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A tribute to a fallen street character--but was he really dead?

By Ian Shapira

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 storylab@washpost.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?

Check.

Was the body clad in military fatigues?

Another check.

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.

By Ian Shapira  | October 7, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Comments

Ian is a ghoul--He threw his arms up, elated---at the death of a human being! You are sick.

I don't need to ask what you will be this halloween...

Posted by: edmondsonpr | October 7, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Soooo, being right about the story was more important than the fact that Jimmy was dead? Sad, sad state of affairs.

Posted by: if_not_now_when | October 7, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Ian. In a middle graf you alluded to the fact that you were unsure what you were looking for (and what you would be more relieved to find: Jimmy dead or Jimmy alive).

I agree with the previous commenters. Obviously you were relieved when you had some closure to your dilemma, but being elated at the news of another man's death?

Surely you could have ended this post a little more tastefully, regardless of how you truly felt.

Posted by: johnaesthetica | October 7, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Hardly know what to say about this crass, self serving, and cold-hearted piece of garbage.

Posted by: barbnc | October 7, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

The kind and gentle Jimmy Reed passes away, while the vacuous and self-absorbed Ian Shapira lives on.

Clearly, there is no God.

Posted by: privettricker1 | October 7, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Imagine what a great day it was for Ian Shapira when the plane hit the 14th Street Bridge -- lots of people dead! Many chances for crass exploitation of grief! Hooray!

Posted by: PigSkin | October 7, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Wow-that was as profound as a wading pool.

Posted by: catsmom | October 7, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Ian, now you get to write another Story Lab about how your insane insensitivity was displayed for all to see. For future reference, its generally never okay to mention elation at the death of a decent human being. Does any editor actually work at the post any more, or is that a great big empty building down there?

Posted by: mendelsonmustgo | October 7, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

Wow. There are a lot of righteous idiots commenting here. Relax people, you know why he was relieved, that would have been a horrible mistake to have to correct. The author of the article obviously wasn't happy the guy was dead. Now hurry up and go be really judgmental to your family.

Posted by: JG55 | October 7, 2010 7:03 PM | Report abuse

Good grief, Ian, you sure make yourself look bad here. I can picture it now- you hear the confirmation that Jimmy Reed is really dead, throw up your arms in elation, shout "Yes!", and high-five everyone in sight. I guess you are doing penance for those feelings by writing about it that way, at least I hope so.

Posted by: justmike | October 8, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

This story is absolutely disgusting. Recap:

One time I didn't do my job as a journalist and "forgot" to do some fact checking when I wrote a quasi obituary about a homeless guy that had allegedly died. Boy, I was worried because my reputation was on the line. When I learned that he was in fact dead, I was really happy because it wasn't going to be a problem for my career. I am sooo lucky, and hopefully the journalist that wrote the story on burrito man checked his or her facts, too. It could just be a ploy, you know.

HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE.

Posted by: ahang | October 8, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

"Story Lab" eds asked:
"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?"

Yes.

There was this panhandling guy once who came up to our car. He was a ratty, leathery-looking middle-aged white guy with thin, greasy hair.

We were thinking of slipping him a few bucks out of bourgeois noblesse oblige, but then he proceeded to tell us in a low, creepy, hypnotic monologue that we were evil, cold-hearted, soulless f###s for not giving him money right away.

He has "subtly" become part of my life because I often think to myself, hey now, maybe I *am* an evil, cold-hearted soulless f### after all.

Posted by: FedUpInMoCo | October 12, 2010 7:21 AM | Report abuse

you know i feel you took some likeing to that man that most people didn,t care about you ask someone about that tell me that you has love in you yes you are a reporter but now i know you look around and no Jimmy you reporter but a person to.I agree with with JG 55

Posted by: johnsonhermanj | October 12, 2010 8:41 AM | Report abuse

I think maybe the reporter needs a refresher journalism class. I have to say, the last paragraph truly shocked me. Did no one read this before it was published? I'm not so harsh a judge as some on this comments page. I don't think this was evidence of some personality disorder afflicting the reporter nor do I believe it was meant to convey a celebratory image at news of a man's death. In fact, I am positive the reporter didn't mean the ending to come off as crassly as it did. Still, this isn't a subtle error in judgment. This is an in-your-face-what-the-hell-were-you-thinking miscommunication... by a professional journalist no less. I suppose, on a high school paper, something of this nature could be excused. But, for The Washington Post? Did no one have the sense to advise a re-write of the last paragraph?

Posted by: kirsten2 | October 13, 2010 8:57 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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