Officer H. is a handsome man in his mid-forties. He has a perky, inquisitive nose and eyes set a little too close together. If he was a cartoon animal he’d be a white mouse. The way his uniform fits suggests an athletic build. His black shoes are shined, and his feet look small.
“Six-foot-seven? He stands out like a sore thumb!” Officer H. squawked in a Brooklyn accent when, one freezing night, I rode along with him and his partner. We combed the streets of Williamsburg for the sore thumb. We were looking for trouble, for petty thieves and small-time crooks. Once I had gotten all comfy and warm in my bulletproof vest, Officer H. took to calling me detective. He meant to be funny. He was chatty and charming, but quiet and still when he picked up speed.
First we stopped in a deserted industrial area in East Williamsburg. Our headlights pointed at a construction vehicle parked on the side of the road. The large shadow of a head and a cup being raised to its mouth were projected onto the brick wall behind it.
It was extremely cold and I trembled when Officer H. got out of the car to investigate. A few seconds later he led two black teenagers into the headlights of the police car. They were sipping orange juice out of small white plastic cups.
“Hands on the wall,” Officer H. yelled.
My teeth chattered as I stood by watching. While Officer G. kept an eye on the boys, Officer H. disappeared.
“Detective,” he called me, “come here!”
I followed Officer H. into the dark little aisle between brick wall and construction vehicle.
“This is a crime scene. What are we looking for?” he asked. He then presented the evidence: a bottle of brandy and a carton of orange juice. But the way his bright eyes gazed at me in the dark suggested that he had other things on his mind.
“The one kid is high as a kite,” he said in a serious voice.
“It is,” I admitted, “an odd spot for just having a cup of juice with brandy.” I looked around and picked up some stuff to make myself useful.
“Matches,” I said knowingly.
“Yes, matches,” he nodded, raising his eyebrows and pursing his lips.
The boys, who lived in a rehab shelter nearby, each got a ticket for drinking in public.
“Detective?” Officer H. asked me. “What would you do with the brandy? We can’t keep it and we can’t give it back.”
“You wanna see them cry?” Officer G. interrupted. “They’ll cry, once we pour out the liquor.” Officer G. used his words sparingly and only when they really mattered. The rest of the time he kept quiet. He showed life only when pressing buttons or giggling at Officer H.’s jokes.
“If you find a bag to conceal the liquor in the next four seconds you’ll get the bottle back,” Officer H. said to the boys. He began counting as one of the boys grabbed a plastic bag from the ground.
“Detective, did you see them run when I told them to look for a bag? They were real fast,” he said as we drove off.
Officer H., who spent one year in Iraq training Iraqi soldiers, knows how we could win the war. “Right now,” he said, “we are offering the insurgents too many targets.” He remembered an Iraqi soldier. “A really nice and intelligent guy,” he told me. One moment Officer H. and the Iraqi soldier were talking, the next moment Officer H was scraping his brains off the street.
Officer H. suggested pulling out all American soldiers except for a small number. The remaining few would hide and wait for the terrorists to come out. The soldiers would then strike more precisely.
“What about you? Were you afraid for your own life?” I asked him from behind, watching his features soften.
“Yes, I was,” he confessed after a moment of silence. “Would you be?” he asked me.
“Yes, I would,” I said. “I would be terrified.”
“After a year over there you feel like you have run out of luck,” he continued. “You see your colleagues die left and right…” He paused delicately, adding, “I have no doubt that we could win the war. But not like that.”
When we got to our next call two cops were already there. We were only the backup. But the backup for what, exactly? Two siblings got into a fight over burning incense. The housing project’s hallway smelled sweet and smoky. “They did burn a lot of incense,” Officer H. remarked knowingly.
A little girl in pajamas was expecting us at the door. The older sister who had dialed 911 leaned against the wall. She looked bored. The apartment was messy. Clothes were strewn all over the floor, dirty sheets and more clothes covered the couch. Half-eaten meals were placed on shelves and kitchen counters. The apartment was now crammed full of people. Four cops, four firefighters and I. The girl’s teenage brother sat on a makeshift bed. He was shirtless, showing off his many tattoos. He held his head in his hands. “What have I done?” he seemed to be saying. What had he done? He had set a plastic bottle on fire to retaliate or to kill the smell of the incense. Maybe both. The black bottle was still smoldering in the sink. The boy stared at the floor as one of the four cops lectured him.
I thought there must be more to it, but Officer H. reassured me there wasn’t. “No, that’s all. He just didn’t like the smell of the incense. So he lit a plastic bottle and his sister called us for help.”
I wondered how these people mastered the bigger problems in life.
“Nobody likes the poh-lice,” Officer H. said, comically stretching the first syllable in a deep voice. “But they always call us when they need help. Ha-ha.”
We got back in the car and drove around for a while. The hours passed easily. A couple of times we went to buy coffee at Officer H.’s favorite bodega. One time a pale, twitching guy screamed at the clerk, sweat pouring off his forehead. A dispute over change received or not received.
“Would you please stop screaming!” Officer H. screamed at the twitching man. He then turned around to me, smiled and asked gently, “Detective, what do you think?”
“I didn’t witness the situation that caused the dispute,” I stuttered. “How should I decide?”
“That’s right, that’s right,” he nodded. “Always remain neutral.”
Back in the car, Officer H. asked me if any of my friends went to Iraq.
“No, no one went.” I said. The car filled with silence.
“Most of your friends are probably against the war,” Officer H. reasoned after five quiet minutes.
Dropping the awkwardness of war conversation Officer H. suddenly shouted out of his partner’s window. “HEY! You know where I can buy a bunch of red roses for Valentine’s Day?” An obese woman walking her dog turned her head and smiled. Officer H. yelled niceties at the fat woman as a skinny old man crossed the street.
“That guy almost died last week,” he pointed out as we drove off. “Blood clots in his leg.”
The dispatcher’s crackling voice announced something about a guy with no shirt at Walgreens. We picked up speed again. Once more Officer G. controlled the red buttons. Our red and blue lights reflected off the parked cars. I buckled up and quietly watched Officer H. as he careened past red traffic lights and across a busy intersection. He changed lanes smoothly, now facing the oncoming traffic. His face didn’t show any distress. He even remained unbuckled. “I only buckle up when I drive fast,” he told me. We stopped at Walgreens to listen to flustered security guards.
The 19-year-old manager explained, “The guy took a bottle of Aleve and ran off. The guards tried to grab him by the collar, but he just took off his shirt and jacket and ran.”
“He took a what?” Officer H. asked looking at me to translate.
“Aleve, you know, like aspirin,” I responded.
“This is the detective,” Officer H. said and we shared a smile. We inspected the torn-down anti-theft detectors, the black leather jacket and the shirt on the floor.
“Can you identify the man?” the officer asked the manager.
“Yes, of course,” he said, repeating that the thief was out in the cold with no shirt.
“We got that. No shirt. You wanna ride along?” Officer H. asked.
The manager’s eyes lit up. “I can totally identify the guy! He came in earlier today to steal laxatives and Pepto Bismol.”
“So, you’re the detective,” the manager said as we squeezed into the back of the cop car.
“Not really,” I admitted. “I’m just the writer.”
After an unsuccessful hunt we dropped the manager back off at Walgreens. He looked disappointed, as though he had hoped the ride would have lasted just a little bit longer. His mood suddenly lightened when I asked if I could use the restroom. “Of course!” he said with sparkling eyes.
“This is the detective,” he introduced me to two of his employees as we entered the elevator.
Hours passed until we got another call. I had reached the point where I thought the “detective” should sit upfront. I could easily do that button-pressing business. Put the mannequin in the trunk! We cruised and chatted. Time started blurring. I told Officer H. that I taught in the public school system for three years. Somewhat surprised, he asked me why I quit. Why would I quit for…being a writer? I gave my usual spiel about discipline problems and the children—and teachers’—unwillingness to learn. I spared him the real truth. I just don’t like kids. Period. Officer H. was quiet for almost a minute before he responded.
“Oh, you mean it’s like training Iraqi soldiers,” he said. “They don’t have any discipline either.” He added that Iraqi soldiers also have very bad personal hygiene. “Rotten teeth, don’t wash themselves,” he elaborated, before breaking up the war conversation.
“Young lady, you want some dinner?” he asked. “What do you feel like having?”
“No meat, because I only eat ‘happy meat’ and that’s hard to find in this neighborhood,” I said.
Our happy meat conversation woke up Officer G. He now wanted a happy muffin. And Officer H. wanted a “hysterical cup of coffee.” We stopped at Kellogg’s Diner. Officer H timed my absence–eleven minutes. He had only given me four. Will he smack me with his stick? Not right now. We got called to a bank where a security alarm went off. Again, we dashed onto oncoming traffic, fishtailing around corners. I now wished I had gotten something easier to assemble. I inhaled my veggie burger without dressing and offered French fries through the grid that separated me from my partners. But no time to eat. We were flying.
Washington Mutual, false alarm. We took back off into the dark.
“How old are you?” Officer H. glanced at me through the front mirror.
“Twenty-three.” I lied and giggled. I told him that I often have to show ID when buying cigarettes.
“You do look much younger than twenty-three,” Officer H. nodded. “But you really shouldn’t smoke,” he added gravely.
When the night was nearing its end we got called to our most promising assignment: A woman was trapped by her husband inside their apartment.
“Not domestic violence,” Officer H. said. ”Just a verbal fight. He is blocking the door so she can’t get out.”
“So you guys get called by people who are having relationship arguments?” I asked.
“Noooobody likes the poh-lice,” Officer H. repeated. “But they always call when there is a problem.”
“A relationship problem?”
“When you have a fight with your boyfriend,” Officer H. tried to explain, “don’t you sometimes wish you had a mediator?”
I certainly wouldn’t call Officer H. to mediate. Now I started feeling a tiny bit sorry for the poh-lice. I got over it pretty quickly, though.
The apartment building didn’t have a buzzer. Two more cops appeared out of the dark—“For backup.” But for a long time there was nothing to back up because we couldn’t even figure out how to get inside the building. While two cops tried to break the door open, Officer H. and G. tried to find a secret passage from the building next door.
I was cold but didn’t want to wear my knitted hat. None of the officers was wearing a hat. A hat, I thought to myself, might destroy my detective appearance. I didn’t want to risk disrespect in my last few moments in the role.
After many extremely cold minutes, Officer H. reappeared from the inside to open the door for us. Once on the fifth floor we couldn’t find the apartment number. Officer H. checked in with the dispatcher.
“Disregard it!” she said.
“WHAT?” he winced.
“Broadway in Staten Island!” she said.
Our last call took us back to the projects to assist “an emotionally disturbed woman” who was having—you guessed it—relationship problems. The three of us squeezed into the tiny elevator. The smell of urine was overpowering. Trash lined every inch of the floor. “Welcome to the projects,” Officer G. said. “Ha ha ha.” I had forgotten all about him. Officer H. remarked that I looked tired. I tried to tame my hair a bit. “Don’t worry, you look good,” he said. The elevator door opened and a fat, sad looking woman appeared. She entered with a cigarette. Officer H. recognized the woman from an earlier mission. He radioed the EMS to wait downstairs. “Maybe you wanna put out the cigarette?” he gently asked the woman as she stepped into the crammed elevator. The fat woman just looked at him and took another drag.
“What’s the matter, dear?” Officer H. asked tenderly.
“My husband is mean to me,” she said.
Officer H.’s eyes quickly ran down her large breasts. “You feeling depressed?” he asked.
The woman nodded and mumbled something incoherently.
“This is the detective,” Officer H. introduced me to the emotionally disturbed woman. She looked straight into my eyes for what seemed like a very long time. She was clearly not up for jokes. I was relieved when the elevator door finally opened, and the EMS workers appeared.
“I’ll take the detective home now,” Officer H. decided. It was 20 minutes past midnight and we rode home silently.
SABINE HEINLEIN is a freelance journalist, radio producer, and photographer who lives in Brooklyn. Her website is www.sabineheinlein.org.