Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Old notebook brings back trauma of reporting No. 9's bloody death and visions of a happier ending

“Red roses ….Biohazard”
Three words in bleeding ink scrawled in a reporter’s notebook sent me retreating in horror to the day, almost a year ago, when I roamed from Nashville’s bars to apartments and even a grisly murder scene, alternately asking “Why, Steve?, Why?,” my heart aching while racing on newsman’s adrenaline fix.
Those three words hollered at me after I reached into the back seat of my old Saab the other day. I needed a reporter’s notebook for an interview. Underemployed, I reuse notebooks front to back and back to front. Many date back years. In fact, in the trunk, there’s a “King of the Hill” six-pack holder stuffed with half-used notebooks and some Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters advance CDs to keep me properly despondent if ever waiting for a tow.
Occasionally when I reach for one of the notebooks and look at the contents, they make me smile. I mean, here’s some almost incomprehensible stuff from Brian Wilson in one. Anyone who has ever seen my reporter’s scribble knows it’s almost incomprehensible enough, even if not quoting someone who prefers a sand box to real life.
Of course, I wasn’t made for these times, either. Just ask the corporate journalism types. Hold it … that’s not what they said. It wasn’t that I wasn’t made for these times, it was that I was too old to understand what they knew to be true, that Shaggy was more important than Eddy Arnold to Nashville newspaper readers. Of course, I like Scooby-Doo as much as anyone else. Oh yeah, different Shaggy. At least Afro-Man had an excuse.
Let’s get right to the point in a roundabout way. The other day I was going to meet a studio hand who, among other things, helped coax the last songs out of Marty Robbins, a nice man who could sing like the devil and drive like Richard Petty. Speaking of Petty, many mornings I’ll sing Tom’s songs. I guess they’re not related and Marty sang El Paso.
“Down in the West Texas Town of El Paso, I always got searched by the border police,” I sing. That was when I went with Mule, Denny and I think Capt. Kirk or Wizard or Carpy or all of the above to watch a friend play in the Sun Bowl. We made it to the game, too, no thanks to the frisking of the border guards. I mean, so what if my hair had grown so long it stopped by itself? I neither stunk nor smuggled. My intentions were always honorable, but I always was frisked before finishing my promenade over the muddy ditch filled with naked kids begging for money.
“Mister, Mister, throw it to me,” yelped the youngsters as they jumped into the snake- and body-filled Rio Grande to rescue quarters. Some threw dimes and pennies. Didn’t matter. Heck it only cost a penny to get into Mexico back then. I think it cost a buck and an intimate pat-down to leave.
Well, again that’s a different story. I liked Ciudad Juarez, even if nowadays the drug gangs are gunning down innocent people on the same peaceful streets where I bought my black-velvet painting of Jimi Hendrix for $2. Of course that was 1971, I think. It’s probably worth $4 now and is stored securely with my poster of Dennis Hopper’s fatal “hello” to the rednecks in “Easy Rider.” Perhaps I’ll use them by my coffin instead of graduation pictures, especially if they throw in my black-light Sergeant Pepper poster.
But it was when I reached in my back seat for a notebook, flipping to see if there were any blank pages that I saw “red roses” and “Biohazard,” and was sent, at least for a time, to one of the saddest days of my journalism career.
Those notes were my basic description of what could be seen from the stoop of the apartment where the bodies of Steve McNair, the beloved quarterback, and his girlfriend had been found. The storm door was smudged from the CSI fingerprint guys. It seemed a humble place for an NFL great, a good fellow with a fatal flaw, to have his brains blown out.
I stood there last July 5, less than 24 hours after the bodies had been found. The New York Daily News hired me to be their “man on the ground” while they dispatched their own reporter. A football star murdered by a suicidal lover is good fodder for Big Apple sensationalism.
Some friends of mine from my career in journalism – and I do have friends, despite the rumors – had recommended me to The Daily News.
Now it never had been my dream to be a tabloid, sensational journalist. Course, I had nothing against it, either. Even my old comrade Brad Schmitt, who should have known better, enjoyed a good celebrity sex tale. And while the newspaper honchos looked down their bulbous, busted-vein-punctuated noses at Brad’s stories, they would often promo them on the front page: So and so celebrity found to have bi-sexual, kleptomaniac lover who likes to watch porno while listening to old Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show’s “Sylvia’s Mother” backwards.
Now it was my job to edit Brad. And in the scenario above, which isn’t true but ought to be, my main role was to tell the bosses what we had and they’d jump up and down and disappear into the bathroom for a bit while Brad wrote. (I also edited out his more blatant burp and fart jokes, but that’s only because I had to sit next to him and it was redundant.)
Anyway, I was actually on special assignment for a newspaper in New York, New York. By the way, as much as I love Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind,” it’s a shame it has displaced “New York, New York” as the semi-official song of the Big Apple. Did you notice the horses yawning during the Belmont post parade?
Now, though, back to the story that still, when I think of it, makes my body hurt.
It actually began July 4, 2009, when my friend, Peter Cooper -- a good guy, loyal pal, skilled harmonicat, violinist, trapeze artist and confidante to Jay-Z and Tom T. -- called to tell me McNair had been murdered.
Peter was working the July 4 shift at the paper and his job was to focus on the huge amounts of money wasted by Metro that should be going to the homeless and disadvantaged but instead pays for a fireworks show. Only he was to put a more positive spin on it.
Peter though heard about Steve, and knows I have a passion for the Tennessee Titans that has rubbed off on my kids, Emily and Joe, who loved to watch No. 9 on the field. No. 9. No. 9… Turn me on dead man…. Oops, Beatles in my mental soup again.
Peter, who now is a dad and soon will know how kind his gesture truly was, wanted me to know before my kids found out on TV. He figured I could tell them and save some of the trauma.
Which worked. But my own trauma was just beginning when the next morning The Daily News editor called me to say he’d like to employ me to roam around the city, to the place where the young woman had lived, to the murder scene, to the bars Steve had frequented in his final hours and to call in details as I went along, which would be woven into a story being constructed in New York City (get a rope!).
I was escorted off the premises of the young woman’s apartment complex, but at least they were gentle with me. I once was physically shoved aside by a Klansman and another time by a drunken photographer. Part of the job.
And out at Dave and Buster’s, where she worked, the pretty young women all in a row greeted me with big smiles and “we were told to keep our mouths shut.”
Which took me to the DEATH CONDO, within eyeshot of the stadium where McNair carved his legend with toughness and heart. I climbed the steps to see the “with love” or whatever maudlin message had been attached to the roses. I looked at the Biohazard sign, always left when blood is shed at a crime scene.
I went over to the pool, where residents smoked cigarettes, drank cheap light beer and passed judgment. “We find it concerning that everybody brings their kids over here to show where he was having an affair,” said one woman, nodding as an apparent mom and pop and their kids ended their Sunday afternoon drive by gaping at the fingerprint smudged door.
“He was having an affair with a 20-year-old. It’s disrespectful,” she spat.
Another in her party noted that no one ever saw much activity around the condo, other than the limousines that came up and down the alley during the night. It was almost a “he had it comin’” feeling, which sent me then to a peanuts-on-the-floor cowboy dive on Division, where McNair apparently enjoyed his last beverages before meeting his lover so he could be shot in the head.
No one would comment there, other than to nod that Steve had frequented the place. A couple of drunks, apparently protecting the image of this bar, followed me out the door and stood on the porch of the joint yelling at me as I got back in my car.
At this point, I climbed from the car and walked back to the porch. “You guys want me for something?” I asked. They turned to re-enter the bar. But I followed. “If you fellows need to tell me something, go ahead,” I said to them as they let their faces fall into their suds inside the joint and turned their eyes to Wimbledon or soccer or whatever vile sport was on TV.
I was in a tired and angry mood on that 90-degree day. I’d been exposed to the judgmental and mean. One of my favorite athletes had drowned in a puddle of sleaze. I wanted to be home with my kids watching the Cubs and doing shots of Pepsi Maxx, washing away life’s primer coat of slime.
Instead, I headed for Green Hills, to the lush estate Steve occupied, at least when the spirit moved, with his beautiful wife, Meshell and the two boys.
What I found there never made it in The Daily News, as the deadline was passed. And, it really wasn’t juicy.
You see, what I found was mourning. In fact, I scrawled it out in the notebook so I could dictate verbatim to the desk in New York City if they were interested.
More than 20 vehicles, mostly luxury cars and trucks, were gathered at the McNair residence in Green Hills. About half of those were behind the wrought-iron security fence.
Inside the sprawling brick home, friends and family were making arrangements.
“Just like any family does at a time like this,” said one of the gathered, identifying himself as a friend….

These people were kind and warm to the visitor, me, who really wasn’t looking for sleaze, but was looking to report, at least, on the atmosphere around a family in mourning. Heck, I was mourning, too. And as I stood by the fence, talking with the fellows who dropped back long gulps of Gatorade, I looked across the yard.
A pint-sized Fisher-Price basketball hoop stood next to the garage. I imagined Steve McNair, laughing, doing a little slam-dunking there with his youngest sons, Trenton and Tyler.
I would have preferred telling that story.

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