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Sunday Journal: Watching the company you keep is the best bet

It was nearly midnight by the time I got back to the hotel, and I was ravenous. I washed my face, used the toilet, took the elevator to the lobby, then hurried around the corner to the all-night restaurant.

I had eaten about 6, a sandwich in some forgettable coffee shop in some freeway suburb — it was 1962, long before fast-food clones took root in every suburban shopping center. I lived in a cheap downtown Los Angeles hotel where I shared a room with Jimmy.

It was the summer I turned 21, and I was just out of the Army. Jimmy was one of the guys I met in my first week working for PF Collier & Co.; if everything worked out, we were going to look for an apartment, maybe in Hollywood, after we got our first paychecks. A few years my senior and painfully skinny, Jimmy wore pinstriped suits and slicked his long, curly red hair with thick pomade. He was a likable, streetwise guy who had peddled magazines, cosmetics, brushes, housewares and now, like me, books.

I peered past a tired, rumpled hostess holding a menu and saw Jimmy at a table with a muscular, heavy-set man, a balding guy of maybe 40 wearing a dark sport coat over a bright polo shirt that was carefully buttoned to the throat.

I waved off the hostess and sat down next to Jimmy. The older man glared at me. I'd made a sale that night, one of my first, and I started to tell Jimmy about it. Abruptly he stood up.

"Come over here a minute, I've got to talk to you," he said.

"I'm hungry," I said. "Let me order first."

"It'll only take a minute," said Jimmy, who seemed strangely nervous.

He headed for the men's room, and I followed. In the dark corridor outside it he paused, turned around and lowered his head.

"You can't just sit down at somebody's table without being asked," he said.

"We're roommates," I said. "What's the problem?"

"It's not a problem sitting down with me. But that man is Jocko Conlon," he said.

The name was familiar, but I couldn't place it. I looked blank.

"He's a National League umpire," Jimmy explained.

"So what?"

"So, he can't be seen eating with people he doesn't know," Jimmy said, without rancor. He wasn't angry, just emphatic.

"What's the big deal?" I asked, crushed. "Why can't I eat with an umpire?"

"He doesn't know you."

"But he knows you."

"He's a friend of my family. Went to school with my mom. You better find another table."

Smarting with rejection, I ordered a sandwich to go.

In the morning Jimmy rose early and left while I was in the shower. We were in different crews, and by the time I returned that night, Jimmy was asleep. The next day he quit or was fired, depending on whom I asked. I never saw him again.

It was many years before I began to comprehend what Jimmy had meant that night in the restaurant; I have Pete Rose to thank for opening that door for me. Rose was observed dining with men whose faces and occupations were known to those who keep an eye on gamblers. An investigation ensued. Rose, the best hitter in Major League Baseball history, is not in the Hall of Fame.

But Jocko Conlon is.

Screenwriter and author Marvin J. Wolf is vice president of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, Calif.

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Sunday Journal: Watching the company you keep is the best bet 02/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 7, 2009 3:30am]

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