They were passing around a photo of a faceless man. Some of them, cameramen and sound guys, were laughing. Two days before, an old vagrant had been mangled by a drug-crazed lunatic on the MacArthur Causeway in Miami. A policeman had shot at the naked attacker—five times—until the guy stopped chewing on the old man's face and fell lifeless to the sidewalk. He had been high on "bath salts," synthetic cocaine, everyone suspected. He just "wasn't himself," his girlfriend later said.
After the savagery, the homeless man's face looked like rotting Jell-O, with one lonely eyeball laid atop the wreckage. That was the photo making its way through the group of journalists gathered outside Jackson Memorial Hospital for a press conference. They laughed at the story as if it were some joke passed around the dining-room table at Christmas, another ridiculous antic from a crazy uncle. You won't believe what Miami's done now. They all but elbowed one another in the ribs, cackling. To them, this was a good news day. Lots of papers would be read tomorrow. Lots of viewers at 6 o'clock.
Just out of college for the summer, I was only one day into a seven-week internship in South Florida, and I wasn't laughing. Miami had just swallowed two lives whole. Her drugs killed one man, and nonsensical violence ruined the life of the other. The attacker's family was hurting, so reporters were calling to see how badly. The old man's family hadn't even known he was alive until he almost died and his mangled face started shooting around the Internet. He had disappeared decades before and had lived under the bridge where he was attacked. He was just sitting in the shade listening to music when the naked man approached and started tearing him apart.
My stomach could hardly handle the story—let alone this vulturelike scavenging for juicy details. One of the television reporters, Sandra Peebles, noticed.
"Are you an intern?" Sandra asked, and I nodded. It was my first day working at The Miami Herald's Spanish-language sister, El Nuevo Herald. "You might as well give up and go home," she said. "This is the biggest story you'll ever see. It's all downhill from here."
Sandra was right: No news story from that summer topped the cannibal attack. I spent the rest of my time there researching and trying to buy synthetic drugs (for a story) and scanning police briefs for front-page tragedies. The stories I finished and the hours I worked didn't affect the money I was given. I was supposed to consider myself lucky to have any money at all; the other interns didn't have grants to support them. And my friends at newspapers around the country, in addition to being poor, were begging for bylines. They were expected to do the same work as the other reporters on staff—go to the same places and produce as much material. But no one considered paying them anything close to what the "real" reporters made.
We were to be won over by the idea that we'd be more hirable later—ignoring the fact that the papers that would hire us were getting smaller each day. We wouldn't make money, but we wouldn't lose any either, we were told. My editors took us out to lunch sometimes. Their assistants brought me shots of Cuban coffee when I got in early or stayed late.
Once I was sent to a swamp where the half-decayed corpses of two teenagers had been found. That same day, after a tip from a police source, I was sent to the home of the mother of one of the officially still-unidentified victims, not at all wanting to ask her the questions my editor insisted I ask. How do you feel? What do you have to say about your son? Was he a good kid? Both boys had been tripping on some kind of drug when their friends panicked and left them there. Her son was known for dealing at a local high school. But we all knew how the mother would have answered those questions.
"Can I help you?" she asked. She would have known who I was right away, had I not tucked my notepad in my back pocket and left my press badge in my car.
"I'm so sorry for your loss, Ms. Miranda," I said, mostly sorry that I was there to make things worse. "I am from El Nuevo Herald—"
"I don't have anything to say to you," she said. The door was closed before she finished the sentence.
I walked back to my car, but I didn't get inside. Instead, I sat on the parking stone in the empty space beside mine, wondering how long it would be before the woman could forgive me. She was drowning in grief, and I'd come to her house with pen and paper, hoping to capture whatever half-formed sentences she could manage to spit out.
Editors cared about this sensational stuff because it had once sold newspapers. But now almost nothing inspired people to buy a hard copy from a newsstand when all of the same stories were available online, free, immediately. Even voyeurism couldn't save these sinking ships, so why was I there? It was difficult to imagine Woodward and Bernstein sweating under the Miami sun, almost crying, disgusted with themselves for what they were doing. Would they call this journalism? Should I?
My dream was dying. If being a journalist meant this Tuesday afternoon could be repeated next Thursday, I wanted nothing to do with it. Unlike those reporters at the press conference on the first day, I wasn't able to laugh at these things.
By 11 each morning, I was dreaming of going home that night, microwaving chicken tenders, crawling into bed and watching two or three episodes of Ally McBeal. I didn't want to think. As much as the humidity was draining me, I didn't want to sleep either.
Every day I could feel myself slipping out of the hands of journalism, falling harder each time to the ground littered with unread newspapers. My editor tried to give me exciting stories or to at least pitch them excitedly. I appreciated that, but I couldn't give him the enthusiasm he was looking for. It made me feel terrible. I couldn't look around the half-empty Miami Herald building, soon to be sold to a developer for a casino or a resort, and feel optimistic about a future here, doing this. I couldn't sit around and joke about a city losing its mind. I felt as if I'd walked in during the fourth act of a five-act play, and I was the only one who had seen Death waiting in the theater lobby.
It was only somewhere along Interstate 95, bound for Maryland with Miami safely behind me, that I began to laugh. I was headed for the Amtrak Auto Train station near Orlando, Fla. With each mile marker passed, I knocked five dollars off the amount I'd have to pay a tow truck when my car, barely holding itself together, broke down. I was escaping America's outback, happy to leave a world of drug runners and men fleeing from child support. Miami was much more than old Latina women who grew mangoes in their front yards. It was hard to remember why I'd gone there in the first place—two college credits and some bylines.
I kept my eyes on the road, paid no attention to the swampland beside me that had seemed so beautiful on the way down. My sight was trained on the GPS suctioned to the windshield. It told me which turns to take and how long to follow the turnpike. I wished it could tell me more. I made it to the train station, then ran inside as if it were some sanctuary.
"And where are you headed?" the old man behind the counter asked me.
Heading north, I wasn't laughing at the stories I had written but rather at the stories I'd be telling my parents and my friends when I got home. It wasn't what had happened; the joke was how it had all happened to me. Laughing seemed better than crying. You won't believe what Miami's done now.