Twenty-Five Stories

12 The cop shop

Michael D. Roberts

Years later mature men, and some women, would talk about the police beat with the fondness of special matriculation, a rite of passage through the thickets of journalism. A ritual in the golden days of journalism, they would say at Nighttown over wine or at Press Club Journalism Hall of Fame Dinners where the past was painted with such romance.

As for me, I wanted to get the hell off the police beat before I got there. There were few bylines to be had out of that shabby carbuncle of an office in Central Station on Payne Avenue where it smelled of urine, disinfectant and stale tobacco. You were afraid to touch anything for fear of contracting a disease. In those days the police liked to show rookie reporters the black homosexuals they jailed for the mere fact they were gay.

The police beat was where you learned that journalism was an unnatural act. You were called upon to abuse any civility you possessed, thrust yourself into uncomfortable if not dangerous situations, work ungodly hours and all this for modest wages. Here you learned to argue with the front office over cleaning bills for a smoke-smelling suit worn when covering a fire. You learned to be insensitive and brash. You also learned a distaste for editors. Most importantly, you learned whether this was what you wanted to do with your life.

And aside from the decor, you found a grinning bulldog of a man with a bald head and a lascivious laugh that almost always made you uneasy. This was the legendary Bob Tidyman, a combat veteran of the fierce battles waged to recapture France in World War II, and the most jaded man I ever met. He was also the chief police reporter. His father, Ben, had held the same job for nearly a quarter of a century and had trained Bob and his brother, Ernest, in the vagaries of the beat when they were in their teens.

All those years on the beat can do things to a man, and Bob Tidyman was the recipient of every lesson the street could teach, maybe each a dozen times. The environment of the beat was enough to erode even the most virtuous soul. Tidyman had overseen the basic training of a generation of Plain Dealer reporters, making some and breaking others.

He liked to tell the story of when he and his brother witnessed a prisoner escaping from a window in the Cuyahoga County Jail on knotted sheets, which was visible from the police beat office.

When they excitedly called it to the attention of Ben Tidyman, their father smiled and said:

“Let him get away boys, and then call the desk. It’s a better story if he escapes.”

The key to getting along and understanding how the beat functioned was to know that Bob Tidyman did not work, he was an overseer. If you understood that, and accepted it the way you would the Gospel or the Constitution, things would be fine. If you did not, Tidyman would make your life so miserable you would pray for deliverance from the darkness of the place and become a librarian.

I received my draft notice the same day that I received a memo that I was to report to the police beat. I was able to skirt the draft because of childhood polio, but there was nothing I could do about Tidyman except show up at the appointed hour and accept my fate.

I spent the first few months on the paper on the rewrite desk, essentially writing shorts and taking notes from the police reporters and turning them into two paragraph stories. The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated I manned the phones taking calls from a mournful public seeking information. There was no cable news in those days.

The city room was all chaos as the bells on the Associated Press teletype machines announced bulletin after bulletin. Everyone labored in a strange slow motion, trying to contemplate the enormity of the event. There was so much discombobulation that the city desk had to hang a huge sign with the word  A-S-S-A-S-S-I-N-A-T-I-O-N because so few of the staff could spell the word.

That night I asked the city desk for a byline in the paper for history’s sake. I was embarrassed to do so, but I could not let the moment pass. An editor simply nodded yes.

Death was a strange, but vital part of the paper and I learned that from the obituary writer, G. David Vormelker, a thin man with wireless glasses, a string tie and a pleasant smile, who would softly express condolences to a bereaved family and then slam the phone down and mutter that death was secondary to his lunch hour. “People who die on my lunch hour get shorter obits,” he told me one day. He had contempt for  people who died on Cleveland Press time. He hated death on deadline, too. He advised me not to die on Thursday, when space was always short because of the food pages. For the record, he died on our time and the afternoon rival gave him a good obit just to stick it to us.

There was a lot of death on the police beat, too. Shootings, stabbings, house fires, drownings, car accidents, suicides, airplane crashes and any number of other bizarre exits from this life were in the beat’s purview. One afternoon Hil Black, the chief police reporter of The Press and a man known for his dignity and skill, grabbed me and said that one of the respected federal judges just died.

Black was going to phone the widow and he wanted me there when he did so to spare the bereaved woman another call from the media.  It was an uncommon and thoughtful gesture and I never forgot it.

There were plenty of those calls and visits to homes to collect pictures of the recently passed. If you got there before The Press you tried to get all of the pictures of the deceased, leaving the afternoon guys with nothing. They would do the same to us.

If you were truly unlucky, you would be the harbinger of death, announcing to a wife that she was a newly made widow because her husband had just been killed in some drunken accident on a nearby highway. Then there were calls to the coroner’s office where an indifferent voice would yawn and give you the cause of death or tell you to call back because the body was still on the slab and they had not finished counting entry and exit wounds.

Often, we would go into the night and visit the scenes of the mayhem.  I remember a shooting on the East Side where the victim lay dead on the tree lawn and a homicide detective bent over him dripping mustard from a bologna sandwich he was eating as he examined the body.  These were great stories when the small talk on a date went for want, but the editors could care less about them.

In those days reporters could roam the emergency rooms like tourists, talking to police and doctors while patients were treated for their wounds. One night at Mt. Sinai an ambulance brought in a man, shot five times in the back of the head.  Not one bullet penetrated the skull and the man lived. It was a good story, but a bad address, which was code for black, and it received scant attention deep in the paper.

I first set foot in the beat office early in February of 1964, at 6 p.m.  I was wearing a blue blazer and a rep tie, pretty much standard dress for junior reporters. Tidyman was studying me and in a quiet but scary voice asked who the fuck I was.

I introduced myself and explained that I had been told by the city desk to report to the police beat.

“Those assholes never told me they were sending another college boy down here,” Tidyman said. “We already have a guy from Princeton who can’t find his way to the crapper and washes his hands every time he picks up a phone. He’s worried about picking up some disease from all this filth. If this place is too sick for him he ought to go back to Princeton.”

Oh, man, I thought, this was going to be joyful.

The beat was all about phones and we were on them constantly calling rounds of all the suburban police departments every hour before deadline. Sometimes one department would cover for another and mislead you about some episode taking place in the night. Other times when there were bad feelings between suburbs, they would rat the other department out.

The first thing Tidyman told new guys was never to answer a certain phone in the corner. This was the direct line from the city desk and Bob did not want anyone talking with editors on that phone. If the phone rang, you were to find Tidyman as fast as you could and tell him.  He could generally be  found in one of the many bars across the street on Payne Avenue. Tidyman would call the desk back, explaining he was up in homicide,  where he never went because the detectives  generally  despised him for some decades old story he did on police brutality or some other injustice.

Where now exists Cleveland State’s manicured soccer field, sat a row of shabby bars that served us late and often,  and provided respite from our endless patrols of Central Station and telephone rounds.

Tidyman  held court in Lubeck’s Casino and other bars along the street. Cops drank there, homeless persons from the street would cage drinks, and some tired whores would  take a nightcap at the joints. Tourists from the city room would stop by to catch some grit and a beer after deadline.

One night near closing,  a cop shot the clock off of the wall when the bartender announced last call.  The smell of cordite and the floating dust, back lit by the neon beer signs, along with the ringing in the ears from the shot, left a surreal memory .  The police station was across the street and there wasn’t the merest response to the shot. Another night someone fired a pistol into a phone book just for laughs and again the retort brought  no response from Central Station.

At the  beat you learned to assemble grisly facts as if it were some crossword puzzle. You phoned these facts to a rewrite person, sitting in the comfort of the office with the authority to question your very existence. If you missed a fact, they would tell you not to call back until you had them all.

Getting the facts often meant dealing with the homicide squad and being pin-balled  back and forth between the cops and the city desk.  It was usually the small things like a middle initial, caliber of the gun, model of the car, etc., but to be running back and forth up the stairs to homicide and back to the phone on deadline turned the perspiration running down your spine  into a stream of tension that knotted every muscle in your back. This was how neophytes learned to ask the right questions quickly and effectively.

Whenever I’m asked about bloggers and what kind of experience they are missing, I think of those trips to homicide where Detective Carl Roberts would be cleaning his gun and looking at me through the barrel while I tried to pry some information from him on a two-paragraph murder that the city desk was obsessing over. Without these experiences, the essence of reporting is elusive.

But the relationship between the police and The Plain Dealer in those days was elusive, too, and tenuous at best. One summer afternoon Tidyman was drinking across the street with a detective who was on duty when a squirrel ran through the open door, leaped on the bar and bit the cop on the hand.

Fearing rabies, the detective went to the emergency room at St. Vincent Charity Hospital and reported the incident as a dog bite obtained while investigating a break in. The only problem was Tidyman turned in the story about the squirrel which appeared the next morning.

The policeman, who was not supposed to be drinking on duty, was reprimanded and as an act of reciprocity all the police reporters had their cars ticketed.

There were other reasons for the police animosity toward Tidyman. One night, a brand-new police car was  stolen. The car had been parked beneath the window of our police beat-room. We often exited  the building through the window, down onto a parking lot where a Plain Dealer car was parked. The atmosphere on the beat that night was strange, kind of electric with anticipation. And then Tidyman walked in and announced he just got a tip on the stolen vehicle.

Several of us began to make calls as the police began a frantic search for the vehicle. They could see tomorrow’ s headline. To make matters even more tense, Tidyman received an anonymous tip of where the car was abandoned. The police were furious and embarrassed by our  potential story.

The number two man on the beat was Donald Leander Bean, a rumpled reporter who squinted through thick glasses and, if the truth were told, was really the mentor of many aspiring journalists. He loved practical jokes and was infamous for sending young reporters to the war memorial on the Mall in the event that the mother of the unknown soldier appeared.

He would go to great lengths to create a hoax that would draw a Press reporter to the scene of crime that never took place. A veteran of the defunct INS news service, Bean was the one reporter that you would want on deadline in a late breaking story. He was respected by the police and had a certain tenacity that endeared him to editors. Bean complained from time to time that he was not promoted, but the desk dared not elevate him for without his presence the beat would be naked.

Bean came up with a suspect in the case of the stolen police car.  The suspect was Tidyman himself and Bean swore us to secrecy. I suppose the police suspected too, but there was always that lingering doubt.  Years later when I learned that Tidyman had once stolen a jeep  for a joy ride during the war, and was later punished for it, I couldn’t help but remember that night.

One Christmas Eve, the town a silent night and the police beat slow in  celebration, we got a call from a suburban police department on the West Side with a tip. A widow, with four children, had reported that the utility company had shut off the gas in their home and the kids were freezing.

It so happened Tidyman was just passing through on his way home from a quick stop at Lubeck’s when I got the call. Standard practice was to call the utility company’s public relations man and get a comment. Instead, Tidyman ordered me to call the company president at his home and disturb the family dinner.

“Wish him a Merry Christmas,” Tidyman said.

I made the call and, of course, the president was angered, referring the call to his PR person. The day after Christmas all hell broke loose as Executive Editor Phil Porter demanded a memo on why the call had gone to the company president. He knew that the idea was to embarrass the company for going Scrooge on Christmas. Tidyman just shrugged as I sweated over the memo.

In those days we spent a lot of time on the city’s East Side. We saw a city that was never mentioned in the newspapers other than in shorts that told of some crime or tragedy. The overcrowded apartment buildings were hard to conceive for those of us who drove home to the suburbs. Sorrow and despair filled the night air along with the smell of smoke and garbage.

Glass broke underfoot in trash-filled alleys where wild cats darted across your path as you struck a tin can. Dark shadows foretold of danger and abandoned cars dotted the roadways, stripped of tires and chrome. I saw my first colored telephone, a pink princess style, in the apartment of a woman whose boyfriend had been shot and killed earlier in the day. I didn’t  know they made colored phones and wondered why the phone company would sell them to people in  such need.

The city was yet to be overwhelmed by drugs and you could navigate those neighborhoods fairly at will. In 1964 narcotics detectives told me there were a half dozen heroin addicts in the city. In a matter of only four years the streets became considerably meaner as the drug dealers began to prey on the despairing.

Those of us who would witness this side of the city would often tell editors how bad things appeared.  Perhaps the most concerned among us was Roldo Bartimole, a veteran reporter from Connecticut who had an abiding sympathy for the impoverished of the urban core. Bartimole would quit the newspaper twice in frustration and then go on to publish his own pamphlet, Point of View, addressing the city’s ills for the next 32 years. He savaged the established institutions of the city and  was uncompromising with his former colleagues in the media.

There was no middle ground with Bartimole. Supporters viewed him as the city’s conscience and critics despised his attacks on the establishment. Bartimole criticized The Plain Dealer for decades with withering and unrelenting force.

To understand where the city was in the early 1960s was to examine the mass migration of blacks to Cleveland which began in the years around the beginning of the century. Cleveland was prospering and there were jobs available for those who would leave the poverty and racial climate of the South. By the time of World War I, the city’s population counted some 10,000 blacks mostly living on the near East Side.

The industrial boom caused by the war, and the lack of immigration from Europe during that period, made more jobs available for blacks and by 1930 there were some 72,000 residing in the city creating ghetto-like conditions in the Central Avenue area.

The best jobs were not available to blacks because of discrimination on the part of businesses and labor unions. Blacks were forced to work in low paying service jobs. The nation’s first public housing projects were built here in the late 1930s, but they were largely occupied by whites. The construction of these projects  displaced many blacks and further exacerbated  the crowded living conditions.

At the start of World War II, there were some 80,000 blacks in Cleveland. As before, the war industry attracted thousands of new workers from the south. By 1960 there were 251,000 blacks squeezed into an urban area that lacked services and schools.

It was this combustible atmosphere that  young reporters found themselves confronting while their editors went about  their work as if these gathering ills were a normal part of the city’s life.

Naive, our world filled with daily discoveries of eye-opening events and angry people, we reported our findings to a city desk inured to the race problem with its numbers rackets and street beggars.

After all, the ghetto was a “bad address” and the papers did not bother to write much about such places not because they were not deemed newsworthy, but because the news that emanated from it was universally common and bad.  Hence, the reigning editorial policy was not to pay much attention to that area because the environment had become an established norm.

As late as 1959, The Press would quote a real estate agent and prominent civic figure, in a page one story, that he did not rent to blacks because they were  too messy.

This myopia would come back to haunt not only the newspapers, but the entire city itself. The town, enraptured with its ethnic politics, dealing more with the past than  the future, launched into the largest urban renewal project in the country and managed to make housing conditions even worse for the minorities.

Compounding this was the fact that Louis B. Seltzer, the editor of The Cleveland Press had discovered it was to the benefit of his newspaper to play to the ethnics and in doing so managed to cripple the two-party political system and replace it with the power of his newspaper. He did this over 30 years while The Plain Dealer watched haplessly, having neither the appetite nor the ability to engage Seltzer in the trenches. Now, as the city entered the 1960s, Cleveland was on a precipice and its bewildered establishment clung to the tired marketing slogan coined by the Illuminating  Company: “Cleveland, the best location in the nation.”

If you were an aspiring reporter in 1964, answers to all of this were beyond reach, yet the experience of being out in those streets left you with an uneasy feeling that something was wrong, and that something was going to happen.

We all dreaded the  Saturday overnight. This was the shift where only one reporter was responsible for the city between the hours of midnight and 8 a. m.  No other news organizations were on duty and even The Press  relaxed its relentless vigil since it did not publish on Sunday. The trick to handling this lonely assignment was to get an early edition of the Sunday paper and offer it to police radio like some  groveling supplicant,  begging that if something happens in the city to call me at the beat. Being overwhelmed at having responsibility for a whole city, I then returned to our shabby office and went to sleep.

About 3 a.m., the harsh ring of one of the phones woke me. It was police radio and there were shots being fired on an East Side Street. Multiple shots, the officer said.

The best thing for me was to stay where I was and try to put the story together by phone. I had an address and went to the crisscross directory, the virtual bible of the beat since it listed by address all the occupants on the street and their phone numbers.  A skillful reporter could deputize an entire street and ask what neighbors had heard or seen and assemble a fair idea of what was taking place without leaving the police station.

The shooting awakened nearly everyone on the street and they reported that dozens of shots had been exchanged, blowing out windows of parked cars,  shattering picture windows in houses and bursting streetlights.  Stop signs were riddled with bullet holes.   The police estimated 40 shots had been fired and  reported that no one saw a thing which was not unusual because there was little rapport in those neighborhoods with the authorities.

It took six hours to get what facts I could, and I stayed over on my shift working the story thinking that it would be worth something for the slow news hole for Monday’s newspaper. I was chagrined when the desk asked me to boil it down to a paragraph  which did not even make the paper. The frustration of seeing stories like this night after night made you question yourself, the city, the system and the future of all the aforementioned.

One of the worst things a journalist could experience was appearing in the middle of a breaking story on deadline. It probably is not as bad today because of improved communications, especially cell phones. Then, it was paramount when you got to the scene of a breaking story to locate a phone as soon as possible. There were plenty of  pay phones available across the city, but not nearly enough when a murder, fire, or some other macabre event took place and you had to report it.  Thus, you always had to have a pocket full of change to feed the phone to talk to a panicked city desk which was  freaking out for facts which would not be available for hours.

(One day a public relations man from the telephone company, a former reporter, stopped at my desk and gave me a sticker that said: PHONE IS OUT OF ORDER. “Use this to reserve a pay phone in a moment of need,” he instructed.)

When faced with the confusion surrounding a story, you need some luck. Actually, all the luck you could amass. The timing of your arrival was the first bit of fortune you needed. When an accident or catastrophe takes place there is a sense of shock that descends on witnesses and victims that makes them particularly vulnerable to questioning. They talk easily and often provide the most dramatic accounts while still feeling the effects of the incident. Once the authorities arrive on the scene the mood changes and gathering information becomes more difficult and in some cases almost impossible.

And then comes the part where you sort out the information you have gathered and judge the worthiness of those you have interviewed and seek the best account of what occurred while keeping an eye on the opposition and an ear to the phone where the editors are in a state of conniption. By now, elements of the story are no longer at the scene, and the focus shifts to families, hospitals or the morgue.

All these factors came to play on the windy night of April 24, 1964. It was early on a Saturday evening when we got a call that a Northwest Airlines plane had crash landed at Cleveland-Hopkins Airport. It was a flight from Washington with 77 passengers. I was told to get to the airport immediately. That was all the information available at the moment. The drive to the airport seemed interminable.

The luggage area of the airport was a mass of humanity that was milling about in a kind of animal anxiety. I checked the phone banks, and each seemed to be occupied.  I then checked the crowd and saw a tall man in a gray suit with a brief case.  There was something about him that attracted my attention.

”Excuse me, sir,” I interrupted. “By any chance were you on that Northwest plane?”

“I was,” he said. Great. A break, I thought.

He went on to explain that the nose landing gear on the turbo prop plane had collapsed ten seconds after touchdown and the aircraft veered sharply to the right, the propeller blade on the right side snapped off and ripped into the fuselage.

“I expected that to happen,” he said as I looked at him quizzically. The blade had punctured the aircraft in the midsection where the cloakroom was located. There were no seats in the space.

“The woman sitting across the aisle from me did not have her seat belt fastened for the landing,” he said.  “She was eating, and her tray flew from her lap and she began to slide down the aisle. I figured the other prop would break and she was heading toward the spot where the blade would rip into the fuselage.

“That is when I grabbed her by the shoulder and held her until the plane came to a halt.”

The man saved the woman’s life, and he was acting like he did this routinely. I was writing all of this down as fast as I could. The TV crews were beginning to arrive and, as always, we were on deadline. The adrenaline was reaching rock and roll frenzy. I could see a phone open up nearby and I asked the man if he could wait for me.

When I finally got the desk, the editors were in their usual restlessness. I related my story while a rewrite man typed it to paper as an editor assaulted me with question after question.

“And young man, who are we going to attribute all of this to? We can’t let you make all of this up you know.”

I told him I’d be right back, and hung up before the whole exchange became personal. I called back a few minutes later in an exultant mood, almost dreamy.

“OK who is the guy giving you all this information?” The editor asked with the usual city desk skepticism.

“His name is I. Irving Pinkel.”

“Who the hell is I. Irving Pinkel?

I paused at this moment to savor what I was about to say next.

“Well, he happens to be NASA’s leading expert on air crashes.”

(Pinkel had studied more than 50 crashes that he created by remote control making him a leading expert in the world on aircraft accidents.)

There was a pause, a brief moment of silence and then the grudging admission that the desk was offering the story for page one. We beat The PressI was jubilant.

A few days later I received a memo ordering me to report to the city room for assignment.

He never knew it, but I. Irving Pinkel had plucked me from adversity the way he had done that woman. I was free of Tidyman’s purgatory.

 

~This piece is from an upcoming book by Michael D. Roberts, “Hot Type, Cold Beer and Bad News,” scheduled to be published later this year by Gray & Company. (See https://www.grayco.com). We thank Roberts and David Gray for allowing us to use it.

 

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