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.