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American Journalism Review
Where Death Isn't Cheap...Just Plentiful  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1993

Where Death Isn't Cheap...Just Plentiful   

Fresh out of J-school, Cheever Griffin took a job chasing stories on the gritty streets of Chicago. He wasn't quite prepared for what he found.

By Cheever Griffin
     


Beeeeeeep!

I had been watching another misfit wander into the Harrison District police station on Chicago's West Side when I was summoned. I turned off my beeper and dashed to one of the station's three pay phones to call the office.

"We've got two bodies in a car at Adams and Pulaski," my editor said. "Check it out."

I got into my car and plunged deeper into the decaying sprawl just west of the Loop as a light snow began falling on a blustery February morning.

My fingers zipped across the large map that was stretched across the front seat. In the two months since I had begun work as a reporter for City News Bureau, I had become a master of reading a map while driving. It was essential. My job was to find things: houses, apartment buildings, people.

Today, I was looking for bodies.

A crush of police officers and reporters milled around the victims' car, which sat on a block of Adams Street that even the snow, which was falling more heavily, couldn't beautify.

I was too late. The bodies were gone and all that remained was a bloody and bullet-ridden maroon Monte Carlo. I ran around frantically trying to get the story. After piecing together what several reluctant cops told me, I was ready to phone it in to the office.

My next task was to find a pay phone in the area that worked – sometimes a real ordeal on the West Side. After coming up empty twice, I found a live one outside a nearby supermarket and began to relay the story of an armed robbery gone bad.

It turned out the driver was the only person found dead. His passenger, who had also been shot, staggered to a nearby apartment where he was arrested. The two men had robbed a pornographic bookstore when an off-duty police officer, who was in the store at the time, ran after them with his gun blazing. He shattered the car's back windshield and hit each man several times.

"Who makes Monte Carlos?" the City News rewrite man asked me.

"What?"

"Who makes 'em? Chevrolet?"

"I'm not sure," I answered.

"All right, we'll find out... What about the address of the apartment where the other guy was picked up?"

"I don't know. The cops said it was nearby."

"Find out." He hung up.

I trudged back to my car and stuck my feet near the heater on the dashboard until the feeling came back to my toes. It was hard to believe that three months ago I had been in journalism school discussing theories of mass communication.

City News Bureau, for lack of a better comparison, is Chicago's own Associated Press. Open 24 hours, the bureau sends reams of copy to the city's newspapers and broadcast stations, which either run it as is or assign their own reporters to flesh it out.

The bureau enlists young, inexperienced reporters, pays them next to nothing (about $16,000 a year) and sends them off to the front lines. Their offices are benches at any of the city's 25 police stations, where life revolves around murders, fires and other tragedies. An occasional political speech is the job's loftier element. The day is divided between hours of boredom and utter pandemonium – and you don't get lunch.

Beeeeeeep!

I was two minutes from checking out, ending an uneventful day at the Harrison station. I had made calls to detectives about several murder investigations: no updates. Earlier in the day I had turned in a story about a guy who was run over and killed by the bus he was trying to catch. Aside from that, it was quiet.

That never lasts.

"We just got a report that some guy drove into the lake off the rocks at Foster Avenue. Y'know where it is?"

"I'll find it."

The tiny red sports car was floating a mere five feet from the shore, but it wasn't coming out. A fierce wind was making Lake Michigan extremely inhospitable. Several divers had tried to go in, but the waves just "knocked us back on our asses," as one diver put it.

A television station found a man who had seen everything. He had been walking his dog. The office said not to call back until I found him. So as a fireman hung perilously from an extended ladder over the raging waves trying to hook the car, I looked for a mutt.

The guy was standing off to the side of the crowd that had gathered to gawk at the flashing fire engines. His hands were stuffed in his pockets, and out of one snaked a leash that led to the largest dog I had ever seen. I didn't even ask what kind it was. It was too cold for small talk.

"Yeah, I saw the whole thing. It was crazy," the man said. He told me in an excited voice how this young man had veered off the park driving path and came to a halt at the smooth row of rocks before gunning his car into the icy black water.

"I ran over and started yelling to the guy to get out," he recalled. "Instead, he puts on his seat belt, tightens his grip on the wheel and turns to me and smiles."

The ink in my pen had frozen, so I feverishly tried to etch this guy's quote in my notebook. It wasn't until later that I stopped and realized what an eerie scene this dog's master had stumbled across.

It would be another hour before I would leave the site. A City Newser usually sticks around until everybody is gone – just in case. The rescue attempt was unsuccessful. Before he left, the fire chief told me they were hoping the car would get snagged somewhere down the shore line and then they could pick it up in the spring.

What about the guy still in the car?

"From what I understand," the chief said, "he's not going anywhere."

To say I grew up in Chicago would not be entirely accurate. I spent my childhood in a six-block niche on the city's North Side, and I rarely ventured out of it. The only contact I had with the downtrodden was when I bought bags of peanuts from the disheveled vendors outside Chicago Stadium and Comiskey Park.

I graduated from Notre Dame and then received a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before I was drawn back to Chicago by the prospect of working close to home, I was all set to work at the newspaper where I had interned in Hagerstown, Maryland. They had one murder there that summer. And it was a fluke.

On my third day at City News, I covered a triple homicide.

It was what detectives called a "bad one." A two-year-old girl was one of the victims. Police didn't have a body bag small enough for her so they carried her and her mother out of their North Side apartment in the same one. The girl's father was carried out after them.

The details of the murder were sketchy. The family was from Mexico and the father was said to be involved in drug trafficking. All three were beaten to death, and it appeared the killers had made quick work of it. The family was found by a delivery man who said he showed up about 20 minutes after taking an order from the father for a large pepperoni pizza.

Reporters and cameramen were jammed into the small sterile lobby of the four-story apartment building. They were accosting anyone who came through, including residents and some of the police department's top brass who came to see the carnage for themselves.

I stood in the middle of it all looking like a child lost in a supermarket. Never before had I been surrounded by such a frenzied atmosphere. It was overwhelming.

For a while, all I could bring myself to do was shadow the television reporters and scribble down what neighbors were saying into their microphones. Soon I was combing the neighborhood for any speck of information about the family. I spent 20 minutes listening to the local grocer tell me what hard-working and pleasant people they were.

The office was well on its way to wearing out my beeper. I kept running to a pay phone across the street to satisfy the demand for more copy. What struck me that day was how everyone in the media had elevated themselves just far enough above the tragedy to concentrate on the little, yet necessary, details. As I stood staring at the body bags coming through the lobby, the office was beeping me to make sure I had spelled the grocer's name correctly.

There was nothing left to get from the scene. The cops were going to hold a news conference at the district station and the office told me to head over there. Before I left, a reporter with one of the newspapers asked me to say hello to one of my coworkers for him. I was going to tell him that I was new and didn't know who he was talking about, but he stopped me. My face must have told him that I had never seen the likes of what had just transpired.

"You'll get used to this," he said.

After about four months, I moved to the midnight shift, which stretched from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Nighttime in the city. Things became more focused.

At night the story is misery. The outrage over a proposed smoking ban or bus fare hike had long since gone to bed. Now, a mother knelt over her 12-year-old son who had been playing on the corner when gang crossfire left him lying dead on the pavement.

At night they rose like so many vampires, the gangs, and it was as if they had bought air time on the police scanner: "Gangfight at 23rd and Halsted," "Drive-by shooting at Ashland and Grenshaw," "Teen dead."

It was a shift of extremes. Some nights could be excrutiatingly dull, and would make one wonder if the cruel, the incensed, the psychotic and the just plain mean had stayed home to watch a good television movie. Other nights, you knew all too well that there was nothing on the tube.

Beeeeeeep!

"Police are saying they've gotta sniper in the ABLA Homes."

I didn't need my map for this place. The ABLA Homes public housing complex consisted of two brown-bricked eyesores across the street from my old high school. During my four years there I never crossed that street. Tonight, I was in the project's back parking lot, and I was noticeably underdressed.

About 30 cops, including a SWAT team, had barricaded themselves with a large paddy wagon behind a one-story building that housed a rib joint and a decaying convenience store. Everybody was wearing a flak jacket – everybody except me, as they aren't exactly standard issue at City News. Even the cameramen roaming the area had vests on.

"Where'd you get it?" I asked one of them.

"I always keep one in my trunk," he answered proudly.

I decided at that point to watch the action from my car. I stepped out occasionally to talk with any important-looking cops who crossed the police line. There turned out to be nothing to watch, as the night evolved into what was becoming the new urban stalemate.

Rival gang members in the project had been shooting at each other from the two buildings when a security guard became pinned down by the crossfire. He used his radio to contact police, who arrived en masse within minutes.

Authorities spent the next 90 minutes deciding whether to sweep the buildings and arrest the gang members or just pick up and leave, somewhat comforted by the fact that no one was injured.

"We don't want 'em to get mad and have it start again," one cop explained.

The police left and I found a phone. The office didn't want the story.

The Brighton Park station was the best place to work. Closed during a recent realignment of police stations, the small and dingy South Side station had two things that endeared it to City News: our own desk and phone.

It was at Brighton Park, on a still and humid night, that I momentarily and forever participated in the sadness that I cover.

I wasn't even looking for the story. I was sitting at my desk on the station's first floor when detectives ushered in seven anxious adults and children. They were witnesses to a shooting.

There are a few givens in this job, but one is that you don't talk to witnesses in a police station, especially before detectives get a chance to. The detectives, however, work on the building's second floor and were bringing the witnesses upstairs one at a time. So it was just me and a handful of people who saw a boy take a bullet.

"Are you a police officer?" asked a heavyset, middle-aged woman who was huddled with two children across the room.

"No, I'm a reporter," I said, glancing nervously at the open door leading to the second floor. "What happened?"

As I tried to appear uninterested, the woman, with the help of several others in the room, told the story of a drive-by shooting with an awful twist.

The 15-year-old boy was standing on a corner with some friends near his home when a slow-moving car pulled up. One of the occupants stuck a gun out the back window and shot the boy in the chest. Several of the children in the room said the boy, whose unusual height made him look years older, was shot because he would not oblige a young woman who offered him sex for money so she could buy drugs.

The boy had laughed at what he surely thought a preposterous proposal and this apparently angered the woman, who had a reputation in the neighborhood as a rather tempestuous junkie. She stormed off and told her boyfriend that the boy had tried to rape her. That's all it took for the boyfriend to get together some of his friends and pile into a car. The woman came along so she could point out the kid.

I phoned in the witnesses' account as detectives shuffled them in and out of the room.

Everybody wanted to know about the boy. The office wanted his condition and the people at the station kept asking the detectives if they knew how he was.

It took me one call to find out he was dead. The nursing supervisor at Christ Hospital and Medical Center said the boy had fought for about an hour before dying shortly after midnight.

As I hung up the phone, one of the witnesses, a small wiry woman, wondered aloud whether the boy was all right.

"He expired," I announced to the room.

Several of the people in the room began to wail and sob and embrace each other in grief. It turned out that they were relatives of the boy. I had blurted the information out without even thinking. A detective in the room looked at me and shook his head. This was not what he needed.

The worst part of it was my verb. The boy didn't expire. He had his life ripped from him by someone who didn't even know what he looked like. I wanted to disappear under the desk.

It was on that summer night that I realized how accustomed to death I had grown in a short period of time. Less than six months earlier, I had been handing in feature stories for a grade. And six months before that I was working as a summer intern in Hagerstown, covering birthday parties for dogs.

Now, I was using words such as "expired," "deceased," and the worst one of all, "cheap," which refers to a natural or unspectacular death that doesn't warrant a story. True, I am only 24 years old, supposedly too young to be jaded. But since I took this job, I have learned to elevate myself above the tragedy. I haven't been able to sever myself from it, though. Death is not cheap; rather, it always seems to leave a room full of people who weep and cry out and wonder how they will go on. Every death is a story, whether City News thinks so or not.

What has kept me going is that I also have seen acts of courage amidst the misery: The stranger who yells to a mother to throw her baby from a burning building and catches the infant after it falls two stories. The cabbie who stops when no one else will, pulls a stabbing victim into his back seat and speeds her to a nearby hospital. The paramedic who brings a child pulled from a submerged car back to life. And, finally, the relatives of a dead 15-year-old who take a moment from their grief to tell a dejected reporter there's no need to keep apologizing. l

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