sell mayhem, scandal, murder, and doom. Oh, Jesus I do, I sell tragedy, vengeance, chaos, and fate. I sell the sufferings of the poor and the vanities of the rich. Children falling from windows, subway trains afire, rapists fleeing into the dark. I sell anger and redemption. I sell the muscled heroism of firemen and the wheezing greed of mob bosses. The stench of garbage, the rattle of gold. I sell black to white, white to black. To Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Muslims and transvestites and squatters on the Lower East Side. I sold John Gotti and O. J. Simpson and the bombers of the World Trade Center, and I'll sell whoever else comes along next. I sell falsehood and what passes for truth and every gradation in between. I sell the newborn and the dead. I sell the wretched, magnificent city of New York back to its people. I sell newspapers.
The mayor reads me at breakfast, and the bond traders on the train in from New Jersey have a look, as do the retired Italian longshoremen sitting on their stoops in Brooklyn, chewing unlit cigars, and the nurses on the bus down from Harlem to Lenox Hill Hospital. The TV guys read me, and steal the story sometimes. And the Pakistani sitting in his cab outside Madison Square Garden, who, intent on figuring out America, reads everything. And the young lawyers on their lunch breaks, after they've checked the ads touting the strip clubs. And the doormen in the apartment buildings on the East
Side, looking up from the pages as the professional women storm past each morning, rushing brightly into their futures. And the copsâthe cops all read me to see if I got it right.
Three times a week my column appears, often teased on page one: SHE DIED FOR LOVEâPORTER WREN, PAGE 5; PORTER WREN TALKS TO KILLER'S MOTHERâPAGE 5; BABY WAS FROZEN SOLIDâPORTER WREN, PAGE 5. It's a wonderful job. Very pleasant. Many happy people in my line of work. I talk to detectives and relatives of the victim, to reluctant witnesses and whoever happened to be standing around when the bad news arrived. I ask them to tell me what they saw or what they heard or what they imagined. In the middle of my column is a box with my name and an outdated headshot of meâclean-shaven, full of cheap confidence in a suit and tie, a certain wry lift to one eyebrow. I appear to be a genuine idiot. The managing editor chose the photo, saying I looked like “a regular guy.” Which I do. Regular haircut, face, tie, shoes. And regular appetites, although it has always been my appetites that have gotten me in trouble. My life, however, is not regular; I get calls in the night and then dress in the dark and leave my sleeping wife and kids to go wherever it happened: the car, the bar, the street, the club, the store, the apartment, the hallway, the park, the tunnel, the bridge, the deli, the corner, the loading dock, the peepshow, the rooftop, the alley, the office, the basement, the hair parlor, the offtrack betting parlor, the massage parlor, the crackhouse, the school, the church. There I gaze at the slackened faces of men and women and children who might or might not have known better. And upon my return, as I stoop down to kiss my two children good morning, as they wriggle in my arms, I am not protected from the thought that one soul's exit from life that night will be converted by me into another soul's entertainment. And that, precisely, is what the idiotic photograph of me promises:
I got another crazy story for you, pal. See if you believe this one.
There are, however, certain stories I can't tell in my column. The crucial information is doubtful or incomplete, or one of the other papers or TV stations got there first. Or it's
dull. Or old. Or
Get the fuck outa here, Mr. Reporter. I see ya here again Ima fuckin' shoot off your nuts.
Or the story is about a friend of mine. Or somebody has an acquaintance high up in the mayor's office or the police department:
Hey, look, ah, Wren, listen, this thing, I hear this guy was telling you something, some kind of story that's fucking full of shit.
Or the complexity of the story is irreducible, can't be pressed into thirty column inches. The paper's readers want a quick hit of news and celebrity gossip, and then on to the sports section, the car ads, the stock page. They don't have time for me to parse the human heart, shave one motivation cleanly off from another. They expect a commodity of cheap ink and cheap sensation, and they get it.
There is, of course, one other kind of story I can't put into the paper: a story that involves me. I mean really involves me. My readers would find it strange; for them I am no more than a voice, an attitude, a guy asking questions. The fixed expression in my little black-and-white headshot is uncomplicated, a smooth mask of certainty and clevernessânot a face that by turns is surprised, clenched in lust, slack with pleasure, frantic, violent, and then lastâalways lastâfurrowed by remorse.
How does any tale of misfortune begin? When you're not expecting it, when you're looking elsewhere, thinking of other problems, the
problems. At the time, last January, the city lay under drifts of dirty snow, garbage trucks groaning through the slushy streets, people buying tickets to Puerto Rico, Bermuda, anywhere to escape the coldness in their bones, the hunger in Manhattan life. It was a Monday, and I had a column due in the next morning's paper. I needed to get
, to pop the story like one of the Knicks' guards from thirty feet out. I generally chew a lot of bubble gum, drink liter bottles of Coca-Cola, and try to ignore the pain in my hands, which are burned out from years of typing. You've got to keep proving yourself in this game, keep getting access to the main players, keep beating the TV guys, keep showing
you have something the regular reporters don't, especially -since many of them want a column and think they can do it better. (I certainly did, when I was a young reporter.) A guy like Jimmy Breslin, he's an institution, he doesn't have to worry anymore. Me, I'm nervous, generally, and don't take anything for granted. At thirty-eight, I'm old enough to be on top, young enough to screw it all up. My rule, for life as well as work, is this: avoid the obvious fuckups. It's good advice and I wish I followed it more often.
All that I have to tell here began later that evening, and I could well start thereâa setting of wealth and social standing, of tuxedos and ten-thousand-dollar wristwatches. A place of attractive people who are pleased to discourse on the most recent mumblings of the chairman of the Federal Reserve or the inner politics of the ABC news division. But this gathering was a far step from my regular haunts. I toil, for the most part, in New York City's saddest and most violent neighborhoods. Places where working men open their electricity bills and stare at them disconsolately for long minutes, where a parochial school uniform is purchased with great hope. Where young children accrue disturbing scars on their bodies. Where the kids carry toy guns that look real and real guns painted like toys. Where the people have vitality but no prospect, ambition but no advantage. They are poor and they suffer mightily for it. It is these people with whom I'll begin, to show where
began that day, to explain why I approached that evening's social frivolities with a certain alienated exhaustion, with a willingness to drink too heavilyâwith, in truth, a propensity to allow myself to be tantalized, cheap and stupid as that sounds, by a strange and beautiful woman.
I was working the phone at my desk in the paper's building on the East Side. It was just after one P.M., and many of the reporters were not in yet. When I was younger the newsroom rivalries and intrigues interested me, but by now they seemed petty and banal; all organizationsânewspaper staffs, pro football teams, whateverâthrob in deep patterns of formation and decay, formation and decay; the faces change, the executives march in and out, the pattern persists. In thirteen years of
tabloid reporting, an eternity, I'd seen buyouts and lockouts and union strikes and three owners. My goal had become simply to do my job, and if that aim was a meager one, then at least it was based on two hard-won observations: The first was that my work had no useful function other than providing for my family. How could I believe that what I did had any importance? No one
learned anything, no one was wiser, no one was saved. Do newspapers even matter anymore? My second observation was that the degraded setting we identify as American urban civilization was in fact merely another form of nature itself: amoral, unpredictable, buzzing, florid, frenzied, terrifying. A place where men die the same useless deaths as did the tortoises and finches noted by Charles Darwin. A gridded battle-ground where I stood to the side with my paper and pen, watching the cannon fire and the flash and roar, recording who fell, how they writhed, and when they died. There was a time when I sought to use my limited skills to tell the stories of those who suffered unfairly or who were not worthy of the powers entrusted to them by the public, but these aims had been leached out of me (as they generally have been from the American news media, which, as the twentieth century draws to a close, seems to sense its own clamoring irrelevance, its humble subservience to a pagan culture of celebrity). Or maybe my attitude was the tattered cynicism of a man whose senses had become blunt and corroded, no longer thankful for all that he had. Yes. I was, I see now, an asshole who wanted to roll the dice.
I was also a guy who needed a column idea, and after lunch I finally got a call from one of my contactsâa Jamaican dispatcher at the Emergency Medical Service who believed I should be writing solely about the imperiled children of the city. In a breathy wheeze, she gave me the details: “You see? God, he
perform miracles! The lady who call nine-one-one say she never
a man do that before â¦” I listened, then asked a few questions, including had she called any TV stations. She hadn't. You get a feeling that this is going to be the one, and it was, a routine shooting and fire but with a sad twist, enough to squeeze out a column for the next day. My
standards aren't highâI'm not making art, after allâbut the story has to have something about it, a wrinkle, a little kick to the heart.
So I headed over to Brooklyn in my work car, a black Chrysler Imperial. Years ago, when I first got started, I drove an old, repainted police car, which had a heavier suspension and a bigger engine. Then I had a little Ford, to get in and out of parking spots easily, but one night in Queens a thirty-ton mob garbage truck ran a red light and drove up and over my front end. The driver jumped down from the truck, arms lifted to fight, and when he realized I wasn't getting out of the wreck, he pulled a shovel off of the truck and started whacking my door in anger. I got a column out of it, but I swore off the smaller cars. Lisa and the kids don't use the Chrysler, are never seen in it, in fact. She drives a Volvoâleased, so I can change cars quickly, which I had written into the contract with the dealership. We decided a while back that we needed to take certain quiet precautionsâan electronic security system at home, an unpublished phone number. The school our daughter attends doesn't list our address in the parents' directory, and we've given the teacher a picture of Josephine, our baby-sitter, in case there is any question on the afternoons when she is picking up our daughter. I have two extra phone lines into the house, with a device that triggers each time a call comes in or goes out, records every number. The paper has a daily circulation of 792,000, more than a million on Sunday, so there are readers out there with stories. Angry readers. Readers claiming to know the real deal, which they sometimes do: cops buying drugs, where the body is, what the school principal is doing with the eighth-grade girls. Rat calls. Or sometimes a complaint: “I see that you neglected to mention the race of the defendant! Whatâyou love niggers?” People figure I can do something for them. Maybe I can, but it's on my terms. The Wren family doesn't have a home address. All of our mail is delivered to the paper, where it goes through the mailroom. Anything strangeâa big box, a dripping envelope, whateverâis dealt with by the guys in security. I've been sent items both ominous and pathetic:
guns, bullets, a chocolate cake, a condom full of dog teeth (the significance of which I didn't understand), a damp purse with old baby pictures inside, the usual dead fish, a stack of Chinese money, a gold wedding ring with a dead man's name engraved inside, the severed head of a chicken, various pornographic photos and devices (most notably a huge, double-ended dildo), my column (torn to shreds or blacked out or covered with curses), a bag of blood (from a pig, according to the police), and, on three occasions, the Bible. I suppose I should muster a certain nonchalance about this kind of stuff, but I can't. Deep down, I'm just a kid from the country. I've always scared easily. So I take as many precautions as I can think of. Maybe they're unnecessary, but then again maybe they're not. New York City is a landscape of bad possibilities.
Which I was driving through twenty minutes laterâpassâing the hunched brick buildings, the girls pushing strollers, the bodegas and newsstands and flower shops, discarded Christmas trees frozen into the snow, the old women carrying groceries, worrying each step. I headed toward the Brownsville Houses, a well-meant act of architectural savagery carried out in the 1940s by some wealthy white New Yorkers who decided that poor blacks from the South might enjoy living in squat, faceless apartment buildings with cinder-block walls and sheet-metal doors. The Houses sat a couple of blocks off East New York Avenue, and I eased the car along, watching for potholes. The sun was out, the temperature close to thirty. A few teenaged boys on a stoop (who should have been in school but were probably safer as truants) checked out my car. When it was new the kids didn't mess with it because they figured that a black Imperial could only belong to a detective or a politician. By now, however, the car had been rammed and scraped and sideswiped and impounded; it had been sprayed with graffiti and broken into and pissed on and had the bumper ripped off. But only stolen twice. I tried to discourage interest by letting a lot of junk wash around in the front and back seatsâempty Coke bottles, food wrappers, crumpled pages from reporter's pads, block maps of the city. I once kept a Club on the steering wheel but the kids sprayed
aerosol Freon on it, freezing the steel, then broke it with a hammer. I suppose I could have driven something prettier, a Sentra perhaps, but it would have been on a container ship to Hong Kong in three days.