In the dog hours after two a.m., the empty time when the streets are dark and lifeless, a police car is an alien bubble, a small moving world unconnected with the streets, not part of the neighborhood. Yet it has to be there. The city is dead. Blank windows, alley mouths leading into nowhere. Parked cars, grey in the wan light, like bloated ticks. There is no color. Nothing happens. Until it does.
Inside, dash lights, warmth in winter. And the redio. The radio, the soul of a cop car. Squawk, sssssss, crackle, laconic female voice, “Wreck on GW Parkway at Pentagon” from a dispatcher sitting at her desk on Ninth Street. Laconic because she has heard it all, many times. Sometimes the radio traffic is downright weird. I have heard “ADW weedwacker,” assault with a deadly weapon, weedwhacker. Who the hell at three a.m has a….. “Fourth and School, naked man climbing telephone pole.” Dispatchers has heard it all. Gunfire, fires, some homeless guy frozen to death under a bench in winter, or located by the smell in summer. The city late at night is an urban coral reef. Strange life comes from who knows where. It isn’t the city normal people know. They are asleep.
The Parkway is on the other side of the river in Virginia, not DC’s problem, but I carry a scanner, a nice Bearcat, to listen to other districts.
The guy I’m riding with, I’ll call him Barnes. I have ridden with hundreds of Barneses.
The radio says there is a fire at such and such an address. It isn’t in our patrol district, but things are slow. When you see six squad cars together, two of them need to be there and the others wanted to see what was happening. We go.
Fire is already there, guys pulling hose, other cops, the engines, an ambulance, which is leaving. No one hurt. Bar lights flashing red-blue-red-blue, reflecting from buildings and cars. A building of three floors is spitting flames. A burning insurance policy. Water runs in the street. There is a curious smell of wet ashes.
Barnes says, “Neighborhood’s going down. They’re burning them to try to get their money out.” Cops know it. They can’t prove it.
Fire departments have less and less to do. In a concrete high-rise with fire-proof steel doors, you can burn the furniture in one apartment. That’s about it. So the departments do medical calls. I once saw a fire engine sent to handle a miscarriage on a sidewalk.
The crash on the Parkway must be bad. Ambulance is there, but the paramedics are saying, “We need a chopper. Right now. This guy is bad….” Ambulance will have alerted shock-trauma, probably at MedStar but the guy has to get there alive. He probably won’t. Head injury. They don’t last well.
We chat with the fire guys a bit, shop talk. Heyjuh hear, think they’ll pass that pay raise? yeah, arson, had to be accelerant. There’s a camaraderie in the street trades. It makes the nights not so long. Then we head back to where we are supposed to be. To fill the hours we bullsht about things we have seen, about what is going on in the city.
It’s funny. People often say to me, “I don’t see how anyone can stand to be a cop.” A cop’s response usually runs to something like,”I don’t see how anyone can spend thirty years in a goddam cubicle, shuffling papers about property taxes.” I don’t either.
Some of it is funny in an anthropological way. A black transvestite as big as a running back in a thong bikini and size probably forty high heels. Harmless but…different. There was the guy–I swear it, I saw the security-camera photo–whose head was so narrow that he got out of his cell between the bars at Seven-D headquarters, on Alabama Avenue. The guy with those shoes with the colored lights in them that flash when you walk. He did something wrong one night–I forget what, shoplifting maybe–and then ran into a patch of woods to hide.
Some isn’t funny. The guy killed by a loon who completely peeled his face, maybe with an Exacto knife. Kids, burned to death in a fire the color of roast ham with their bellies ruptured by expanding gases. The little girl of four years whose ghetto parents kept her, starving and tied, in a closet until she died, when they left her in a dumpster in a plastic bag. The street trades handle this stuff while the rest of us sleep or worry about the property taxes. Guess why cops get weird and cynical.
The crash on the Parkway is still unfolding. Virginia. We hear things like, “That chopper en route? He’s fading in and out.” I’m not sure why they need the whirlybird, but the paras know what they are doing. They do a lot of it.
An all-night convenience store, a blotch of light and life in the deadness. Several black guys–everybody in this part of the city is black–congregate with brown paper bags. Forties or maybe Cobra, fortified wine. Drinking in public. Not very public though, at this hour. Barnes ignormes them. They’re not doing anything.
Race is huge in the city, not always for reasons imagined in the nice suburbs. Police tend to be lower middle class guys, black or white, blue collar, wanting to distance themselves from the lower orders. They brush their teeth, follow rules, comb their hair, wash their cars. They are intensely respectable. The black city is different. The young men dress in dumpster-chic, deliberately telling society to screw off. They don’t follow rules. They and cops wouldn’t like each other under any circumstances.
The laws make it worse. Blacks stand with a beer on the sidewalks in front of their houses, talking to the neighbors. Some guys are shooting craps for quarters on the hod of a car. Both are illegal: gambling, drinking in public. The cops have to shut these dangerous activities down. It’s part of the theory that if you crack down on little stuff, big stuff won’t happen. It makes the people hate the cops. When a black officer is involved, people will mutter, loud enough for him to hear, “I can’t believe a black cop is doing this.” Neither can I. Any cop. Of course the laws are made by a black government. No one thinks of this.
Two hours to quitting time. We search for coffee.