Forty Bucks and A Dream, Stories of Los Angeles: Chapter 8: The Code of the Cop Bar
I am serializing Forty Bucks and A Dream: Stories of Los Angeles on Substack. New chapters drop Mondays. Below is the Table of Contents, with links to what’s posted before
FORTY BUCKS AND A DREAM: Stories of Los Angeles
1: Forty Bucks and a Dream: The lives of a Hollywood motel
2: The Camera and the Audience
3: Jena at 15: A childhood in Hollywood
4: The Waxer
6: Brown Dirt Cowboys: Meet your Mexican gardening crew
7: Punch Drunk
8: Us Versus Them: The code of the cop bar
9: Who She Took With Her: The husband, the son, the boyfriend… a drunk’s tale
10: Giving: the Hollywood way
11: No Exit Plan: The lies and follies of Laura Albert, a.k.a., J.T. Leroy
12: Porn for Women
13: Sanctuary: Days and nights at the King Edward Saloon
14: Why Not to Write About the Supreme Master of the Universe: A day with the disciples of Ching Hai
15: Playboy: The next generation
16: J. Lo in the House
17: The Marrying Room
18: Meet the Neighbors
19: The Pathos of Failing
20: Bite and Smile
US VERSUS THEM
The Code of the Cop Bar
BESIDES THE 15 WOODEN GUN LOCKERS MOUNTED on the back wall between the bathrooms, there's nothing about the Short Stop that immediately gives it away as an LAPD hangout. While it may be heavy on department paraphernalia -- a display case full of miniature badges; fliers announcing retirement parties; a memorial plaque for a young officer killed in the line of duty -- the narrow room looks like any other Everyman bar, with baseball pennants and Bud pitchers and a jukebox in the corner. It often takes newcomers a minute to realize they've entered a cop bar, and it is kind of fun to watch: Some hipster will wander in off the street, order a beer and take a stool. A few moments later, you'll see him indirectly eyeing the other customers, considering their short hair, thick necks, the occasional holster, the propensity toward mustaches. And then, as often as not, you'll see his back stiffen, as he runs a moral checklist the way one might, under different social circumstances, check for B.O.: Have I done anything I need to be worried about? Do I have a roach in my watch pocket? If I drink this beer too quickly, will I arouse suspicion?
They usually don't come back. While various locals -- neighborhood bohos referred to as “the artsy-fartsies,” working Joes -- can be found at the Short Stop, it's not the easiest place to relax, a fact that has nothing whatsoever to do with hospitality; the bartenders will introduce you to your neighbor and remember what you drink. Rather it's the discomfort factor between “us” and “them” that dissuades most people who aren't involved in law enforcement -- a category that includes officers, detectives, firemen, 911 operators, court reporters -- from hanging out here, a perceived division that seems to be based not on behavior so much as shared experience.
“The first time I went there, I was dressed in sort of dominatrix wear -- a pink Naugahyde jacket and a Legionnaire's cap with a little bill,” a freelance photographer says. “I walk in with my friends, basically a bunch of artists from Silver Lake, and this one customer says, 'You're never gonna get served unless I buy you one. I'll buy your first, but it'll be your last.' So we drink up, and as we're leaving, this cop stops me, looks into my eyes and says, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me.' And I thought, 'Whoa, and they think we're freaks.'“
As one senior officer explains the alienation: “Think back to an old Star Trek movie, The Search for Spock. Spock and Dr. McCoy are talking. Dr. McCoy wants to know what it's like to be dead. Spock tells him, matter-of-fact, no emotion, 'We can't talk about it. We have no common frame of reference.'“
This lack of a common frame of reference drives officers into the Short Stop for more than a cold one: It's a country with a common language, where the guy next to you understands the stresses you're under every day, a haven when the public and even your family think you're not normal. A place, in essence, where no one calls you a freak.
IT'S A MIDSUMMER HAPPY HOUR AT THE SHORT STOP. The jukebox plays Garth Brooks' “Shameless” as a half-dozen mid-career officers sit at the bar, splitting pitchers of beer and hooting over each other's jokes. They're all built like football players -- broad in the back, going slightly to fat -- and dressed in off-duty attire, Dockers and sport shirts. If mainstream American masculinity, the kind you see in Miller Lite commercials, could be measured, this place would be off the charts. The amusements are likewise prosaic: trash talk about the Dodgers (the Short Stop is a former big-league hangout, hence the name), and some ribald flirtation with Deana, who looks more Kansas farm girl than Echo Park bartender.
“Please show me your tits,” pleads a firefighter as he walks in the door.
“Oh, I can't do that!” Deana says. “Sheesh, and I thought cops were dogs.” Most of the cops laugh; one barks.
Michael, who does contracts for Reuters, comes in and orders a Mantini (a Royal Crown martini) and starts shooting the shit with Leonard and Tony, firefighters wearing Hawaiian-print shirts. When I ask if they called each other before they came, like twelve-year-old girls, to see what the other was wearing, they bookend me.
“You're calling us girls?” asks the six-foot-four Leonard, who wears a massive gold crucifix and works in South-Central. I expect to get a noogie. Instead, he tells me a joke: “What do firemen and cops have in common? They all want to be firemen.”
“Yeah, they just can't carry the hose,” Michael adds.
The he-man posturing is matched by the stalwart attitudes. When a news report on the TV describes the victim of the latest drive-by shooting -- a twenty-two-year-old gunned down on the corner of Santa Fe and Slauson -- two officers turn on their stools and look at the photo of the deceased.
“He's wearing a flannel and has a shaved head,” one says, the subtext being, of course. When the footage shows the car, the other officer shouts, “And driving a Monte Carlo! With rims!” A cutaway to the victim's weeping father brings a stereophonic, “Do the math, people!” and the sentiment is clear: The kid was a gang member, he knew the risks, his number came up. The officers go back to their beers and their backslapping.
“Typical response is, 'No victim, no crime. Retroactive birth control,'“ says Mike, who teaches ethics and law at the Police Academy and who becomes my occasional drinking buddy. “But I'll guarantee you, most of them don't really believe that. Seriously, it's not normal to expect a parent not to show grief. But their gut reaction -- the gallows humor, the way to deal with all the carnage -- is, immediately, it's not a problem. It's got to be that way. We just see too much.”
More news: Cops in Koreatown surrounding a burning car, in which they've discovered a bullet-riddled body stuffed into the trunk. Officers on the scene on the 5 Freeway, where someone has run into traffic and wound up a pile of hamburger. Everywhere, blue uniforms, running into places other people are running out of, cleaning up messes. And always, nameless and faceless and affectless.
“We don't have the luxury of showing emotion. If I show emotion, I may be perceived as weak, and if I'm weak, you won't have confidence in me,” Mike says. “We're taught command presence, self-assurance, that no matter what, we can handle it. Do I think most officers feel a lot more compassion than they show? Yeah. Do I think that they hide it? Oh, yeah.”
While this can be construed as a pretext for insensitivity, it's probably a pretty accurate reaction to the anonymity and efficacy the public expects of its police. (Do we really want to see Officer Jones become squeamish at the sight of blood, or pout whenever someone calls him a pig?) Mike says this unspoken compact, an essential “us against them” rule, is firmly in place.
“First off, our country was founded on freedom and challenging authority. People don't like to be told what to do. We [the police] are the most upfront, visible force of government, and if I tell you to do something, you will, eventually, and people don't like it. Nobody likes it. So how do you come away with a good feeling about the police? Second, while I have never seen, within the police, a built-in, automatic 'I hate this group,' or 'I hate that group,' the thing I have seen is, 'We're the police, and everybody outside that group is suspect. Everybody.' That's pervasive. And that's the reason why I think the police develop the camaraderie you see here. If I walk into a place, other than here, everybody looks when I walk in, and they think, 'That guy's a cop.' It's the silly haircut, or it's the way I walk, or it's my head going side to side. They're uncomfortable; I'm uncomfortable. Here it's comfortable. It's a safe environment.”
Safe from the public?
“Yeah. I can come in here, and know I'm probably not going to have a threat, I'm probably not going to have some fool getting in my face and screaming, or wanting to challenge me. I'm not going to have gambling going on in the back room, or somebody trying to sell dope in the corner, okay. When I come in here and I sit down, unlike trying to sit down at a sports bar in Pasadena or wherever, I can talk to the guy next to me and he'll know exactly what I'm talking about. The bartenders here, they know. You can tell them you had a four-five-nine [breaking and entering], and they'll know what you're talking about.”
“You have to give them a place to de-stress,” Deana says, tapping Mike his fourth beer. (He allows himself six; she keeps count.) “And that hardness you hear about? That's just maintaining a façade. It's like a movie star. You only see them all in their makeup, but underneath, they're just a person.”
Jesus walks in from a day in court, and begins telling Deana about his testimony against a gang member. Tall, handsome, thirty-ish, Jesus is usually on the street wresting drugs from the gangs as part of CRASH [Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums] unit, Rampart Division.
“We've got Mara Salvatrucha (the Salvadoran gang whose name loosely translates as “a bunch of Salvadorans”) trying to do battle with the Eighteenth Street gang, which is the biggest in the city, something like one hundred thousand members, pretty much all Mexican,” Jesus says. “It's so big because these Eighteenth Streeters never leave the gang, they join it young and stay. Not like the black gangs in South-Central. I used to work Jordan Downs. You bust those guys and ask their gang, and they deny it. This never happens with Latino gangs.”
We talk about which drugs are making a comeback: PCP and ice. (“Korean gangs run that. They get it from the Mexicans.”) Meth. (“Used to be the white guys, the biker gangs up in Sunland. Now the Mexicans run that, too. They cook it up in labs down in San Bernardino.”) Cocaine. (“The Mexicans get it from the Colombia cartels, process it in Oklahoma.”) Crack, which Jesus says is here to stay.
He knows about gangs and drugs, he says, because he grew up in Wilmington. “All the guys I grew up with are either dead, in jail or cops.” He pauses. “Or firemen.”
When I ask if it's true that women have a thing for firemen, more than for cops, he nods. “No one hates a fireman.”
The news continues: Police Chief Bernard Parks, congratulating thirty-four expressionless recruits on their graduation from the academy.
“Our new chief, a.k.a. General Patton,” an officer says, and blows a razzberry.
“He's a politician,” Jesus says. “He comes in and starts firing people. You'll see -- he'll be running for mayor.”
“Better be careful, she's a writer,” Deana says, picking up a pen and holding it like a dagger. “See this pen? Now I'm gonna kill you with it!”
Jesus considers this. “That's okay. You should come to my party.”
A FEW NIGHTS LATER I ARRIVE FOR THE PARTY. Two hours early. After shouting out the answers to Jeopardy! with Deana, I wander into one of the two pool rooms. Its walls are filled with cases displaying shoulder patches from different divisions, photo montages of Short Stop golf outings, and a couple of bumper stickers: “We Support Chief Gates” and “Dial 911 -- Make a Cop Come.” Off to one side is a framed account of an attempted robbery at the Short Stop in 1979:
“A man walked in holding something wrapped in a towel, held it to the barmaid's head and demanded money. 'Sitting at the bar are maybe 14 or 18 guys with short hair and suspicious bulges in their waistbands,' said an officer. 'Behind the bar are cop posters, pictures of cops, badges. And this guy is sticking the place up?' After the barmaid filled the bag with money, the robber was completely blown out the door. In his hand, wrapped inside a towel, was an Afro pick.” He died on the sidewalk out front.
I go back to my stool, and sit beneath a shrunken head -- an effigy of the dead perp -- wearing a paper halo that reads, “Use a Comb, Go to Heaven,” a riff on the 1980s cautionary catch phrase, “Use a Gun, Go to Jail.”
By 9:30, the party's on. Telling me my money's no good here, Jesus explains that it's all being paid for with and in celebration of the award he won on the Judge Judy show.
“This gang kid said we jacked him up, beat him with our batons, which we did not,” he says. “He filed a complaint, so I decided to take him to small-claims court, but I knew if I won, I'd never get anything out of the kid, so I pitched it to the Judge Judy show, and they took it. And I won, five thousand dollars.”
While I find this method of remuneration bizarre, the fifty-plus revelers packing the place don't seem to have a problem with it, if indeed they know anything about it. They are very young, rookies mostly from Rampart and Northeast, the two divisions closest to the bar. Music without a whiff of sissiness (Dire Straits, the Eagles, Bob Seger) plays as the noisy, puppyish group drinks big plastic cups of beer, play pinball and push to get on the pool tables. Far from cold and authoritarian, the scene looks like a get-together in someone's rec room, or a frat party, albeit a responsible one, as many of the revelers are not drinking, acting instead as designated drivers for their partners or roommates. Because these guys are young enough to still have roommates, barely past age twenty, wearing knee-length cargo shorts and basketball shoes. They all have short hair, clear eyes and shoulders like cantaloupes, and as a group evinces a concentrated capability coupled, because of their youth, with a guilelessness that inspires equal parts confidence and susceptibility. The room feels like a very safe place to be, unless it isn't.
I ask Jesus about the T-shirt he's wearing, which reads “RAMPART TF.”
“It's a task force I worked for in 1996,” he says, grabbing a few shots from the tin-lined service window between the poolroom and the bar and doling them out. “My partner back then, he wound up killing himself. We were talking about going jet-skiing in the afternoon, and then he drives downtown and blows his brains out. I never found out why.”
How old was he?
“About twenty-eight. This is another one of my former partners.” He introduces a guy in his late twenties, wearing a Lucky brand T-shirt and a poker face, and walks off. The guy and I sit in silence for several minutes, until I ask if he, too, worked Rampart.
“Jesus and I worked Watts together,” he tells me. “Three years. Now I'm in San Pedro.”
His voice is strained with reticence, or maybe anger. When I ask if he prefers San Pedro, he looks at me as though I'm an idiot.
“Of course. When you're a white cop down there [in Watts], everything becomes racial. You're dealing with things that happened thirty, forty years ago. It's not like that anymore, but the verbal abuse, it's constant. Everyone screams at you all day long. It's like a kid growing up with his dad nagging at him every day, saying, 'You're no good.' The abuse, it wears on you. There are a lot of good cops down there, and they're automatically looked at like they're bad people. In San Pedro, they're glad to see you. They love cops.”
His lips compress, as if he's said something he wishes he could take back.
“Cops don't talk anymore,” he says. “They can't. Everything they say is misconstrued.”
“You okay, you need anything?” Jesus asks, rushing up, flush from organizing a pool tournament and eager to be a good host. “Everybody happy?”
THE SHORT STOP'S BIGGEST NIGHT IS every other Wednesday, when the officers get paid. There's always a DJ spinning old-school funk, free hero sandwiches and lots of ladies. Though almost everyone denies it, it's a pretty heavy pickup scene, and a plainly old school one.
I can't say I don't appreciate the dynamics. A few years earlier, a girlfriend and I, out of curiosity and brattiness, took the LAPD written exam. It wasn't hard -- an SAT test with a sprinkling of civic questions -- and on the way home, to keep our fantasy going, we stopped at the Short Stop. It was my first time there, it was Pay Day Wednesday, and the place was packed with big strong men ready to give us anything we wanted. (Our Betsey Johnson mini-dresses may have had something to do with this.) There was a lot of good-natured jockeying as guys vied for our attention, buying us drinks and lighting our cigarettes and generally making us feel like the most alluring pieces of ass in Hollywood. In an instant, we gamely forsook all post-1970 codes of social/sexual conduct in favor of an anachronistic romp with delightful, deceptively simple rules: We're women, they're in charge.
Tonight, two young girls walk in, their eyes skittering between the floor and some safe point above people's heads. Within seconds, the young officer she’s arranged to meet approaches; he takes her into the poolroom and sits holding her hand. Her friend sits with me, not having any idea how to conduct herself amid all the palpable masculinity.
“It's weird, huh?” she whispers, and I realize she's processing the possibility of unlimited attention. We make small talk -- she's studying to be a police officer, lives in Highland Park -- but like a junior high girl waiting to be asked to dance, she swivels her head at the slightest suggestion of a suitor. Eight minutes later, she's swept away.
“Internal Affairs used to say, the one word that used to be synonymous with the Short Stop was 'Sustained,' meaning any allegations of groping or whatnot were pronounced true,” says a senior officer who remembers when Pay Day Wednesdays were a lot wilder. “But the Short Stop has mellowed. You get mature, you get burned a few times, you don't do it anymore. Young men, alcohol and women are not a good combination. You put a gun in there you have a bad situation. I've seen two officers fighting over the same woman, and they didn't even know who she was!”
“There's no pickup scene going on,” says Rosie, who works a beat in the Valley. She's in her twenties, a good looker with tawny skin and an off-center sneer, and who slurs as she drives her point home. “We're all the same in here,” she says. “I buy him a drink, he buys me a drink; the gender doesn't matter.”
Just then, a peroxide babe showing off a plush derriere squeezes in next to an officer across from us.
“If you're a cop it doesn't matter. If you're these girls,” Rosie says, staring at blondie and gripping my biceps so hard her fingers reach the bone, “you're looking for a daddy for your baby.”
Diana, a broad-hipped brunette with caked-on mascara, sits at the end of the bar scanning the room. She readily admits an attraction to cops.
“The machismo. The power. Protection,” she says. “I've dated a couple of cops. I felt very safe. Though sometimes they have this attitude about being above the law, so you have to bring them down to your level.”
How does she do this?
“How do I do this . . . how do I do this . . .” She looks to her friend Dawn, who's wearing a skintight, neon-blue hip-hugger/halter-top ensemble with a white plastic zipper at the cleavage. “How do you do this?”
Dawn shrugs. “I don't think you really can,” she says. She should know; she works as a bartender at another cop bar in Lincoln Heights. “How can I put it? The way they are, they mainly stick together. It's a very, very stressful job. They don't want to be bothered a lot, they want to be left alone so they can relax.”
SO TO SPEAK: BY 10:30, THE BAR IS PACKED AND QUAKING WITH ACTION. People are tearing hunks off a six-foot hero. A large detective screams, “I won two-point-eight million in Lotto and I still can't get laid!”
“It's true,” F says, and laughs. A senior officer in his forties, F is smart and sexy and a shameless flirt, tanking me full of drinks and repeatedly asking me to marry him. That is, until he hears a Harley pull up outside, whereupon he quickly orders a beer and has it waiting when his former partner, the six-foot-six beanpole R, walks in. They grab each other, and within moments fall into a comedic routine, beginning with the “synchronized swimming” hand-waves and head-bobs they employed as “turn signals” while driving, and segueing into several squawking Monty Python bits they'd use at crime scenes. (For the rare homicide: “I think she's dead!” “She's nawt dead!” “Lewk, I think her head mewved!”) The moves are sharp and symbiotic and extravagantly silly, something one does not expect from cops.
A jolly and loquacious man named Bill, who's in commercial real estate, tells me about the first time he met F.
“We were sitting at the end of the bar, talking about things you don't talk about in a bar,” Bills says. “Literature. Science. Poetry. Why the cervix is shaped with this kind of curve. Why the Egyptians used base seven. So then I follow up something I'm saying with a quote from King Lear—and he finishes the quote! And comes back with something from Much Ado About Nothing. So I give him something from All's Well That Ends Well, and he comes back with something from Titus Andronicus. And I tell him, 'Man, you're one strange cop.'“
About six drinks into the evening, I see a guy waving madly from across the extremely crowded room. He says we've met, that he knows I'm a writer, and that he, John, wants to tell me a story about something that happened to him when he was a rookie.
“Do you have a pad?” he asks.
I dig into my purse and pull one out.
“It was back in 1986, and I was a brand-new policeman, and I come in here early on a Pay Day Wednesday. This gorgeous woman walks in, sits down and says she wants to buy the house a round. Well, there's only me, her and Sal the bartender, so we all have a drink. Ten minutes later, I'm in the bathroom; she robs the place. I come out of the bathroom, and Sal is not wearing his shirt, and he's handing over money to her.”
John's buddies begin sniggering and egging him on. I stop writing.
“Why are you stopping writing? Listen,” he says. “She pulls out a .38, and says, 'Asshole, give me your wallet.' I wasn't wearing a gun, so I hand her my wallet, and she says, 'Hey, give me what's in the safe, too.' Sal says, 'I gave you the shirt off my back!'“
John's buddies begin cracking up, looking at me and shouting, “It's true! It's true!”
All except for a fireplug of a guy crowding my left elbow that begins to attack what he sees as John's credulity.
“Shut up! Stop talking to her, man! Shut up!” he shouts.
John continues. “So Sal's getting the money out of the floor safe, and I'm thinking, God, I can't go to roll call and say, 'I was in the Short Stop when it got robbed . . .'“
“Don't tell her shit, man! Why are you fucking talking to her?” the fireplug screams, getting in my face and grabbing the pad out of my hand. “What the fuck are you doing here, anyway?!”
I pull back my pad, and tell him, you're a cop, and everybody's always giving you shit for no reason, right? You're doing the same thing to me! You don't know me…
“I'm not a cop,” he says.
“So listen, listen,” John's saying, amid all the noise and music and laughter. “She leans over the bar to get to the floor safe, and her skirt falls up, and this giant penis falls out of her panties!”
The punch line. While John & Co. fall all over each other, yipping and yukking and insisting this story is true, the fireplug stands three inches from me, his eyes boring holes in my shoulder. Just as I'm thinking I might enjoy punching someone, out of the mayhem appears Sir Galahad, tall, clean-cut and smiling like the sun. He pushes past the fireplug, takes my hand, and pulls me from the fray and the brays and the humiliation.
“So, you're a writer,” he says. He has beautiful teeth. “What are you writing?”
I tell him I'm writing about the Short Stop, at which point he brings his face so close to mine I think he is going to kiss me, and says, still smiling, “No one will ever tell you anything” in a tone that feels like being hit in the face with barbed wire.
I push through the crowd and back to my stool. I tell F what's just happened. He nods.
“Now you know how it feels to be hated for your position, for no reason,” he says. “Now you are the poster child for every journalist who's ever written something crappy about a cop.”
“I'LL TALK TO YOU ALL DAY LONG. I DON'T want anything hidden about what I do. Hell, I'll let you tape me.”
It's early evening on a Monday in August, and Mike and I have the place practically to ourselves. Just off duty from his beat in Los Feliz, Mike is happy to tell me why many officers don't want the press sniffing around.
“Aside from the obvious -- that anything you print negative about the police sells -- keeping things secret maintains power. Maybe if we let a little of the mystique out, we won't be up on a pedestal anymore. Think about it. Does anyone want to give up their glory? Their way of being separate and special? You got two hundred and sixty million people in this country. What the hell makes you special? Well, I'm a policeman.”
So they want to be thought of as superheroes?
“There are what I refer to as different psych stages to the job,” Mike says. “Year zero to one is the honeymoon year, when everything is new and they all have big aspirations. Years one to five, I call the John Wayne Syndrome. There's a joke that goes: You spend the last fifteen years of your career trying to make up for the first five. You've learned just enough to become a very dangerous and arrogant individual. You're not completely confident yet, and everybody from the academy on down has pounded into you that you're the last line of defense… Contrary to what the paramilitary department teaches you -- tactics, tactics; officer safety -- only a very small percentage of people are genuinely bad, bad people. You don't need to be this finely honed machine going out looking for battle every day. We're not in Beirut. After you get about five years of this, you start getting into a settled mode, where you pretty much know your job, and it's just kind of a graceful, go-along-get-along program. Then at about fifteen years, you start going into the mode where you know you're not young anymore, and you're not going to be the chief of police, and that's when you start seeing, in my opinion, the best officers. They've learned people skills; they can do their job and be friendly.
“Here's a scenario I give when I've taught ethics classes. When you do your job, do you have to stand in front of people and smile and tell them you've done your job? Or is it sufficient that you do your job, and every two weeks you get thanked by the place that employs you? If you have a fight in the street, and there's a person down and they're bleeding, and you're waiting for the ambulance, do you have to stand there with your hands on your hips and your adrenaline pumping and talk about what a bitchin’ episode it was? Or do you back off, clean it up and get the hell out of there as soon as you can?”
Which is what you do…
“But no, because the police are these big risk-takers, these tough guys, and they've just had a fight, maybe even a fight for their life, and the natural thing they want to do is stand there and talk about it. They're not standing on the street corner dryly saying, 'Well, I was doing x, y and z, and this guy came at me with whatever, so this happened.' They're talking about, 'Oh yeah, I hit him in the face and I kicked him in the knee and he went down to the ground, and I beat him and beat him and beat him.' The public's standing around, they don't know the events leading up to it, and the reporters are coming in.
“I tell these kids that I get out of the academy: You can do almost anything you want to do, almost anything, as long as you can explain a legitimate reason for doing it. If you can't explain, then you're hung out to dry. It's called legitimate authority versus illegitimate authority. Legitimate authority is something that the people accept. They may not like it, but they comply with what it is you want them to do, because they recognize it serves a compelling public interest, yadda dadda da. Illegitimate authority is the guy who comes in and he puffs and he pulls on his badge and 'You'll do it or I'll beat you into doing it.' You got about one officer for every seven hundred people in this city, approximately. I can't force seven hundred people to do anything. They have to accept my authority, and it has to be legitimate.”
He pauses, letting Deana refill his beer. “That's five, Mike,” she says.
“Thanks, Deana. I can tell you this, with twenty-seven years of marriage, I cannot talk about anything about work at home. Precluded. Don't want to hear about it because it upsets everybody. You talk about a fight you had? Well, normal people don't fight. So you come home, you sit there and you make nice. Christmas Eve, 1984, I was involved in a huge gun battle, two suspects I shot, it was all over the news. When I came home, it was, 'I don't want to hear about it. It makes me afraid.' I could tell you, on one hand or less, the number of times my wife has been at my station, or a department function, or I've discussed something that happened in my working life. And I've been doing this sixteen years. They don't want to hear it. It would be nice to say, this happened at work today, I was frightened by this. I got knocked down one time and a man came over me with a pistol pointed at my face and he pulled the trigger, right up against my forehead. The gun didn't fire. It would be nice to talk with somebody, right? But I can't go home and talk about that, because they're gonna say, 'You coulda got killed,' or 'Normal people don't have this kind of a problem.' I think the biggest issue is: at what point do you cross the line from normal to abnormal, in the way you view things, the way you talk to people? I don't like to surround myself with just policemen. When you insulate yourself, I think you lose touch with reality.”
Which increases suspicion about people who aren't police officers.
“Absolutely. I think people here think I have some unusual views about certain things. Rodney King, for example. I think what they did was excessive, out of line, criminal, and they should have been prosecuted, absolutely, no question about it. But if I tell somebody that in here…”
You're in the minority.
“Here's the argument I got back: We [the LAPD] did exactly what we were taught to do, okay? And I said, it didn't work for the Nazis at Nuremberg, it didn't work for Calley at My Lai, because you can't violate basic human rights. I don't give a shit whether or not the law said it was okay, or if you thought in your mind it was okay. There was a higher law, crimes against humanity, and you can't violate that. And nobody can authorize you to do that. Nobody. You have to rely on your basic moral guideline. And yeah, people don't like it when I say that. And I have just one more thing to say.”
He leans forward and speaks directly into the recorder: “Nothing I tell you has any bearing on the police department's philosophies, or what the police department thinks. I speak as a private person, an individual, and these are only my opinions.”
MICKY HAS FIRST SHIFT WEEKDAYS, starting at 11:30 a.m. She's around fifty, with a short blond bob, a salty tongue and a fashion sense that runs toward Dodgers jerseys. She's worked in restaurants and bars for thirty-five years, at the Short Stop for fourteen.
“As a group, cops are considered socially offensive,” she says. “'We' think they're terrible. Like watching the Rodney King tape. We all agreed -- it looked terrible. But blown up from beginning to end, you realize, if he really got hit in the head, he'd be dead! But they never showed the whole thing. The media does this to cops.”
The afternoon wears on. Owner Mike Balmer takes care of business for JAMMS Bail Bonds, which he runs from an office next door, and Conrad Haider, the owner of the Saratoga across the street (a favorite restaurant of downtown judges and lawyers, and notably where Christopher Darden and Marcia Clark lunched during the O.J. trial) buys the house a round. Other than that, there's only a trickle of customers, who stop in for a quick beer, some advice on alternative medicines (Micky's avocation) and to catch up on gossip: who's died, who's retiring, who's pregnant with a baby not her husband's.
“People can come here, everybody's friendly, and nobody bothers them,” Micky says. “Other people can go other places; other places will have them -- hell, they'll close off a whole room for them. But where can the cops go? They need to come here and talk about stuff the wife and kids won't understand or don't want to hear about. And they need to do it together. We used to have more people. Now, the cops gotta be home to take care of the kids, 'cause the wife is going to work. Plus, home is now Rancho Cucamonga -- we didn't used to have Rancho Cucamonga back then. They've tried to get them to live closer, but who wants to live near the people you arrest?”
I spend all day with Micky, eating handfuls of peanut M&Ms from the vending machine and drinking 7-Ups. I see the Bud guy. The iceman. The guy who fixes the jukebox. We watch Judge Judy.
A detective the size of a Sub-Zero refrigerator stops in around three. Micky gives him a pint of cola, and together they watch early news coverage of the latest mass murder, an Atlanta day-trader gone berserk.
“Where people are allowed to carry concealed weapons, the crime rate goes down,” says the detective, in a voice a deep as I have ever heard.
“Plummets,” Micky says.
“It's called the Dirty Harry school of thought,” says the detective. “I might have a gun, I might not: Are you feeling lucky? I don't trust that New England Journal of Medicine and the other liberals and their gun laws. Look, they don't work!”
“And what about the way you always see them shooting in the movies?” Micky asks, pantomiming holding a gun at a sideways slant with knuckles facing up. “All that ever gets you is a gun that jumps. You're never gonna hit your target. I've had a gun pulled on me thirty-three times, and the only guy I ever shot was the one who held it with two hands. Everyone else was jiggling around.”
“There was some Israeli military guy the movies hired, taught 'em all how to shoot like that. What you have to do is simple.” Keeping his gun in its holster, the detective executes a smooth three-step move: Pull out gun with right hand, steady wrist with left hand, pop pop. “Pull, steady, shoot,” he says. “This way, I could hit that clock in the center with a .45. And that's a big gun.”
SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, and the only people in the bar are four men in their sixties, whom Deana calls her “’hood monsters.” She slow-dances with one of them to Marty Robbins' “El Paso.”
“I been coming here forty-five years. I was born in the neighborhood,” says Junior, who has a grizzled face and a scratchy voice animated by the drinks he's had this afternoon. “When I was young, in the forties, they had all kind of gangs -- Alpine, White Fence, Loma, Palo Verde, Third Street. You learn to fight or you get your ass kicked, every day. My dad grew up the hard way. His father, he rode with Pancho Villa. I could tell you stories, oooh, could I tell you. Everyone tells me I should write a book.
Junior spins Deana back behind the bar and sits unsteadily on his stool.
“I used to come here every day, now I come Fridays and Saturdays. It gets too crowded with those guys, those cops. It gets too loud, too many bad words, everything's 'Go to hell,' or 'Up your ass.' Kind of funny, huh? To serve and protect, and they use too many bad words. That's bullshit. They got the worst mouths of anyone I know. Shit, where's the role model? I got more class than any of those dogs. They're the worst drunks in the world. I guess I could write a book. Probably be a best-seller.”
Deana laughs. “I love these guys. I like everything about working here. I like the attention -- I get a lot of sex talk and flirtation. Everybody falls in love with their bartender, if they're a good bartender. I used to be a cop groupie; now I serve them. When they come in, I don't know if they're a cop or not if they don't tell me. I don't know every cop in L.A. But when they say, 'I'll have a beer, ma'am,' then I know they're a cop. I treat them the same as anybody else. In the end, they're still men.”
IT'S HAPPY HOUR IN MID-SEPTEMBER, the fourth day of the Rampart scandal, in which more than a dozen CRASH officers, Rampart Division, have been accused of planting evidence, stealing and dealing narcotics, robbery, beating suspects, and lying about the shooting death of a fellow officer.
“I tried to call you earlier this week, to tell you that good, bad or indifferent, this is not the time for journalists to ask anything,” Deana tells me. “The cops have had it.”
Mike is sitting with a court reporter I've seen here often but have never spoken with.
“This place has been depressed,” he says. “When I heard about it, I have to tell you, I almost cried. I taught five of the guys that have been put on home arrest. It's so depressing. For us, this is a huge betrayal.”
So they believe it?
“Oh, it's true. I know it's true,” the court reporter says. “They wouldn't have come out with the story if it were just hearsay. It's terrible. They put a gun in [Javier] Ovando's hands and shot him in the head.”
How deep does it go?
“This is a fraction of the force,” Mike says. “Then again, you have to ask yourself, what constitutes corruption? Is it corrupt for officers to accept a three-dollar lunch at Palermo's? Well, if the owner were to expect we wouldn't ticket his delivery trucks for parking illegally, yeah, it is.”
What are the numbers of bad apples?
“I think it's very low, but in a way, it doesn't matter, because what they did hurts all of us,” he says. “It erodes trust for the entire department.”
I know this is true. The aggregate humanity of all the officers in Los Angeles is not, at present, holding sway over the city’s imagination with the same vigor that the scandal is. And that, as with the Rodney King incident, the public is ready to judge the LAPD by its worst members, to begin a new round of passive detestation for the police. Which brings to mind a 1960s line I once heard from Short Stop owner Mike Balmer: “Don't like cops? Next time you're in trouble, call a hippie.”
Will the department protect the guilty men?
“No. [Chief of Police] Bernard Parks is the one who came out with this,” Mike says. “He gave the story to the L.A. Times. If this had happened under Daryl Gates [who was chief during the Rodney King scandal and ensuing riots], he would've denied everything to protect his men. But I'm telling you, this scandal is huge. I don't think there's ever been one this huge in Los Angeles.”
The court reporter keeps saying, “They shot this kid in the head…”
I want to ask about Jesus, who works Rampart, but don't, because I am pretty sure this would not be okay, because at the end of the day, I am not an officer, I am an artsy-fartsy, someone who is able to go somewhere else and, if the spirit moves me or the shit hits the fan, probably will.
“It's a very fine line,” Mike says. “A lot of these guys, when they were younger, they liked the risk, and somehow they went the right way, and became cops. They don't start out saying, 'I'm going to be a corrupt cop,' but little by little…”
“It's a very fine line,” the court reporter says. “And when they go, who polices the police?”
A vendor calling herself the Light Lady walks in, bearing battery-operated stuffed animals: a rock-around-the-clock crocodile, an elephant that lifts its trunk (“Instant Viagra,” she jokes), a plastic figurine of a man blowing bubbles out his butt.
“We should buy the pig one for the Short Stop,” the court reporter says.
“Rampart Division pig,” Deana says.
A senior officer buys the crocodile for his granddaughter, and as we're watching it do the twist, a report about Rampart comes on TV. Deana turns up the sound, we all watch, and when it's over she mutes the sound, and for a minute the bar is silent, as if everyone is steadying himself for yet another scandal to be absorbed, explained, gotten through. Then someone asks for money for the jukebox. In here, for the moment, they're safe.