Storyville
10:10 am
Thu November 21, 2013

Storyville: Thirty

Credit Derek Bridges

Dan Lawton tells of his first job as a crime reporter.

I take a job during the summer as a weekend crime reporter.

The first morning nothing happens. Mostly, I bend my ear over the police radio. I’m listening for a 30 — the code for homicide — but the numbers jumble together in a messy soup of cop lingo.

I have a list of police stations and call them and ask if anything is happening.

“No, we’re quiet,” the dispatchers say.

By the afternoon, the routine has become a bore. I drift in and out of conversations about stolen Xboxes and domestic disputes.

At dusk, I pull out my list and dial again.

“Command desk,” the policewoman says on the other end.

“Ya’ll have anything major working this evening,” I ask.

She pauses.

My hands grow cold. I scoop up notepads by the dozen. I forget my keys until I’m at the car door.

I’m headed to the 7th Ward, so I take the interstate. It’s elevated, and as I weave through traffic, the city unfolds like a pocket map. I speed past the burnt-orange rooftops of the nearby Iberville Housing Project. In the distance, the French Quarter looms and behind it ships float down the Mississippi.

Claiborne Avenue is my exit. My shocks tremble as I clunk into the neighborhood. I see the bright-yellow police tape in the distance. The final burning fragments of the red sun are seconds from being snuffed out behind the shotgun style houses. I park, grab the notebook and go.

The block is heavy with muffled voices, folks sitting on the stoop swigging from brown-bagged beers. I couldn’t feel more self-conscious: a floppy-haired white boy striding up to a murder scene dressed like he’s about to make communion.

They’ve illuminated the street with a spotlight that makes it look like a theater stage. Plainclothes detectives scurry, while a wall of officers man the outer ring. There’s a 20-something girl in a pair of light green shorts and a halter top softly crying. I wait until I know I can’t wait any longer and then I tap her on the shoulder.

"It's hard to ask someone a question when they're zipping their loved one in a body bag," another reporter had told me.

Yet once we get started, the conversation flows.

"He was a deejay.  His name was Deejay St. Bernard,” she says, choking back tears. “He was 21. He released his first CD yesterday."

We talk about where he went to school, what kind of person he was, how his stepfather and stepbrother were gunned down in Gert Town three months ago.

She seems oddly composed. The tears have even stopped falling from her pooling brown eyes. Then she freezes.

They’re moving the body bag. He’s in it. You can see the bulge.

She moans, deep, and guttural, and her grandmother does the same. I take two steps back and watch the tears pour and her body convulse and sway.

Walking away is like walking out of a forest fire: each step brings a scrap of relief.

At the end of the block, I catch my silhouette on the walls of a convenience store and shudder with fear before I realize it’s my own.

A pigeon, favoring a broken wing, waddles around the corner followed by a huge Siamese cat. He bats at the bird casually with his paw.

He's just gonna take his time before he pounces.

Dan Lawton

Dan Lawton is a journalist and essayist. He currently works as a reporter for the New Orleans Advocate and his writing has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, The Times-Picayune, The Oregonian and a number of other newspapers and magazines. He also previously worked as a reporter for the Daily Mail in Accra, Ghana. He was born and currently lives in New Orleans. He practices aikido and has an acrobatic pitbull. You can read more of his writing at DanLawton.com

Storyville is a new collaboration between of the University of New Orleans and WWNO. These are true stories about New Orleans written by the students in the University’s Creative Writing Workshop — our next generation of writers. The stories are as diverse, original and colorful as the city itself.

Produced by Laine Kaplan-Levenson.