Beaverton, Chicago, cops, mustach, Oregon, police brutality, police officers, rogue cops, The Untouchables, Travels With Tardsie, Union Station, Walter the Homeless Man, white people
My encounters with police officers have largely been, if not pleasant, then at least hassle-free. It helps that I’m friendly, polite, and never in my life more caucasian than when I talk to a cop. I think most cops are pretty decent dudes.
Sadly, the cops I remember most clearly aren’t the officers who’ve helped me when I was in a jam, or even those who had to deal with me when I’d done wrong and had it coming, but rather the jerks who wore their authority like a crown and acted like thugs for no reason other than that they could, the bullies and punks getting off on the power of their station.
It was my displeasure to meet a particularly shitty cop on November 5th, 2002.¹ I’d left my job and apartment in Beaverton, Oregon to bum around the country by rail, and now found myself in Chicago’s historic Union Station, notable for the “baby carriage” scene in The Untouchables.
Filthy and bedraggled, I wander into the men’s restroom to clean up. Union Station is an Amtrak hub, so the bathroom is busy, but I manage to find sink space next to a wretched-looking homeless dude–a black guy with wild, unkempt hair and an eye-watering aroma. His emaciated hands and head jut twig-like from an artificially bulky frame, created by layer upon layer of filthy clothing. He yammers ceaselessly as he washes what appears to be several pairs of socks.
When the guy says “Can I have those socks?” I think at first that it’s just another facet of his apparently unending dialogue with God. But when he says it again, I realize he’s talking to me. He’s looking down at the open travel bag at my feet, atop which lie several pairs of clean socks.
After a span of time that seems longer than it probably is, I reach down to grab a pair socks, and hand it to him. “Here you go.” “Thanks, Brother” he says, and his ongoing conversation–which fortunately, no longer includes me–begins again. Not long after that, he gathers up his things, including his new socks, and wanders off to a stall.
I have just about forgotten about him when the cop comes rumbling in, his black and yellow police windbreaker flashing in the mirror just before our eyes meet. His small shaven head, bullet-shaped, with its tiny piggish eyes and ridiculously oversized mustache is poorly matched to his expansive, well-fleshed body.
“Whaddaya doin’?” he asks, and not at all nicely. My stomach tightens as I turn to face him. There is a uniformed cop behind him.
“Shaving,” I tell him.
“Shaving.” He spits the word back at me like an accusation. Then: “You sure you weren’t washing your feet?”
I tell him I wasn’t, and because this situation is so intense and because the cop is still smirking under his mustache and because I don’t know what else to say, I say “Jeez.” It is the wrong thing to say.
“JEEZ?” he says, seeming to swell as he steps toward me, either side of his mustache punctuated by the edges of a feral smile, and just like that I am fucking terrified.
Then the uniformed cop says something and points down to the stalls. I do not have to know what he said to know where he is pointing, and at whom. As they both charge off in that direction, the bald cop’s little head swivels to face me and, not stopping, he says, “Sorry.” It is a reflex, a word completely devoid of meaning, and he cares not a bit whether I know it. Then he is gone, carried along on a wave of black anger.
“WALTER!” he bellows at the homeless man in the stall, “Get your fuckin’ ass out here, you goof! You’re goofy, you know that?”
Suddenly awash in a rush of relief that feels an awful lot like shame, I slink out of the bathroom, but not quickly enough to miss the firecracker bang of a locked stall door shattering under the force of a boot.
Carrie Rubin said:
Wow, talk about a lack of compassion on that cop’s part. I understand if something needed to be done about the situation, but there has to be a better way than that. Power tripping is never attractive.
The most shocking thing to me was the profanity. I’m not used to hearing cops curse, and when that happens, it feels like things are sliding out of control. I felt like those guys were used to acting with impunity.
Carrie Rubin said:
They could do with some empathy lessons.
Well that was scary. Most of the time, cops are nice and great to have around when you need them but in this case power went to this guy’s head. Glad you survived unscathed with just one less pair of socks. Kudos for the charity.
Years-s-s-s ago, a friend and I were driving to Hilton Head. We were speeding, maybe 12 over the limit. A cop stops us and I could tell before he opened his mouth he either had an attitude or a bad day or maybe both.
“Afternoon, ladies,” he said as he looked down at us through the window. “How y’all doing.”
“Just great, officer!” We both said and smiled and all that charming stuff women do that normally works.
Not this time.
“I’m bout to change all that,” he said. He walked to his car, blue lights flashing and we got a brand new ticket before we even began our adventure.
Hi Brigitte, thanks for reading and commenting! It’s always nice to see you.
“I’m bout to change all that.” Oof! What a dick, although I do admire a good “dick line” like that. I may have told this story before, but one time I was sitting in a cafe and the waiter said, “You using that chair?” I looked behind me and to the side and finally down. “This chair?” I asked, indicating the one I was sitting in. “Yeah,” he said, “We’re closing.” I was ticked, but I always kind of admired the balls-to-the-wall dickishness of the line.
Alex Autin said:
I’ve missed reading you. Thanks for reminding me how good of a writer you are!
Thanks a lot, Alex–your kind words are very much appreciated. In fact, I missed being around.
OMG! I so remember that scene in In Living Color! “Do you wanna cut the turkey?”
“I dunno, but I just cut the cheese!”
…and then that wheezy little laugh.
~giggle~ and that stupid jar he carried around with him.
Well, you KNOW what was in there!
Looked like pickles to me… lol
Also, this story totally reminds me of the scene in the bathroom with the cops and the dogs in Reservoir Dogs….
Wow, Smak, very vivid storytelling about police brutality. I feel for Walter. He might have been a loon, but he also sounds like someone harmless who was very down on his luck who was about to descend deeper into the pit via some cops needing to pound someone. Whenever I hear stories like this I think of all the real crime that is taking place that they’re doing nothing about preventing as they choose to brutalize some poor slob instead.
Some years ago, Milton, who is black and snowflake white me were in a hurry to get someplace (looking back, we were probably both hungry). We dashed into the subway station as a train’s arriving, but the cops stop him to check his backpack. I don’t curse but I do groan. A cop asks, “You’re together?” I said, “Yeah!” They let him go so we could catch that train, but the racism remains sky high. He looks like a 50-year-old college professor. But it doesn’t matter if you’re not white. This stop and frisk was a policy put in place under the Bloomberg administration. It ended under our new mayor Bill DeBlasio. Hallelujah.
Man, I hate to hear stories like that, but it’s good too, because even though I only know you virtually (and Milton vicariously), it still personalizes them, and in some ways makes it easier to understand. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s like, it’s just a statistic until it happens to someone you can identify with.
Your description of Milton as a “50-year-old college professor” makes me laugh, because, in the time I’ve been reading LA, I’d formed a mental picture of Milton long before I saw that picture of him. The funny thing is that although I had up until that point imagined him as white, he still looked almost exactly as I had imagined, except maybe for the Mugatu-esque hair.
Milton’s billiard ball bald and he only looks like a college professor. If you’re that curious, you can see him here in this post I wrote a few years ago: http://wp.me/pMku1-1zr
I’ll check it out. But you posted a picture of him within the last few months, and I could swear he had Mugatu hair.
Oh! That picture! He was wearing reindeer ears!
Yep. Now I get it. He looks very different without hair. Not at all how I pictured him. http://lameadventures.com/2013/12/02/lame-adventure-398-the-million-dollar-migraine/
I’m going to continue seeing him with Mugatu hair.
Okay. If you insist. But the real Milton, who’s not even named Milton, is hairless.
I knew the ears were fake, but I though the curly blonde was all his. I mean, I assumed it was a dye job.
Nope. He’s all natural.
Truly, he is a man of wonder.
Chicago is a scary and just plain surreal kind of place. No wonder the cops are thugs. I’ve been there twice, drove straight through the middle of it once, and like Cleveland and Detroit, I really don’t care if I go back there again. I am grateful I drove through town in the middle of the night with the doors locked, with the car in 5th and the cruise on 75. I am sure, though, if I had to drive over the Skyway bridge during the day I’d have never made it.
I will comment though, that the United terminal at O’Hare is larger than the entire Columbus International Airport (and I’m really familiar with CMH, as that is less than a mile from my house) and that I have absolutely no idea how they keep a place as positively behemoth as O’Hare as clean as they do, even with the little janitor golf carts everywhere. Outside of the airport though, what I saw of the Chicagoland area is downright harrowing. Central Ohio is urban enough for me.
Jeez, a midnight ride through Chicago sounds kinda thrilling, actually. I know you go armed, so that had to be a little bit of a comfort. I’ve been to Chicago a couple times, but due to time constraints, I’ve stayed mostly in the vicinity of Union Station. The Sears Tower is right there, as well as the Chicago River, so there’s plenty of things to do to while away a day.
Urban life isn’t for me. I don’t even like to live NEAR big cities these days. Of course, that has many drawbacks, as I’m sure you might imagine.
It’s a sad commentary on the human species that there have always been, still are, and likely always will be people who abuse their power and position. And it probably doesn’t help that popular culture tends to glorify “bad boys” and those who bend/break the rules for “justice.”
El Guapo said:
This is probably a ridiculously inappropriate comment, but I think it’s covered under the geas of your kindhearted generosity written above.
I bet Walter was glad to have clean socks to wipe the blood off his wounds when the cop was done.
(There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?)
Not at all. And your use of the word “geas” gives me a clue as to how you spent your formative years. Hey, I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t been in the trenches myself.
The Writing Waters Blog said:
I think you deserve to walk with such rare company as you indicate. Even giving the socks a lot wouldn’t do.
Thanks! It really was a little thing–I had several pair, but sometimes something you don’t even need can make a big difference to someone else.
Glad you’re back, Smak. If I’m ever in Chicago, I will not wash my feet in any sinks. Hell, I won’t shower or bathe for the entire duration of my stay just to be on the safe side.
Poor Walter. Getting harassed is probably way more beneficial to him than, say, mental health treatment. But, hey, I’m not an asshole, so what do I know?
Thanks, Mike–it’s good to BE back. Yeah, it was just abysmal the way they dealt with Walter (or with me for that matter). Just the idea that they would initiate the encounter by being aggressive. I understand that in their line of work, sometimes an encounter is gonna go that way, but to cut to the chase like that just seems to be counterproductive, to say the VERY least. And as I mentioned in another comment, I think I was most unnerved by their use of bad language. I have a pretty foul mouth at times, and I’m not shocked by salty language, but I’m unused to hearing police officers use it while they’re on duty.
At any rate, given my unparalleled ability to form an ironclad opinion about something based upon extremely limited experience, I can say with confidence that I understand why Chicago cops have earned such a spotty reputation over the years.
Great story. I felt right there.
Race seems so often to be a determining factor in how one is treated by the police.
I’ve just got back from the States to see my mom, and when we went shopping, I’d have had to be blind not to notice that upon exiting the policeman didn’t ask to look into our bag or for our receipt. Not so for the blacks and latinos.
I hope you’ll write more about your experience bumming around the country.
Thanks, Tom! Glad your back & hope you had a nice visit with your mom! There definitely is an inequality of outcomes in the justice system, which I saw first hand as a youthful defendant. I’m not sure it was specifically my “whiteness” that made it easier for me, but rather factors which might have been heavily influenced by my race (the way I speak, mostly). Also, my mother’s involvement in my legal issues helped quite a bit. A lot of the minority parents didn’t seem as involved in the process (and I’m not postulating a reason for that; there could by myriad factors), and I think that affects the outcome as well.