< Bummer Beat

Transcript

Friday, November 25, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: There are the five-star generals of newspaper journalism, big book writers and star columnists with postage-stamp pictures, and then there are the infantrymen, grunts who pound the pavement on dreary stories for undistinguished papers - like Mark Stamey, formerly of the New York Post. Stamey is short and square-faced. He ran his own business for a while, salvage diving. Then he went to college, earning masters degrees in sociology and journalism. He was already 45 by the time he became a reporter, freelancing first for the New York Times before landing the job at the Post. He left the paper a few years ago because he was ill, but while he was on the job, he covered fires, injured horses, fires, evictions, homicides - and fires. [PARADE MUSIC] Stamey was working the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade the day I spent with him. He pulled a sour face as Mickey Mouse, four stories high and six stories long, floated down Broadway.

MARK STAMEY:: I mean, that's it. The guy owns the town here. Mickey Mouse took over 42nd Street. That's more than any gangster could ever do.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Stamey is cooling his heels at the parade, interviewing kids until something bigger happens. It does, and he's summoned back to the office, a short walk away. He rarely writes a story by himself. In fact, he rarely writes a story. His job is to cover the story - go to the scene while another reporter is dispatched, say, to the press conference, and phone the facts, the quotes and the color he gathers. He nurses a healthy resentment for his white-collar bosses back at the desk.

MARK STAMEY:: It's all right if I live in this world but they don't want to even be brought, you know, aware of it. When I say you see, like, a dog licking human blood from the cracks of the sidewalk, I'm not inventing it. I mean, this is - we wait - well, sometimes we end up walking in gore and not knowing it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Why do you do it?

MARK STAMEY:: I need the job. I think I would rather not do it. I mean, I need the money. I need the job. I need the - [OVERTALK]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: You need this job - [OVERLAPPING VOICES]

MARK STAMEY:: I need a job - [OVERTALK]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: - at the New York Post covering babies going out of windows.

MARK STAMEY:: No, I don't need that. [LAUGHS] Nobody wants it. No. I don't have any joy in that. None whatsoever. I've been told on occasion I'm too stupid to write my own [CHUCKLES] stories and that the only thing I'm good for is driving the car. They got me kind of pigeonholed as a roughneck street guy, and I don't belong inside. Let's see what delights they have for us now.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Now at the Post, Stamey is sent on another story by city editor John Mancini.

JOHN MANCINI:: This could be a little heart-warmer.

MARK STAMEY:: I can't wait.

JOHN MANCINI:: Fred Nunez is 16 years old, but just barely, 'cause he had a Puffy jacket on, maybe not unlike yours.

MARK STAMEY:: Uh-huh. [AFFIRMATIVE]

JOHN MANCINI:: And somebody tried to - somebody did stab him for it, but they didn't get his jacket. Stabbed three times. He's in serious condition at Jamaica Hospital. Why don't you check; make sure he's still in the hospital. We're pretty sure he is. And then go see him. Maybe the family brought a turkey over and a nice new jacket for him or something.

MARK STAMEY:: Some bandages.

JOHN MANCINI:: Yeah. So this could be - [OVERTALK]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Stamey climbs into his jeep for the ride down to East New York. It's familiar territory to Stamey, the rundown districts on the city's fringes.

MARK STAMEY:: I spend a lot of time in a lot of these other, you know, outer boroughs.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: And are you saying there's like no glamour, there's no romance, there's no sense of living your own drama in doing this kind of work?

MARK STAMEY:: You mean like, you know, the camera's swooping around while the theme song plays in the background and here you are being grand?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Yeah.

MARK STAMEY:: No.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: That's what I mean.

MARK STAMEY:: No. It's all like emptying the trashcans and changing the bedpans and - no, there's no glamour in this. I can't imagine that. I wouldn't be able to fantasize it being glamorous.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: We arrive at the apartment house of Fred Nunez and park by a garbage pile. The building isn't locked, so we walk right in. [SOUND OF KNOCKING]

CHILD:: He at the hospital.

MARK STAMEY:: At the hospital. That's what I thought. I think I'll go there instead. Yeah. Do you know Fred?

CHILD:: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]

MARK STAMEY:: Yeah? Does anybody else here know him? He's a - may I talk to somebody who knows him? The neighbors or - [OVERTALK]

CHILD:: One-D.

MARK STAMEY:: One-D? Downstairs?

CHILD:: Uh-huh.

MARK STAMEY:: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Mm-hmm.

MARK STAMEY:: Thank you very much. Happy Thanksgiving.

CHILD:: He was like our cousin.

MARK STAMEY:: Yeah? Yeah. I heard he's a nice guy. I heard he just got it for his coat. Yeah, that's not good. We're here to help if we can.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: After the interviews and a quick trip to the hospital, he phones in from an emergency room pay phone to dump the quotes his editors will assemble into a story.

MARK STAMEY:: Yes, I do. I'm at the hospital now. We were just told that we cannot go talk to the family. But they're - this kid's under heavy security because the perpetrators are still - apparently they're on the loose. But I went over to his building where he lived, and I spoke to people, and everybody knew him. Everybody had the same thing to say about this kid, uniformly very positive. So one of the mothers in the neighborhood that knew him well, her name is Juliette, J-U-L-I-E-T-T-E, Fisher, F-I-S-H-E-R, said, comma, quote, "He got along with everybody - dash - all the kids like him and I like him. It's such a tragedy for a coat. I'm afraid for my own son. He has a name-brand coat too." Period, close quote. Good enough. All right? Have we got it then? Thank you, Andy. Um, is Mancini still there? Who - is he the one that tells me goodnight? Happy Thanksgiving, Andy. Bye-bye.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Having been "goodnighted" by his editors, he's free to go. So we take off. [CLATTERING OF DISHES, SILVERWARE] There's a diner off the highway on the way from Jamaica Hospital in Queens, not far from where Stamey used to live. They all know him there. Stamey says he finds it hard to relax. He doesn't have a close-knit family or a sheltering circle of friends. In fact - and he's pretty embarrassed by this - the only regular engagements he attends are Friday night Mensa meetings. When you're covering your sixth fire in as many weeks, do you ever think to yourself, "Does the public really need to know about this fire?" I mean - [OVERTALK]

MARK STAMEY:: Yeah. But then again, there's always that. Yesterday I covered a fatal fire of an NYU student who fell asleep using aromatherapy candles. You know, if you don't know about that, you think, "What a benign little thing. It would be healthy to sleep all night and have a nice glowing light there." Wake up and the whole family's dead. Seen this a lot.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: But it's the other stuff. It's the catalog of miseries. You know, does that serve a social function, a positive - [OVERTALK]

MARK STAMEY:: Yeah. It's not just voyeurism and it's not just, you know, intrusion so much as it is there's a need, and we can tell people about it and then they feel it. More times than not, people have come forward to help, especially with someone who's been killed. You say, "What can you do? He's dead," and saying, "Well, you want him to be forgotten, you know, and just another toe tag?"

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: You know, when I looked at your clips, fire after murder after - [OVERTALK]

MARK STAMEY:: Train wreck after plane crash after defenestration after infanticide, parricide, homicide. I mean, come on. Whatever.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: I thought how can a person like that actually like their job? But you don't like your job.

MARK STAMEY:: I like it and I don't like it. The thing I like about my job is that it's infinitely challenging. It's a total 100 percent I.Q. test 100 percent of the time. You know, outwit all of New York City and get the story in the paper. What I hate is empathizing with the people whose children have been hurt. You know, when people like are just so stricken with grief that they can't talk and they can't cry, they make this sound - they call it the "cri du chat," the cry of the cat. [DEMONSTRATES "CRI DU CHAT"] It's like a nonverbal, internalized, anguished wail that freezes in their vocal cords. And that stays with you. It like stains you, you know?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Back on the road, Stamey says the urban spectacles he serves up daily have earned him a twitch and many sleepless nights.

MARK STAMEY:: Yeah. I never want to be on that side of the story, but I live in constant fear that it's going to happen. [SIGHS] I don't - I'm going to get shot. I think, myself, I'm going to get shot. I'm going to get - I think anything can happen to anybody at any time, but we go out looking for it. And - [OVERTALK]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: He fantasizes about moving to Florida or Tahiti. But that's not going to happen.

MARK STAMEY:: I wish there was a 12-Step program for journalism, 'cause it's very much like an addiction. It's an addiction because it pulls you in, it beguiles you, it hooks you and then it starts turning you inside out. And the rush is gone, and all that's left is the hangover - the hangover and the tedium, and you're just doing it like a zombie 'cause that's what you do every day, that's what you did every day and it's not going to change.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Shortly after we interviewed Mark Stamey in October of 2000, he experienced seizures, diagnosed at the time as post-traumatic stress disorder. It kept him out of work for eight months. When he returned to work, we spoke to him again and he described the symptoms.

MARK STAMEY:: Very tight gooseflesh on my cheek or on my shoulder and another area of my body starts sweating. I had - I developed a tremendous twitch, a jerking of my head. It would be like I was being slapped on my left cheek. And that became impossible to control. It culminated in my coming to in the hospital, in the intensive care unit, absolutely no memory of how I got there. I apparently had had a seizure while I was driving my car on the Triborough Bridge. I sideswiped another vehicle and hit the wall of the bridge.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: And did your doctor say that this might be work-related?

MARK STAMEY:: Yes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: And how is it being back?

MARK STAMEY:: One thing, people treat me like I'm contagious. I've had people I was supposed to give notes to jump up and run across the newsroom to get away from me. I've had people like yelling across the newsroom about my condition. "I hear you got a doctor's appointment today!" You know, it's common knowledge.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Doesn't anybody else in the newsroom have the same experience? Have they - [OVERTALK]

MARK STAMEY:: [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: - come up to you?

MARK STAMEY:: Yes. This week, two, two people from the newsroom came up to me and asked me if I could recommend a psychiatrist for them because they were starting to react the same way, and it's starting to show on them. And they finally, at least some of them have the sense to ask.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Do you see yourself doing this for the next five years, ten years?

MARK STAMEY:: God, what a horrible thought, huh? [LAUGHS] I mean, I could only play Indian scout so long and then, you know, I gotta like get off the horse and sit at my desk like a "normal" - I think a "normal" reporter, if there is such a thing.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Soon after that interview, he did get off the horse, but he didn't become a "normal" reporter. It was later determined that Mark Stamey had epilepsy, possibly related to head injuries incurred in several incidents on the job, and he retired permanently from journalism. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD:: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited - by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Katie Holt and Kevin Schlottmann. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD:: And I'm Bob Garfield. (MUSIC TAG)(FUNDING CREDITS) *****

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