On the Beat: Pretty It Ain’t

Chris Feltman told me the other night about the guy who cooked himself. We were riding in Arlington, around Crystal City, waiting for something to happen and telling war stories.

The guy was a drunk, one of the regulars. Every jurisdiction has some of them. They get up in the morning and start drinking. All day they drink. Maybe they stop to panhandle for money to buy something else to drink. Beer, fortified wine, hair tonic, it doesn’t matter. A lot of them would probably drink brake fluid if they got the chance. Why they do it isn’t clear to normal people. Slowly they crumble.

Well, this guy got really lit up. He felt too tired to go on, and crawled into an abandoned car to sleep it off. The windows were closed. The sun came up, as will happen. When the med techs got to the body the temperature was over a hundred degrees in the car. The guy cooked to death, never woke up. He was thirty-nine.

Felton’s an interesting cop. A white guy, he has been with the Arlington department for over five years, and speaks Spanish, which he learned during a good many years of working with Salvadoran migrant workers in Burke, Virginia. Literary Spanish it ain’t, but it works. He gets called a lot as a translator.

The Hispanic presence in Arlington is large and growing. Social patterns are pretty clear. They aren’t educated people, come from countries where few rise economically, and tend to live day-to-day, without ambition. Many buy flashy cars with most of their paychecks and barely make the rent. The adults may or may not learn English, though a lot of them learn enough to get by. The kids do learn.

They aren’t bad people. For the most part they are courteous and likeable, but most aren’t going anywhere. They’re delighted just to have a reasonably decent apartment and a job. As workers they are in demand because they show up, work hard, and don’t have an attitude. Consequently trouble is brewing between them and blacks, because all the jobs are going to Hispanics. The young do not do well in school, which is going to be a problem with the next generation.

We got a call, some kind of domestic, translator needed. Off we went.

On the way over Felton told about the drunks who slept under the bridge in Arlington. Like most, they lived on a diet of Thunderbird, Ritz crackers, and Vienna sausages, and drank themselves unconscious at every available opportunity.

Drunks do this until their livers quit, and then they stop.

One of them told Felton that these guys played a game. They’d drink until the first one passed out, and the others would, er, have their way with him. Cops have seen everything several times, but this was hard to believe. One night, though, Felton looked under the bridge, and here was one guy passed out with his trousers down, and the rest unconscious around him.

Life under bridges is a little different.

In fact, lots of lives at the bottom of things are a little different. At one point Felton and I were talking in a parking lot with a drunk I’ll call Carlos. He may have been in his fifties. If you drink enough, you can appear to be in your fifties when you’re nineteen, so maybe I’m wrong. Carlos was good-natured and talkative, a tad overweight so he wasn’t starving, and spoke maybe five words of English.

Cops aren’t hostile to drunks, at least if that’s all they are, and tend to chat with the street life to keep abreast of things, and just to pass a slow night. You can get a lot of news about who is doing what that way. Carlos knew Felton.

Unfortunately Carlos wasn’t entirely sober, so he wasn’t real articulate. He didn’t have any booze on his person, so he wasn’t doing anything particularly illegal. He rambled. His hands might be dirty, he said, but his heart and soul were clean. He was from El Salvador. “Viva Salvador,” said Felton. Carlos was pleased. Could he sing a song? Sure, Felton said.

I think it was the Salvadoran national anthem, but from across the car I couldn’t tell. Carlos put his soul into it, but not too much technique. He finished and laughed. Nice enough guy. Just boozy and maybe only one oar in the water.

OK, I was going to tell you about the domestic, but ran out of space. Next week.

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