The mystery that came out in the wash

FOUR names scribbled on a napkin. A restaurant crowded with suspects. Each time I walk past the Hilton Hotel, just across the street from my office in Boston's Back Bay, I'm reminded of the great laundry mystery. It happened in that hotel in March 1981, and that's where it was finally solved.

The case began when I made my first trip to Boston, as a consultant. I was to work with a client for an extended period - at least six months. Arrangements were made for long-term housing, but until that was ready, I had a room at the Hilton.

Work kept me busy during the day, but my first few evenings in town, I felt rather lonely. Walking around on nearby streets, I talked with a few shopkeepers, asked questions, and became familiar with the Boston dialect. (I failed to convince anyone that it's pronounced "car," not "cah.") Most of all, I missed my wife and daughter, who were thousands of miles away on the other side of the country. That's where all my closest friends lived, too. Or so I thought.

On Tuesday of my second week, I returned to my room as usual. I walked in, set my briefcase down, and noticed that a box containing my laundry had been returned and was sitting on the bed.

As I took off my coat, something scribbled on the top of the box caught my eye. There, next to my name on the laundry form I had filled out that morning, was a greeting I hadn't seen or heard since fifth grade - "Hi Gerb."

I stood there, stunned, thrilled, and puzzled. "Gerb" was a nickname that had followed me through most of elementary and junior high school. Only a handful of my close friends had known it or used it, though. How amazing, I thought. I had taken this assignment on the other side of the country, in a place where I'd arrived knowing no one and where no one knew me - or so I thought. And yet here was evidence that, lurking somewhere - probably as a hotel employee - was a long-lost friend from school. But where? And which friend? The mystery deepened.

Days flew by. I was too busy with my work to do any sleuthing. The following Tuesday I again returned to my room at the end of the day. There, taped to the latest box of clean laundry, was my order form - and that friendly message.

Now I had to find out.

I needed to jot down some notes. I grabbed a pen and headed downstairs for dinner in the hotel restaurant. Once seated, I ordered quickly. But I held onto my menu and used it as a cover, peering over the top and peeking around the sides, looking for suspects. No one in the restaurant looked familiar.

By the time dinner arrived, I had written on a napkin a list of everyone i could recall who had consistently called me "Gerb." There were four names - three from school days, plus my wife: Les, Mark, John, and Jo Ann.

I began the process of elimination, starting with Jo Ann. She had called me that name on a few occasions, and I knew that at times she could be something of a trickster. Still, if it were she, why would she fly all the way to Boston and hide from me for two weeks? That eliminated her.

Next on the list was John. I remember him from junior high school, a towering guy with the biggest feet in eighth grade. He was your basic football hero, a cheerleader magnet, and an academic whiz, to boot - the opposite of me. Still, John was kind enough to have been a good friend - at least until we got to high school. That's when he started calling me "curb" instead of Gerb. OK, that left two names.

Mark easily tied with Les as a top suspect. They were my closest friends. I had no trouble imagining that, if either of them were connected with the hotel and happened to see my name on a laundry order, they wouldn't hesitate to make themselves known in this unusual way. Since I hadn't seen or heard from either of them in more than 15 years, it was entirely possible that one or the other was living in Boston.

I returned to my room after dinner, feeling confident that I was close to a solution. After carefully reviewing my napkin, I decided it was time to act. I would take the elevator back down to the lobby, go up to the front desk, and ask the manager if he knew either person.

AS THE elevator descended, I wondered what I would do if neither of the names was familiar to the manager. Should I request a list of all hotel employees, as well as all contract services used within the past two weeks? Would that be pushing it? I'd cross that bridge when, and if, I came to it.

The elevator arrived at the lobby. As I waited for the doors to open, I glanced behind me, toward the back of the elevator, to a familiar advertisement for the hotel restaurant. I'd seen the ad dozens of times, but this time one word in particular caught my eye.

Suddenly, everything made sense. I had my answer. I knew who had written "Hi Gerb" on the box of laundry, and why.

I continued on to the front desk just to confirm my findings. I could kick myself for not having seen the answer sooner, since it had been staring at me all along, throughout the hotel.

The Hilton is one of several hotels in the area, all of whom probably send their guests' laundry out to be cleaned. In order to make sure each order is returned to the proper customer, the cleaning service must use an identifying code on the order forms: the first two letters of the hotel, followed by the first four letters of each customer's last name. Thus, Hi Gerb.

The manager confirmed my suspicion, and I thanked him. The case was closed, and I slept peacefully. Maybe I should have pursued a career as a detective.

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