The Case of the Stolen Overcoat
The California Assembly’s Indomitable John Quimby Had a Lion’s Build, a Cheery Wit and a Hound’s Tooth Coat He Didn’t Own
By James R. Mills
San Diego Magazine, December 1983
“Hire the handicapped,” John Quimby used to say. “They’re fun to watch.”
Upon his arrival in Sacramento in 1962, John had become the most popular member of the State Assembly, partly because he carried on so cheerfully and indomitably in spite of his own handicap.
He was the first paraplegic ever to serve in the California Legislature, having been paralyzed from the waist down by polio as a child. He struggled around the marble halls of the Capitol like a lion crippled in its hindquarters. His arms, shoulders and neck were majestically proportioned, as a result of his having propelled himself by hand upon his withered steel-braced legs everywhere he had gone since he was a youngster. His head was sculpted on the same leonine scale and design as his forequarters – and it was appropriately framed by a fine, dark mane of hair.
A few words with John always improved any day. So I was glad one winter morning to find him in the coffee room off the Assembly Chamber. I had drifted in to start the day with a legislative eye-opener – a cup of strong black coffee.
John was propped up in a stainless steel chair at one of the stainless steel tables with his stainless steel sticks on the green rug to one side of his chair. He was carefully raising a plastic cup of coffee from the gray linoleum tabletop to his pursed lips.
When he saw me he yodeled, ”Jim! Have I got a story to tell you.”
He put his cup down and his tremendous shoulders started to shake. “Oh Lord!” he moaned, wiping away tears that came to his eyes. He pulled himself together and said, “The funniest goddamned thing happened last night!”
I accepted my morning fix from a friendly old black assistant sergeant-at-arms and sat down expectantly across from John.
“You know,” he began, between sips and chuckles, “Paul Lunardi invited a bunch of us to go to Lunardi’s Tan Tan Club at 1010 Tenth Street for the first annual sweetbreads and lasagna festival last night.”
Here I should explain that Paul Lunardi was a short, friendly Italian from Roseville, which is 18 miles northeast of Sacramento. Paul had been elected
to the State Senate after serving six years in the Assembly. A couple of years later he would give up his seat in the Senate to become a lobbyist. He did that because there isn’t any private interest represented in Sacramento that isn’t a more generous employer than the public.
Lunardi’s Tan Tan at 1010 Tenth was owned and operated by two of Paul’s brothers. It was an Italian neighborhood bar, although it wasn’t in an Italian neighborhood. It was right downtown, only a few yards on Tenth Street from the magnolia-and-derelict-pervaded plaza in front of Sacramento’s stately city hall.
On the right as you entered the place, an old-fashioned, dark wooden bar ranged the length of the room. The wall behind it was masked by an old fashioned back bar made up of large square mirrors in wood frames stained the same dark shade as the bar itself.
Lining the opposite wall was a row of red leatherette booths. Steaks and pasta were set before residents of downtown Sacramento who were on low incomes, like the members of the Legislature. The prices were reasonable and the fare was the marvelous kind that is cooked by little old Italian ladies – that is to say, it was flavored with garlic and genius in equal parts.
John Quimby had succumbed to another seizure of tittering. He recovered partially and carried on in a tremolo.
“I never like to miss first annual festivals, by golly. You know, there may never be another one and then you’ll have missed out entirely.
“ Anyway, there were two cab loads of us who went from the Capitol basement. We took cabs because it was raining pretty hard last night, harder than it is now,” he said, gesturing with his mighty right hand at the drizzling grayness outside the 14-foot tall, round-topped Capitol window.
“After we got there and got settled into a couple of booths to have a drink or two and wait for our sweetbreads and lasagna, good old Alan what’s-his-name came wandering in through the front door. You know who I mean, that tall, skinny cat with the long face and the ears that stick out like jug handles.”
I didn’t know who he meant and my face must have showed it.
“He’s beginning to go bald,” John added helpfully, “and his eyes look like hard-boiled eggs and he always looks like he’s just been to his best friend’s funeral.”
“Oh, that Alan,” I said.
That Alan was a lanky, gawky, 30-year-old Scandinavian adolescent who had only recently appeared in Sacramento to represent an organization of specialty truckers. He was new on the Capitol scene and didn’t know the code of conduct that guided the members of the three houses of the Legislature – the Senate, the Assembly and the lobbyists – in their dealings with each other.
“The poor bastard looked lonely as hell. He saw us and came over to us to say hello and ask if he could buy us a drink. Naturally, we said yes. While we were tossing off what he’d bought us, he hung around watching us with those big, sad eyes of his. He was obviously hoping that somebody would ask him to sit down with us, but nobody did. His face kept getting longer and longer, and it’s pretty goddamned long to start with.
“Nobody invited him to sit down because he’s such a melancholy cat. I mean he doesn’t exactly add much life to any party. He was looking awkward as hell, like he didn’t know what to do and we were felling awkward as hell because we didn’t know what to do either. He really is a friendly sort of guy, even if he always does look as if his last dog has been hung, so I invited him to sit down and have dinner with us. It was a great meal, by golly, and I surely do hope that they’ll have a second annual sweetbreads and lasagna festival.”
After a sip of coffee and a chuckle, John continued, “Milton Marks was the man of the hour. Did you see in Herb Caen’s column what Miltie said when he was introduced to the new Russian consul general at a party in San Francisco?”
I shook my head.
“Well some cat said to the Russian consul general, ‘I’d like you to meet Assemblyman Milton Marks,’ and the Russian said, ‘I like your name,’ and Miltie said, ‘You like the name Milton?’
“Anyway, between raising our glasses of Dago Red to Miltie and scarfing up our sweetbreads and lasagna, we were having a helluva nice time, and we didn’t want to go back to our hotel rooms and go to sleep. It was only about 9:30 so Alan Pattee said, ‘Why don’t we go someplace after dinner and play cards?’ And Alan what’s-his-name said, ‘Gee, that’s a great idea. Where shall we go’
“Everybody was a little bit stunned. Nobody had expected that he would think he had been invited to spend the whole goddamned evening with us when I asked him to sit down and have dinner. I mean, where in the hell can you take a small-time lobbyist to play cards in Sacramento?”
I could see his point. The problem was that it would have been considered bad manners to take any lobbyist to partake of the hospitality of any other lobbyist. No member of the third house would take kindly to being put in a position of providing another legislative advocate with the occasion to drink and socialize with members of the Legislature.
After all, they were supposed to be spending their money to improve their own relationships with California’s lawmakers, in order to increase their own effectiveness. They didn’t like to expend their clients’ funds to enhance friendships between legislators and some competitor who might well be in a position of opposing their clients’ interests at some time in the future.
John asked the friendly old sergeant-at-arms, “Would you give me a refill, please?” He blew on the steaming black surface of his fresh cup of coffee, took a sip, grinned reflectively and went on.
“We asked Paul Lunardi’s brother, Dom*, to call a couple of cabs for us because it was still raining. Alan went to the men’s room. It takes a few minutes, you know; it’s down in the basement.
I did know. I also remembered that John couldn’t negotiate the stairs on his sticks. When nature called, he always went out in the alley instead.
“When Alan went downstairs,” John gurgled, “we all started talking at the same time about how to get rid of him. But nobody had any good ideas except to ditch him if the cabs showed up before he got back – but they didn’t.
“When they did come, we all went out in the rain to get into them. Uncle Miltie got in first and I got in second into the first cab. Just as I got settled into place and got my sticks stowed away – and Alan was starting to get in beside me – a brilliant idea struck me.
“I went into my handicapped routine. ‘By golly,’ I said. ‘I forgot my overcoat!’ I figured Alan wouldn’t know I didn’t have an overcoat because he came in after we did. ‘Say Alan,’ I said, ‘would you be a buddy and go back into the restaurant and get it for me? I left it on the hat rack just inside the front door.’
“He was halfway into the cab and he started backing out. He said, ‘What does it look like?’ I thought fast, making up an overcoat for myself out of the whole cloth. I said, ‘It’s a black and white hound’s tooth check and there’s a pair of black leather gloves in the one of the side pockets. Will you get it for me, please?’
“Alan stood at attention in the rain and said, ‘I will,’ with feeling, like we were getting married, and as soon as he was inside the door I said to the cabbie, ‘Take us to the Senator Hotel and step on it.’
“On the ride over everybody was congratulating me for being a genius and I was feeling pretty proud of myself, even though it was a terrible thing I had done to poor Alan. But after we got to the Senator and went up to Jeff Peyser’s room, we forgot all about him. There wasn’t anybody there but Jeff and he asked us in, of course. We sat down to play cards. There were two tables of gin rummy and one of blackjack and Jeff took good care of us so we were having a nice time.”
From John’s description I could picture the scene. Jeff Peyser kept the light of civilization burning in the evenings in Sacramento for those who have the tastes and inclinations of gentlemen. He kept supplies of excellent brandy and fine cigars in his suite. He had cards, of course, and card tables and plenty of folding chairs.
Jeff was the perfect host – debonair and charming – and he never gambled with the members. He didn’t want to win money from legislators and he didn’t want to lose money to them. In either case, his relationships with them would be affected in an unhealthy way.
By slow degrees John broke up into another fit of chuckles, wiped his eyes again and carried on with the story:
“After about an hour, somebody knocked on the hall door and Jeff went to see who it was. You know how the hall door in his suite is off a vestibule so you can’t see who’s at the door unless you’re right behind the vestibule?”
“Well, not one of our three card tables was right behind the vestibule so none of us could see who was at the door. All we knew was that Jeff was talking to some cat at the door. It seemed like he wanted to come in but Jeff didn’t want to let him in. Finally Jeff left whoever it was standing in the hall while he came back into the room and said to me, ‘It’s for you, John,’ and he handed me my sticks.
“I couldn’t imagine who the hell it could be. ‘For me?’ I said as I got to my feet and Jeff nodded at me like an archbishop.
“I went to the door and there standing on the hall carpet was Alan – wet as a week’s wash – with the rain dripping off those jug-handle ears of his. And, Jim, as God is my witness, he had a black and white hound’s tooth check overcoat in his hand and there was a pair of black leather gloves in the pocket! I swear it! It exactly fitted the description I had made up out of thin air!”
“Oh my God!” I said. “Where did he get it?”
“You won’t believe it when I tell you but I swear to God it’s true.” John was shaking again with glee. “Alan looked at me like a friendly undertaker and said, ‘Gee, am I ever glad I finally found you! I’ve been all over town looking for you. Here’s your coat.’
“I goddamn near died. I just stood there looking at him. I couldn’t tell him that it wasn’t my coat and that I had just made it all up about a coat to get rid of him. By golly, I was embarrassed but I was also as amused as hell and I had to share it. ‘Hey, fellows,’ I yelled over my shoulder, ‘It’s Alan and he’s brought me my coat.’
“There was total silence behind me. Finally, Paul Lunardi said, ‘I don’t believe this.’
“Alan said to me, ‘I’m sorry I took so long but I didn’t know where you went. You forgot to tell me. Like I said, I’ve been all over town looking for you. That’s how I got so wet.’
“And he sure was soaked. Water was dripping from his coat and his pants and by that time he was standing in the middle of a dark puddle on the hall carpet.
“I said, ‘By golly, that’s too bad.’ And I said over my shoulder, ‘The poor guy’s been all over town looking for us and he got all wet. We forgot to tell him where we were going.’
“Alan looked at me with those big, sad hardboiled-egg eyes of his and said, in a loud tone of voice so the fellows in the room could hear without me repeating it, ‘I’ve had a terrible time. There was an old son-of-a-bitch who was trying to steal your coat when I went back in to get it. I guess he saw you go out without it and he figured he could swipe it. He was actually putting it on!’
“ ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ I said, acting shocked, which God knows I was.
“There was an absolute silence behind me. I knew that the whole crew was strangling to keep from laughing, just like I was. It was awful and it kept getting worse.
“Alan was looking solemn as hell and he said, ‘I actually had to fight him for it! I had to take it off the old son-of-a-bitch.’
“ ‘You hear that fellows?’ I yelled over my shoulder. ‘He actually had to fight him for it. He had to take it off the old son-of-a-bitch.’
“They’d heard it all right. The strangling sounds were getting louder.
“ ‘You won’t believe it,’ Alan said, ‘but the old bastard started hollering that I was the one who was the thief!’
“ ‘What do you think of that fellows?’ I yelled over my shoulder and the sounds of strangling got even louder.
“ ‘By golly, Alan,’ I said, ‘I don’t know how I can thank you.’
“ ‘Think nothing of it,’ he answered me, as heroic as hell. He must have heard the guys behind me choking because he said, ‘Is everybody in there alright?’
“ ‘Everybody is in terrific shape,’ I told him, ‘but what about you? You’re all wet and you should go home and get out of those wet things or you’ll catch your death of cold. Wouldn’t you like to have a nice glass of brandy before you go?’
“He sniffled and said, ‘Yes, I would.’
“ ‘Jeff,’ I yelled over my shoulder, ‘would you bring Alan a glass of brandy, please?’
“Jeff brought it and handed it to him like it was a prescription and took the wet overcoat off his hands. Poor old Alan swallowed his brandy like a horse drinking water and went home to his room, wherever it was.
“As soon as the door closed and I came back into the room, the place fell apart. We’d all gone red in the face from not laughing and now we got even redder from laughing. We pounded each other and we held our sides and we slapped our knees and then that goddamned Milton Marks made it worse. You know how lawyers are. They make everything worse.
“He picked up that wet overcoat and looked at it and said, ‘You know, this isn’t a cheap coat,’ and he stopped laughing and started rendering legal opinions. He said, ‘Has it occurred to any of you that Alan committed a felony? And he was acting as our agent when he did it. We put him up to it. We could all be guilty of a felony.’
“Uncle Miltie was standing there looking as solemn as a parson in a whorehouse, and everybody else was laughing even harder than before – at Miltie. Alan Pattee fell off his chair and was rolling around on the floor underneath one of the card tables, holding his ribs and whooping and hollering.
“Uncle Miltie said, ‘You guys can go ahead and laugh but what if the old geezer goes for the police? Alan could be in the city jail before the night’s out and we could be in there with him.’ “
It was getting harder and harder for John to continue the story. When he wasn’t disintegrating into amazed delight, I was.
“We laughed ‘til our ribs hurt and Alan Pattee kept rolling around under the table. But what Uncle Miltie had said sobered me up a little. I was still laughing but not so hard as I had been. I managed to tell Paul Lunardi I thought we should try to get the overcoat back to the Tan Tan Club.
“He was cackling like a hen that has just laid an egg. But he took the coat downstairs and gave it to a cabbie at the stand outside and told him to take it to the Tan Tan at 1010 Tenth. I called Dom to tell him it was on its way and that’s the end of the story.”
When John finished, we each had a fit of hysteria.
At last I bleated, “Did the old guy get his coat back?”
“Not yet he hasn’t,” John said. “Dom told me on the phone that he didn’t know who he was so I guess he won’t get it back ‘til the next time he drops in at the Tan Tan.
“And he probably won’t feel like going back here again for awhile for fear Alan might show up and take his shirt and his pants off him.”
James R Mills was the President Pro Tempore of the California Satte Senate from 1971 to 1980. He served with Quimby in the Assembly during the early 1960s. He wrote one work of fiction. This story isn’t it.
*(Editor’s Note: The original version of this story says Lunardi’s brother at the Tan Tan Club is “Mo.” His name was in fact Dominic, corrected a rather disdainful 91-year-old Paul Lunardi at the January 5, 2013 memorial for Quimby. California’s Capitol — and no doubt Sen. Mills — regrets the the error, which has now been rectified throughout. Knoll’s Law of Media Accuracy states that every story is factually perfect — except one a reader has any personal knowledge of.)
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