Leave It to Tiptoe To Solve the Case

I ONCE knew a hotel detective in Los Angeles by the name of Oliver ``Tiptoe'' Taylor, a large jovial man with curly black hair. He could have been Peter Ustinov's brother.

Tiptoe was the hired sleuth at the large, pink, 300-room Gardenia Arms, a resident hotel on Sepulveda where my Uncle Ed lived. On my visits as a young boy, Tiptoe always greeted me with great warmth and interest.

He wore double-breasted white suits and black ties. I can still see him in the lobby striding toward me with a massive grin, his white suit almost glowing, his questions to me focusing on what I was reading at school or what books I had checked out of the library since my last visit.

Visible at all times of the day in the lobby, where fans circulated next to potted palms, Tiptoe usually meandered in pointless, wide, inexact circles, head down or up, ready at the drop of a clue to pursue and terminate disorder. He was the only detective I knew, and therefore I asked him a lot of questions and watched his every move. I didn't want to be a detective, but I did want to be quick and solve the small mysteries of life like one. That's what appealed to me.

Tiptoe said he had a photographic memory, but since I didn't, I never knew if it was true. I liked his tough, blue eyes and his air of command.

A folded newspaper was always stuffed in his suit pocket. ``Newspapers are clues to the world,'' he whispered to me.

He told me he had no love for sharp noises, strange packages under the arms of strangers walking through the lobby, unescorted women, expensive shoes that squeaked, or residents of the hotel who could not describe exactly the noise they'd heard in the hallway the previous night around 2 a.m. (This was in the days when a security system meant having the right key.)

Stealth apparently was not Tiptoe's leading skill. Nor was the ability to cross-examine. What seemed to be his value to the Gardenia Arms was his ability to stay calm while residents shrieked or wanted to fight. That's what my Uncle Ed said.

Even back then, I felt there was a note of sadness about Tiptoe. In a sense, he was never a participant, but always a protector, always on the lookout for anything suspicious. He could dissipate confusion with great skill, as I learned that warm Saturday afternoon when I was sitting in the lobby waiting for my Uncle Ed to come down from his room so we could walk to the Hollywood Legion Stadium. Parajito Moreno was fighting in the 10-round main event.

The Gardenia Arms lobby was a little threadbare; the half-a-dozen blue-and-yellow flowered sofas and armchairs were all lumpy and brusque, but neatly arranged in front of the huge fireplace that was never used. The walls were painted a soft lime green.

Five large paintings hung on the walls, depicting the California coast as if painted by an artist with meat-butcher sensitivities. Chunks of sunny yellow and blue were poked with abstract palm fronds and dried seaweed. ``We deserve better,'' Tiptoe whispered to me once when he saw me looking at the paintings. ``I could do better. You could do better.''

As I sat there waiting for my uncle, there was a muffled and sustained scream from somewhere above the lobby. All the people in the lobby jerked their heads up. The scream echoed down the halls, curling around corners like a snake.

THE second scream was even louder. Most of the people in the lobby stood up, alarmed. The desk clerk, an older man in a blue suit, stepped from behind the desk and said assuredly, ``I'm sure Tiptoe is already on his way.''

Everybody sat down. That was it: Tiptoe was already on his way. Minutes passed. The doors of the elevator swished open. Out came Tiptoe carrying the body of a woman in a pale-blue filmy bathrobe. Apparently she was unconscious. Tiptoe carried her into the manager's office. Seconds later, he rushed out of the manager's office, out the front door, then seconds later he rushed back in, laughing. Like a rhino, he sprinted heavily across the tile floor to the elevator and ascended to the third floor.

Whatever I was witnessing, I thought it was wonderful, the zany stuff of mystery and intrigue. I imagined the worst: murder, betrayal, jealousy. Later I learned from my uncle as we walked to the main event that the truth was even better.

It seems Edna and Bert Ballinger, retired circus acrobats, had been enjoying the afternoon in their apartment. Edna was running the vacuum cleaner in a small hallway where a large window was wide open. At that moment, Bert, lean and fit in his undershirt and shorts, was leaning out sprinkling birdseed into a feeder.

Edna, with her back to Bert, had no idea he was there because the vacuum cleaner was so loud. With her great arm strength, developed from years of acrobatics, she shoved the vacuum cleaner back and forth across the rug, backing up toward the window.

When she neared Bert, who was still leaning out the window, a powerful back stroke struck him in the behind. He shot headfirst out the window. Edna jumped a foot and screamed. She saw the box of birdseed on the ledge and realized Bert had gone out the window headfirst. She screamed again and fainted.

Meanwhile, Bert fell one story onto a canvas awning and ripped through it. Years of acrobatic quickness had honed his instincts. He reached out with his right hand, grabbed the iron bar supporting the awning, and stopped his fall. ``Edna,'' he yelled, ``stop that screaming and look at me.'' He pulled himself up over the frame, and, in homage to the past, started spinning and twirling over and around the bar.

Tiptoe, who just happened to be passing by in the hall, heard the scream and entered the apartment with his master key. He scooped up Edna, who tried to say, ``Get Bert fast,'' but slurred it down to one word, ``Gas.'' Tiptoe thought she meant escaping gas, and spirited her out of the apartment about to explode.

On the way down in the elevator, she murmured, ``Bert, out the window,'' which is what sent Tiptoe out the front door, thinking Bert would be flattened on the grass. But three stories up, there was white-skinned Bert in the sun, erratically twirling around the bar and laughing at the joy of exercising his acrobatic skill which had lain fallow for a decade. ``I'll be right up to let you in,'' yelled Tiptoe. ``Take your time,'' yelled Bert.

EVENTUALLY, Bert was reunited with Edna, and with Bert's coaxing, Edna laughed about the incident.

When Tiptoe appeared in the lobby again, smoothing his tie and looking suspiciously at the exit doors, he whispered to me, ``All in a day's work.''

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