Over ten years have gone by since the first police ride-along I ever did, in the region of East Colfax Avenue in Denver. It was a summer night reeking of pollution. Colfax was the city’s Times Square, a plummy underclass asylum where the street life flourished like the inside of a rotting log and you regularly saw things that your respectable friends wouldn’t believe.
I was with a couple beefy thirtyish cops whose names I don’t remember. I wasn’t yet a police writer, just a free-lance doing a piece for one of the men’s adventure magazines that flourished then, and the officers were showing me what was out there. One of the first things we did was to park the squad car and walk past a couple of gamy night clubs. The sidewalks were thronging with riffraff and a few tourists with no better sense and some soldiers from Fort Carson. There were neon and loud thumpathumpa music and dangerous-looking Chicanos leaning against walls.
The cops wanted me to see Linda. One of them nudged me and pointed with his eyes. Down the sidewalk came what looked to be a giraffe in lipstick — a tall, white, and lantern-jawed, uh, lady in a red mini-skirt and long honey-blonde hair. I’d guess she was six feet three. She also had five-o’clock shadow and an Adam’s apple like somebody’s elbow and walked with the grace of a hod carrier. A transvestite.
“Hi, Linda,” said the cops cordially. They weren’t supposed to laugh at the citizenry. Linda smiled and said, “Oh, good evening, officers,” and swished by. Except hod carriers don’t swish very well.
I decided then that cops lived in a world that just didn’t follow normal rules, that a lot of what they saw and dealt with was pretty much from another planet. Linda wasn’t doing anything wrong, wasn’t vicious, but?what was the etiquette, I wondered? “Good evening, ma’am”?
Not long afterward they called over a rough-looking black guy, maybe twenty-five, with a friendly grin and eyes that didn’t match and a slashed throat. Really. The cut, long since healed, had been closed with huge stitches that didn’t come from an emergency room. Obviously the wound hadn’t reached any major vessels or he wouldn’t have been there. The conversation was apparently amicable and of the order of, “How you doing, Gordon? Keeping straight?” Oh yeah, he assuredly was. He had reformed. He wanted the officers to know that. Yes.
The guy, the cops told me, was a murderer of at least one and probably several people. They knew it because various informants had told them but wouldn’t testify in court. Until you get used to it, passing the time of day with a killer feels a bit odd. The cops did it because one day he might tell them something useful.
Then there was the chubby white guy who molested pre-teen Chicano girls. Why Chicanos? The officers didn’t know. It was just what he did. They couldn’t catch him because the girls families didn’t want the girls shamed by appearing in court. The officers didn’t talk to him. A cop will talk to a killer, but there isn’t enough soap to get a candy-man’s slime off.
There were the incurable winos who with another drink would be ready for a glass jar in a medical museum. They were nasty vomiting creatures unrelated to the next door neighbor with a snootful on New Year’s. We went to an abandoned building with a room full of scag-heads nodding out on heroin. They seemed to live on tuna fish and Vienna sausages and there probably wasn’t a lot of traffic moving in their arteries. There were white and Chicano hookers in their teens.
It was, and is, a cop’s world. Not all cops see this stuff every day, and some probably never see it — the forces in the nicer sububrs, for example. But guys in the city see it. They see more, too, like PCP loons who take their clothes off and play naked in traffic.
When I use the word “scum” for these people, my liberal friends sometimes take umbrage. They tell me that I am insensitive and that these poor people are as worthy in the eyes of God as I am and that with loving help from society they could be saved. They’re probably right about insensitive. You get that way. And most of the street life isn’t isn’t evil, just screwed up. But you find that few are salvageable, with or without society’s help. All a cop can do is stir them around, limit the damage to themselves and others — but not fix it. It was eye-opener, East Colfax was.