Faces of the Gone
By Brad Parks
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Brad Parks
All rights reserved.
If there had only been one dead body that day, I never would have heard about it. From a news standpoint, one dead body in Newark, New Jersey, is only slightly more interesting than planes landing safely at the airport. Assuming it's some anonymous gangbanger—and in Newark it's almost always an anonymous gangbanger—it's a four-paragraph story written by an intern whose primary concern is finishing quickly so he can return to inventing witty status updates on Facebook.
Two bodies is slightly more interesting. The intern has to come up with eight paragraphs, and maybe, if there's someone unfortunate enough to be hanging out in the photo department when an editor wanders by, a picture will run with the story. Three bodies is worth a headline and a picture, even a follow-up or two, though the interest peters out quickly enough.
But four? Four means real news. Four gets a town buzzing, even a town as blood-jaded as Newark. And four bodies is what I was contemplating that Monday morning in early December as I arrived at the offices of the Newark EagleExaminer and opened up the paper.
We had managed to cram a quick story about it in our late edition. It was done by our night-shift rewrite guy, a man named Peterson who delighted in hyperbolizing gritty crime stories. He quoted a Newark police spokesman as saying four victims, each with a single bullet wound in the back of the head, had been found in a vacant lot next to a church on Ludlow Street.
The police spokesman didn't provide much color, so Peterson created his own, describing the "brazen execution-style slayings" as having "rocked an otherwise quiet Newark neighborhood." The bodies, he wrote, had been "stacked like cordwood in a weed-choked plot." The Newark police had not released the names of the victims, because next of kin had not been notified, so Peterson referred to them as "four John Does" every chance he got.
I was making it through the last of Peterson's compositional flourishes when I heard my editor, Sal Szanto.
"Crrttrr Rssss," Szanto growled. From experience, I knew he was at least attempting to say my name, Carter Ross.
"What's going on, boss?" I said, lurking in his doorway.
Now in his early fifties, Szanto often had trouble with vowels until his voice warmed up a bit. No one could say which of his vices—coffee, cigarettes, or antacid tablets—had taken the letters away.
Sit down. I think. As I entered the office and took the chair across from his desk, Szanto turned away and held up his left hand while coughing forcefully into his right, his jowls jiggling at the effort. He stopped for a moment, started to speak, then hacked a few more times until he finally dislodged the morning phlegm that had rendered him all but unintelligible.
"Ah, that's better," he said. "Anyway, Brodie is really pitching a tent over this Ludlow Street thing."
As far as anyone knew, Harold Brodie—the legendary Eagle-Examiner executive editor who was now pushing seventy—had not gotten an actual hard-on in years. He got stiffies for stories and, sadly for Mrs. Brodie, nothing else. And although they were erections only in the figurative sense, the impact they had on the rest of us was very real. When you heard the phrase "Brodie has a real hard-on for this one"—or any number of colorful derivations on that theme—you knew it was trouble. Once he was turned on to a story it could take days for the old man to tire of it. And, in the meantime, he was going to harass everyone in the newsroom on a half-hourly basis until he got the story he imagined existed.
"I've already sent Whitlow and Hays down there. They're going to do the daily stuff," Szanto said, then aimed a stubby finger at me. "You're going to get to the bottom of what the hell happened down there."
"And how am I going to do that?"
"I don't know. You're my investigative reporter. Figure it out yourself."
I enjoy the title "investigative reporter" because it impresses women in bars. And I was proud to have earned the job at an age, thirty-one, when some of my peers were still slaving away on backwater municipal beats in faraway bureaus. But it's just a line on a business card. It's not like there are files marked "for investigative reporters only." It certainly hasn't made me any smarter.
"So what do we know, besides 'four John Does stacked like cordwood in a weed-choked plot'?" I said, mimicking Peterson's style.
"That one of the John Does is actually a Jane."
"Yeah," Szanto said, wincing as he sipped his still-too-hot coffee. "The police already called to bitch about that this morning."
"So what do you think Brodie wants from this?" I asked.
"You know exactly what he wants: a fascinating story with great art that gives us all piercing insight into the woes of New Jersey's largest city. And he wants it tomorrow."
"How about you give me a week and I'll try to turn in something that doesn't read like it was written by a lumberjack?"
"Hey, if it gets Brodie off my ass, you can rewrite Tuesdays with Morrie for all I care," Szanto said.
"Yeah, maybe I'll do that," I said as I departed his office.
"Tk Hrrrndzzz," Szanto hollered after me.
"Hear that?" I asked Tommy Hernandez, the aforementioned Facebook-obsessed intern.
"Yeah, it sounds like a lawnmower that won't start," he said, then looked at me with something far beyond disdain.
"How many times do I have to tell you that a wristwatch is an accessory and it should match your belt?" he demanded.
Tommy is only twenty-two, but he's blessed with a great reporter's instinct of noticing every small detail. He's handy to have on the streets, because he's second-generation Cuban-American and speaks flawless Spanish. He's also gay as the Mardi Gras parade.
"Come on, Tommy," I said. "Let's go embrace another beautiful day in Newark."
The abandoned lot on Ludlow Street was, true to Peterson's imagination, a sorrowful little patch of earth covered in dried weeds. The neighborhood around it wasn't bad, by Newark standards. Most of the houses appeared to be owner occupied and decently maintained, with either newish siding or fresh paint. The church, St. Mary's Catholic, was a century-old stone building with a tidy rectory next door. There was public housing across the street, but they were newly constructed town houses, the kind that wouldn't go to seed for at least another decade. Weequahic Golf Course, a charming little cow pasture county residents could play for fifteen bucks, was maybe two blocks down the street.
"This place is pretty decent," I said as Tommy and I pulled to a stop on Ludlow. He cast me a sideways glance.
"Yeah, let's start an upscale day spa here," he cracked.
"Okay, fair point," I corrected myself. "But look around. There's no one just hanging out. The cars are all gone. The people in this neighborhood work during the day."
"How far are we from Seth Boyden?"
The Seth Boyden projects were a festering den of urban despair. Even the toughest reporters got jittery about going there during the day. Going there after dark put you on the short list for a mugging.
"Three or four blocks," I said.
"Think it could have been someone from there? A lot of Blood sets hanging around."
"Could be. But would some Blood really go through the trouble of marching four people all the way down here? Those guys are hit-and-run types."
Tommy, who had written up nearly every shooting in Newark over the past six months, knew that as well as I did. We were really just stalling. The car was being buffeted by gusts of wind and neither of us was real keen to face them. A cold front had barreled down from Canada overnight and the winter season was giving New Jersey its first slap. Which figured. It's a meteorological fact that as soon as the weather gets extreme—in either direction—it coincides with me having to do manon-the-street reporting. I've spent most of my career either sweating or shivering.
"I don't suppose the story will come to us in here, will it?" I asked.
"You know, for a superstar investigative reporter, you're a real pussy sometimes," Tommy said.
Grunting, I willed myself out of the car, across the street, and into the vacant lot. The Newark police's Crime Scene Unit had already retreated back to the warmth of their precinct. A few strips of windblown yellow tape were the only sign they had ever been there.
I gingerly picked my way toward the fence that lined the back of the lot, where a makeshift shrine was already forming. In the past few years, these shrines had become a ubiquitous part of the city landscape. As soon as some way-too-young kid gets gunned down, his boys come with candles and other mementos to memorialize the spot where he fell. If the victim is a Blood, you'll see red bandanas and "BIP"—Blood in Peace—spray-painted somewhere nearby. If he's a Crip, the bandanas will be blue and the graffiti will have some kind of number (Crip sets often have numbers). The Latin Kings decorate in black and gold, and so on.
I had interviewed kids who bragged about how big their shrines would be when they got killed. They talked about it with a nonchalance that was chilling.
This shrine was small, so far. But it would undoubtedly grow over the next few days. Four bouquets of flowers, one for each victim, had already been attached to the fence. One of the bouquets had a card attached. I turned it over to read the inscription.
"Wanda," it read. "May you rest in peace forever. Love, Tynesha."
Tommy had walked up behind me. As I stared dumbly, Tommy was scribbling something in his pad.
"Let's find out who Tynesha is," he said as he copied the name of the florist.
"Good plan," I said, slightly chagrined the intern thought of it before I did.
"Someone's gotta do your work for you," he shot back.
Richard Whitlow approached us from the sidewalk, stepping carefully through the waist-high weeds. A beefy, dark-skinned black guy, he had been covering Newark for more than a decade and was, how to put it, a little bit inured to violent death. His greeted us with, "Hey, make sure you don't slip on the blood puddle."
"You journalists are so insensitive with your gallows humor," I joked back.
"I wish I was kidding. Check it out," he said, pointing to a bare patch of dirt that, sure enough, appeared to have been stained by something dark and red.
"Oh, nasty," Tommy said.
"Yeah, poor suckers bled out right there," Whitlow said, shaking his head.
"Police told you anything new?" I asked.
"Finally got the names out of them."
"They mean anything to you?"
"Nah. Not until I figure out their street names," Whitlow said. Aliases littered the hood like so much trash, especially among those who were employed in what you might call the city's informal economy. Your friendly neighborhood drug dealer could be known by up to a half-dozen different aliases, which bore scant resemblance to his real name. Depending on the name the police settled on, the victim's own mother might not recognize it. Or she might be the only one who recognized it.
"What names did they give you?"
Whitlow flipped open his notebook and shoved the page toward me so I could copy them down: Wanda Bass, Tyrone Scott, Shareef Thomas, Devin Whitehead. I had to press hard on my pen. The ink was already freezing.
"Cops say anything else?"
"Around ten, there were four shots, bang, bang, bang, bang," Whitlow said, turning to the next page in his notebook. "No one called the cops or even thought much of it because there's a bar down the street and people are always coming out drunk, shooting off their guns for the hell of it."
I always found strange comfort that the American propensity for mixing alcohol and firearms cut across racial, socioeconomic, and cultural divides, from rural redneck to ghetto gangbanger to skeet-shooting blue blood.
"Around eleven, some guy came out of the bar and happened to see four people lying in the back of the lot," Whitlow continued, flipping more pages as he went.
"He told the cops he thought they were homeless and he was going to roust them and take them to a shelter, on account of the cold. Then he got close, saw the blood, and made the call."
"Wow, there are helpful citizens after all," I interjected.
"Yeah, anyway, that's about all I can tell you, other than that my ass is about to freeze off," Whitlow said, storing his notepad back in his jacket. "I got enough to write a daily. Hays is working some of his cop sources trying to get stuff out of them. Let me know if you find anything interesting around here."
Tommy and I decided to work the streets, which can be a wonderful source of information for the reporter who doesn't mind the trial-and-error method of walking up to random people until you bump into one who knows something.
Which is not to say it's easy. As a rule, Newark residents don't trust anyone. They especially don't trust anyone who looks official, be they cops, politicians, or newspaper reporters. And they doubly don't trust white folks, who are usually only there to arrest them or scam them.
Therefore, for someone of my pallor and profession, milking information from the streets involved bridging that rather huge chasm of natural distrust. Some white reporters running in the hood try to "act black"—talk the vernacular, quote rappers, dress like they're going on BET—but that was never going to work for me.
The fact of the matter is I'm Carter Ross, born to an upper-middle-class family in the privilege of Millburn, one of New Jersey's finer suburbs. I was raised by two doting parents alongside an older brother who's now a lawyer and a younger sister who's now a social worker. We vacationed down the shore every summer, skied in Vermont every winter, and were taught to view Newark as the kind of place you heard about but did not visit. I was sheltered by some of New Jersey's best prep schools until age eighteen, whereupon I went to Amherst College and spent four years around some of the nation's most elite students. I just don't have any street in me.
And anyone could see it. The things that allow me to blend into the tasteful décor at any of New Jersey's better suburban shopping malls—my side-parted brown hair, my preference for button-down-collared shirts and pressed slacks, my awkwardly upright carriage, my precise diction and bland anywhere-in-America accent—made me a circus freak in the hood. Most people I pass on the street are polite enough to merely stare. A few openly point. People are constantly asking me if I'm lost.
Yet through the years, I had come to realize a simple fact of reporting: if you approach people with respect, listen hard, and genuinely try to understand their point of view, they will talk to you, no matter how different your background is. So that's what I attempt to do.
Over the next three hours, I learned a lot about the neighborhood: how the vacant lot had once been home to a crack house, until the city got its act together and tore it down; how the public housing across the street, which had been slapped together by a developer known to be cozy with the mayor, was already falling apart; how the bar down the street, the Ludlow Tavern, just kept getting rougher, with the patrons leaving their knives at home and bringing their guns instead.
But I didn't learn anything about the four victims, which suggested they weren't from this part of town. Most Newark neighborhoods were tighter than outsiders realized, with familial connections that went back generations. If someone from the neighborhood got killed, you could always find a cousin or a friend—or a cousin of a friend whose aunt was distantly related to the victim's stepmother. Something. But I had struck out.
By the time I was done canvassing and had returned to the vacant lot, a truck from a New York TV station had pulled up outside the church. No doubt, they were ready to lend great insight and understanding with their ferociously dogged reporting, which would consist of taking off just as soon as they had collected one usable five-second sound bite from the first "concerned citizen" they could find.
I don't want to launch into too much of a rant against local television reporters. But if I were a modern-day Noah, I'd take the bacteria that causes the clap on my ark before I took one of them. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Faces of the Gone by Brad Parks. Copyright © 2009 Brad Parks. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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