‘Word Is, You Look for the Kids’

Why this Narratively contributor's most ambitious project was also one of the most emotionally trying.

When I first heard from Hamilton Harris, after a friend had told him to contact me for my story “Legends Never Die,” all his email said was, “Word is, you look for the ‘KIDS.’”

That was the buzz among the kids from the movie Kids: I was looking for the skateboarders and downtown Manhattan youth whose lives became immortalized in the 1995 cult classic film by Harmony Korine and Larry Clark.

Hamilton, a kid from Kids, now lives in the Netherlands. His email became my reporting mantra, a trope repeating in my head, in the lively, genuine voice he presented during our Skype interview. The essence of this skateboarding brotherhood seemed grounded in Hamilton. Yet, even as Hamilton unwittingly became a kind of guardian angel for me, guiding me through the story, it felt devastating that much of his interview didn’t end up in the actual article. I continue to hope that he is in there, albeit in between the lines.

Similarly, I inserted a piece of myself into the article, much of which is about Harold Hunter and Justin Pierce – both now gone. My own brother died over 10 years ago – hit by a car and killed while walking on a suburban sidewalk. I carried him with me to every interview I conducted, and when it seemed inappropriate to hug a crying Peter Bici or a tearing Mike Hernandez, I offered Josh’s story.

I wrote much of the story during the week that would have been Josh’s 26th birthday. One night – after turning forty hours of interviews into seventy-six pages of quotes and notes, then thirty-seven pages of structured ideas, and then twenty-three pages of a then-11,000 word story – my sister told me one of Josh’s best friends had left a post on Facebook about missing him. I logged in, looked, and started crying.

It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten choked up – that happened with Peter, Priscilla Forsyth, and others – but it was the first time I broke down while writing the story. That night, after working on the story for days straight, weeks prior, and months before, I couldn’t hold it in anymore.

The article I wrote is about Harold Hunter and Justin Pierce, undoubtedly. But maybe it’s about all of us. That movie changed lives – both cast and audience. For those of us who grew up in the 1990s, it broke our innocence. Everyone in the film gave a piece of themselves.

My intention was to give back to the kids. Wanting to hear and to understand their stories became a compulsive urge. I couldn’t stop. Even after I filed the article, I conducted another interview. I knew Kids cast member Gillian Goldstein’s quotes wouldn’t make the article, but I had to hear more. And so I sat with her on a stoop next to the tattoo shop where she works. A male colleague of hers walked over smoking a cigarette, after overhearing part of our conversation. He said he gave Harold his last tattoo: “Skate or Die.”

That’s the story’s weight: life or death. So often, we journalists stampede into a story – a house fire, a hurricane, a sports game – with pens blazing, eyes fixated on that which can be dramatized, and sensationalized. We forget to breathe with our sources. I have always taken a gentle, intuitive approach to journalism, and with this story, my task became finding a way to balance my sources’ desires with my journalistic integrity: an objective story with a burst of compassion.

I hope I did the kids from Kids justice. Every day, for months, I wrestled with this hope. I lost sleep, canceled meetings and had to get an extension on my taxes – all in the name of the kids. Never before have I felt such an overwhelming responsibility to give such precise justice to other’s stories. I hope my empathy carried through. I hope I met the kids not just eye to eye, but heart to heart. Word was, I looked for the kids, but I found much more. To call it an honor would be an understatement.

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Read the complete story, “Legends Never Die.”