Sunday, December 11, 2011

Reunion II: Old Men Packing Heat

That night – three or four biannual-reunions ago – Louie, our ex-partner, showed his face after being let out of the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, New York, having served nine years for Drug Conspiracy. I was talking to my other partner, John ‘Super Cop’, when I spotted Louie. I was delighted; I hadn’t seen him for awhile for obvious reasons. “Hey, there’s Louie!” I said. “I won’t talk to the fuck,” John responded, in that old familiar tone – cold and dead as a tombstone – the one he’d used on the ‘perps’ in the street in the good old days.

I look across the cavernous hall, past the line of aluminum chafing pans full of the usual steaming Ziti Parmigian, Chicken Fransesse, fish-in-a-white-sauce, limp iceberg lettuce salad with flagons of creamy Italian, next to mounds of fresh Italian loaves – lined end to end on the long Bingo folding tables like silver birds in single file about to take flight. I see Louie is surrounded by old cops pumping his hand, touching, laying hands on him in that way men, genuinely moved by emotion, will do, while ever alert to the dangers of losing control.

The glad-handing cops know of the drugs and Louie’s bit in federal jail, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is our shared past on the streets where it counted. Louie had your back; testified to the truth of any cover-your-ass story events required you to tell in Court or to the Bosses; and never, ever ratted you out to the IAB Secret Police (except in John Super Cop’s case, of course, but we’re a forgiving lot). Race never mattered. It was You, the Cops, black or white, against Them, the Criminals, always black or Hispanic, on the streets and in the houses of Bushwick, where some of us died by ambush.

On July 13, 1977, the lights went out, plunging all of New York City into darkness. The worst of the subsequent riots, looting, arson occurred that night and the following day. Bushwick and adjacent Bedford-Stuyvesant bore its brunt. Many of the stores, on both sides of Broadway, the main commercial artery that divided the 83rd and 81st Precincts, were looted, then set afire, over a two-mile-long swath. I was there as was John and Louie and the rest of us. For the first 12 hours, we were ordered by Police Headquarters to make no arrests for fear the station houses would be overwhelmed by the numbers. Every cop in the City had been ordered to report to his Command. Many neglected to put on the uniform; instead, commandeering buses to ride to the scene, armed with nightsticks and baseball bats. We had orders to stop the looters, the arsonists. And we did. We struck them down on the spot, laid them out at the scene of their crimes.

All that night, the flickering flames put me in mind of that scene in ‘Gone With the Wind’, the Burning of Atlanta. Only cops, firemen and looters were abroad on the streets. By dawn, we were allowed to make arrests. The riot had lasted a night and a day. By its end, the 133 prisoners who wouldn’t fit in the 83 Precinct’s cellblock were penned in a gated courtyard outside the station house. Later, the Borough Chief in charge of Brooklyn North boasted that no cop had fired his weapon during the riot. Willie ‘S’ of the Eight-Three demurred, “Where the fuck was he, Hawaii?” Perhaps. the Chief was misled by the presence on Brooklyn Streets for days after of men with bandaged heads suggestive of an invasion of turbaned Sikhs. The final tally for the Blackout Riots throughout the City: 1,037 fires, 1616 looted stores, 3,776 arrests, the worst riot in the City’s history.

In 2003, the journalist, Jonathan Mahler, came to our Reunion to research his non-fiction book, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), A Profile of the Year 1977. He included our stories of that Night and a Day. I forget if Louie was there to tell his, or John. I like to think that next Reunion – if Louie shows up again and John, who never misses – they will forget the bad old past, sit down to break Italian bread together and remember the Good Times.

Robert Knightly

Part one of this story


  1. The voice of the cop is a gritty, vivid, disturbing, and beautiful thing. Wonderful. Thank you for taking me where I could never go in real life!

  2. I agree with Pat's comments, every single word. This is a world most of us have never known in New York. And you have the gift of vividity - rarely found in the literature. ' You were there." tjs

  3. Reunions do reveal the movement of time!!! BTW, I moved to New York in July 1977. I was sitting in a movie theater when the place went dark. People stomped their feet, hooted and called out serious complaints thinking that this would alter the darkness. An usher announced that the 'electricity had failed' and we all filed out and walked into a completely dark night, and that was the first time, and as far as I can remember, the last time I saw stars in the sky above this city. Great to hear about the underbelly of that week!!!