After graduating from college in 1991 I worked as a newspaper reporter in Southern California. Often the newspaper's sole reporter, I covered a variety of beats. Looking back on the work, though, the stories I remember the best are the ones I covered as a police reporter. On that beat you see the best and worst of people – well, more often the latter – and are left with memories, some good and some bad. You can figure out which type this is.
It was a soccer ball. Lying about ten feet away was one sole soccer cleat.
Officer Cryer came up behind me and explained, "It was a soccer team. They were on their way to a game." They were from Redlands, a town we didn't cover. By the time I got there they had removed the body, thank God. I heard crying behind me and I was dreading what I had to do next — talk to witnesses, who in this case were passengers in the van.
It was a simple story, really: another car accident on a highway where there was at least one fatal a week.
It had become a scary pattern. I drive from Riverside to Hemet on Saturday and when I'd see the road blocked, I ignored the blocks and drive to the inevitable accident. Sometimes it was a fatal crash, sometimes not. We always wrote a story.
This time it bothered me because I had been thinking about my days on the youth soccer team as I was driving in. I shocked myself later when I realized I hadn't lost my appetite so much that I missed lunch. I was becoming desensitized and I didn't like that one bit.
Later in the day there was another accident. I went to check it out. It was only a few hundred yards from the other one. It didn't look too bad at first. A motorcyclist lost control but while he looked shook up there wasn't much blood. I was starting to wonder if the editor would even want a story on this one.
"Looks pretty bad, don't it," the police chief said.
"I don't know," I started to say.
"You don't see it, do you," he said. He walked me closer and pointed to the bottom of the man's leg.
It was sticking out of his pants. The leg was at a 45 degree angle or so from the rest of the leg. I gagged and turned gray.
The chief laughed. There goes my appetite.
Not too desensitized, after all, I guess. Thank God for that.
I have been lucky — I have never actually seen someone right after they died.
But I've come damn close. Same job as above, same police department. There was a report of a head-on collision on the highway. I drive as far as I can before I hit gridlock and then pull into a driveway and walk the rest of the way.
The ambulance was just taking off so I made my way over to the cop on duty.
What happened? He gave me a rough outline and said he'd give me the particulars later by phone. Anyone injured? "Nope," he said.
I start to leave and hear him say, "Watch your step."
I looked down. It's a blanket. It's covering something. Something, um, body-like. Aw, shit. He's watching me and says he doesn't have the person's name yet, but she was the driver.
I began trembling. I was just glad the blanket was there. While I was walking back to my car, several people shouted out an inquiry about what happened but I ignored them.
One guy stopped me, though, and asked if it was a fatal accident. I nodded and continued walking away, shaken by yet another fatal accident I had to cover. Was it the person driving the truck? I nodded again.
And then I stopped. He was now the one shaking. Ah, hell. I walked back to him. Seeing the question in my eyes he said, "That's my wife. She was just going to the store and when she didn't come back I came over here." He gave me his name.
I felt like crap. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. I'd actually appreciated that I don't usually deal with the relatives until the news has been broken by someone else.
I walked him down towards the accident and the officer on duty, watching all this impassively, began walking towards him. I wanted to hug the new widower but all I could do was mumble something about how sad and sorry I was and head back to work.
"Was it a fatal?" my editor asked.
"Do you have the name of the victim?"
"Well, it's complicated," I said. I went and threw up before explaining the situation.
Sometimes I miss the police beat. Sometimes I don't.