The written formula itself was an affront to the human spirit, so much so that Dave Ettlin, the late rewrite man who raised young pups relentlessly in the Sun way, once deigned to show me his lede for the apocalypse, composed so that it would fly without debate past the night editor and the copy desk slotman:
“Life as we know it ended in Baltimore yesterday, as the dead rose in every city cemetery and demon spawn from hell were seen wreaking havoc throughout central Maryland, police said.”
The “police said” made it perfect, we both agreed, with Ettlin assuring me that attribution is always key.
In desperation, after almost a year in the existential nightmare that was night police reporting—if a drug dealer falls in West Baltimore and no one reports it, does he make a sound?—I handled the problem in part by learning to write a feature story.
My first attempt was the last early morning of the city wholesale fish market, an old but epic wreck of a building just off East Baltimore Street. The market was to be pushed out of the city for redevelopment, with the fishmongers decamping to modern facilities in Jessup. Slipping the surly bonds of police reporting, my lede on that piece had something about unseeing scrod staring one-eyed and uncomprehending at the cavernous old building one last time. Seriously.
Bob Benjamin, a veteran reporter with the dignified beat of higher education, sought me out the morning that the fish market piece ran off the front.“Well, well,” he said, trying, I suppose, for some facsimile of a compliment. “I’m reading my paper this morning, and I had to take note: Simon actually wrote something.”
But the next day, the fish market was closed forever, and what remained for me, shift after shift, was more crime-blotter jetsam from a reckless, teeming, and wholly repetitive metropolis.
“Hey, Simon from the Sun, Anyth . . .
“Simon from the sun! It’s Kurth from Earth!”
“Fuck you, Charlie. Fuck you and the whole Kurth family and everything on God’s green fucking earth that you stand for . . .”
The occasional feature story, coupled with the fact that I was quick and clean on breaking cop stuff, resulted in only one modest enhancement in my status. On Sunday and Monday nights, the off days for Ettlin, I was given a rewrite shift.
The new duties offered only slightly more dignity and gravitas than night police reporting, in that you got a chance to boss around and abuse the nightcops scribe. But it was at least an acknowledgment that, in the eyes of those making up the work schedule, your copy was fast, clean, and accurate. In his own legendary memoir of life at the Sun, Russell Baker described a good rewrite man, more or less accurately, as a soul entirely capable of stringing an endless series of newspaper cliches together at the highest possible rate of speed. Baker shortchanges some of the nuance for the sake of humor, but mostly, he’s on the money. Night after night, I got better at reducing the moral foibles and grievous tragedies of Baltimore, Maryland to crisp, clear formula.
These heady days of instantaneous tweeting and perpetual, real-time digital information have made the very style of news writing—if not spelling and punctuation—almost a presumption. And the job of quickly writing and rewriting cogent, readable newspaper copy for three editions a night is now about as useful to humanity as that of a celluloid projectionist or typewriter repairman. But I can still give you twenty clean inches on a three-alarm warehouse fire in ten minutes. It may not count for much in the world as she now spins, but I can do it.
The other thing that rewrite taught me is that only a portion of those laboring with me at the Sun were of a temperament to accept the actual terms of engagement.
Simply put, I was ready and willing to insert myself into the tragedy of other people’s lives, to stand there on a doorstep talking, begging, until the broken mother or shocked widow invited me inside. I would get the quotes. I would ask for the photo. I would watch other reporters get sent away and then I would ring the doorbell, convinced that my pitch was better, that I would not be denied.
A less honest soul would attribute this to a hunger for the story, or more shamelessly, the public’s right to know. But no, sorry, it’s just good old sociopathy that luckily finds some utilitarian purpose in the obscure craft of police reporting. Even wrapping this skill set in as much human warmth as I might, I knew it to be some cold shit, and the best I can say for myself is that I never lied to anyone, and I treated the words and experiences that I acquired with as much respect as the job allowed.
Others in my tribe had no stomach for it.
Once, when I was working weekend rewrite, we caught a story about an assault on an infant in the neonatal unit at Franklin Square Hospital in Baltimore County, a twisted little incident in which some wreck of a teenager had wandered from the psychiatry wing and, finding the door to the delivery ward open, had proceeded to batter a random infant in the nursery.
The cops reporter that evening was a kid, earnest and virginal, fresh from the Sun’s internship program. He came to me with nearly enough to write up a brief, but this was more than that.
“You have the baby’s name and address,” I told him. “Use the criss-cross directory and call the parents. We have twenty minutes until the double-dot.”
He looked at me, stricken.
“Call them.” I repeated.
“I don’t think that’s right.”
“They’ve been through a lot here. I don’t think we should bother them tonight with this.”
I used the criss-cross myself, found the home number and put it in front of the poor kid.
“This is the job. Call.”
He let the phone ring twice, then hung up the receiver in a rush. I saw it and he knew I saw it, and there was nothing else I could do but walk over again, check the number, dial, and let it ring. A voice picked up, and after I identified myself, a father screamed in the phone for about thirty seconds, calling me everything from a parasite to a son of a bitch. I replied that I was sorry to bother him at the late hour, but asked again if he was sure that he didn’t want to take a moment and reflect on the incident. The father screamed some more and hung up. The kid, looking up at me, was self-satisfied.
“See?” he said, after I replaced the receiver.
“He didn’t want to talk.”
“We know that now. And you know what else we know? That he probably won’t be talking to Jayne Miller on the eleven o’clock news, or to anyone from the Evening Sun early tomorrow.”
A good, clean writer and a smart hire, he was entirely unconvinced. And in that moment, I like to believe, his career as a sports columnist was born.
No, ambulance-chasing and widow-consoling wasn’t for everyone in newspapering, but at the Sun, it was for even fewer when the terrain was the inner city, where the carnage was largely confined to black lives.
In truth, police reporting in Baltimore, I came to understand, was a balancing act between the cynicism and self-interest of the police sources on which you relied, and the voices in the street that were, in my city anyway, very different from those I had known. I was a suburban kid, a child of New Deal Democrats and liberal, but nonetheless suburban, and the world being policed in Baltimore was elusive and angry. In my first year of police reporting, I had somehow accomplished something without giving it much thought at all: I had acquired an ear, an interest, and a patience not only for the banter of Irish and Italian detectives and desk sergeants, but for what was coming at me from the largely African American street. The Sun had put me here, and to do the job I needed to listen to voices and cadences and arguments not my own. I found that I was willing to appear ignorant, to ask a stupid question, to be the fool. Most of all, I was willing to listen to anybody and everybody, and more than that, I was not simply humoring them to get facts for the next day’s edition. Not entirely, anyway. I was actually learning.
Inside the newsroom, of course, such lessons were of little practical importance, if they were acknowledged at all. At a predominantly white newspaper that had institutionally devalued black life in Baltimore for much of its existence—as a cynical and diminutive cue to white readers, black crime victims and suspects were routinely identified in the paper as “Negro” until 1961—my deepening curiosity, I later came to understand, was improbable, maybe even self-defeating. These were crimes that to society did not matter, in communities that did not matter.
Decades later, after I’d written a couple non-fiction narratives and some television dramas, a Baltimore detective I had come to regard not merely as good police but as an intellect would credit me with this much only. Most of my copy, in Terry McLarney’s eyes, was the usual dilettante’s from-on-high bullshit, albeit a little more amusing to him at a few odd points. But, he told me, before Homicide and The Corner, and before The Wire as well, “all of these ghetto murders didn’t rate. They were invisible. Not because everyone couldn’t see them, but because no one inside or outside the police department gave a shit. To get our attention in Baltimore, you had to kill a white person.”
The city might be reckless and teeming, but much of it was apparently not meant to be glimpsed as more than a Maryland Digest brief in the verdant sinecures of Roland Park and Mount Washington. Ill-dressed and inconstant in his newsroom demeanor, Mr. Simon had apparently misspent his first years at the Sun undertaking an awkward, vaguely inappropriate embrace of the city’s demimonde. After a year or so on the beat, he could actually find his way to Whatcoat Street or Lemmon Alley without so much as consulting a city map book.
This was not entirely a good thing in the eyes of some, so much so that some of my editors began to wonder just how long I was going to continue to slum on a split schedule of rewrite and police reporting. The way of the Sun was to quickly demonstrate a basic and rote competence on obituaries or nightcops, and then graduate to a couple years manning a county bureau in Columbia or Towson, showing the powers-that-be that school board politics or a circuit courthouse was manageable. With that much experience, the chance to be the third or fourth man in Annapolis during the legislative session was now a possibility. Cover yourself with honor in that assignment and, perhaps, the Washington bureau or a foreign assignment beckoned.
My career inertia was noted. When the Howard County reporter went on vacation for two weeks in the spring, I was offered to the county editor as a temporary replacement, but it was made clear to me that this first loan-out from the city desk was a harbinger.
“See how you like it,” the metro editor said cryptically, banishing me for a fortnight from the downtown newsroom on Calvert Street.
How I like it? Like what? Getting my police information through a wire-mesh window rather than at the bar at Kavanagh’s? Parsing a zoning board agenda as if it was some intricate Talmudic tract? Listening to the county scanner channels in the hopes that a wing of the mall might burn to the ground, or that county detectives might be rushing to one of the seven or eight annual homicides in a planned community where the subdivisions were named Hobbit’s Glen and Harper’s Farm?
“Bring me home,” I begged the city editor. “I’ll do anything you ask, including babysitting and window treatments.”
And she did.
Which leaves me, of course, opposite Ettlin, who is now simultaneously eating his lunch and taking dictation from Jeff Price in Jerusalem—a real newspaperman with a real expense account covering real world events—while I climb the blank walls of the same rote, repetitive purgatory.
“Anne Arundel fire . . .”
“Simon from the Sun. Still quiet tonight?”
“Yup. Still quiet.”
Ettlin watches me finish out the long-call list, and after cleaning up Price’s copy and sending it on to the foreign desk, he’s talking about setting up the Scrabble board for an early round of humiliating, triple-word-score dominance. At a penny a point, I am into the son of a bitch for more than ten dollars this month.
And I can’t bear it. When the last of the phone numbers yields nothing so much as a brief, I grab notepad and car keys, rise and stare down at the rewrite desk and the prospect of another wasted shift.
“I’m gonna run the districts.”
Ettlin raises an eyebrow. Run the districts?
Not since the days of hot type and Mergenthaler have day police reporters volunteered to run the nine Baltimore police districts, visiting desk sergeants and perusing arrest and incident logs. Why bother? You’ve already called the city com center and homicide, as well as traffic investigation. Other than street robberies and purse-snatches, what is there to be gleaned from showing up at the Southwestern or Western Districts, presenting a press card to the desk man, and being handed the useless and inconsequential dross of a quiet news day, the stuff of which newspaper columns are never made.
“Why?” Ettlin asks.
“Because they’re there.”
But at the Southern, there’s only some shoplifting and a prostitution arrest on the books, and at the Southwestern, someone robbed a Korean carryout of twenty-two dollars with either a gun or a finger in the pocket of a hooded sweatshirt. The Western yields some penny-ante drug arrests, and the Northwestern has two minors arrested for joy-riding an AMC Gremlin.
In the car on the way to the Northern, it all seems so empty, so utterly valueless as the instrument by which the great men of journalism might be sifted out and exalted. Here I am, cycling like a fool through police districts, and doing so after calling fifty-odd other places, looking for some fresh, creative, and fascinating manifestation of man’s inhumanity to man. And Baltimore is just not up to the task.
At the Northern, the desk sergeant refuses to let me see the incident book, as desk sergeants at the Northern always seem to do. The shift lieutenant is called, and he eventually arrives and hands me the clipboard as if it is a holy relic. One residential burglary from lower Hampden: taken, a purse with eight dollars and change.
“This is what you didn’t want to show me?”
The desk sergeant shrugs.
I’m thinking of skipping the Northeastern District. Nothing happens out there. Ever. In Mencken’s memoir of newspapering, his first assignment as a police reporter is the Northeast and, as a wide-eyed apprentice, he asks his editor how far out he should go looking for news.
“Until you see the Philadelphia reporters walking toward you,” he is told.
But now I am standing at the Northeastern desk, running through the scant pickings on the incident sheet, telling myself that Howard County might not be so bad, that any idiot can manage ten or twelve bylined inches every day on the school board or the county council agenda. I am barely listening to the squawk of the district channel on the deskman’s radio.
“. . . in a tree, two youths . . .”
“What’s your twenty?”
“Herring Run. South end.”
“Ten-four. Has fire been called?”
“Ten-four. Waiting on ‘em now.”
What, I ask, was that about a tree?
Five minutes later, I am down in Herring Run Park, watching Baltimore firefighters rescue two fifteen-year-old prodigies from a tall oak. They had skipped a day of middle school, climbed to an upper perch, and then proceeded to freak out about the risks of returning earthwards. There are two young girls on the ground as well, teasing them for their cowardice, giving what is known in this business as good quote.
One of the firefighters starts up the tree, while his partner waits below, holding an axe.
“Hey, man, what’s the axe for?” asks one kid.
“That’s if you don’t want to come down,” replies the Northeastern patrolman, dry as dirt.
And why they were up a tree in early afternoon, it being a school day and all?
“Let’s say we took a vacation,” explains the other kid, nodding at my notepad, “but please don’t print that.”
Once aground, both of them regain their composure, if not their bravado, eyeing the girls and even bumming cigarettes from the patrolman.
I fill about ten notepad pages and race back to the newsroom just in time to give the city editor a budget line.
“How long?” Rebecca asks.
“Twenty, twenty-five . . . ?”
She looks at me, dubious.
“It writes itself,” I assure her.
An hour later, she reads my stuff, and Paul, doing makeup, begins dummying my story for the front of metro. It runs to twenty-five inches.
“If we had art, telegraph would have taken it,” my editor tells me. “Did you think to call photo on it?”
The front page—immortality, or at least the whispered margins of such. At the sound of Rebecca Corbett’s words, my whole being puffs into a state of reportorial tumescence. For want of a photo, I might have made the front. The next morning, Milford Prewitt, the daycops reporter, sits with his legs crossed atop Ettlin’s desk, reading my righteous shit. Like me, Milford has lived and died with the long-call list, but he’s done so for years now. He’s sick of it, too, and will be gone in less than a year, moving on to something else, something beyond newspapering.
“Simon, you got twenty inches on kids in a tree.”
Twenty-five, I correct him.
“You got twenty-five inches on kids in a tree in Baltimore. How in the hell . . .”
“I ran the districts and picked it up.”
“You went to the Northeastern District and got twenty-five inches on kids in a tree on the front metro.”
Milford folds the paper and laughs loudly, but not at my expense. Sometimes, the magic is there, waiting to be conjured. Sometimes not. But yesterday, I had a good story.
“You’re gonna be alright, Simon,” he says, still laughing, beginning his own long-call round, his second of the day. “Two kids in a tree.”
Oh, my reckless and teeming city.