Thursday, February 19, 2009

Off With Their Head(lines)

Newspapers are dying. We have, for better or for worse, decided that McNews is better, more digestible and easier opn the soul in the form of Fox broadcasts, USA Today, or blogs and websites. The impending demise of the daily could also stem from readers becoming tired of bad news and papers failing to realize there is--even among we-are-doomed junkies--a failsafe point. We can only tolerate so much war, so much financial and intellectual decline, so many stories depicting the frailness of the human condition. We are burned out on sadness, meaningless crime, governmental stupidity or insensitivity. We're sick of it and we're not gonna pay for it anymore.

And yet... I worked for the Washington Post for years. I'm a print guy, even if I no longer really care for the Post. I like getting up in the morning, rain or shine, and reaching for my paper deep under the azalea bush where the delivery guy unerringly tosses it. I no longer read the business section--why get depressed when you don't have to--and wonder where a lot of Post reporters got their training. I decry the loss of objectivity. I wonder when mainline editors decided readers wanted a reporter's opinions more than they want facts. I mourn the passing of such elegant writers as Sarah Booth Conroy; the end of the book review section; the melding of social and art pages into an incomprehensible miasma of critique and bad writing.

I will miss the shorts buried in the A section--the French and British nuclear submarines bristling with enough fissionables to destroy the earth three times over. They collided in the English Channel (how can such a thing happen and what does that tell us about the end of the world?). I will miss the gossip section telling me all about people I neither do--nor want to--know. I like the daily crossword puzzles that will never, ever, be as friendly on a computer screen. I enjoy the corrections, those little boxes buried beneath the fold on page three that say, "Oops, we blew it." I particularly like them when they recognize that the photo in yesterday's late edition was not Mrs. Crosley Boyd-Smith but Mr. Crosley Boyd-Smith who always wore a kilt. And they regret the error.

Plus, lets face it, what else will you wrap fish in?

Here's installment 68 of Wasted Miracles.

Colin wondered why he was where he was, sitting in the car next to a black man he hardly knew, driving someplace to do something he was vastly unqualified to do. It felt like one of those drunk dreams he had early in sobriety when he’d wake with a shudder, gasping for air, terrified that the illusion had been fact. Those dreams had lasted months, striking once or twice a week, so vivid they left the oily taste of cheap vodka in his mouth and an all too familiar stinging warmth in his stomach. Once, to his horror, he’d woken to find he’d wet himself.
Even the presence of Joe the Cop in the back seat had an unreal feel to it. Colin could hear him breathe, a faint in-and-out hissing sound. Joe had eaten garlic bread for dinner, was uncharacteristically quiet, fidgety.
Mamadou, by comparison, seemed made of wood, only his hands and head occasionally moved, monitoring the non-existent traffic and guiding the car exactly five miles above the speed limit.
In the apartment earlier, the plan had made perfect sense. Wait until the middle of the night, drive in, snatch the girl, drive out. A simple thing, over in a matter of minutes. Now it seemed like unadulterated madness. The three hadn’t exchanged a word since entering the District. Words would convey doubt, doubt would convey fear.
Colin wondered whether either Mamadou or Joe felt as he did, wrapped himself in cottony silence. His legs went tight when a police car detached itself from the curb and momentarily followed them, relaxed slightly when the cruiser turned off to the right and was lost to view.
“There’s a gas station a block up,” Mamadou said quietly. “If either of you want to use a bathroom, now is the time.”
Colin smiled in the darkness. “Are we that obvious?”
Mamadou nodded. “It’s normal. When I was a policeman--and I’m sure Joe will know what I mean--I used to get violently sick when I knew I was headed into a potentially dangerous situation. It lasted for the first six months I was in uniform.”
“Then what happened?”
“Then I got calm. I realized that the outcome of whatever I was going into would have little to do with how I felt about it. It was a blessing to realize that.” His hands moved the steering wheel slightly and the car jumped a lane. “But there’s really no reason for your concern, Colin. All you have to do is strike one man, and he’ll be sleeping. I would think you’d feel a certain sense of justice wacking Harold on the head. I would, had he done to me what he did to you.”
“I already vomited on his shoes.”
Mamadou hesitated, smiled. “I suppose that is a vengeance of sorts. Perhaps not my first choice, though.” He braked to a stop at a red light.
Earlier, Mamadou had offered Colin a gun, Colin had refused the weapon. “Those things scare me.” Now Colin thought of reconsidering. A gun, that most impersonal of weapons, might have added a degree of sanity to the situation. Joe the Cop was wearing his in a shoulder holster, had made a point of taking out the clip and checking it carefully. Mamadou had one also.
Mamadou picked up the cellular phone from its cradle on the dash, punched a number, waited, asked, “Anything new?” After a moment he flipped it closed, dropped it on the floor of the car. He turned to Colin, said, “One more time.”
“I go up the steps. They creak, so I’m careful. Howard is asleep on the couch in the front room. I hope the neighbor is right about that, Mamadou. I don’t want to tangle with that guy again...”
“Aunt Mim says the neighbor looked in their window five minutes ago. Howard’s asleep.”
“I bop Howard on the head.”
“I bop Howard hard on the head, go downstairs, grab Josie and get the hell out.”
Mamadou said, “Joe?”
“I stay outside and watch. If anything happens, I punch ‘three’ on the digital, and it buzzes your pager. I start the car and get ready to haul ass out.” He paused, added, “I still don’t like this. I should be going in with you guys, help you out if you need it.”
“Somebody’s got to stay out here, Joe.” He turned back to Colin. “And I’ll take care of Harold and the Zulu. We shouldn’t be in there more than two minutes, three at the most. How do you both feel.”
Joe and Colin chorused, “Fine.” Neither meant it.
Mamadou said, “Good.” He fell silent for a moment, added, “There’s not much finesse to a frontal assault, but more often than not, it works.” After a moment, he added, “No ID, right, Joe? No badge or anything like that?
Joe nodded. “Nothing at all. I left all that stuff at Colin’s house. I’ll pick it up when we’re through.”
“No papers. Ten bucks and a quarter to call a cab in case the car breaks down...”
No one laughed. They drove on, crossed the river, headed into Anacostia.
Joe the Cop said, “Rough neighborhood.”
Mamadou glanced in the rearview mirror, caught Joe’s eyes. “There are people who spend their entire lives here, they get used to it. All the papers print about Anacostia is the crime rate, but there’s a lot more going on than just crime. Some of Washington’s best families--best black families, those that haven’t sold out and bought house on the Gold Coast--live here.”
Joe held up a hand. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to criticize, or anything. It’s just that--”
Mamadou interrupted him. “It’s just that there isn’t a single white family living here. As far as I know, that is.” He slowed for a blinking yellow light. “We’re almost there.”
The rest of the ride was spent in silence. Eventually, Mamadou slowed the car, pulled in close to the curb, snapped the headlights off. “It’s that house,” he pointed. “Over there.”
Colin peered into the darkness. It was a nondescript single family home set a few yards back from the street. Clapboard, peeling white paint, a single line of ivy climbing up the gutters. The first floor of the house was dark save a faint light over the front entrance. On the second floor, one window was dimly lit. The house next door, by comparison, was brightly illuminated. “That’s the neighbor lady, the one who’s been calling Aunt Mim.”
They sat in the car in the dark for what seemed many minutes. Eventually, Joe cleared his throat and said, “You’re gonna love this, Colin, it was in the Washington Times.” Colin could hear him unfold a piece of paper. “Listen. It’s priceless.” He began reading in a low monotone. “Here’s the headline, ‘Man Fatally Stabbed Over McDonald’s Order.’”
Colin whispered, “Joe, this isn’t exactly the time and place.”
Joe ignored him, read. “‘As he sat in the drive-through lane of a McDonald’s restaurant in Northeast Washington yesterday morning,’ Northeast, right? Where else is this shit gonna happen? Anyway, this guy realizes he doesn’t have enough money for the order, so he tells the weenie behind the counter to take some stuff away...”
“No, listen, this is choice. So this kid who’s riding in the car gets pissed off, ‘cause maybe it’s his fries getting left behind, and this kid stabs him. Bam, just like that, right in the back. So--”
Colin hissed, “Joe! Shut the fuck up!”
Mamadou was staring straight ahead. Now he turned to face Joe the Cop. “No, Colin, it’s OK. I read the paper too.”

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