Saturday, March 23, 2019

Flashback 2007: Favorite Ledes

At the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, 1991 (Photo by Bob Davis)
     Thirty-two years ago today, I joined the staff of the Sun-Times. As in past years, I thought I would celebrate with something from the archive and found this, written for my 20th anniversary at the paper.  I've recently written a couple posts that were, well, "self-pity" is the term one reader used. Reading this again cured me of that. I've been very, very lucky, to have had this job. And despite all the changes in the industry—no more gift cards on our anniversaries—still feel blessed to do what I do. The stories following a few of these ledes have already been posted on the blog over the years; in that case, I have a link on the last few words, for those who feel like reading the full article.

     When Kenny Towers, long ago the editor of the Sun-Times, interviewed me for a job here, I was a magazine writer, freshly returned and still sunburned from weeks in Haiti, where I was writing an article on voodoo for The Atlantic.
     I was a little reluctant to join a newspaper—20 years ago Saturday—because I was not a hard news kind of guy.
     My main goal was not news, per se, but to find something unusual, perhaps even strange, and write about it. Especially important to me was trying to craft a good opening—"ledes" they're called in journalese—because if the beginning of a story is dull, it doesn't matter what comes later.
     So in addition to the $100 gift card my bosses were generous enough to give me, I thought I would celebrate my two decades here by revisiting the ledes from some of my favorite stories. Your indulgence is appreciated, as always:

                                                               - - -

     PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—We were driving through bauxite country. The earth was red with the mineral, and our Jeep bucked and rattled over deep red ruts in the unpaved road.
     The bone-rattling eased a bit when we came to the streets of a small coastal town. Turning a sharp corner, we were stopped by a group of 50 young men, dancing wildly to a driving syncopation of drums, rattles, and whistles.
     Some wore bright masks, or had painted their faces. They flowed around the Jeep, hopping up and down, pointing their fingers at us through the open windows and chanting, in Creole, what my driver interpreted as, "You will die, you will die, you will die."
                                                             — April 19, 1987

                                                            - - -

     Dr. Bryan Foy gently scoops up the human heart and holds it, as he would a newborn chick, with one hand cupped underneath, one hand over the top.
     It is 1:24 a.m. at Illinois Masonic Medical Center, 836 W. Wellington. Foy turns, takes a step, and places the heart in a metal bowl of frozen slush. Taking a pair of long tweezers, he peers into the various orifices of the heart. It looks good.
                                                                —July 17, 1988

                                                            - - -

     Everything changed at 1:35 p.m.
     After hours of coffee, pizza, chat and routine treatment of cut noses and sore throats, the call came into the Christ Hospital emergency room Saturday afternoon: Two men with serious gunshot wounds were on their way.
     An operating room at Christ, soon to be the only hospital serving the South Side with an advanced trauma unit, was readied for surgery. . . . Doctors, interns and nurses gathered to map out plans.
     "Why don't we make the chest wound the 99?" said Dr. Joe Mueller, giving priority to a 33-year-old man who police told them by phone had been shot just above the heart. . . .
     Paramedics rushed in with the first victim. In agony, he tried to jump off the gurney. A dozen doctors and nurses held him down. Nurses slit off his pants while doctors began the "90-second survey," rolling him on his side to check for other wounds.
     The big man, with homemade tattoos, cursed the doctors, then cried out in pain.
     "Hold my hand, hold my hand," he said, and a nurse gripped his fingers.
                                                             — Jan. 15, 1990

                                                               - - -

     At 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, an alarm clock somewhere in a debris-strewn cornfield in Crest Hill began beeping, the call to a normal workday that was not to be, a day turned extraordinary by a tornado's vast, often bizarre power.
     The morning's light illuminated a skewed world. Objects thought of as massive were flung carelessly aside—refrigerators sat in the middle of fields, cars were not just smashed but tumbled and buffeted so they looked like crumpled balls of tinfoil.
                                                            —Aug. 30, 1990

                                                                 - - -

     They all end up here. All the clumsy drunks and the cocky felons; the innocent bystanders and the gang-bangers who flash the wrong sign. Everyone who dies in the street, dies by the grim forms of violence, dies alone and unknown.
     Whatever the cause, they are brought to the same address: 2121 West Harrison St. They are brought through the same side entrance to the same room: Room 174. They are weighed on the same big stainless steel scale. A mop and an industrial wringer bucket always wait nearby.
                                                           —Sept. 10, 1991

                                                                    - - -

     Jenny has sparkling blue eyes, a small, upturned nose and a cascade of curly blond hair tumbling over her right shoulder.
     With a rhinestone nail charm centered on each red fingernail, a dab of blush at her decolletage, and deftly applied make-up, it's easy to believe her when she says she spent three hours getting ready to go out.
     The shimmery blue and silver dress is custom-made, she says, and it's easy to believe that, too, since with the spike heels, Jenny tops out at perhaps 6-foot-7.
      "I'm a bigger girl, I know," she says, smiling radiantly. "I can't go out to a mall -- hey, I've got a football player's shoulders."
      So instead, Jenny has come here, to a banquet hall on the Northwest Side of Chicago, where the city's tiny, secretive transvestite community is having one of its many regular social functions. . . .
                                                          —May 24, 1992

                                                                   - - -

      Al Giacchetti is cruising for hookers.
      He slows his car on a Cicero side-street as two carelessly dressed women at the curb eye him. He stops the car. The two women saunter over.
     "Hey, honey," says a heavyset woman, who seems to be high, climbing in the car. The other woman is more cautious. "You're not the police are you?" she says, hanging back.
      "No, are you?" lies Giacchetti, who actually is the police, a member of the Cook County sheriff's police vice squad, helping wage law enforcement's nightly stalemate with prostitution.
                                                       —Aug. 21, 1995

                                                                      - - -

     Too bad you didn't stop by the Chicago Commission on Animal Care and Control and adopt that gray-and-white kitty I saw there the other day, because now Jennifer Harnisch has to kill it.
     And killing kitties is hard. . . .
                                                       —Oct. 11, 1998

                                                                      - - -

     The man could run. Everything else -- the fame, the money, the NFL records, the Super Bowl ring, the bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame—flowed from that essential fact. Walter Payton ran beautifully, with power, grace, intelligence and a certain poetry that left onlookers amazed and hulking linemen grabbing at thin air. He died shortly past noon Monday at his South Barrington home after a yearlong battle with a disease from which he could not run. 
                                                      Nov. 2, 1999 

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 18, 2007


  1. Wonderful. A medley of Neil's biggest hits. Don't know if I can resist spending the rest of the morning reading the articles in their entirety.


  2. "Self-pity" is a rather harsh term, but you may have come off as a bit "thirsty," as the kids say. But we all need a bit of positive acknowledgment now and again; there's no shame in shaking your readers out of their EGD complacency now and again.

    What a fantastic collection of ledes! Presumably I read this in the paper 12 years ago, but it's new again.

  3. A lot of good stuff. "...helping law enforcement's nightly stalement with prostitution." stood out.


  4. Reading about killing kitties is hard, but seeing the aftermath is worse.That had to be tough. Almost 35 years ago, I took a wrong turn while seeking the rest room, and stumbled onto the loading dock of one of Chicago's biggest shelters, in what's now called River North.

    First I wandered through row upon row of cages, and then stopped short upon seeing many 55-gallon drums, in front of big overhead doors. While being angrily chased out, I was still able to ask an employee some questions. The cages? That was the overflow area. The drums? That's where the "unadoptables" ended up, before the disposal trucks arrived. Mostly unwanted, unplaceable, or feral felines.

    Went back out into the adoption room and brought home Mikey, the gray tabby who spent the next 16 years with me. But I've never forgotten those drums. Do plastic containers, instead of metal barrels, reduce the feeling of being in a "Kitty Auschwitz"...a factory of death? I would have to guess they would not.

  5. All wonderful ledes enticing readers to continue reading. You know how to grab our attention and want more. You have a gift. Hope you never retire!

    1. Thanks. Small chance of that. I need the money.


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