Some days in the 1960s

Sam Smith – My circulation staff for the Capitol East Gazette in the 1960s, our office just eight blocks from the Capital, came from the neighborhood — when they weren’t in jail. At one point, about half of them were. I found needles behind stacks of papers in the office, had a few checks stolen and was even tipped to a kidnap threat credible enough that my wife and son left town while the police staked out my house for a day. But most of the time things went pretty well.

They weren’t, however, the only visitors to our office. Foe example, I enjoyed my conversations with a 9th Precinct police officer who would drop by the Gazette office with his dour squad car partner. I may have been the only underground newspaper editor in the country who was periodically visited by a uniformed cop to discuss politics, both of us on company time.

To be sure, I had known the officer over the years, mainly as his sister’s brother. He had first come around to my office shortly after graduating from Harvard to discuss what he was going to do with his life. One of the options had been to join the police department. I attempted to discourage him but to no avail. He took the job and ended up in my own precinct and with my own office on his beat. Officer Don Graham would continue to ignore my advice in his later employment as publisher of the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, with ten to fifteen thousand papers to distribute, I needed some help and there were plenty of youths in the neighborhood who wanted work. I could fit myself, ten thousand copies, and three kids into Kathy’s roof-rack equipped red Volkswagen.

One day I came home to find several of the neighborhood youths watching another run out in front of cars that were forced to swerve or brake suddenly. I asked what was going on. “Oh, Bo, he crazy,” I was told. “He try kill hisself.”

When Bo returned to the sidewalk I introduced myself and suggested some alternative activities for the afternoon, none of which seemed to interest him much. Bo was 16, somewhat older than the others, and seemed considerably more sophisticated when he wasn’t doing dumb things like trying to kill himself. Talking some more, I discovered that Bo actually knew how to type. Bo, in fact, was quite bright.

Which is how Bo became a part-time member of the Gazette staff. There were good days and bad ones, but I was an editor and not a therapist and so when Bo told me one day he was going to kill himself all I knew how to do was to sit with him and talk and talk and talk. Or when he called me up one night with the same intent, to talk and talk and talk again.

He didn’t commit suicide but he didn’t really get better. I tried to get him help but he had been raised on the idea that you were either crazy or you weren’t and he, as he made sure I agreed, wasn’t crazy. I finally persuaded him to go with me to the Area C Mental Health Clinic but that didn’t take either.

Matters deteriorated and with the deterioration, Bo became more manipulative and less dependable and more frequently clearly on drugs. I finally reached the end of what I could do and told him so.

That didn’t work, either. One night around eleven-thirty he showed up at our front door, high and scared, begging for sanctuary from his pusher who was on his tail. As I looked out the window, I saw a two-tone brown Cadillac drive slowly by several times.

I wasn’t going to get into the middle of Bo’s failed deals. I finally figured that the safest place for Bo that night might be jail. So I called the local precinct, explained the situation and suggested they just take him down to the station house until the problem subsided.

A white cop arrived and Bo left with him. As they walked down the street, something went wrong and the two started fighting, with Bo eventually losing and being forcibly taken off. A neighbor, a popular black singer at nearby Mr. Henry’s bar, looked out his window, saw a white cop assaulting a black man and went down to the precinct and bailed Bo out. One hour later, Bo was at my door again begging to be let in. This time I called the precinct and asked them to send a black cop and just take Bo home. They did and the evening ended.