- Jim Campbell illustration
There is no logical reason for me to have been the man a few million people trusted for their morning news.
I was 22 and just a couple of cash-strapped months out of college with only a handful of school-paper news articles to my name. But like so many fools in so many other jobs, I tripped and fell into the position because I knew somebody. A friend of mine's aunt was the editor of Los Angeles' news wire service and, after introductions, a writing test and some fill-in duties, I soon found myself in the vacant newsroom of the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters at 10 pm for my shift as a full-time overnight cops reporter.
The wire provided stories to all the local TV stations, in addition to the daily newspapers, and not just in the region, but many others across the nation. Again, I had almost no experience. It was trial by fire. I burned alive until I found a way to extinguish myself.
There was always someone in the seat, 24 hours a day. Nights. Weekends. Holidays. And it had been like that for decades.
I'd come in at 10 pm and take the desk from an aging novelist who used to drink with Charles Bukowski, but now kept a parrot as a pet and went home to a mail-order bride, a stack of empty Tupperware containers in tow. When 6 am arrived, I was relieved by our shop steward, a diehard union man with an impossibly persistent smile who'd been the daytime cops reporter for a almost two decades.
The cavernous and cluttered newsroom featured a half dozen desks, but was was empty the entire time I was there. The Los Angeles Times had a spot, but I only once saw it occupied. In the rear of the room, still cluttered with papers and business cards was the desk of legendary Times crime reporter Nieson Himmel. Six years earlier, he had collapsed on his way to that desk and died a short time later.
The news wire's desk looked like the control board for a third-world space agency. Three police scanners chattering constantly, two computer screens, three telephones, a bevy of rolodexes, radios and an early 1990s-era printer that deafeningly churned out wire copy. But there were nights when it could be dead quiet. The printer, the scanners, the phones, the fax machine all filling the room with a silence that screamed to me that something was happening somewhere — and I was missing it. Things could, and would, explode at any moment, however, and there was rarely a happy medium between the nervous silence and chaos.
My only connection to the outside world — other than the nightly calls I'd place to the dozens of LAPD precinct watch commanders, sheriff's deputies and sergeants at the myriad of cities that comprise L.A. County — was my editor. He worked in the wire's headquarters across town. He once covered the Rhodesian War, an autobiographical detail about which I was reminded constantly. He also never let me forget that I was always doing something wrong.
"Why did you misspell the name of that bakery that burned down?" he'd ask. Every miscue was approached with a question like this, as if I could lend some logic to these presumably pre-planned screw-ups. He'd hang up on me a few times a week and growl when I called with a question.
Although we spoke on the phone more than a dozen times during a shift, I met him in person only once. It was 11 am at a diner in Santa Monica. I hadn't been to bed since my shift ended, but powered through a lunch during which he ordered a $40 glass of wine and quizzed me about foreign affairs. He was one of those assholes who couldn't help it, an old time newsman who seemed to have crafted his personality from some newsroom he once saw in a late-night film noir.
During a single shift I once wrote seven homicide stories (totaling 10 fatalities in total, as I recall), all of them gang violence. This was the year in which Compton, a city of less than 100,000 people and just 10 square miles in size, saw 72 homicides. Most of those murders never made it to the morning news or the pages of any newspaper because gang violence was an unspoken blight for Los Angeles. Still, I knew all about it.
I wrote about the body parts of a motorcyclist scattered across all lanes of the 405, scores of police shootings that we never investigated beyond taking the cops word for it and one case of a toddler who climbed the steps of a dresser in an attempt to change the channel on the TV — one of those big old boxy, heavy ones — only to have it fall on her head and kill her. That was the first one that made me cry.
One evening I followed up on a story that first broke on the prior shift — a vicious break-in stabbing just blocks from the university from which I'd just graduated. Just after midnight, I got the name of victim from the coroner. She was a classmate of mine, her name vaguely familiar, and she'd been stabbed to death by an estranged boyfriend. Even later in the night, I wrote about that boyfriend. He had lit his car on fire somewhere near the beach while he was still inside. All those deaths before had been merely names and ages and, perhaps most importantly, fuel for me to cram something through to the neurotic editor on the other end of the wire.
After an hour in morning rush-hour traffic home, I'd drink a beer to mute my rambling brain and hopefully be in bed before the two roommates in my tiny Inglewood-border apartment began getting ready for work. My weekend began at 6 am on Saturday mornings and by any luck I'd be awake by 1 pm and very drunk by 5 that evening. The booze was equal parts post-graduate revelry with my hard-drinking friends and the tonic for a work week spent almost entirely alone. I don't regret taking that job and I've probably had worse gigs — I picked up garbage for an entire summer — but Jesus, was it a rough year. Oh yeah, I got out of there a year to the date of my first shift.
But I now understand that I learned how to write on the wire. My fingers were trained how to dance to whatever rhythm was appropriate for whatever subject and deadline. I'm proud of that. It was just a hell of a way to learn.
I used to call the desk late at night for a few years after I left and check in on the poor stranger (which seemed to change every six or so months) occupying the seat in those weird and lonely hours. I didn't have much to say and I still don't know why I'd call. Maybe just to see if someone was still there and to tell them that someone else out there was also awake.♦