NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The eye remembers the strangest things; Like news itself, not always the most important or profound.
2011 began, for this reporter with a clear liquid dripping into a pail in Port Chester: Hometown gin made from honey of all things. Ed Tiedge opened the first distillery in Westchester County since the end of Prohibition. The former Wall Street bond trader downsized his post recession life to build a one-man business: a labor of love. I call the story “Distilled Dreams,” and the year begins well. The booze is pretty good too.
Paging through the leather-bound calendar where I list each day’s work, I see much of it is transient material. Things that sounded better in the morning editorial meeting than they turned out to be at close range; stories massaged and shaped to fit the prevailing view of the day; history written on the fly by people who cannot see how the events really play out.
Truth is, the memorable is often more symbolic than substantive.
So, we page past the snow storms (far too many this year), the dispatches about sports fans, potholes, and sex scandals looking for reports with meaning beyond the moment. I find several drenched in grief, and a profound sense of loss.
Two cop killings come in rapid succession early in the year.
Michael Califano struck down on Long Island during what began as a routine traffic stop, and John Falcone killed near the Poughkeepsie train station trying to rescue a child from his gun-wielding homicidal father. Their funerals are recalled as magnificent and terrible at once: The plaintive blare of bagpipes, and the sea of blue uniforms; an over flight of helicopters in the “missing man” formation; Widows and fatherless children. After the TV lights are stowed there are drinks with men and women in celebration of life and defiance of the enduring danger; a revelry of duty; a lonely realization that the price of patrol could be everything in an instant. We make friends in sorrow. What can be said?
Before the year is out a city cop named Peter Figoski also pays the price. A veteran cop who stayed on the job long after he qualified for full pension, shot backing up other officers at a home break-in in Brooklyn. I see myself standing in his partner’s living room on Long Island speaking to the survivor’s wife about how she manages to deal with the risk. “I don’t think about it,” is the only explanation she can offer. Wan smile. We have no claim on tomorrow, she says silently. We live today. I remember another mature cop past retirement age on some forgettable assignment at Grand Central. “I love it,” he tells me. Then “thanks,” as I urge him to stay safe when we part.
Today is all you have. Now I see a sunny afternoon in early June. I literally step off a bridge more out of bravado than desire. A back-burner assignment to watch firefighters practice rope rescue techniques from the Trans Hudson Bridge near Newburgh becomes memorable when I jokingly ask, “Can I try?” and the firefighters don’t know I’m kidding around. Now I can’t back out, even as they truss me in the lines and explain the safety procedures. My mind says there is no real danger but I cannot speak, the fear is that real as I dangle from the span just as the firefighters had. I can see the river moving far below and now the bridge above close but out of reach. “This is the last thing a jumper sees,” is all I can think. It is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. The whoop I let out afterwards is from somewhere deep inside. As I watch it on TV later, it seems like it comes from another person.
Paging through the calendar, I find another series of stories that make me smile: “The Connecticut Mountain Lion.” Sightings of the big cat are at first dismissed by the experts until witnesses produce photos, paw prints and large animal droppings from the manicured lawns of Greenwich. Then everyone is perplexed. Is it an escaped pet? A circus animal? Is there more than one? The big cat dies on a highway and tests prove it had walked east all the way from South Dakota. I love that animal simply for confounding everyone with a simple enormous truth. We don’t know everything. Not by a long shot.
Another animal that faked us all out was the peacock who left the Central Park Zoo to perch high above Fifth Avenue. It just sits there for a day or so. The zookeepers watch it and so do we. After multiple live reports on the “drama” of our own imagining, it simply flew back to where it came from. Imagine; a bird flies onto a ledge then back again! Details at 11.
There was an earthquake in August with no damage followed by an almost-hurricane named Irene, with tremendous destruction. Post-storm flooding stories consumed us for weeks. New Yorkers under stress often reveal things about their character and I remember people of modest means dealing with the loss of all material goods with balance and good humor. I also recall some of our more affluent neighbors treating the inconvenience of basement flooding as if it were the apocalypse. There is nothing worse than the inconvenience of the self-entitled.
It’s the way we make sense of this life, knowing the very exercise of dividing our time into years is an artifice, a construct that allows us to divide up the endless flow of time into something we can try to understand. There are many traditional high points—Zuccoti Park, and Times Square on the day Osama Bin Laden is finally killed and Ground Zero 10 years after the fall of the towers. It should mean something more. Maybe it does and we can’t see it yet.
Closing my eyes I see myself end the reporting year in Stamford; A burned house facing Long Island Sound, already a charred and empty shell when I arrive the day after Christmas. Five dead: Three children and their grandparents. The mother (God help her) lived. We dutifully report the horror, the grim happenstance of catastrophe, the grief of the survivors and the would-be rescuers. Afterwards, I embrace a few days off as the story settles into our familiar pattern of follow-ups; The second-guessing, the implication of blame, the laser focus of hindsight—necessary but somehow feeling inappropriate for such a monumental loss somehow worse because it happens on Christmas Day. The mother is still alive! Let someone else do it. I have no stomach for pretending to find meaning in the incomprehensible.
The year closes with a chill. It is cold on the Sound Shore as the time for the live shot approaches. A crescent moon hovers over the tragic scene at the end of Shippan Point, beautiful but incongruous. I tell the story, report the facts, but the meaning is somehow veiled. Heading home, the chill is hard to shake.