Last week was a good time to be a news reporter in Chicago. It was fun just to follow my young colleagues via Twitter as they raced around the city, covering the unfolding Jussie Smollett and R. Kelly cases. You could feel the excitement. I noticed some pushback from the calliope of negativity that is Twitter, as if their enthusiasm were somehow unseemly, given the cause. But if you've spent any time with ER doctors, as I have, you know that there is both an adrenalin rush when the doors burst open and patients start being rushed in, and pride afterward for doing their jobs under trying conditions. That's natural. It doesn't mean they're glad a train hit a bus.
Watching Jim DeRogatis and Abdon Pallasch, on this story years before anybody cared, in the spotlight again, made me wonder what, if anything, I wrote about R. Kelly at the time. The sex charges get glancing reference—someone else was covering it—but I did find some interesting relics, such as this story from 1998, the year the first case R. Kelly was charged with this week took place. It was nostalgic to see myself in the herd, digging for the story, and I was proud that I talked my way onto that cop bus
Though to be honest, adrenalin be damned, I never liked being in those scrums of reporters, and dreamed of being where I am now, pursuing my own solitary interests at my own pace. To me, if there's another reporter where I'm working, I'm probably in the wrong place. That isn't a criticism of ferreting out news—I'm glad someone is doing it, and glad the Sun-Times does it better than anyone else. I'm also glad not to have to be the person to do it, to be free to chase the will-o-wisp of my shifting interests. I like to think when readers get exhausted with the relentless drumbeat of the news of the day, that my column drapes a chummy arm over their shoulders, draws them off to the side, offering a cup of strong coffee and a biscuit and a chance to gather their thoughts.
|1972 Pontiac Grand Prix|
I know angels and divine intervention are a hot topic now. But if prayer really worked, then a shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile launcher would have materialized in my bedroom a long time ago, so I could blast one of those blaring boom-box cars as they pass under my window at night.
I've certainly spent enough hours in bed, staring into the darkness, listening to the throbbing music, if that is the word, pulsing from some idiot's car as it rolls slowly down the quiet North Side street where I live, usually about 2 o'clock in the morning, and wishing for that missile launcher.
Praying for the launcher, trying to conjure it up, willing for it to appear. Imagining the joy of removing it from its military green case (I picture it packed in that fake grass they fill Easter baskets with). Throwing open the window, centering the car -- which I imagine as a low slung, 1972 Pontiac with neon light piping around the sides -- in the cross hairs as it cruises down the street, the music slamming away, "WHUMPA-WHUMPA-WHUMPA-BE-MY-LOVE-DOLL-BAY-BEE-T000-NIIIIIIIIIYIIIIIGHT!!!!-WHUMPA-WHUMPA-WHUMPA."
I squeeze the trigger. The missile streaks from the launcher, a fiery shaft of vengeance, to the car, which explodes in a huge, slow-motion fireball, KA-BLOOOEY!; this sound, though loud, is somehow pleasant and unobjectionable. The street littered with debris. Then silence, sweet silence except for—signaling the fantasy's end—the muted sound of a few neighbors cheering.
Or maybe I'm assuming too much, prayer-wise. Maybe God hears the missile prayer clear enough, and—for reasons neither cosmic nor mysterious—decides to let it go unanswered. Maybe he really is looking out for me.
Either way, I unspooled the entire fantasy again last week, reading, with a good deal of deep visceral satisfaction, of the arrest of R. Kelly—a music star of some sort, apparently—for allegedly refusing a police request to turn down the volume blasting out of his car at a Clark Street night spot this week.
Now everyone knows the proper response to a police officer asking you just about anything is "Yes, sir" (or "Yes, ma'am," as the case may be). If a cop stopped me on the street and asked me to climb a tree I'd probably be somewhere in the high branches before it occurred to me that I might want to question his (or, again, her) authority.
This isn't because I'm a big police fan, as much as I'd like to be. After a dozen years of dealing with Chicago police on a periodic, professional level, I have a healthy respect (or is the word "fear"?) for their ability to turn nasty at a moment's notice and I wouldn't want to draw that quality down upon myself without a good reason. It isn't so much that I don't like them as they really don't seem to like me, no matter how I try to please them.
I could cite many instances, but the one that comes to mind is the time that another singing star, Ice-T, was appearing at the Vic Theater. He had just released a song, "Cop Killer," that had inflamed the sensibilities of police officers everywhere, and our local Fraternal Order of Police decided to go down to the Vic and protest Ice-T's performance.
This of course made perfect sense. If somebody puts a song on an album saying, basically, that an entire group of people, particularly one as generally laudable as the police, should be shot, then that group certainly can be expected to protest.
The officers, who were off-duty, hired a few buses to ferry them from their gathering spot, the station at Belmont and Western, to the Vic.
Being an intrepid reporter, I talked my way onto one of the buses, thinking I'd have a chance to chat with the protesting police officers on the way over.
Big mistake. The cops were hopped up, mad, boisterous. Some were drinking, which didn't help. Ice-T wasn't on the bus, but I was, so they were mad at me, even though, to my knowledge, I'd never written a song about anyone. It was scary; I didn't get much interviewing done on the bus, but I did a lot of cringing down into my seat, trying to shrink into a small and unnoticed person.
Things weren't much easier in front of the Vic. The TV stations were there, and one of them got some footage of an officer screaming in the face of some doughy, round guy, jamming his finger hard against that guy's forehead, saying something like: "How'd you like it if I said, 'Let's shoot you, bang, bang!' "
I was that guy. I had just asked the officer some bland, meat-and-potatoes question about the protest, and the cop went off on a tirade. Which leads us back to R. Kelly. Maybe he was playing his music and being "loud and abusive" as the police say. He doesn't have the best track record when it comes to brushes with the law.
But track records are a funny thing. They build up and people judge you by them, no matter the facts of a particular case. Maybe R. Kelly was guilty. Or maybe he was just a young black man sitting in an expensive car who got rousted for no other reason. Those things happen, and while they still surprise me -- I am the kind of person who clings to a shred of trust in the system -- it wouldn't surprise me as much now as in previous years.
–Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 12, 1998