WASHINGTON -- Many years ago, I was helping a dying man write his autobiography. When I got a call that he might have only hours to live, I raced to the airport, hopped a plane to Chicago, rented a car and drove toward his home, hoping to get some final words with him. Needing cassettes for my tape recorder, I pulled off at a big strip mall, ran into Radio Shack, bought the tapes and ran back out into the parking lot, whereupon I realized two things:
(1) I had not happened to notice the make, model, color or size of the car I had rented, and the key in my hand offered no clue.
(2) I could not recall where I had parked, even generally, in the vast ocean of autos that lay in front of me.
I had to roam the lot like a thief, peering into cars to see if they looked familiar, furtively trying the manual-entry key in possible doors, keeping an eye out for cops. I was out there for a half-hour, while, during each wasted minute, my guy was dying a little more.
Alas, this is typical of me when on assignment. I am always absent-minded, but when I am traveling on a story, those few brain cells that ordinarily are in charge of taking care of business are temporarily reassigned to the task of story contemplation.
And so it was that a couple of weeks ago, when I drove to North Carolina to cover a court hearing, the following occurred:
Because I had packed inattentively, a jumbo bottle of NyQuil half emptied itself out in my suitcase over all of my underwear and socks and shirts. NyQuil is an extremely pungent substance. The desk clerk unsuccessfully pretended not to notice. Making the best of a difficult situation, I told her:
Be unconcerned, madam. I am Captain NyQuil. Phlegm trembles before me.
She laughed uncertainly. Handing me my plastic room key, the desk clerk cautioned me never to carry it in the same pocket as my cellphone. I had never heard of this problem before, but the rule seemed simple enough. In the ensuing four days, I had to get my key reprogrammed six times. Initially, this was done with commiseration, then amusement, then belly laughs, and finally wordlessly and expressionlessly, as the clerk attended to other business. I had become one of her chores.
(The NyQuil washed out fine, though for the rest of the trip my socks still smelled faintly of decongestant, which reminded me of the old line: If your nose runs and your feet smell, you are built upside down.)
My first morning in town, I shaved, showered and dressed, but as I headed out the door, something didn't seem quite right. Something about that shower. There had been no lather, I realized, and I didn't feel clean. It turns out I had never taken the plastic shrink-wrap off the soap. I had done the equivalent of washing with rocks in a stream.
I accidentally took my phone into the courtroom -- an absolute sin in federal court, punishable by expulsion. Alas, the phone was on, and if it rang, Id be busted. I couldn't turn it off, because it would make that incriminating deedle-deedle sound! I realized all this just as court was about to convene. So I raced outside, but two bailiffs were standing there! So I hurried down the corridor where I could turn it off. Then I ran back, but a bailiff said court had begun and I could not be admitted. I looked at him pathetically and mumbled, I had to puke. He let me in. I do not know if lying to a federal law enforcement officer is a felony or a misdemeanor.
On the ride back home, the rest of the NyQuil bottle leaked onto my underpants.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten(at)washpost.com. Chat with him online on Tuesday, October 30, at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group