By John Toth
During a recent tour of the new Brazoria County Administrative Building, I stuck my head in the new coffee shop on the second floor.
It’s nice and new but has one disadvantage when compared to the coffee shop on the first floor of the old courthouse - no view.
The old courthouse coffee shop was my office when I worked for the Houston Chronicle. I didn’t actually do any office work there, just sat around and drank coffee. Sometimes I even had breakfast there. It was pretty good, but I hung out there for a different reason.
From the coffee shop, I could see everyone coming and going. I had a great view of the ground-floor lobby.
I usually made my morning rounds in the courthouse, starting with the Sheriff’s Department on the fourth floor, getting the scoop from Capt. Gene Smith. If anything was going on, I tried to catch some of the investigators before they left.
Then I made my way to the district clerk’s office, civil division, to browse through the new case filings.
Sometimes the clerks who knew me left the files on the counter they thought I would be interested in. That’s how I found many interesting cases, including the Red Top vs. McDonalds lawsuit that turned out to be a Page One article in the business section of the next morning’s Houston Chronicle.
When I was finished at the district clerk’s office, I went back down to the coffee shop and sat around sipping on coffee while keeping an eye on the hallway.
There were regulars there, courthouse employees who would tip me off to all kinds of stories.
And there were times when judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys sat down to chat.
And then, there was the time when Justice of the Peace Walter Mathews sat down at my table and started talking about an idea he had. He wanted to set a new record for the upcoming courthouse blood drive.
I may have written about this years ago in another column. If you remember reading that, it is worth reading it again.
The judge came up with the idea of dismissing a traffic ticket for a pint of blood donated by the defendant. He asked me what I thought. I said it would make for a great story. “Just let me know if you are doing it, judge.”
“I’m doing it,” he responded.
I pulled out my notebook, and we were on the record. I did the interview right there. I planned to pitch the story for the afternoon’s editorial budget meeting. It was all set.
That’s how it worked back in the 1980s and early ‘90s. The coffee shop was my Internet. The clerks in the courthouse were my Google search. I was the only reporter for the Chronicle in the county. I needed to find ways to come up with stories that could make a big splash, and they were exclusive to the Chronicle.
I pitched the story that afternoon. I had most of it written already. Then I got a nervous call from the editors.
“Does anyone else know about this?” asked my boss.
“No. Just the judge, and maybe a few people in his office,” I said. “After we talked in the coffee shop, he went back to work and then went home.”
The editors called me back for a second time. The story was running on Page One in the next morning’s paper. They asked me how fast I could get it ready.
We worked on Telerams back in those days, which were word processors that sent stories across phone lines to the Chronicle computers - very slowly. I told the boss that I would have it done soon.
I waited for about an hour to make sure that the story was solid, all the words were spelled correctly (as much as I could tell), and that it made sense. I called Judge Mathews at his home and told him that the story was going to come out the next day. He was all for it.
“Do you think we’ll set a new record,” he asked.
“I’m pretty sure that you will, judge,” I answered.
He did - blew away the old record by several miles.
The lines wound around the hallway as people waited to dismiss traffic tickets in return for blood donations. I had to work my way through the crowd to get to his office.
TV station vans lined the streets surrounding the courthouse. Everybody wanted to get in on the action. The story made all the news wires around the nation and probably around the world. Back in those days, that was how news was disseminated - through the Associated Press and United Press International.
And it all started with me sitting in the old courthouse coffee shop, talking to whoever passed by about any subject they chose.
I even said jokingly to another reporter: “Who needs a FOI (Freedom of Information Act) request when there is the courthouse coffee shop?” It was a lot less hassle and a lot more fun.
The blood-for-ticket-dismissal story was one of many that I broke this way - just hanging around the coffee shop, working. Those were the days, my friend; we thought they’d never end.