A tribute to a fallen street character--but was he really dead?
My colleague Steve Hendrix's story today about the popular burrito street vendor Carlos Guardado is a sweet and sad tale, but when I read it, I shuddered with frightening flashbacks to a similar piece I wrote in 2004.
In Hendrix's front-page story, we know for a fact that Guardado -- a "fixture" at 17th and K streets NW on Farragut Square -- had a heart attack and died, according to Guardado's brother-in-law. In my September 2004 Metro story -- about another street-side "fixture" named Jimmy Reed, a homeless man who hung outside Old Town Alexandria's Starbucks -- the reporting was much thinner. My story's problem: I never confirmed Reed's death with his relatives before publishing the piece.
A day or two after my story came out, I got a call. It was from a family friend or relative of Reed. (I can't remember if the woman was technically related to Reed or not.) The voice on the other end of the line was angry. "Jimmy's not dead," the woman said. I asked if I could call her back. I needed to collect myself.
In my head, anxious and selfish thoughts ricocheted around in random order: How quickly can I get into a graduate school test prep course? Just how badly will I be skewered by Washington City Paper once they see the correction? And, finally: Where the hell is Jimmy Reed?
(Guardado and Reed were unheralded street figures who quietly connected random people while they were still living. Sadly, it was only in their deaths that Guardado and Reed achieved some measure of fame. We'd like to know, who are other ordinary people who make a living on the street and who have subtly become part of your lives? Email us at email@example.com or post your thoughts on the comment board below.)
I only learned of Reed and his supposed death because an editor assigned me to write about him. The editor said I should check out the carnations outside the Starbucks on King Street, where Reed always sat. There was even a poster board where residents shared memories, pieces of paper propped up next to the flowers. Reed's death, I presumed, was a fact.
So, on that Sunday morning, I set out for the Starbucks. I saw the shrine, the carnations, and all the sweet messages. A local newspaper article was taped to the Starbucks shrine. Its headline made it seem like Reed needed no title and that he was like a public figure: "Jimmy Reed Dies." Then I interviewed people along King Street to learn more about Reed.
Known for his thick long dreadlocks and military fatigues, Reed was well-liked in town. He rarely said much to the latte crowd, save for compliments on their glasses or new clothing. And he rarely ever begged for money, only accepting handouts. He read newspapers such as The Financial Times and New York Times. (He apparently liked perusing stock tables.) A consistent and perhaps uncomfortable theme emerged that, at the time, I wasn't able to mine too deeply: Alexandrians liked the homeless man because, among other reasons, he wasn't threatening.
I quickly drove back to the newsroom and wrote up the 600-word story. The next day, on Monday, September 27, 2004, on page B3 in the Metro section, the article appeared under the headline, "Death of Alexandria Mainstay Strikes Chord."
After getting the phone call from the woman who said she was Reed's relative or close friend, I called my editor. I needed to warn him that an embarrassing correction might be on its way. He had one simple reaction: Find the body.
I started my investigation with Reed's relative/friend. The woman said Jimmy was merely missing. I was skeptical. How did she know for sure? I started calling every hospital in the Washington region. I called multiple funeral homes. I called police but they couldn't confirm his death, either. I hiked up and down Alexandria's streets, talking to homeless people, asking when they had last seen Reed. Most of them couldn't remember. One guy, however, said he had seen Jimmy being taken away in an ambulance.
Feeling guilty and needing to prove myself, I wrote up a 3,000-word memo explaining every step of my search for Reed.
I felt horrible for so many reasons. I didn't even know what I should be hoping to find: Reed himself, alive and well, maybe having relocated to another Starbucks; or his corpse, so I wouldn't have to suffer one of the worst-ever newspaper corrections. I felt like one of those pathetic characters in a Coen brothers movie.
Finally, after a week of stress, I got a call back from a hospital. I was at The Post's Alexandria bureau, coincidentally located next to the Starbucks where Reed hung out. The reporters sitting around me could feel my nervousness. A body had turned up on the streets, the hospital official said. I reeled off my list of questions as if I were a police detective:
Does he have dreadlocks?
Was the body clad in military fatigues?
What about his name? Do you have a name for the body?
The hospital put me on hold. Finally, the voice got back on the line and said: "Jimmy...Jimmy...Reed."
I threw my arms up in the air, elated that I had not insulted his family, relieved that I had not published incorrect information; the other reporters in the bureau shook my hand, congratulating me on the discovery. I gave the hospital official the number for Reed's relative/friend, so she would learn the news through more official channels. Then, I called my boss back. He didn't seem thrilled or relieved. He just wanted me to get back to work.
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