Sand In My Shoes: Six feet away or six feet under

The Biggest Story Ever




Ryan sat in his lounge chair by the window and watched the ghosts crowd the empty street.

Birds chirped. Squirrels foraged. The mailman dropped a single piece of mail on the stoop like a ticking bomb and fled. There was no traffic, except for an occasional fire truck, or ambulance, or cop car on its way to take out the coronavirus dead in the spring of 2020.

Ryan’s son Rory was home from college and even though he was a serious political science major, he refused to watch the news channels.

“We need to laugh, Dad,” he said. “If there is real news we need to know, I’ll get alerts on my phone. I refuse to watch candidates campaign on the bodies of the dead. Instead, I am going to watch ‘Two and a Half Men,’ ‘Friends,’ ‘Family Guy,’ ‘Impractical Jokers.’ Mindless laughs in a time of crazy death that we can’t do much about. Until we vote in November.”

People were separating six feet away or six feet under and the worst was yet to come. Every time Ryan saw a diagram of “the curve” he thought of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain.

Wearing a mask and gloves.

As a journalist, Ryan had covered the biggest stories of his time. The great blackout of 1977, Son of Sam, gas shortages, horrific plane crashes, the AIDS epidemic, the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Councilman Harvey Milk in San Francisco, The Troubles and hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, the Crown Heights riots, the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King police video beating, the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the horrific Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers.

He covered the Boston Marathon bombings, the mayhem of Superstorm Sandy, the evil mass murder of school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, and the health scares like the swine flu, zika virus, West Nile, bird flu, and Ebola. He covered the crack epidemic of the late 1980s, the assassination of police officer Eddie Byrne, the police killing of Amadou Diallo, the police killing of Patrick Dorismond, the Abner Louima police sodomy, the police killing of Eric Garner, the riots in Ferguson after the police killing of Michael Brown.

Ryan thought he had seen it all.

He’d covered big trials for the Preppie Killer in Central Park, the Howard Beach race trial, the Bensonhurst race trial, the 77th Precinct police corruption trials, the 1993 Long Island Rail Road shootings by Colin Ferguson, the 2006 Mafia Cops trial, the Sean Bell police killing trial, and the Etan Patz kidnap murder trial. He’d covered the elections and administrations of six New York City mayors, five New York governors, countless congressional and U.S. Senate races up to the election of our first black president, Barack Obama.

He Had Seen Everything

By the time Ryan left the hemorrhaging daily newspaper business to pass on what he’d learned as a street reporter/columnist for daily newspapers in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston to journalism students, he didn’t think there was much he’d missed along the way.

Ryan covered the 10-day funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and ended a 40-year daily newspaper career covering Pope Francis’s historic visit to New York and Philadelphia as a way of saying “Amen” to a career that was a ringside seat to history.

Ryan thought he’d seen everything.

Then came the story that would define the new century: The coronavirus pandemic.

A story that touched everyone, everywhere.

And a story that Ryan was happy he did not have to cover. If ever there was story for younger reporters to cut their second teeth on this was it. This was the story that would define their generation, their century, and the future of journalism. The details they reported would be the first draft of this terrible chapter of human history. You needed young brave reporters with boundless energy willing to don masks and gloves and hazmat suits to get into the hospitals to report on the heroes who were literally risking their lives to save the lives of strangers the way firefighters rushed into the doomed World Trade Center on 9/11.

We needed young, loud, tough voices to shout truth to power, especially politicians who tried to spin votes out of the freshly-dug graves of COVID-19 victims.

At his new job as a staff writer for a network TV police drama, Ryan had lost a sweet, happy, talented co-worker who was just 45. Then, a firefighter friend called to say that his nephew, an iron man, was bent into a fetal ball for five nights with his own body in feverish flames.

Ryan worried daily about his 85-year-old brother with diabetes who needed to go to the hospital three times a week for dialysis. He worried about his recently-widowed sister who would turn 80 on May 1. And his cancer-surviving daughter who could not get her regular cancer scan because of the novel coronavirus. And his cancer survivor brother who, in his 70s, lived alone. Or his adult son who worked for a city agency with daily contact with the public but which had no personal protective equipment and who, contrary to the blatant lies of cheap pols, cannot get a COVID-19 test even though his own supervisor — with whom he’d had direct contact — had tested positive.

Robin Hood Warehouse

Ryan’s days were filled with angst.

So, he welcomed a laugh when an old bookmaker called to check on his health and to tell him that he and his crew of “street guys” had established a Robin Hood warehouse of soup, cereal, diapers, wipes, paper towels, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer, and when the local parish priest told them of families in true need, beefy guys with pinkie rings and $1200 handmade shoes showed up to give free provisions.

“We’ve been in touch with old-time street guys all over the country who are express-mailing us thermometers, masks, gloves, and tuna fish, which right now is as valuable on the street as it is in jail. Local nurses are coming to us for thermometers and masks. Who the hell is running things in this country? Thank God for Governor Andrew Cuomo, and I’m a registered Republican.”

Suddenly, old wise guys are playing the Three Wise Men, bearing gifts instead of collecting bets.

Then, a restaurant owner who has served Manhattan’s bustling theater crowd for the past four decades told Ryan, “This is like a thousand 9/11s.”

The words fell from his lips like a tower of despair. His life, his livelihood, would never be the same.

Ryan received another call from an old reporter pal he’d come up with in the journalism guild. He was still doing great work for a popular daily publication. “But I’m doing it by phone,” he said. “I’m in the high-risk age group. I’m just not gonna die for a story.”

And so, Ryan was actually relieved that he was no longer chasing daily newspaper stories. Instead, he sat quarantined in his isolated room trying to put 14 days between him and his last dirty straphanger pole, turnstile, door, sneeze, cough, and rant on his last ride on the LIRR, subway, and city bus that he took to his daily job in Manhattan.

When Ryan left the daily newspaper business in 2015, Ryan thought he’d seen it all in a 40-year career chasing the biggest stories of his time.

But now he gazed out his window at a terrifying story that resembled an ominous ghost town. And it was filling up with new restless ghosts by the minute in the biggest story of Ryan’s lifetime.

denishamill@gmail.com