Nieman Class of 1992
Winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, Bragg reported for the New York Times, mostly as a generalist. He wrote stories about a wide range of people and events: the S.C. sheriff who caught the murderer Susan Smith, the Oklahoma City bombing, Mardi Gras crewes, New York City convenience store robberies. His were the kind of pieces, restrained yet colorful, that led one of his editors once to say, in admiration, “He’s on another planet.” He left the paper 10 years ago, not long after being suspended for writing a story based largely on an uncredited intern’s reporting. He began working on books and has authored five: All Over but the Shoutin’ and then Ava’s Man; The Prince of Frogtown; I Am a Soldier Too: The Jessica Lynch Story; and The Most They Ever Had. He teaches at the University of Alabama and writes for publications including Southern Living, New Orleans magazine and The Oxford American.
“A Killer’s Only Confidant,” New York Times, about the murderer Susan Smith. His opening:
The case of a lifetime is closed for Howard Wells. The reporters and the well-wishers have begun to drift away, leaving the Union County Sheriff at peace. He will try to do a little fishing when the police radio is quiet, or just sit with his wife, Wanda, and talk of anything but the murderer Susan Smith.
It bothers him a little that he told a lie to catch her, but he can live with the way it all turned out. Mrs. Smith has been sentenced to life in prison.
Still, now and then his mind drifts back to nine days last autumn, and he thinks how it might have gone if he had been clumsy, if he had mishandled it. It leaves him a little cold.
For those nine days — from Mrs. Smith’s drowning of her two little boys on Oct. 25 until she finally confessed on Nov. 3 — he handled her like a piece of glass, afraid her brittle psyche would shatter and leave him with the jagged edges of a case that might go unsolved for weeks, months or forever.
“Terror in Oklahoma City: At Ground Zero,” about the federal building bombing. Excerpt:
Before the dust and the rage had a chance to settle, a chilly rain started to fall on the blasted-out wreck of what had once been an office building, and on the shoulders of the small army of police, firefighters and medical technicians that surrounded it.
They were not used to this, if anyone is. On any other day, they would have answered calls to kitchen fires, domestic disputes, or even a cat up a tree. Oklahoma City is still, in some ways, a small town, said the people who live here.
This morning, as the blast trembled the morning coffee in cups miles away, the outside world came crashing hard onto Oklahoma City.
“I just took part in a surgery where a little boy had part of his brain hanging out of his head,” said Terry Jones, a medical technician, as he searched in his pocket for a cigarette. Behind him, firefighters picked carefully through the skeleton of the building, still searching for the living and the dead.
“You tell me,” he said, “how can anyone have so little respect for human life.”
“A Thief Dines Out, Hoping Later to Eat In,” about a quirky New York City criminal. Excerpt:
Every now and then, Gangaram Mahes slips on his best donated clothes and lives the high life. He strolls to a nice restaurant, sips a fine aperitif, savors a $50 meal and finishes with hot black coffee. The waiters call him sir, but Mr. Mahes could not dig a dollar from his pocket for a bus ride to heaven.
He is a thief who never runs, a criminal who picks his teeth as the police close in. To be arrested, to go home to a cell at Rikers Island, is his plan when he unfolds his napkin.
Homeless off and on for several years, he steals dinner from the restaurants because he wants the courts to return him to a place in New York where he is guaranteed three meals a day and a clean bed. In a prison system filled with repeat offenders, the 36-year-old Mr. Mahes is a serial diner.
“All She Has, $150,000, Is Going to a University,” about a surprise gift. Excerpt:
Oseola McCarty spent a lifetime making other people look nice. Day after day, for most of her 87 years, she took in bundles of dirty clothes and made them clean and neat for parties she never attended, weddings to which she was never invited, graduations she never saw.
She had quit school in the sixth grade to go to work, never married, never had children and never learned to drive because there was never any place in particular she wanted to go. All she ever had was the work, which she saw as a blessing. Too many other black people in rural Mississippi did not have even that.
She spent almost nothing, living in her old family home, cutting the toes out of shoes if they did not fit right and binding her ragged Bible with Scotch tape to keep Corinthians from falling out. Over the decades, her pay — mostly dollar bills and change — grew to more than $150,000.
“New York’s Bodegas Become Islands Under Siege,” about armed robberies in the city. Excerpt:
One man has already died behind the counter of the West Harlem grocery where Omar Rosario works, murdered in a tiny business where customers pay in pennies and promises. Before he goes to work he slips on his bulletproof vest, slides a black 9-millimeter pistol in his waistband, and gives himself to God.
It is early on a Wednesday night and the store’s lights gleam like new money among the dead street lights at the corner of 139th Street and Edgecombe Avenue. The door opens and a young man with a puny mustache walks in, one arm hidden deep inside his baggy, half-open coat. Mr. Rosario thinks he has a machine gun or sawed-off shotgun.
Mr. Rosario takes out his pistol and eases it halfway into the pocket of his pants, his finger on the trigger. He faces the man and lets him see the gun in his hand. He wants to make it clear that if the young man pulls a gun, he will be killed.
The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.