Archive for category: Essays/Opinion

Nightcops

12 Aug
August 12, 2016

Following is an excerpt from a new compendium of essays about the life and history of my alma mater, the old Baltimore Sun. “The Life of Kings” is edited by my former colleagues Frederic B. Hill, Stephens Broening and is being released by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. This essay is reprinted here with permission of Steve, Fred and the publishing house. Available to purchase online.

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Nightcops

Behold, a prince of my city, or so I imagine myself, resting next to Ettlin and before the algae-green glow of the Harris terminal, dialing through the long-call list of Maryland State Police barracks and city districts, hunting down the brutalities and miscalculations of a reckless, teeming metropolis.

“State Police, Glen Burnie barracks . . .”
“Hey, how’re ya? Simon from the Sun. Anything going on?”
“Nope. Quiet.”
Right then. Next call.
“State Police, Waterloo . . .”
“Afternoon. Simon from the Sun. Anything up?”
“Quiet today.”
Quiet. Okay, next.
“State Police, Annapolis . . .”

The long-call sheet—sixty-some-odd numbers for damn near every police agency operating in the Old Line State—wasn’t even on my desk at that point. No, I had all the numbers memorized, not as a parlor trick, but simply because I’d called every night police desk from Cumberland to Ocean City two or three times a shift for nearly two years at that point.

Is it a testament to the power of human memory that, to this day, I can still tell you that the state police barracks in Hagerstown is 301-739-2101, or that the Coast Guard marine safety office in Baltimore was then 962-5105? Is it worth describing the recurring dreams suffered well into my fifth decade, in which I slow dial the entire list on one of the newsroom’s early 1980s-era rotary phones, waking in a sweat only after reaching the last entry in the long column, the Ocean City Fire Department, and then beginning anew with the Baltimore police com center? Is it any wonder that for years, to better sustain the pleasure of a sexual partner, I would not—as Woody Allen once wryly remarked—lay abed focused on baseball, wondering whether to steal Alou or have McCovey hit away? No, whatever restraint came to me was gleaned from imagining a full round of Baltimore Sun cop calls. Being chivalrous, I would sometimes even imagine myself taking info for a two-car fatal from the Salisbury barracks, trying not to moan in the darkness about a westbound vehicle crossing the center line on Route 50.

I did this five shifts a week as the Sun’s night police reporter—my nights off, for the love of God, were Monday and Tuesday—harvesting death, dismemberment, and criminality, and then reducing most of it to bite-sized morsels for the “Maryland In Brief” feature, deep inside the metro section.

On a good night, something approximating real news would happen, and the night police reporter would work the phones, calling neighbors and detectives or even rushing over to one of the city districts to pry the incident report from a reluctant desk sergeant. If the story was especially notable, he might roll out of the newsroom, pen and notepad in hand, ready to wash up on the 1400 block of North Dallas Street or the 1800 block of West Lombard to gather some actual humanity and color on whatever brutality might be written to the front of metro, or perhaps, on some sacred and improbable night, the bottom of a front page largely reserved for the national and foreign desks, or perhaps, the more substantive and official happenings of government and politics in Maryland and Baltimore.

Such moments could never be conjured; they were elusive and decidedly random. For the night police reporter to find purchase on a front page, whole city blocks would need to catch fire, cops or firefighters would have to die, or, of course, upstanding white people would have to be killed in the right zip code. Otherwise, the great, insatiable maw of “Maryland In Brief” beckoned:

“A twenty-four-year-old West Baltimore man was shot to death . . .”
“Two Gambrills men were killed and a third injured in a three-car collision on Route 2 that police said . . .”
“A two-alarm rowhouse fire proved fatal to an elderly Curtis Bay woman . . .”

No, reportorial immortality was seldom to be found in the long-call list on ordinary nights. Young Baltimore Sun reporters harboring the most lurid and secret ambitions for their careers could go a week or more without a byline when working cops on a four-to-twelve shift. By the time they arrived in late afternoon, the metro editors were already meeting, their news budgets more or less cemented. And the daycops reporter, Twigg or LoLordo or Prewitt, had by then picked clean the police blotters of most everything from overnight to well past midday. Even the late-breaking stuff from the two afternoon papers had been gathered up and reprocessed. Certainly, any happenstance that a hungry nightshift reporter might slice and dice into enough column inches to rate a byline was no longer hanging low from any civic branch. Best a young fellow could do was sit at his desk and begin to make fresh calls . . .

“Homicide.”
“Simon from the Sun. Anything happening?”
“Simon from the sun! Kurth from Earth!”

Charlie fucking Kurth. Every call to homicide, twice a night, the same goddamn joke. It made a cop reporter pray aloud for Worden or Kincaid to answer the goddamn phone.

Once, quite early in what at that point could only be generously referred to as my career, I came upon a remarkable coincidence that seemed to promise at least eight inches of copy and a byline somewhere in the bowels of the metro section. I took the discovery to the weekend night editor.

“Bill, I have two shootings on the same city block. Only an hour apart.”

I showed him my notes: two human beings hit by gunfire on the same, solitary block of Baltimore, Maryland, on the same night, only an hour apart. My breath in my throat, I wondered secretly whether it might just be necessary to remake the metro front for the final.

The night editor pushed up his reading glasses, squinting at my ballpoint scrawl, then frowned.

“The eight hundred block of George Street is the Murphy Homes,” he explained, almost sympathetically. “When you don’t have a shooting there, it’s news.”

Oh, the reckless, teeming city.

In time, I learned the margins and even managed to get off a decent story or two. A gas truck caught fire and took a block of Pimlico rowhouses with it, and while the other reporters were at phone booths, dumping impressionistic quotes about leaping flames and acrid smoke, I managed to call the late Sunday rewrite, Jane Smith, with the actual cause of the fire and quotes from a battalion chief, earning the front-page byline. An undercover narcotics detective was shot to death after the double-dot deadline in a buy-bust on Frederick Road, and I managed to make the final with twenty inches and a photo. A Hopkins undergraduate was found murdered in her Charles Village apartment—a beautiful young woman, white, slain in a neighborhood that mattered. Bottom of the front, with a photo, in time for double-dot and then re-topped for the final.

But mostly, no. Mostly, the life of a twenty-something Sun acolyte, hired out of college and consigned to the night desk, was lived in four-paragraph installments, the kind that either ended in an acknowledgment that homicide detectives had no witnesses or suspects, or that the rear passenger in the second car was treated and released at an area hospital.

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.

“Homicide.”
“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.”

“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.
“See what?”
“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.

What I did on my humble-brag trip to Western Maryland

27 Jan
January 27, 2016

For reasons too improbable and esoteric to explain, I was recently invited to a small coterie of vacation shacks in Thurmont, north of the city of Frederick in Western Maryland.  Franklin Roosevelt christened the joint as Shangri-La — in honor of his “Lost Horizon” reference following the Doolittle Raid against Tokyo — and that name stuck until Eisenhower renamed it for his grandson, Daniel or Douglas or whatever.

Anyhow, the rule is that what happens at Camp Daniel stays at Camp Daniel.  When you get an invite, they don’t want you to describe the place on social media, or to relate the goings-on. And the Marines at the gate hold your cameras and smart phones so there’s nothing visual I could or should post here.

It will have to suffice as humble-brag to say that I drank a couple shots of presidential Jose Cuervo and I played a game of presidential darts and tilted a presidential pinball machine in the game room. Then I threw a couple jumpshots into the hole on either end of the presidential ball court, then powered my way down the lane past an imaginary presidential defender for a graceful lay-up. For a finale, I put on a pair of presidential bowling shoes and rolled a game in one of the presidential lanes.  I did not use the presidential ball, which was clearly labeled atop the rack.  They told me that was a definite no-go, and, well, Guantanamo.

All in all, I was feeling pretty damn special — 118 ain’t shabby when you haven’t bowled in a few years — until I look up on the wall of the lanes and there is a photograph of President Obama, the slightest suggestion of a smile on his face, pointing wryly upward at the tabulated bowling score on the overhead projection.

Two-thirteen.

In between every other mess with which he’s contending, Barack Obama came here to the presidential retreat one day and rolled a 213.

Two thirteen! The man is a beast.

Me, I’ve never been more ashamed of a 118 in my entire gutter-ball-rolling life. And now that weak-ass score, with my name affixed to it, is winding its way to the National Archives or some other federal drain-swirl of historical ignominy.

Anyway, I’m guessing that’s about as far as I can go in terms of discussing my day in the hills of Frederick County. I don’t wanna break the rules. But a cabinet secretary later told me that considering my negligible background and general reputation, everyone thought I behaved myself and my little talk on public housing policy went swell.

Armed with such assurance, I promptly went back to the bar and stuffed the small item you see below into my sweater and made good my escape.  The Marines at the gate probably assumed my conquest to be a gift-shop purchase or some such. Hah! What rubes. As if any chump of a visitor can pull out a credit card at the Shangri-La bar and waltz away from the place with $32 worth of presidential bar gear. As if.

My late father-in-law, Ted Lippman, who specialized in presidential politics for The Baltimore Sun for much of his long career, would have been so damn proud to down a martini from this bad boy. After all, who knows which historical lips savored its chemistry: Ike, or Truman, or Jackie Kennedy; Brezhnev or Sadat or Begin.

And, too, Ted would have been especially proud once I explained to him that they had renamed the entire camp in honor of my visit.

So that’s where it stands, Mr. President. You want this martini shaker back, you’re gonna roll me ten frames for it, double or nothing.  And, to keep it fair, I’ll need a 70-pin spot.

It followed me home.

It followed me home.

Ain’t no justice. It’s just us.

18 Dec
December 18, 2015

March 1992 Twigg Simon Bal Sun Article

In light of the frustration that many feel in the wake of this week’s mistrial in the first Freddy Gray prosecution, I thought I’d dig out an old newspaper clip. Written by veteran police reporter Roger Twigg and myself, it is an account of another Baltimorean who died in the back of a police wagon, and the early stages of an investigation that went nowhere once prosecutors, a city grand jury and police union lawyers did their business.

In this instance, now nearly a quarter century old, the sustained injuries were not to the victim’s spinal cord, but to his spleen and his ribs. In this instance, the prisoner was also clearly in distress and ignored.  In this case, the wagon man rode the victim around Baltimore not for 45 minutes without medical assistance, but for a full hour. In this instance, the wagon man actually told other prisoners not to step on the prone victim, because, he said, the man had AIDS. And in this case, too, as with Mr. Gray, there was considerable discussion about the criminality of the victim, as if by diminishing his human worth and highlighting his failings, a police-wagon death was somehow deserved.

Robert Eugene Privett, 29, died in Baltimore police custody in March 1992. There was no uprising and no riot. Coverage of the death produced no civic outrage. And a Baltimore State’s Attorney also took the matter to a grand jury and emerged with no indictments — not for depraved-heart second degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Not even for reckless endangerment.

It was death that just slipped quietly below the waves.

A police reporter for nearly a decade by then, I was certain it would.  I knew it once I heard prosecutors and union lawyers both mitigating the outcome with talk of the victim’s enlarged spleen, his drug use, his HIV status, effectively constructing a legal hole so large that a truck could be run through the center of the case.

The greater truth is that Freddy Gray is in no way unique or remarkable. Not in Baltimore, and not anywhere else in urban America. He comes to us amid a policing culture debased by thirty years of open warfare on the city poor — a conflict that has allowed, if not actually required, officers to see a large share of the men, women and children they are policing as the enemy, as arrest stats, as very much less than human.

Mr. Privett was white, by the way.  The desire to construct the Freddy Gray narrative along purely racial lines is understandable — Baltimore is a majority black city, and further, people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, who are the specific, targeted cohort in the drug war — but it is nonetheless not an entirely honest construction.

Anyone who has watched drug prohibition applied in my city’s poor white or mixed neighborhoods — in O’Donnell Heights or Morrell Park, Pigtown or pre-gentrifying Remington — understands fully that the battle claimed against dangerous narcotics long ago morphed into a full-blown war on our most vulnerable and disempowered citizens, regardless of race.  I recently happened to find myself the only white fellow on a New Yorker festival panel on race and I tried to make this point gently — to acknowledge that while people of color suffer police violence disproportionately, they are not alone.  And that class warfare, as much as racism, now underlies our savage, repetitive reliance on law-and-order brutalities.

“Then how is it that we never hear about white people being victims?” asked a fellow panelist.

I told her I had covered cases in Baltimore, that I had seen the war on drugs play itself out against poor whites and blacks alike. She looked at me with disbelief and disappointment, as if I had obliviously blurted that all lives matter.

Make no mistake: racism is still good fuel for much of the brutality. Moreover, I understand the natural inclination to view the whole of the nightmare of institutionalized police violence through the prism of race. From that perspective, poor white victims are indeed less useful as martyrs for a movement that begins by affirming for black life. But America’s misuse of the drug war to overpolice and beat down its poor is simply bigger, and more complicated, than race alone. The hue of the six defendants in the Gray prosecutions suggests this.  And the fact that the Robert Eugene Privetts of the world were going to their deaths in the back of Baltimore police wagons decades ago affirms as much.

I waited for a verdict in the first Freddy Gray prosecution before posting this.  I didn’t want to add to pretrial foment or mangle the specifics of the present case with those of the distant past.  But I’m writing now, in light of a jury’s inability to find any guilt whatsoever in the death of Mr. Gray in police custody.

Fair-minded people can argue about whether sufficient intent was proven to justify a manslaughter conviction, or whether this particular officer was more or less complicit in what happened to Mr. Gray.  But if, over the ensuing trials, our justice system determines that a prone, unresponsive human being can be legally ignored for nearly an hour by the authorities who have taken custody of him, well then, what exactly is the law saying to us as citizens? In a civilized republic, a law officer, in taking custodial responsibility of a fellow citizen, must do all he or she can to transport that citizen safely and attentively. If the law in the Freddy Gray cases allows otherwise, without sanctioning those who so abjectly fail that test, then our police wagons and jail cells will continue to be bodied for another couple decades.

Baltimore failed Robert Privett entirely.  Again, there were no indictments for reckless endangerment as he rolled around Southeast Baltimore for over an hour, pleading for medical help and dying of a ruptured spleen. The wagon man made his HIV-status into a bad joke. The state’s attorney then failed him and the city grand jury failed him.  His fellow citizens failed him as well, in that in 1992, the hue and cry against overpolicing, the drug war and mass incarceration wasn’t yet on the horizon. A series of articles covered the case in The Sun, but produced little reaction from any quarter.  Privett was The Other.  Some dope fiend. With AIDS.  Fuck him.

And now Mr. Gray.

If Baltimore today can’t figure out how to legally hold accountable the law officers who failed for nearly an hour to secure medical assistance for a man in their custodial care — at least to the point of declaring that they failed in their duty and recklessly endangered a fellow citizen — then we will have stayed the course. And twenty years from now, amid some other wagon or jail death, someone else will be posting old Freddy Gray stories and explaining that there is nothing new under the sun.

 

The frauds of memory, the limits of penitence. And baseball.

19 Nov
November 19, 2015

The following article was published in the Sports Illustrated of October 12, 2015.  It is reprinted here by the kind permission of those who not only commissioned the article, but helped with the logistics of getting Mike Epstein back to Washington so as to wash the sin from my hands. So, hey, when Judgment Day comes, they at least have this going for them.  Thanks, guys.

epstein

*      *      *

THE STATIC of the broadcast, the AM-band crackle that the cheap transistor spit up every time it swung or bounced—even this I remember. Just as I recall the heat from the water in the hallway fountain, its cooling mechanism never quite functional. And the godawful smell of the secondary wing boys’ room.

It is 1971, and I am new to the fifth grade at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School, a few hundred yards north of the D.C. line in suburban Maryland, where everything is perfectly Proustian, perfectly preserved in memory.

I have been on the playground, playing strikeout with Firestone and Bjellos. It is an April afternoon, after school hours, yet unseasonably hot in my memory. I am wishing the water cooler actually worked, stumbling into the boys’ room to take a leak before drifting back to the game.

On my little Sanyo, Frank Howard launches a grand slam off the Oakland A’s starter, some fella with the improbable name of Blue. It is Opening Day. And though this is Washington Senators baseball, all things are still possible.

Two years earlier, in fact, my Nats, managed by the great Ted Williams, finished above the hated Yankees for the first time in my short life in a season when both played better than .500 ball. These guys are due. They have always been due. This, perhaps, is the year they pay out.

Mike Epstein follows Howard to the plate, and I rest the radio on the boys’ sink. Epstein, my favorite. Superjew—and yes, that is his actual nickname. Thirty home runs in ’69 hitting behind Howard, who had 48 jacks that year. And in ’70, Epstein added 20 more.

Is there a hero more tailored to my existence? Is it possible to overstate the sociocultural and psychological import of a power-hitting Hebrew playing first base for the Washington Senators, the hometown team of a skinny, slap-hitting Jewish runt from Silver Spring, Md.? Surely, Mike Epstein, standing astride my childhood like a colossus for all the Chosen, is a personalized gift from the god of my fathers. To whom I now pray:

“Dear God,” I offer aloud, my words echoing against the drab brown walls of the bathroom. “If you let Mike Epstein hit a home run right now, I will never, ever skip Hebrew school again.”

Whereupon the very next pitch is launched into the rightfield upper deck of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Back-to-back with Howard. The Opening Day crowd cheering wildly because maybe, just maybe, this is the year, with the Nats embarrassing this Blue fella and shutting out Oakland to begin the great exodus from Egypt and bondage.

And here, now, comes the worst and most frightening image in this sequence of memory: That of a mop-headed boychild, arms above him, cheering wildly, his image reflected back from the old oxidized mirror above the school bathroom sink. I can still see that fool kid. Right now, in my mind’s eye, I am looking at him as his moment of delirious joy evaporates into near Biblical loathing and terror.

What did I just promise God?

Oh.

No.

*      *       *

I’M NOT AN IDIOT, or a fundamentalist. A sentient grown-up cannot take seriously the notion of petitional prayer in any sporting contest. Any modernist knows that a divine entity who would intervene in human affairs to hang a curveball or block a field goal is a deity with too much time on His hands. Any god who actually exists has to be playing for larger stakes than a playoff win or, worse, a five-year contract with built-in incentives. The sight of a wide receiver falling to one knee and crossing himself in the end zone is an affront to any theology that can matter. And we must concede that a serious god in whom real purposes abide cannot possibly give himself over to punishing the random collective of northside Chicago baseball enthusiasts merely because they don’t live in St. Louis.

So, O.K., no worries. I made a vow and I broke it. Within three weeks I was again cutting out of Hebrew school on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, hanging with friends, creeping down Beach Drive to play basketball in Rock Creek Park. But so what?

God, if He even exists, is good, or at least noninterventionist—an Unmoved Mover, as Aristotle would say, who rules from a heaven with high walls and leaves small matters of athleticism to men. A child’s vow over such nonsense is unheard.

Except a little more than a month after that long-ago Opening Day, Mike Epstein, my favorite player, was traded to the Athletics. And by the following season my entire hometown baseball franchise, the Senators, was shipped to Texas to become the Rangers.

I did the rest of my growing up in Washington without baseball. And when I moved to Baltimore in late 1983, I could in no way enjoy the Orioles’ victory in the World Series that year. The O’s of old were Canaanites, a savage crew of Moloch-worshippers who routinely marched south against my tribe, with the Robinsons and Palmer and McNally and Boog smiting and martyring the Nats at will.

I rooted for Philly in that Series, and only embraced the Orioles when they began the ’88 season with 21 straight losses. As only a Senators fan will, I came to my second franchise when it was in the basement, and for a long time the elevator did not move.

So note:

It is now nearly half a century since a small boy asked his god to hang a Vida Blue pitch for his hero, and neither team with which he has allied himself has to this moment returned to a World Series.

Lo, the Orioles have wandered like Israelites through Sinai since I took a mortgage in Baltimore, teased from New York by Jeffrey Maier’s mitt and mocked from Chicago by Jake Arrieta’s fastball. And the new Nats, reconstituted a decade ago, have touched the hem of greatness only to collapse at the very edge of every playoff opportunity. They ended the present season, literally, at each others’ throats.

My vow, I have come to believe, was heard. And now I am Jonah, fleeing from my God and Nineveh, unwilling to address my sin. And the Nationals and the Orioles are both ships on a storm-tossed sea, their sickened, seasick fans unwitting victims of the outcast who walks among them.

Every season since 1971, the gaping maw of the whale awaits me. I am to be swallowed, along with the hopes of any baseball team I care about, into the belly of the beast and spit up in time to do it all again when pitchers and catchers report.

I gotta get right with God.

*     *     *

NEVER HAPPENED,” says Mike Epstein.

The phone line goes silent.

“No way,” he adds.

Finally, I say something clever: “What?”

“I never hit a home run off Vida Blue, and I never hit a home run on Opening Day. You got it wrong.”

“But I remember it.”

“Never happened,” he repeats.

I sit there on the other end of the phone, stunned like a cow with a sledgehammer. Me. In the boys’ bathroom mirror. My promise. My sin.

“Listen,” Epstein says finally. “You’re not serious about this, are you? Because, I gotta just say, you realize this whole thing is a bit, ah, egocentric.”

You think? Isn’t everything that constitutes the theology of fandom egocentric? Believers who won’t change their shirts for 16 Sundays if their team is winning? Acolytes who have to walk out of the room on a full count with loaded bases because if they stare at the television screen, the Fates will bring bad juju to the moment? Pilgrims who eat the same thing in the same inning in the same number of bites because the ritual assures the outcome?

Surely a direct appeal to Yahweh, the god of our forefathers, carries more gravitas than mere fate?

And no, I still don’t believe a just god intervenes in professional sports. He does not care if Mike Epstein goes deep against Vida Blue, or whoever threw that pitch on whatever day he threw it. But does He care if a Jewish kid two years shy of his bar mitzvah promises to stop cutting out on Hebrew school?

Think on that for a moment, Mr. Epstein. Maybe this vow wasn’t about baseball. Maybe it was about theology and spirituality and the 6,000-year-old faith of our ancestors.

“You’re serious,” Epstein says wearily.

“You and me, we gotta bury this together.”

And somehow, I get this man to agree. Somehow, I convince him that the two of us hold the future of the Nationals, and possibly the Orioles as well, in our sin-stained hands.

He will come east from his home outside Denver, back to Washington. We will taste the bread of affliction together, share a Passover seder and use the Jewish holiday of liberation to commemorate the long years of wandering in baseball wilderness, to dream anew on a Promised Land flowing with milk, honey and freshly printed playoff tickets. Then, on Opening Day of the 2005 season, we will go to the old RFK Stadium, where the Montreal Expos have just relocated, and we will watch a ball game together.

I know I have Mike Epstein aboard when I can hear him laughing at me through the telephone.

“O.K.,” he says. “You’re nuts, but O.K.”

All that is left for me, other than buying his plane tickets and reserving a hotel room, is to figure out my broken memory. Back-to-back home runs with Howard. Vida Blue. Opening Day. The upper-wing boys’ room at Rock Creek Forest Elementary.

“I’ll work on that,” I tell my childhood hero. “And I’ll see you next April for Passover.”

Except the Old Testament god, He is not so easily appeased.

A few months before Passover in 2005, my brother-in-law, a sailing enthusiast, was caught in a storm off the Florida coast and, when a metal coupling fell from the mast, suffered an injury that would eventually prove fatal. That year’s family gathering was no time to trifle with anything as obscure as baseball voodoo. And by the following season, my father had become invalided; our Passover seders became, for several years, private affairs. I couldn’t follow through with Epstein.

Season followed season. The Orioles slowly improved and made a couple decent runs toward a Series, but last year’s rollover to Kansas City seemed like a high wall. The Nats, for their part, looked weak-willed the year they sat Strasburg, and last season’s playoff performance was so devoid of heart that some supernatural element could be plausibly suspected. In the back of my mind, totaling up the cumulative seasons of Series- less baseball in my wake, I piled up a weight of guilt that only Jews and Roman Catholics can carry.

Verily, my God was still an angry God. So, a decade after I first contacted Mike Epstein, I called him again. He didn’t return the message. Not right away. Who calls a goof like me back a second time in a single life?

I had an editor from Sports Illustrated follow up, if only to make my pitch more plausible. And I called the Nationals’ front office, asking about the possibility of honoring one of Washington’s former baseball stars. And in July I flew to Denver, where, finally, seated across from an aging but still athletic man, in a breakfast spot south of the city, I did all I could to assure my boyhood hero of both my sincerity and my sanity. I also told him I had solved the false manufacture of memory, and it was a telling corruption at that:

“When you make a promise to God, a promise that you don’t keep, a promise that you then secretly blame for the trade of your favorite player and then the loss of your entire baseball team, well, you kind of want the home run to matter. And for the Senators, the only way a home run could matter was to have it as close to Opening Day as possible because by May….”

“By April, you mean,” laughed Epstein, remembering. “Those teams were so bad.”

“By April,” I agreed, “the Washington Senators were usually out of contention.”

Mike Epstein and Frank Howard hit back-to-back home runs on Aug. 17, 1970, in the first inning of a 7-0 home win over the Kansas City Royals, off a pitcher named Bob Johnson.

It was summer. A hot day in D.C. My fifth-grade year hadn’t started yet, but the school building would have been open as the staff was preparing for the start of school. In August, we were routinely allowed to use the bathrooms while we hung on the blacktop and played ball. That explained why my memory had no one else in the hallway or bathroom, why I was even allowed to have a transistor radio in school that day.

Ridiculously, I had offered up a vow to God over a single at bat in the first inning of a late-season game for a sixth-place team that was last in the old American League East — that was in no way contending for anything. Not even pride. Biblically, this is the equivalent of Esau trading his birthright to his brother for a bowl of soup. Yet over the years, as the baseball fortunes of two cities fell and as I bricked a personal prison cell using mortared blocks of Judaic guilt, I imbued that useless home run with more and more meaning.

The Senators had in fact shut out the A’s on Opening Day in 1971, beating Blue in the same convincing fashion that they had shut out Johnson and the Royals. That, too, was a warm memory, one that I happily conflated with Epstein’s prayed-for homer if for no other reason than to make my plea for divine intervention more purposed and romantic.

“Do you remember what pitch you hit off Johnson?”

Epstein had some memorable dingers in his career. Three in one game. Four in consecutive at bats. And some astonishing artillery salvos to the upper deck of RFK, where they painted the seats blue in Superjew’s honor. But an August home run in a game that meant nothing?

Epstein didn’t remember the at bat, much less the pitch on which he turned.

Only I did. Kinda

*     *     *

Epstein with Ted Williams.

Epstein with Ted Williams.

NEVER MEET your heroes, it has been famously said, and as an old newspaperman, I’ve generally been inclined to credit the adage. A hero is someone far enough away so as not to reveal himself completely.

But the Michael Peter Epstein who has put up with my on-again, off-again courtship these many years, upon our first meeting in Denver, revealed himself to be a fine, if somewhat skeptical, soul.

Now 72, he has shaped a life with successes and pleasures beyond baseball. His wife, Barbara, is a nice Jewish girl he spotted in the stands of a minor league game in Stockton, Calif., and the marriage is now a half-century strong. Three children are grown, successful and happy.

A professional ballplayer from 1964 until he retired 10 years later—just before the rise of free agency and a seller’s market—Epstein was obliged to turn on a dime and embark on a second career as a businessman.

A native of the Bronx, he nonetheless learned about the cattle market, of all things, and would own and operate ranches in Oregon and Wyoming. It is probably safe to say that in meeting the man, you are shaking hands with the only lefthanded Jewish power-hitting cattleman to ever stride this planet.

And for a third act, Epstein returned to the baseball world, developing batting techniques and drills that he describes as rotational hitting—an influential and level-swinging counter-revolution to the Lau-Hriniak school that dominated the game a couple generations ago.

Asked the ageless Talmudic question—”Which is harder: hitting or preventing hitting?”—Epstein doesn’t hesitate before offering his own rabbinical dissent: “Teaching hitting. That’s the hardest.”

It was not something that he particularly wanted to do in life, but when the greatest hitter in modern baseball history prods and pushes repeatedly, you eventually give way. And Ted Williams, having managed Epstein for two-plus seasons with the Senators, had kept a friendship with his former player.

Williams knew hitting as a precise science, of course, but teaching it? He had no patience or vocabulary for explaining himself or his skill. But he would talk hitting with Epstein.

“You gotta do this,” Williams told him on one hunting trip together.

“Why me?”

“Because you’re a smart sonofabitch. I can do it, but you can figure out how to explain it.”

Beginning with a series of 42 articles in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper in the early 2000s, Epstein codified what Williams believed about smacking a baseball with a bat into a coherent, teachable methodology. Today, Epstein Online Hitting Academy—now a second-generation enterprise with Mike’s son, Jake, at the helm—has become an influential font of batting analysis and coaching, based in Littleton, Colo., with 650 certified instructors operating nationally. It is the only hitting curriculum Ted Williams ever endorsed.

For Epstein—successful as a player, as a cattleman and businessman, as a hitting guru—life has been a series of pragmatic, goal-oriented paths and pivots. You show up, you do the work, you wait on the proper result. Stray prayers and divine interventions are not currencies in which such a man generally traffics.

*     *     *

BUT THE OLD TESTAMENT God, the jealous God, the unforgiving God of some improbably chosen tribe of ancient desert wanderers—maybe He’s not interested in your modernist sensibilities, or in your hard-won rationalism. Maybe He’s keeping different stats on this world, and judging mortals by different sabermetrics altogether. And maybe this God is not in the business of cheap forgiveness, either.

Because this ball season, on Sept. 21, the night before Yom Kippur, the sundown commencement of the Jewish Day of Atonement, I arrange to bring Mike Epstein—who remains politely dubious about the entire enterprise—to a stadium in the city of Washington, where the third and present incarnation of professional baseball in D.C. resides. There, just a mile or two down the Anacostia riverbank from the hollowed-out hulk in which Epstein once played, we stand in the Nationals dugout, waiting out a rain delay.

“God,” Epstein assures me, staring at the infield tarp, “is really angry at you.”

It’s an hour past the game’s scheduled start, and Epstein, having done all his interviews for local radio and pregame broadcasts, stands with a team escort at his side. In the escort’s hand are a Nationals jersey with Epstein’s name and number 6 adorning it, and a red ballcap with NATIONALS spelled out phonetically in Hebrew letters. But the rain is unrelenting, and there will be no pregame honorifics for Epstein or anyone else. In the end, a little after 9 p.m., this Monday game between the Nats and the Orioles—yes, my plan was to exorcise the demons from both franchises at once—is called for weather. It will be rescheduled as part of a Thursday doubleheader, a day which will find Epstein back in Colorado.

God will have no apologies from me.

Yea, as it shall ever be written: Man plans, grabs a bat and walks to the plate. God plunks him in the ribs with a nasty slider, and then, two pitches later, picks him off with an omnipotent little move toward first.

*     *     *

To my right, my sister-in-law and brother, to my left, Epstein, walking to Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur.

To my right, my sister-in-law, Vicki, and brother, Gary; to my left, Mike Epstein, walking to Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur this year in suburban Washington.

AT SUNDOWN the next day, Mike Epstein and I find ourselves at Har Shalom Synagogue in the Potomac suburbs of Washington. We are side by side as the congregation rises for the Kol Nidre, the All Vows prayer, in which Jews ask God to forgive them for all of the promises that they, being human and foolish and fallible, will fail to honor in the coming year. Kol Nidre is so elemental to the Jewish ritual of forgiveness that we chant the prayer thrice, slowly, so that the words are given all possible attention and clarity.

As I gather my prayer shawl on my shoulders and turn the page of my prayer book, Epstein shoots me a look and actually smiles. “O.K., you’re up,” he says. “It’s on you now.”

Kol Nidre applies to the unkept vows of the coming year, but I’m asking for a retroactive dispensation. My great sin dates to my 10th year of life, and I know I didn’t even learn the Yom Kippur liturgy until I was 12 or 13. Hey, with all those unexplained absences, I wasn’t the brightest bulb in the Solomon Schechter Hebrew Academy. Sue me.

Yet on this night, I bend to the task. Beside me, I can hear my companion muttering the Hebrew as well; neither of us is particularly observant, but Epstein too has knowledge of the liturgy. But walking out of temple an hour and a half later, he only partially concedes the validity of our mission together:

“I get why you’re here, but explain to me exactly why I had to make this trip? I did my job. I hit a home run. And God, he did his job, right? You’re the only one here who still owes.”

I do my best:

“You’re part of the sin, too,” I say. “I prayed for a home run in a meaningless August ball game, and I got it. But maybe you got something too. Maybe you benefited from the sin.”

He looks at me, ever more dubious.

“Look,” I say, “that year you hit 20 home runs, and early the next season you get traded to Oakland to play on a winning team. The year after that, you win a World Series, right?”

He nods.

“Maybe if you finish 1970 with only 19 home runs, maybe that’s not such a clean, round number. Maybe when the Oakland front office is looking around for a lefty to hit behind Reggie Jackson and play first base, maybe they don’t bite on Mike Epstein. Maybe if I don’t ask God to have that Royals pitcher hang a curveball, you don’t get traded, you don’t hit 26 jacks in ’72 and go to the World Series and get a ring.”

Epstein considers my theories on man and fate for only a moment.

“Weak. Very weak,” he says, laughing.

I drop him at his hotel and we say our goodbyes. And then, before getting back in my car, I shoot a look up at the dark Washington sky.

“C’mon, big guy,” I actually say aloud. “What’s done is done. Let my people go.”

At that moment, the O’s 2015 wild-card run is history, and with some irony, their last series with the Nats will fire the last torpedo into Washington’s hopes as well. But next year might be different. I tell this to myself and drive home with hope in my heart.

Five days later, the Nationals’ closer tries to choke the team’s best hitter in the dugout, for all the world to see.

Oh, God.

*     *     *

epsteintoday

Probably smarter, possibly funnier.

11 Sep
September 11, 2015

A letter to the editor that ran in The Washington Post Magazine last Sunday in reply to a profile of me that said I resembled Homer Simpson’s smarter brother:

 
The Washington Post Magazine
Letters to the editor
David Simon’s older brother takes umbrage at a description in our story:
I read with great interest your piece about David Simon, my little brother. I am 14 years older than David, and I am intensely proud of him. However, I must take great umbrage at the statement that “Simon … looks from some angles like Homer Simpson’s much smarter brother.”  First the implication is that I am Homer Simpson and second, that David is smarter than me. You will be hearing from my attorneys.
Gary L. Simon, medical professor, GWU

 

In a Jewish family, the doctor is always the smarter child.  The TV writer is supposed to advance the funny.  And presently, I find myself routed on both flanks at once.