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Charlie Carillo

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I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

Posted: 12/08/11 12:42 PM ET

John Lennon had just been murdered, and the city was going wild because the New York Post ran a shocking front-page photo of his body in the morgue.

I know the town was going wild because I was working the phones at the Post city desk in December of 1980, answering calls from anybody with an opinion, a news tip, a complaint or a threat.

All you needed was a grudge and a dime, and you had my ear. No wonder I never wanted to listen to any of my friends' sob stories after work.

Anyway, it was a frantic job on any given day, but it got over-the-moon crazy when the Post published that photo of Lennon's corpse.

A slab shot, as it was known in the old tabloid game.

Nobody knew how they got the picture -- nobody who wanted to admit to anything, at least -- but they ran it because we'd been outdone by the New York Daily News the day before, when they ran a front-page photo of Lennon giving an autograph to Mark David Chapman, the man who would shoot him dead just hours later.

So an absolute tsunami of hatred was rolling toward the Post's switchboard the day the morgue photo ran, and the lifeguards on the day shift were me and my buddy on the city desk, Donnie Sutherland.

A moment now for a word about Donnie, who was faster on his feet than any man I ever knew, dispensing of kooky callers with speed and wit.

An actual call handled by Donnie:

Frantic woman: "Hello, New York Post? You've got to do a story to help me find my dog! He just ran away and he only has three legs!"

Donnie: "Lady, how far could he get?"

But there weren't too many laughs on this day for Donnie and me, as hundreds of angry people called to vent their spleens over the Lennon photo, including a celebrity or two.

Caller: "Hello, my name is James Woods, I'm an actor -- "

Me: "Hey, you were great in The Onion Field. "

Caller: "Oh, thank you very much. Listen, I'm calling to complain about your picture of John Lennon..."

The phones rang and rang. Complaints, insults, death threats, bomb threats -- Donnie and I had to keep a running total for the bosses. We got numb to it after a few hours.

In the midst of the madness came a gentle call that knocked the wind out of me.

"Hi, I was hoping your newspaper could help me. See, my baby was just born with all her organs outside her body."

You get a sense for the truth when you've listened to a million calls from the general public. The phonies and the hustlers tip their hands almost immediately. My bones told me this caller was the real deal, a soft-spoken woman calling from a bedside hospital phone. Through some unlucky biological roll of the dice, her newborn -- I'm pretty sure she said it was a girl -- was hanging from a thread, due to a rare condition called omphalocele.

This woman probably knew nothing about how John Lennon had been killed, or about the shocking photograph that was inspiring citywide fury. All she knew was that her baby was in trouble.

And all I could do was breathe into the mouthpiece.

"I'm so sorry," I finally managed to say.

"What I was wondering was if your paper could do a story about my baby? Maybe there's a doctor out there who could, like, help."

I put the woman on hold -- careful, oh so careful not to disconnect her! -- and sought out the most sympathetic of the city editors. She listened to the story about the newborn and told me to take the mother's number, so a reporter could call her later. Right now, John Lennon was still the only story of the day.

I took the woman's number and promised we'd call her back. Newspaper people can't always keep their promises, but this was one I would personally look after.

The Lennon complaints kept coming, hour after hour. My head hurt and I was punchy as I answered the phone near the end of my shift. The voice was unmistakable.

"Sir, I called you before about my baby. You remember me?"

I sat up straight. "Of course I remember you."

"I just wanted to tell you, you don't have to do a story. My baby died."

I sighed. I clumsily expressed my sorrow. I hung up the phone and walked out of the building for a gulp of cold air out on South Street. Myron Rushetzky, the night desk man, then as now, would be relieving me and Donnie, absorbing the city's outrage over the Lennon photo well past midnight.

That was 31 years ago this week, and even now I can't hear a John Lennon song without thinking about that newborn.

Lennon was cheated out of a long life, but he accomplished a hell of a lot in his 40 years. He wrote one amazing song after another, none better than "A Day in the Life."

But what would he have had to say about a human being who lived A Life in a Day?

The song "Imagine" is pure genius, but the lyrics wouldn't have done that newborn much good: "Imagine all the people, living for today..." Great, but that only works when you've had a real shot at this life.

So I got through that terrible day and a few other dark days since then by remembering another set of lyrics by the remarkable Mr. Lennon, gone long before his time.

Maybe you know them. The song is called "Instant Karma." The words?

"We all shine on. Like the moon, and the stars, and the sun."

Charlie Carillo's first two published novels, "Shepherd Avenue" and "My Ride With Gus" are available on Amazon Kindle for 99 cents. His website is www.charliecarillo.com. He's a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition."

 
 
 

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