Being a newspaper reporter is one of the most interesting jobs
I think a person could possibly have. You get to go wherever you want
the urge hits you, ask all sorts of questions that you otherwise wouldn't be able to ask without getting slapped in the face
(not that that hasn't happened ... ) and then - this is the really cool part - you get to tell people about it. I get to do this for a living.
Sometimes, though, reporters run across stuff
that you just can't put in a family newspaper. Do you think your grandmother wants to read about how a cop scraped a suicide victim's brains out of his boot with a sharp stick - while she's eating her morning oatmeal?
Of course not. So I can't really tell folks - in print anyway - some of the more macabre stories that have made my job endlessly fascinating.
Oh, I've seen a lot of dead people. I've lost count. And not tidy, laid-out-like-at-the-funeral-home
dead, either. I mean ripe. And let me tell you, the job's pretty cool, but when you come across a 300-pound dead guy
who's been sitting behind a 7-Eleven Dumpster
in the hot summer sun for the better part of two days, the needle on the cool meter goes waaaaaay the fuck to the left. I've reconsidered law school
more than once.
My first journalism job, straight out of college, was at a dinky little twice-weekly on the outskirts of a big city. You know the type of burg: Strip malls, car lots, titty bars
, a half hour's drive to anything resembling a decent restaurant. I was 21, and I was the police reporter, covering "cops n' courts," as the beat is called in virtually every newsroom in America. The work sure was interesting. You ride along with cops late at night, you follow them through the doors of shitty hotels when they're making crack
busts, you sit in court and learn exactly how twisted and broken the criminal-justice system
is. Quite an eye-opener for someone who spent most of his youth breaking the law
. And, of course, it wasn't long before I started running off to crime scenes and seeing dead folks.
Because that paper sat on the outskirts of a large city, the town got more than its fair share of what the cops called "dump jobs."
Here's how your basic dump job works: Someone uptown caps Snoopy or Big G or whatever the fuck handle he was going by
before he was ventilated --- and then the shooter and his pals drive the dead guy out to the sticks. The result? There's no murder on the books in the big city. And a cross-jurisdictional clusterfuck
once the guy is finally found way out in hicktown. That because, most of the time, the local cops don't know who the dead guy is. If they're lucky, the departed's girlfriend wonders where he's been for the last three weeks and calls the cops in her town. Of course, where she lives, no dead bodies have turned up that match the dead drug slinger's description. The killers, meanwhile, sleep like babies, completely untroubled by any thoughts of incarceration. And the local cops inherit a nearly unsolvable murder case
The upshot is, since nobody has bothered to report a missing person, let alone a murder, the decedent has had plenty of time to get nice and smelly. Rabbit was the first
one I ever saw.
If I were to guess, looking at Ol' Rabbit there on the ground, I'd have to say he was about four-foot-three and 89 pounds. Actually, he was closer to five-foot-something, but it was kinda hard to tell because his pals had shoved a shotgun in his mouth and blown the top of his head off. From the nose down, he looked like he once had a human head. From the nose up, he looked exactly like a deflated basketball. It was a rubber Rabbit mask that didn't have any brains or skull holding it up.
Luckily (for me and the cops), Rabbit was a heavy, heavy drinker. It was mid-June, at least 90 degrees, and the pile of meat that used to be Rabbit had been hanging around behind a tobacco barn for the better part of a day. The vodka (I'm guessing) in his system overpowered the stench of rot.
Rabbit, we all found out some weeks later, was a trailer-park resident. He had a bunch of biker buddies in the speed
business. One day, a couple of them get paranoid - speed will do that to you, after all - and start thinking Rabbit's narc
ing on them to the local cops. So they offed him.
Thing is, Rabbit wasn't a narc. Some friends, eh?
Rabbit was turned up that morning when a deer hunter
decided to drag his kill
back in that shade behind the barn and dress
it. When he got there, the hunter saw what he thought was another deer, wrapped in a sheet. Hmm, he thought, that's odd. Why would someone leave their deer there? So he touched the carcass through the sheet to see how cold is was, to judge how long it had been there. Instead, he realized, he was touching a human hand, stiff with rigor mortis
The cops got a kick out of that. "I bet he wasn't in the mood for venison
steaks that night."
By the time I got there, the detectives had been there for about a half hour and had started processing the crime scene. The Unwrapping of Rabbit, as I've called it in various re-tellings, was the sickest part. The killers stripped him, slashed his abdomen for unknown reasons, and then proceeded to package him for the dump. They put him in sliced-open Glad bags, then a set of cheap sheets, and then another layer of plastic. Two crime-scene technicians kept peeling back layer after layer, like the corpse was an onion, or a mummy, or one of those Russian dolls
. We all stood around smoking. Finally, they hit the last layer: Rabbit was tucked away in a set of Care Bears
sheets. I shit you not.
I hit Roy Rogers
on the way back to the newsroom and wolfed down a couple of roast beef sandwiches. It wasn't until I was halfway through my second one that I realized that Rabbit's rotten corpse hadn't put me off my feed one bit.
What the hell does that say about me? I'm not sure I wanna know. Another memorable one
was the lesbian's roommate who died right in front of me.
It was winter, I was cranking away on some bullshit story when all of us in the newsroom heard some shots. Then, almost instantly, the police scanner
on my desk started howling; I heard a cop I knew screaming into his radio. Our paper was in an industrial park; I dashed a couple hundred yards away and rounded the corner to find a cop car, the cop I knew and a woman flat out on her back on the snow-covered driveway of one of those lock-and-key storage facilities. There was a bright red streak running from her mouth and chest down to the gutter.
The cop recognized me and shouted for me to stand back. He was completely freaked out. I watched him hover over her. He lost his cool. He didn't know what to do. He just grabbed the sleeve of her jacket and tugged her over to the grass. Why? Nobody was using the driveway, she wasn't going to get run over, that's for sure. To this day, it was one of the most pathetic, depressing things I've ever seen. He was totally powerless and losing his shit right in front of somebody. He figured he had to do something, so he pulled her onto the grass.
The woman, a slim, sandy-haired thing in a cheap beige jacket, was splayed out like a doll. There was a tiny little gurgling bubble of blood that kept pumping out of her chest for about a minute until it stopped altogether.
They caught the woman that shot her not two minutes later. The cop I knew was right there because he happened to be parked across the street when she was shot; he had the presence of mind to call the tag number in, and in the space of two minutes, they had the address and were waiting for her when she pulled in her driveway, gun in hand.
Turns out the shooter was the dead woman's roommate. And a lesbian. The roommate wasn't. The shooting was one of those unrequited love deals. The lesbian
just could not handle living with her and not having her, so BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM while they were parked in the driveway of that storage place. And she placed her Reebok
on her dead friend's chest, opened the passenger door, and shoved her onto the snowy driveway.
If you ask any cop you know, they'll tell you that they hate domestic calls the worst. The only famous dead person I ever saw
was William Colby
, the ex-CIA director.
He had been missing from his vacation cottage on the Potomac River
for a few days when they started sending out the cadaver dogs
Bill Colby was getting up there in years, but he still kept his nightly ritual intact: He'd eat his dinner and then canoe out to a buoy about a mile out in the river. Then he'd come home.
When the cops went in the house, they found the remnants of his dinner - corn on the cob, clams and wine, if I recall correctly. And his canoe washed up downriver a day after he was missing. They assumed, rightly, something had gone wrong and he'd fallen overboard and drowned.
Naturally, the little island village where he kept his vacation home was crawling with media and rubberneckers. And the locals went apeshit with all kinds of conspiracy theories. My personal favorite was the waitress in Cap'n John's crab house who swore that the CIA had him whacked for making them look bad back in the 1970s. Which is true, Colby really did ream The Company
a new one in those Congressional hearings
. I didn't buy it though.
When he washed up a few days later, there were only a half dozen of us around. He did not look good. Let's just say that the crab population of the Potomac River is good and healthy. And said crabs are some tenacious motherfuckers, too.
I unwisely told a handful of people about this. Naturally, it wasn't long before you could hear "Hey, I found a CIA ring in my crab cakes!" in seafood restaurants from Nags Head
Don't even ask about the car wrecks.
I'll take a nice, clean shooting death any day over that. Motor vehicles do funny things to the human body at high speed. That's the shit that'll make you dump your lunch on your Chuck Taylors
This may all sound a little callous,
but let me tell you, it's just a defense mechanism. "Gallows humor
," they call it. They give cops and fire fighters counseling when they see stuff like this, and some newsrooms even offer their reporters the same kind of help. That's fine, I'm not interested. I sleep just fine.
I think most people only confront their mortality when a loved one dies, or when their birthday rolls around. Me, I think about life and death and all that heavy shit more often than most folks, and I think I've got everything pretty squared away. At my least spiritual moments, I might sometimes think, Well, shit, we're all just meat puppets
anyway, we're just bags of blood and bones, nothing to get upset about. If that kind of laissez-faire attitude is as bad as it gets, well, hell, I think I'll be fine.
What chaps my ass is when I see other people who think life is cheap.
Like this one guy, Danny.
Danny, you see, had two jobs. One was running his father's carpet and paint store on the main drag of this Virginia backwater. Danny's other job, he informed me in his half-witted drawl, was "alternate execution witness."
In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the state cannot put an inmate to death without 14 witnesses to watch. Virginia puts all its inmates to death at the prison in Jarratt, VA., near where Danny lives. And so, when some far-off victim's relative or sheriff's deputy can't make it to the execution, they call Danny as a stand-in. This has happened 14 times over the past few years. And Danny, he didn't mind telling me, likes watching these folks die. He told me all this in his office in the back of the carpet store, which was covered with animal hides and weird, pseudo-samurai
weaponry, the kind of deadly, goofy crap you sometimes see sold at flea markets
and Star Trek
I asked Danny whether he thought the man about to be put to death that week deserved to die. Naturally, I wanted to know his opinion of the death penalty, and how he justified it, or didn't.
Danny told me a curious thing. He could recall virtually every detail of the men he'd seen electrocuted and injected, but, despite the fact that his presence in the witness room let those 14 men's deaths go forward, he couldn't recall a single one of their names.
I thought about this a lot later that night, on my bed at the Reste Motel, with Lou Reed
on the tape deck and probably my fourteenth Budweiser
in my hand. I had looked right in Rusty Burket's eyes the moment before those six huge prison guards eased him onto his back, getting him ready for the needle
. How could Danny watch something like this more than once? For fun? And not remember their names?