Wednesday, June 30, 2010



The platform was cold. Not freezing. Not winter or anything. But all I had on was a T-shirt and jeans - the day had been one of those autumn days when summer had rushed back in on a Gulf Stream wind but as the evening had set the wind had circled - and a chill night air was dropping from the streets down into the tunnels, and I was shivering, waiting for the train to come.

I was working, but, it was hard to really understand that. I wasn't carrying a gun or a shield or even an ID card. I didn't have a bullet-proof vest on. I sure wasn't wearing a uniform. I hadn't been in a police building in almost two weeks. I was young and very thin and dirty and jumpy. There were no displays of confidence dressed with mirrored sunglasses. Just small wads of cash spread here and there among my clothes and six cigarettes and four joints in the Camel box jammed into my left front pocket. If I might have been professionally identified at all it was by a small code stamped on the back of a driver's license that had a name that wasn't mine anyway. But no one outside a very few would know that. If a cop busted me, and ran either that name or my name through the system though - they'd assured me of this - they'd be told to call a special number. "What happens after they call?" I'd asked. "Well, that depends," they'd answered.

Today I'd sat near Tompkins Square. Getting high, drinking awful beer from a paper bag, and just listening. Trying to find the right group to slip into. No, not that fast. Trying to find the right group to target, so I could think about slipping in. I was new to this depth of disguise. And scared. and cautious. "Where you been sleepin?" Short-Leg Johnny had asked that afternoon. We'd shared smokes three of the last four days. I figured he'd lost a chunk of his leg in Vietnam? Maybe, but you couldn't really know. "Just on the trains for now," I'd said. "That's bad shit," he told me, "You decide you need something better you talk to me." I'd wondered if I should. Johnny was no target, but Johnny had a rep that would give me a rep, and that might help with the guys over there by the corner of Tenth and B. Guys that probably were the targets. But I had to wonder, if I did that, could I get Johnny killed? I already knew he wasn't gonna outrun them.

When Johnny went to the church for dinner, I slid the other way. He knew I didn't much like being inside. He told me he'd seen that in my eyes "right away." You know, you try to hide everything when your act is in play, but you just can't. Trying to think, I'd just started walking: south on Avenue A, across Houston, right on Stanton. I walked along the crumbling buildings of Eldridge Street down to Delancey. Everything was grim and grey and clouded over with confusion. Even the occasional neon lights just bounced off that fog spinning in my head, and pointed to nothing. At the Bowery I'd climbed down the stairs and jumped the turnstile on the run, sticking to character. It got me out of the wind, but not the cold.

I knew that I really could go home from here. Get clean. Sleep in a safe bed. Eat like a real person. But I just didn't think I should this night. So I got on the train. I guess going uptown. The doors closed. And I just rode along.

copyright 2007-2010 by Ira Socol

Thursday, June 17, 2010


for Arizona, Israel, and all the other wall builders...

The street is as filthy as it is abandoned. The clouds foretell rain. And the wind bristles, sending shivers along my spine.

If you walk the "peace walls" of Belfast you can smell the failure. The failure of community, of leadership, of religion, of humanity. It is all written beneath the grubby graffiti on the cold concrete that long ago replaced the simpler fences, and then began to climb higher. Because once you build a wall, you quickly discover that it cannot truly be high enough.

I have many times walked the seventeenth century's attempt to separate Catholics and Protestants along Protestantism's frontier on the River Foyle. Those walls are massive. Carved stone. Incredibly thick. Powerfully armed. You can walk along the top of these walls today, Europe's last truly walled city, and look down on what was once a Catholic ghetto and what was once a battlefield where the native soldiers of Ireland almost drove the English into the sea, but not quite.

These twentieth century dividers in Belfast are less picturesque, and when, someday, they are gone, they will be no more mourned than the Berlin Wall, but like that structure, perhaps we should preserve big sections so that future generations will know.

Walls do not work. Walls are proof only of the fact that you have run out of ideas. It does not matter if the intent is to keep people in (Berlin), keep people out (the US/Mexico Border), or keep people apart (the north of Ireland or Palestine). Behind every wall anger and frustration build and resentment festers and dangerous myths grow. Humans do not like boxes unless they are free to go in and out. Of this there is no doubt. And humans separated by walls simply will not learn to get along. This is also true.

The street is as filthy as it is abandoned. And now the clouds have started spitting cold water. I have walked from one rusting "peace gate" toward another, sticking to the Catholic side, since walls force that type of decision. Over there is grim poverty. Over here is the same.

copyright 2006-2010 by Ira Socol

Saturday, June 05, 2010


The Library had been a parking garage. Really. I sort of remembered this. The old Lawton Street with the dark stone courthouse that was right there, and the ancient Western Union office that leaned against the back of the First National Bank for a century before anyone outside of England had heard of Barclay's Bank that now operated the massive arch-windowed brick building at the corner of Main, the Te-Amo Cigar Store that sat across from it and, the length of the block away the crumbling stone ruin that contained both the elegant stairway where we'd first tried shooting up and the Post Road mile marker "17 miles to N. York" that described a very much smaller big city from centuries ago. I was a small child held by my dad when Bobby Kennedy came to town one winter and held a rally right below this very window. It was a cold winter night and I sat on his shoulders and looked around and, yes, a dirty concrete parking garage towered above me covered with incomprehensible lettering.
I'd been away from home, off guarding the North Atlantic from foreign threats, when they'd ripped down the courthouse, remade the concrete hulk, and moved the library from the elegant Carnegie building with the marble staircase at the far end of Main Street. I didn't miss the old place. I'd always been terrified of it and all who worked there behind giant counters. At best I'd run in and point to Mike Mulligan or The Little Red Lighthouse or The Cat in the Hat and ask one of my siblings to take it out for me. I'd never had a library card. They wanted you to write your name and address to get a library card, and by the time I could do that, I was no longer interested.
But I was back now and as a not-so-gentle mid-fall rain streaked the third floor windows I looked out on an urban area transformed though I wasn't sure if for better or worse. The library was nice, the plaza below me looked pleasant enough, a couple of restored old buildings sat along the street, but it lacked the urban weight I'd come to know, and the tightness of the alleys I'd sprinted through day and night as I'd grown up.
In a couple of months, assuming nothing went wrong, I'd be in the New York City Police Academy, and already that was separating me from my past and the world I knew. My friends had understood the join the Navy decision, they weren't too blind to know I needed to get the hell out of here. They felt even better about that when I'd come back for visits and describe all the places I'd gotten high; from Amsterdam to Istanbul. But this cop thing was different. Every day I was barraged with "why you want to be a narc?" questions and "so you're gonna be a storm trooper" statements and the inevitable "you know they're gonna expect you to bust people for all the shit you've done your whole life."
So I'd chosen to hide. I'd taken the paramedic certification I'd gotten in the Navy and picked up a job on the ambulances that worked out of the New Rochelle Hospital ER. And if I was working at night, like I was tonight, I'd kill the day in places my friends would never find me, like here, hidden among the obscurity of the local history collection. Dougie, who somehow had a job here and who, though he called me "The Pig in Waiting," seemed vaguely sympathetic, had tapped into my curiosity by piling old maps of the city and the sound on this table and asking if I'd sort them for him by category and time period. Empty day after empty day I kept coming back and pouring over these ancient documents as summer became autumn and autumn marched toward winter.
In the earliest maps the coastline was a bizarre mix of wrongly assumed shapes and all the words were in French and what was now North Avenue was simply called "La Ligne Moyenne." The Middle Line, separating this Huguenot farmer's fields from that Huguenot farmer's fields. I'd inhale the slightly damp scent of long-stored paper and watch progress intrude. The road from New York to Boston, the clearly defined harbors with accurate depth soundings and a clear understanding of the tides, the properties being sub-divided and subdivided again. Then the railroad clattering east on maps now wholly English, and lots devoted to schools and more and more streets spreading from where the station sat close by the original church. For a hundred years farms vanished steadily on revision after revision, replaced by blocks and blocks of houses, and even "municipal improvements," parks, more schools, rail yards, reservoirs. One giant drawing on engineer's vellum still satiny to the touch showed in dazzling detail the tracks where steam engines from Boston were swapped for electrics bound for Grand Central in 1908.
By now I had reached the first maps to bear the logos of gasoline companies and grocery chains. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine trolleys clanging up the Franklin Avenue hill, the gentlest slope that was still the bus route down to the waterfront. I considered a community so linked to walking that the A&P map showed six stores across the three miles of Main Street. It was long ago but no longer incomprehensible. Most of the buildings from these maps, even some of the blue-stone sidewalks and granite curbs, were still out there on this rainy morning. The tiny rural settlement of odd foreigners had already changed over its first quarter millennia into a crowded suburb barely distinguishable from the vast city that had spread to its doorstep.
A gust of wind splashed a rainburst on the glass and I began counting the days til the January third swear-in. In a little over two months I'd be transformed too. It had already been eight weeks since my last joint. I hadn't smoked a cigarette in a month and was back up to swimming two hours almost every day over at the high school pool. For a dozen weeks I'd been a dependable medical professional. I traced what I guessed the path of I-95 would be on a 1927 Socony-Mobilgas map, looking at all the streets lost to 1960s progress, and thought of why I was doing all this.
Yes, I was switching sides, I supposed, but I wasn't seeing it that way. I wasn't a thug joining the FBI, everything was grayer than that. I thought of New York cops as heroes people liked to have around. I thought of myself as a wandering survivor, not a juvenile delinquent. If the cops could forgive the juvenile record why couldn't the friends understand the adult target? To me I was simply choosing to keep playing in the streets, as I always had, but finding a way to get paid for it and to do it without risking ending up in jail.
Dougie appeared next to me holding out coffee and donuts. He sat down and I tossed the map and the vanished streets north of the railroad tracks onto my 1920s pile. "Thanks," I said. "I figured I'd help get you onto the pig diet," he answered. I laughed. He smiled.

copyright Ira David Socol, 2005-2010

Thursday, June 03, 2010


I heard about it, of course, before I knew who was involved, and when you hear something like that you immediately do what everybody does: You blame the guy.

"I wouldn't make that mistake." "I wouldn't of been in that position at all." "I'm smarter than that." "My vision is better." "I would've waited."

Because if you don't blame the guy, it means it could happen to you.

Denny was the kind of guy you just didn't expect in the academy. He'd been working as a nurse at Sloan-Kettering. He had two little kids. He was really, really smart. And pretty quiet. Sometimes he and I would stand at the edge of the parade deck during meal and watch the city below and talk about complicated things. We were never close pals or anything, but he was a friend.
It was a robbery in progress call. That's a bad one. You know there are weapons and you know you've got innocents involved and you know there isn't a lot of time. The first car went to the front of the Liquor Store down on 183rd. Denny and his partner went around back. A guy came out a door pointing a .357. They said "drop it." He didn't. Denny took him out with two shots.

They teach you all these things about pointing your gun. "Never" they tell you, "point your gun at someone unless the next thing you're going to do is shoot them. Because if you point your gun and tell the person to do something and they don't… what'cha gonna do?" So there are all these steps. Put your hand on the gun. Break it from the holster lock. Take it out, pointed down. Move your finger to the trigger guard. Intermediate positions that allow you to keep upping the ante. But that all goes out the window when someone comes at you with a gun. In that case it's all about self-preservation.
Yeah, it's the wrong guy. The store owner. The robber already having booked. And the moment it happens. The very moment. Denny knows. Of course he knows. People in the neighborhood wail. They scream about "killer cops." It is the whole front page of the next day's New York Post. "Cop Mistake Kills Robbery Victim." Big letters. Long bio. The crying wife. The crying kids. The angry merchants of the street. "They're never here when things happen, except this time, then they kill the wrong guy."

Six months later Denny's wife Rebecca told me about how he'd been so desperate to get away from nursing cancer patients. No one ever lived, she said. He'd see them come back every six months, just getting worse. He wanted to get out into the air. She said he'd said, "At least as a cop they'll die quick if they die."
It is a "clean shoot" even though it is horribly wrong. No one in authority is ever going to say they'd do anything differently in that situation. Even the neighborhood witnesses admit he yelled "Stop, Police" and even that he yelled "Drop it now." There's no grand jury, no big long term investigation. He gets the requisite week off. And during that week one department chaplain talks to him once. And during that week six of us who knew him in the academy call even though we haven't seen him in the year since but we don't push Rebecca to make him talk to us. And during that week one guy from his precinct stops by his house but when there's no answer he just goes away. And during that week Denny stops sleeping at all.

Four months later I see him downtown in the Property Clerk's Office. It takes a while for him to know who I am. Then he says, "hey, how ya doing?" and disappears. I wonder whether his eyes are like that because of meds or just... Another two months go by before I find Rebecca. By that time Denny is on psych sick leave. He sits in his bedroom watching game shows. He doesn't leave the house except for the necessary doctor's appointments. By the time I've gotten there Denny is gone and isn't coming back.

(c) copyright 2006 - 2010 by Ira Socol