I can still hear fists smashing against lockers in the back room of a precinct station, after the murder of a colleague.
The wail of a bagpipe. People crying.
New York had another police funeral on Wednesday, for the second officer shot down by a man emerging from a bedroom in a narrow hallway. A family disturbance. You never know.
The cold-blooded shooting of two young New York officers, Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora, touches me because I once entered an apartment right behind two officers, answering a similar call about a disturbance.
This was in November of 1976, when I was on the Metro staff at the Times. My bosses suggested I do a feature on NYPD officers who commute from the suburbs to patrol the city streets and stores and homes – the same issue kicking around today.
I was no stranger to police stories in the city. In 1973, I had covered the terrible standoff in Bushwick, Brooklyn, when four young men killed an officer and took over a sporting goods store under the el. Some police officers wanted to storm the store and shoot the men but the standoff was defused by negotiating tactics advocated by a top officer, Benjamin Ward, who later became the first Black police commissioner.
I was in the station house when enraged cops expressed their anger by punching their lockers. Later, I covered the funeral at a sad church in Brooklyn. It feels like yesterday.
For my article in 1976, I don’t remember how I was introduced to a detective and officer who worked as a team in Jamaica, Queens, where I grew up. Now I was living in Nassau County, just like a lot of cops,
The two officers – experienced and verbal – were willing to escort a reporter on a shift on a cold, dark evening in late November. They soon were busy:
A fellow officer had cornered several young men suspected of shoplifting in a five-and-dime store near Jamaica Ave. I was neither armed nor wearing any kind of protection, as I followed the two officers.
I can still see the lone cop, standing guard on two or three young man in a corner. I cannot envision a gun, but he must have had one out because the young men were standing against a wall, restive but taking no chances, yet.
I can still see the huge drops of sweat pouring down the single cop. He was quite heavy, and I was concerned he would keel over at any moment. (The officer and suspects were Black, and the two officers who escorted me were white.) The suspects were loaded into a police car, and “we” went on our way.
Another major call was about a disturbance in an apartment – a man and a woman, anger in the air, but no violence in progress. The two officers took a low-key approach, asking a few questions, softly, casually, non-judgmentally, urging the woman to stop insulting the man, telling the man to “be cool.” One of them “suggested” the man pack up and leave, which he did. But when you enter an apartment, you never know.
At some point, the two officers and I stopped for Romanian skirt steaks along Hillside Ave., and I learned more about the two – the detective from Queens, the officer originally from England. Neither displayed a harsh edge, like military occupying a foreign land, nor did they act like social workers, trying to right all the wrongs. They were, how can I say it, professional.
Things got more tense later in their shift – a radio call about a fight in progress near Merrick Ave. The two officers were the first on the scene, learning that a stabbing had just happened during a card game on the hood of a car. One officer tried to apply a tourniquet on one wounded man, the other apprehended a suspect bleeding from the face.
The gathering crowd did not threaten the officers but nobody helped attend to the two bleeding men, either. There was an allegation of cheating on a 50-cent bet. Backup arrived, and the wounded man was taken to Mary Immaculate Hospital, (where I had been born) and the two officers followed.
In the hospital, I stood behind the two officers as they tried to talk to one man being treated in the emergency room. He kept saying he wanted to go home, but somebody whispered to me that the man had been knifed in the heart and was not going to live.
I still remember a nurse (Black, like the two wounded men) saying: “Full moon. Friday night.”
The detectives gathered information and they left.
The man died overnight.
I caught up with the two officers over the weekend, in Nassau, and they told me about their lives, and the reasons (economic, social) for not living in the city. I wrote an article, and I do not believe I ever met either man again, but I remember their level-headed professionalism – neither racists nor missionaries, but rather peace-keepers.
These days, I know there are bad cops, like the four who allowed George Floyd to be slowly and intentionally murdered in the street in Minneapolis in 2020. But I also watched TV on Jan. 6, 2021, as a Capital officer Eugene Goodman brilliantly enticed a pack of terrorists up the wrong stairway, away from their target, the Vice President. Black Capital officers endured cruel violence and racist taunts from insurrectionists dispatched by Donald Trump, sociopathic rich boy from a tony corner of Queens.
As a city kid at heart, who loves walking all over town, fearlessly, I feel I know the young officers. They became cops with eyes wide open, knowing the dangers, but wanting to make life better in the city .
They died when they entered an apartment, to keep the peace.
I once walked behind two officers doing the same thing; now I mourn Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora.
For a glimpse into the heart of a police family, please read the beautiful column by Maureen Dowd:
More and More, I Talk to the Dead--Margaret Renkl
NASHVILLE — After my mother died so suddenly — laughing at a rerun of “JAG” at 10 p.m., dying of a hemorrhagic stroke by dawn — I dreamed about her night after night. In every dream she was willfully, outrageously alive, unaware of the grief her death had caused. In every dream relief poured through me like a flash flood. Oh, thank God!
Then I would wake into keening grief all over again.
Years earlier, when my father learned he had advanced esophageal cancer, his doctor told him he had perhaps six months to live. He lived far longer than that, though I never thought of it as “living” once I learned how little time he really had. For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death. My father’s dying governed my days.
After he died, I wept and kept weeping, but I rarely dreamed about my father the way I would dream about my mother nearly a decade later. Even in the midst of calamitous grief, I understood the difference: My father’s long illness had given me time to work death into the daily patterns of my life. My mother’s sudden death had obliterated any illusion that daily patterns are trustworthy.
Years have passed now, and it’s the ordinariness of grief itself that governs my days. The very air around me thrums with absence. I grieve the beloved high-school teacher I lost the summer after graduation and the beloved college professor who was my friend for more than two decades. I grieve the father I lost nearly 20 years ago and the father-in-law I lost during the pandemic. I grieve the great-grandmother who died my junior year of college and the grandmother who lived until I was deep into my 40s.
Some of those I grieve are people I didn’t even know. How can John Prine be gone? I hear his haunting last song, “I Remember Everything,” and I still can’t quite believe that John Prine is gone.
Jan. 30, 2023