I felt as if I were underwater as I braced myself for the walk to the tenement door. I couldn't believe I was doing this.
An eight-year-old kid in Brooklyn had been stabbed to death. The killer had run off with his portable radio. "BOY KILLED FOR HIS RADIO," screamed the New York Post headline.
An editor who'd been in the game a long time assigned the follow-up story to me. She was a tough but fair woman, like the head nurse on the TV show M*A*S*H.
"Go out to Brooklyn and talk to the mother," she said. "And try to get some pictures."
This was the part of the tabloid game that gave me trouble. The writing was fun, the headlines were a riot, but the actual gathering of news could be really unpleasant. Tragedies happen, and the general population recoils from them. Newspapermen betray that natural instinct and dive right into other people's sorrows to get the story.
I hadn't yet done anything like that. Until now, I'd written fun features and animal stories.
To borrow a Mafia term, I hadn't "made my bones" in the newspaper game. And I was about to be tested on the worst kind of story there was - the murder of a child.
The boy had been stabbed in the hallway outside his door. The super hadn't yet gotten around to mopping up the bloody footprints from the boy's sneakered feet, which led straight to his mother's door. I followed those footprints and took a deep breath.
I hoped nobody was home. That way I could go back to the office and say I'd given it a shot, but just as I was turning to leave I heard the snap of the lock, and then my guts went into free fall.
The door opened as wide as the security chain would allow, and I was looking at the grieving mother's face. It seemed strangely peaceful. She stared at me with liquid eyes.
I held up my press card as if it were a shield, and stammered something about wondering if she could give me a few minutes of her time.
After that, it was remarkably easy. She unhooked the chain, took me in, sat me down, offered me coffee and cookies. She spoke about her son, about the sports he liked and his favorite TV shows. I wrote down everything she said, amazed that she was speaking to me, shocked that she hadn't slammed the door in my face.
I learned two things that day: one, poor people are so used to officials of one kind or another (cops, social service workers) barging in on them that they often assume the press is just another crew that can't be denied.
And two, if you get to a grieving person soon after their loss, he or she will want to talk, and talk, and talk. It was almost as if the mother could keep her boy alive, as long as she kept talking about him.
I actually had to stop the interview to get back to the Post in time to beat the deadline. I asked to borrow a photograph of her son, and she gave me a school picture from off the bureau. School pictures were the only kind she had. She couldn't afford a camera.
"Please make sure you get it back to me."
"Of course, of course."
That was it. I'd hit the jackpot, made my bones. On the subway back to lower Manhattan I felt almost giddy with relief. The feeling didn't last. The congratulations from my colleagues rang hollow. That night I got drunk. I had to. There was a lot I wanted to forget.
But now, 30 years later, I still haven't forgotten. I remember the dried bloody footprints on the black and white tile floor, and the rusty snap of that lock, and the way the mother hung her head to the side as she spoke to me.
I remember the sea-green background on the dead boy's school picture, and the striped tie his mother made him wear that day, and the toothy smile on his face, as if he'd just been told his future would be one joyous adventure after another.
There's just one thing I can't remember, and I should, but I don't. The boy's name. Pretty important thing to forget, if you ask me.
Charlie Carillo's latest novel is "One Hit Wonder." His website is www.charliecarillo.com. He's a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition."
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