I am often asked when people find out that my father was a police officer, if he has any good stories.
“How many people has he arrested?”
“Has he ever been in a car chase?”
“Has he ever shot anybody?”
Usually it was my young friends leading the interrogation but I’ve been surprised a few times by curious adults wondering the same things. I suppose the fact that he was a New York City cop in the 80’s contributes to the television image that most people have of the loose cannon cop out there serving justice on his own terms. To anyone who knows my father, the idea of him featured in any of the exploits imagined by my inquisitors should seem laughable. Picture Bob Lampman dashing up a fire escape and bounding over rooftops after a purse thief, or his siren screaming down 5th avenue to intercept a rouge double-decker tour bus. Imagine Bob slapping the cuffs on a drug dealer exclaiming “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit, my friend!”
Honestly the only thing about him that fits the caricature is the mustache. But I admit there were times that even I fell for the luster of the illusion. I wanted him to be something strangers would admire and I pestered him for stories most of all.
Of course he never bothered trying to explain to me or my friends the meaning of real police work. That only ten percent of officers ever fire their sidearm on duty, or that it should, in fact, be the goal of all law enforcement to make it through their service without having to resort to such force. He usually dismissed the questions by simply saying he never did much worth talking about. He always said that his job was mostly standing on street corners and holding posts at one of the big events or another that were regularly going on around the city. He pledged that the motto of the NYPD was “Hurry up and wait” and by the time I was a teenager he managed to convince me that the closest his work ever came to exciting was once when he was assigned security detail at a U2 concert.
Now he’s retired and we’ve moved a bit south and he’s put on a hat that seems to fit him more sensibly. He isn’t asked as much anymore about his employment but the T.V. image is still there. Only instead of an over-the-top cop drama it’s a sitcom called “Everyone’s Favorite Mailman.” It takes no stretch of the imagination to see him starring in the role. In fact if he didn’t still have the mustache and the accent I’m not sure if anyone would believe he had ever been anything else. And now I am grown and despite having had no say in the matter of whether I should exist or not it has fallen on me to become the custodian of my existence. I’m expected to keep track of social security numbers, birth records, medical history, filing statuses, and what have you. A recent episode of adult-ness found me searching for health insurance information so I could go to the doctor for the first time since I was fifteen. I was sifting through the lock box where my father keeps all of those official things and I came across something I had never noticed before. It was a newspaper clipping, laminated, dated July 23, 1986, and titled “Suspect Dies in Gun Battle, Officer Saved by His Vest.”
For a moment I had stumbled into the Bat-Cave. In spite of my better judgment I let the fantasies I thought I had put to bed get right to the business of reconstructing the illusion. Could it really be just as I suspected? My dad really was the hero I always wanted him to be, he was just playing modest. Alas, my disbelief was soon affirmed. The article described a firefight between two patrolmen and a robbery suspect. There was no mention of my father but I did recognize the name of his friend Richie. I remembered Richie. He was only a bit older than my father but his short, tightly curled hair seemed like it had been grey for a long time. He and his wife lived out on the Island and we visited them occasionally when I was young. They never had kids and instead had a very territorial little dog which looked like Richie’s hair had hopped off his head and sprouted legs and a mouth so it could yap you right out of its house. I remember thinking that they had what seemed like an unnecessary amount of throw pillows on all of their furniture. It would have been hard for my brothers and me to resist the urge to make literal use of their stockpiled throw cushions if it weren’t for the way they smelled. It was such a distinct smell that I’ve yet to find anything to compare it to. It was as if they had designed a brand of perfume to be used specifically by furniture in order to attract throw cushions and paralyze little boys who had any notions of starting pillow fights on their mating grounds.
I never understood why my father was friends with Richie. He once told me that Richie gave a guy a $250 ticket for riding a motor scooter (not a moped but an actual scooter with one of those little motors on the back wheel) without the proper registration. Another time he got on a bridge driving the wrong way through oncoming traffic to catch a woman he saw make an illegal U-turn. Richie liked to give tickets. As I read over the newspaper clipping it didn’t surprise me too much to find out that Richie was part of the 10% of cops I mentioned earlier. I returned to my rummaging and a bit deeper down I found another laminated newspaper story. This one was dated April 1, 1987. The headline read “Gourmet shop robber met with rolling pin.”
The story takes place at the Silver Palate Gourmet Shop. It was a little place on Manhattan’s Upper West side that became pretty well known in the early 80’s for its quality take-out. That sort of thing was still kind of a novelty in those days. The crook, played by Mr. Curtis Williams, enters the shop one Monday night and threatens the two young women working at the counter with a gun. He instructs them to place the dough in a bread bag and ushers them into the back office. Meanwhile the hero, one apprentice chef named Angel Morales, runs around the building and confronts Williams as he is exiting the shop. The crook, not expecting the two young ladies to put up much of a fight, only brought with him a gun that turns out to be a toy. Williams and his toy gun are little match for Morales who proceeds to beat him senseless with a rolling pin.
The article is filled with food themed puns: “The robber thought it was going to be a piece of cake but the scheme turned out to be half-baked because he didn’t plan on a battering by the chef.” In between the corny puns I noticed my father’s name. In the only story of his to ever be published he was not the hero but simply the arresting officer. I couldn’t help but laugh. I laughed as if I had finally gotten a joke that life had told me long ago whenever I felt disappointed in my father’s restraint. I went back to all the times that I bugged him for a story and I wondered if this one ever crossed his mind. I wonder how many other stories that I’ve never heard run through his mind. I laughed at how young I must have seemed to him. I laughed at how I’ve grown. If ever again I’m asked to tell a story of my father I’ll laugh once more and proudly tell how he caught the man with the toy gun after his run-in with the rolling pin on April fool’s Day. I think he would laugh and be proud too if he were to know that I had finally learned what makes a story worth telling.