If you make a living as a journalist, you know that going undercover can be as dangerous as it is gratifying. If you aspire to journalistic endeavour, take heed.
|Undercover journalism requires a low profile and deep confidence in contacts.|
Catastrophic things can go wrong with identity concealed, especially when dealing with, say, criminal or totalitarian elements. Dictators have little, if any, regard for human life and even less if a reporter writes detrimentally about regimes. Street gangs can instinctively smell a rat, so there ain’t much point in trying to fool them. If you make a living as a journalist, you know that going undercover can be as dangerous as it is gratifying. If you aspire to journalistic endeavour, take heed.
Catastrophic things can go wrong with identity concealed, especially when dealing with, say, criminal or totalitarian elements. Dictators have little, if any, regard for human life and even less if a reporter writes detrimentally about regimes. Street gangs can instinctively smell a rat, so there ain’t much point in trying to fool them.
A good rule of thumb is to exercise extreme caution when your life is on the line.
My most horrifying undercover assignment, one I foolishly assumed to be benign going in, involved no such irrevocable outcome. I was sent to New York City by a major North American city newsweekly to cover the after-hours bar scene in Manhattan.
I enlisted the spaced-out aid of an old pal, colleague and then photographer-of-the-stars, Marcia Resnick. I’d met her a few years before in pursuit of a cover story about Fab Five Freddy, a seminal Big Apple rapper and occasional Resnick love toy.
She had contacts coming out of the holes in her arm and I figured I needed her to get what I needed -- and she could always be counted on to drag along one of her outrageously gorgeous models, which meant, if nothing else, I less likely would end up alone in my hotel room. Mistake number one. Never take a junkie on an undercover gig.
On the evening in question I set out with a piece-a-cake attitude, stunning six-foot redhead Deborah on one arm, the Rez on the other. I wore a black T-shirt with a huge rainbow splashed across the front -- taboo number one. White women in New York make a game of gaming for black dudes, and they keep score, especially brothers with dayglo rainbow and the élan of foreign roots. Stay at arms length at all costs.
But I digress. My targeted site this godless night was the trendiest of all the mid-1980s booze-cans, where Mick and Bianca and Andy and Truman and Norman and Gianni and Lee and Jacqueline, on any given occasion, could be spotted -- Area. I was disappointed to find that the purported gilded cage, in the middle of nowhere (the garment district), was nothing more than a black hole in the wall with the odd black light flickering throughout a maze of “private” rooms.
As we entered the main parlour Resnick announces to anyone within earshot my name, my game and the fledgling publication I represented, which everybody had kinda heard about but never seen. So with my cover blown like an ill wind, I played it by ear. Next thing I knew a belligerent brunette had muscled Deborah aside and was sticking her tongue in it. The lone celebrity I could spot was a passed out Margot Hemingway in the corner. For real.
In an attempt to fit in, I allowed said brunette to aim a long glass tube connected to some sort of carburetor device at, and into, my left nostril, then flip a switch, shooting a blast of something that took the back of my head, Kennedy-like, right off. For chrissakes, speedballs! Before I could protest she did the right one, and I was hovering silently over the hills of Santa Domingo.
I came to seconds -- maybe hours -- later, just in time to see the brunette’s leather-bedecked boyfriend fire a crank-fuelled right jab straight to my left temple, and whatever lights there were in the joint went right out. Right, left -- who knew?
Next thing I knew I was waking up to the deafening blare of a New York Harbor tugboat, yards away out the window, stunning redhead’s endless legs draped across my entire skeletal structure, in Resnick’s bed at her waterfront co-op at Washington and West, below Laurie Anderson’s.
How I got there and where Rez might have gone remains, to this day, a mystery. Then I heard a roar the likes of which I’d never heard, a wail so pained and dripping with despair I feared a moose was bleeding to death in the dining room.
I leapt up and staggered through the apartment to find a dirty fat guy with a week’s worth of beard and the smell to accompany it, meticulously carving into two neat mounds what appeared to be a pillowy gram of pristine, high-quality cocaine. He peered up at me from under a dark blue stocking cap that covered half his sweat-drenched face and tried to smile -- John Belushi, man!
“Hey, blood,” he muttered. “Wanna line?”
“Uh, not right now, thanks, dog. You go ‘head,” I muttered back, jackhammer inside my head jacking. Or hammering.
“Thaaas coool,” he slurred and grinned. “Mo’ fo’ me!”
With that he gracefully hoovered both piles, one in each nose, in one big swoop, emitting afterwards a blood-curdling roar worthy of the Samurai Butcher himself. He trained his crazed eyeballs on mine and, with the benevolent air of a whacked amalgam of Santa, Dick Butkus and a skid row bum, raised an eyebrow knowingly and, like Jackie Gleason in need of a drink, yowled: “I’m outta-here!" and was gone. A year later, for good.
So much for my dangerous “cushy” assignment. Never even got a chance to tell him my name, not that it mattered. He wouldn’t’ve believed me if I did.
Remember, I was undercover.
Diego X. Jesus is a Dominican-born American freelance journalist and associate editor of IN who makes Toronto his home approximately half the time. Otherwise, we don't know where he might be. email Diego Jesus