I don’t cover soft news. Stories about lottery winners, runaway brides, weight-loss secrets, or how to beat speeding tickets are given to reporters with a talent for covering these gentler topics. A kind of talent I don’t have. Give me a high-speed car chase down the 405 freeway during rush hour, an out-of-control brushfire threatening multimillion-dollar homes in the Hollywood Hills, or a bank robbery shootout with police, and I’ll turn in a story that’ll keep viewers glued to the TV news instead of their smart phones and YouTube.
So after forty-eight hours of covering a commuter train collision that had killed twelve and injured at least another six, I couldn’t believe the story I was being assigned. “A Los Angeles resident called to tell us she found a big stack of cash on her front porch this morning,” the Channel Eleven news editor, David Dyal, said in the morning assignment meeting. “She thinks it came from a Good Samaritan and is giving us an exclusive on the story.”I assumed he would gesture toward Laurie Evans, the fresh-out-of-journalism-school reporter with a pixie haircut and perfect white teeth who recently had filed a highly emotional report on dogs wearing Halloween costumes. But his finger was pointing at me. “Yours, Kate.”
Or at least that’s what I thought he’d said. But he couldn’t have. Not with the death toll mounting on the train wreck. He was staring right at me, so maybe he was expecting an update. “Actually,” I told him, “I’m working on an angle that the train engineer may have been texting minutes before the Metrolink crash.”
The room went silent, and all eyes were upon me. Every reporter was thinking the same thing. Don’t question David’s assignments, because you’ll pay for it—forever. You may get what you want in the short term, but in the long run, you’ll find yourself covering the new dog poop ordinance in Pacoima or the city landfill briefings.
“One of Mel Gibson’s sons was injured in the train wreck, so Susan will take over the Metrolink story,” David said, running his hands through his unruly black hair.
I glanced over at Susan Andrews, the former Miss Texas reporter who covered celebrity stories and scandals. I couldn’t tell whether she was gloating over her assignment or if an overzealous doctor had pumped too much filler into her lips.
Assignment meetings are held in the Fish Bowl, a glass-enclosed conference room in the back of the newsroom, and they are always chaotic and loud, with several discussions going on at once. Most reporters multitask at the meeting, tapping out their required news tweets, catching up with news online, and sometimes even talking on their cell phones. Today was no exception.
“This Good Samaritan story sounds more up your alley, Ted,” I called across the room, trying to be heard over the din and motioning to the reporter in the corner who was texting on his BlackBerry.
“I’m covering Palmdale’s new ordinance requiring homeowners to keep an attractive front yard,” Ted answered.
Ouch. I wondered what Ted had done to warrant such cruel and unusual punishment, but then I remembered that his report on baby smuggling last week was so poorly written that he must have thought grammar was an award given to pop music artists.
On the whiteboard on the front wall of the conference room, David tracked all the stories for the day under four columns: Follow, Top Story, Breaking News, and Other. Most of the time, you’d find my name and assignment under Breaking News. But today, under Other, he scribbled my name and “Good Sam.”
“Kate, all yours,” he said, with that silly grin he always had when he was handing out crummy assignments. “Think of this as a twenty-four-hour break from your usual death, destruction, and weeping-survivors stories.”
I didn’t want a break from the Bummer Beat. I’m one of the best at covering tragedy, and I’m able to get interviews and shots that others can’t. I get them first and I get them on deadline. I had no business covering a soft story like this one.
“Make it interesting, Kate, and we’ll run it as the kicker before sports,” David said, rolling up the sleeves of his white oxford shirt.
“I can already hear the sound of millions of viewers switching channels,” I grumbled.
“You’ll be thanking me later for this assignment. Trust me.”
I’m not good at trust. Trust can break your heart, and if you happen to be one of the victims of the stories I usually cover, trust can kill you.
As I headed to the news van, I had no idea that my life was about change forever. Sometimes the most important moments in your life can only be seen in the rearview mirror.
A news director once told me I wasn’t TV news reporter material. Sure, I had the pedigree, he said. The journalism degree from Columbia University and a regional Emmy Award for covering a double murder in La Jolla. The problem, he declared, was that I didn’t look like a reporter. I didn’t have the “package.”
For one thing, I’m not blond like so many of today’s anchors and reporters. And while I wear a fair amount of makeup on air, I don’t heap on the spray tan or the bronzer and lip liner or coat my eyes with fake eyelashes and so much shadow that I should be wearing a sash and tiara instead of holding a microphone. Which brings me to another important difference. Unlike some news reporters, I was never a beauty pageant contestant, and I don’t have a title like “former Miss Florida” or “former America’s Junior Miss.” Nor am I what they call a “news babe,” wearing thigh-high skirts and body-hugging blouses, enticing male viewers to watch, even if they’re not paying attention to a word I’m saying.
Instead my hair is light brown and cut in a layered, shoulder-length style that’s supposed to say “reliable” and “trustworthy” but also “feminine.” Thanks to braces in high school, I do have the requisite gleaming white teeth, and my eyes are hazel with a hint of copper, which makes them appear uncannily exotic on camera.
Even so, I have something more valuable than the “package.” David Dyal calls it “fearlessness.” But I’m not fearless. Just persistent. Six years on the Bummer Beat had honed my tenacity. I had scaled smoky hilltops to get the best shot of a wildfire in Griffith Park, crossed crime-scene tape to cover a shooting at city hall, and even (stupidly, I admit) chased a suspect down an alley. To be fair, he was unarmed and was part of a group of teenagers accused of burgling jewelry from a celebrity’s home.
Because I primarily report on the Bummer Beat, I spend a lot of time covering stories in the zone the Los Angeles Police Department calls “South Bureau.” The zone covers non-tourist-friendly areas like Watts and the Port of Los Angeles, and its 640,000 residents and 18,000 gang members account for almost 40 percent of LA’s homicides each year. Most of these murders don’t make it on TV newscasts unless a child or innocent bystander is involved, but enough stories make it to air that I, along with my news photographer, Josh, know the territory well.
We are well versed in which streets to avoid, which areas might leave the news van vulnerable to graffiti if we stopped too long at a traffic light, and most important, which people to avoid. From Cypress Park to Long Beach, the last thing we want to hear is “Wassup?” from a group of guys wearing baggy pants.
I wasn’t surprised that Cristina Gomez, the woman who claimed to have found money on her front porch, lived in South Bureau. I figured the cash had been tossed there as part of a drug deal gone sour.
As we drove to Cristina’s house, past rundown strip malls, several recycling yards, and vacant lots littered with trash that had accumulated against their chain-link fences, Josh asked, “How exactly did we end up assigned to this story instead of following up on the train derailment? Are we in the doghouse or something?”
I smiled. When I first met Josh, I suspected the Abercrombie & Fitch–clad twenty-seven-year-old with the mop of blond hair was more frat boy than news photographer. But looks can be deceiving. Turned out he’d been a news junkie since he was a kid. Every day after school, he listened to the police scanner, and if something interesting happened, he’d grab his 110-film camera and pedal his bike to the scene. Some of his photos even ended up in the LA Times before he graduated from high school.
“Maybe David assigned us this story because no one else on the team knows South Bureau like we do,” I said.
“No one else will drive into South Bureau,” he grumbled.
My cell phone rang and the name “Hale Bradley” flashed on the screen.
“Dad,” I answered.
He wasted no time getting down to business. “Katie,” he said, “I’m flying to LA on Friday. Can we get together for dinner?”
“Sure. What time and where?”
“I’ll have Lisa in my office e-mail you the details.”
“What’s bringing you—”
“We’ll catch up when I see you,” he said, cutting me off. “Gotta run now. Much love.” He hung up. My dad never said “goodbye” or “take care” or any of the niceties other people used before hanging up. He thought those words were a waste of time; throwaways that didn’t convey actual feeling.
“I still don’t get it,” Josh said, shaking his head. “Your dad is Hale Bradley, majority leader of the U.S. Senate. One of the most powerful decision makers in the country. Why aren’t you covering the political beat for one of the networks instead of chasing breaking news in LA?”
“Breaking news is more honest,” I said. “At least when people lie or cheat or steal, they do it out in the open, where we can cover it. But in the political world, they do much the same thing, except behind closed doors. Besides, a breaking news story gets double or triple the ratings of any story about politics.”
“Does your dad know you think this way?”
“He’s always trying to get me into doing political coverage. He wants me to perpetuate what he calls the Bradley family dynasty.”
Josh shot me an incredulous look. “Dynasty?”
“My uncle is the mayor of Princeton, New Jersey and I have a cousin who’s running for senator in Maryland.”
“So instead of state dinners and fundraising galas with the Bradleys, you get to be…here,” he said, and pointed out the window.
Cristina’s gray stucco house was fortified behind a chain-link fence. White lace curtains fluttered behind windows covered by thick steel bars. I stood on the sidewalk for a moment and tugged on the sleeves of my jacket, not entirely sure how to cover a soft story like this. A murder, a robbery, a burglary, an accident—those are easy. Collect facts, talk with police, and snare an interview with a survivor or a victim, if they’re not already dead. But there had been no crime committed here, and as far as I could tell, not much of a story either.
In breaking news situations, the news photographer always stays within a few feet of me, capturing the scene, the events, and the interviews as they unfold in real time. But for stories like this, it’s better for the photographer to wait in the van because when a reporter and cameraman shows up unannounced, many people will suffer from what we call fight-or-flee syndrome, which makes them slam and lock their doors, refuse interviews, and sometimes call the police. So while Josh readied his camera in the van, I headed to the front door.
I shouldn’t have worried about this being a fight-or-flee because before I could even knock, Cristina flung open the door and greeted me with open arms.
“You are Kate Bradley, yes?” she exclaimed, ushering me in.
She was a tiny woman, five feet tall at most, with ink black hair parted down the middle and sensible eyeglasses. Her home was neat and organized, as though dust and dirt had declared her place off limits. But the cleanliness couldn’t hide the sheer poverty beneath—rips in the sagging furniture, the threadbare rugs, and paint peeling from the ceiling. The place smelled of cooked onions and bleach.
“I found the money yesterday morning,” she said with a soft Guatemalan accent. “There was no note. Nothing to tell me who it came from.”
I studied her profile. Was she too eager to tell her story? I’d interviewed several people who’d trumped up stories to get attention. One Brentwood woman faked an entire abduction—putting duct tape over her mouth and hands and lying in the gutter on a street in Compton. Later she admitted to staging the whole thing because she wanted the publicity to kick-start her faltering acting career.
Cristina took me into the kitchen and pointed to twenty stacks of crisp bills arranged neatly on the chipped Formica counter.
She lowered her voice to a reverent whisper. “One hundred thousand.”
A hundred thousand dollars. I had expected several hundred dollars—or at best a few thousand. I ran my fingers along the edges of the stacks, letting the magnitude of the number sink in. My voice caught in my throat. “Surely this came from someone you know.”
“I asked everyone I could think of, but they say no—they do not know anything about it. Then I thought maybe it came from the Los Angeles Foundation. My husband Carlos is out of work, and we’ve been getting help from them.”
“Could it have come from the foundation?”
She laughed, a girlish giggle that showed off two silver teeth. “The Los Angeles Foundation doesn’t give away one hundred thousand dollars to one family.”
“Then who do you think is responsible?”
“It’s a miracle,” she said. “El espíritu de Dios. What you call the spirit of God.”
She started to cry; big tears formed at the corners of her eyes like glassy jewels.
“This has been a hard time for us. Last month we were robbed. They took so much of what we had—even some of the children’s things. And then Carlos was let go from his job working as a janitor at the high school. But to know that someone is looking over us and helping us—it is a miracle.”
I handed her a Kleenex from my purse. With the Oprahization of our culture, perfect strangers often wept when I interviewed them. Over the years I had come prepared for it, carrying tissues and a bottle of antacid tablets.
“That’s why I called Channel Eleven,” Cristina continued. “I want everyone to know about this miracle.”
I glanced out the kitchen window. Two-foot-tall weeds and wild grasses grew in the place of a back lawn. A faded red Pontiac rusted in the far corner. I don’t believe in miracles, but if anyone deserved one, it was this family.
“We are bringing the money to a bank this morning.” She reached into a cabinet by the stove and pulled out a large canvas bag. “This is what it came in.”
The bag was plain, with no distinctive marking except a faint number eight stamped on the side.
It looked to me like the Gomez family had received a much-needed gift from a very generous yet anonymous friend. Josh and I taped an interview with Cristina, but I seriously doubted it would make it to air at all because of a car chase in West Los Angeles that was chewing up all the airtime.
As we were about to leave, Cristina took my hands in hers, and in a voice barely above a whisper, she said, “You do not believe.”
“I see it in your eyes. You do not believe this is a miracle. But you cannot see everything with your eyes, miss. You have to look in here.” She pressed a palm to her heart and closed her eyes.
“I’m not here to judge…”
“I’m not the only one to have this miracle happen to them.” Her eyes remained closed. “She would not want me to tell you this. Her name is Marie Ellis. She found money too.”