My day seemed to be winding down innocently enough --
"Georgia, may I see you for a minute?"
-- but it didn't play out that way.
I stepped into my boss's office. Garbage was everywhere. Crushed tin cans. Stacks of old newspapers. A broken stress toy on the floor. Stress test flunked, okay.
I thought of Junk Man, the urban prospector who used to cruise my old neighborhood with a grocery cart. Junk Man loved to sift through garbage. This office would be his treasure island.
"Clear a space somewhere," said my boss, Halo Bingington. "Please have a seat."
Bing's personality is half George Foreman and half Mike Tyson. That's cool for two rock 'em, sock 'em boxers but not cool for one newsroom boss. So I knew that Bing's nice-nice stuff could turn ugly quick and in a hurry.
When your boss calls you into his office, you get that feeling. Like after the match ignites the fuse in a Mission Impossible rerun, I saw scenes flashing before my eyes. They were scenes from my last exclusive.
It was late night and hotter outside than a hole-in-the-wall barbeque joint. The police cars were lined up in front of a frame house. I was on the journalistic down low. Me and my one-man crew crouched in the bushes, waiting for the arrests.
Two Bandits were inside the house. Sammy Sosa could throw a baseball from the front porch and it would probably land near the pitcher's mound in nearby Fellows Park. That's where the bodies had been found, riddled with bullets.
The two suspects were grabbed out of bed, but, true to thug life, they seemed unfazed by the police. Officers yanked them outside by the necks, pajama bottoms sagging, hands cuffed behind their backs with silver bracelets that jingled. It was the only sound in the night. Except cries. One of the suspects' mothers leaned over the porch railing sobbing as she grabbed for her son, a man who had been out of reach for quite some time.
I'd written the story with feelings and facts. I'd fronted it live from the scene. But now something was wrong. The competition couldn't possibly have scooped me on some new development, could they? Did the suspects make bond and I didn't know it? Did the cops find the murder weapon and I missed it?
I watched my boss, Bing, as he made a quick call. He sat wide-legged, khaki pants high above his bare ankles. Scuffy, comfortable shoes fit loosely on his feet as he bounced his right leg up and down. Small freckled hands drummed on the desk, then Bing stopped and used his left hand to free several strands of dirty blond hair matted against the back of his neck by sweat. Bing finished his call and focused directly on me.
In direct contrast to Bing's warm and rich voice, suddenly his eyes turned cold with displeasure. Bing had started out as a commercial announcer, moved to radio news, then to TV. But he paid the cost to be the boss. Three decades in this business had lost Bing some of his hair, his waistline, his first and second wives, but not his drive to be number one.
"Georgia, your on-camera look stunk. You didn't fix your makeup and your hair was out of place! Channel 14's reporter looked flawless."
I thought of the Generation X babe with Breck hair and poor writing skills. "But, Bing, the competition didn't have the exclusive video of the arrests. They didn't have the kid's mother either. I was hustling like a popcorn vendor at the circus! I was worried about facts, not face."
"Georgia, this is TV news. The viewers care about how you look. You kicked tail on the story but you didn't polish it off. Ratings are about how our reporters look just as much as they are about our news coverage."
Bing continued to bawl me out. I listened halfheartedly, then shrugged before heading back out into the newsroom.
"Georgia, Georgia on my mind!" Nancy Haverstein yelled out at me. She's the producer for the ten o'clock news.
"Yeah, Nancy." I smiled. She was actually one of the reasonable ones at my tripped-out television station, WJIV Channel 8 in Chicago. I've been a TV general assignment reporter in four other markets, all in Ohio, before finally getting a break. Then I was able to get-down-boogie-oogie-oogie back home to Chi-town.
My coworkers seem to think that "Georgia, Georgia" is an original joke. The best joke occurred when my twin sister and I were born.
At first my mother named me Georgia and my sister Georgina.
But my grandmother, who in her heyday did musical comedy on the chitlin circuit, went to find the hospital nurse. Grandma told her to change Georgina's name to Peaches. Mama threw a fit. Grandma said then, and still says now, that Mama is always raising saying over nothing.
Mama changed my sister's name back to Georgina but as far as my family was concerned it was far too late. You know how black folks hate to let go of a nickname. Poor Georgina's nickname was stuck to her like paint on a brush. I have to admit, though, I loved going to Savannah and hearing my grandmother call us in from playing: "Georgia, Peaches! Where are my sweet Georgia, Peaches?!"
I walked over to Nancy. She's good people -- kind, even-tempered, considerate, and gently honest. Nancy's fronting on fifty but not looking nearly that age. She has a naturally slender build and bright, taut skin; raven black hair falls three inches below the big hoop earrings she loves to wear. Nancy's eyes are the singed brown color of cigar smoke. She blinks them constantly, too. It's a nervous habit she shoplifted after working in various television newsrooms across the country.
Nancy pointed to the show rundown, which lists the stories included in the newscast. "Take a look, Georgia. I don't have a strong lead. What about a hot-weather story -- can you write something cute?"
"Ughh!" I groaned. Don't go there! I would have to stand outside somewhere on Michigan Avenue or along the lakefront and talk about how hot it was -- and my hair was surely going to go berserk! Heat and humidity on a black woman's hair? Goodness.
"Georgia, what do you think about doing a weather crawl?"
"A weather crawl? Girl, do a hair advisory! Nancy, if you send me outside to do a heat story in this weather, my hair is going to look like I'm a backup singer with Sly and the Family Stone. And you know Bing wears two hats -- newsroom boss and chief of the cosmetic police. Dude wants glamour. Bing doesn't care if it's humid or windy or wet. He wants face and hair from his female reporters. But Bing doesn't say a word to the guys! They can look any kind of way. Give me a pass, huh, Nancy?"
Before she could answer, an intern yelled, "Got a breaker! Caller says there's been a drive-by shooting. Five people shot."
"New lead!" Nancy announced to the newsroom. "Hit it, Georgia!"
I hustled to get started on the breaking story. But I got delayed at the front door, waiting for one of our crew trucks to pick me up. I flipped a glance up to the sky, then sighed. The raindrops were steamed by the sun until they became a mist that clung to everyone who stepped out into The Sauna, a Chicago synonym for midday in August.
I put on my thinking brim as I waited for my crew. A drive-by at Fiftieth and Hedge. It was in Englewood, my old neighborhood. A curious feeling came over me -- a double-dip emotion of warmth and apprehension. It's hard covering stories in Englewood. The neighborhood has changed so much from the way it was when I was a little kid.
I had already covered the double murder in Fellows Park last week, a park where my twin and I used to play double Dutch and where we sang our first "concert" under the monkey bars, come one come all, for a nickel apiece.
Once again I tried to give myself the proper distance for peace of mind to do my job. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a Channel 8 truck turning the corner. When I saw who the cameraman was, my heart went yeah! and help me, Lord! at the same time. It was Zeke Rouster.
Zeke shoots great pictures but he drives like Al Unser on crack. Zeke has long bony legs, a jelly stomach, pale green eyes, and stone white hair. He holds the record among cameramen for the most moving violations. It's not a Channel 8 record, it's the record for the entire city. And Zeke has no shame in his game about it either.
A country boy raised outside of Birmingham, Zeke says his hot-rod days began at twelve years old when he jumped into a beat-up flatbed truck one day and set out driving. His goal was to travel as far as he could, as fast as he could, without knocking down anything that breathed. Zeke is an underachiever; he hasn't killed anything yet and his goal hasn't changed in thirty years.
"Rock and roll!" Zeke said, burning rubber when he hit the brakes and opened the door with one fly-guy motion. As the truck sped toward the crime scene, so did my thoughts and my expectations. Doesn't everyone have some recurring experience that makes them uneasy? Butterflies before making a speech? An anxious anticipation of something? I was nervous as a turkey in November as I fumbled with the metal fringes of my pad.
It's not as if I'm a cub reporter. I've been to violent crime scenes a gazillion times. Sometimes the body is still there. Sometimes there is blood. Sometimes the victim is still alive, grappling with his spirit like a child trying to steer a runaway bike. I'm called upon to make sense out of it for more than 300,000 viewers.
Isn't that a big dog of a responsibility, being the eyes, ears, and conscience of others? How can I ever take it lightly? How can I ever cruise through work? Each day is mentally tough, but I love it. How great is it to be able to tell a story that people want to know about? But the violent news always works my nerves in the beginning. Mentally I got prepared to do my best and deal with the violence by silently saying the Twenty-third Psalm. That got me focused for whatever lay ahead of me on this story. It turned out to be something to pray about and nothing to play with.
Copyright © 2000 by Yolanda Joe
Details at Ten
In a tale as immediate as this evening's news, Details at Ten follows the charismatic Georgia as she struggles with justice, truth, and the ratings while pursuing a terrifying story of a child missing in the midst of gang warfare in Chicago. Little Butter, as the girl is called, has disappeared after witnessing a drive-by shooting on the South Side and identifying the criminals' car on live TV during an interview with Georgia. Haunted by the recognition of her responsibility for the child's fate and heartbroken at seeing her old South Side neighborhood devastated by violence, our whip-smart reporter throws herself into the search for Butter -- dragging news producers, directors, cameramen, and support staff behind her kicking and screaming. For as the take-no-prisoners Georgia quickly discovers, the last thing her ratings-driven TV news czars want to cover is another tragedy in a poor black neighborhood.
Georgia uses her power as a television personality in smart, hilarious, and heartfelt ways as this shocking story unfolds with the pace of a runaway train. Our daredevil reporter's pursuit of the truth takes her into dangerous territory, but she's not there alone. This is one woman who won't take no for an answer, but everywhere she turns, there in her way stands a masterpiece of a man, Detective Doug Eckart. He's a tough cop and he's not about to let a TV reporter nose in on the case, but Georgia's drive is relentless and she keeps scooping him at the most sensitive moments. These made-for-each-other enemies agree to a sexually tense truce while gang violence escalates, informers turn up dead, and time to find the little girl seems to be running out. As a simple missing-persons case mushrooms into a citywide effort to nab one of the most powerful gang leaders in Chicago, Georgia, Doug, and the crew of Channel Eight News find themselves struggling to do what's right in a world of violence, racism, and fear. In Details at Ten, Ardella Garland takes her readers into a world of both terror and hope with a powerful tale of innocence, justice, and, finally, love.