The Cop House

Hot Type, Cold Beer and Bad News: A Cleveland Reporter’s Journey Through the 1960s, by Michael D. Roberts. Published by Gray & Company, Publishers. Front cover of book.

Book Excerpt

From Hot Type, Cold Beer and Bad News: A Cleveland Reporter Looks Back at the 1960s, by Michael D. Roberts

Years later mature men, and some women, would talk about the police beat with the fondness of matriculation, a rite of passage through the thickets of journalism. A ritual in the golden days of newspapers, they would say at Nighttown over wine or at a Press Club of Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame dinner where the past was painted with romance.

As for me, I wanted to get the hell off the police beat before I ever got there. There were few bylines to be had out of that shabby carbuncle of an office in Central Station on Payne Avenue, where everything smelled of urine, disinfectant and stale tobacco. You were afraid to touch anything for fear of contracting a disease. In those days the police liked to show rookie reporters the black homosexuals jailed for the mere fact they were gay.

The police beat was where you learned that journalism was an unnatural act. You were called upon to abuse any civility you possessed, to thrust yourself into uncomfortable if not dangerous situations, to work ungodly hours—and all this for modest wages. Here you learned to argue with the Plain Dealer’s front office over cleaning bills for a suit that reeked of smoke after you covered a fire. You learned to be insensitive and brash. You also learned a distaste for editors. Most importantly, you learned whether this was what you wanted to do with your life.

And presiding over all this was a grinning bulldog of a man with a bald head and a lascivious laugh that almost always made you uneasy. This was the legendary Bob Tidyman, a combat veteran of the fierce battles waged to recapture France in World War II and the most jaded man I’ve ever met. He was the chief police reporter. His father, Ben, had held the same job for nearly a quarter of a century and had trained Bob and his brother, Ernest, in the vagaries of the beat when they were in their teens. Ernest, a seventh-grade dropout, became a novelist and screenwriter, creating the black detective John Shaft and winning an Academy Award for his French Connection screenplay.

All those years on the police beat can do things to a man, and Bob Tidyman was the recipient of every lesson the street could teach, maybe each a dozen times. The environment was enough to erode even the most virtuous soul. Tidyman had overseen the basic training of a generation of Plain Dealer reporters, making some and breaking others.

He liked to tell of the time he and his brother had witnessed a prisoner using knotted sheets to escape via a window in the Cuyahoga County Jail, visible from the police beat office. When they excitedly called the scene to the attention of their father, Ben Tidyman smiled and said, “Let him get away, boys, and then call the desk. It’s a better story if he escapes.”

The key to getting along and understanding how the beat operated was to know that Bob Tidyman did not work; he was an overseer. If you understood that, and accepted it the way you would the Gospels or the Constitution, things would be fine. If you did not, Tidyman would make your life so miserable you would pray for deliverance from the darkness of the place and become a librarian.

I received my draft notice the same day I received a memo that I was to report to the police beat. I was able to skirt the draft because of my childhood bout with polio, but there was nothing I could do about Tidyman except show up at the appointed hour and accept my fate.

I had spent most of my first few months at the paper on the rewrite desk, essentially writing shorts and taking notes from the police reporters and turning them into two-paragraph stories. The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated I manned the phones, taking calls from a mournful public seeking information. There was no cable news in those days.

The city room was in chaos as the bells on the Associated Press teletype machines announced bulletin after bulletin. Everyone labored in a strange slow motion, trying to contemplate the enormity of the event. There was so much discombobulation that the city desk had to hang a huge sign with the word A-S-S-A-S-S-I-N-A-T-I-O-N because so few of the staff could spell it.

That night I asked the city desk if I could have a byline in the paper for history’s sake. I was embarrassed to do so, but I could not let the moment pass. An editor simply nodded yes.

Death was a strange but vital part of the paper. I learned about that from the obituary writer, G. David Vormelker, a thin man with wireless glasses, a string tie and a pleasant smile, who would softly express condolences to a bereaved family and then slam down the phone and mutter about his lunch hour. “People who die on my lunch hour get shorter obits,” he told me one day. Vormelker had utter contempt for people who died on Cleveland Press time. He hated death on deadline, too. He advised me not to die on a Thursday, when space was always short because of the food pages. For the record, Vormelker died on our time and the afternoon rival gave him a good obit just to stick it to us.

There was a lot of death on the police beat, too. Shootings, stabbings, house fires, drownings, car crashes, suicides, airplane crashes and any number of other bizarre exits from this life were in the beat’s purview. One afternoon Hil Black, the chief police reporter for the Press and a man known for his dignity and skill, grabbed me and said that a respected federal judge had just died. Black was going to phone the widow; he wanted me there so that the bereaved woman wouldn’t be bothered by another call from the media. It was an uncommon and thoughtful gesture, one I never forgot.

There were plenty of those calls as well as visits to homes to collect pictures of the recently passed. If you got there before the Press, you tried to get all the pictures of the deceased, leaving the afternoon guys with nothing. They would do the same to us.

If you were truly unlucky, you would be the bearer of the ultimate bad news, announcing to a wife that she was a newly made widow because her husband had just been killed in some drunken accident on a nearby highway. Then there were calls to the coroner’s office, where an indifferent voice would yawn and give you the cause of death or tell you to call back because the body was still on the slab and they hadn’t finished counting entry and exit wounds.

Often we would go into the night and visit scenes of mayhem. I remember a shooting on the East Side where the victim lay dead on a tree lawn and a homicide detective bent over to examine the body, dripping mustard from his bologna sandwich. These stories helped fill awkward silences while out on a date, but the paper’s editors couldn’t have cared less about them.

In those days reporters could roam hospital emergency rooms like tourists, talking to police and doctors while patients were treated for their wounds. One night at Mount Sinai an ambulance brought in a man who had been shot five times in the back of his head. Not one bullet had penetrated the skull, and the man lived. It was a good story but a bad address—which was code for “black”—and it received scant attention deep in the paper.

I first set foot in the police beat office early in February at 6 p.m. I was wearing a blue blazer and a rep tie, pretty much standard dress for junior reporters. Studying me, Tidyman asked in a quiet but scary voice who the fuck I was.

I introduced myself and explained that I had been told by the city desk to report to the police beat. “Those assholes never told me they were sending another college boy down here,” Tidyman growled. “We already have a guy from Princeton who can’t find his way to the crapper and washes his hands every time he picks up a phone. He’s worried about picking up some disease from all this filth. This place is too sick for that.”

Oh, man, I thought, this is going to be joyful.

The beat was all about phones and we were on them constantly, calling rounds of all the suburban police departments every hour before deadline. Sometimes one department would cover for another and provide misleading information about a late-night episode. Other times, when there were bad feelings between suburbs, they would rat out the other department.

The first thing Bob Tidyman told new guys was never to answer a certain phone in the corner. This was the direct line from the city desk, and Tidyman did not want anyone but himself talking with editors. If that phone rang, you were to track down Tidyman as fast as you could and tell him. He could generally be found in one of the many bars across the street on Payne Avenue. Tidyman would call the desk back, explaining he was up in homicide—a place he never went, because the detectives there generally despised him for a decades-old story he had written on police brutality or some other injustice.

Where now stands Cleveland State University’s manicured soccer field sat a row of shabby bars that served us late and often, providing respite from nonstop telephone rounds and endless patrols of Central Station. Tidyman held court in Lubeck’s Casino and other bars along the street. Cops drank there, homeless persons from the street would cadge drinks, and a few tired whores would take a nightcap at the joints. Tourists from the city room would stop by to catch some grit and a beer after deadline.

One night near closing, a cop shot the clock off the wall when the bartender announced last call. The scene was surreal: the smell of cordite, the ringing in the ears, the floating dust backlit by neon beer signs. Across the street, the police station remained indifferent to the noise. Another night someone fired a pistol into a phone book just for laughs. Again, the loud report brought no response from Central Station.

At the beat you learned to assemble greasy facts like a crossword puzzle. You phoned these facts to a rewrite person who sat in the comfort of the Plain Dealer office and who had the authority to question your very existence. If you missed a fact, rewrite would tell you not to call back until you had them all.

Getting the facts often meant dealing with the homicide squad and being pinballed back and forth between the cops and the city desk. What was the victim’s middle initial? What was the caliber of the gun? The model of the car? Sometimes detective Carl Roberts would clean his pistol and look at me through the barrel while I tried to pry information from him on a two-paragraph murder that the city desk was obsessing over. Running up the stairs to homicide and back down to the phone on deadline over and over again turned the perspiration pouring down your spine into a stream of tension that knotted every muscle. After a while, neophytes learned to ask the right questions quickly and effectively.

The relationship between the police and the Plain Dealer in those days was rocky. One summer afternoon Tidyman was across the street drinking with a detective who was supposedly on duty when a squirrel ran through the open door, leaped onto the bar, and bit the cop on the hand. Fearing rabies, the detective went to the emergency room at St. Vincent Charity Hospital and reported the incident as a dog bite obtained while investigating a break-in. Meanwhile, Tidyman turned in the story about the squirrel and it appeared in the next morning’s paper. In return, all the police reporters’ cars were ticketed.

Tidyman offered up plenty of other reasons for police animosity. One night, a brand-new police car was stolen. The car had been parked beneath the window of our beat room at Central Station. We often exited the building through the window, down onto a parking lot. The atmosphere on the beat that night felt strangely electric. And then Tidyman walked in and announced he had just got a tip that a new squad car was missing, maybe stolen.

While the police began a frantic search for the vehicle, several of us began to make calls. We received an anonymous tip as to where the car had been abandoned. The cops could see tomorrow’s headline. They were furious and embarrassed by our story.

The number two man on the beat was Donald Leander Bean, a rumpled reporter who squinted through thick glasses. The mentor of many aspiring Cleveland journalists, he also loved practical jokes. One of his favorites involved sending young reporters to the war memorial on the Mall to interview the mother of the Unknown Soldier.

Bean would go to great lengths to create hoaxes that would draw a Press reporter to the scene of a crime that never took place. A veteran of the defunct INS news service, Bean was the one reporter that you wanted on deadline in a late-breaking story. He was respected by the police and had a certain tenacity that endeared him to editors. He complained from time to time about his lack of promotion, but the desk dared not elevate him. Without Bean’s presence, the police beat would have been a mere shadow of itself.

Bean came up with a suspect in the case of the stolen police car. The suspect was Tidyman, and Bean swore us to secrecy. I suppose the police suspected too, but there was always that lingering doubt. Years later when I learned that during the war Tidyman had once stolen a jeep for a joyride (and was later punished for it), I couldn’t help but remember that night.

One Christmas Eve, the town silent and the police beat slow, we got a tip from a suburban police department on the West Side. A widow with four children reported that the utility company had shut off the gas and her kids were freezing.

It so happened Tidyman was just passing through on his way home from a quick stop at Lubeck’s when the call came in. Standard practice was to phone the utility company’s public relations man and get a comment. Instead, Tidyman ordered me to call the company president at his home and disturb the family dinner.

“Wish him a Merry Christmas,” Tidyman said.

I made the call and, of course, the president was angered, referring the call to his PR person. The day after Christmas all hell broke loose. Executive editor Phil Porter, who knew that the idea had been to embarrass the gas company for going Scrooge on Christmas, demanded a memo. I sweated over writing one. Tidyman just shrugged.

From the book Hot Type, Cold Beer and Bad News: A Cleveland Reporter Looks Back at the 1960s, © Michael D. Roberts. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.