I can’t recall what I was thinking when I rose from our basement bathroom at 4:30 a.m., freshly showered and ready for my allotted 15 breakfast minutes, but it was probably something like three more days. Three more days of rising in the middle of the night and showering in the basement so I don’t awaken my sleeping family with my morning ablutions. The dog was waiting on the basement landing, a sign he needed to take an early-morning evacuation, probably a result of all the chicken skin he cadged out of last night’s entree.
He stood up, barked once, looked toward the back yard, a very Lassie pose.
“I’m letting you out, but keep your mouth shut,” I said, opening the door. He bolted out and barked again, but in an abbreviated, “I know I’m supposed to be quiet, but this is important” way. A woman was somewhere outside, crying for help.
I stepped outside. The noise was coming from somewhere catty-corner to our back yard, close by. “Help, help, please, somebody help me,” she said. I ran to the fence and called out, “What’s wrong? What do you need?”
“Help,” she called again.
I ran back to the porch and opened the storm door. It sucked the back door shut. Locked out. At 4:30 a.m., with someone nearby crying piteously for help. In my slippers. Temperature: 9 degrees.
Well, this sucks, I thought, knocking on the door, which made the dog bark, which made all the other dogs in earshot bark. No response from inside, more moaning for help somewhere in the dark. Thought: My house is for sale. There’s a key box on the front door. And I remember the combination!
Ran to the front door. Tried the combination. It didn’t work. Shitthebed. I started ringing the doorbell repeatedly. “Ohhhh help, won’t someone help me?” came the voice from the dark, followed by the comforting sound of multiple Chevy engines bearing down from two directions — the help. Ran to the curb, pointed the cops in the direction of the voice, came back to my front door. Rang again. Because while I no longer felt the need to call 911, I was still in my goddamn slippers and it was still 9 degrees. A hibernating bear came rumbling down the stairs and opened the door.
“Lock yourself out?” he said.
“You might say,” I said, running to the back to let the dog in and figure out what the hell. By now you could hear sirens, see the smoke rising against the sky. A house fire. “Husband’s still inside!” one of the police yelled at an arriving fireman. A fatal house fire, I thought, going back into the kitchen. For some reason, at that moment the kitchen cabinet popped open and out slid the roasting pan from last night’s chicken, clattering on the tile floor. If a nine-foot python had emerged from the sink drain locked in mortal combat with a rabid raccoon, I don’t think I would have been surprised. It was that kind of morning.
I skipped breakfast, called the metro desk like a good soldier, picked up a dozen doughnuts on the way in. The best thing about working for a newspaper? By the time I got to work, I knew the most important part — it wasn’t a fatal fire. An hour later, when the morning cop reporter arrived, I learned that the husband wasn’t inside, he had been out walking the dog when the fire started. (Yes, at 4:30.) It was the second police brief.
I’m always struck, when things like this happen, what a rich beat the cop shop is, at least for a reporter who likes to tell good stories. Every brush up against police news is like a glancing blow from a freight train (at least, I hasten to add, if you’re essentially a law-abiding person). Car accidents, crime, fire — these are huge events in people’s lives, and they’re frequently good stories. One morning, years ago, we had another fire in the morning here in the Fort. A passing meter reader spotted smoke, called it in and ran back to the house, where a woman dropped two young children out of a second-story window into his arms.
“Now you!” he shouted. She was already being overcome by smoke, fainted and fell out the window. The meter reader managed to break her fall and she survived with a few scratches. We got the barest details into a tight paper on deadline. The metro editor wandered over and asked the reporter who covered it for a follow for the next day’s paper.
“Why?” the reporter asked. Like: Who gives a crap? To him, it was just a no-injury fire. I thought it was a tremendous yarn, the hero meter reader who saw a 100-pound woman falling onto him and did not flinch.
Many years ago, a columnist friend of mine wrote a wonderful piece pointing this out, that every day a reporter would call “slow,” people are born, die, fall in love, divorce and do other things that don’t make the paper, or if they do, are summarized in 6-point type on an inside page of listings.
It’s all about the story.