Gone, Baby, Gone
My last day at The Sun was on Sept. 30th, although I didn't know it at the time. No one did. I worked the Sunday cop-shift, part of a weekend rotation shared by most of The Sun's metro reporters. It was a busy-if-inglorious shift. There was a nightclub fire in Harford County, a fatal one-car accident in Baltimore County, a mysterious ambo call at the county jail and, finally, a three-alarm blaze in West Baltimore that had left a homeless man dead and created three new homeless people - an elderly woman and her two tenants. It was their bad luck to live next door to the vacant house where three homeless men had set a fire to ward off the first cold night of autumn. Something ignited and, within minutes, three rowhouses were engulfed and a dead man was lying on the sidewalk.
It wasn't a big story, I'm sorry to say. The death of a nameless homeless man seldom is in the pages of the Baltimore Sun. But there were holes, some confusion about what had happened. I knew the night editor, the incomparable David Michael Ettlin, would razz me (justifiably) if I didn't at least make every effort to answer those questions. And while Dick Irwin, the regular night cop reporter, is used to batting clean-up for the Sunday rotation, I didn't want to dump my undone work on him.
So, about mid-day, I drove to the scene, where I found a man sweeping debris from the walk. He was one of the newly homeless. He and his pregnant wife provided vivid eyewitness accounts of what had happened early that morning, as did another neighbor on the street, a young woman who was keeping poverty at bay by working two jobs. At one point, the man invited me inside his one-room home to show that it was intact, but so damaged by smoke that he and his wife may never be able to return, much less salvage their possessions.
This was the best and most humbling part of the job I did for the last 20 years, that moment of faith when someone invited me, a stranger with a notebook and a lot of bordering-on-rude questions, to enter his or her home. I tried hard never to lose sight of the fact that it's an honor to cross someone's threshold, not a right. (Think, for a moment, how you would feel if someone showed up and began asking your name, your age, what you were doing at 2 a.m.) Really, I was never amazed when people refused to talk to me; I was shocked that so many agreed.
How many people? I don't know. I wrote 600-700 stories, perhaps 1.4 million words, in my dozen years at The Sun. That's not a lot. To provide some perspective: A hard-working police reporter may write 300-plus stories in a single year. A projects reporter may write only one. But for someone who was a feature writer for half my career at The Sun, from May 1994 to August 2000, my output was more than respectable. I averaged a story a week in features, more on metro.
If you want a sense of the work I did, you can go to The Sun's site and plug my name into the search engine. The free search, which goes back only 14 days, shows "0 percent matches" for Laura Lippman, which is a bit eerie. But the top paragraphs, the ledes as we call them, are free all the way back to 1990, when The Sun computerized its library.
I'm especially proud of the last year of work, done from The Sun's suburban
Baltimore County bureau. They weren't big stories, or important stories for the most part. They tended toward simple vignettes about ordinary lives -- a 10-year-old boy's last day of school, a suburbanite's quixotic battle with traffic planners who didn't like his home-made speed humps, savvy women lining up to buy Kate Spade bags at a local discount store, a local pitchman's ambivalence about his odd celebrity.
I came to The Sun in 1989. I was 30, six years younger than my father was when he had started at The Sun in 1965 as an editorial writer. He stayed 30 years and, given how competitive I am, I had planned to stay 30 years plus one day. It didn't work out that way. I'm leaving The Sun to write novels full-time, a humbling privilege in a world where too many fine writers have to work day jobs to support their writing habits.
By chronological age, I am one of the post-Watergate generation, the would-be Woodsteins who swelled the enrollments at university journalism programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These reporters often measure their self-worth in action/reaction. (Did the story get someone indicted? Did the mayor respond?) But, perhaps because of my father, I was always a throwback, more in tune with the reporters of the 1950s and '60s. I became a reporter because it was the only job I knew where you could get paid to write full-time. The reaction I liked best was hearing that I wrote a story provocative enough to spark conversation on a city bus.
The long-held assumption is that the reporter who begins writing novels doesn't want to be a reporter. That wasn't true in my case. I was greedy enough to want both -- the quiet, contemplative life I lived in the hours between 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. and the rowdier, messier reality provided by daily journalism. In fact, I began writing in my spare time only because a Sun editor told me I should work on my writing. So I did.
Journalists-turned-novelists such as Michael Connelly and Val McDermid -- both of whom encouraged me to make this move long before I was ready for it -- have assured me I won't miss the newsroom. I hope they're right, I'm sure they're right. After The Sun's top editors, William Marimow and Tony Barbieri, transferred me to a suburban bureau, I learned to make the extra effort needed to stay current with the downtown colleagues I consider true friends. And now that I'm down to just one job, I'll actually have my lunch-hours free for socializing. (I've had to exercise on my lunch for the past seven years.)
Still, I have this little fantasy. I imagine there's a corner where day-laborers gather. Trucks come by, picking up men for various hard-labor gigs. By 9 a.m., I'm the only one left. Then, at last, a battered gray Ford Tempo stops. A Sun editor -- the afore-mentioned Ettlin, perhaps -- is at the wheel.
"We have a little daily that no one else wants to do," Ettlin tells me. "Are you free?" Maybe it's an obituary, which I came to love writing, or a political fund-raiser at Martin's West. It could be a school board meeting or a vote in the General Assembly. A weather story, which I secretly loved. I'd even be up for a visit to the home of the recently bereaved, the worst assignment of all, but one for which I had a strange, sad talent.
Then, this being a dream, with the usual surreal logic, I look around the corner and realize I'm no longer alone. I see former colleagues -- Mike Littwin and Mark Hyman, Rafael Alvarez and David Simon. Brian Sullam. Hal Piper. Melody Simmons, Kris Antonelli, Mary Maushard. I even see ghosts -- Horace Ayres, Nick Yengich, Norm Wilson.
Together, we go downtown, ready to do a little journalism.
This fantasy is problematic for many reasons - for one thing, such an arrangement would be incompatible with the strong union in place at The Sun, the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild which has my undying gratitude. For another, I don't think The Sun still has a fleet of gray Ford Tempos.
But I'm a fiction writer now. I'm allowed to make stuff up.
Read The Last Good Saturday Night.
Read In a Strange Kitchen.
Read The "D" Word.