Unwinding the Crash
News – whatever cable TV insinuates – relies on facts. The fact is two cars collided on a Sunday morning, about 2:30 a.m. One car was driven by a 19-year-old stripper, the other by a cop. Every lie or shadowy truth in the matter, eventually, devolves to this.
I’ve imagined the crash from every angle, and there are still holes in the narrative, dialog and motivation wholly hypothetical. These are the parts left unreported – a collage of conjecture and anonymous tips, bald-faced lies unproven.
Facts can be unsatisfying beasts, impoverished things that whimper to be fed. In their deprivation, facts can bite you. In the time since the crash, I’ve taken to stacking the facts in different patterns, and still the jigsaw doesn’t entirely fit. So I examine the obstacles between myself and the facts, but they only mire the picture further.
The first obstacle was innocent enough, a matter of journalistic ethics. The columnist came into work Monday morning, bouncing with excitement about a tip she couldn’t share from her policeman husband. An impossible situation, I understand, for which I have sympathy. Especially now. She said we’d know soon enough.
But we didn’t know until Tuesday afternoon, and already there were days between ourselves and the truth. Sometimes I wonder if that day would have made a difference. It probably wouldn’t have. But relief washed across her face as she eavesdropped on my conversation with an “anonymous” tipster – one whom I recognized as a police officer – about the accident, how the cop had left the scene of the crash with the girl comatose in the car. How the cop’s father – a retired policeman himself – had met the police at the scene. Nothing on the record, of course. No name for the other driver, no make of the other car. Just enough to start.
Another reporter got the same call, at about the same time, also anonymously. He bounded joyously to my desk, but deflated when he realized I already knew. But it dawned on me there was a thin blue lie in place, a secret the police couldn’t resist sharing, even if none were brave enough to go on record. Cops are like that, sometimes. When it comes to their own, most want to do the right thing, but prefer that someone else do their dirty work. A few calls, a trip downtown to look at the police log, told me nothing. The cop at the window told me there was no log to examine, which was an outrageous lie, but one that would take me weeks to unravel with a public records request. I knocked on the cop’s door, but no one answered. Same with his father’s house.
I changed tactics, and begin asking around about the cop. Former gang unit, almost all of whom have serious disciplinary problems. He’s no different: a string of police brutality dings which never came to anything, a divorce, rumors of a drinking problem, which makes sense. His old man has a drinking problem, too. I’ve seen him close down more than a few bars. There are rumors he was dishonorably discharged from the Marines a while back, and that his dad pulled strings to have his record changed, so he could get the police job. Not sure how much I buy that.
A source at the towing company the city contracts with told me, off the record, the make and model of a car that was brought in Sunday morning, as well as the license plate number. That’s a chit I know he’ll cash someday, and I’m OK with that. The license plate number gives me a name, but by that point, it was too late to do anything with it. I left a message with the police department’s information officer, who’s gone home for the night, mentioning the girl and the cop by name, aware that the message is a ticking bomb. I hear a ticking in my head, too, a clock counting down to when the police get to write the official version of this story, when the thin blue lie becomes accepted fact..
I slept fitfully Tuesday night, waking in the middle of the night and finding myself standing in the doorway of my daughter’s room, watching her sleep. No matter the truth of the crash, the blame will be pinned on the girl.
Wednesday morning was brighter. A stop by the station on the way to work had the police log where it was supposed to be, noting the crash investigation, with no details, no explanation for its earlier absence. A police report faxed from the information officer said much the same, but now we could report the crash online, at least, even if it’s days late. The story on the website was tragically thin, but it was something. It’s even unclear whether the cop was given a breathalyzer test. No luck reaching the cop himself, or his father, and the girl’s number just rang. She lives a half-hour out of town. I wondered, absently, what a 19-year-old girl was doing so far from home at that hour.
Finally, I reached the girl’s landlord, who told me the girl was in the hospital, and that her mother hasn’t left her side. He didn’t know which hospital, though, and when I ask if he knew where she worked, he hesitated before informing me she was a stripper, but that he didn’t know at which club. I must have sighed audibly, because he apologized. I said something professional, but I could already see the reader reaction, how the blame immediately fell away from the respectable cop to the disreputable dancer. And maybe that’s the case. I barely had any facts at all to work with, and already I was preemptively criticizing the readers for prejudging, when in fact I’m doing the same damn thing. For all I know, these cops calling us have it in for the guy, or are trying to start trouble for the chief. No one’s a reliable narrator until they go on the record, until they’re willing to stand behind their words.
The newsroom seemed smaller than usual, claustrophobic. Now that I had the police report and knew where the accident was, I drove to see it for myself. It’s only a few minutes from the office, really, and there was still some evidence of the crash. The stripper had been driving on the main drag, which arcs around in a curve, limiting visibility. The cop came off a side street, and had a stop sign. There were still skid marks on the road, and it looked like the strippers’ car was hit hard and went flying, but I’m no expert, so that’s conjecture. Presumably, the police have a more detailed accident-scene report. Presumably.
I began knocking on doors, to see if a neighbor saw anything. An old woman living across the street from the crash site said she heard the accident, and saw the police talking to the driver, and that he looked drunk. She said she remembered it, because she couldn’t believe they let the man leave. She said she didn’t remember seeing them give the man an alcohol test, but she refused to talk on the record, so none of that was usable in the story. She said she didn’t want any trouble with the police, and the distance between the accident and tomorrow’s paper elongated. Already the story’s changed, some. He either never left, or left and came back. I don’t know which.
Cold calls uncovered which hospital the girl was at, but they couldn’t share confidential medical information, so I instead tried narrowing down her workplace. There are a dozen strip clubs in the area, but Google Maps only has two in the vicinity of the crash. I got lucky on the first try, and the person on the phone told me that the girl did, indeed, work there, but that they didn’t know anything. I go down, and realize this is the first time I’ve been inside a strip club in more than 20 years. It’s better lit than I thought it would be. Friendlier. The manager wasn’t in, but the bartender tells me the girl had only worked there a few weeks, and that he didn’t know her well. She was nice, though, he says. A good kid. At this hour, the place is mostly just a bar. There are no dancers on stage, and very few customers.
Back at the office, I’m completely shocked to discover that no one in the entire newsroom has any contacts in the stripper community. This seems unlikely. Finally, the rock critic admits he knows someone, and puts me in touch with her. The girl seemed sharp, and friendly. She wished she could be more help, but didn’t know the girl at all. She knows the bar, though, and tells me its part of a corporate chain. I asked her if it’s likely the bartender was letting her drink underage, and she said, “Doubtful. It’s, like, the 7-11 of strip clubs. They run a very clean shop.”
I find the girl’s Facebook page, and her wall is filled with comments about partying, including one that says, “I was so drunk I drove home on the wrong side of the street.” That became a verifiable fact, and went in the story. And because the girl’s blood-alcohol levels were checked at the hospital, there was no way to know yet if she’d been drinking that night.
The story I filed that night was unsatisfying, and left me thirsty. But usually, once you get part of a story out there, other pieces emerge. Thursday brought a handwritten letter talking about the crash, the writer saying he was out walking his dog, and that he saw the cop speeding up the side street at 60 miles per hour. The letter’s unsigned and, not for the first time, I wonder why anyone who saw the accident didn’t stop to help the girl. Maybe they were afraid. Maybe this guy is just making it up. I don’t know why people look away when things like this happen, just that they do.
I got a call from a guy I know – off the record, again – telling me he was drinking with the cop that night, and that the cop had knocked down a lot of beer at a bar, beforehand. At this point, I’m frustrated with no one talking on the record, but argue as I might, no one wants to get involved. The car crash is someone else’s problem.
The bar was pretty empty when I arrived – a few gangbangers eyed me suspiciously when I walked in, but quickly returned their attention to their drinks. It’s kind of a sleazy joint, not one I’d ever drank in before.
The bartender is a pretty woman in her 40s. Too classy for a joint like this, as a noir detective might say. Her answers were polite, and terse. I asked her if she knew the cop is, and she said, “Yes.” I asked if he had drank there that night, and she said, “No.” I asked him if he drank there regularly, and she said, “This really isn’t a cop bar.” She’s right about that. I asked how she knew him, and she simply smiled wryly, slightly shaking her head to indicate that that’s a secret she’d not reveal.
In the movies, reporters and detectives have all sorts of clever tricks to get people to talk on the record, but this is real life, and if someone doesn’t want to talk, there’s really no way to make them. I work for a newspaper, not the police. I don’t have any special powers. In the movies, the detective comes up with some clever trick that unveils the truth, but in reality, truth’s a thing you mostly only get a glimmer of, a peek, before it vanishes entirely. Secrets are more commonplace, and even the acknowledgement of the secret’s existence does nothing to drag the truth into the light.
Back at the office, I received a call from the stripper’s aunt, on behalf of the family. She gave me a little background, about how she was a nice girl and helping to support her single mother. There’s that word again. “Nice.” It’s essentially meaningless. The girl’s aunt isn’t going to speak ill of her, nor will her work acquaintances. I pushed on, asking about her injuries, learning that she was still comatose, and that her face had been horribly scarred. She told me there was a chance of permanent brain injury, and the way she said “permanent” made me realize that she was parroting the doctor’s words exactly. She didn’t know anything about the accident, and obviously, the girl couldn’t tell me herself.
I thanked her, and tried another round of calls to all the remaining players – the cop, his father, the information officer – but received nothing but answering machines. I filed another anemic story, and though I’d wrung a little sympathy for the girl, the silence had done its job, and the paltry facts inevitably slanted the story toward the cop.
I filed the empty thing and left, anxious for a drink.
It was a whim that took me to a cop bar. The place was busy, but not crowded, and I recognized a lot of police. Most days, I’d find gossip and banter, but not that day. The looks I got were chilly. I wasn’t surprised to see the cop’s father holding up the bar. Like I said, he’s got a history.
He didn’t say anything when I took a seat next to him at the bar, just sipped his beer and watched the baseball game on the wall-mounted television.
I sipped my beer, too, and said nothing, feeling dozens of eyes on my back. Questions burbled in my mouth and faded, succumbing to silence.
With his last sip of beer, he got up from the stool, nodding goodbyes to the other cops as he gathered his coat.
But before he left, he stopped and turned to face me, leaning in close.
“You’re a piece of shit,” he said, calmly, before leaving. The stares from the police lingered interminably, and were eventually replaced with low chatter.
I stared into my mug, not speaking, bone-certain that the story was done, but still replaying the facts in my head: Two cars collided early on a Sunday morning, about 2:30 a.m. One car was driven by a 19-year-old stripper, the other by a cop. Beyond the facts, there is only conjecture, and a tacit admission that a secret exists.
And that admission? It gives me nothing.