The following is an excerpt from A Special Detail: The Untold Story of a Reporter’s Suspicious Death, a work of fiction that the Oshkosh Independent is presenting in serial form. If you can’t wait to get to the end or would like to read the story in book form, it is available on Amazon. Chapter Ten will appear Nov. 5.
As Frank recalled it, he was in a daze leaving Corker’s office, shot down on what he thought was a sure-thing plan and witnessing a kind of lazy, taken-for-granted racism that he had fooled himself into thinking wasn’t still firmly in place in the highest reaches of the Star’s newsroom.
“Fool, damn fool,” he muttered, not sure if he was referring to himself or to Corker.
The light was blinking on his phone when he got back to his desk, and so Frank punched in his voicemail password to retrieve the message.
“Mr. Angleton, please call me. I’ve got a follow-up angle to that story you did. I think you might be interested,” the voice said, and then left a number, which Frank duly dialed.
“Frank Angleton, returning your call.”
“Hey I loved that story you did. I think you got it just about exactly right, but there’s more to it.”
‘Great, thanks. But, you know, I write a story just about every day. Which story are you talking about?”
“The DW one, DWB. That’s something most people don’t know anything about.”
Frank resisted the temptation to point out that mostly all black people knew all about Driving While Black, particularly if they happened to be a rich buppie driving some stylish late model sports car or luxury sedan. All they had to do was roll past a speed trap or somehow catch the attention of a city cop, a county deputy sheriff, a state patrolman or some other uniformed figure of authority, and soon enough flashing blue lights would appear in the rearview mirror, and they would be fishing out their license and registration to prove that a black person could actually own a nice car that wasn’t a Cadillac.
“So what do you think I missed on that?”
“Well, what you don’t see is that this may be bad in certain ways, but it’s also a great business opportunity.”
Frank’s patience was starting to run out. Right, just the way slavery was a great business opportunity, so long as you were on the right end of things, he thought to himself.
“There’s a great local story here, about a business that has stepped into this situation to fill a need. And there’s a patriotic angle to it, too. See, what we do is we help our black GIs drive the kind of wheels they deserve.”
Just another crank call to the newsroom, Frank thought. Now the trick is to get the guy off the line without him threatening to cancel his subscription.
“You sound like a very sincere person,” Frank started, “but I’m not sure I follow what you are trying to say.”
“Look, here’s the deal. These black soldiers serve a tour of duty overseas, Germany or somewhere, and they get a chance to drive a Mercedes, a BMW, a Porsche. There aren’t your privates or E-5’s, mostly officers or senior NCOs. They can afford one of these fancy cars, and they can get them for a better price in Europe. The problem is they can get their car delivered portside, but then they have to get them to their base. And that’s where DWB gets to be a problem.”
“I still don’t see how this is a story.”
“Look I’m just a local businessman, but I am serving this niche, and I’m doing fantastic. I hire these white guys, college kids mostly, who drive these cars from the pier to the soldier’s post. I got so much business, you wouldn’t believe it. I got a private jet to go around and pick up the drivers once they made delivery and bring them back to do it again.”
What a shock? Some self-serving white guy who has figured out a way to make money off of the daily humiliations of black folk, a regular humanitarian. Frank had to get off the phone before he lost his temper.
“Listen, thanks for the call. I appreciate the tip. Right now I got some other things on my plate, but as soon as I can get back to this, I’ll give it some more thought. Thanks again.”
As he hung up the phone, Frank muttered half-aloud, “Fool, damn fool.”
Then, the feeling shot through him, like an electric shock or the panic that overtakes you on a dark street when you suddenly hear footsteps behind you, and Frank realized he may have just hung up on the best break he was going to get at the Star.
He immediately redialed the number. “Hey, Frank Angleton, again. You know I was just thinking about our conversation, and there is one thing I forgot to ask you. Do you make any of these deliveries to Georgia?”
“Oh sure, all over the place: Benning, McPherson, Gordon, Stewart. You name it. All the time.”
“Really? That’s very interesting to me.”
“Oh yeah, I got a Beemer headed down to Fort Benning tomorrow. Couple more cars going South, hmm, I dunno, looks like next week.”
“That Fort Benning driver—when would he be coming back?” Frank asked.
Through a short back-and-forth, Frank quickly secured an invitation for a drive-along. He would accompany the driver to Fort Benning, where he would wait a day or so until a private plane would arrive to retrieve them from the Savannah airport. All he had to do now was to sell the story to the desk.
It’s funny how so many journalists go into journalism because we think it’s a way to stay out of the messy milieu of business, but then we quickly adopt the terminology of the dirty commercial world we thought we left behind. Stories are sold, photographs are “made,” and the highest, the best kind of journalism is what we call “enterprise” journalism, a little bit of business that reporters do on their own.
Interns aren’t supposed to get close to enterprise reporting. That’s usually left to the veterans. Back in my internship summer, I had plenty of good story ideas, but the editors weren’t buying. “That might be a good story, but I’m not sure you are ready to bring it in,” would be the typical kind of response I would get.
So I was stuck rewriting press releases and handling fluff. I could make it fine, but I couldn’t make it fabulous. Even when I got close to a good story, it seems like I was always told to stand aside. No one said it in so many words, but the operative thought was “don’t worry your pretty little head.”
I liked to listen to people talk, but I had a different style from Frank’s. He had the ability to hear everything that a source said, and to somehow sense the things that they were saying outside of spoken language. I was better at hearing things that weren’t really there, or rather things that weren’t being said at all.
This was a “skill” that could get a girl in trouble, late at night, leaving a bar, for example. But it was also the factor that helped me go beyond a routine story and make my first Page One appearance, although with a little bit of hard feelings along the way.
I thought I heard the city editor tell me that I should tag along with Brett Russell, the main City Hall reporter, to an afternoon meeting of the City Council’s subcommittee on pensions and benefits. Russell said later that I had no business being there, but that was after I had scooped a story that was right in front of his nose.
Russell was, according to newsroom lore, a distant cousin to one of the controlling families, with connections strong enough to get him a job but not strong enough to put him on the distribution list for quarterly dividends. In other words, he had to work for a living.
When I slid onto the bench beside him in the Council hearing room, Russell looked at me oddly, staring down through his wire-rim “granny” glasses and wrinkling up his bristly moustache by pushing upward with his lower lip against his top one. He was tall and, even sitting down, towered over me. I could tell that he was not only surprised to have company but that he had no idea who I was.
“Hey, the desk said I should stop by, just to see what it’s like. I’m the summer intern.”
Russell continued to stare down at me, his eyes briefly alighting on my neckline. “Well, good luck with that—this is most definitely not ‘what it’s like.’ I think someone is playing a joke on you. C’mere.” With that he motioned to the side door to the hearing room, and I followed him out.
Once we got out in the hall, he explained. “This is nothing. The subcommittee is voting to cut the council’s pension formula. Big deal. There’s a budget crunch. There’s no money. Nobody would read any story that you might write based on what is going on in there. I am simply sitting there to make it look like someone is paying attention. I’ll give it till 4:30—then I’m calling the desk and telling them it’s Miller Time.”
“Well, OK. Fine,” I said.
“Don’t worry. It’s not your fault that you wasted your afternoon.”
Fool times two is what I felt like. First the desk sends me out on a nonstory, and then I get a mini-lecture on Big City Journalism from the eccentric nephew of the owners.
“Take this,” Russell added. “It can be a souvenir.” He handed me a five-page handout that was photocopied on to blue paper. The first page was the committee’s agenda, and the rest was the resolution it was voting on. The last page was given over completely to a table of years and numbers.
“Let me show you right here, on page three.” His finger ran past a series of “Whereas” clauses and stopped at the “Therefore be it resolved” part:
“That the City Council’s pension payouts will be restricted immediately to 50 percent of the current rate as described in the formula provided above.”
“For once elected officials are doing the right thing, sharing the pain,” Russell noted. “It’s weird enough to be a story. But who cares about pensions? Nobody in the newsroom, and none of our readers sitting down to breakfast with the paper. That kind of story would put them right back to sleep.”
City Hall was just a few blocks from the paper, and so I took my souvenir and headed back. I know it probably sounds corny, but there is something romantic and exciting about being in a newsroom as deadline approaches. Everyone is a little more focused, and you sense that the place is alive with secrets that are about to be revealed.
Sports has the inside skinny on a possible trade of a local hero; Business is leading with merger rumors rumbling around one of the city’s corporate pillars; Features has word about which headliners will be coming to town next season; Washington is reporting whispers on the local congressman’s curvaceous “special events coordinator.” The Metro desk doesn’t have anything quite so tantalizing, but still an overnight murder and a sizable drug bust will add some color to tomorrow’s paper.
Me? I might as well just be a visitor, a civilian, a noncombatant in the news wars, because all I got is five pages of impenetrable mumbo-jumbo on blue copy paper. It’s almost like they picked blue to make the stuff that much harder to read.
That’s what got me thinking. Why print this on blue paper unless you didn’t want anyone to read what it said?
That’s what got me looking back at the “Whereas” clauses, and that’s what led me to the phrase “then multiplied by the value found in Table B for the year applicable.”
And that’s when I knew I had my first bona fide scoop, my first ride onto Page One, my first big step past fine.
All you had to do was take the payout formula and plug in the number for this year from Table B, and it was clear. This year’s number was four, which meant that the council wasn’t cutting its pension payout—it was doubling it.
Unless someone pointed out what was really going on.
That would be me.
A Special Detail is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental and completely unintentional.