Working the Polls

Halloween is my birthday.

In a normal year, I would have gone to dinner with friends at one of the Bay Area’s fabulous restaurants.

But this isn’t a normal year.

This year there’s COVID-19. And an important election. This year on my birthday, I am working the polls.

I have been a poll worker for every election since the fall of 2014, a year after I retired from my day job (the one that provided the regular paycheck and the pension benefits). Writing is now my day job, but I do have time for other things.

During the primary in 2014, I voted at a polling place near my home and mentioned that I was interested in volunteering. One of the poll workers directed me to the Registrar of Voters website for Alameda County, California, which is where I live. I volunteered to work and got an assignment as a clerk during the general election in November, attending a mandatory class. My polling place was at a local high school, where the students were curious about the election and the voting process. They kept coming by the room to check it out. That’s a good thing, I thought.

For the next few elections, I worked as a clerk, judge (second in command) and then an inspector (in charge of the polling place). Our location was the social hall of a local synagogue. There were multiple precincts voting at the same location. Voters who showed up knew they were at the right address, the one on the voters’ guide that they’d received in the mail. But they were sometimes confused when asked which precinct. That we could determine by their address. Two polling places in that location was fine. Three was manageable. But for one election, we had five polling places in the same room. That was chaotic.

The primary for 2020 was early in March, before California battened down the hatches and locked everything down on March 17. The Registrar of Voters office has been working since then to devise the new procedures that are in place for the general election. The person in charge of the polling place will be a Registrar of Voters employee, with volunteers taking on the duties of clerk and judge.

In California, voters check in by signing the roster index next to their name. In the pre-COVID world, that was a loose-leaf binder. In the new normal, it’s a tablet computer with a stylus, and it will be sanitized after each voter uses it. California uses paper ballots. Instead of giving voters a ballot from a box, we will print each ballot individually. I’ll be staffing one of those computer/printer stations. My fellow poll workers and I will be wearing gloves, a mask and a face shield—and we will sanitize equipment after each use. Masks and social distancing required, which procedures in place for those who refuse to wear masks—which I hope won’t be a problem.

Alameda County has done away with those old polling places that might be located at a school, a synagogue or someone’s garage. Instead, each city has a number of accessible voting locations of 2,500 square feet or larger. The AVL is the place where people can vote in person or drop off the mail-in ballots received by all registered voters in the state. I’ll be at one of those AVLs and fortunately it’s just a couple of blocks from where I live. And this year, election day is a voting period, starting on October 31 and running through November 3.

I did celebrate my birthday, as it happens, by having dinner with friends. I hadn’t seen them in eight months. We wore our masks, except while eating, and socially distanced at their home, eating take-out from one of our favorite restaurants.

The Mystery of Movies

I grew up at the movies. Really, I did.

My mother’s family was in what they called the picture business. I’m not talking about the kind of pictures you put in frames. I’m talking about the picture show.

Way back in the silent years, before talkies became the rage, they owned movie theaters, in small rural towns, mostly in Oklahoma, but also in Nebraska and Arkansas.

Mom grew up in Purcell, Oklahoma. The family theaters had names that evoke Hollywood’s Golden Age—the Ritz, the Metro, and the McClain, because it was McClain County.

My uncles ran the projectors. Mom and her sisters sold tickets, candy, and popcorn. In fact, Mom was selling tickets one evening during World War II when she met Dad, a young sailor from a nearby Navy training center. Mom’s older sister Flo met her husband the same way, at another movie theater in nearby Norman.

Years later, my Uncle Levi built a theater called the Canadian, because Purcell is located on the Canadian River. He also had a drive-in, the Sky Vue, south of town. The Canadian is the movie theater that’s imprinted on my childhood. When I was young, my family lived in Oklahoma City, some 45 miles north. On Sundays, after church, we’d drive to Grandma’s house in Purcell, for dinner with the family. Various aunts, uncles, and cousins would be there, but not Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Levi, because they were at the show.

The Canadian Theater in 1959, Purcell, Oklahoma

After dinner, the grownups would settle into Grandma’s living room and talk. The kids walked the the few blocks to downtown Purcell, where we were allowed to take tickets from movie patrons and work in what Aunt Dorothy always called the Sweet Shoppe. And we saw movies, lots of them.

Every now and then, I was allowed into the projection room at the Canadian or the Sky Vue. None of this digital stuff that they have now. This was back in the 1950s.

One of my clearest memories is of Uncle Levi, sweating in a sleeveless undershirt in that hot projection room, as he hoisted huge rolls of film onto the projector. Years later, when I saw Cinema Paradiso, I thought of my uncle.

The Canadian closed a long time ago, turned into first an antique mall and later an event center. These days, I’m more likely to stream a movie. But I still like seeing movies in a theater. Especially in the 1930s Art Deco gem in downtown Alameda.

Alameda Theatre, Alameda, California, built 1932

As a mystery writer, I’ve mixed movies into my plots. My latest California Zephyr book, Death Above the Line, takes my sleuth Jill McLeod off the train and onto a set, playing a Zephyrette in a film noir. In Bit Player, private eye Jeri Howard investigates what happened long ago when her grandmother worked in 1940s Hollywood.

Check them out, and I’ll see you at the movies!

The Quest to Write

This is my first post for the Ladies of Mystery blog. I’m in the first-Monday-of-the-month slot. Since I’m a first-timer (for the blog, that is!), I’ll tell you about myself. I always wanted to be a writer, even way back in elementary school when I wrote stories and illustrated them myself. I kept at it through high school and college.

The quest to write led me to a journalism degree from the University of Colorado, then to a stint as a reporter on a newspaper in a small Colorado farming community, covering everything from city council and school board meetings to the 4-H banquet. I joined the U.S. Navy, where I worked in public affairs offices in Guam, Florida, and the Bay Area, writing stories and taking pictures. After leaving the Navy, I earned a master’s degree in history from Cal State East Bay. I worked as a legal secretary and admin assistant for many years, finally retiring from the University of California at Berkeley.

Way back when I was covering city council meetings and writing features on Navy life, I also wrote fiction. Mostly short stories. I started a novel that got tucked away in a file box. So did the second novel, this one a mystery.

It was the third novel that did it. As I wrote it, I knew it would be the one that got published. Kindred Crimes won the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel contest and launched the Jeri Howard series.

Jeri is a private eye working in Oakland, in the Bay Area. She sometimes goes farther afield—to Monterey and San Luis Obispo in Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean, West Texas and southeast New Mexico in Where the Bodies Are Buried, and New Orleans in the most recent book, The Devil Close Behind. Jeri made her debut 30 years ago. I’m aging faster than she is.

September marks the publication of my latest book, Death Above the Line, the fourth book in my California Zephyr historical series, which features Zephyrette Jill McLeod sleuthing in the early 1950s.

What, you never heard of a Zephyrette? Jill is the riding-the-rails equivalent of a stewardess. Other train routes had similar hostesses, called by different names. On the California Zephyr, they were Zephyrettes.

Jill is the only female member of the crew. She walks through the train, answers questions, runs errands—attuned to the passengers’ needs, ever alert to any problems. Who would be better placed to solve a crime than a resourceful woman who is supposed to keep an eye on things?

I introduced Jill in Death Rides the Zephyr, which takes place in December 1952. After that, Jill moves into 1953, with Death Deals a Hand, The Ghost in Roomette Four, and now Death Above the Line.

As for the California Zephyr, I mean the original, not the Amtrak Version. The old California Zephyr was sometimes called the Silver Lady, because of its sleek stainless-steel cars.

The first stop on the eastbound route was a small town called Niles, about 25 miles southeast of Oakland. Thought the train didn’t stop unless passengers were waiting to board.

In Death Above the Line, Jill gets roped into playing a Zephyrette in a movie. I chose Niles, now part of the city of Fremont, as the setting because it was a movie town from 1912-1916, when the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company made silent pictures there. Including one called The Tramp, staring a guy named Charlie Chaplin.

You can read more about Niles and its history on my website. Here’s the link.

What brought on the plot that ties trains with a movie? One night I dined with two retired Zephyrettes. One, Rodna Walls Taylor, was a Zephyrette in the early 1950s. She did indeed play a Zephyrette in a movie—Sudden Fear, starring Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, and Gloria Grahame. That scene where the Zephyrette tells Crawford that it’s time for her dinner reservation. That’s Rodna.

I’m looking forward to checking in once a month. If you’d like to check out Jeri Howard’s first nine cases, The Jeri Howard Anthology: Books 1-9, is free today, September 7, on Amazon.