Life’s milestones arrive when you least expect it. Chalk up last Friday as one for me: First opportunity to search for one’s own name in a book index My former colleague Robin Yocum published his memoir of life on the Columbus Dispatch police beat, “Dead Before Deadline.”
If you follow the link, don’t believe that scowling boolsheet picture on the cover, a big fat set-up taken, like, the day before yesterday. The real Robin is in his authorial mugshot — Mr. Smiley, Mr. Forelock-tugger, the face that opened a thousand doors in neighborhoods crappy and otherwise, where daddy or mama or someone’s son or daughter had been gunned down, run down, or beaten/stabbed/thrown out a window. For, as Robin points out more than once, on the Dispatch cop beat you not only wrote the story about the mayhem, you then had to knock on the loved ones’ doors and ask them to tell the readers everything about the unlucky — but not always undeserving — deceased. Under night city editor Bernie Karsko, no juicy cop shop story failed to warrant at least one more follow-up. The first follow is always the grieving relatives, and I’m grateful Robin gave away one of the oldest tricks in the book: When you do the grieving-relatives story, ask for a picture of the deceased. When they bring out a great handful of them, ask to take them all, so “the photo editor” can choose the best one. It’s really a trick to make sure the TV yo-yos don’t get any. It’s the sort of thing you have to keep in mind when you’re getting the details, but to me, it illustrates the essential duality of reporting — half sympathetic ear, half coyote trickster.
I found what I expected to find — a lot of people who bugged me then presented as charming characters now — and a lot I didn’t. I’d forgotten a lot of the cases he wrote about, but they came back to me. Linda Marsick, who strangled herself, slowly and horribly, out of grief over the death of Elvis Presley; Jean Shrader, who was probably killed by her husband but proving it was beyond the capabilities of the law and order people; Janice and Brandon Beidleman, mother and baby, beaten and raped and strangled and smothered, another bad day for the prosecutor’s office. Dr. Jackson. Laura Carter.
Laura Carter was maybe 19 or so, a freshman at Denison University, a preppie private college east of Columbus. It was Parents Weekend, and hers were in town from Philly or somewhere like that, and they’re driving into Columbus to eat dinner at a nice restaurant. Down East Broad Street they come, Laura and her parents and a couple friends. Laura’s in back, and she’s leaning forward talking to her parents in the front seat, her arm up on the seat. Which leaves her ribcage exposed when, a block away, some men open fire in a drug dispute. The bullet hits her under her arm and tears through all the important blood vessels in her chest. They were only a couple blocks from the hospital, her father had the presence of mind to follow the signs and drive right to it, but it didn’t do any good. She was effectively D.O.A.
From Robin’s book:
Nancy Nall and I tag-teamed the story. We wrote: As the group drove west on E. Broad St. near East High School, an argument involving four men but a world apart from the car yet only a block away, exploded into violence. With the sudden ring of gunfire, the two groups were drawn tragically together.
I read this, and all I could think was: Good God, did I write this shit?
See, this is what I mean. Part of me was stunned anew by the simple narrative. Think of what it was like inside that car — one minute you’re going to dinner with your daughter and her friends and the next, she’s slumped over and everyone is screaming and there’s blood and a shattered window and you’re in an unfamiliar city and what do you do? Whatdoyoudowhatdoyoudowhatdoyoudo? It shortens your breath. And my 25-year-old self came up with “ring of gunfire” and “drawn tragically together.” And here I am 20 years later, and I’m bothered by my crappy prose. Not as much as by the crime itself, I suppose.
Hey! Personal growth!
Coyote trickster footnote: Laura Carter’s college roommate was Christopher Cross’s girlfriend. She ended up the inspiration for a Christopher Cross song. You make of that what you will.
What Robin didn’t tell you: When he needed something from someone — an interview, mainly — he was an absolutely devastating pleader. He was like Puss-n-Boots in “Shrek 2” when he gets the big eyes. He’d tell people he was on the brink of losing his job, that he had a wife and baby and they’d all be thrown out on the street. It was quite something. But it nearly always worked.
If he were here today, he’d be making the big eyes: “Please, buy my book.”