Is there ever a silver lining to murder? How about a steel lining?
Job, such a tiny, compact, three-wheeled word to carry so much freight. But it does. It often carries a load of who-we-are, or how far we’ve risen, it seems to be an encapsulation of our success so far in life. But to be without a job is a feeling of being a pedestrian on the contribution highway.
I guess I was born wanting to be a cop. I remember writing an essay for my class at St. Clement’s elementary school. I sat at our dining room table and wrote about that fervent desire. I can actually remember where I sat at that table when the Waterman’s blue black ink flowed from my fountain pen and onto the three-holed loose leaf: What I Want to be When I Grow Up.
It would appear from this old photo below of me, on the right, attests to it as well. The caption cold be, DET. LEE REACHES FOR HIS GUN. It apparently was Det. Lee’s turn to wear the shorts on this cool day while his brothers wore his handed down long pants.
When I got out of the Marine Corps in 1963, jobs were tough to find. Are jobs ever not scarce when you need one so bad that you think about it every day, like a stone in your shoe? I eventually ended up finding a job as a shipping clerk.
But fortunately? a much publicized murder occurred on a subway train and Mayor Wagner declared war against subway crime. And as will happen in life, horrendous personal tragedy opens doors of opportunity for others. There was a demand for increased police presence in the subway especially between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. I took the walk-in exam for NYC Transit Police Dept.
My dad, below, as you may already have learned, retired from that department in 1965, about the time I took the test. He started patrolling the subways in 1931:
Many thousands take civil service exams, but the viable number of applicants drops rapidly with those who can’t pass the test, then those who can’t pass the background check, or the physical and medical tests. After passing all the above you are put on a waiting list by number.
When the next class was forming, 185 men and women on the list were called up. I missed being appointed by one. But early on Valentines Day, 1966, I got a call at my shipping clerk job. I was told, “Your’re appointed to the Transit Police after all, come on down!” Eureka! I was the recipient of a Valentine from God! Yes!
I was told that one of the recruits who was to be appointed refused to shave off his mustache, a requirement for rookies. His decision was my good fortune. I always wondered how he fared after that choice. I flew down to Transit Police Headquarters, Jay St. Bklyn, and was appointed the next day as a NYC Transit cop.
New York City had multiple police departments in that era, NYPD, NYC Transit Police and NYC Housing Police. That murder on the subway caused a huge percentage increase in the manpower of the Transit Police. In 1995 the three departments were merged to one. Prior to that, meeting rigorous standards, the Transit Police Dept was the only fully accredited Police Department in the State of NY.
The Transit Police Academy when I joined, was in the National Guard Armory in Jamaica, Queens. It was a strange environment for study and physical training . Criminal Justice classrooms were okay, but the rigorous physical training was held on the same huge drill floor as all the trucks and jeeps. Too often we’d be sprinting or boxing or learning some judo while a deuce and a half truck was revving its engine. Memorable Co2 filled days, yes indeed. And all alumni of those “heady” days have running jokes about those conditions and brain damage of those early times.
After the academy, I was all ready in my shiny stiff leather and new blue uniform. On my first tour I had to work 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. on the number 1 train in Manhattan. I was to start out from a sub District office in Times Square. It was an annex of Transit Police Dist. 1 at 59th St. and Columbus Circle.
34th St. Penn Station, hundreds of thousands change daily from Railroads to the subway. Transit Police serve and protect over five million riders daily:
Riding train patrol required an officer to walk through the train making sure all was in order. Then, at each station look out the door and inspect the platform. I was to ride that Broadway local up to 242nd St. in the Bronx then back down to South Ferry in lower Manhattan. At 4:00 a.m. I was to go off duty wherever the train and I were.
Above Transit Police Officer, Joe Ehlers, on patrol from Dist 1 Photo,Transit Police archives.
Below, today’s subway train.
The cold reality of the times was that a Transit cop was routinely alone in his patrol, without any electronic communication at hand, whereas the NYPD above ground, usually patrolled in two-man cars, with radio communication. If a cop in the subway needed help he’d only have his baton, (nightstick), to to bang on the concrete platform to summon help from a cop on the station, if there was one. Usually, on that 8:00 to 4:00 tour, there would be a cop, but not always and seldom at other times.
Sometimes a cop would need to bang repeatedly, it was that era’s method of “Can you hear me now?” The train crew would sometimes help with blasts from their horn in a long-short repetitive pattern, the signal for assistance. But if there was a cop on the station he would hear the banging stick and come running. Sometimes there was no cop. Sometimes cops got hurt, sometimes they got hurt bad…sometimes they died.
Years later, I stopped by my now-retired dad’s house, in uniform. He spent his entire 34-year career in the subway using this percussive, this primitive, this jungle-drum way of calling for help. He was amazed when he saw the radio I had. “You mean, if you need help or an ambulance, you can just call for it with that?” he said, shaking his head in astonishment. “My God, that’s wonderful!” he added.
Some things on today’ s subway seem pretty much the same as when I worked them:
Offering medical aid:
Looking for directions:
The sudden increase in manpower meant there were no lockers in the Sub District offices so an officer was required to show up in uniform or carry one from home. Most chose to carry them, rather than stand on the train, (can’t sit down in uniform) all the way from home in full uniform then back home again, off duty. But traveling out of uniform entailed packing our gun belt and other equipment into our police academy blue bag. The nightstick would never fit so the end of it would stick out and be covered by a paper bag as if it contained some kind of salami.
But I showed up at Times Square early, and in my rookie zeal wore my uniform that first day. I entered the small office on the mezzanine of Times Square and found the Sergeant to be the only one present. I saluted him as I walked in. He responded by saying, “No need to salute and you need to wait till someone at least has their pants on before you do anyway,”as he pulled his trousers up. He might have rolled his eyes when he said this, can’t quite recall. He seemed to remind me of Sgt. King in “No Time for Sergeants” as he contemplated Private Stockdale for the first time.
There is a very different look to today’s subway:
More female Police Officers, much better lighting and electronic notices:
Entertaining passengers was once a violation of the NYC Railroad Rules, not so today.
A violinist caught on her lunch break on camera finds the humor in it:
Then back to serious work:
And, she has her heart in it:
But on that memorable day in 1966 I was thus inflicted upon an unsuspecting public. And I went out on the mezzanine of the Times Square subway station, the heart of New York city, the heart of the planet. I was there to board my Broadway local northbound to the Bronx.
But as the newest of the new I wasn’t even familiar with the starting point of Times Square station itself so I was struggling to find the platform of which I was to take my first train run. Much less was I prepared to answer the questions of any of the riding public who were so unfortunate to come upon this officer to ask directions. I did my best to help but one rider might still be looking for Delancey St.
For many months I and all the other officers working in such assignments had to enter a conductor’s cab at 4:00 a.m. then change back into civilian attire. Then, now off duty, exit the cab as if Clark Kent but with satchel in hand, salami protruding, and head back home.
Recently, a couple from Philly, the city of Brotherly Love, approached a man with a camera asking if he knew how to get to South Ferry. He proudly told them to take the Broadway local, Southbound number 1 train. While waiting for it he told them a little bit about his career with trains. They wanted him to ride with them but he had photos to take at Times Square. They waved through the window as the train pulled out. Good thing they didn’t ask him directions one memorable evening back in 1966:
Of course all cops, from the smallest departments to the largest, feel a Brotherhood to each other in law enforcement, we stand together to protect and serve. We understand when one dies in service, it pierces the heart of all of us. We understand what was given, we understand the family’s loss, we feel the loss in our own family of police service. When one dies, representative officers come from all over the country, sometimes the world, in police unity. There is that sacred, bond.
But with Transit cops there’s also a steel dust-bond in the Transit Brotherhood. Steel dust, it’s said to be the dust produced in the subway that’s generated from the friction of steel wheels against steel track over and over again. The elements are actually iron, manganese and chromium…but 100 times the amount found in above-ground air. But not harmful…it says here.
Transit cops go home with this black soot in their nose and lungs every day. But they also go home with that feeling of Brotherhood in their hearts, with their fellow officers who serve under these unique crime-fighting conditions, who serve and protect UNDER the city of New York.
Hour after hour, day after day, they pound the platforms, climb the stairways, endure the screeches, the roars, the rumbling steel wheels against steel track.They engage the public very close up, in situations from the mundane to the murderous. They serve the public in all areas, at all times…even under those trains, at those wheels, when some soul needs them there. Their minds bear the trauma, their hearing bears the toll, their legs bear the daily climbs, step after step. But with every step, every breath of steel-dust air, they patrol in Brotherhood…a Brotherhood in which they chose to serve. And so they do.
And so my Transit Police career began and would continue…for twenty six years. And for all the years left in my life I’m still part a bond that continues long after retirement, a steel-dust Brotherhood born of a 600 mile, tile and steel womb.
Det. Lee Winters, at his retirement in 1992 with partner, Det. Luke Woods and Det. Sgt. Dianne Pannetti. He even had long pants on….Ill fitting though they may have been:
His band of steel-dust Brothers and Sisters wished him a fine retirement. And so he does.