On cheaping out lives: thoughts for a milestone


November 09, 1990|By ROGER SIMON

This is my 2,500th newspaper column and I feel I should say something profound.

I usually lie down and wait for such moments to pass, but today is a milestone. And for that reason I am going to tell you one of the worst things I ever did as a journalist.

It is, in fact, something I do every day. All journalists do it. We use people. We don't do it to be mean or cruel. But we do it just the same. And we learn not to let it upset us.

I got to know all about it on my very first job. It was 1970, I was 22 and had just started work at the City News Bureau of Chicago.

It was a place with a lot of famous alumni such as Kurt Vonnegut and Mike Royko and Seymour Hersh. And it also was a place that specialized in tragedy.

Every day I would go to a different police station and do stories on murders, rapes and armed robberies. I would report on human misery. In other words, the kind of thing that fills newspapers.

One of my jobs at City News was to check out coroner's cases. Anybody who was not in a doctor's care when he died was a coroner's case.

The desk at City News would get a report from the coroner, it would be passed along to me and I would call the survivors to find out about the dead person.

But what I really was trying to find out was whether the person was worth a whole obituary or not. Whether he was a somebody or a nobody.

If he was a nobody, I would, in a journalistic term I have never forgotten, "cheap him out" and no story would be done.

You could not waste a lot of time on a nobody. You had a lot of coroner's cases to get through each day.

"Mr. Smith was a bricklayer?" you would ask the widow. "A very good bricklayer. Yes, how nice. And you? A housewife? Yes, how nice."

And you'd call back to the desk and tell them that they wouldn't have to worry about Mr. Arthur Smith, 72, of 7840 S. Yates Ave., beloved husband of Irma, devoted father of John, Paulette and Arthur Jr. He was just another of God's creatures. And his passing was nothing we had to worry about. Or even take notice of.

There was a whole list of facts to check first, of course. Not just the deceased's job, but whether he was a member of any civic organizations or fraternal lodges. And -- my personal favorite -- whether he had been awarded any significant military decorations. For if he had been fortunate enough to have killed the requisite number of human beings in some past conflict, he might be elevated in death from obscurity to 10 lines of type in a newspaper.

Every day I would call the grief-stricken. The shattered widows. Sobbing widowers. Stunned children. Speechless parents. I had spiel down. I knew which words to emphasize and which words to hurry over to give the impression that I was on official business.

"CITY News Bureau calling. The COOK COUNTY CORONER'S OFFICE has made a report and we need to check some facts."

I was always amazed that it worked. That the grieving would tell me whatever I asked, that they would rummage through the dusty drawers of their lives for a stranger on the telephone.

"A veteran, was he? Ever awarded the Medal of Honor? Distinguished Service Cross? Silver Star? Are you sure? Could you check?"

And then one day, a woman laughed. This was a first. I had heard choked sobs. Angry silences. And, once, a scream. But never a laugh.

"That is my husband's name, all right," she said. "But he isn't dead. He went out for a paper. He's fine. At least last I looked." And she laughed again.

I laughed with her. And apologized. And called back to the desk to report that an error had been made.

"No, wait, can't be," the desk said. A riffle of papers. "Must be a fresh one. This guy was run over on, lemme see, South Jeffrey Avenue. She must not know yet."

And so I knew what she did not. That her husband was not coming back with that paper. That he was in a sliding drawer at the Cook County Morgue with a tag on his toe.

So what am I supposed to do now, I asked.

"What do you mean, what do you do now?" said the desk. "You call her back and tell her that her husband is dead and you have some questions. What, I got to explain everything?"

At this point when I tell this story among friends, I usually pause. And wait. And if the people around me are not newspaper people, they always ask the same thing.

"So what did you do?"

"You didn't really call her back, did you? I mean, not really."

"You didn't, did you?"

If they are newspaper people, however, they never ask. They know I called her back. And told her it was me again from CITY News and, I hated to be the one to break the news, but the COOK COUNTY CORONER'S OFFICE had made this report and, well, I needed to check some facts. Such as the deceased's profession. Civic organizations. Fraternal lodges. And, by the way, had he ever been awarded any significant military decorations?

He hadn't, by the way.

I cheaped him out.

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