commuterchroniclesdbh

Driving and Biking in the Big City

Posts Tagged ‘reporter

On the cop beat for life

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Recently, I’ve been listening to Harry Bausch’s adventures as written by Michael Connelly in “The Wrong Side of Goodbye,” and I can’t get past the feelings it evokes. “They” say your sense of smell is the strongest sense to activate your memories. For me, hearing can be equally haunting. Or is it sight and reading? A good book, read again, listened to again. A favorite author can feel like home and long ago at the same time. Or, in this case, a same character – Harry Bausch, the hard-nosed anti-hero and Los Angeles cop as written by another former reporter on the cop beat.

This book has me transported to the past. It has me reminded me of quick trips to the grocery store when I could rent a book on cassette tape, mostly abridged and somewhat unacceptable. But I’d take anything on tape to get me through a day of housekeeping or cleaning out when my kids were young and chores were routine.

Or it’s Sunday and the only library that was open was 10 miles away so I’d bike there and bike back – for 20 miles and two hours roundtrip at the minimum. I’d have to plan my clothes – light as possible but with a cover-up t-shirt, two waters and a light weight bag that would be book-laden for the trip back.

Or it’s a road trip to Austin where I would meet my friend from Michigan at her mom’s house so that we could keep up an important relationship for me where she was my rock while my son went through and out the other end of a heart condition.

Or to Lubbock for my westward bound road trip to visit my daughter at Texas Tech. That eight-to-10-hour trip meant a couple of really good books by favorite authors who would keep me occupied but focused.

concrete-blondeI’m transported by Connelly’s new book not because the book is about yesterday because it’s not. But because I’m reminded of some of the first books I ever listened to as an audio book addict. “The Poet,” “Concrete Blonde,” “Trunk Music.”  Ahhhhhh. I may need to listen again.

Listening to audio books is as common in my daily rituals as is my commute to work. Actually, I’ve been listening to read-aloud books far longer. I was first attracted to Connelly, now world famous, of course, long before the charismatic Texan Matthew McConaughey played the role of his “Lincoln Lawyer,” Mickey Haller, an attorney who works from the back of his car, so another commuter. Or before Clint Eastwood played a side character from the Harry Bausch books in “Blood Work.”

I may have listened to “The Poet” as one of my first audio books, if you don’t count the classics or old radio broadcasts that I could find on the car radio or at truck stops. Remember, this is long before the days of the internet or downloads and when libraries seldom carried anything but the written word.

the-poet“Death is my beat. I make my living from it.  I forge my professional relationship on it.  I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker — somber and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone.  I’ve always thought the secret to dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length.  That’s the rule.  Don’t let it breathe in your face,” Connelly says in “The Poet,” back in 1996.

Connelly is back to his police procedural hard core in the “Wrong Side of Goodbye,” and I love it. It’s the routine of day-to-day police work. Keeping your notes in order. Working your sources. Doing favors. You scratch my back and I scratch yours. So I’m transported not only to my listening past but also to the heyday of my career as a cop reporter. Back in the day, I rode the beat with cops, went door-to-door with detectives and sat on stakeouts. I’ve discovered bodies, been shot at and, actually, solved a couple of murders myself. We were a team, on the same side mostly.

That’s the police beat as I worked it, back in the day of the press as Fourth Estate. My cop shops were on a rotation – whether it was Port Arthur, Beaumont, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston or a bit of Detroit. The bigger the city, the more often I visited the police station. But even the one-cop towns showed up on my calendar once a month. I called or dropped by. That way, when a body got dumped at Kennedale, a small town outside of Fort Worth, the dispatcher knew my name and would give me the story.

cub-reporter

Working traps on my first daily, the Beaumont Enterprise, two years after I’d started my journalism career at a bi-weekly. 

“Running my traps,” my first city editor called it. Joe Broughton was a feisty hellcat of a newsman with a kind heart but a trashy mouth. I learned a lot from him and from running my traps, a work ethic that has served me well in a writing career that soon will have paid my bills for half a century.

So, on this rainy day when I can’t be running the roads, I think I’ll finish “The Wrong Side of Goodbye” while I do my house chores and then run through some repeats including “The Poet.” I think I may even have that one in hard copy.

Reminded today of the first time I interviewed a murderer

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The Beaumont Enterprise newsroom -- back in the day. I'm in the middle of this photo, in front of the curtains, and facing the camera with a phone in my hands.

The Beaumont Enterprise newsroom — back in the day. I’m in the middle of this photo, in front of the curtains, and facing the camera with an old rotary phone in my hands.

I was maybe 22 years old and covering Port Arthur police for the “Beaumont Enterprise” in one of the most violent and newsworthy communities of the ’70s. Lucky for me, I was indestructible and fearless because the woman I am today would be way too wise to have conducted this particular interview

  • in a small jail cell,
  • across from a man who had beaten a friend to death with his bare hands
  • and with only one jailer nearby for my protection.

When I’m reminded of my old police reporting days, I’m lucky the story gets to end with, “I lived.” I now realize I was foolish and foolhardy and not at all unbreakable.  But, before I was 30 years old, I always was focused on “getting the story.”

I was reminded of this first interview with a murderer today because I’m listening to a new author, Allison Brennan, who has written a book “Compulsion” and it begins with a reporter interviewing a killer awaiting trial. It doesn’t read like the writer ever really did this, is my thinking.

On my commute to Houston both mornings and evenings, my choice most often is murder mysteries, police procedurals and serial killers. I read “Dexter” before he became an HBO series, “Bones” without Booth, “Wallander” before Kenneth Branaugh, “Bosch” before Amazon even existed.  You get the picture.

I tried to look at the newspaper archives today to lay my hands on reality but it’s not available. (And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I can’t quite recall enough facts to make the search viable.) Many of my reporting memories pre-date good web content. Most of my recollections are indelible only because of the retelling over the years and not because of the facts. At the time, I was always good with quotes and solid memories, but these decades later – who knows?

Facebook has been interesting for me because I often tell old police reporter stories and old friends come out of the ethernet to remind me of details or confirm my own remembrances. This happened most notably with my most painful interview – Karen Silkwood’s father. The photographer who was present is now a FB friend and remembered more details and confirmed some others. It was fun. But, that’s a story for another column. This one is about murder and how I survived. It also was a good lesson and one I used frequently in my stint as an adjunct professor at University of Houston.

Sharon Englade, a wonderfully generous courthouse reporter at the Enterprise at the time, gave me the lead. Generosity is an uncommon trait in the reporting world, even more so today. It happens only when you’ve seen your byline on Page 1 enough times that it doesn’t make a big difference to your ego about the next time.  Very rare indeed in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. Sharon’s tip was facilitated by the jailer at the Nederland substation who had become a source of mine along my routine police “traps” I ran every day.

A convicted murderer (and I can’t find or remember his name) was transported to Jefferson County to testify against his co-conspirator in a murder trial. This man – the one I would interview – had pleaded guilty without a trial, and his partner in the crime had chosen to stand trial.

In his 30s, he was a solid figure, strong and compact. A bit attractive but, of course, I thought he was terribly old, he had been given life in prison for beating his friend to death. Now’s the part I can’t remember: Why did he and his buddy turn on this third man? I don’t quite know and can’t find the old clip; seems like it was over a woman. Isn’t that always the case?  My memory tells me they originally were all three friends. Happens. Friends turn on friends.  Stranger-on-stranger crime is the most uncommon – 2 percent for women; 25 percent for men. In my story, the likelihood of these three being friends is 75 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Now, here’s the rub.

When Sharon called to tell me there was a possibility I could interview this man, he had just testified against his friend. However, his friend was fully acquitted. The verdict was returned somewhere along the man’s police-escorted route from the courthouse to the substation. His friend would walk away free. My interview subject would go back to prison for life.

Originally, he had pleaded guilty in anticipation of a lighter sentence. It didn’t happen.

Bad lawyering? Bad judgment on his part? Well, you see what I was walking into . . . an angry man who had just been further angered by what he had to perceive as terrible injustice.

Nederland’s substation for Jefferson County was a fairly new structure – linoleum tiled with white walls, clean and safe in the suburbs.  The jailers were usually smart men (all men in this ’70s era) on their way up in the criminal justice chain. They were taking night classes at Lamar University, down the street, and showing potential to either be professional police or lawyers. They wore jackets and ties and looked like detectives instead of street cops.

I went by or phoned this substation every day that I was on the beat, and my office itself was only a few blocks away.

I remember some finagling between the jailer and me and me and Sharon and then transportation of the interviewee to the substation after his testimony. I was waiting when he arrived. He already had been told his friend was acquitted, so I was not the one to bear that news. Lucky for me.

To say the least, he was pissed by the time I first laid eyes on him.

Now, here’s the part I taught at UH: You have to have a good gut to be a good interviewer. Your job is to make the subject comfortable and trusting. This is your first job and how you determine how you will get your notes for the story. Some subjects are comfortable with you taping the interview. In those days, most were not. Most subjects are comfortable with you taking notes, but there was a trick to writing or not writing to help with the interviewee’s comfort level. In this story, the subject was not comfortable with anything.

I sensed right away that he was no longer interested in talking to me about his experience, thoughts or anger. If I had pulled out my pencil and skinny reporter’s notebook from the pocket of my jeans skirt, he probably would have broken my Ticonderoga No. 2 in half — maybe over my head.  So, we just talked. I took absolutely no notes. I never pulled out my notebook or put pencil to paper.

I didn’t have to ask “how he felt.” Such a stupid, stupid question.

I didn’t have to ask if he wished he’d stood trial instead of pleading guilty.

I didn’t dare ask about his guilt.

I didn’t have to ask anything. All I did was listen.

He felt railroaded and betrayed, of course. Prison sucked, of course. His life was over and he hated everyone and everything. Couldn’t blame him.

I walked away with very little in the way of new information. It was just a story to say the Enterprise had gotten the story. And, indeed, I had gotten the story. But I didn’t have a single note.

He was dragged away into a police car for transport back to Huntsville; I headed for the quiet of the Ladies Room. (And yes, it was the “ladies” in this day.)

I took out my notebook and began to scribble – every single word I could remember. In those days, my shorthand was still good. Today, my aged and feeble mind can still see my tan reporter’s notebook on my jean-skirted lap, writing away – at least some brief forms.

The story itself when it was published the next day may have been eight inches; I hope it was 12. Not long. Not worthy. But certainly worth the experience and the experience of telling it over and over again for the next few decades.

And the ending? I lived.

Silliness and pseudonyms: The nexus of Inger Stevens and Kurt Russell

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I have a gentle secret in my background that is different from the narrative of my life as I usual tell it. I always say and am very proud of the fact that I’ve always made my living as a writer. It was/is a girlhood dream fulfilled. I’m not a famous writer or a famously paid author of a top-10 bestseller but, nonetheless, I am a paid and published writer who has been working in the same profession since my first job at a newspaper at 16 years old.

But, if you’ve read all these blogs, you know the truth. I held a job before my first newspaper job. This was back in the day when 14-year-olds could work and could get a driver’s license. I got to take advantage of the job part but didn’t make it to the car part. That law was changed right before I got there.

My first office job actually was as a telephone solicitor, selling siding to unsuspecting folks who answered their land lines in an era when everyone had a land line and answered it. Ewwww. Seems like a tough job on many fronts and I’ve gotten some unbelieving looks from the younger generation. But it’s true. And again, I was pretty good at it. In fact, it gave me an excellent background for all the telephone experience I would have later in life as a reporter – checking my traps, talking to sources, taking dictation, etc.

The siding sales manager knew, of course, that my credibility would be hampered if folks on the other end of the telephone line knew they were talking to a 14-year-old. So, he helped me slow down the pace of my conversation and deepen my speaking voice. Then, he told me to choose a name, my first nom de plume. I would be Mrs. Whomever to increase my credibility and make me appear older to the person on the other end of the line.

IngerStevensThat’s how my nom de plume as a telephone solicitor became Mrs. Stevens at age 14. I named myself for Inger Stevens, another suicidal blond actress from the ‘60s. Inger Stevens made her mark on my impressionably romantic psyche as “The Farmer’s Daughter,” a sitcom when I’d have been in elementary school. It was about a young Swedish woman who becomes the housekeeper for widowed U.S. congressman played by William Windom. Just like me, the teen-age me thought, smart and beautiful with tragically hidden talents.

At least I didn’t pick Ann Margaret, who was, of course, my favorite actress of all times until she was replaced by . . . well, I don’t think anyone ever replaced Ann Margaret for me. Even I knew that Mrs. Margaret wouldn’t do as a telephone solicitor.

Mrs. Stevens would not be my only pseudonym. Many years later in life, I would have to pick another pseudonym. This was long after my byline was sealed as Denise Bray Hensley. It so happened the hometown newspaper needed someone to cover sports at the local high school. It also so happened that my son played football on the hometown team and was a star player. Once again, I needed a credible nom de plume and this time without the Hensley last name so that folks wouldn’t necessarily know that Travis’s mom was writing the stories – even though his name typically made it into one of the top two or three paragraphs every time. Of course, he was that good and his plays needed to be reported. I never once came down from my skill as a highly objective newspaper reporter from the days when such reporters existed.

jack burtonThus, we find the nexus of Inger Stevens and Kurt Russell who played Jack Burton in “Big Trouble and Little China.” Jack Burton became the byline on my sports stories.

Jack Burton who is famous for his one-liners from the movie that I watched with my kids at least a dozen times.

“Okay. You people sit tight, hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn… call the president.”

“Have ya paid your dues, Jack?” “Yessir, the check is in the mail.”

“I’m a reasonable guy. But, I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.”

“May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.”

And, once again, I couldn’t make my first choice my pseudonym. Like Mrs. Stevens was better than Mrs. Ann Margaret for selling siding; Jack Burton was better than Snake Plissken for a sports byline in a hometown newspaper.Snake

A reporter must report, even without a daily newspaper

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Tucker and SambaAs a lifelong journalist now with no newspaper in this age that has changed the Fourth Estate forever, I am still a reporter at heart and must report. Now, I’m a one-person shop – like I was at my first biweekly. I report, edit, take photos and write columns. I also get to choose what is reported and how high the play is.

No longer am I reliant on a city desk to decide if I’ve made Page 1 or if I get to cover the big story. No longer am I an insecure writer with low self-esteem, dependent on the judgment of the editors who were always the boss of me in my daily days. Well, maybe still in need of approval like all writers but that’s another story.

Facebook, Twitter and this blog are my outlets, and my iPhone is my Nikon.

Social media also has saved my marriage and made me easier to tolerate for friends, my children and especially my husband. In 40 years of marriage, I can’t even tell you how often I’ve asked my husband to come see something – a beautiful sunset, deer roaming the woods, perhaps a man who’d hanged himself from a tree. John actually believed me this time; we turned the car around and discovered my imagination had been at work. Now that I think about it, this may be why he isn’t always willing to come see what I want to report.

As a longtime police reporter, I’ve actually discovered a few bodies in my day so I can understand why he’s a bit gullible. But we’ve had at least three incidents where I’ve convinced him I’ve seen a crime in progress, and it turned out to be an over-reaction on my part.

Then, there was the time I wanted to report child abuse in my neighborhood because I kept hearing the kids shout, “Daddy, Daddy, please stop.”.” When John urged me to check it out one more time, I approached the house cautiously, prepared to knock on the door and save the children. “No, no, no, Daddy,” I heard. Then, splash after the cries. “Daddy” was horse-playing with the kids in the backyard pool. Cops were not called; my reputation remained intact, except with my husband.

One of my favorite halfway points.

One of my favorite halfway points.

In any case, I no longer holler for family or friends when I see something exciting or different in my routine commuting travels or my bike rides. I just post. Now, I may be an over-sharer, but I try to pace myself a bit.

Thus, this weekend I’ve captured some photos of the sights I’ve seen along my bike rides. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of the two brother Batmen, complete with masks and capes nor did I get my iPhone out in time for the convertible with the kid in the backseat with a butterfly net.

Fishing and paddling

Fishing and paddling

 

 

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

September 28, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Right smack in the middle of my life

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You spend a lifetime making clear choices, dictated by specific nuances and needs from the family you love and the internal drive of your DNA. Then, you find yourself in the middle of your life – a lot behind you but as much in front of you. The kids are grown, the job satisfying, the marriage good, and your next decision is open to anything.

Shall I travel or stay home. Do I want to shop or read? Bike or walk my easy hound? Shall I have white or red wine?

I think of my life in 10- to 15-year increments. Fifteen years a highly driven reporter, 15 years an intense mom with a bit of teaching and freelance writing on the side, now I’m into the latest 10 to 15 years as a commuter and writer in the big city of Houston.

As a young reporter, I met and profiled celebrities, politicians and criminals of the day. I wrote stories about characters that my students at University of Houston barely knew because they were too young when those headlines were made. Janis Joplin, Karen Silkwood, Mark Chapman, John Hinckley, Mick Jagger, Bob Hope. I covered Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader at the apex of their careers when they were crossing barriers and debating issues that no one else considered and not when they were controversial caricatures of themselves. Jesse Jackson moved me like no other politician, Jimmy Carter’s smile dazzled in the days after his election, and Ronald Reagan walked easy among the people.

I’ve enjoyed interviews from my last 10 years as much as any from my Page 1 journalism days. Heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, up-by-the-bootstraps billionaire George Mitchell, statesman, ambassador and father, Roy Huffington are all visionary men who surpassed mental boundaries to think and go places beyond the grasp of most people. I routinely visit with a researcher who is probably one of the top two or three mathematicians in the world. I’ve discussed DNA with a scientist who helped sequence the human genome. I’ve held my breath as I watched a heart start to beat again after open-heart surgery.

I’ve made and kept friends from all of those different iterations of me. School friends from the hometown I left at age 18; ethically unshakeable reporters in Beaumont, Dallas, Fort Worth, Detroit and Houston; moms who would do anything for their kids or, in fact, for their friends, like me; and the elegant country club friends I made playing tennis who are big hearted, generous volunteers in every community.

I’m an empty-nester with a good-guy husband and one easy dog. It’s the quietest home life I’ve ever experienced. In other words, most of the choices I now make some days are just about me. On work days, I don’t have that many chores so I have relaxed evenings at home. I can bike, walk the dog, sit on the porch. On weekends, I can dine out or stay in. I can watch what I want on television. I can travel with very little hassle and have plenty of vacation time. I’ve been a bit lucky, some would say, but I’d give all that luck to hard work and a strong work ethic, something I’ve practiced every day of my life since I first became employed at age 14.

I’m a bit controlled by my bad knees and occasional lack of energy but I’m still freakishly strong and competitive. I’m happy if not satisfied but in some ways I’m very satisfied and feel like I’ve led a big life already.

Perhaps the second half of my life can be smaller, more relaxed and comfortable. I can travel or soak up more of the view from my backyard. I can let others decide and go along more.

You, my darling, are right smack in the very middle of your life.

I read a line somewhat like that recently in the book “The Husband’s Secret” by Liane Moriarty. Like most books, even my favorite murder mysteries, there is always a line or two that makes you reflect long after the plot leaves your mind.

I had been thinking this for a while before I read the words. What will you do with the second half of your life? It feels a bit urgent but not driven like it was at the beginning of my life. My urgency relates to friends, family, people, even strangers – leading a path of gentle kindness while not changing the whole world or even changing an individual.

It’s interesting to find yourself with more choices than obligations. It feels pretty good to be in the middle of my life.

 

Homeless on the big city streets for the sake of a story

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I have respect for all human life and have a particularly soft heart for the homeless. I believe that’s always been true because I’m a chameleon and an empath.  But it may have teetered toward obsession in my reporter days when my newspaper at the time did a series entitled “The Haves and the Have Nots.” I, of course, had taken the “have not” position and actually spent three days as a homeless person on the streets of a big city where the homeless problem was growing. It changed me forever, as did most every story I wrote where I sometimes spent weeks of interviews, trying to put myself in another’s shoes – whether it was victim or culprit.

In this case, the memory I still hold most upsetting is of a friend I made at one of the soup kitchens who I saw occasionally while frequenting the common places for the homeless – street corners, underpasses, parks and public attractions. Eventually, we spoke a few times after I’d made him comfortable with my regular presence.

It was one of my few assignments where I had to keep my pencil far from reach and in the bottom of a deep dusty bag that was my constant companion. My suffering over those homeless days came mostly because I didn’t have a sharpened pencil in my hands, behind my ear, twirling unconsciously from finger to finger. Ironically, I never was as attached to paper and didn’t mind writing on anything at hand – envelope, napkin, back of a check book, although when I left the profession, I still preferred the skinny reporter’s notebooks that fit easily in a jeans pocket or skirt.

On the night of my memory, I had come to a high school football stadium to hear a preacher who would then serve us supper. I got there early to soak up the atmosphere and potentially sneak out the pencil for some details that I might not remember later.  My new friend came near and but sat several feet away. I was up a couple of rows higher than the seat of his choosing, but we were nearer to each other than any of the other homeless people who came eventually to somewhat fill the stadium.

He was dirtier than me, literally. More smudged and smelly, always with a bit of a runny nose. I never quite got homeless dirty but had found some battered jeans (not hard to find in those days), kept my hair unwashed and never tucked in my shirt (not blouse.) He, likewise, was in jeans and was pretty much blue all over. His bluejeans, his work shirt, his bizarre and ruddy blue complexion. He had some wire-rimmed glasses that sat askew on his face and were in fashion at least a decade ago.

What overwhelmed me and has stuck to me over the years was the simple fact of his age. He said he was 17 years old. He looked like a man of maybe 40. Not a day younger. And I didn’t remotely detect a lie nor any realization on his part of how old he looked.

His face was lined and rough from outdoor living but also from something deep and desperate. He was a runaway, he said. He said he had no one and nowhere to go. He’d been on the streets of Fort Worth for at least five years. (I calculated when he was 12.) He mostly slept in vacant cars and in junkyards. I simply couldn’t believe it.  I always expect tragic stories when I take on an assignment like the homeless, but somehow I am never quite prepared for reality. Facts are always worse than the fiction we conjure.

My second most haunting memory comes to me almost daily.  It is the face of a beautiful dark-haired girl of about 4 years old. She wields a soup spoon in her fist and shovels almost clear broth into her too-hungry mouth. She’s so heartbreakingly pretty and so sweet mannered and inviting that I want to sit by her immediately. She has a beautifully smooth complexion and long silky brunette hair that curls a little at the ends.  I want to touch its perfection. I wonder this decade or so later, “Is this truly how my homeless, hungry girl looked?” Or is she forever superimposed over my same dark-haired daughter who was about 18 months old at the time I was doing this backgrounder for the newspaper series. I see my own child, sitting at the kitchen table with her similarly dark-haired doll, and the two merge in my memory. It makes me weep and weep again.

I was a relatively new mother and all my feelings and empathy had been turned on its head by the experience of being a mom. My homeless child’s parents spoke only Spanish, and I practiced my Texas public school and state college training on them when I joined them at their table. We could talk about hunger, what they were eating, how beautiful their daughter was in her pretty dress. But the emotional details escaped me. I couldn’t get to the root of their pain at being on the streets. “Only three days,” the mom said.  The cultural difference, “I have work,” the father said. Clearly, this little family was simply pleased to be in the United States and what I considered suffering was not even on their radar.

So, I settled for telling the little girl that I had a daughter “la misma” as her.  Both she and my daughter were both “muy bonita” and I liked my new little friend very much.

Later, and after a six-month series I did on teen-age suicide, I’d be offered a transfer to Washington, D.C., or New York -– a reporter’s ultimate goal back in those days. I was eventually to turn down the offer so that I could spend more time at home with my baby girl and later her younger brother.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

February 22, 2014 at 7:54 pm