It’s a rainy Tuesday night and I’m sitting on the outdoor patio of a North Jersey bar smoking cigars and drinking draft beer with a guy I’m going to call Mack. As I suck smoke from a Punch maduro, a burst of lightning skitters across the Manhattan skyline, casting the Empire State Building in a brief wash of harsh white light. A few seconds later the sound of thunder reaches my ears.
“Wow,” I say.
“Should bought my camera,” Mack says. “Win a fucking Pulitzer if I got a picture of that.”
“Use your cell phone camera,” I suggest.
“Those things are for shit.”
I shrug and take a sip of my beer.
“So how’s the book going?” Mack asks.
“It’s going,” I reply. Tonight I don’t want to think about “the book.”
“So whatcha gonna write about when this one’s done?”
“I was thinking about writing a book about New Jersey cops.”
“Like Wambaugh in L.A.?” Mack says.
“Yeah,” I reply. “But he was a real cop. I’d have to do the Studs Terkel interview kind of thing.”
“Hell, I should write me a book. I’ve got tons of stories.”
Mack used to be a cop during the Seventies and Eighties. Divorced, he now spends his retirement doing security work, chasing women and doting on his grandchildren.
“Why don’t you?” I ask.
“You should’ve seen the reports I wrote as a cop. Like they were written in fucking crayon.”
I laugh and take a sip of my beer.
“Nah,” Mack says, dismissively waving cigar smoke away from his face. “I can’t be a writer. I’m too much of a linear thinker.”
“Good quality for a cop to have,” I say.
“Maybe. But I could never write a book. I hated doing reports in school. Hated it.”
“But you’ve got some good stories.”
“When I was a cop,” Mack says, “My department was just like The Choirboys. Only worse. It’s a miracle we never killed anybody.”
“What kind of shit you guys get into?” I ask, activating the tape recorder in my mind.
“Man. There was this one time we were down by the water, drunk and getting blowjobs from a bunch of cop groupie bimbos…”
“While on duty.”
“Of course while on duty,” Mack snorts. “The entire night shift was there. We got so tanked we threw our beer bottles into the water and started shooting them.”
“There was a fucking apartment complex on the other side of the water. If one skipped bullet went just the right way….”
“You guys were lucky.”
“Now I look back on that and go ‘Why did we do such stupid fucking stuff?’ It amazes me I was like that once.”
“But you grew up,” I say.
“Had to,” Mack replies.
“Did guys coop a lot when you were on the job?” I ask, referring to the practice of policeman catching a few winks in their patrol cars.
“Back in the day,” Mack says. “If you went behind one of those billboard signs along the highway you’d catch five guys from five different municipalities taking naps.”
“If only the bank robbers knew when and where,” I reply.
“It was nuts,” Mack says. “One time I rolled up one on of my guys and walked over to see how he was doing. He was getting a hummer from some chick. I was like ‘Oops sorry.’”
“Some girls just love a man in uniform,” I say.
“But my favorite coop story,” Mack says. “Was when I found a cop doing lines of coke in his car – in the middle of a snowstorm. Now that’s the fucking definition of irony.”
“But those days are long gone,” Mack says.
“There’s GPS in every cruiser now,” I say. “Now the Sarge knows where everybody is at all times.”
“Yeah,” Mack says. “Today cops are much more supervised. But they still pull shit.”
Mack polishes off his beer and signals the buxom young waitress prancing around in a miniskirt for a refill.
“Wanna another?” he asks.
“I’m good with what I have.”
“There was this one time I remember,” Mack says, continuing his reminiscing, “I had just gotten on the job. We get a call about a burglary in progress. Fucking idiot’s on the roof with his loot. The old timers I’m with tell the guy to get off the roof or they’ll shoot him.”
“So what did they do?”
“They shot at him,” Mack says. “BANG! BANG! BANG! That guy jumped on to a telephone poll and shimmied town like he was Tarzan of the Apes.”
“Did they hit him?’
“So they shot past him.”
Mack gives me a baleful stare. “No. They really shot at him. They just missed.”
“Lucky for the burglar.”
“Yeah, well, he did a good stretch as I recall.”
The waitress returns with Mack’s beer, gives us a brilliant smile and walks away. We both watch her walk away.
“Cute, cute,” Mack clucks.
“So did you like being a cop?” I ask, refocusing my attention.
“Loved it,” Mack says. “I wasn’t always a model officer. But I did some good. Put some bad people away.”
“To putting bad people away,” I say, raising my glass.
“Amen to that brother.”
“So what was the thing you hated most about being a cop?” I ask.
“The fucking corruption,” Mack says. “Some cops were pure criminals. A guy I knew on the force had a saying, ‘If you can’t drink it, fuck it. And if you can’t fuck it, steal it.’”
“Did plenty of the first two,” Mack says. “But stealing? Nah. That was just wrong.”
“But some guys did.”
“Oh sure,” Mack says. “But I tell you about that some other time.”
“Fodder for my next book.”
“Yeah,” Mack says. “But I’ll have to make sure the statute of limitations has run out on that shit before I tell you about it – Mr. Writer.”
“Fair enough,” I say.
“I gotta take a leak,” Mack says, pushing his chair away from the table. “You got anymore cigars left?”
“Back in a sec.”
As I watch Mack walk to the bathroom I notice the slight bulge made by the small automatic pistol he’s got holstered underneath his untucked polo shirt. Even in retirement he remains armed. I also know Mack’s got a snub nosed revolver somewhere on him as well. Probably in an ankle holster. I only know this because Mack handed it to me one day, fully loaded, for my examination. “If you ever think you’re gonna need a gun,” Mack said. “Bring two. It’s faster than reloading.”
When Mack’s out of sight I think about his job and the life he’s led. Because of people like him there are some seriously evil beings who’ll never get a chance to hurt anyone ever again. Rapists, child molesters, serial killers, drug dealers – the terrible shadows that coexist and commingle in the light of a beautiful world- all put away by men and women who wear a badge. But what is the price they pay? How do they maintain their moral bearing? Mack’s a good guy, but I can tell he’s been scarred by his experiences. He stayed on the straight and narrow. But others he knew didn’t. There was a line I heard in a cop movie that’s always resonated with me. “This work gets ugly. And you get ugly with it.” How people handle that ugliness fascinates me. One day I’ll write about it.
Part of me is also fascinated by this topic because I wanted to be a policeman when I was a little boy. When I was in the seventh grade I won an essay writing contest and became the honorary police chief of my town for a day. Two detectives wearing polyester suits and loud ties drove me around in their unmarked car, called me “sir” and even let me shoot their guns at the firing range. I never forgot that experience. I even came close to becoming a cop but didn’t. I’m glad for that. But as I think about Two Gun Mack I wonder if I would have been a good one. I like to think so.
Another blast of lightning sears the Manhattan skyline, causing the Citicorp Building to flare and fade like the upturned face of child at a fireworks show. When the thunder arrives I take another sip of my beer, curious about a life I never led.
While everything said in this story is true, to maintain the confidentiality of the policemen I’ve talked to, I’ve composited them into the character of “Two Gun Mack.”