Bayou-Picayune Podcast, S01 EP05: The truth about the “Horoscope Heist”
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I suppose I should come clean about Dan Bitterman, the main character in my novel, And Lead Us Not.
If you’ve read And Lead Us Not, you’ve already discovered that Dan is a fool. A reporter for a small weekly tabloid in the mythical backwater town of Sarpy, Louisiana, he is considered a joke even by those he works with.
In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should tell you I’m the real-life fool my fictional Dan is based on.
After I was discharged from the army, after I had tried teaching school for a time, I decided to try my hand at the reporting game.
I quickly learned, however, that one does not simply march into a major daily newspaper with a degree in English and get hired on as a reporter.
Determined, though, to start somewhere, I took a job with the Sea Coast Echo, a small weekly newspaper in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
I still remember when I broke the news to my wife that I had been hired on as a reporter. She didn’t call me a fool, but she did point out that my new salary would be five hundred dollars less than what I had been earning as a teacher.
“Not only are you going to be earning less,” she said, “but you’re also going to be working more hours. As a teacher, at least, you had the summer, Christmas and all the holidays off. That’s not going to be the case now that you’re a newspaper reporter.”
Still, I wanted to be a writer. I explained to her that I wanted to be paid to write, not teach kids how to write.
Besides, I said, besides, I wanted a byline. I wanted to see my name in print — by David Pierson — even if it was only above news articles and not short stories or my novel.
So, fool? Yes, you could call us both that. Dan and me.
There’s one big difference between us, though. It has to do with the Horoscope Heist, a bank robbery we both reported on.
Until Dan Bitterman rose to prominence as the leading muckraker of the President of the United States in my novel, the Horoscope Heist was the highlight of his career; and, as far as I’m concerned, his story about that bank robbery was a scoop worthy of being called a scoop.
You can read all about that in And Lead Us Not, but here’s what really happened, and I should know because the real Horoscope Heist was supposed to have been my first big story as a reporter.
It was my first day on the job with the Sea Coast Echo.
As soon as I walked into the newsroom, my editor, Adoree, hung up the phone and said to me, “David! Thank goodness you’re here!”
She never explained why she used those words with me, but I’ve always suspected she was surprised to see me there; for, even though we had shaken hands on my going to work at the Echo, she probably didn’t think I would be foolish enough to take the lower-paying job she had offered me.
She recovered quickly, then said to me, “There’s been a bank robbery! No one else is here to cover it, so it’s your story. Get going!”
“Where?” I asked her.
And she, wanting me to be gone and on my way to the story, answered, “Why, your bank, silly! The robber held up your bank in Pass Christian and got away with $23,000! Now get going!”
On my way to cover the story, I asked myself how did Adoree know where I banked? I had told her my wife and I had rented a place in Pass Christian, but I hadn’t told her where we had opened our banking account.
I quickly dismissed any more thoughts on that subject, however, because I had a more pressing matter at hand: My first day on the job . . . my very first news assignment . . . a bank robbery . . . Wow! Things were starting off with a bang for me.
Alas, there were two banks in Pass Christian, Mississippi, and my wife and I had placed our meager savings in the other bank, the one the robber did not hold up.
So, as I walked into our bank and asked excitedly about the holdup, everyone — the bank guard, the tellers behind the windows, the customers, why, even the bank executives who came out from their offices in their three-piece suits, like I said, everyone — giggled and laughed at me like I was a fool, which, again, I felt I was.
One of the bank tellers took a motherly interest in me. “No, honey, it’s the other bank, Merchant’s Bank.” And she pointed me in the right direction.
By the time I got to the right bank, every newspaper and TV reporter was already there, and some of the TV people were already packing up their things to leave.
When the reporter for the Biloxi newspaper heard that I, a latecomer to the holdup, was from the Sea Coast Echo, he gave me a smirk. “This,” he seemed to be telling me with his condescending grin, “is why I am a reporter at a daily newspaper and you are such a loser.”
Then he threw me two scraps of information which he said all the other reporters had already learned.
First, the bank robber didn’t even try to disguise himself. Everybody in the whole town knew who he was. It was Leroy.
And, second, just before Leroy robbed the bank, he had been at the diner across the street. Reportedly, he put down his newspaper, handed the waitress a big tip and told her, “I’m about to come into a lot of money.”
Nothing I would be able to do with either of those facts, Mr. Biloxi assured me with a smug smile. All the other reporters had also heard about Leroy and the big tip he gave the waitress, so those two facts were probably going to be in the lead of every single reporter’s story. “By the time you go to press — a week from now — all this will be old, old news,” said Mr. Biloxi.
I had an instant dislike for the smug man, and I resolved to come up with an angle none of those reporters had considered, so I went to the FBI and asked for one piece of information about the suspect, his date of birth (or DOB, as the FBI spokesman told me).
Then I checked Leroy’s horoscope in the paper for that day.
Dammit! I was hoping that, just before Leroy had put down his newspaper, he had read his horoscope, and it said: “You will come into a lot of money.”
But, sadly, it did not.
I still used his horoscope in my lead, but it didn’t have the zip and the zing I really wanted.
Even though the Horoscope Heist didn’t turn out great for me, things worked out for my Dan Bitterman. In his fictional world, Leroy’s horoscope read exactly what it should have read in my real world.
Scoop! He scooped Mr. Biloxi and everyone else — even though his story didn’t come out until a week later.
That’s why I’m a fiction writer. Things in my make-believe world happen the way they’re supposed to happen, not like in the real world of people like Mr. Biloxi where everything is humdrum, mediocre and dull, dull, dull.
That’s why Dan’s story about the bank robbery, the “Horoscope Heist,” turned out better than mine.
Remember that when news people tell you fiction is dead. Fiction will always be better than fact, just as long as there are writers who dream.