A knock on the door; a gunshot. Why, exactly, is Francisco Kyese James dead?
Good Days and Bad Days
On May 29, 2012 at approximately 11:45 A.M. Francisco Kyese James, 29, knocked on the front door of a one-story clapboard house at 1103 S.W. 8th St. in Burien, Washington, a working class suburb of Seattle. The home was owned by Ronald Talbot, a longtime Boeing employee who rented the house to his son, Michael Joe Talbot, 32, and to his fiancée, Melissa Murray, 32. Mr James was an independent contractor paid by The Seattle Times to solicit newspaper subscriptions. His purpose in visiting the Talbot home was to attempt to sell a ten week “promotional trial” service of The Times for $20. It was a cold call as are all subscription sales within the newspaper. No one at that address had subscribed to the paper in the previous eight years. There were no lights on in the house and Ms. Murray had taken the family car, a 2002 Dodge mini-van, to her part-time job as a cashier at a local gas station. Since the house was seemingly empty and no one answered after James both knocked and rang the bell, one could say that the logical thing to do would’ve been to move on to the next residence. Instead, James walked to the side door, which led into the Talbot’s kitchen. He knocked again. What happened next is in dispute.
“He was having a terrible week, a terrible month, really a bad couple of months.” Tony Cordero was James’s crew manager, the supervisor for the salesmen and the sole proprietor of Cowboy Circulation—a company that contracts their services to The Times. He was also James’s best friend. Cordero’s a broad-shouldered man with a bruinesque physique. When he speaks, he tends to turn his head to the side and then blinks his way back into eye contact as if contemplating whether or not you are able to handle what he’s about to say.
“Normally, we get started at about two or three in the afternoon on the weekdays, but the night before Ky [Mr. James went by his middle name] had blanked [not sold an order]. In fact, the night before that he had only sold one. He had maybe three orders on the week. And the week before he had only made about $180. So he was like, ‘Put me out early.’ He wanted to work all day. We figured Burien was always pretty good in the mornings because there’s a lot of people home during the day.”
Cordero, also 29, grew up with Kyese James in Austin, Texas. Their families had lived across the hall from one another in a government subsidized housing complex on Austin’s south side.
“Ky lived with his mom in the apartment across the way, but he was over at my house like almost every day. Like we had food and a TV and stuff at my house, so Ky pretty much spent all his time after school with us. My mom would feed him Mexican food and he’d act like he’d never seen an enchilada before. His mom … she’s a cool person. I like her as a person, but not as a mother. They were always moving from building to building and all over the neighborhood. She’d run scams on people, always had a new man around. I think the year he stayed across from us was the longest he ever lived in one place growing up.”
Cordero and James got jobs through a mutual friend soliciting for The Austin-American Statesman when they were both fifteen. Since then, Cordero and James have traveled to as many as twenty cities across the country selling their services to newspapers from Tampa, Florida to San Diego, California. Although neither graduated high school, Cordero gravitated towards management while James remained a loyal subordinate.
“I was always giving him shit for the way he worked. Not the blanking, because that can happen to anybody. In this business there are good days and bad days. But Ky was scatterbrained. I’d give him a drop [a neighborhood to work] that should have lasted at least three hours and he’d be done with it in like thirty-five minutes. Talking about ‘Nobody was home.’ He was always doing that, cherry picking his routes. It drove me crazy. Gas ain’t free.”
I ask Cordero what would become the central question to the incident: was there anything unusual about Ky’s behavior that day? His answer isn’t evasive, but it isn’t particularly thoughtful either, the general way that workingmen tend to remember the non-specific moments of a shift.
“Not that I can say. We drove around for a little bit looking for a few streets that had the most cars. Finally, we got up to 7th. That area, Burien, it’s a lot of little houses and some smaller apartments—the big apartment sets are hard to work during the day, because the manager will kick you out. And that was Ky, he liked working small houses and apartments. So we got up there and he was like ‘OK. This is me, right here. Let me out.’”
Although the police report does not specify, it is likely that Talbot heard both the knock and the ringing doorbell. As James approached the side of the house, Talbot opened the front door and walked across the small lawn towards James. Talbot was armed with a Sig Sauer P .220, a firearm favored by many off-duty police officers.
“I had seen this guy at my door. He was trying the knob like he was wanting to come in. I screamed at him ‘What are you doing? Get away from there.’”
The statement that Talbot gave police immediately following the incident indicates that James reached for something inside his coat (it was an unseasonably chilly morning) which Talbot assumed was a firearm. Instinctively, Talbot shot James twice: once in the shoulder along the clavicle ridge and once in the chest. It was the second shot which would prove fatal, piercing his lung and exiting through his back. Again, from the police report: “He reached into his jacket and he’s coming at me. This dude has a crazy look in his eye. I was scared. And I just did what I had to do.”
What Talbot had to do, is of course the central question in the matter. Kyese James was armed with nothing more than a pen and his order forms. Autopsy photos would later suggest that James was reaching under the coat for a lanyard he was wearing around his neck, identifying him as sales representative number 1124, an independent contractor for The Seattle Times.
“I couldn’t keep up with him that morning. Ky was flying. He had like three orders already and we hadn’t even been out there for an hour yet.” Tommy “Chooch” Martin, 23, was the solicitor paired with James that day. Martin, also behind in his week, was working the opposite side of 8th St that morning.
“I took the even sides and Ky took the odds. And he was just killing them that day. Every time I’d ask him how many he had, it was like he had another. Just back-to-back, right. I didn’t have any.”
When he heard the gunfire he was on the 1,000 block approximately 150 yards from James. “I was walking up this driveway when I heard it. It was like bap-bap. For a second, I thought someone had knocked over a trash can or something. It was crazy, right? I turned around and I see all these people coming out of their houses and walking up the street. It was like ‘The Walking Dead,’ like zombies… everybody walking real slow. People coming in all directions. I was like, I just knocked on your door and you pretended you weren’t home. But here you are.”
A Gang of Homeless Crackheads
One of the more stunning aspects of the case was the auspicious timing of the incident. The shooting occurred a mere six weeks after the death of Trayvon Martin, the seventeen year old Miami native who was killed on a weekend visit to his father’s home in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watch block captain. On the surface the parallels are striking: an unarmed man of color—Mr. James was of Dominican and African American descent—shot down by a suspicious neighborhood resident in what seemed to be a case of mistaken identity. Yet, where Martin’s murder unearthed a conflagration of racial indignation (and a counter-conflagration as the months wore on) the reaction to the James shooting was far more muted and ambivalent. Although Washington has no so-called Castle law or Stand Your Ground doctrine, a homeowner’s right to the use of lethal force is straightforward:
RCW 9a.16.050 Homicide is also justifiable when:
(1) In the lawful defense of the slayer, or his or her husband, wife, parent, child, brother, or sister, or of any other person in his or her presence or company, when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design on the part of the person slain to commit a felony or to do some great personal injury to the slayer or to any such person, and there is imminent danger of such design being accomplished;
Can a stranger at your door constitute the reasonable presence of danger? Was James’s presence on Talbot’s property an imminent threat? Probably not. But when combined with the fact that James had gone to the side door (a curious tactic for a door-to-door sales rep) and Talbot’s claim that James had reached inside his coat possibly for a weapon, the Burien police department chose not to charge Talbot with 2nd degree murder as George Zimmerman had been. But unlike Zimmerman, the Burien PD did arrest Talbot on the day of the shooting. He was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, a class C felony in Washington. Talbot had been incarcerated from 2008 through 2010 on two separate counts of the manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamine.
Under Washington state law, a felon can petition a court to have their second amendment rights re-instated, but Talbot had not made any kind of formal application. The gun appears to have been registered to Ms. Murray who is not a felon. In his statement to police, Talbot seemed hesitant to reveal the exact location of the gun in the home. An aspect of the shooting which may also be in dispute: A felon can not own, possess or be in control of a firearm—although being in control is a fluid concept. If the pistol was not locked up then Talbot could be in violation just for being near the gun. When questioned by Detective Gary Samuel, a fourteen-year veteran of the Burien police department, Talbot repeatedly hedged about the exact time frame between hearing the knock on the door and leaving the house to confront James.
Det. Samuel: So did you have to go and find the gun in the bedroom someplace?
Michael Talbot: No, I heard him going around and I went outside.
Det. Samuel: But where was the gun?
Michael Talbot: It was on the counter.
Det. Samuel: You leave your gun on the counter?
Michael Talbot: It wasn’t my gun.
After his arrest Talbot was arraigned, and released on a $25,000 bond. He pled not guilty to the possession charge. His trial is scheduled to begin in March. He retained the legal services of Earvin Santiago, a Seattle based attorney who’d also defended Talbot on his previous drug arrests. When I contacted Santiago to discuss the case, his response can only be described as guarded. I asked him via email why, if Talbot was a felon, the gun was not kept in a safe. Santiago refused to comment. Instead, he sent me a perfunctory statement, which thanked me for my interest. When I sent a second email inquiring as to why Talbot had not made any attempt to call the police before confronting James, Santiago’s reply was more personal, but no more revealing. “While we are not going to discuss the specifics of Mr. Talbot’s case at this time, we can assure you that we have the utmost confidence in our client’s defense. We believe that by the time of trial the true circumstance of the events of May 29th will be quite apparent.”
Santiago’s reticence may be founded in regard for his client or it could be a self-preservation instinct directed at his own distrust of the media. A week after the shooting in an interview with The Tacoma News Tribune’s Kelly Gleason, Santiago remarked that, “If The Seattle Times can’t find a better way to push their product besides sending a bunch of homeless crackheads door-to-door, then they are probably going to go the way of the P.I.,” referencing the oldest of Seattle’s newspapers, The Post Intelligencer, which shut its doors in 2009. He has since mentioned that he felt this statement was made off the record.
Community reaction to the event was difficult to determine. The Times released a two-paragraph statement on page A9 of the May 30th edition, acknowledging the shooting without releasing James’s name, citing him only as “an independent contractor working with The Times.” Also referencing that James died under “indeterminate circumstances.” The shooting warranted a two-day segment on KIRO 7’s evening news tracking the arrest and bail hearing of Michael Talbot. Most bizarre was the response of the popular talk radio show, Sonny Morning, hosted by one-time Seattle mayoral candidate Sonny Lou Jackson. The June 2 edition of the show had begun with a general recounting of the event and a broader questioning of gun violence in Seattle—Kyese was the twenty-first victim of homicide in the city. Quickly, it became apparent that Jackson’s audience had something else in mind.
“I couldn’t believe it. I thought this was a big issue, almost a Trayvon Martin situation, but really all the callers wanted to talk about was how much they hated door-to-door solicitors,” Jackson told me over the phone. “We kept trying to redirect the conversation: What do you think about gun violence? What do you think about protecting your home? What does this say about the newspaper business? But over and over again all we got were stories about salesmen who had been ridiculously pushy or had lied to people. We got one story from a lady in, I think, Tukwila who’d had a salesman refuse to leave her home until she bought his cleaning products. Like he just sat down on her couch and wouldn’t budge. She even asked him to take his shoes off so he wouldn’t track up her carpet, but he told her ‘No. Let me show you how our miracle spray, or whatever, works on dirt.’ Honestly, I don’t remember getting that much anger over a topic. I mean it got people riled up, but for all the wrong reasons. I thought it was a week long discussion, maybe. But we had to shut the whole thing down after an hour.”
The reaction of Jackson’s audience was echoed in darker tones by Jim O’Carrol, a sergeant on the Seattle police force who agreed to be interviewed for this piece. (Despite repeated requests, no member of the Burien police department or the Talbot-Murray family would agree to speak on the record about the shooting.)
“Technically, it’s legal,” O’Carrol winces when I speak to him about door-to-door solicitation in his office on South Myrtle Street. “They have a constitutional right to knock on people’s doors that is protected by the first amendment as long as they aren’t on a private property—like a gated neighborhood—or as long as the house doesn’t have a No Soliciting sign. But frankly, I wish it weren’t. And not just because it’s some kind of public nuisance or something. I think some of these guys are pretty dangerous.”
O’Carrol’s department had come under scrutiny in 2010 after issuing fliers to a Seattle apartment complex warning residents to contact police immediately if a solicitor knocked on their door. The flier also posited, “Most solicitors are not legitimate. And you should always ask for identification and never give them a credit card number.”
“I was at a lawman’s conference in Nevada about six years ago. We had a special focus on breaking and entering. From Alaska to Florida, the one thing that remained constant was the method that almost every B&E actor uses. Get a clipboard; knock on the door; if the homeowner answers ask them some ridiculous question; say you’re doing a survey or something. If they don’t answer, you’re good to go.”
It’s a bleak prognosis. But not one that is altogether consistent with the case. When I point out James was working for Cowboy Circulation, an acknowledged affiliate of The Seattle Times, O’Carrol’s tone does not waver. “Who said the two were mutually exclusive? The Times doesn’t require a background check for its independent contractors the way they’d have to if they actually hired them as employees. We had a case not that long ago, here in Seattle, where a solicitor raped a lady after knocking on her door and trying to sell her meat or something. Well, he was really selling meat, but he was also a serial pervert. Had a record of sexual assaults from Virginia to Connecticut to California. Basically, using the meat thing as a cover, because no real company would come anywhere near him.”
Kyese James had a record. In 2008 he was arrested on a class four simple assault charge stemming from a domestic incident involving him and his girlfriend, Tasha Floyd. He received a deferred sentence of thirty days in compliance with attendance of required anger management courses. In 2009 James was pulled over by the California Highway Interstate Patrol near Bakersfield. When the presiding officer noted a strong “cannabis-like smell” he asked for permission to search the vehicle. James agreed and was subsequently arrested for possession with intent to distribute for a nearly half a pound of marijuana concealed underneath the passenger seat of the car. This time James spent four months in a county jail before receiving probation. Although James seemed to have made an effort to contact his probation officer, he was again arrested in Washington State for driving without a license, a charge compounded by the terms of his probation. He spent a week in the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent.
Prior to that there had been a handful of other charges: shoplifting, vagrancy, petty larceny, public intoxication. Most appear to have been dismissed outright. Some dated back to his late teenage years in Austin and others were as recent as 2011. Though none of the arrests suggest a predisposition to more serious crimes like rape or burglary, they do complicate the image of James as simply a “guy doing his job” that Cordero has asserted for several months now. On the whole, the record paints a picture of James that seems to be, at the very least, immature and reckless. As if no decision was ever too stupid as long as its consequences weren’t too grave.
“He knocked on the door and then goes around the side of the house to the side door, probably thinking the homeowner didn’t lock it,” O’Carrol continues. “We see this all the time. Most actors aren’t second-story men like in the movies. They don’t know how to pick locks. They’re just thinking they can make a simple score. Maybe some jewelry or some spare cash laying around. But the homeowner comes out and the guy reaches into his coat. Well, sometimes you’ve only got a second to make the right decision.”
But James wasn’t armed.
“No, but he wasn’t at the front door either. I think what happened was sad, but I wouldn’t use the word ‘tragic.’ Who’s to say that he wasn’t at least attempting to make the homeowner think he was carrying?”
By putting his hand underneath his coat?
“Again, I’m saying this guy might not have been that smart. From what I’ve read that seems to be the case. He had a history of drugs and Reeses-Pieces horse crap. I mean in this day and age what kind of person really has to go knocking on doors to make a living?”
Three days before his death, Kyese James updated his Facebook status at 9:37 PM. “Its [sic] lonely out here y’all. I can’t keep on like this. I miss home.” Facebook was not regularly incorporated in James’s life. His last status update had occurred eight months prior, thanking his friends for their birthday wishes.
“He would ask sometimes to get on my computer and mess around. Talked to girls sometimes,” Cordero remembers. “I didn’t mind.” In his profile pictures, James favors his left side, never posting a photograph that reveals his whole face. His hair is gelled and teased into a faux pompadour, his dark features are sorrowful, perhaps even brooding. The countenance of a man out of time; a handsome soul singer trying to reconcile the hip-hop age.
“He’d get depressed sometimes,” Cordero tells me as we pull in to The King’s Arms motel in Kent, which houses seven of Cordero’s nine-man crew. “He’d tell me, ‘It’s like there’s a dark cloud hanging over my head, man.’ I’d tell him, ‘Bro, it’s Seattle. There’s a dark cloud hanging over everybody’s head.’”
One cause of James’s depression was most certainly financial. His sales had dipped from a steady three to four, to barely one a day. The average commission on a new start for the Seattle Times pays roughly $30. As independent contractors, the salesmen are compensated solely by what they sell. A practice referred to as “strict commission.” There is no hourly wage, health insurance, unemployment, union representation, or promise of a 401k. Taxes are not taken out and many owe the IRS. Most solicitors never see the inside of the downtown newspaper offices they represent. When a solicitor leaves, he is paid back with his own money. A bond of perhaps two hundred dollars that is taken out of his check incrementally in the beginning of his service to the contractor. After that, he’s gone. A modern day Okie, existing only as a sales code and a receipt.
The King’s Arms motel lurches on the corner of Pacific Highway and 30 Ave South in the midst of Seattle’s infamous Sea-Tac strip. The neighborhood, which stretches between the exurb of Federal Way and past the airport, has long been one of the most notorious open-air prostitution markets in the country. For years the corridor was a source of consternation for the city, serving as the hunting ground for, among others, Gary Ridgeway, The Green River Killer. Recently, due to a heightened police presence and a focused civic consciousness, the area has cleaned itself up, if not to the point of gentrification, at least to presentability. Although, as Cordero says, “I think a lot of that stuff is still going on, you just don’t see it as much anymore. They moved it indoors to the motels.”
Cordero’s crew occupies three rooms at The King’s Arms, paying about $200 a week. Two of the older, more successful salesmen have their own rooms. Cordero, along with four of his sub-contractors, inhabit a suite on the second floor. Cigarette butts line the sink and beside the television set one of the salesmen has made an impromptu bivouac from pillows and blankets that the roommates have christened “the kennel.” The reps vary in age between their early twenties to their mid-fifties. The volume level on the TV is muted while a handful hunker around a video game, noisily cat-calling at each other. Another older man reads today’s paper on the couch which doubles as a pullout sofa. I can’t help but notice that two of the younger solicitors have matching black eyes.
Are fights common on the crew?
“Not really,” Cordero says. “Some nights can be rough out there and what you don’t want to do is start making fun of somebody who didn’t sell anything, because, you know, that’s how we eat.” He begins inspecting the bathroom, making a mental list of what supplies he’ll need from the front office. The motel’s maid has cleaned the room, but there are piles of clothes in each corner and the air has an unmistakable funk of marijuana and male.
“A lot of the guys smoke weed,” Cordero shrugs. “Nothing else though. I won’t let the hard shit around here. A couple years ago one of our guys got himself pretty bad on the crack, stole a customer’s credit card, and charged three hundred dollars to a phone sex hotline. It sounds funny, but we had to close the account. Left town.” Cordero refuses to specify which town, giving the distinct impression that this sales rep may still be part of the organization. When I ask him about Santiago’s “homeless crackheads” comment, his face crinkles showing neither embarrassment nor rage.
“We went through a meth phase. Me, Ky, a couple of the other guys… it got pretty bad for a while. It’s pretty much why we had to leave San Diego. That shit is everywhere down there.”
Of the homeless crackhead remark, it’s the adjective that bothers Cordero most.
“Twice, the whole time we’ve been back up here, only twice have we had to sleep in the van.”
For the first time, I hear his native twang. If it weren’t for his wounded pride, I would never have guessed that he had grown up in Texas.
“Just two times we couldn’t get the rent together. I mean you live on commission there’s going to be times where you won’t sell as much as you want.”
And you sleep outside?
“We slept in the van. We didn’t sleep outside. I would never allow that. It only happened twice.”
Overall, money seems to be a pretty steady source of concern for the sales team. Which is not to say that they do not produce. Cowboy Circulation, one of two crews of independent contractors used by The Seattle Times, averages about one hundred and forty new starts each week. No small feat in 2012. “Other than the fact that nobody reads and they give all the shit away for free online, it’s a pretty easy job,” Cordero cracks. Cordero no longer sells orders himself, although he is quick to point out that he was unparalleled as a solicitor before his promotion. In a job where the reps are measured by production, there is a certain amount of chest beating among the salesmen. Kyese was consistently the least generative member of the team and by May his optimism had become a serious casualty of the digital age.
“He’d complain a lot about how everybody would just tell him ‘internet’ all day at the doors. When we’d come back to the house, he’d mope around the room all night depressing the shit out of me. He didn’t like Seattle. He’d say ‘Nobody’s friendly here.’ It’s true. Back home you see a total stranger on the street and you wave like he’s your best friend. You do that here and people just stare at you like you lost your damn mind.”
Off the record, a few of James’s co-worker’s reiterate Cordero’s description of his best friend. Though none are willing to disparage Kyese, the impression he left is one of a moody, sometimes temperamental colleague. A generous but sulking presence that confided only in Cordero and otherwise was lost in his headphones.
“In this job,” one of the other solicitors tells me, ‘You’ve got to have positive energy. Otherwise you just gonna end up letting the world beat you down.’ And Kyese would just get to a point where he couldn’t do it. I mean can’t never did nothing, you know what I’m saying?”
If the job was so hard for him, why did he stay? Did he have any other ways of making money?
“He quit a couple times,” Cordero recalls with his ever-present, unfocused smile. “But, you know, he’s a thousand miles from home. How you gonna get back? I mean, if he really wanted to quit I’d have bought him a ticket, but I really don’t think Ky could do much else. Once, when we were down in Tampa, it got real bad. I mean the paper was cheap and the commission was good, but those people down there just didn’t give a fuck. Nobody reads in Florida. So we decided we’d go out during the day and cut people’s yards for like an extra twenty, thirty bucks. Well, Ky is all over the lady’s lawn. Uneven as shit, he even accidentally ran over one of her grandkid’s toys. We had to give her back her money. Total disaster.” Cordero throws his shoulders back laughing at the memory of the two of them chasing a disobedient Toro in the unforgiving Tampa sun.
“I just kept telling him to keep trying. Not to give up, because that wasn’t who he was… wasn’t who we were. Somebody tells you, No, you just say fuck it and go to the next. But it can be tough to believe that when you’re living off a hundred a fifty dollars a week… I mean I would cover most of the bills and the room, but I couldn’t do everything and it was tough on him, struggling like that.
Did you guys ever run out of money for food?
“Ky had gotten food stamps in Florida and they wouldn’t let him get them again when he came out here. So it got tight a few times but no, shit, look at me,” he says tapping his stomach, “I don’t miss many meals. To be honest, I probably shouldn’t say this, but there’s a Safeway across the street. Ky had fast hands.”
David Benson agrees to meet me for lunch. We will eat at three o’clock at a Thai food restaurant near the Space Needle. A half-hour before our designation, I get an email explaining that Benson will need to reschedule. How is tomorrow at the Starbucks on Fifth St at ten o’ clock? The next day at nine thirty I receive a text message from Benson’s personal cell phone: nine thirty won’t work; today won’t work, but we will sit down very soon as he is eager to address my questions and speak openly about the Francisco Kyese James incident. When I try to contact Benson through his office as Vice President in charge of circulation at The Seattle Times, I’m told through his secretary that as my request is coinciding with the end of the quarter. This is a very difficult time to arrange an interview, but next week will be much easier.
I should say here that I am not delusional enough to sense obfuscation by Benson. I can’t imagine a scenario where Benson would feel the need to sidestep any question I could possibly ask him. As much as I, and perhaps my editors, wish that Benson was delaying me because I am about to expose a dark and possibly illegal practice at a major newspaper, that doesn’t appear to be true. The hiring of independent contractors as door-to-door solicitors dates back at least forty years at The Times and much longer at other newspapers. There’s no clear link of blame between James’s death and the decision to employ strict commission sales reps.
Still, there are a few things that Benson could illuminate. Why are people who are effectively the face of the company, who are asked to approach residents in their most vulnerable circumstances, not hired as employees but farmed out as independent contractors? Is strict commission a fair workplace practice? Speaking of fair workplace practices, what is the responsibility towards the sales reps who are asked to sell a product that the paper gives away for free online? Why are the sales reps not given uniforms or some kind of apparel that could easily identify them to homeowners or tenants? Why is there no criminal background check run on the salesmen? What’s being done to insure that this will never happen again? And why has there been no official statement from The Seattle Times about the death of a man who was, if not in their employ, at least in their service?
A few days later Benson’s secretary contacts me. Mr Benson is still extremely busy. Will I email him a set of questions (no more than five)? She promises he’ll have his responses back to me no later than Friday. When I answer that, I would truly appreciate an opportunity to speak with Benson face-to-face, I am told that he might possibly find time for me in a phone interview. I agree and speak to Benson about an hour after my request. The conversation is brief if cordial. Benson reminds me that, as regrettable as the circumstances were, there’s nothing to suggest The Times has culpability. He talks over me for a few moments, praising the hard work of the sales teams in light of “recent events.” He mentions that he spent time himself as a salesman as a means of paying his way through college in the late 1980s. Before I can even assert that this is a remarkably different period in the history of the newspaper business, he begins to excuse himself. “More meetings,” I am told regretfully. When I hang up the phone, I’m struck by the efficiency of Benson. Somewhere, a check mark is being placed beside my name. Something else bothers me as well. When I play the interview back, I jot down a word and begin to circle it every time it’s used. The word’s “unfortunate.” Benson repeats it six times. The conversation lasted less than two minutes.
A week after my fruitless conversation with Benson, I spend an evening with Cowboy Circulation. We ride into the Fairwood section of Renton, ten of us in a rented van littered with Five-Hour energy bottles and Swisher Sweet wrappers. As we enter each neighborhood, Cordero lowers the radio’s pounding hip-hop bass and begins to instruct his crew.
“Frog, you’ve got 110th to 115th.”
“Alex, push the dailies. We don’t get paid shit for the Sunday only. If they say that’s all they want, tell them the rest of the week comes complimentary. Don’t say free. Say ‘complimentary.’”
“Darwin, you can pop ten out of here, baby. It’s nothing. If it’s not happening after an hour call me and I’ll move you.”
Cordero pairs me with Tommy “Chooch” Martin, the salesman who was with Kyese the day he died. Chooch has the wiry, rangy physique of a high school wrestler and a slithery mustache that can only be described as hopeful. After graduation Chooch left home intent on joining the army. But things went sideways. Or something. The details aren’t abundant. “The girl I was with wasn’t into it. She wanted me to move with her to California and then I went to jail.” He grew up in Austin several years younger than James and Cordero whom he alternately refers to as his “brother,” “brother-in-law,” “cousin” and “uncle.”
We begin in an angular, hushed, Fairwood neighborhood of two-story homes owned by professionals with new cars and expansive lawns. In the van, Chooch had been as yippy as a newborn pup, crowing about the ten orders his night will produce. But now, as he tries to reconcile his first door, he pauses to fish a smoke from his Marlboro short pack. It’s a stunning thing, a door, when looked at from this angle. And Chooch doesn’t appear to be eager to start. Things have been hard lately. Hard since Kyese’s death, hard in general.
“I sold 24 last week, but I owed Tony money. Plus, I owed on the room, so I’m broke again.” He stomps out the smoke and lopes to the door. Over the next few hours I become familiar with Chooch’s sales pitches, the first of which combines resume building with a family values campaign: “Hi Sir, I’m Tommy the new route manager for the paper in the area. My sister is going to be starting a paper route for your neighborhood—it’s her first job.”
Another seems to rely on a tactic of confusion: “Hello Ma’am, I’ll be taking over the circulation for The Times in your neighborhood. I’m sure you probably got the flier in the mail a few days ago—you did get the flier, correct?”
Another combines economic jargon with educational reform: “We’re trying to get our numbers up before the end of the fiscal quarter, that’s the only way that The Times can pay for our Readers Are Leaders program, where a newspaper subscription is donated to every classroom in the area.”
And if that doesn’t work there is a more direct plea to the angels of our better nature: “For every subscription I sell, The Times is willing to donate matching funds for my college scholarship. It’s part of what they call the, um, ‘College Initiative.’”
None of these techniques are taking root so far. Many of the people are already subscribers and are curious as to why their carrier is being replaced by Tommy’s little sister. A few others simply don’t read, or prefer to get their news online. After two hours, Tommy hasn’t sold an order. He crouches down on a corner nursing another Marlboro. “Last night we were down in West Seattle. It was all Asians. It sucked. I only wrote one all night.”
Asians won’t buy a newspaper?
“Hell no. You’re lucky if you can even get one of them to answer the door. Black people too. Or you get white people with money, but they already have the paper.”
So who are you looking for, ideally, to answer the door?
“What you want is like, white people with money who don’t use the internet.” Tommy twists the identification lanyard and examines the idle street. His back has been hurting lately. He injured it in a car crash a year ago and all the sleeping on motel floors hasn’t helped.
Do you think about what happened to Kyese? Do you ever worry out there?
“I didn’t used to, but yeah, sometimes. I mean when they trained me, they told me ‘Fear is a killer in this job.’ So I don’t get scared, but now I’ve thought about it. It’s not like it used to be. I mean what if you knock on someone’s door who’s been up for six days straight or something?”
Chooch’s observation isn’t random. In fact it may be at the heart of what happened to Kyese. On February 9, 2007, police were summoned to the Twin Pines motel in Everett, Washington. Guests had complained about the foot traffic and strange smell emitting from room 103. When officers arrived they discovered the obvious earmarks of a rudimentary meth lab: acetone, red phosphorous, and two pounds of finished product. They arrested Wallace King, 41, Tracey Price, 30, two underage women whose names were not released and Michael Talbot, who was 27 at the time. By the time the case went to trial in 2008 the state had added another count of distribution along with the original manufacturing charge. According to the court papers Talbot is referred to as a “yard dog”—an underworld security guard who oversees the safety of a drug operation.
Talbot was sentenced to five years, of which he served the bulk at The Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. In 2010, he was paroled under the condition that he submit to mandatory drug testing for the year remaining on his sentence. All records indicate that Talbot complied with the terms of his probation which had ended in 2011, but the events of May 29 make it difficult not to speculate: was Talbot high when Kyese James knocked on his door?
One of the bizarre side effects of methamphetamine use is that it inhibits the intake of norepinephrine, the chemical which controls the “fight or flight response” to the brain. Consequently, the brain fails to comprehend stimuli without a sense of emergency. Something as seemingly mundane as a solicitor knocking on a door could be processed as a life or death situation. Either way the point is moot. The Burien police did not test Michael Joe Talbot for drug use on May 29.
By 7:00 PM, the momentum has shifted. The hunt for upper middle-class Caucasians without broadband access has actually yielded a few results. Chooch writes an order at a steep-roofed red house with three cars in the driveway. A few minutes later he charms an older woman who “hasn’t read the paper in years,” but seems swayed by the plight of Chooch’s younger sister. He leaves the door punching his clipboard clearly delighted with himself. “You saw that right? That’s how you fucking do it. Finally, man.” The relief practically shakes his body. It’s time for Chooch to wax philosophic. “Awright, check it bro. It’s like no one buys the paper because they need the paper. Not now. They buy the paper because they like the sales rep.”
Don’t people still read the paper?
“Some people sure. But they already got it. Old people they get it already. Young people they’ll do it if they like you. If they feel sorry for you, but c’mon, everybody’s got the internet. Everybody’s got a cell phone. They don’t do it cause they want it. They do it cause they do it.”
It has been a slow night for the men of Cowboy Circulation. Chooch and I are the last to be picked up and when we enter the van there’s a sense of solemnity as thick as the blunt-smoke whistling through the vehicle. A few of the reps cock their heads back in a mock-sleep pose; a few others look out the window as if in search of an explanation. The neighborhood had apparently been picked over by a rival crew a few days before. Other boys with other stories. We’ve driven about a mile when we realize that Chooch and his unimpressive three orders actually leads the team for the night.
“Hey Frog, what you end up with man?” Chooch cackles to a pneumatic fifty-something man with dark glasses and a Houston Texans baseball cap in the front seat. Cordero turns and tries to discourage Chooch with a head shake, but he persists. “Seriously, Frog, how’d it go out there man?” Frog, despite his age, has the rough knuckled demeanor of an out of season carny.
When he doesn’t answer Chooch, Cordero obliges with the nightly census. “Frog got two, Darwin got two, Jo-el got one, everybody else blanked. Some people called the cops on Alex and Chris. It was a bullshit night.”
“Oh,” says Chooch pausing to let the tally sink in. “Oh shit, that means,” he drums the headrest “it’s my night! Pull over motherfucker.” There’s a collective groan and an appeal to Cordero to reason with Chooch. Apparently it’s a Cowboy Circulation tradition that the rep that sells the most orders rides in the front seat on the way home. It seems pretty silly at this point and no one wants the annoying detour. No one, that is, except Chooch, who begins barking unintelligibly from the backseat. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, this is mine right here.”
Cordero shrugs his shoulders and pulls over at a gas station just off Renton Ave. S. Frog puts his hands over his shaking head and trades places with the joyous Chooch. Immediately the radio silence is broken by KUBE 93, Seattle’s premier hip-hop station. Chooch punching Cordero in the arm like two of them had just successfully robbed an armored truck. Cordero grudgingly laughs through his teeth. Although some of the older reps remain morose, the mood in the van elevates with the music. By the time the Dee-jay spins Drake’s The Motto, two of the younger reps begin to freestyle behind the beat.
Now she wants a photo/ you already know though/ you only live once that’s the motto of the YOLO.
The two salesmen try to improvise against T-Minus’s stack and smack rhythm: first an ode to their unlikely drug dealing past (“I kept the block on lock down”), then there’s an attempt to rhyme about a woman the second young man met on the internet. There’s even a stab at trying to memorialize Kyese. But the boys really can’t flow. And by the time the van enters The King’s Arms motel, the only sounds are coming from the radio and the engine’s staccato throttle.
And we bout it erry day, erry day, erry day/fuck what anybody say/
Can’t see them cause the money in the way…
OK, this is me right here. Let me out.
“To be honest with you, I thought he was nice looking. He made a joke about how he was losing his hair. I thought it was funny. I always like it when men can laugh at themselves a bit.” Lorretta Henderson, 44, lives approximately one block away from the Talbot family. Her order for ten weeks of The Seattle Times for $20 was found in Kyese’s jacket pocket after he was shot. “He came to the door, and normally I don’t buy things from people who come by, but he had a nice way about him. He told me he was selling the paper because he was trying to put himself through college. He seemed real, you know, earnest. I figured I could help him out.” Ms. Henderson works for the Burien Health Department. She’s lived in the community for eighteen years since moving from Renton with her first husband. She has seen Burien change. The unemployment rate which has jumped up three points in the past four years, the older families moving farther west or out to the Seattle suburbs. The growing number of aimless, young people tagging walls or hanging out on the city corners. In many ways Kyese’s final observation was ominously prescient: “In Burien, there’ll be plenty of people home during the day.”
“I didn’t know them,” she says of the Talbots. “I guess that’s what they say about Seattle, everyone’s friendly but nobody knows each other. The Seattle Freeze they call it.” She hadn’t heard the shot. She was in the shower. Of course, later on she heard that there had been a murder just down the street, but she never made the connection. Things happen in this part of Burien. It wasn’t until a week later when she called the newspaper inquiring about her subscription that she learned what had occurred.
“I swear, I don’t understand. He seemed like a happy guy. Why would someone need to end a young man’s life?” She knows the rough outline of the story: a homeowner, the side door, a gun. None of it seems to make sense. “I teach my children, and I have three children, to not take into account someone’s skin color. But I know that isn’t how everyone was raised.”
There’s nothing I can add to this kind of statement. Too many directions and too many maybes. It’s not responsible to open this door. So instead, I do something much worse. Perhaps out of loyalty to this man I didn’t know, I attempt to give a sympathetic outline of Kyese’s life. The eulogy he never had. But before long I’m over-sharing and babbling. Trying to deconstruct a stranger and violating confidences along the way. I sketch the rough upbringing, the absent mother, the life on the road. I even make an allusion to his occasional larceny and the stealing for food. After a short time I’m embarrassed. I’m not sure what I’m trying to prove.
But Ms. Henderson nods as if she were expecting this. “You could tell he was bringing something with him. I’m pretty intuitive that way. I could see that. That’s okay. We all do that.”
I doubt I have much time left with her, today. The whole conversation bothers her. She hasn’t slept so well since the day Kyese rang her doorbell. So, I ask her one last question, which is in so many ways is the first question. Was there anything about Kyese’s manner to suggest that he may have been doing more than trying to just sell newspaper subscriptions?
“I don’t know, honey,” she says. “Who can say what goes through another person’s mind.” Involuntarily her eyes towards the house just down the road. To the clapboard house, the people she didn’t know, the side door, the intersection where two men met on a breezy morning, and the severe, punctured space between.
“I’m sorry. I just don’t know anything about all that. I can’t help you there.”
The morning after I shadow Chooch and the men of Cowboy Circulation, I have one last conversation with Tony Cordero. He agrees to meet me at the Midway Doughnuts shop below the motel. He orders a chocolate milk and two bear claws. He spreads himself through the booth while stabbing at his phone.
“Last night was some bullshit, man. Jesus, seven orders? You’re kidding me. It’s getting rough out here man.” He brushes crumbs from the table and returns with another chocolate milk.
I ask him about Chooch and whether his victory dance extended through the night. He stares into the Nestle. It’s been a long day this morning.
“I don’t know man, the weather’s changing. Wintertime, it’s hard to keep guys. We may head back south for a while.” There are other things bothering him as well. Back in Austin, Kyese’s mother has surfaced. Cordero says he got a text from her last night. She’s contacted a lawyer. She’ll probably sue not just The Seattle Times, but Tony and Cowboy Circulation as well.
“After Kyese died I was the one who paid to send his ashes back down to Austin. Me, no one else. Now they all… I don’t know man.” He’s twenty-nine and he’s a father to the grown men who work for him. The gray at his temples pulses with every sip. I recall my conversation that wasn’t with David Benson. The tone of studied distance could be explained by an impending lawsuit.
Do you ever think about giving it up?
“Shit,” he laughs as if I’ve just told a very familiar dirty joke. “You remember Frog? That dude’s got a glass eye and a crazy record. I mean he did like eight years in New Mexico. He made $1,400 last week. Where’s he gonna make that kind of money? Where am I?” Our dialogue has no natural rhythm. Conversation has changed to interview. I suppose we’re almost done here. But, still, I feel like I have to ask.
Why do you think Kyese went to the side door that day?
Cordero stares at me for what must be a very long few seconds. Then he begins to slap the top of his head out of frustration like he’s trying to bat his brains back into his skull. “That’s the shit that pissed me off more than anything. The way they said that. Like they knew something. ‘Oh, he’s at the side door.’ So the fuck what? Ky wasn’t at the back door was he? He wasn’t trying to break into a fucking window. He had three orders in an hour. That was almost as much as he had made the whole week before. He was at the door because he wanted to talk to somebody. He wanted to sell a motherfucking order.” Cordero lowers his head examining the Nutri-sweet packets and the silverware. He cracks his knuckles and stares directly at me. The anger is still there but it’s being replaced by a despairing urgency. I watch the struggle in his face, the balance of all these things he knows. The man who is trying to transform just once more into the fifteen year old child. The project kid who showed his mom his first paycheck; who gave shelter to his friend who had no place to go after school; the boy who rode in the front seat of an old Texas crew van for the first time so many years ago. “Look, man, let me tell you something. Back when Ky and me got started we had this manager Joey Valentine. And he would always tell us, ‘Knock every door. No excuses.’ That’s how we came up. Big pit bull in the front yard? You knock it. No Soliciting sign? Fuck it, tell them you thought it said no smoking. No car in the driveway, you knock anyway. That’s how you get paid out here. That’s the job. You knock the door. You knock every door. I mean, you just never know.”
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May 12, 2017
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