Columbo Day

Every year in October, millions of children praise the good, wholesome and unsoiled name of Christopher Columbus. They sing their Columbus songs about syphilis, buy Columbus Day boat decorations, and eat the (obvious) famous meal. We had Columbus Day leftovers for a week when I was a kid. Joyous times.

Now, I’ve well grown out of Columbus Day. My dad sat me down and had a talk with me on a blue October afternoon when I was ten. So now I spend my weekends in October praising a different Italian who came to America. Columbo.

Lieutenant (Frank) Columbo. If you don’t know Columbo, he’s a detective who arrived in the early seventies and he was different from all of the others America had seen. He works on the LAPD and he’s a famously rumpled, messy-haired and constantly smoking a pretty mauled cigar. His raincoat is one big wrinkle. This is in contrast to his suspect (and eventual victim) who are almost always part of the LA upper crust. Part of the pleasure of a Columbo episode is their often condescending attitude towards Columbo, for his humble demeanor tricks them into thinking he’s a nit. And then they are taken down by him, because Columbo always always catches the bad guy (or girl). Each episode saw him driving forward relentlessly, but at a slow pace, observing everything. He often became close to his suspect, sometimes they tried to endear themselves to him because they wanted to trick him or it gave them a sense of security, sometimes they did actually like him, sometimes they pretended to like him, sometimes they were openly aggravated by his pestering, sometimes they tried to pull rank or threaten. But it never worked, he always got them.

It was a brand new type of mystery, since the first thing we saw was the murdered killing his victim. So instead of a whodunnit, Columbo was a howcatchem. And indeed the fun of a Columbo episode is watching him put together bits of observations and clues until he finally has one big gotcha at the end. That gotcha was the best. Most of the time the suspect just gave in, saying something like “OK, for God’s sakes, you got me.” Other times they were stunned. Some just applauded him and complimented Columbo on his brains.

I spent Friday night and Sunday afternoon watching Columbo episodes. I sat in my chair, researched and jotted notes for this or that, planned a lesson, and watched. What was the draw, I wondered. A quick look at Netflix drums up roughly 7,000 TV detectives, so why watch an episode of Columbo besides for a little dose of 70s nostalgia?

First of all, let’s not overlook the 70s nostalgia. The cars, the suits. The smoking everywhere. Each time a guy stepped onto an elevator and lit up a cigarette I laughed and pointed. I lost count of how many times Columbo lit his cigar in a hospital. And when he had to break a dollar to use a pay phone, I shook my head in amazement. The utmost of this was when he had to borrow a dime to call the weather service to find out if it had rained a week before. The very idea of not having a pocket-sized machine that will tell you that information at a click is now profoundly unimaginable.

And I think that’s part of the huge charm too. Columbo is unrelenting, he’s got good sense, and he’s observant. He takes time to do things right. He always talks about tying up his “loose ends” and following through on an idea until he’s satisfied. That appeals to me. Additionally, Columbo isn’t only an underdog or humble in appearance, he openly admits to not being as smart as other people.  

“All my life, I kept running into smart people. I don’t just mean smart like you and the people in this house. You know what I mean. In school, there were lots of smarter kids, and when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there… and I could tell right away it wasn’t going to be easy making detective as long as they were around. But I figured… if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open maybe I could make it happen. And I did.”

So let the millions worship Columbus and his noncontroversial achievements and good will towards other cultures, I’ll take a Columbo Day. If for no other reason than it gives me a chance to hear “one more thing” about five times in a day. I’ll take my popcorn over the extravegent Columbus Day meal and I’ll take a quiet day at home in my armchair in lieu of the Columbus Day parades that storm through each city. You can take Columbus and his lily white record, I’ll take Columbo.

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