Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Part 1, The Cop's Tale

Maria asked if liked owning a café more than being a cop.
Then, T asked what led me from cop to restauranteur.

Hopefully this answers both. When I run into my old cop friends they almost always ask if I miss it, and I always tell them no. But I do, sometimes. I wanted to be a cop from the time I was a little kid. When I was small one of my favorite shows was Adam-12, and my dad painted my pedal car black and white. In fifth grade I read a Hardy Boys book a day. In high school it was Joseph Wambaugh books and Hill Street Blues. I once got stopped for speeding on the way home from work so I wouldn’t miss Hill Street. I don’t know if that’s why the trooper let me go, but he did.

During high school I worked in a pizza place, Ken’s Pizza, a small Midwest chain. I really enjoyed the work, and thought briefly about going to culinary school (actually, I was surprised when I found out that there was such a thing), but I really couldn’t see the future in it. There was no Food Network in 1984, the only cooking shows were on PBS, Julia Child and Justin Wilson. I guess I knew that there were better restaurants out there, better food, but I had never been exposed to any of that. I had never seen a chef, I thought the gov'ment cheese my grandma brought over was the best there was, and thought that spaghetti was supposed to be cooked to the mush stage.

And even at 16 I was thinking of the retirement. I remember thinking that becoming a cop was just the more responsible of the two careers. I don’t know why, but I can remember standing next to the soda fountain at Ken’s and having just that thought and the decision was made.

On my 17th birthday I joined the Army Reserve, in part because it would help my chances later to get on a good police department; in part because I wanted to do something none of my friends were doing.

At 18 I started college at a small agricultural school in Oklahoma that had one of the best police science programs in the country. And I loved it, I loved the book work, doing case briefs, reading court decisions; the self defense class, learning how to fall, how to get out of a choke hold; and especially the “street survival” class, learning how to search a building, how to make a high risk traffic stop, how to disarm an attacker.

At nineteen I became a reserve sheriff’s deputy. I was too young to really do anything, but the sheriff let me go through the reserve academy that spring and summer. I was also too young to buy my own ammo for the firing range, and when I got to the firing range I couldn’t hit shit. I tried to qualify for two days and was about to be failed when an old deputy who just happened to have stopped by the range watched me fire. He stepped up, moved my hand about a quarter of an inch up the back of the big revolver and I hit everything after that.

After two years of college (I hadn’t finished my degree, but it was definitely time to move on) I went into the Regular Army and volunteered for Germany. Partly a desire to continue to build my resume, partly a desire to travel, partly a desire to be closer to Stacy, the girl I had fallen head-over-heals for in college, as she was studying in England at the time.

I never saw Stacy again.

Three years later I came back from Germany with a wife and baby, in good shape and with some good training. I drew a hundred mile circle around my hometown and started making phone calls. A month later I had a job offer.

I loved it right away. I worked in Okmulgee, OK, a town of about 13,000. Fallen on hard times after the refinery had closed, Okmulgee was also home to some of the families who had moved to Compton, CA two generations before, families that had spawned the men who had formed the Crips and Bloods street gangs. If one was on the run from the police in California, he’d either be in Okmulgee or Muskogee, OK, or Wichita, KS. We got lots of pursuits, foot and vehicle, and, while lying in bed at night, I could hear the gunshots in the Projects.

It was a very, very good place to learn to be a cop and I might have been happy there forever. But I’ve never been good at politics. Promoted twice in six years, I kept finding myself put in positions that I didn’t like until finally I was ordered to investigate my best friend for a crime that shouldn’t even of still been on the books (adultery) just because he had been on the losing side of an internal power struggle against the new chief of police. I started looking for a job then and within a couple of months had found one with the police department in this small mountain town in New Mexico.

Some time in there I started thinking about buying a restaurant. I bought a couple of books, had been doing a lot of the cooking at home for a while, and liked it, and had even looked into taking culinary classes at the Vo-Tech in town.

But I opted for the salary, the insurance, the security of what I knew, and took the job in New Mexico. Besides, my wife had always wanted to live there.

It didn’t take long to realize that I didn’t fit in. I was too rough, too eager to chase if something ran, and ever more ready to voice my opinion, which was often unpopular, and the internal politics were much worse than they had been in OK.

It was also a very different department, a lot of older cops who had been in place for years, and lots of stories around town about drug use and selling during the ‘80s and early ‘90s, something that had never even been rumored of the PD in Okmulgee. We might have kicked asses a little harder than necessary sometimes, our jail had looked like something out of the Tower of London, and our chief was notorious for cronyism, but no one there had been the go-to guy in town for your coke fix.

In less than a year my wife, who had wanted to live in New Mexico so badly, left the kids and I.

After four years, in spite of a promotion, a couple of nice assignments and a new marriage to a pretty dispatcher, I was ready to get out. In 2000 I attended a conference in Albuquerque and had sat in on a class for supervisors on how to recognize different personality types within law enforcement. I found out that I was a member of a group represented in law enforcement by only about 10 per cent of cops. The speaker said the best place for us was in planning and that most of us would not make it to retirement. He was right about at least one of us.

Less than a year later I quit to become a waiter at Café Rio. It was one of my favorite places to eat, the staff was nice to us cops, in spite of their obviously being stoners, and I knew one of the waiters, a soft-spoken ex-con with a handle bar mustache. Charlie had been working at another place that I had frequented while on graveyard shift, and we used to spend an hour or so most nights bullshitting, so I had a pretty good idea of how much could be made waiting tables.

After a really heavy dose of political maneuvering within the PD I was finally ready to get out. It helped that John, the owner of the café then, was dating my wife’s sister.

I liked the job, though I ached most nights after work, and the money was pretty good. It wasn’t unusual that summer to take home in a weekend what it had taken me two weeks to make as a cop, but I really wasn’t a very good waiter. I tended to be short with people and a bit of a smart ass (still do, but I’m getting better, by the time I’m 70 I should be a little ray of sunshine). One time a table left me a penis-shaped candy as my tip...uh, gratuity.

And then 9/11 happened and I was overcome with this sense of needing to do something, of needing serve something besides Texans their seventh refill of Dr. Pepper. Also, I felt more of a square peg than I had at the PD. Though everyone was cool I never really fit in, and felt like, though no one ever said it, that some of the crew thought I might be a narc. They loosened up a little as they saw that no one was getting popped for smoking pot out back, and finally one of the cooks offered smoke me out one day, and I said, “What the hell,” and took my first hit of marijuana…at 34.

By that time, my wife was working at the sheriff’s office and liked it, so I applied there and was hired a couple of months later. I was a little worried, sheriff’s offices are always said to be notoriously political, especially around election time, but I took the job and liked it for the most part. I liked it because we had 5,000 square miles, about the size of Connecticut, of sparsely populated ground, consisting of mountains, pine forests, prairie, and desert, to patrol, and sometimes there were only two of us on duty to do it. At the PD if I needed backup it would be there in a couple of minutes…at the SO, it could be 30 minutes before another deputy or a Stater arrived…and for some deranged reason that appealed to me.

One riot, one ranger.

Even the politics weren’t bad, as long as you had your paperwork squared away, and your mailbox was cleaned out every couple of days, the brass didn’t really care what you did. My favorite thing was to thin out the warrants. I’d go in at the first of shift, collect as much background as I could and then go hunting. It was a blast.

What I didn’t like was the civil paperwork, serving court papers. Police don’t have to do this kind of stuff, it’s been the sheriff’s job since the Saxons were running England, and it sucks. I hated serving people paperwork that informed them that they were being foreclosed on, standing by for peace keeping during repos, and I really hated evictions. Rolling up and telling a family that’s struggling, for whatever reason, that they have 10 minutes to grab what they can and get out of their home so the bank rep can change the locks and put seals on the all the doors and windows really, really sucks. Thankfully, I only had to do one of those.

Toward the end of those three years I really started to hate my job. I really can’t even say why, but I spent the first day of my days off just drained and with no will to do anything and the second day miserable because I didn’t want to go back to work...and, though I was too dumb to see it then, my marriage was struggling.

That’s when I started thinking seriously about getting a restaurant.



Maria said...

Yes, please....continue!

Terroni said...

I'm hooked.

Eric said...

I'm working on it...I promise.