THERE IS NO PUNCHLINE, JUST SOME REALITY
THE BANALITY OF RACISM:
WE ARE ALL HUMAN
This is not the bar in the story but is pretty close to it
TAGS: NYC, NYPD, SOUTH BRONX, WASHINGTON HEIGHTS,
TWO COPS, RACE RELATIONS, PD INTERACTIONS WITH PUBLIC,
NYC IN DARKEST DAYS – 1970’S-1980’S,
HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED,
(Sunday December 14, 2014 Washington Heights, NYC) It was a dive bar, more akin to a corner saloon than a bar. It was the kind of place where the top shelf liquor had been replaced by the rotgut well booze. There had been an even seedier bar a block south back in the years they worked this neighborhood but that had long ago changed into a nail salon that did hair weaves, sold wigs, and had a worn out bookie taking the street number asleep in the back room 24/7. The place was pretty much empty at the time they arrived; just a few old Dominican guys working off the hangovers they’d bought last night. Despite the Citywide ban on smoking in public places like restaurants, diners and bars, the ashtrays on this particular bar looked like they’d not been emptied since the last time the Giants actually won a game. They were winning on this day though.
They sat drinking ice cold bottled beer not speaking to each other, just watching the game. They were comfortable in each others silence. This was the natural result of having known each other since the neighborhood back when they were scrawny, wiry kids playing in the brick strewn lots and partially burnt out husks of what were at one time beautiful brick pre-war five story walk-ups. They grew up a block apart along a stretch of Fox Street in The South Bronx just as that once desirable Borough was in the process of becoming “The South Bronx”. They attended different high schools, he went to a Catholic School, his buddy, the local public high yet they remained friends throughout which, at times, was not without problems.
THE FOX STREET OF THEIR YOUTH
His buddy did a stint in the Army after high school and served in some remote base in Texas in a unit of the Military Police. He went to college during those same years enabled to do so by a modest scholarship and a generous work-study program supplemented with a few hours a night in the produce section of the A&P on Jerome Avenue. Every time his buddy came home on leave they would meet up and go out somewhere “downtown”, somewhere in Manhattan. His buddy would tell him stories about his MP duty in far southwest Texas while he would talk a little about college and that his mind was beginning to open somewhat. It seemed to him that it was important to get an education but was not precisely sure why. He had no major in his first years just drifting through taking courses that seemed interesting to him. His buddy said he planned to take advantage of the GI Bill once his Army tour was over and said he thought he might like to be a cop.
January 1981 was one of the coldest months in the history of New York City. While everyone dealt with the brutal arctic blast and anxiously await the Spring, they would be in for a more bracing reality than anything yet delivered by Mother Nature. By July 1981 crack cocaine and drug-related crime, an enormous homeless population, and a pitifully stagnant economy had rendered our Great City a boiling unsettled caldron that would continue to simmer for the rest of the decade. It was into this toxic mix that he and his friend found themselves newly minted rookies with the NYPD. They had made it through the Academy and both were selected to work with “The Big Boys”, a term that distinguished the main NYPD force from both the Housing and Transit Police Divisions. (The first Bill Bratton, the Bratton who served as NYPD Commissioner under Mayor Giuliani until this City got too small for both of them ) did away with those distinctions and united all rightfully into a consolidated, singular NYPD with Housing and Transit Patrol Bureaus in 1992. It was now that their real training would begin and, for the next seven years they would still be regarded by their peers as rookies. The older Cops believed it took a rookie seven years to mature out in the streets, seven years of baptism by fire to attain the level of street smarts, instincts, and effectiveness the Job required and to earn the trust of the older fellas that is so vital to how pairs of Cops work.
As fate would dictate they were both assigned to the same Precinct. The NYPD once made aware of personal friendships between Cops, in those days did their best to have them assigned to the same Precinct. They did not, however, extend this “courtesy” to members of the same family. No brother would be assigned to the same Command as his brother. It was in recognition of the dangers of the Job that prohibited the possibility of two members of the same family finding themselves in mortal danger. A mother should not lose two sons on the same day from the same incident but it was different than with lifelong friends.
As they sat quietly nursing their drinks and smoking the place began to fill up. Soon the atmosphere was loud; full of laughter and easy banter among the regulars. While neither of them knew anyone in the bar personally, they would catch a glimpse of a familiar face in the mirror behind the bar. When eyes met there were almost undetectable nods of recognition. Both he and his friend had spent years working in this neighborhood and, just like Cops, the denizens of the streets and hot summer nights had good memories for faces. Despite the toll the years had taken on their faces, they were all still recognizable to each other. None of the familiar faces came over to them to say hello or share a drink; they were, after all, on different sides of the fence. If anyone in that bar harbored long standing resentment or anger towards either of them they were wise enough to keep it concealed and to themselves. They may have been two middle aged men having some Sunday afternoon drinks in a shithole bar in Washington Heights but, they were Cops.
As the Giants struggled on TV they began to talk about current events; the circumstances and happenstance that seem to have thrust their City into disarray. Nightly demonstrators and protestors were taking to the streets; some obstructing traffic, others staging mass “die-ins” at key intersections throughout the City, while others marched and chanted demanding “justice” and “respect”; some calling stridently against the NYPD and the “brutal practices” and “patterns of abuse” that they believed granted White Police Officers the license to kill “people of color” indiscriminately.
It was at this point in their discussion that they looked at each other and began to laugh. They laughed hard for a minute or two amused by the recent rhetoric in the papers and on TV. They were, at this point in their careers, considered by many as dinosaurs; some of the few who had stayed OTJ for reasons the younger guys could not understand. As their laughter subsided they began to speak about the unprecedented divide between the NYPD and the Mayor, the self-avowed “reformist”, Bill de Blasio. The disillusionment and distrust of de Blasio among the members of the NYPD had escalated to what felt to be a point of no return. When PBA President Patrick Lynch began to distribute cards to be filled out by all Members of Service (MOS) to formally uninvite the Mayor and some members of the City Council from attending their funerals, it was an audacious move but certainly not an abstract one for the MOS. Every time a Cop begins his or her shift on Patrol; in the projects, subways and on the streets, there is no guarantee they will see their families again. Life on patrol for a Cop is beyond hazardous and always has the possibility of life and death hanging in the balance. There is no such thing as a “routine” call.
It was the Summer of 1984 and they were part time partners. They slowly rode up and down the narrow tenement lined streets just south of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. It seems as if each stoop on these blocks had more people hanging about than the next. The non-stop, static from the radio transmitted calls without much distinction between urgency and banality. The crack cocaine trade was in full throttle and the dealers had grown sophisticated enough to have look-outs on the rooftops with walkie-talkies in hand to alert the dealers in their fortified apartments of the location of “Five-Oh”, the “PO-PO”, the “Polices”.
Calls that required them to get out of their RMP immediately put them at risk as people in the buildings would rain down everything from soiled Pampers to household trash. Sometimes they and their RMP were hit by rocks or other thrown items. It was a hostile environment and one in which the local drug dealers would always reign with the upper hand. Working in an environment such as this can change a man; it can harden his heart, occlude his innate sensibilities, and have him rendered to the point he acts on pure adrenaline-fueled experience and instinct. It is beyond frustrating; the upside down nature of working such a sector can make the Job feel like a Darwinian enterprise where only the strongest survive. And, make no mistake about it, it was a Darwinian environment, one in which the NYPD was not fully in control of. Given that state of affairs, the reality in those neighborhoods and on those streets, the Cops had to assert greater authority and sometimes such displays of authority amounted to nothing more than sealing off a block with RMP’s and having the Cops walk towards each other from opposite sides of the block asking for ID’s, conducting some impromptu Q and A, with the occasional crack in the head of some mope who mouthed off or was otherwise “non-compliant”. By the time they got back to their RMP they needed showers from all the baby shit and garbage that had been hurled down on them.
On this Sunday afternoon those days seemed a lifetime ago. They both carried scars, physical and emotional from those days, but they were still in the mix. Neither of them ever had the mindset of “20 and Out” and, to many of their peers that seemed almost akin to insanity. After all, who would stay in this Job any longer than they had to? Perhaps more than some realized. They’d both earned their Gold Shields in the early 1990’s, been assigned to different Detective Units, gone back to school at John Jay on NYPD’s dime, and felt they had more to offer not to the Job per se, but to the youngsters coming up.
They had both filled out and handed in their Detective’s Endowment Association cards with the same language to the Mayor and City Council as those produced by Patrick Lynch, President of the PBA. They were both equally disgusted and disturbed by the turn of events that had the NYPD so horribly estranged from the populace and City Hall. They each recognized that this was not an open wound that would heal anytime soon. And, to them, that was a shame. But they would not be persuaded to “pull the pin”, they would not file their retirement papers until they felt weariness in their bones and minds. They each had a few good years remaining OTJ.
By the time they walked out onto St. Nicholas Avenue the Giants had won, the night had come calling and a brisk wind from the north made it feel colder than it was. They walked to the subway station on 168th Street and descended the stairs to the warmth of the cavernous station platform. He would take an A, C or E Train south to his neighborhood on the lower Westside while his buddy would change trains at 59th Street for an F Train to Queens. Some of the people on the platform looked at them oddly, these two men of the same age and similar heights and weights. They smelled of Cop; every mope on the street could tell a Cop from a mile away. The only reason the folks on the platform gave them a second look was because one of them was White, the other Black. Yes, Black and White, lifelong friends and fellow Cops; two men bound by an Oath and a shared belief.
They lived their professional lives wading through shit storms of every variety; encountered every type of person at their absolute worst. They each separately felt the instinctual pangs when they rolled on a “domestic” and found an innocent, quivering child huddled beneath a bed bearing the telltale signs of prior physical abuse. Such experiences do not harden a man’s heart, they open it.
As the subway swayed and squealed its way to a stop at the 59th Street station they shook hands, slapped backs and said see you later. Each went on the train ride home alone, one Black Cop, one White Cop, back into the anonymity of a late night subway ride. As always they’d made tentative plans to meet up to watch a playoff game, probably in a bar in Jamaica, Queens in a predominately Black neighborhood. They parted with that thought in mind while simultaneously saying a quiet prayer for each other. As Cops no tomorrow was promised, no plans guaranteed. The City could rage in anger and frustration around them but they would not abandon it for Westchester or Rockland County. No. This was their City and as long as they served they would conduct themselves largely as they always had just a bit more seasoned, somewhat wiser, and more confident in their tasks and ability to see around corners. There were likely many ways to earn a comparable salary but neither of them would even consider it now; not yet. They still had a taste for The Job and would not shy away from whatever dish was being served.
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