2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Entry by Hal Stucker
Unidentified Male, Brooklyn 1983
“Pop! Pop! Pop!” The sound cut through the blaring disco music the party in the building next door was blithely inflicting on my Brooklyn neighborhood. Even above the high-decibel thud of the bass line and the crash of electronic drums, I could tell the pops were gunfire. There was a hollowness to each report, the sequence of the bangs even and deliberate, in a way no random toss of firecrackers could have been.
It was the early 1980s and I was a freelance photographer, making my home in the borough’s Fort Green section. Now a pricey, chic Brooklyn neighborhood, at that time life in The Fort had the benefit of being ridiculously cheap and the liability of being exceedingly dangerous.
Each block seemed to have its own crack house, and drug-fueled crime was an everyday occurrence. Proprietors at several of the local businesses – the hardware store, the dry cleaners, a small bodega around the corner from my apartment building – had taken to wearing large-caliber handguns strapped to their hip, in plain sight of customers and would-be stickup artists. And it was not uncommon to hear gunfire late at night, coming from the direction of the Brooklyn Navy Yard or the Fort Green projects. But the shots I’d just heard were right outside my window, much closer than anything I’d been treated to in the past.
It was a warm evening, around sunset on a Saturday night in June, and I’d been sitting in my living room on my makeshift couch – a mattress on a sheet of scavenged plywood, held up by cinderblocks – reading Conrad’s Lord Jim. I got up and looked out the window, surveying the small sliver of Washington Avenue visible through the airshaft from my fifth-floor apartment. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. There was no one running away, no screams, no indication that any sort of urban horror had just taken place. There was only the monotonous beat of the music, the singer still exhorting everyone within earshot to get up and boogie.
Certain that I’d heard gunfire, I picked up the phone and dialed 911. The dispatcher politely took the information and said the police would be there as soon as a car was available, which said to me that the call was likely to be ignored. I hung up the phone and went back to my reading.
My attention was torn away from Conrad’s words a few moments later, though, when the music from next door abruptly stopped in mid-bass thump. I looked up to see a faint red and blue glow flashing rhythmically on the far wall, and went back over to the window. The street was now ablaze with cop-car bubblegum lights. Most sensible New Yorkers would probably have checked the locks on their front doors and drawn the window blinds. I went to the refrigerator, took out a few rolls of Tri-X 35mm film and loaded both my Nikons. Gently nestling them into my camera bag, I hustled down the stairs.
My career to that point had been a miserable, quixotic slog through the world of professional photography. Although my work had already appeared in the New York Times and I’d had several spreads in the Daily News Sunday Magazine, life was still largely a hand-to-mouth affair, each month a desperate race to garner enough work to cover the rent and bills. I’d just heard gunfire, and now the street was full of police cruisers. There had to be something down there worth photographing and the Daily News paid $150 for each spot news picture they ran. One photo in the News would put me three-quarters of the way to next month’s rent. Two photos? I tried not to think about it, afraid I’d jinx the whole thing.
Out on the street now, I looked down the block and saw a large knot of uniformed officers, perhaps a dozen or more. The twilight was just sinking into night, a few traces of red and gold still visible to the west. Several of the cops were holding flashlights, shining them down on the sidewalk at something I still couldn’t see.
I reached into my bag and took out the camera with the motor drive, my most professional-looking piece of equipment. Just then, two of the cops stepped away from the scene, revealing the body of a young man sprawled face-up and motionless on the sidewalk. He was wearing tan chinos, a dirty-looking windbreaker and a striped pullover. There was the shape of something dark underneath him on the sidewalk. In the failing light I could see it was a pool of blood.
One of the officers eyed me as I approached, but, surprisingly, no one tried to shoo me away. We all stood silently for a few moments, watching as the flashlight beams danced over the man’s dark hair and light olive skin.
“Any idea what happened?” I quietly asked the cop standing next to me. More of the officers stepped away and headed toward their cars, the crackle of police radio chatter occasionally puncturing the eerie quiet that had fallen over the street.
“Offhand, I’d say somebody didn’t like him,” the officer replied in a thick Queens accent.
Okay, here’s a guy on the fast-track to a detective’s badge, I thought. “Mind if I get a couple of shots? I’m a stringer for the Daily News.”
“Oh yeah?” The cop mulled it over for a moment. “Be my guest,” he finally said. “I don’t think this guy’s gonna complain about it.”
“Thanks.” I hooked a small, hand-held flash unit up to the camera, the “Pop! Pop! Pop!” of the strobe reminding me of the gunfire. As I lined the body up in the viewfinder, making sure all the pertinent details were visible – face, closed eyes, the thick puddle of blood – I idly wondered what circumstances had led this man to end up lifeless on a Brooklyn sidewalk on a warm June night. He had the skin-and-bones, hollow-cheeked look of a long-time crackhead. Was it a drug deal gone bad? Maybe a fight with another addict over recently purchased drugs? A minor challenge to some hot-headed macho asshole’s manhood? Some macho asshole who’d just happened to have been packing a gun?
A cop walked over to me, this one with sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve. “You wanna hold up a minute, pal?” he asked, stepping between me and the young man’s body. “Who are you, and why’re you taking pictures?” His voice was flat and authoritative.
I gave him my name and told him I was a stringer for the Daily News. The situation had to be played carefully, I knew, as a ranking officer in a homicide situation could do just about anything he wanted, including confiscate my film and camera. And I had no police-sanctioned press ID, either, which meant all I had to convince him of my legitimacy was a snappy line of patter and a winning smile. “I’m the guy who made the 911 call,” I offered, hoping to get some bonus points for good citizenship.
“If you’re with the News, where’s your press tags?”
“I’m not on staff, so I only get tags when they give me an assignment,” I said, making it a point to look him in the eye. “I live in that building over there and heard the shots. If the editor on the photo desk found out there was a shooting on my front doorstep and I didn’t bring him pictures, I’d never get another assignment out of him again.” That was a bald-faced lie, but I was hoping the sergeant could relate to the idea that I might be some poor schmoe stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“You got any ID at all?” My driver’s license had expired two years ago, but the sergeant gave it a quick look-over, then handed it back. “You can take a couple more shots, then get the hell out of here, alright?”
* * *
“So whatcha got for me?” The photo desk editor had maybe a dozen or so black-and-white prints spread out over his desktop and barely looked up at me as he spoke. I pulled the single roll of Tri-X that I’d shot from the front pocket of my jeans. “Murder in Brooklyn. Washington Avenue, one street over from Pratt.”
He looked up. “Was the victim a student?”
“No, I don’t think so. The cops hadn’t ID’d him, but he looked more like someone from the neighborhood.”
“Was this a robbery?”
“My guess would be a drug deal gone bad,” I offered. “The cops were still looking for witnesses when I left.” I introduced myself, and told him that I normally shot for Tom Ruis at the Sunday Magazine, but the homicide had happened right in front of my apartment building, and I thought the daily might want photos.
He shook my hand. “I’m Frank O’Brien, and thanks for thinking of us,” he said with a faint smile. “Was anybody else there getting shots of the scene?”
“No, just me. I heard the gunfire and got there about five minutes after it happened.”
O’Brien took the roll from me and turned to a young guy standing behind him who’d been looking through a sheaf of contact sheets. “Jimmy, have the lab run this really quick, okay?” It was well past ten now, over two hours since the murder, and the newsroom was dark and quiet. The overhead lights were off, the only illumination in the room coming from the light on O’Brien’s desk and a few other lamps on desk lamps scattered around the room.
I figured it would take a while to run the film and wandered off down the hall to get a cup of coffee from a vending machine. O’Brien had the processed roll on a lightbox and was going over it with a magnifier when I got back.
It was beginning to worry me that I hadn’t had the details of the situation when O’Brien asked, but the worry subsided when he picked up a pair of scissors and began cutting the film into strips, then marked the edges of several frames with a red grease pencil. He put the marked strips into a glassine envelope and handed them to Jimmy. “Tell them to give me 8x10s of those, okay?” he said, turning to me as the assistant disappeared. “Nice work, kid. Even though it’s gotta be pretty easy when they’re not moving like that.”
Though I’d been published in the magazine before, I’d never had a picture run in the daily, and certainly nothing like the Weegee-esque death-on-a-Brooklyn-sidewalk shot I’d brought in that night. It was still early enough in my nascent career that the thought of having one of my photographs splashed across a sheet of tabloid newsprint with my byline next to it was a major-league thrill.
“So you think the shot will run?” I tried to keep my voice cool, the tone matter-of-fact.
O’Brien shrugged. “Good chance. I’ll send the prints down to the city desk and they can have someone call the precinct to get the details. We probably wouldn’t run a story, just the shot and a caption. Check the paper on Monday morning, because that’s when we’d have it. And here,” he opened a desk drawer, took out a fresh roll of Tri-X and tossed it to me, “we like to try and help you guys keep on shooting.”
“And thank you. And tell Ruis I said Hi next time you see him, okay?”
* * *
Monday morning, 8a.m., and I was settling into a booth at Mike’s Coffee Shop, corner of DeKalb and Hall. I’d spent Sunday sleeping late and trying not to think about whether the shot would run. Besides professional pride and bragging rights, there was also a sorely-needed paycheck hanging in the balance. I’d bought a copy of the News at the bodega next door, but vowed I wouldn’t look at it until I was sitting down, a cup of hot coffee in front of me. Now the milk. The sugar. Stir. Open the paper.
The banner across the front page, reading “Weekend Slaughter!” was promising enough. According to the lead story, in addition to the shooting I’d photographed, there had been 25 other murders between Friday night and the wee hours of Monday morning, something of a record, even for early-1980s New York. The news was disturbing, yet I felt an odd, illicit thrill knowing that I’d been part of it all.
But the picture I’d shot was not on the second page. I turned to pages three and four, finding them graced only with the smiling face of then-mayor Ed Koch. No again to pages five, six, or seven, the most likely spots it would have run. I didn’t give up looking, though, until I reached the classifieds. With a small sigh, I turned back to page seven, where the News had run a full list of casualties. My guy came in at number 23 on the hit parade, an “as-yet unidentified male, shot in front of 483 Washington Avenue in Brooklyn.”
As-yet unidentified. I suddenly, unexpectedly, felt very bad. Not for myself, not for any lost recognition or a paycheck I wouldn’t see. But bad for a man so friendless he could die on a Brooklyn street and, 48 hours later, still be lying in a morgue somewhere, a “John Doe” tag on his big toe, his life reduced to the phrase “as yet unidentified male.”
I thought about other pictures that might have been taken of this man. Baby pictures. Grade school. High school yearbook. No matter how poor his family, how mean his background, there would have been at least a few photographs documenting his progress through life. And now here I was, a total stranger, having taken the very last of them, speculating about the others. Having only seen Unidentified Male in death, I wondered how he would have looked in life, young and healthy, with his arm around some girlfriend on a summer afternoon at Coney Island. Or hugging his mother and smiling, a young face full of hope and promise. Perhaps it was better, then, that no one would see him as he’d finally ended up.
If I’d still been a Catholic, I would have said a prayer. Instead, I closed the paper and fished a dollar bill out of my pocket to pay the check. Then I walked down the block to catch the G train, heading for the Daily News building to retrieve my negatives.