Sunday, January 22, 2012
On Joining Things
I was okay if I signed on for something that would not let me out if I changed my mind, say, before nightfall: for example, the U.S. Army. I “pushed up” my draft in August, 1961, since if your draft status was “1-A” (meaning you had your ticket and it was about to be punched), then you could volunteer for the Draft and know your Day of Departure. This was desirable mainly because no employer would hire you with so uncertain a future. In 1961, the cry on the streets was: “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” Draftees could look forward to wintering in the German forests or bivouacking on a hill in Korea. At least, I figured, I’d summer at Fort Dix, New Jersey. So on August 22, 1961, I reported to the Army Induction Depot on Whitehall Street at Battery Park and climbed on the bus for Ft. Dix and eight-weeks of Basic Training.
The most trauma I suffered at Basic was being roused from sleep daily while the sky was still dark and advised to “fall out” in the Muster Yard for PT — that is,“Jumping Jacks” and “Squat Thrusts” (aptly named, self-inflicted forms of violence to the body) — and lest I forget: the Run. True, I thought it would be better to train in balmy weather but had not envisioned the endless running up hills and full-tilt on straightaways in 100-degree heat. Yet, I never personally threw in the towel. My sergeant did that for me when I’d fall out of formation from heat stroke as he tossed me his canteen and said: “Take five!” To my credit, the thought never crossed my mind to resign from the Army. (Luckily, too, because that year the Army, in its unfathomable wisdom, sent me and every other graduate of Basic Training who also had a college degree to San Juan, Puerto Rico to teach English to Puerto Ricans so the Army could draft them.)
I was reminded not too long ago of a very ignominious incident from my grammar school past. There was a track meet between my school, St Anthony of Padua, and Sts. Cyril and Methodius in McCarran’s Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I can’t recall how it came to pass (probably, trauma has blocked memory) but I remember running as anchor on a relay team (I was fast) and I remember wearing dungarees while the other boys wore shorts, and I remember being in the lead all the way around the track till I stopped ten yards short of the finish line. That’s what this ghost from my past reminded me about when we crossed paths at the wake of a boyhood friend. Half-a-century later, he didn’t recognize me but remembered my name. I didn’t know him then and certainly don’t want to know him now (Best to let sleeping dogs lie). Although, it is a kind of immortality, I suppose.
When I joined the NYPD as a Patrolman in 1967, it was the pre-Knapp Police Department — that is, the world as it existed before the Whitman Knapp Commission’s Investigation into Police Corruption in the New York City Police Department made the City inhospitable to gamblers, drug dealers, whorehouse operators, and understanding plainclothesmen. Yet, the Commission’s good work left untouched, never made the slightest dent in the tipping habits of the beat cop. The Knapp Commission Hearings may well have been on the TVs above the grand mahogany bar in Luchow’s Restaurant on East 14th Street. It was 1970. I was a rookie assigned to the 9th Precinct on East 5th Street. That day, the Precinct RollCallMan had slipped up and assigned me the foot post covering Luchow’s (a coveted assignment, spelled five dollars). Custom was for foot cops to eat in the kitchen at a big table, served by the busboys. There I sat with four older cops (known as “hairbags,” don’t ask me why): the radio car team that patrolled the Sector, and two traffic cops, one from Traffic Safety B and one from the 9th. Having eaten, it was the custom to leave a tip for the busboy. As we rose and I made to lay down a dollar bill at my place, the Traffic B cop touched my arm to stay my hand. “Don’t ruin it, kid,“ he said with a baleful stare. I left the dollar, after he turned away.