Culture

What I Learned from My Dad, the Cop

(zocik/Getty)
Keep your promises, be there for the people who need you, and stand up to the bad guys.

It’s been three years since we buried my father. This Father’s Day, I’d like to reflect a bit on what I learned from him and from his life as a New York City police officer.

My dad did not enter the world the easy way. He was born in the Great Depression, in 1933, to parents who came here as immigrants from Scotland in the 1920s to get out of the coal mines. His father was sent to the mines at age 13. Dad grew up in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, then as now filled mainly with poor and working-class immigrants. His mother died when he was still a teenager, and he dropped out of college for lack of money and had to help raise his three younger siblings. He would eventually get his degree from night school 30 years later. Dad loved history books; he would gladly have been a more educated man if given the opportunity. Life and family got in the way.

The most important thing he taught me, mainly by example, is that a man is the sum of the promises he keeps and the people he carries. He carried a lot of other people at one point or another; he willingly let some of them take advantage of his good nature. He carried on as best he could after my mom died of cancer in 2002. Losing his oldest son to a hit-and-run driver in 1972 almost broke him. Losing his second, who died suddenly in 2010, did. In his last years of dementia, we had to carry him. He was a tough guy, but he wore his heart on his sleeve and was rarely roused to anger.

Dad was, above all, practical in all things. The two things he got out of two years in the Army in the late 1950s were a love of German food and wine and a lifelong horror of running out of toilet paper. He hated rock music, but he spared some respect for Elvis because they were in the Army at the same time and Elvis was regarded around Germany as a good soldier. When Dad was retiring, they asked him to give the young cops some words of advice. He told them that the plastic inserts in their hats would be bad for their hair. A few went straight away to remove them.

He was an excellent marksman and was on a competitive shooting team in the Army, but he didn’t like guns. I only saw his service revolver once or twice when he brought it home to clean it. He was proud that he’d managed to go his whole career without firing his weapon in anger. One of his stated aspirations was for none of his five children to have a job that required carrying a gun for a living. Being a cop was his ticket to a better life than his father’s and a house in the suburbs. We all went away to college and to better opportunities than he had.

He joined the NYPD in 1956 and retired in 1986. He saw a lot of the city and, along the way, a lot of change. Much of it in the form of runaway crime rates, was bad. He was once on a jury pool in Rockland County, where we lived, and was the only one in the voir dire who answered “no” when asked whether he’d ever been a victim of a violent crime. Nearly everyone else’s story — muggings in the street, being held at knifepoint in an elevator — ended with “and that’s when we moved out of the city.”

Dad told me that in 1956, you couldn’t find a Republican on the force, because they were all union men; by 1986, you couldn’t find a Democrat, due largely to the politics of crime and law enforcement and the liberal takeover of the party. Though he was raised as a New Dealer and always revered FDR, the last Democrat he voted for at the presidential level was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. He thought LBJ was a vile, crooked man and a phony war hero, but he was convinced that Goldwater would start a nuclear war. His political heroes were Reagan, Nixon, Churchill, and MacArthur.

Sometimes change was generational within the NYPD. For example, in the riots in Harlem in 1964, the NYPD was still full of veteran lieutenants, sergeants, and cops with 18 or 19 years on the force who had joined straight from serving in the Second World War. Before they hit the streets one day, one of those grizzled sergeants hopped on a table and bellowed, “I was on Guadalcanal! The Japs had machine guns! We cleaned their clocks!” (“Militarizing” the police was redundant in the era of the draft, when everybody had served.) Those guys mostly took their pensions at 20 years and left before the 1968 riots, and attitudes were different.

He loved the cops and the job, but he was also cynical about bureaucracy and realistic about people. He’d tell me something along the lines of “the NYPD is 25,000 of the best men you’ll ever meet, but there are 35,000 cops.” By which he didn’t mean all the rest were necessarily jackbooted villains; some were lazy, some were on the take, some were just bad co-workers or bosses who knew how to play the system. Just like anywhere else. Between the Army and the NYPD, he had an appropriate skepticism of big organizations. When I went to law school, he told me the world had too many lawyers but could never have too many good lawyers. He also laughed when I interviewed with the Manhattan DA’s office — “they make less money than the cops!”

His view of the cops was, in the end, that they were there to stop bullies of all kinds — to prevent the strong, the quick, and the devious from preying on the weak, the old, the young, and the easily deceived. In a pinch, if the bad guys were big and bad enough, the cops had another motto: They were still the biggest gang in town, and if you picked a fight with them all, you’d lose. One of his favorite examples of practicality was when a young lawyer was detailed to the stationhouse and took a call that a guy had an illegal electrified fence; he told a cop to write a ticket. My dad’s response was, The ticket will do you no good if some kid tries to scale the fence tonight and gets electrocuted. He ordered a beat cop to patrol the fence until it came down. That was the “order” side of law and order. So was fielding a phone call where he had to pretend to be on the “NYPD Voodoo Squad” to talk down somebody convinced a neighbor had cast the evil eye.

New York was full of every ethnic, racial, and religious group under the sun, and the cops had to serve and protect them all. In the riots, he worked with black businessmen who wanted the cops in their storefronts. He had to explain to a European-born merchant that he wouldn’t deny the guy police protection just because he turned down a bribe. He dined with an old Orthodox Jewish man whom he’d saved from a mugger; Dad noted that the man’s younger son gave him knowing looks as he choked down gefilte fish without complaining. He was never prouder than when he got a community service award from the YMCA in Harlem in the late ’70s. He spent a few years in fancy sections of Midtown and his last two in the Bronx, but most of his career was spent in Upper Manhattan — in Harlem and Washington Heights. He ran the police presence one summer at Orchard Beach and told us about how the beach was effectively self-segregated into about six different ethnic and racial enclaves. He thought it was a sad commentary on the Bronx in the 1980s, but it wasn’t the job of the cops to change it, it was their job to break up the fights that started on the borders between the enclaves. Like a lot of guys of his generation, he had opinions that wouldn’t be considered politically correct today, but he believed in fairness and equal rights.

Dad was sometimes assigned a front-row seat to history. He worked Malcolm X’s wake — alone. When Khrushchev visited New York to speak to the United Nations, he was assigned to guard Khrushchev’s personal bathroom (they literally had him standing there holding a roll of toilet paper for the Soviet leader) and was amazed that he never used it. An unblinking response to endless vodka-filled banquets is a traditional element of Russian diplomacy. He booked Ed Koch when Koch was a congressman arrested at a demonstration. Another time, they brought in a Kennedy, but word came down that Kennedys would not be booked; they were just supposed to call someone from District Attorney Morgenthau’s office, and it would all be taken care of quietly.

The job wasn’t always easy. He worked “round the clock” shifts for years — my mom had stacks of calendars listing the weeks he worked 8 to 4, then a week of 4 to 12, then a week of 12 to 8. As “duty captain” in his last years, he couldn’t go home after his shift until he’d written a full report if any cop anywhere in the Bronx had fired a weapon on duty. Thanksgivings meant dinner only when he got home from parade duty. He hated New Year’s Eve in Times Square, full of freezing weather, drunks, and public urination and vomiting. Some parades were tougher than others: Once his team set up in a school to monitor a section of the West Indian Day Parade, and they were happily closing up for the day, thinking they’d avoided any real trouble, when they discovered that a guy had been murdered in the parking lot out back while the building was full of cops.

He believed in the professionalism of the NYPD. He once gave me, in my teens after he’d had a few beers, a vivid demonstration of how to keep control of a night stick in a fight. They were trained to jab low with the night sticks in riot control, he explained, partly because you could knock the wind out of people without injuring them, and partly for the cynical reason that the NYPD didn’t want the bad visuals of the Chicago cops in 1968 braining hippies on camera.

In the last years, we were more fortunate than some families with dementia; Dad faded slowly, but he never lost his identity, and he kept his sense of humor. He was amazed each time I told him that Donald Trump was running for president, and even more amazed that Trump was running as a Republican.

My dad taught me the importance of being there for people who need you, standing up to the bad guys, and taking people and the world as you find them. He didn’t think cops were saints, because he knew too many of them, but he knew they did important and sometimes hard, dangerous, and thankless work, and that the world would not be safe for the rest of us without them. And the same goes, for that matter, for dads. I miss him still.

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