Summer Reading: New Jersey's Books and Authors -- The Player
When residents of a Newark neighborhood fall sick from a mysterious illness, Brad Parks’ reporter-sleuth is on the case
While we’re on summer hiatus, recharging our batteries and coming up with new story ideas, we want to make sure that you have plenty to read. That’s why we’ll be posting excerpts every day from New Jersey books and authors. We’ll be back, rested and ready, after Labor Day. Meanwhile . . .
Author Brad Parks has won three of the most prestigious prizes in crime fiction: the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty awards. A former writer for the Star-Ledger and Washington Post, Parks has won high praise for his beloved sleuth-protagonist Carter Ross, the “sometimes-dashing” reporter for the fictional Newark Eagle-Examiner. “Muckraking has rarely been so meaty or so funny,” says Kirkus Reviews. “The Player,” from which the following is excerpted, is his fifth novel.
Even in an era when American print media is in inexorable and perhaps terminal decline, even at a time when tech moguls are buying up venerated news-gathering organizations with the equivalent of couch change, even with the likelihood of career advancement dimmed by the industry’s collective implosion, there are benefits to working for a newspaper that cannot be quantified by simple measurements like salary, benefits, or future prospects.
Kook calls are definitely one of them.
We get them all the time -- from the drunken, the deranged, the demented -- and they come in enough different flavors to keep us constantly entertained.
Some are just mild, low-grade kooks, like the ones who have newspapers confused with talk radio. They’ll call up and start ranting about whatever subject is bothering them -- the governor’s latest cabinet appointment, the confusing signage that led them down the wrong exit ramp of the Garden State Parkway, the deplorable slowness of third-class mail -- perhaps believing that if they just convince the reporter they’re right, the newspaper will immediately launch a four-part series on the subject, written from the caller’s particular point of view.
Then there are the conspiracy theorists, the ones who want us to “do some digging” into whatever fantasies they’re harboring at the moment, whether it’s that the local Walmart is importing illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in a garbage truck or that their town’s animal-control officer is more of a dog person than a cat person.
There are also the old people who just want to talk. To someone. About anything. They’ll call up with a “news tip,” and of course it turns out they are the news, and the tip is that long ago -- during, say, the Korean War -- they nearly lost three toes to frostbite. And now, particularly on the mornings when they still feel that little tingle in their big toes, they feel the world at large needs to know about it.
Then there are the other standbys: the prisoners who use their phone time to call us, usually collect, and convince us of the gross miscarriage of justice that led to their incarceration; the paranoid schizophrenics who believe their delusions are worthy of front-page headlines; or the poor confused souls who, thinking newspaper reporters must be omniscient, will call and ask the name of the program they were watching on television last night.
As a group, they land somewhere between pitiable -- particularly when they’re obviously suffering from mental illness -- and laughable. Except for the racists. We get a lot of those, too. They’re just despicable.
Without doubt, Internet chat rooms and social networking have siphoned off some of our kooks over the years -- there are more outlets for people to express their crazy now than ever before -- but we at the Newark Eagle-Examiner, New Jersey’s most widely circulated periodical, still get our share. Because the fact is, even with the increasing fragmentation of media, most people, even the nuts, realize that a major daily newspaper like ours is still the best way to get serious attention for whatever cause or issue matters most to them.
Plus, we print our phone number in the paper.
Some reporters treat kook calls as nuisances. But most of us learn over the years to look forward to them. There’s just nothing like going through an otherwise ordinary day, pecking away at some humdrum story, when suddenly you become aware that one of your colleagues is talking to someone who lives off the grid and has found one of the three remaining working pay phones in the state of New Jersey to call and explicate his worldview.
If the reporter who takes the call is in a certain mood, she’ll stand up in the middle of the newsroom and, for the benefit of those listening, start repeating key lines and questions in a loud voice, such as: “I realize you think Greta Van Susteren is trying to control your mind, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Wolf Blitzer is going to try as well.”
Or: “So you want to know if we’re going to be writing about the rash of robberies in your neighborhood because someone keeps breaking into your house and moving your broom.”
Or: “To make sure I understand this right, you’re saying the Battle of Gettysburg didn’t happen the way the history books said it did -- and you know, because you were there in a previous life?”
The fun just never ends. So I have to admit I was mostly just looking for a good kook call on Monday afternoon when one of our news clerks wandered over to my desk and said, “Hey, I got a woman who says she has a big story for our investigative reporter. You want me to get rid of her?”
“Nah, I’ll take it,” I said.
I had just been killing time anyway, waiting for edits on my latest piece, a story about cash-strapped municipalities that were considering halting their recycling programs (corrugated waste products have seldom warranted so much attention). So when the forwarded call came through on my desk phone, I rubbed my hands together in anticipation, then answered with my most polite and officious, “Eagle-Examiner, this is Carter Ross.”
“Hi, Mr. Ross, my name is Jackie Orr,” came the voice on the other end. It was the voice of someone young, black, and determined.
“Hi, Jackie, what can I do for you?”
“Do you ever do stories about people getting sick?”
“That depends,” I said. “Who’s getting sick?”
“What do you mean ‘everyone’?” I asked. So far, so good: kooks often insisted that whatever troubled them also afflicted others.
“Well, first it was just my grandmother. Or we thought it was just my grandmother. But then it turned out to be the whole neighborhood.”
“Sounds like you need a lawyer more than you need a newspaper reporter,” I said.
“I tried that. I tell them people are sick and they’re interested. But once they hear it’s not some open-and-shut mesothelioma case, they don’t want anything to do with it. I talked to one lawyer who sounded a little interested, but then he wanted a fifty-thousand-dollar retainer. If we had fifty thousand dollars, we wouldn’t be bothering with lawsuits. We’d just move. Our case is a little more complicated than anyone seems to want to take on.” I felt myself sitting up in my chair and paying closer attention.
There are certain words kooks tend not to use. “Mesothelioma” is one of them. So while that was a little disappointing -- no kook call for me today -- it was also more promising from a journalistic standpoint. As a newspaper reporter, I have a certain bias toward the disenfranchised, disadvantaged masses that others, not even sleazy lawyers, want to listen to. Maybe it’s because, deep down, I fancy myself a good-hearted human being who wants to help the less fortunate. Or maybe it’s because the Pulitzer committee shares the same bias.
“You said it’s complicated. How so?”
“Well, we don’t know what’s making anyone sick.”
“Okay, so you don’t need a lawyer. You need a doctor.”
“Everyone is seeing doctors. Or at least the ones who have health insurance are. The doctors just treat the symptoms and send them home. They don’t have any answers.”
I didn’t either. But I was intrigued enough to have Jackie assemble herself and some of her ill neighbors to chat with me that afternoon. The headline “MYSTERY ILLNESS STRIKES NEWARK NEIGHBORHOOD” had a lot more promise for interesting journalism than “MORRISTOWN WEIGHS COSTS AND BENEFITS OF RECYCLING NO. 6 PLASTIC.”
Besides, as a reporter, I had learned to trust that little assignment editor in my head to tell me when I might be onto a good story. And my assignment editor was telling me, at the very least, that Jackie Orr was no kook.