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Hello out there

By Jazmine Ulloa

I picked up my pink, Pocahontas diary one day in January, and as my opening line, in jagged letters wrote: “I have six boyfriends, Andrew, Michael, Sean, Paul, Stephen and Mark.” I was just learning English. I meant to say crushes. But it was a bold declaration for a 7-year-old, and my family still makes fun of me for it.

For this very first official post, I was trying to think of the very best first sentence, something just as bold. But I kept coming up bare and then remembered that is how my collection of blank journals came to be stowed away in a flimsy cardboard box underneath my desk.

I used to carry some of them around with me in an old book bag, at least three or four notebooks with beautiful covers and crisp, white pages. I wanted to fill them up with words and thoughts and pieces of the days I always wanted to remember, but I never knew where to start.

Brian, Jess and me.

That intimidation came to an end five years ago when I met Brian in a small, rundown hostel in downtown Amsterdam. A close friend and I were sharing a bunk bed-filled room with him and 14 other strangers, but the three of us quickly got to talking and in less than 24 hours had trekked through parks and museums, jazz clubs and smoke shops.

As the sun set, we found ourselves sitting at the edge of one of the city’s canals, sharing headphones and swapping stories. He was about our age, in his early 20s, and backpacking on his own through Europe. He let me read an entry in his black notebook about his stop in Barcelona. I unzipped my book bag and showed him my untouched journals. “Shit, you are not writing the Bible,” he said. “Open it and write.”

And in my chicken scratch writing, I did. “Hello out there,” I said.

Here’s to the beginning.

An intro to the cops beat

The first time I rode in a police car I was 15, maybe 16. And I was in the backseat. I wasn’t in handcuffs, but I was in trouble.

I’d broken curfew by crossing back into my hometown of El Paso from Ciudad Juarez in the early morning hours without parental supervision. It was a measure El Paso had to keep young kids from partying in the Mexican city before it became one of the deadliest places in the world. And it was a rule we were constantly looking for ways to get around—sometimes, like in this case, unsuccessfully.

But let’s skip the details. Needless to say, the drive of shame isn’t a proud memory. My mother’s glare burned through the steel of the car. She hit my head with a good, ol’ coscorrón, fueling all stereotypes of a Mexican mother’s wrath, as soon as she bid the officer goodbye and slammed the door. My relationship with my mom is awesome, but with law enforcement it had been one of fear and some disdain ever since.

That’s changed since I came to San Antonio three months ago and took the job as, ironically, the night crime reporter. Now I listen to scanners. They chat away in my dreams sometimes, dictating dispatcher code of emergencies in faraway lands. I’ll admit it. I wasn’t fond of it. Not at first. So much to get used to, the winding and intertwining highways, the briefs, the tweets, the constant updates on so many deaths—then checking the fax machine the next day for the police reports (which I still forget to do sometimes).

My perception has quickly changed, though. I like the rush of getting to the scene, the chase after information, the beauty in the details of some cases. I’m learning to be strong, even in the most heart-wrenching of crimes, and yet to remain sensitive when it seems like the same shootings and stabbings and assaults keep happening time and time again. There are people hurting for loved ones behind so many of the stories we write.

I’m also getting to know the police officers, realizing they’re not always craving donuts or out to get me. Just this week, I even got to ride in another cop car — this time on a voluntary ride-along. Things looked different from the passenger’s seat, and Jason Macias, an overnight officer from the police department’s Central Substation, took me around his typical patrol areas, giving me a tour of the inside world I’m always trying to peek into from the other side of the yellow caution tape.

He told me about his job, how he loved the freedom of it and having his office in his car. He wanted to help people but was often frustrated seeing the same criminals he helped put away, soon back on the streets. Then near 3 a.m., just as I was dozing off and we were going to stop to eat, the scanners started calling out a shooting on East Market Street and Alamo, smack in the middle of downtown. We arrived to find two men bloodied and lying curled up on the sidewalk. One struggled to get up. The other victim had this look on his face. It’s cliché to say, but I’ll never forget how he was there … and then just gone. It reminded me life is precious. That it’s short.

As published May 7, 2011 in the Rap Sheet Blog of the San Antonio Express-News

Photo by Jazmine Ulloa