One very strong rule dictated what I, the reporter, would cover with all my heart during 14 years reporting for newspapers down the Shore and in Philadelphia: The people I wrote about had to have experienced a helluva lot more than I had.
The woman who escaped Gary Heidnik’s basement.
The unidentifiable German whose teeth scattered across South Carolina Avenue, where he landed after swan-diving from atop an A.C. casino garage.
The North Philly grandfather whose murdered body was found in an abandoned hovel, but whose internal organs weren’t.
They were among the people in whom I emotionally invested, in order that droves of readers could, too. I considered that to be the benchmark of living up to the ethical promise of my trade. I tried, and succeeded, in becoming a public name, but not a public figure.
Well, that all changed at 10:15 p.m. on November 28, 2008.
Among the many things that moment has forced me to figure out — besides the basics like how to walk, talk, and take a shower or a piss by myself — is what happens when the storyteller becomes the compelling story.
Which, come to think of it, is exactly the type of article I’d been subconsciously training to write all along.
THIS PART, I remember:
The path to my hometown was long, but simple. R6 from East Falls to Market East, PATCO from the Gallery to Collingswood, five-to-10-minute walk east on Atlantic Avenue to the Haddon Township border where Tom Fischer’s Tavern sits, which I still call the Collmont, just like I did when I was there in my single-digit years, eating cheese curls and watching The Rockford Files.
I’d gone to reunite with old friends. We live less than 15 miles apart, but I hadn’t seen them in a while. By 5 p.m. I was eating the best beef in town, watching the ponies on TV, chatting up Val the owner, and heading outside to smoke nearly a pack of Parliaments. Oh, and drinking pints of Harp and shots of Jäger while a stream of recognizable faces arrived. Cocker. Miller. Barbano. Et cetera.
Most of my time was spent talking smack. I ripped my buddy Tom McGuire for wearing what I deemed a “gay” Irish cap and punking out of getting together sooner because he has a two-year-old.
He responded with the pot-calling-the-kettle-black defense that I was actually gay for deeming the Killers a great band. When I left my phone on the bar to play a rock-block containing only “Mr. Brightside,” he proceeded to text-announce my newly found sexual identity to my father.
Maturity doesn’t come easily to us.
By 10 p.m. the early-30s crowd dissipated, so I made the walk to the trains that would take me home, or at least to Krupa’s Tavern in Fairmount for a nightcap.
And that’s where the memory ends. It feels as if I blinked and woke up in mid-December, but the reporter in me was able to piece it together. Here’s what he found:
I left the bar at about 10:07 p.m., lit what would be my last cigarette, put my iPod earphones on, and walked against little to no traffic up Atlantic. At about 10:12 p.m., residents of Atlantic — a poorly lit, sidewalk-less street that serves as a shortcut for locals — heard shrieking car brakes and a loud “thud” near the intersection with Linden.