I WISH I COULD remember my last solid shit but I can’t. Then again, I wish I could remember a lot of things. I wish I could remember the last time I believed true love really existed or that relationships lasted. That a person could feel excited about something, as anxious for a new experience as they were sure that bad things didn’t happen to good people.
I wish I could remember what it was like before the loss of friends in the line and the loss of friends who couldn’t forgive a bad day, a mistake, or the breakup of a marriage, those friends who thought their only way out was a bullet that erased the promise of everything they might have been, and tainted all that they were.
I wish I could remember what it was like to not have seen the cold things in this world, the faces of the poor, tortured dead, people who got that way because they were stupid enough to make bad decisions, or simply unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wish I could remember a lot of things . . . but I can’t.
I didn’t start off this way. Does anyone? Certainly no one I know. I started like the rest, a wide-eyed kid focused on the singular thought that I could make a difference in the world, I could help others, and what I did would mean something, that my efforts would be rewarded. Then something changed.
Over the years I’ve been hit, bit, kicked, and tossed around like a raggedy chew toy in a golden retriever ’s mouth. I’ve been poked, stabbed, punched, shot at, clubbed, and pummeled. Getting yelled at is just a matter of daily routine.
When I show up, my contact with you is rarely a happy moment, and even when it is, emotions nearly always run high. You’re only glad to see me if I’m doing what you want.
Otherwise, I’m the asshole.
I’ve felt your discontent, sometimes in the form of a thick ball of slimy spit that rolls down the back of my neck and inside my shirt. And some of the finest of you have emptied the contents of your stomach on my boots just before looking up at me through sweaty, stained, stringy, vomit-soaked hair to demand that I wipe your face and clean you up.
Let’s not forget the blood, there’s plenty of that. It didn’t used to be such a big deal. Nobody worried. It was just blood. There was no need for rubber gloves. Blood, urine, feces, it was all no big deal. I was exposed daily and didn’t give the matter much thought. Nasty stuff was part of the job. Not so much any more. Now it’s not just the things I can see that I have to worry about, it’s the things I won’t know are there until some doctor tells me he’s sorry. Every time you cough on the back of my neck, I get to wonder whether you’re part of the tuberculosis epidemic or whether I’m just gonna get my sixth cold of the season.
When the world explodes and I show up, I get brief moments to correct the convoluted storm of human misery someone else worked very hard to create. If, in the short time I have to regain control of the chaos, I don’t do something perfect, you get the next several months―or years―to tell me how I could have done better. If my error is a big deal, you get to tell me how bad a person I am and how my failure to be perfect is one of intent rather than lack of insight.
You expect perfection in me while I deal with your imperfections, things you believe should be overlooked because of any litany of mitigating factors that are a part of your own unfortunate past. It’s funny, I’ve studied the Bill of Rights but I cannot, for the life of me, remember the section that outlines the myriad of different things people think they are due. You have a right to make a phone call, but you don’t have the right to struggle and resist me until you get it.
And what do I get for all this? A pension when I retire, something you complain about to no end. In your eyes it’s totally unfair that I should get to live so well when I retire so early. Never mind that my chances of surviving a career to receive that pension are only slightly slimmer than the likelihood I’ll live long enough to enjoy it.
Welcome to my world. There are a lot of things it’s not, but it’s still my world.
I’m a street cop, the first person who shows up when things go to hell, the first responder who has only frantic moments to take in a great deal of information and formulate a plan on how to stabilize things. If it helps you to believe that I’m lazy, ignorant, generally incompetent and way too overpaid, go ahead. Your future is still in my hands.
So am I bitter? Nah, it could be worse. I have a hot cup of coffee mixed with just the right amount of non-dairy creamer and sugar. Such a brew is a hard concoction to perfect, but when you get it right, so is the world. The smoke from the Marlboro Ultra-Lights I keep trying to get away from rolls smoothly across my tongue, the tobacco a perfect blend to accent the taste of the coffee.
It is moments like this that I really appreciate.
To top off the break, this is my favorite time of day. The hour when the city breathes a collective, exhausted sigh of relief and nighttime holds back, waiting patiently to release the bad things. When motorists cruise home on auto-pilot and the automatic headlights start to pop on. That moment when the day’s warmth still hangs in the air, fighting to hold on as the cool evening breeze chills the heat that clings to the asphalt in the streets. Sunset. More specifically, that instant right before dark when the sky grows a deeper blue and the world around is caught in that brief place of twilight where things are nearly luminous.
I’ve found myself a comfy spot to enjoy the moment. The door of my black-and-white Crown Victoria is the perfect resting spot, as I lean against my car in a parking lot at 52nd and El Cajon Boulevard. This is East San Diego, Mid-City Division.
They used to call it Eastern Division. When I got here, everything south of Interstate 8 was the 310’s service area. Comprised of eight different beats, this was flat out the ass of the city. If San Diego could have been given an enema, this would have been where they inserted the nozzle. Everyday we’d drive down I-15, and as we crossed over I-8 and through the canyon toward our beat, my partner would start our day with some quote from Dante’s Inferno. I’d hear Morrison’s “Riders on the Storm,” and then the world would explode.
Meanwhile, folks in the real world spent their days watching the dawn of the nineties man, the emergence of a sensitive man in touch with his feminine side who can cry on command.
On a Friday or Saturday night there’d be forty, fifty, maybe more of us, spread over one of the smallest areas of the city. And when we’d clear the station after line-up, there’d be an even greater number of emergency and priority calls waiting for us. No matter how many cops we put out, the calls would never go away. In the course of a night, each unit commonly went to a couple dozen incidents. We might have been on the cusp of the nineties, but there was no room for a sensitive man among us.
It was an era of mayhem.
Rock cocaine was at its peak, and methamphetamine was making a rapid climb toward the top of the drug food chain. You couldn’t count the number of different gangs―whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and enough subdivisions of each to make your head spin, each of them vying for their share of limited space in which to sell their illicit products. After all, the economy hadn’t quite rebounded yet, and when times are bad, people get high. That meant I went to shootings, stabbings, and beatings, sometimes several times in a night. There was so much blood, so much violence that the misery of this place just never seemed to end. When I was young and invincible, this was a wonderland, and every night was an adventure.
But things change.
It’s no longer Eastern Division. The Mid-City station opened in ‘95, built out of the old grocery store at Fairmont and Wightman that was robbed and shoplifted to the point where there was nothing left to sell at the end of the day. If you ask most cops who work there now, they don’t remember it was ever anything but a police station.
I remember rolling around on the ground in what is now the front parking lot of the station with some dreg-thief who was so amped up on god-knows-what he didn’t even know I was there. He never felt my nun-chucks even though they were wrapped so tightly around his wrist that they warped and bent. My partner inflicted a similar level of pain, but that misguided creep still fought us until he had no fight left. In the end, when he came down, he didn’t remember a bit of his ordeal. He just wondered why he felt so bad.
It was insanity.
So much happens on the streets. They are the conduits through which we live. At least that’s how I see it. The streets take me where I need to go. They are the passageway to life, death, and all those moments that fill the in-between. Those same streets have forged my life these past years. But they do wear on you.
We used to tell the tough little gangsters, the dope fiends, the miscreants, “Clean up, no man is tougher than the streets.” Who knew that same logic would apply to us? The streets will wear a man down just as surely as they do the tires on my cruiser. Still, sometimes the best you can do is see how much tread you have left and hope you don’t hit any potholes.
The sweat still clings to the underside of my vest, and I shiver as the cool wind blows the last of the perspiration off the back of my neck. A good swallow of coffee takes care of that. Hell, a good cup of coffee takes care of a lot of things, and whatever 7-11 is, is not, was, should be, or represents, it can still brew a fine cup of coffee . . . mostly. There is the 3:00 AM sludge, the thick, burned out crust that remains after hours of sitting on the burner. Without fail, it’s all that’s left when you don’t have time to wait while they brew a new pot. That’s always when you need to rush off to the next self-generated critical event in some goofball’s life. It’s the kind of coffee that scalds your mouth and then clings to your taste buds with all the tenacity of a macaroni and cheese dinner that’s been burned to the lining of a cast iron pot. Still, usually the coffee is good.
At least some things don’t change.
MY REVERIE WAS INTERRUPTED just as surely as if I’d tripped on any of the multitude of deteriorating sidewalks that make up this neighborhood. My rookie partner felt compelled to disturb me.
“Are you about ready?” he whined. My moment would have been destroyed but for years of experience in tuning people out. “Let’s go find something to do.”
I groaned. “Give me a moment. Enjoy your Snapple. The bad things will come soon enough.”
“C’mon, this is boring.”
“Indulge me, sometimes I like boring.”
I could feel it waiting. The evening was too quiet, too solemn, but that couldn’t be taken as a sign that nothing is happening. The city is like a woman at times, she can speak volumes without even so much as word. Tonight it was as if she was holding some rotten secret she wanted to share just as soon as things got dark enough. That’s how it works sometimes, and if you pay attention to her you can sense what she wants you to know. Some call it a sixth sense. I never much paid attention, I just knew that some things can be felt, but not explained.
Not so for my partner. Tonight I’d been made a “Zebra Unit,” a two man car, with little Stevie Buckman. Poor kid, he’d likely throw a tantrum if I called him Stevie, but it hardly seemed fit not to. Barely twenty-two, he wasn’t even a year out of the Academy and he’d already set his sights on changing the world. It is just his kind of zeal I wish I could remember.
Mostly what I remember are those things that beat such a sense of excitement right outta my hide. He doesn’t know those moments are coming, but they are. Hopefully he’ll have the guts to stick it out and the good grace to live to an age where he can sit and enjoy a sunset. I took another swig of coffee, almost to the bottom of the cup. Maybe two sips left, and it was still warm. With any luck I’d get through the whole thing before I got a call or the last gulp got cold. Just another of those small things that brings joy to my life. Not so for Stevie. I could hear him sigh dramatically as if I’d just told him he couldn’t watch Power Rangers.
Stevie shifted in the passenger seat. I heard him start typing frantically on the keyboard of the computer inside our car. His was a new generation―cops email and text each other all night long. No one listens to the streets. They keep their heads buried in the monitor or their fancy phones, chatting back and forth as the world moves on around them.
At five-ten and maybe a hundred and sixty pounds, Stevie hadn’t had time to fill out his uniform. He kept it clean and pressed, though, no doubt the work of the mother he still lived with. Two years of college, a job, and still at home. That seems the way of Californians. I can only imagine the coronary my father would have had if I’d still been in the nest at his age. Then again, the young people seem to keep getting older. Thirty years of living today gets a person where most used to be at eighteen. Stevie might have the uniform, the shiny leather, the short trimmed wavy brown hair but he still looks like he ought to be in high school. At least he has a full-time job.
Of course, things would be different if we got a call near the University. You can bet there’d be no mention of living at home around all the young college girls. He’d be in heaven, strutting around with his chest puffed out like some rooster in the henhouse.
The next swig of coffee is only warm. One more swallow and I’m back to work. That gives me just a few more seconds to enjoy the moment. My Marlboro has reached the end of its usefulness. I roll the end of the filter until the cherry drops to the ground and then crush the ember with the tip of my steel toe.
The sun is gone, well below where I might catch a glimpse, but still the light fights its last battle of the day. In the sky above I can see the brilliant underbelly of a jetliner. The plane is too high up to make out anything distinct, just the shimmering glow of sunlight reflecting off polished aluminum, the wispy white vapor trail marking a path across the heavens. Too far up to be heading in to Lindbergh Field. Those folks are probably heading to some far off exotic locale.
For a brief moment the thought pulled at me. I ought to be on that plane headed for Hawaii, Tahiti, or the Caribbean. Then reality strikes. It’s flying south. Mexico. Damn. Probably headed to some corrupt, drug-running, impoverished shithole where people are traded and life is cheap. So much for exotic. Who goes outta their way to walk in shit?
The radio transmission crackled loudly in my ear, one of the few things that will get a cop’s attention, anytime, anywhere. “Cover now,” were the only two words I heard, but that was enough.