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the cigarette bandit
a reporter's first crime story
by henry william murphy
6.11.04
writing

Near the end of my days as a small-town newspaper reporter, I finally got a shot at the closest thing to Watergate I'd ever find: the story of the cigarette bandit. By "Watergate," I mean the very first story that Woodward and Bernstein wrote together, the deceptively straightforward crime story about a break-in at a Washington landmark. Okay, so the cigarette bandit didn't go on to reveal a national network of campaign-finance abuse and political dirty tricks. But that might just be because he was never caught.

Basically, the Cigarette Bandit had a calling: to hurl empty garbage cans through the glass doors of closed convenience stores, then heedlessly pile cartons of cigarettes into the very same can. He was nothing if not frugal. Then, somehow, he'd disappear with this piece of evidence that was almost as tall as he was. He struck in the county, where the city has faded away but the first signs of metropolitan life were taking root. His face had been captured on more than one security camera, but had not been identified. In a petty crime hot streak worthy of Goodfellas, he pulled his act at a few different places before fading into the underworld.

For this young reporter, writing journalism was harder than it seemed. It's a technical dialect, with plenty of terminology, convention and regulation. Fortunately, the crime story is one of the few genres--unlike feature, news, human interest and so on--that meshes cleanly with the needs of journalese. And I'd been stuck covering dramatic but essentially frustrating topics, like school board meetings and zoning disputes between citizens and the city board. So if nobody out there has known the pleasure of writing a non-violent crime news story, let me introduce you:

Structure, Or Wordsmithing
First of all, there's the issue of the lede. In the case of a crime, you don't have a lot of flexibility with this issue. The lede's gotta have the crime in it, just to start with. There's no agonizing about what might grab the reader's attention. If "cigarette bandit" doesn't do it, nothing will. And once the lede is set, you just make sure there are enough inches of text and you don't tell any lies.

If the crime is uncontroversial--as in the case of The Cigarette Bandit--all documents are available and all subjects are willing, if not downright eager, to talk to you. The flow of information is hampered only by official incompetence, which is an underappreciated influence in journalism. There aren't even two sides to a typical crime story, since no one's disputing the fact that a man who breaks into convenience stores and steals cartons of cigarettes is committing theft. There's no "One man's cigarette bandit is another man's freedom fighter" atmosphere. And usually there's an elegant chronology to a lawbreaker's behavior, since he can't smash in more than one convenience store door with an empty garbage can at a time.

Colorful Detail (That Becomes Part of the Story You Tell People, Not the News Story)
It's hard to avoid colorful detail when you start out writing a story with the words "cigarette bandit" in it. This may be the most enjoyable aspect (within the parameters mentioned above): most of the story is done for you, right down to whatever street tag has been affixed to the perpetrator. This doesn't say a lot for the adverserial or investigative spirit of journalism, at least in a contemporary sense, but journalism has always had plenty of institutional complicity in it.

At any rate, one of the victims of this as-yet-unidentified man was a Shamrock gas station on Crystal Hill Road, which is well-known for more than one kind of crystal. For the first time in my life I was admitted to the back room of a convenience store. It was straight out of one of those hepcat "neo-noir" flicks that flourished after Pulp Fiction blew up in '94, like Love and a .45 (awful, by the way). The manager sat on the edge of a ratty black fabric chair, with reddened eyes and an equally overworked moustache. In one hand was a steaming styrofoam cup; in the other, one of those ridiculously long cigarettes that only teenagers with no car and chain-smoking parents end up puffing. He was watching the store's security cameras and showed me the video of the thief. He didn't have much to say; is there anything about dozens of stolen packs of cigarettes that could move any of us to words?

Deadline? What Deadline?
Writing this story was sort of like assembling a toy in a Happy Meal: follow instructions and don't expect too much from the result. But in contrast with my usual stories, which ended up stretching out because of my creative scheduling, creative questioning or creative procrastinating, there's only so much I could write. Total time was something like four hours, and that probably includes lunch. It was a cool washcloth to my fevered cub reporter forehead. When you start your career (such as it was) by writing a story about pooper-scooper laws, a story with a beginning, middle, end and almost slapstick action keeps your vision from going blurry.

In a way, my first crime story was a little warning signal. I hadn't gone into journalism to write uncritical, snappy copy--which, I think, a lot of people actually do go into journalism for--but it turned out I enjoyed writing that as much as writing stories about nursing home closures, or some other controversial subject. By this point, I wasn't sure what I wanted to get out of journalism, or why I thought about it so much. I was just glad to turn in something that had a little hustle, got the facts straight and didn't make me question my ability as a writer. I wasn't a reporter for long after it came out, but at least my story is part of someone else's, wherever that chain-smoking recluse is hiding.


ABOUT HENRY WILLIAM MURPHY

A Southern boy without a Southern accent, Southern hospitality, Southern grace, Southern politics, Southern religion or a firm grasp of Southern literature.

more about henry william murphy




COMMENTS

tracey kelley
6.29.04 @ 3:32p

Wow - I guess when I was traveling, I totally missed this. What a funny thing!



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