Intro from Jay Allison: Gwen Macsai began this piece seeking out an old friend from Middle School. When she discovers he had been killed in 2000, supposedly homeless, by a Chicago policeman, the inevitable question arose... What happened?
TRANSOM GUESTS: Gwen Macsai’s Review
Enjoy the best of Gwen Macsai’s 2002 tenure as Special Guest on the Transom Talk Boards featuring audio, anecdotes from the world of radio and TV, as well as lively discussion with the Transom community. Read online, or download as a print ready PDF.
About “The Mayor of Nichols”
Having a very good memory isn’t always a very good thing. There were many times during the production of this piece that I wished I were like most people: unable (conveniently) to remember high school, let alone junior high. But, for better or worse, I can remember a lot of things most people would like to forget (of course, I can’t remember when the war of 1812 was, but ask me what Rachid Idriss was wearing when he asked me out, right before algebra in November of 1976, and I could tell you the color, cut and fabric or his shirt, pants and beige, puffy squares down vest). Then, about a year ago, my memory just started digging things up on its own — for no particular reason — responding to no particular trigger that I was aware of, and I kept thinking about someone I hadn’t seen in at least 25 years. I would be in the grocery store and I’d start thinking about him. At the beach and I would find myself thinking about him. It was almost like subliminal advertising where you start thinking about something but you have no idea why.
The person I kept thinking about was Earl Hutchinson. He was in eighth grade when I was in seventh and, even though I didn’t even know him all that well, I felt that he had done me an invisible favor in 1973 and I felt that I owed him something and wanted to repay him as an adult, or at least thank him. So I started trying to find him. To no avail. Then, after asking around for a while I found out that he was killed, supposedly homeless, in 2000 by a Chicago policeman. The unnamed policeman shot Earl after Earl lunged at him with a shiny object in his hand. The object turned out to be a fork.
It was a big story and made all the papers. I just missed it. The man they described in the papers was not the Earl I remembered and I wondered what the hell could have happened to him. I wanted to find out. I started looking for his relatives, found his mom, and asked her if she would talk to me. She agreed and then I thought about bringing my tape recorder along. As the story unfolded, it got more and more complex. Almost all my work to date had been short, humorous ditties. I was very worried and wary about trying to do a serious, long form story that encompassed a lot of information that needed to be synthesized in coherent sentences with facts that needed to be double checked and files that needed to be excavated from organizations like the Chicago police department. Being vaguely conflict-averse, I was apprehensive. I was never an investigative journalist.
In the end, parts of this process were just massively frustrating. The answer to every question just uncovered more questions. I felt that to do it right, I should have found more people who remembered the events surrounding Earl’s death but a few key players had died since 2000 and hunting down witnesses and doctors, all of whose names were blacked out on the police report, seemed next to impossible unless someone was going to pay me to spend more time on the story. Two shows had already rejected the piece for various reasons, and I didn’t really know how to go further. And that made me as frustrated with myself as it did with the police department. So I decided that I couldn’t do a perfectly balanced journalistic masterpiece but that this would need to be more of a personal remembrance. So that’s what I tried for. And what was most difficult was that there was no way to make sense of what had happened or how it was handled. Why him? To me, his story was like a microcosm of so much that is wrong with where we are: the way we treat the homeless, the mentally ill, people with drug problems, people of color; our tolerance of police brutality, our tolerance of inequality, our tolerance of our tolerance, and how all these things intersect. None of it made any sense and I wasn’t able to do anything to change any part of it. I hardly think that producing this piece is going to prevent something like this from ever happening again. But if it brings the family some comfort, if it makes anyone think, if it affects anyone the way it affected me, I would feel that the slightest, tiniest, most minute little ripple had been made.
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I recorded this piece on a Marantz PMD 670 with a Beyer M58 Mic. I made numerous mistakes. Mostly, because when I left public radio around 1996, everything was still analog. Well, almost everything. So when I came back I had to learn how to wrap my brain around the digital world. It was a lot of fun but it was very hard for me to trust that I was really recording without seeing the cassette or DAT reels moving. Recording on a flashcard was just really funky. I felt much better after coming home and putting every interview on a CD, which I could actually hold in my hand (and at first that in itself was a real feat). I had to buy and set up a completely new computer; I learned Protools and this was the first piece of any length or import that I did with all my new-fangled equipment. At first, I recorded at too low a level after someone told me that if you go over in digital recording, you’re really screwed.
After the first two interviews, I got used to the whole thing and relaxed. I was perfectly happy with the sound quality of the 670 and the mic, being the audio slut that I am — anything is fine with me — I mean I am picky about audio quality but I’m no audiophile. That’s what I love about radio. You can use the crappiest equipment if you absolutely have to (even though you always want to use the best you can), and still come away with something that’s passable. One time I was in Fargo North Dakota with no equipment at all and found a story I wanted to do. I went to the public radio station to ask them to borrow a tape recorder and a mic, explaining that I was a stringer for NPR. I gave them a number at NPR to verify my story. They called and for some reason could not get through. They eyed me very suspiciously. I offered to leave them my driver’s license and Visa card. Eventually they decided to take a chance. And what was the so carefully guarded equipment? An old 635a mic and a Panasonic table-top cassette player that looks like it was circa 1973 which stopped running if you tilted it off a perfectly straight, parallel-to-the-ground plane. So I took the mic and the recorder and, careful not to let the Panasonic tilt one degree to the left or right, recorded the sound I needed for the piece. It was fine. It aired on All Things Considered a few weeks later and everyone listening in his or her car didn’t know the difference. Radio is the greatest.