The sound pierced the air like a bullet. A vocal, “Mr. Winters!” blast of enthusiasm echoed in the street. I turned my head toward the exuberant call from across Fulton St. A big, wide-grinning young man trotted over towing a small boy by the wrist. “Mr. Winters, remember me, Jordan?” (Names are changed to protect the somewhat guilty.)
“Yes, I remember you, Jordan.” I said trying to recall the specifics of the memory, there were so many faces. “I want you to meet my son, Isaac.” he said pointing to the tot next to him. “I have a wife and two jobs now and everything is going great” he added. “ I just wanted to say, ’Thank you, thank you so much’.” We stood there on the Hempstead, NY street corner and I did recall him. I had bailed him out of the Nassau County jail a year before, he was one of about 500 through the years.
My dad was a cop, a NYC Transit cop for 34 years. I was a NYC Transit cop for 26 years. Three score of blue, steel-dust decades. “Transit cop” has been a label all my life, in my brain, in my identity, but most importantly…in my heart. On Feb. 14, Valentines day, 1966 I was notified to “come on down”, I was going to be appointed to the NYC Transit Police. I was sworn in the next day, 49 years ago Feb. 15th.
But it all might not have been. I might have carried a different label through my life.
I got into trouble early, nothing very serious. A “gang fight” in the fifties was not always like the rumbles of the Jets and the Sharks. I never saw any switchblades or zip guns at fights between our loose groups who exchanged street “pleasantries” now and then. I actually did get busted at one John Adams after-school event on a misdemeanor charge when fists and feet flew and belt buckles etched a tattoo. Sounds tough, but it really wasn’t, the case was dismissed and I escaped another type of self-label, “criminal.”
But one night when this body of mine was just as slim as its intellect I came closer:
One of my friends, whom we’ll call, Joe, had a brother who owned a gas station-repair shop on Rockaway Blvd. near 147 St in So. Oz Park, Queens. His brother allowed Joe and a friend or two to hang out there once in a while. I guess he figured he was at least keeping his kid brother off the street. So one night me, Joe and a friend, we’ll call, John, decided to hang out and play cards in the shop’s office after it closed for the day.
We were about 16 at the time. It was a hot summer night; we didn’t have trouble buying beer at the local deli in those years, at least I didn’t, having had the most mature, legal age look of 18 in our group. So we bought some cooling suds.
We sat there at the office desk, with our shiny beer-can opener or “church key” cracking a few Rheingolds or Schaefers, whatever was cheapest, but we hated Balentine. The game was stud poker, the night was young and so were we. What could go wrong?
Well, after a while we looked around the repair bays to check out the cool stuff. And there it was, over in the corner. This really nice set of wheels, a black, gleaming, Ford, sitting next to the far wall.
Joe’s brother had been working on it and it was ready to be picked up the next day. One of us thought a ride in the nifty coupe would be sweet. So we cranked open the overhead door and pulled that bad boy out onto Rockaway Blvd. We tore West toward the Van Wyck Expressway, shifting that beauty toward the unsuspecting streets of Ozone Park, Queens.
Now, as teens we were not burdened with any wisdom that carefully weighed reward vs risk in even normal circumstances but with a little lager added to the developing cerebral cortex, we were free spirits indeed. Oh yeah.
There was also no encumbrance to free-wheeling the streets by pesky rules of the road either…none of us had a license. Joe drove, because it was his brother’s shop, therefore “car custody” was his right. Joe did have some experience behind the wheel but he didn’t have quite enough to balance his urge to impress us with speed and the skill required to make a hard turn at that speed off the service road of the Van Wyck Expressway.
He careened that vehicle onto an intersecting street’s curb, bounced up and over it and smacked it into a wooden telephone pole thereon. That sturdy ’40’s Ford-built body did fold a bit in the conjoining of vehicle and object but the Ford won out and the pole yielded by cracking a bit then dangled slightly by the overhead wires.
We were stunned, not so much by the impact but by what it portended for us. It was a real holy-crap moment. Terror ensued. We scrambled out and blew through the night with all the kinetic energy that the legs on a scared teen can provide. I’ve often wondered how many 100-yard-dash records would be set should someone be able to record such bursts of explosive, adrenaline-fueled moments.
None of us were seriously hurt, I only had the base of one thumb painfully swollen having jammed it against the dashboard. We hid in the bushes off the streets near the Van Wyck until we felt it safe to go back to the gas station and rig the scene. We cleverly staged it to look like there was a break-in and the car stolen. Then we all went home assuring each other it would all work out. Oh yeah.
Of course the next morning, at the gas station, it didn’t take long for Joe to break under pressure from his brother and the police. That was because it didn’t take the detective skills of Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday to see a problem. The detectives on the “burglary” scene pointed out to Joe and his brother that there really shouldn’t be glass on the floor of the gas station from an adjacent broken window if a car had been at that very spot when said window was broken. And with the fact that a teenager locked up the place the night before? They rang up, No sale! They weren’t buying it.
So Joe gave up John, but neither gave up me. Just the two of them took the rap. There was much weight given to the mitigating circumstances of the crime and the relationship of all involved so it didn’t go too badly at all. Basically a couple of court appearances and restitution for the car damage and the telephone pole replacement.
I never told anyone in my family about that night. My mom and Dad died decades later, neither ever having ever learned of my efforts to bring a car load of grief crashing through their front door. The rest of my family will only learn of it upon reading this post.
It did turn out relatively well for all though, especially for me and for that I am very grateful. But it might very well not have. There are a lot of supposes to consider, you know, all the “ifs” in such a situation. Highest among them: What if in place of that telephone pole, there stood a person. Maybe a lady walking her dog. Maybe several people, another group of teens? What would that have meant for all parties? Someone dead, their family’s life forever in loss, our lives in ruins.
I’ve had a pretty satisfying life as a cop and retired detective. Since retiring, one of my post-police jobs was at the Education and Assistance Corp, (EAC). Most people know EAC for their TASC program, (Treatment Alternative to Street Crime) but they also ran a non-profit bail project, of which I was Intake and Enforcement Supervisor. We bailed out non-violent pre-trial detainees from New York’s Nassau County Correctional Center to engage them in treatment, school, training or jobs to help get them back on track. We’d put up as much as $10,000 to bail them out. The project was part of a very smart, national trend of Alternatives to Incarceration.
Photo credit: NCCC
Basically, detainees interact with other inmates, learning other, “skills” and honing the ones that got them there, much like a convention for “tradesman” or professionals to learn from each other. Inmates “conventions” can be summed up as learning to “get over.” Society pays for this convention both in dollars and by creating “better” offenders to prey on them.
Today it costs $275 per day in the Nassau County Correctional Center. That’s the price of a pretty fine hotel room every single day. Or $100,375 per year. What incredible waste! There are some treatment programs and minor manufacturing available in jail but nothing approaching what is available outside.
Photo: credit NCCC
Removing the inmates from that huge taxpayer burden puts them in front of counselors, teachers…and people like me. This at least removes them from the expensive crime classroom but also gives them a chance to turn their lives around. Of course there were some who took advantage of the project and absconded, ran off on their bail. That’s where my experience in the Warrant Squad came in. My Enforcement team and I found every absconder and put them back in jail. We never lost a bail the five years I served in that capacity.
Sure, as a retired detective, I brought knowledge and experience to EAC but I also gained a lot more from them. Putting it all together worked to bail out those 500 people in my time at the project and helped to make a difference in the lives of many of them.
Through my experiences on “the job”, with EAC and in life I’ve learned there’s sometimes not a lot of room between someone ending up with a bad life or a good life. I think many successful citizens might relate to my gas station “adventure”.
I know there are people who have never even parked illegally with intention. But how many people reading this have good jobs, but have driven drunk, maybe at high speed, maybe even the wrong way down the street. How many did other things that they now deeply regret, things for which they were never caught and which there was never a consequence. Maybe, even some of my Brothers and Sisters in blue can relate to my gas station caper with similar memories. The ingredients for stupid soup were there for all who read this: youth, sex, booze, maybe a pinch of pot or even stiffer stuff. Just combine, stir and serve.
We upstanding citizens brand ourselves the good guys. And we are. But I think many young people are labeled “criminals”, by us and more importantly…themselves just because things worked out differently.
Most of us know of very cruel, very, very bad people that have done evil things and should never breathe the same free air as our families. But many young people who got caught up in the system were not very different from us when we were young. They did something wrong and got caught. Then they got involved with the Criminal Justice system.
They became defendants in the grinding wheels of justice as case numbers.They became involved with Legal Aid, Court Officers, judges, Corrections Officers, Probation Officers, Parole Officers, Court Clerks, all who are overburdened and who come in contact with “cases” all day, every day, all year long. The overwhelming majority of these professionals do their jobs well, but the result is not always a good interaction. We tend to lose these young to another brotherhood. A brotherhood with their own jargon, there own code which bonds them in an us-against-them mentality. A brotherhood of like-minds of bitterness, anger, many of whom surrender to hatred.
As I grow older I look back on who I was in South Ozone Park in that Rockaway Blvd gas station, playing cards and drinking beer. I was so young and stupid. So I gotta say, I think sometimes it’s best for a kid to get away with something, to outrun a cop in those stupid years. Just so he doesn’t get involved with the system, just so he doesn’t label himself as a criminal. He just might outgrow those years successfully. He just might make a pretty good cop.
As I left Jordan and his son that day in Hempstead, I had a feeling not unlike many I had years ago. A feeling of satisfaction. Like when I was going off duty after having bagged a robbery gang in the subway. But this was just a little bit different. Instead of locking someone up I helped someone escape.
Escape a life of not being eligible to vote, not being “fit” for a decent job, never to be even considered for a civil service job. Yes, this satisfaction was a little bit shinier, maybe even having the gleam of a black Ford on a summer night. Oh yeah.
Categories: Alternatives to incarceration