Monday, March 10, 2014
A Police Story: Policing The Hasidim
They gave us a .38-cal., 6-shot Smith & Wesson Police Special revolver, showed us how it worked, then put us out in the street. Over two days and nights, they bussed us up to the NYPD’s Outdoor Shooting Range at Rodman’s Neck in Orchard Beach, the Bronx. At night—the range illuminated by powerful giant searchlights and the headlights of Emergency Service trucks—we unhurriedly fired off 150 rounds at paper bulls-eye targets at increasing distances. The High Command hoped fervently we’d be able to hit what we aimed at in the street rather than innocent civilians, while praying we’d never have occasion to draw the weapon from its holster.
Twelve of us reported for out first day at the 90th Precinct on Clymer Street and Division Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We wore our regulation Academy “greys”—gray workman’s trousers with matching shirt, our shields attached through three holes at the left breast—clip-on tie, highly-polished black shoes, socks, and regulation blue police cap with shield headpiece minus shield number (we weren’t the Real McCoy yet). At our first roll call in the Muster Room of the stationhouse, the Patrol Sergeant, appalled, ordered us to ditch the “greys”, and get into regulation police blues before we became “marks” in the eyes of the criminal element. By next roll call, we were all in blue.
The 90th Precinct was two square miles in North Brooklyn bounded by the East River—a hop, skip and a jump across to the Manhattan piers. The residents were equally divided between Puerto Ricans and the Hassidim of the Satmar sect of Judaism. Rumor had it that the Hassids were the reason for our presence in the Nine-O. We worked steady tours, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., on one-man foot posts, in a straight line for twenty blocks along Bedford and Lee Avenues—from the Grand Rebbe’s Victorian residence to the Marcy Avenue Projects, whence The Problem originated. Puerto Rican youths on bicycles, each Sabbath at sundown, would swoop down these Avenues—wide as the Champs-Elysees—to snatch the hats off the heads of the men on their way to Synagogue. The men dressed in their Saturday best, sporting Spodiks—long fur hats of mink and fox tail that retailed on Lee Avenue, the business hub, for $1,000 and up. No Spodiks went astray, however, during our occupation, that June through December of 1967.
One memory from my time among the Hasidim will not fade. One Friday afternoon around sundown, I was standing on post at the corner of Rodney Street and Bedford Avenue when a bent old woman, approaching from behind, grabbed my arm, startling me so that I dropped the nightstick I’d been practicing twirling on its lanyard. As she tugged me back up Rodney Street in the direction she’d come, I followed, feeling like a knight rescuing a damsel in distress (ancient as this particular damsel might be). She wore a black shawl on her head that hid her face, and I couldn’t make out her mutterings. But I anticipated doing police work, at least something more exciting than walking up and down my two-blocks-long, one-block-wide foot post, hour after hour. I followed her into the lobby of a dirty yellow brick multiple dwelling. She bypassed the elevator, instead entering the stairwell, and we climbed two flights, her in the lead, me in tow. She opened the unlocked door to a darkened apartment. From the light in the hallway I spied a light switch on the wall and flipped it on as I entered. The lights came on, revealing a neat kitchen, the parlor beyond filled with heavy Old World furniture, and the smiling face of my guide. She pointed by waiving the fingers of both hands at the kitchen stove and finally I understood. When I lighted the pilot on the ancient gas range, the smile on her wrinkled face was beatific. Then she shooed me out the door, back the way I had come. Every Friday night thereafter wherever I was working, I made it my business to be at Rodney and Bedford for our rendezvous. She spoke little, but no matter since it sounded like Yiddish. Besides, I already knew what was expected of me as the Shabbos Goy. The Hasidim are forbidden by their religion to engage machinery—lights, stoves, elevators—on Shabbos. So she went in search of a nonbeliever.
At the remove of nearly a half-century, still nothing in my experience as a New York City Patrolman is fresher, more pleasurable to me, than the memory of my encounter with the old Hassidic woman.
© 2014 Robert Knightly