A police reporter's eulogy for Car 329

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

AColumbus Dispatch police reporter says goodbye to his loyal four-wheeled friend.

For the past 10 years,I've coveredpolice and crime at theDispatch. And for the past 10 years, the company car that I relied on to get me to breaking news was a white Chevy Cavalier with "The Columbus Dispatch" in blue on the front doors. We police reporters simply called her "329," the chipped white vinyl numerals stenciled onto the corners of the front and back windshields. Every now and then, we called her that to non-crime reporters. A blank stare sometimes reminded us that they didn't know her well enough to get so personal.

Car 329 was for police reporters only-the "cop car" in newsroom parlance. When not in use, her keys hung from the push pin at the cop desk, next to the scanners and the police radio codes. Most of theDispatch fleet is made up of similarly painted and labeled Honda Civics, with more room inside and a cleaner automotive reputation. Driving 329, I was often reminded of Beck's monotone intro to "Loser:" "In a time of chimpanzees I was a monkey."

I was pulling a Friday night shift recently when I learned that 329 appeared, finally, to have succumbed to some unspecified but entirely expected terminal condition. Her body had rusted away to the point that the building security guy who broke the news to me referred to her as "a Flintstones car." While the prognosis at that point wasn't official and the internal memo mentioned that she was only "in need of repair," I never saw her again.

That night, I tweeted a picture of 329's usual spot right beside the exit gate on theDispatch lot. It was empty. I guessed that the small puddle there was transmission fluid. A coworker suggested we chalk off the car's outline in the empty spot. The security guy who had broken the news to me said that Jim Woods, who worked the night-shift police beat, and I should hold a fiery Viking funeral for her. I liked that idea, agreeing that for a company car with such a background, the sendoff should be dramatic.

If this all seems like too much-it was a company car, for crying out loud-let me explain.

As a cops reporter, I often spend large portions of my day in a car. At other papers I've worked for, there were no company cars. You took your own vehicle to crime scenes, to the police stations, to the courts and the prisons. When I was handed the keys to 329 in 2006 and told she was mine, all mine during my work shifts, it was pure bliss. And she played the part. A scanner in the center dash, underneath the radio I never turned on, crackled with clues to breaking news. A smattering of badly battered Franklin County map books, with pages torn and missing, were strewn about the interior.

Car 329 had a lived-in feel. There were pencils and pens galore, notebooks stashed in any available pocket, a pair of binoculars, a chartreuse safety vest we were supposed to wear at scenes on state highways but never did, and the once-edible debris of a thousand hastily devoured fast food meals. If you looked hard enough between and under the seats, you could probably round up a medium order of fries and, armed with some water, reconstitute the ketchup globs that had hardened on the upholstery sometime around 2005.

But she was our car, and only ours. Even if every other car is out and some features reporter is late for an interview, the rules demanded that no one but a cops reporter could touch 329. She needed to be available. An intern once took the car on some suitably internish news event just before police were dispatched to a South Side school to investigate a person with a gun. When I discovered the car was missing, along with every other car on the lot, now-retired city editor Carol Lease handed me the keys to her souped-up Mustang. That was the last time an intern took 329 on a non-cops run.

The experience of driving 329 was as much about the destination as it was about the car. She was most familiar with the worst neighborhoods, and her porcelain white visage with the company name emblazoned on the doors stuck out like an ice cream truck. I've been waved down by drug dealers, asking if I wanted to buy. I've been solicited by prostitutes. And truth be told, I've had a few prostitutes in the front seat through the years for interviews, along with an array of other witnesses, crime victims and grieving family members. The car provided a refuge from the rain, the cold, the snow, and if I'm being completely honest, the competition. Some of the most memorable quotes I've ever written down were uttered in 329. When a serial rapist was shot dead by police in North Linden in 2007, I tracked down one of his victims, a dancer struggling to support her three kids on the Near East Side. "Are you sure he's dead?" she asked me from the front passenger seat.

Mechanically speaking, I'll admit, 329 was a hunk of junk, and I didn't treat her kindly. Once I was reporting on a string of bodies that had turned up over the years along a short stretch of rural road in southern Franklin County. The most recent had been found in a quarry, and I disregarded some company signs to drive onto the property in search of someone who could enlighten me about the discovery. I was driving faster than reasonable to catch up to a pickup truck racing on a road through the quarry when I failed to dodge a rather large rock that I struck with a brutal "Wham!" to the undercarriage. I kept going and caught up to the truck, only to be booted off the property. Minutes later, I was speaking about the bodies with a nearby cemetery caretaker when I noticed oil running down her driveway. I bid farewell and drove 329 all the way back to the paper, a trip I'm still astounded she made. I parked her and alerted the lot guard as she bled out. Later, I noticed the spot was marked by a stain and lingering absorbent sand.

I was thinking of that day when I tweeted that 329 had taken me "places no Cavalier should ever go."

Jodi Andes, the formerDispatchcops reporter who preceded me, replied: "Oh say it's not so. That car is legendary." And, "Imagine the stories it could tell. I had it when I had a gun pointed at me; imagine it was close by when shots fired near [you]." The car was indeed nearby when I had my two closest brushes with gunfire, at a street memorial for Deuce-Deuce Blood gang member Jarren "Scan" Washington in 2006, and at the especially hot scene of a triple homicide in the Hilltop two years later.

Reflecting her print journalism mission, 329 wasn't fancy. Her heater and A/C were entirely inadequate. She had none of the swagger of the TV satellite trucks. At highway speeds she shook and skittered enough to be truly unsettling, and once on Rt. 315 the driver's side door flew open on me with no warning or explanation. But when I've been given truly extraordinary glimpses into truly terrible things, 329 was my guide and my portable office. Sitting inside her cramped quarters, I transcribed scenes of heartbreak, horror and gallows humor, like the street name of a homicide victim whose first name was Calvin: He went by ".40 Cal."

There is no official new 329 yet, though there's talk of us maybe landing a Honda CR-V. Perhaps the quarry incident is behind that possibility. For now, Woods and I are driving one of the hooptie Civics. There is no scanner inside, which would probably make me uneasy if not for the fact that the car already sounds worse than 329 ever did. As I idle at stop lights, the car emits a metallic death rattle that turns heads on sidewalks. It sounds a bit like a helicopter in trouble, or the birthing of Optimus Prime. It is numbered 380, which I'll point out is the same as a snappy little pistol cartridge. All things considered, it should do nicely.