When Jesus decided to run for president of the United States he began his campaign, sensibly enough, with a miracle. Two miracles, in fact. So I should probably start this story with a line like, In the beginning there were the miracles, but the truth is that, at the time, most media people—me included—did not believe in miracles, certainly not where a run for the White House was concerned. At first I was skeptical, and then, after I met the man who called himself Jesus, somewhat less skeptical. And then my whole way of looking at life was turned upside-down.
So let me start the story this way: In the beginning it was a perfect New England afternoon, May in western Massachusetts. The sky was clear, the air full of the smell of blossoming trees and drying mud, and my producer and boss, Paterson Wales, was standing at his office window looking down on the troubled city of West Zenith, which we reported on every night at six and ten. We made an odd team, Wales and I. He was jaded and sad from thirty years in the TV business, and I was more or less up-and-coming, a smooth-talking, locally famous beat reporter with nice hair and aspirations for an anchor spot in a top-ten market. Wales summoned me to his office, kept his back turned, took out of his mouth the illegal Cuban cigar he would salivate on until it rotted but would never set a match to, and said tenderly, “Got something for ya.”
I remember looking at his back and realizing that the suit he was wearing—luxurious blue wool—probably cost more than I made in a month. I said, “Shooting in Hunter Town?”
“Cops with guns and bags of dope on a table at the station?”
“Leak at the sewage plant on Westover Road?”
“You’re gonna like this, it’s weird. Same as you.”
“I’m not weird, I’m all-American.”
“Right, I’m Mahatma Gandhi. Listen to me now.” And then, to my astonishment, Wales—who was not known for strong eye-contact—turned around and drilled his baby-blues into me, letting the hand with the cigar drop to his side. “Last night in Fultonville a little boy fell off a fire escape,” he said in his staccato fashion. “Three stories up. . . .Died.”
“That’s sad,” I said. In those days–the days before Jesus is the way I think of them–I was somewhat jaded myself, having reported on a hundred drug busts and a dozen killings in the seven years I’d been at WZIZ. Gang shootouts. Domestic arguments gone sour. Schoolkids calling in bomb threats—all the things we’ve become more or less used to and that had stopped hitting me in the gut the way they had in the early years. Little kids falling off fire escapes was not on that list, however. Though I did not yet have children of my own, I wanted five or six of them someday, and I couldn’t sleep after doing reports in which a child had been hurt. Wales knew that about me, so I was surprised he was sending me out on the story.
But then, after a few beats of silence, he added, “Died, then came back to life,” and watched me closely as he said it.
“Good,” I said, “that happens. Especially with little ones. They can survive a fall like that. Wind gets knocked out of them pretty bad, they seem to be dead, but they can bounce back. It’s like people who drown in very cold—”
“It was Fultonville,” Wales said, and he said it so forcefully it seemed for a second he was about to cry. Which was something that simply did not happen around ZIZ.
“Right, Boss. You said that.,”
Fultonville was the poor section of West Zenith, or, I should say, one of the poor sections. The second-worst and second-saddest of them as far as I was concerned, after a neighborhood called Hunter Town. Ten square blocks of cheap apartments, a bleak little park, rat-infested brick townhouses, the place was populated by an equal opportunity mix of whites, blacks, and Latinos, and displayed all the usual characteristics of poverty: a lot of people unemployed, a lot of single moms, a lot of drugs, fights, sometimes shootings. Fultonville was the kind of place you didn’t go anywhere near unless you took a wrong turn off the highway, or lived there, or were intent on buying a class D substance.
“Shut up for once, will you?” Wales said. “I’m giving you two-minutes-fifty tonight, top of the hour, so save it for that, okay?”
“A large chunk,” I said.
He turned his back again, took a pretend puff from the Habana. “It happened different than that. If you believe the word on the street, the mother and her boyfriend were having a picnic out there on the rusty old fire escape. . . .A little booze, maybe something else. The kid’s two or three years old. Falls asleep. Rolls over when they’re not looking. One of the bars is loose or something. He drops. It was grass and dirt he hit, but hard. The mother screams. She races down the fire escape, jumps off the last step, almost breaks both ankles. She finds the kid not breathing. A minute goes by, she’s hysterical. Two minutes. Eight minutes. Neighbors come running. Sirens in the air.”
“I can picture it,” I said.
He paused for a few seconds. Even with his back turned, I could tell I’d really ticked him off, so I closed my mouth for good, more or less.
“Then, according to the reports, some weirdo comes walking through the gathering crowd. Street person or something. Guy no one’s ever seen. Maybe Hispanic, maybe not. Longish hair. Tattoo of a flower on his left forearm. This guy reaches down and touches the little kid on his shoulder. Walks away. Disappears down the street. Kid goes from being dead to crying. A minute later when the ambulance and police get there the kid is fine as fine can be.”
I couldn’t hold my silence. I said, “Want my opinion?”
“My opinion is this: The mother knows she’s facing a child endangerment rap, so once she realizes her baby is okay, she makes the rest of it up. A little positive TV time. The miracle baby. The good mother visited by an angel. She gets off.”
Wales was shaking his head. “Witnesses back her up.”
“Drug clients,” I suggested. “Neighbors afraid her boyfriend would beat the bejesus out of them if they didn’t corroborate her version of things. It’s something along those lines. To my nose, the story smells.”
“Maybe. We’ll see. Go down to Fultonville and check it out. I’ll give you two fifty at six and a follow-up at ten if it’s any good. Woman’s name is Ada Montpelier, like the capital of Vermont. Try not to make me have to repeat it.”
“The French university town. I’ll remember it that way.”
“877 Ediston Street.”
“877 were the last three digits of my ex-mother-in-law’s phone number.”
“The heart of darkness,” I said.
So that was the beginning. The tattooed guy with the magic touch was Jesus Christ come back to earth. At least that’s what I now believe. I don’t necessarily expect everyone to agree, of course: a USA Today survey, based on twelve hundred Americans, and taken shortly after the events I will recount here, said that only about half of us think he was actually something other than an interesting human being. But let me tell the whole story before you make your own judgment. I reported on some strange things in my days at ZIZ, and didn’t usually get them wrong. And the Jesus I’m going to describe here might turn out to be nothing at all like the Jesus the newspapers and TV showed you during the campaign, and nothing like the Jesus you always had in your imagination.