Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A quarter century passes, but some things about Chicago don’t change

My mind turns back to the time a quarter-century ago when I lived the life of a crime reporter – and let myself become absorbed by the tales of every slaying that occurred in Chicago.

Back in the late 1980s when I was at the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago, there were times when I felt like my car (a bright red Ford Escort that was the most expensive vehicle I could afford on a City News salary) WAS my office.

IT WAS IN those days that I developed a habit that I find I still have. I walk into a strange place, and I find myself looking for a pay phone – in case I have to call the office to report details for a possible story.

Even though I now carry one of those Smartphone thingies, it seems so natural to look for a phone, and I find myself disappointed at the lack of public telephones.

But that’s an issue for another day.

The point being that back during my first year at City News when I was one of the reporters who only briefly checked in with the main office in the morning, I was among the people who hung out in the places most likely to result in crime and criminal activity – which means stories.

KEEP IN MIND that the old City News Bureau was the place that covered every single homicide in Chicago and Cook County, and tried to keep up with the violent activity in the rest of the Chicago area – back in the days when the homicide total in Chicago could get ridiculously close to 1,000 per year.

City News was also the entity that kept in daily contact with the Medical Examiner’s office. I remember when I was the reporter who made the daily trip out to the Near West Side every 5 a.m. – just to see if any of our countless other calls throughout the day had managed to miss something.

This is all scut work. As in the miniscule, often mind-numbing, activity that one has to do in order to be able to stumble across the crime that becomes the heart-warming tale of sadness.

While also quickly learning that most homicides are droll enough that they’re rarely worth more than three paragraphs. And for fear of sounding callous and crass, many of the people whose slayings I wrote about 25 years ago were not pleasant people.

THE WORLD PROBABLY is, and has been, a more pleasant place without them.

If there is a lesson I learned from those days, it is that man is incredibly capable of being callous and cruel toward their fellow man. And under certain circumstances, people can be made to do things they find to be repulsive and would NEVER do otherwise.

But the way you learn all of this is by doing the footwork – getting out into the neighborhoods to see daily activity. Heck, there are some parts of Chicago that I know primarily from having seen them when they were the site of a crime scene a score and five years ago.

There’s nothing new about any of this. You learn about the world by getting out and seeing it.

WHAT INSPIRED ME to write this particular commentary was the DNAInfo.com website, which is including among its reporting an attempt to get at the reality of the just over 200 murders that have occurred in Chicago this year.

They literally have sent reporter-type people out to the homes of every single victim – letting them get at details more than just what caliber firearm was used.

It’s nice. I’m sure they have many interesting stories as a result of their work. And those youthful reporters are gaining some experiences that they will look back on fondly later in life.

But it’s nothing new. It sounds a lot like the dispatches that used to turn up in newsrooms all across Chicago – many of which were used by the broadcasters and newspapers of the city to determine which slayings were worth covering. Some things just never change.


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