by Chris Duggan
Because he said on the phone that he was homeless, I expected Mark Grodi to be a little rough around the edges; I did not expect him to walk into the newsroom with a gas can in his hand. The whole thing had started 45 minutes earlier with my phone clattering on my desk, which it did instead of ringing because the bell had broken long before I started at the Warrenton News three years earlier. Calls like his were common: “I’ve got a story for you. Can I meet with you?” They never panned out. Someone’s neighbor built a shed over the property line, or some government official had hired his cousin to do the lawn services around City Hall. As the editor, page designer, photographer, and only full-time news writer at the little Missouri weekly, I did not have the time to do anything with a real story anyway, but I humored them all, telling myself I would be out of there soon. On the phone, he said he was calling from St. Charles, about 40 miles away to the east, and he was hitchhiking, so I was surprised to see him so soon.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to blow the place up,” he said, motioning with the gas can. “It’s a lot easier to get a ride if you’re carrying a gas can.”
Grodi wore green nylon sweat pants, accented with unevenly distributed oily black stains, and sported an unkempt copse of thick brown hair and several days’ growth of facial stubble. He wore a heavy green Army-style coat on his lean muscular frame. He looked dangerous, but his smile was immediately disarming, his teeth straight and white.
I led him into my office, sat down at my desk, and motioned to the chair usually occupied by my typesetter, who was off for the day. He put down his gas can and started in, telling me he was looking for his dog.
Oh, for Christ’s sake, I thought, smiling politely and glancing at the pile of press releases on my desk that awaited my editing pen.
He continued, telling me he had been hitching out from the west coast with his Rottweiler Tasha, on his way to visit his parents in Toledo, when he stopped on New Year’s Eve at the rest area in Wright City, an even smaller town one exit east of Warrenton.
“Some guy walked up to me and we got to talking, and before he left, he handed me this little bag of marijuana,” Grodi said. “Not 15 minutes later, a police car rolled up. They searched me, found the pot and arrested me for drug possession.”
Grodi spent five days in the Warren County Jail, across the street from my office, and they impounded Tasha, placing her with a guy named Kitson who contracted with Wright City for animal control services. Kitson arranged to meet Grodi at the Wright City rest area after his release to return his dog to him, but when Kitson rolled up, he did not have Tasha.
“He said she had died,” Grodi told me. He was getting angry just talking about it, his face hardening into a frightening grimace.
“He said she had mange and that had caused her heart to give out. I told him, ‘You show me the body, or you’re going to see some blood.’”
There wasn’t any blood, but Grodi told Kitson this was by no means over. When he got to St. Charles, he looked up the Humane Society and told them his story. They put him in touch with an animal rights group, and a woman there contacted Kitson and asked for an explanation.
“The guy tells her a different story,” Grodi said. “This time, Tasha hadn’t eaten for him and starved to death. I asked her if it was possible for an 80-pound dog to starve to death in four days. Not very likely, she said. She’d also never heard of a dog having heart failure from the mange.”
Grodi leaned back in the chair and took a deep breath while I furiously wrote in my reporter’s notebook, flipping a page every 20 seconds. He was convinced she was still alive. Somewhere along the way, someone had put it into his head that Kitson had sold his dog to a research laboratory.
“That was my kid,” Grodi said. “She was my traveling companion for 10 years. My best friend. I’m not giving up on this.”
I doubted Grodi would be successful in getting his dog back, but I called the animal rights group to confirm what Grodi had told me they said. Turned out, the organization had had problems with Kitson in the past and I learned that another woman had also had her Rottweiler impounded at Kitson’s facility, never to see her again–another half-baked story about the dog’s death. I called the city clerk in Wright City, as well as the county to confirm the details of Grodi’s jail time.
Then, I wrote a story that came out the following Wednesday—just the essential facts, none of the hyperbole that I was sure Grodi wanted. I expected it would soon be over.
I had spent the eight months after my January 1989 graduation from college working retail and a selection of stringer jobs at various newspapers in a chain that stretched from western Illinois in the east all the way out to Warrenton in the west with St. Louis and St. Charles counties in between. My plan was to impress my way into a full-time reporting gig and eventually parlay that into a job at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and maybe even the New York Times, perhaps toppling a presidential administration like Woodward and Bernstein.
One of those freelance jobs was in Warrenton, where I wrote feature stories and covered city council meetings in the little outlying towns in Warren County. A feature story of mine won an award from the newspaper chain, and my editor, Tom Purdom, the gruff world weary newsman who yearned to make the Warrenton News into a rural “newspaper of record,” recommended me for a full-time position with the chain in Wentzville, about 20 miles east of Warrenton. When I got it, I thought I’d seen the last of Warrenton. My Wentzville office was in a little blue house on Pearce Boulevard, from which I wrote stories about alderman and school board meetings, trying to simultaneously keep on top of the town’s growing pains and impress my managing editor.
Michael Gothberg was the last of the chain smoking, hard drinking, cynical newspaper editors, the likes of which I had seen in dozens of old smoky black and white movies. In spite of how well I thought I had done on a particular assignment, his assessment of the piece made me feel instantly and profoundly stupid. Before long, I dreaded the sight of him and the sound of his Marlborough-ravaged voice. Six months after I started in Wentzville, he summoned me to his office in St. Charles. As I sat, sunk down in the chair across the desk from him, practically looking up his nose, I was convinced he had called me in to fire me. Instead, it was to tell me that I was being transferred to Warrenton. They were eliminating Purdom’s position in a cost-cutting move, but they needed someone to go out there and run the news operation in his place, for less money, of course.
For the first time in the six months I’d known him, he seemed interested in what I thought. For whatever reason, he wanted me to be enthusiastic about the move. He told me it would entail a pay raise (which I never got). He also said it would be a temporary assignment (which it wasn’t). At the time, I was relieved to still have a job, and I agreed to go.
“I think it will be good for you,” he said.
In spite of the suddenness of it, and the fact I would be driving 35 miles each way every day commuting to and from the place, I also saw it as an opportunity to live by my wits out in the journalistic wilderness. I thought of Hemingway’s formative days as a reporter in Kansas City and saw myself as a modern day George Willard, the young newspaper reporter hero from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio. I had recently accepted the fact that my yearlong on-again-off-again romance from college was off for good, and I saw the new setting as an opportunity, maybe even a mandate, to move on.
Gothberg didn’t tell me until after I accepted the position that the folks of Warren County did not want a rural newspaper of record and the majority of them hated the Warrenton News that Tom Purdom had fashioned. In addition to producing the weekly paper, I was to ensure that the people of the town liked the paper again.
I started on Valentine’s Day, 1990. Once the editor’s office was mine and not just the place I visited periodically to deliver my copy, I began to study the physical details of the place. I occupied one room of the storefront space, the rest of which housed the advertising staff, which outnumbered me four to one. The walls were covered in pale wood paneling right out of the early ‘70s, and the phone was one generation newer than the ones that had a rotary dial on the front. The ceiling was suspended acoustical tile covered in amoeba-shaped brown water stains, dark around the edges.
I had a part-time typesetter, a brazen blonde woman who enjoyed singing Janis Joplin off key and told me repeatedly that the key to relieving my stress was a more robust sex life.
I settled into a routine. I went to meetings, did interviews for stories, took pictures, and edited press releases and stringer stories from Tuesday through Friday, dummied and sketched a layout of the paper on Friday afternoon, and went down to the county office in St. Charles on Saturday to do the layouts on the computers there. On Monday, I was in the composing room in St. Charles with its page cameras, waxers, and razorblade knives to check off my pages after the composing staff pasted them up.
I was determined not to produce a newsletter about the county, and if that was what local residents wanted, they could go straight to hell. While I wrote the important news of the county, I avoided needless controversy and before long, much of the town liked the Warrenton News again. I saw it as a minor victory, even if I did not have the time to look into stories like Grodi’s as deeply as they deserved. In the three years I worked there, I made friends in the community, and somewhere along the line I started acting with a community theatre group. I was accepted and even respected by many in Warrenton, but I still dreamed of the day I would leave Warren County for good.
After that first meeting, Grodi visited my office another half dozen times over the next few months. My article about his case had ignited a debate among the leaders in Wright City and Warrenton of the need for a central animal control facility so cities could stop contracting with the Kitsons of the animal control world. While I continued to cover these developments, there was nothing I could do to help Grodi get his dog back, and as the weeks wore on, I think he began to accept the fact she was not coming back to him.
By late February, Grodi got a local lawyer to help him sue Kitson for unspecified damages, and city meetings in Warrenton and Wright City were filled to capacity with increasingly angry people concerned about the animal control problem. Our visits, over time, became more social than official. A month or so after that first one, he appeared in the office clean-shaven, his clothes spotless. One of the animal rights advocates in town had let him use her house to clean up for all the meetings he was going to. He suddenly lacked those markers of homelessness, and I asked him how he had come to live that way.
“I don’t like living inside walls,” he said. “Never have.”
Fortune, he said, could be anywhere. Talking to him made me rue the confinement of my situation, but I did not envy him. Living his way could be rough. He got food where he could. One of his and Tasha’s favorite sources was the dumpster at any given McDonald’s. Because fast food places have to throw out unsold food after it has been under the heating lamps for a certain time, there is a wealth of nicely wrapped food in their dumpsters, he said—burgers, chicken sandwiches, fruit pies, whatever you want.
We were talking and I had stopped taking notes long before. He told me of his love for baseball cards, producing from one of the interior pockets of his army jacket a card sandwiched between two sheets of Plexiglas, duct tape holding them together. It was a rookie card for Mantle, DiMaggio, or one of the biggies. I don’t remember which. I had done a story not long before about a Honus Wagner card that came through town in a traveling exhibit. The rarest of cards, it was worth a quarter million dollars. A card like the one Grodi had could be worth thousands, maybe. It was as if he had produced a Van Gogh and handed it to me to admire.
He pulled out a pack of Topps cards from another of the many jacket pockets, still sealed in the silver foil wrapper, and handed it to me.
“You can have these,” he said. “Open them later and see what’s there. You never know what you might have. But be careful you don’t mar them. They lose their value that way.”
Gothberg left the publishing company within a few months of sending me to Warrenton. They unceremoniously transferred him to the South St. Louis County publication group and during a two week vacation before starting his new post, he quit the company. Not long after, he started his own newspaper in St. Peters, just west of his old base in St. Charles.
One random afternoon in my third and final year in Warrenton, I answered my clattering phone and heard Gothberg’s familiar voice. I tensed involuntarily for a moment, even though he had no power over me anymore.
“Michael,” I said the way one greets an old friend on the street. “What’s up?”
He told me he was sitting in his office with Tom, my old Warrenton editor, the one he’d fired two years earlier, the one whose office I had since made my own.
“We were talking and you came up,” he said. “We both agreed that you are a good reporter, and I just wanted to call and tell you that. You’re good, and I think you deserve to be somewhere other than Warrenton.”
I was surprised. This was out of character for him.
“That is ironic, sir, considering you sent me here,” I said.
We both laughed, and he repeated the compliment.
“You’re good, seriously,” he said. “Take care of yourself, and good luck.”
I almost thought he was going to offer me a job at his upstart venture. When he didn’t, I wondered if I would have taken it. Had my discontent become that extreme?
Two weeks later, Gothberg was dead. He never woke up after a night out with friends. When he didn’t show up for work the following morning and his staff got no answer on his phone, they sent the police to his place, where he lived alone, and they found him there. Though his paper was doing pretty well at the time, it died, too, not long after. That final phone call haunted me, and for reasons I did not entirely understand at the time, I began writing my personal journal entries as if I were speaking to him.
By early spring, I asked Grodi if he was grateful for the warmer weather, since he slept under overpasses and the like.
“Actually, I prefer the cold,” he said. “The heat is terrible. You can’t dress for it, and then you have to carry all the clothes you’re not wearing. I’ll take cold any day.”
Just as I wondered about my own future, I could not help but wonder about his. If he won his “unspecified damages” suit against Kitson, would that leave him a wealthy man, at least by his standards? I asked him what he wanted out of life.
“What I’d really like is to be able to get a tow truck,” he said. “I would go around and help people whose cars had broken down. I would charge them just enough money for gas. And I would have Tasha back.”
Grodi had spoken before of his desire to help people. He told stories about defending people who were being bullied or mugged. Tasha had his back during these times. I found it noble.
By April, things were heating up. Grodi told me that a few nights earlier, a pick-up truck full of guys pulled up to where he was staying under an overpass. One of them had a shotgun and told him to stop stirring up trouble or he was dead. Then they drove off.
“Maybe I should just let them kill me,” he said.
He didn’t say it, but I guessed by then he had given up on finding Tasha alive. His voice was filled with despair.
“That wouldn’t do any good, though, I guess,” he finished. I quickly agreed.
Later that month, the mayors of Warrenton and Wright City announced a plan to build a joint animal impound facility, eliminating the need for contractors like Kitson. A short time later, I got the call that I was being transferred out at last. The office in O’Fallon, just east of Wentzville, had opened up with the reporter there moving on to another job. Although I no longer had the title “editor” by my name, I was working for a larger circulation closer to St. Louis and I could concentrate on writing and reporting. Also, I lived in that city already, so my commute went from 35 miles to three. In a spinning vortex of activity in my final days in Warrenton, I introduced my replacement, a reporter with daily newspaper experience, to the principal figures in town, and packed up.
On my last Monday on the job, I was supervising paste-up of my final edition in the composing room in St. Charles when someone shouted that I had a phone call. It was Grodi. He needed help with the mail people were trying to send him and wondered if he could have it sent to the paper. I told him that I was sorry but I was leaving; it was not my story anymore. Focused as I was on moving on, the request annoyed me in that moment. His story was among the things I was leaving behind in Warrenton.
He said it was okay and that some of the animal rights people were talking about chipping in toward a P.O. box for him. I wished him luck, and he did the same for me.
In my new role in O’Fallon, I did not have to edit press releases anymore or supervise stringers and community columnists, but the paper came out three times a week and reporters like me were responsible for four or five stories per edition, driven by local government meetings, police blotters, accident reports, Rotary Clubs, and the American Legion. I was working as hard as I ever had, and I found that in many ways I had grown up during my time in Warrenton, professionally and otherwise. I had gone from single to married during that period and bought a house as well. My life resembled that of an adult.
It was not until years later, long after my dream of becoming a big-time journalist had fizzled, that I fully appreciated what Warrenton had left me—Gothberg, too. It turned out that he was right; the experience of running the weekly paper had been good for me: I learned about the power of the written word to change people’s lives, for good or ill. Producing a newspaper every week, almost single-handedly, taught me that I was far more capable than I ever thought possible. And Gothberg? To this day, when I write something, I make sure it is as polished as I can manage, as if he were on the receiving end when I turn it in.
I saw Grodi one more time. It was a summer morning, a few months after my transfer, and I was driving past O’Fallon’s Interstate 70 interchange toward my office, a full slate of the day’s stories orbiting in my head. I glanced over to the left at a car stopped on the shoulder by the entrance ramp for the westbound lanes and saw him opening the door to the passenger side. He had his gas can and was flashing that smile at his newfound benefactor, headed west again, likely in pursuit of his on-going quest to bring to justice Kitson and anyone else connected with Sasha’s disappearance. I was surprised to see him, because I suspected he too would have moved on by then.
I thought for a moment that I should tap the horn and give him a wave, but after another second he was behind me and the moment was gone.