I was in Chinatown when they called me about the body in Brooklyn.
"They just pulled a woman out of a scrap pile in Gowanus," says Mike, my editor.
"Lovely," I say. "So I'm off the school?" I've spent the past two days pacing in front of a middle school, trying to get publishable quotes from preteens or their parents about the brothel the cops busted in the back of an Internet café around the corner.
"You're off," says Mike.
The rest of the press is on the scene when I arrive at the gas station across from the scrap yard. Pete Calloway from the Ledger is baring his crooked teeth at the NYPD's Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, or as reporters call him, DCPI. DCPI is six inches taller and seventy pounds heavier than Pete. It's barely twenty degrees out and Pete's got his hoodie up, his shoulders hunched against the cold, but DCPI is hatless, scarfless, gloveless, coatless. His uniform jacket collar is pulled up, two inches of starched wool-blend against the icy wind.
"We're hearing she was found without clothes," says Pete. "Can you confirm that?"
DCPI looks over Pete's head and rubs his hands together. Behind him, in the scrap yard along the canal, two excavators stand frozen against the sky; the grapples attached to their long arms sway slowly, thin scraps of metal hanging from their teeth.
Pete stares up at the cop, who is ignoring him. Both of them are ignoring me. I've seen Pete at multiple crime scenes, but we've never introduced ourselves. Mike and the rest of the editors think Calloway is some kind of crime-reporting savant. But it seems to me, after just a few months at scenes with him, that all he is is single, dogged, and nosy. I catch his eye and smile a smile I mean to indicate camaraderie, but he doesn't respond. Drew Meyers from Channel 2 slides up, cashmere coat to his shins, leather gloves, wine-colored scarf. DCPI loves him.
"Drew," he says, grasping his hand like an old friend.
"Cold enough for you?" says Drew. DCPI's ears are absurdly red. His nose and cheeks and neck glow pink. "So what's going on?"
DCPI lowers his voice. "Female."
"Is she still in there?" asks Drew. Pete and I step in to listen.
"Don't have that," says DCPI.
"The M.E. van hasn't been here," says Pete.
Drew looks at DCPI, who confirms Pete's statement with silence.
"Was there a 911 call?" asks Pete.
"Yes," says DCPI.
"What time?" I ask.
DCPI looks down at me. "Can you let me finish, please?" I nod.
"A call came in to emergency services this morning, reporting that workers loading a barge on the canal had found what they thought was a female body. We are in the process of determining identity."
"It's definitely female?" asks Pete.
Drew furrows his brow, doing a good impression of someone empathizing. He folds his notebook shut, though he didn't write down a word of what DCPI said, shakes the cop's hand, then turns and walks to the Channel 2 van, his coattails flapping behind him.
DCPI stays put, and so do I. There are several DCPI cops that work crime scenes. I know two or three by sight, and have one's name, but I've never seen this man before. "Can I get your name?" I ask.
He looks down at me. "Can I see your press card?"
I dig my stiff fingers — exposed by the fingerless gloves that note-taking necessitates — into my coat and manipulate the laminated New York Tribune badge from beneath several layers of clothing. My skin scrapes against the metal zipper as I pull it out and present it.
"You don't have a press card."
He's talking about the official credentials that the NYPD gives to reporters. If you want the press card, you have to submit six articles with your byline on them that prove you cover "spot news" in the city and routinely need to get past police lines. The card doesn't actually get you past police lines, but it gives you a small measure of legitimacy in the eyes of whichever DCPI you're dealing with. I applied for the card right before Thanksgiving, but I haven't heard anything. I called after the New Year and the officer who answered the phone at the public information office told me to wait.
"I applied in November," I tell DCPI. "I'm still waiting to hear."
"Is she still ... in there?" I ask.
"You'll get information when I get information," he says, sounding bored.
I turn away. Police tape stretches across the wide gravel entrance to the scrap yard, fastened to a tall iron fence on one end and the bow of a long canal boat on the other. There is a trailer that seems to serve as the site's office. Officers stand at ease, protecting the perimeter. Men in hard hats, whom I take to be employees of the yard, stand pointing for men in suits, whom I take to be detectives. The workers seem to be motioning between the grapple cage above their heads and the mountain of scrap rising fifty feet beside them. I follow to where their fingers are pointing, and see a leg.
I call in to the city desk and ask for Mike. I give him the information DCPI gave me.
"She's still up there," I tell him. "You can see her leg."
"Her leg?" I can hear him typing. "What else? Hold on ... Bruce!" He's shouting to the photo editor. "Bruce, who's out there for you? Rebekah ... who's there for photo?"
"I haven't seen anybody."
"Hold on." He clicks off. I try to communicate with Mike in these conversations. Every shift it's the same: he tells me where to go and why; I tell him what I find. I've seen him in person twice in six months. He's fifty pounds overweight, like most of the men in the newsroom, but unlike most of them he is polite and soft-spoken. When I walked into the office after three weeks of speaking several times a day, he said hello and avoided eye contact, then turned back to his computer.
I rock back and forth in my boots. I'm standing in the sun, and I've got fleece inserts over socks over tights, but I still can't feel my toes. Mike comes back on the phone.
"Johnny from Staten Island?"
"Yeah. Larry is working sources at 1PP." Larry Dunn is the Trib's longtime police bureau chief. "Talk to somebody from the scrap yard. We're hearing a worker called it in. Is Calloway there?" "Yeah."
"Don't lose sight of him."
"I'm going to the meeting with a woman in a scrap heap. We need an ID."
"I'm on it," I say.
The rest of the TV newspeople start rolling up in their vans. The on-air reporters always ride shotgun, camera techs squat with the equipment in the back. Gretchen Fiorello from the local Fox station steps out carrying her battery-powered microphone. She's in full makeup, eyes lined and shadowed, lipstick just applied, and her strawberry blond hair is coiffed so that it lifts as one entity against the wind. She's wearing panty hose and slip-on heels and a matching scarf and mittens set.
DCPI has nothing new, and the men at the scrap heap are still staring up at the steel fist with the body in it, so I push into the gas station convenience store to warm up. Working stakeouts or active scenes in the cold requires a tedious amount of energy. Hot coffee or tea warms you best from the inside out, but if you've got your hands wrapped around a cup, you can't take notes. Plus, the more you drink, the more likely it is you have to find a bathroom — which usually isn't easy. I shake powdered creamer into a white cardboard cup and pour myself some coffee from a mostly empty pot sitting on a warmer. I pay, then stand beside the front window and sip. From where I'm standing I can see most of the scrap yard.
My phone rings. It's my roommate, Iris.
"Where are you?" she asks. Iris and I both majored in journalism at the University of Central Florida, but she works in a cubicle on Fifty-seventh Street and I'm never in the same place for more than a couple hours.
"Right by home," I say. We share an apartment just a few blocks away. This is the first time I've ever been on a story in Gowanus. "The canal."
"Jesus," says Iris. "Hypothermic yet?"
"Can you still come?" We have plans for drinks with an amorphous group of alums from Florida tonight.
"I think so." My shift is over around five.
"Will Tony be there?"
Tony is a guy I've been hooking up with. He's very much not Iris's type, but I like him. Iris likes metrosexuals. The guy she's sort of seeing now has highlights and the jawline of a Roman statue. Tony is very not metrosexual. He just turned thirty and he's balding, but he shaves his head. I wouldn't call him fat, but he's definitely a big guy. We met on New Year's Eve at the bar he manages, which also happens to be the bar where UCF alums meet for drinks and where Iris and I ended up after a weird party at someone's loft in Chelsea. He kissed me across the bar when the clock struck midnight and then we spent the next two hours kissing. He's an amazing kisser. And despite his decidedly less than polished appearance, Iris seems to like him. Iris is the beauty assistant at a women's magazine. We haven't had to purchase shampoo, nail polish, lipstick, soap, or any other grooming toiletry since she started last summer.
"I think so," I say.
"You don't know?"
I don't want to get into it, but I didn't return his last text — and Tony isn't the kind of guy who's gonna blow up a girl's phone.
"I'll be there by six," Iris says.
"Me, too," I say.
I tuck my phone back into my coat pocket and put my face to the steam rising from my coffee. Bodega coffee almost always smells better than it tastes.
The glass door rings open and two Jewish men walk inside, carrying the cold on their coats. I know they're Jewish because they're wearing the outfit: big black hat, long black coat, beard, sidecurls. It's not subtle.
The men walk to the back corner of the convenience store, and the tall one whispers fiercely at the other, who looks at the floor in a kind of long nod. Behind them by a few steps is a boy, a four-foot clone of the men, in a straight black wool coat, sidecurls, a wide-brimmed hat. His nose and the tips of his fingers shine like raw meat. He is shivering. The two men ignore him, and he seems to know not to get too close to their conversation. He stamps his feet, laced tight in neat black leather oxfords, and shoves his little hands into his pockets.
I scoot back to my perch between the coffeepot and the chip rack, where I can see the press vans in the parking lot of the gas station and the cop cars clustered at the scrap yard's entrance across Smith Street. I'm monitoring motion. As long as the players — the rest of the reporters and photogs, the cops in uniform, the cops in suits — are just standing around, I can assume I'm not missing anything. If any group begins to move, I have to, too. If I had to choose, I'd rather be on a story like this than the one I just got off in Chinatown. In Chinatown, a reporter — especially a white reporter — is in hostile territory. Certain kinds of people love to talk to reporters — I can get an old Italian man in Bay Ridge or a young black mother in Flushing to gab and speculate about their neighbors, the mayor, their taxes, just about anything I come up with as long as I'm writing down what they say. This gonna be in the paper? they ask me. Immigrants are tougher. The Trib doesn't have a reporter who speaks Chinese, and when you're asking people already predisposed not to trust you if they know about the Internet café across the street selling ten-dollar blow jobs to middle school boys, without any of their language, you give them nothing but reasons not to say a word.
Active crime scenes are different. At an active crime scene, I have a role. I'm not staff at the Trib — I'm a stringer. I work a shift every day but have no job security or benefits. Every morning I call in, get an assignment, and run. I work alone, unless a photographer is assigned to the same story, and answer to a rotating assortment of editors and rewrite people whom I've usually never met. I have a laminated Tribune badge that identifies me as a player on the stage. I get shit about the Trib from cops sometimes — they complain about how we played some story, or the editorial page bias — and I can't always get the same access as reporters with the official press card. But I'm in a much better position at a crime scene or official event than someone from one of the news Web sites that most of the cops have never heard of, or even worse the bloggers — who get nothing but shit.
At a crime scene, the cops secure the area. The reporters arrive. The cops inspect the body and the scene, then occasionally relay some of what they've found to another cop, the spokesman cop: DCPI. DCPI, when he feels like it, saunters across the street to the reporters busying themselves getting neighbor quotes ("I never heard them fighting" or "This building is usually so safe") and checking their e-mail on their phones. Crime scenes are a relief for a new reporter. You just follow the herd.
The Indian-looking man at the counter leans on his forearms, watching the scene outside the windows. I approach him.
"Do you know what's going on?" I ask.
He doesn't answer, but I think he understands what I've said.
"I'm from the Tribune," I say. "They found a body in the scrap yard."
"A woman they say."
This is a surprise. "A woman? No."
"Terrible," he says. He is probably in his thirties, but the ashy brown skin beneath his eyes could belong to a man twice his age. He hasn't shaved in a few days.
The men in the back of the store stop whispering and march toward the boy in the black coat. The tall one says something and they rush out, leaving the boy behind. They walk swiftly toward the scrap yard. I assume they won't talk to me, so I don't bother trying to ask a question. I should follow, but I just can't brave that wind again quite yet. If it were warm, I'd tag along a little behind, nose toward the scrap yard, try to get some detail to give the desk. Before I got anywhere near anything good, of course, I'd be told to get back. Get back with press, they'd say. I guess I'm a better reporter in the summertime. It was never once this cold in Florida, and even under all these layers I feel painfully exposed by the temperature. My bones feel like brittle aluminum rods, barely holding me up, scraping together, sucking up the cold and keeping it. One poke and I'll crumble to the ground.
The boy takes his hands out of his pockets and carefully places them around the glass of the decaf pot. After a moment he brings his hands to his face, cupping his cheeks with his hot little palms.
"That's smart," I say.
He looks up at me, surprised.
"I use my cup," I say, and lift my coffee. "And it keeps me warm on the inside."
"You work for the newspaper?" he asks.
I look at the man behind the counter. Kids hear everything.
"I do," I say. I point to the wire newspaper basket by the door. "The Trib."
"My mommy reads the newspaper."
"Oh?" I say. "Do you?"
The boy shakes his head. His mouth is a thin line. I don't think I've ever seen so serious a child. But, of course, I've never seen a Hasid — man, woman, or child — not look serious. My mother was Hasidic. She fell in love with my dad — a goy — during a period of teenage rebellion. They had me, named me after my mom's dead sister, and then she split — back to the black-coated cult in Brooklyn. There aren't really any ultra-Orthodox Jews where I grew up in Florida, but now that I've moved to New York, I see them every day. They live and work and shop and commute inside the biggest melting pot in the world, but they don't seem to interact with it at all. But for the costume they wear, they might as well be invisible. The men look hostile, wrapped like undertakers in their hats and coats all year long, their untended beards and dandruff- dusted shoulders like a middle finger to anyone forced against them on the subway at rush hour. The women look simultaneously sexless and fecund in aggressively flat shoes, thick flesh-colored stockings, and shapeless clothing, but always surrounded by children. I picture their homes dark and stale, with thick carpet and yellowing linoleum and low foam ceilings and thin towels. Are the little boys allowed action figures and race cars? Does somebody make a knockoff Hasidic Barbie for little girls? Barbie pushing a baby carriage and walking behind Ken. Barbie who leaves her kid.
"What's your name?" I ask.
The boy hesitates. He lifts his face toward mine and our eyes meet for the first time.
"Yakov," he says. "Yakov Mendelssohn."
My phone rings. It's an "unknown" number, which means it's probably the city desk. I smile at the boy, then turn and walk toward the beer cooler to take the call.
"It's Rebekah," I say.
"Hold for Mike," says the receptionist.
"Hey," says Mike. "Is photo there yet?" "Nobody's called me."
"Fuck. Is the M.E. there?"
"No," I say.
"Is anybody at the scrap yard talking? Any workers?"
I haven't asked. But I can't say that. "I haven't found anybody so far. They've got it mostly taped off."
"Well, keep trying. See if you can talk to whoever found the body."
"Okay," I say. I know — and Mike knows — that whoever found the body has likely been whisked off to the neighborhood precinct for questioning. But editors in the office often suggest you do things that are essentially impossible on the off chance you get something usable. Once, after the FBI had raided a pharmacy that was selling illegal steroids to cops, I spent an entire day in Bay Ridge looking for people who would admit they'd bought steroids there.