The Joys of Family — Almost

On a recent Thursday night in Arlington, the night in fact of the homicide that preempted the column last week, the car I was riding in got a call to go to a local hospital. Drug overdose. Officer Bob Barnett, the driver, was supposed to take a report. Little stuff like this takes up a lot of a cop’s time on slow nights. Off we went.

On the way we chatted about why Barnett had become a cop. Lots of people I know just can’t imagine why anyone would want to be a policeman, especially a guy like Barnett, a graduate of Rutgers. I mean, he easily could have gotten a job at OSHA and spent his career in a small office worrying about the tensile strength of toilet seats. Instead he chose a job with endless variety, considerable excitement, real usefulness (I’ll explain the word to any bureaucrat who sends a written request in triplicate) and a ringside seat for the human circus at its weirdest. Hard to figure.

Anyway, we got to the hospital, where the drug OD turned out to be a white girl in her late teens. (I’m being vague because I don’t think she really needs to be identifiable.) We walked through the ER to one of those little cubicles with sheets for doors and went in. Sure enough, there in the bed lay a healthy looking, attractive young lady with the miserable expression of the recently stomach-pumped. Diet pills, Permathene-16, whatever that is. Fifteen of them. She took them, then told her mother, who called Poison Control.

Any decent cop, which is most of them, will be nice to an unhappy kid. “How you doing?” Barnett asked. The question was merely friendly, since he couldn’t have really wondered. She answered in the articulate Anglo-Saxon, not being rude or defiant or even deliberately vulgar but just saying how she felt. He asked standard questions-what, why, when. She answered quickly, articulately.

Smart kid, I thought. Actually she had close to a four-oh grade-point average, as her mother, in the waiting room, later told us.

She was also really, deeply unhappy and her eyes kept brimming over. The best read I could get was that she was under too much stress from thinking she had to excel at everything, depressed because she had done less well than she wanted at some things of modest importance at best, and had flipped out. Sez me, somebody needs to sit her down and say, “Listen, kid, you’re doing fine, just great, and in three years you won’t remember what it is that you think is so important now but isn’t even close. You’re too important to be gobbling pills. Stop it.”

But that’s not a cop’s job. Or mine. It just might be her mother’s job, who didn’t seem to have done it.

Report taken, we left. Some things you don’t do anything about.

Next call was about a runaway kid. We got to the address and found an outraged black woman. (This is not a clever racial point-counterpoint. It just happened that way.) She was furious. Her daughter, aged fourteen, wouldn’t obey. She had stormed out to hang with the Green Valley drug dealers. She always did that nowadays. She was going bad, the mother said.

“That girl just don’t listen, she think she know everything. I’m sick of it. Sick of it,” the mother shouted.

Elsewhere it might have been amusing, and I might have reflected that an adolescent girl has for a couple of years most of the attributes of the Mongol Horde, without the compassion. Consorting with drug dealers isn’t funny, however. Barnett said he could find her and bring her back. The mother kept insisting she didn’t want her daughter back. She wanted the child taken to police detention and kept. I realized she was serious, at least for the moment. She didn’t want the child.

Again, real unhappiness, and more brewing. Barnett didn’t have the option of arresting the kid, even if he had wanted to, which he didn’t. He could bring her home, but that was it. Which mom didn’t want. Great.

In a way the little stuff is worse than the major crimes. If some drug lord gets blown away, you can figure, hey, sayonara. I deeply care. But a bright normal high-school girl making suicidal gestures, or a girl barely in her teens turning into a toy for dirt-bag dealers who can’t remember their pants size–that’s sad.

But there was nothing Barnett could do about it. Or me either. So we didn’t.

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