and Found Classified Ad. He said he had lost his pitchfork.
I’d like to come back to something I mentioned earlier—something that Gail was fond of saying: What you don’t say can sometimes be more important than what you do say.
Take the example of a joint I had rolled bursting into flame. Gail could have said, “Boy, you sure know how to roll a joint.” Instead, she just remained silent. Her silence said it all.
She also would suggest that I, “Stop making noise and just listen to the silence. Sometimes you can learn more just listening than by doing anything else.”
Gail was also fond of saying, “When your story’s finished, stop writing. Imagine O. Henry deciding to add something to a story ending and completely fucking it up?”
We both laughed. Then I told her that that could never happen to me.
“And why is that, pray tell?” she asked.
“Because no one ever confused my writing with O. Henry’s.”
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books. He has published five short story collections over the last seven years, but he expects the pace to slow somewhat over the next seven years.
Photo from The Climate Reality Project