Just the Facts, Ma’am
Joseph Bottum logs the facts of life.
Mar 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 24 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It was a day like any other. Oh, the weather was a little cool, I suppose. A thin band of clouds moved across the early sun, threatening an angry rain—but then again, maybe not. Light around the edges but dark in the center, like a calculating woman’s smile, those morning clouds are hard to read, and the weather out here in the West often breaks its promises. All in all, the day seemed no more foreboding than usual when, at 6:26 a.m., the sheriff’s phone rang. “Female caller in Sheps Canyon,” the local newspaper would later report, “advising her neighbor’s cows are out and she doesn’t want them eating her garden.”
I always read the police log in small-town newspapers—not just in my own town of Hot Springs, South Dakota, but in every small place I visit. Many tourists do, as well. Across America, it’s a kind of standard comic turn, glancing at a community paper to chuckle at the insignificance of what counts as crime news. “Wednesday 4:39 p.m.: Deputy in Edgemont returning wallet that was stolen two years ago,” an item notes. “Sunday 11:08 a.m: Caller entering a complaint of a Chihuahua on Evanston that has been a terror to the neighborhood,” adds another. A terror to the neighborhood.
What big-city readers often miss, however, is how conscious the comedy usually is, how self-aware the irony is meant to be. Police-blotter reporting is one of the great journalistic forms, with a depth and range almost unparalleled by other writing opportunities that come a reporter’s way. It’s a miniature thing, admittedly, filled with strange conventions of abbreviated syntax and truncated grammar, but it’s a real form, nonetheless, and Hemingway doubtless understood it.
Of course, like every genre, the small-town-newspaper crime log has better and worse practitioners. The most compelling I’ve ever read was from a tiny county seat in Nevada, the most boring from a good-sized community in Arizona. But the variation isn’t large—for the form generally dictates its own composition. And like poetry, police-blotter reporting offers its writers the whole of the human comedy to draw upon.
What else could you want from a literary genre that gives you a chance to write sentences like this the other day in the Hot Springs Star: “Tuesday 6:43 a.m: Non-injury accident reported on S. 22nd Street; officer responded”—a small perfection dwelling in that laconic semicolon? Or “Monday 8:46 p.m.: Caller requesting advice on what to do with a rebellious teenager”?
Often, flat is the best way to report an item: “Sunday 12:22 a.m: Fight reported outside Hat Creek Grill.” Is there ever a Saturday night in which there isn’t a fight reported outside a bar? There are towns even smaller than Hot Springs, here in Fall River County—towns that would hardly exist if the cowhands didn’t need a place to raise a little riot on the weekends—and the sheriff’s office has to cover them all.
But other times (if, for example, you want to poke fun at incompetent Easterners) you need more exposition: “Sunday 2:47 p.m.: Alarm company contacted dispatch regarding a burglar alarm on Slade St. Turns out was Slade St. in Fall River, MA, not Fall River County, SD.”
Small tragedies are written in these items: “Saturday 10:11 a.m: Motorcycle accident with injury reported on Fall River Road.” And hints of greater ones: “Wednesday 7:31 p.m.: Individual calling to report possible child abuse.” Pieces of comic memoirs: “Saturday 11:33 p.m.: Report of individuals shooting off fireworks from the depot and then running and hiding in the bushes.” And reminders that unsolved mysteries always lurk, just around the corner: “Tuesday 5:02 a.m: Resident of a downtown apartment reported suspicious persons pulled someone out of a residence.”
“Monday 12:42 a.m: Sheriff out at the Igloo Bar; intoxicated caller reported drunken teenagers creating a problem.” And “Wednesday 5:00 p.m.: Park Ranger arrested a subject on a Pennington County warrant.” And “Sunday 1:49 p.m.: 911 call for Hot Springs Ambulance to a residence on Estates Rd.” The real story—not the politicians, not the breaking headlines, not the national trends, not the international news, but the real story of life—is transcribed in police blotters and reported in small-town newspapers. “Monday 2:36 p.m.: Officer took a theft report for a lost wallet.” “Thursday 12:26 a.m: Barking dog complaint received from the 1700 block of Canton.” “Thursday 9:06 a.m: Officer out at a moving car vs. parked car accident on South 5th Street.”
And this: “Tuesday 5:43 p.m.: 911 call from a female on Washington Ave., requesting officers because someone has messed with her TV and now it doesn’t work.” That’s not a crime-log item. That’s a novel, writ small.
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