Writers' debts accrue over time. You determine the origins of your craft. You look back. You chart books read, style and theme assimilated, the big hurts that made you vow payback on paper. Crime writers get wistful over gas-chamber ghouls and sex psychopaths. Middle-age makes you mark moments.You rematriculate your criminal education.
Mine was more street than most and puerile in the long run. It was snafu as lifestyle. It was idiot kicks. It was books read, books read, books read.
The books were strictly crime books. They transmogrified my childhood grief. They supplied narrative transfusion. They gave me my world heightened and eroticized. Writers came and went. A few turned escapism into near-formal study. One man served as moral rebuke and all-time teacher. This is for him.
Itwas fall '73. I was twenty-five. I ran circumspectly wild in L.A. I vibed grotesque. I ran six-three and one-forty. My upper body weight was all pustule. My diet was shoplifted luncheon meat, dine-and-dash restaurant food, Thunderbird wine, and dope. I slept in a Goodwill box behind a Mayfair Market. The fit was tight. Discarded clothes provided warmth and minor comfort. I stayed west of skid row and mass street bum encampments. I carried a razor and shaved with dry soap in gas-station men's rooms. I took garden-hose spritzes and minimized visible dirt and stink. I sold my blood plasma for five scoots a go. I roamed L.A. I did sporadic pops of county-jail time. I swiped skin mags and jacked off by flashlight in my Goodwill-box condo.
I was on a minor misanthrope on a mission. My mission was READ. I read in public libraries and my box. I read crime books exclusively. My crime-study mandate was fifteen years tenured. My mother was murdered in June '58. It remained an unsolved sex-snuff. I was ten years old then. My mother's death did not inflict standard childhood trauma. I hated and lusted for the woman. The killing instilled my mental curriculum and beckoned me to fulltime obsession. My field of study was CRIME.
Fall '73. Warm days undercut by smog. Cramped nights as a Goodwill-box dweller.
Joseph Wambaugh had a new book out. The title was The Onion Field. It was Wambaugh's first shot at nonfiction. Two punks kidnap two LAPD men. It goes way bad from there. I'd read a prepub magazine excerpt. I was half-bombed at the Hollywood library. The excerpt was brief. It slammed me and made me want more. Pub date approached. Two blood-bank jolts would glom me the cover price, with booze cash to spare. I sold my plasma. I got the coin. I blew said coin on T-bird, cigarettes, and kraut dogs. I raged to read that book. Inimical and more pressing urges interdicted it. Frustration reigned. Ambivalence grabbed me. My chemical/survival compulsions warred with my higher calling of reading. I got hammered and hitched up to Hollywood. I hit the Pickwick Bookstore. I wore my shirttail out and utilized my skinny physiogamy. I jammed a copy of The Onion Field down my pants and beat feet.
Fate interceded-in the form of LAPD.
I got eighty-odd pages in. Park bench reads by daylight, box reads by night. I met the two shanghaied cops and liked them. Ian Campbell-doomed to die young. A Scots-American bagpiper. Brainy, a bit mournful. Dislocated in '58 L.A. Become a policeman?-sure. Stand tall, touch the wild side, and rake in five yards a month. Karl Hettinger-Campbell's partner. A dry wit, surface cynicism, stretched nerves underneath. Gregory Powell and Jimmy Smith-a salt-and-pepper team. They're parolees. White man Powell's the alpha dog. He's a skinny-ass, long-necked stone pervert. Black man Smith's a hype. He's playing lapdog and pork-ing Powell's bitch on the side. They're out heisting liquor stores. Campbell and Hettinger are working felony-car nights. The four-man collision occurs. Character is fate. It goes shit-your-pants, all-the-way bad.
Knock, knock-nightstick raps on my Goodwill-box door.
It's Officer Dukeshearer and Officer McCabe-Wilshire Division, LAPD. They've popped me before. It's a plain-drunk roust this time. Someone saw me hop in my box and buzzed the fuzz. Dukeshearer and McCabe treat me with the expansive courtesy that cops reserve for the pathetic. They note my copy of The Onion Field and praise my reading taste. I go to Wilshire Station. Copy Number One of The Onion Field disappears.
I got arraigned the next morning. I pled guilty. The judge gave me time served. This did not mean instant courtroom kick-out. It meant county-jail intake and release from there.
The intake took sixteen hours. Cavity searches, chest X-rays, blood tests, delousing. Intensive exposure to various strains of indigenous L.A. lowlife-all possessed of greater machismo and street panache than me. A Mexican drag queen named "Peaches" squeezed my knee. I popped the fucking puto in the chops. Peaches went down, got up and kicked my ass. Two deputies quelled the fracas. It amused them. Some inmates applauded Peaches. A few hooted at me.
I wanted to be back to my box. I wanted to be back on Crime Time. I wanted to get down with Ian and Karl and the killers.
I processed in and out of jail within twenty hours. Crime Time became Wambaugh Time. I stole a pint of vodka, got bombed and walked to Hollywood. I hit the Pickwick Bookstore and stole Copy Number Two of The Onion Field. I read some park-bench pages and hit my box at twilight. I was now 150-odd pages in.
Knock, knock-nightstick raps on my Goodwill-box door.
It's Officer Dukeshearer and Officer McCabe-Wilshire Division, LAPD. Kid, you hopped in that box. Someone saw you. Jesus, you're reading that Wambaugh book again.
It's the same process. The same plain-drunk roust. The same judge. The same time served. The same intake and outtake, twenty-plus hours strong.
Vexing. Exhausting. Wholly fucked-up. Lunacy defined: doing the same stupid shit over and over, but expecting different results.
I wanted to get back to that book. I was strung out on Wambaugh Time and juiced with Wambaugh-inflicted remorse.
You're a Scot like Ian Campbell. But: you can't play the bagpipes, because that takes discipline and practice. And: you're knock-kneed and bony-legged, and would look ridiculous in your ancestral kilt.
Yeah, but you're not scum like Powell and Smith. No, but you steal to survive. Yeah, but you're not vicious. No, but you lack the plain guts to rob liquor stores. A bantamweight faggot kicked your ass.
Wambaugh Time. Wambaugh-inflicted remorse. Learn from it? Change your life?-no, not just yet.
I got out of jail. I stole a pint of vodka, got bombed and walked to Hollywood. I hit the Pickwick Bookstore and stole Copy Number Three of The Onion Field. I read some park-bench pages and curled up behind a bush near my box. I was now 250-odd pages in.
Poke, poke-nightstick jabs on my legs.
It's two new cops-Wilshire Division, LAPD. It's the near-same process again.
I lose Copy Number Three. I go to Wilshire Station. I go to court and see the same judge. He's tired of my theatrics. My raggedy ass offends him. He offers me a choice: six months in county jail or three months at the Salvation Army "Harbor Light" Mission. I vibe the options. I opt for hymns on skid row.
The program was simple and rigidly enforced. Take the drug Antabuse. It allegedly deters the consumption of alcohol. You get righteously ill if you imbibe. Share a room with another drunk. Attend church services, feed bums, and pass out Jesus tracts all over skid row.
I did it. I took Antabuse, fought booze-deprivation shakes and stayed dry. My sleep went sideways. I kept brain-screening conclusions to The Onion Field text. I shared a room with a rummy ex-priest. He'd quit the church to roam, drink, and chase poontang. He was a big reader. He disdained my crime-books-only curriculum. He didn't know Joseph Wambaugh from Jesus or Rin-Tin-Tin. I tried to tell him what Wambaugh meant. My thoughts spilled out, inchoate. I didn't really know myself.
My blood bank was three blocks from the mission. Two plasma sales earned me book money. I walked to a downtown bookstore. I bought Copy Number Four of The Onion Field and read it through.
Ian dies. Karl survives, shattered. Jimmy and Greg exploit the legal system conwise and escape their just fate of death. Wambaugh's outrage. Wambaugh's terrible compassion. Wambaugh's clearly defined and softly muted message of hope at the end.
The book moved me and scared me and rebuked me for the heedlessness of my life. The book took me tenuously out of myself and made me view people at a hush.
I split the mission early. I wanted to roam, read, and booze. I went off Antabuse and retoxified my system. I fell in with an old buddy from high school. He had a right-on, can't-miss, criminal plan.
He had a pad south of Melrose. The Nickodell Restaurant was just across the street. The bar was rife with affluent juicers. I would waylay and sap drunks in the parking lot. I would run across Mel-rose and be at the pad in sixteen seconds flat.
I refused to do it. You do not wantonly raise your hand to another human being. My childhood in the Lutheran Church did not teach me that. Joseph Wambaugh did.
Books and I went back. My old man taught me to read at age three-and-a-half. I bloomed into a classic only child/child-of-divorce autodidact.
My first love was animal stories. This reading arc tapped out quick. My love for animals was wrenchingly tender and near-obsessive. Animals suffered cruelty and died in animal books. I couldn't take it. I moved on to sea stories. I dug the vastness of the sea and the specialized nomenclature of ships. I overdid this reading arc and got mired down in the unabridged Moby Dick.
Words and phrases baffled me. The narrative was hard to grasp. I grokked a fair portion of the text and rooted for Moby. Fuck Captain Ahab. He was this pegged-leg psycho cocksucker. He was fucking with Moby and trying to stick harpoons in his ass. The story got tedious. My old man finished the book for me. He said the ending got schizzy. Moby rammed the boat and only one guy lived. Moby caught some harpoons and skedaddled.
Sea stories, adieu. On to kid westerns. Cattle drives, gunfights, redskin ambushes. This reading arc ran concurrent with a bumper crop of western TV shows. Gunsmoke, The Restless Gun, Wagon Train. Frontier justice and dance-hall girls flashing cleavage. My book fixation up to the drum roll of fate on June 22, 1958.
Now she's dead. She's Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, age forty-three, farm girl from rural Wisconsin. She's my mother. She's a drunk. She's a registered nurse-the sexy archetype female profession. She's a gooood/looking redhead/she's got film-noir qualities/she's my kid-sex stand-in for all women.
She betrothed me to CRIME. My reading focus zoomed there instantly. I moved in with my old man. He catered to my newly wrought reading arc and bought me two kids' crime books a week.
I gobbled them, started shoplifting books to fill reading gaps and exhausted the kid-crime-book canon quicksville. I graduated to Mickey Spillane and cold-war psychoses. Crime was sex, sex was crime, fictional crime and sex was a sublimated dialogue on my hated and lusted-for mother. My old man got me Jack Webb's book The Badge. It lauded the LAPD and detailed their most notorious cases. Joe Wambaugh joined LAPD the next year. He was a kid-cop with an English degree. He stood a decade short of his writer apotheosis.
Crime. The redhead and me. My Wambaugh rendezvous years hence.
My mother's death corrupted my imagination. I saw crime everywhere. Crime was not isolated incidents destined for ultimate solution and adjudication. Crime was the continual circumstance. It was all day, every day. The ramifications extended to the 12th of Never. This is a policeman's view of crime. I did not know it then.
My metier was kiddie-noir. It's summer '59. Dr. Bernard Finch and Carole Tregoff whack Bernie's wife for her gelt. Bernie's 40-plus. Carole's 19, stacked, and leggy. She's a redhead. Redheads and murder?-I'm there. It's May, '60. Caryl Chessman eats gas at Big Q. It's a Little Lindbergh bounce-kidnap with sex assault. Limo Liberals lay out lachrymose-big boo-hoo-hoo. Joe Wambaugh joins LAPD the same day.
Kiddie-noir was couched in a dual-world constellation. The outside world was the alleged real world. This meant home life and my enforced school curriculum. The inside world was CRIME. This meant crime books, crime flicks, crime TV shows. Every encapsulated drama offers a tidy solution. I know this is bullshit. The glut of book crime and filmic crime means no surcease from crime ever. Joe Wambaugh's a rookie cop now. He knows this more than me.
It's April, '61. Country fiddler Spade Cooley's deep in the shit. He's jacked up on bennies. His wife wants to join a free-love cult. Spade beats her to death. Ella Mae Cooley vibed slow-burning fame. She had that "Oh, Baby" look my mom got with three highballs. Joe Wambaugh's twenty-four now. He's working University Division. It's all Negro and all trouble. The natives are always restless. Parking-lot dice games. Hair-process joints. Sonny Liston-manques sporting porkpies. Nightwatch bops to a tom-tom beat.
The inside world was a fiend habituation. Racetrack touts, brain-damaged pugs, ice-cream vendors with kiddie-raper rackets. It's Winter '62. My old man takes me by the Algiers Hotel-Apartments. He says it's a "Fuck Pad." Whores work the rooms. It's a "Hot-Sheet Flop." Married guys bring their secretaries for noon-ers. I ditch school and surveill the Algiers. Every woman who enters is a siren, a temptress, a film-noir succubus. It's Summer '62. It's buy-school-clothes time. The old man takes me to the Wilshire May Company. Nature calls. I bop to a men's room stall to unload. There's a big hole in one wall. I wonder why. I find out toot-fucking-sweet.
A fruit sticks his dick through the hole and waggles it my way. I shriek, grab my pants, and lay tracks. My old man is equal parts aghast and amused. Joe Wambaugh works Wilshire Vice a year later. The May Company "Glory Hole" is a Fruit Mainstay, a Fruit Landmark, a Fruit Cup Supreme. He entraps fruits there. He writes a fruit-entrapment scene in The Choirboys years later.
It's March, '63. The Onion Field snuff occurs. It slipped through my radar then. Joe Wambaugh's working Wilshire. He gets obsessed.
Crime carried me through a failing school career and my old man's failing health. I read crime books, watched crime flicks, brain-screened crime fantasies. I neglected my schoolwork. I bicycle-stalked girls around my neighborhood. I peeped nighttime windows and grooved on stray women. I roamed L.A. I shoplifted books. I snuck into theaters to watch crime films. I grew into a big, geeky, acne-addled, morally-mangled teenage thief/scrounger. I craved mental thrills and sex stimulation. I boosted skin mags. I lurked. I leched. I ditched school. I called in bomb threats to other schools. I burglarized empty pop-bottle sheds behind local markets. I got kicked out of high school. I joined the army. The old man died. I faked a nervous breakdown and got discharged. I came back to L.A. It was Summer '65. I found a pad in the old neighborhood and a handball-passing gig. I was free, white, and seventeen. I figured I'd become a great writer soon. Logic demands that you write some great books first. This fact eluded me.
I started drinking, smoking weed, and eating amphetamines. My stimulation index exploded exponentially. I roamed L.A. I shoplifted. I got popped at a market and carted to Georgia Street Juvenile. It was July, '65. Joe Wambaugh worked there then. I might have glimpsed my all-time teacher.
A friend's dad bailed me out. I got a lecture and summary probation. My day in jail scared me and taught me just this: Steal more cautiously now.
I did. It worked. I shoplifted food, booze, and books and rocked on, impervious. It's now August, '65. The Watts Riot goes down. Moral exemplar Ellroy is appalled, enraged, aghast, and racially threatened.
It's baaaad juju in Jungle Junction. I sense Commie influence. I get giddy and righteously riled. This beats crime books, crime flicks, crime TV shows. Nasty Negro Armageddon. The savage sack of my city. The Watts Riot-what a fucking blast!!!!
I huddled with some pals. We armed ourselves with BB guns. We were Mickey Spillane fans and rigorously anti-Red. What would Mike Hammer do? He'd fucking act.
We got bombed on weed and T-bird. We drove south at dusk. L.A. cringed under curfew. We violated it. We had meager firepower, but stern hearts. Smoke hazed up the southside. We hit trouble at Venice and Western.
Two white cops pulled us over. They checked out our arsenal and howled. They told us to go home and watch the show on TV. Hit the road-or we'll call your parents.
We obeyed. We got more bombed and watched news reports. Joe Wambaugh caught the show live.
He reported to 77th Street Station. He worked a four-man patrol car. They had sidearms and one shotgun. He went out into it. He caught the first shots fired.
Vermont and Manchester. Store windows shattered, alarms ringing, seven hundred to eight hundred fools in the street. A gun pops. Then another. Shots overlap in one long roar-and it never stops.
The cops barged through stores. They hurdled broken window glass and subdued rioter-thieves. Shots popped out of nowhere. Richochets ringed. They hauled suspects out of buildings and pulled them off the streets. Gunfire poured down. They couldn't make its origins. They couldn't dodge it for shit. They took their suspects to booking stations and Central Receiving. They got out of it. They went back into it. Wambaugh got scared, unscared, scared, unscared, scared. His adrenaline went haywire. The heat and flames and heavy riot gear leeched pounds off of him.
He held the moments close. He compiled notes later. He deployed them in his first novel.
The New Centurions tracks three cops for five years. The narrative covers 1960 to the riot. Policework vignettes force the action. It is crime as continuing circumstance and crime as defining circumstance writ intimately and large. The cops differ in temperament. Their worldviews converge along authoritarian lines and diverge in their need to touch darkness and disorder. The three posses near-disordered inner lives. They meet, subvert, interdict, and seek to contain crime every working day. The process serves to still their fears on an ad hoc basis and grants them a sometimes stable, sometimes troubled equilibrium. The novel concludes shortly after the Watts Riot. The riot has provided them with the context they have unconsciously sought since their first days as cops. They have aligned the opposing sides of their natures through enforced chaos. They have achieved momentary peace. That peace will die almost immediately. A non sequitur event, prosaic and deadly, will define them all in the end.
Crime as continuing and defining circumstance: '60 to '65. My own idiot crime life: '65 to '70.
I read crime books. I scoured Cain, Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald. I nurtured a fatuous sense of my own future literary greatness. I viewed crime flicks and crime TV shows. I enacted crime in my own inimitable and Mickey Mouse manner.
Bottle-bin raids. Bookstore grabs. Stolen booze sold to high school kids at drastic markup. T.J. runs to score pharmacia dope and catch the mule act.
Pad prowls-craaaazy, Daddy-o!
It's '66 to '69. I'm a girl-crazed, fuck-struck, quasi-young adult virgin. I subsist in cheap cribs near swank Hancock Park. I grew up craving the girls there. I stalked them and knew where they lived. They were poised young women now. They attended USC and UCLA. They wore high-line preppy threads. They were bound for careers of marginal note and marriage to rich stiffs. I craved them. I was unkempt, unlovable, unloved. I possessed no knowledge of the simple civil contract. I lacked the social skills and plain courage to approach them for real. I broke into their houses instead.
It was easy. This was the prephone machine/alarm system/home invasion era. I called the pads. I got dial tones. That meant no one's home. I bopped over and checked access routes. Open windows, loose window screens, pet doors with grab space up to inside latches. Entryways to affluence and SEX.
I pad-prowled roughly twenty times total. Kathy's pad, Missy's pad, Julie's pad. Heidi's pad, Kay's pad, Joanne's pad twice. I raided medicine chests and popped pills. I hit liquor cabinets and poured cocktails. I snagged five and ten-spots from purses and wallets. I hit my love-objects' bedrooms and snatched underwear.
I never got caught. I always covered my tracks. My thefts were modest and always geared toward sustaining egress. I was a soul-fucked youth reared behind poverty and death. I wanted to see where real families lived. I wanted to touch fabric that touched lovely girls' bodies. I did not hail from an aggrieved perspective. I knew the world did not owe me shit. I was too mentally jazzed and sex-tweaked to indulge self-pity. I knew that crime was a continuing circumstance. The redhead taught me that. I was pervertedly tracing her lead. I went at this pursuit sans remorse or compunction. I was young and implacable in my fervor. I hadn't absorbed enough deadening shit. I hadn't read Joseph Wambaugh yet.
I kept boozing and snarfing dope. I blew my rent roll and lost my pad. I moved into public parks and slept under blankets. Cold weather drove me indoors. I found a vacant house and crashed there. Bam-it's November, '68. The LAPD comes in the door with shotguns. It's overkill with a civil edge-the cops size me up as a passive putz with poor hygiene. They treat me brusquely, decently, dismissively. Say what? I thought the LAPD was a storm-trooper legion. The press roasts them for strongarm tactics. They're some Klan Klavern/ Bund hate hybrid. My shit detector clicks in. My street and stationhouse instinct: it just ain't so.
I do three weeks at the Hall of Justice Jail. It's a potent crime primer. I'm the geek that all the pro thugs disdain. I observe them up close. It's the '60s. It's social-grievance-as justification-for-bad-actions time. My cellmates have sadness raps down. I gain a notch on my crime-as-continuing-circumstance notion. Crime is large-scale individual moral default.
That means you, motherfucker.
Now you know it. Change your life behind the concept? No, not yet.
I exited jail right before Christmas. I went back to books, booze and dope. I pad-prowled. I stole underwear. I pursued the Panty-Sniffer Pantheon.
I roamed L.A. by night. I got repeatedly rousted by LAPD. I sensed that a cop-street fool compact existed. I behaved accordingly. I denied all criminal intent. I acted respectfully. My height-to-weight ratio and unhygenic appearance caused some cops to taunt me. I sparred back. Street schtick often ensued. I mimicked jailhouse jigs like some WASP Richard Pryor. Rousts turned into streetside yuckfests. They played like Jack Webb unhinged. I started to dig the LAPD. I started to grok cop humor. I couldn't quite peg it as performance art. I hadn't read Joseph Wambaugh yet.
It's August, '69. The Tate/LaBianca snuffs occur. L.A. goes freaky-deaky. I note private patrol signs on Hancock Park lawns. I weigh the odds. They hit against the Pantyphile Panther. Don't do it again. You will get caught. County jail is no sweat. Don't risk the penitentiary.
I stopped it. I never B &E'd again. I trucked through to '71. I read crime books. I guzzled booze and snarfed dope. I did an honor-farm petty theft jolt. I heard about this cop. He wrote this novel. It's the inside shit on LAPD.
I left Wayside Honor Rancho. I prowled public libraries. I found The New Centurions and read it in one gulp. It confirmed and trashed and realigned all my criminal conceptions. It fully rewired me.
It was the moral and psychic cost of crime on an unprecedented scale. It was a anecdotal social history of '60s L.A. It was a merciless treatise on the lives of men. It was bottomless dark humor. It was a sternly worded defense of the need for social order and a rebuttal to the prevelant anticop ethos of the day. It was my crime-as-continuing-circumstance configuration expanded and made humanly whole.
It burned my mental world down. It took me back to my mother's death and all stops in between.
I reread the book. I took in Wambaugh's knowledge. It dovetailed with my knowledge and gave me a view of the flipside of the moon. I couldn't quite dodge its moral power. I routinely violated the rule of social order that Wambaugh eloquently expressed. Joseph Wambaugh would dismiss me on moral grounds, and rightfully so.
I reread that book. I did not alter my lifestyle one iota. Wambaugh's second novel came out. The Blue Knight was a first-person narrative. Bumper Morgan is a street cop set to retire. He's reluctant to go. He's fiftyish. He's engaged to a splendid woman. The prospect of one-on-one lasting love flummoxes him. He's hooked on the mundane and occasionally thrilling pleasures of policework. He's fearful at the core of his heart. The job allows him to live at a distanced and circumscribed level on his downtown foot beat. He rules a small kingdom benevolently. He gives and takes affection in a compartmentalized fashion that never tests his vulnerability. He's afraid to love flat-out for-real. His last cop days tick by. His reluctance to walk away increases. Violent events intercede. They serve to save him and damn him and give him his only logical fate.
Joseph Wambaugh, sophomore novelist, age thirty-five. A great tragic novel of the cop's life, his second crack out of the gate.
I read The New Centurions.I read The Blue Knight.I read The Onion Field in idiotically staggered intervals. I took them as great criminal and literary teachings, and moral indictments of me.
I was twenty-five. I ran on bad chemicals and bad, crazy blood. Don't change your life yet. It may hurt too much. Don't rip out your own ruthless and impotent heart.
He was an only child and a cop's kid. His people were Irish. His father worked factory jobs and joined the East Pittsburgh PD. It was the Depression. Jobs were short, crime was up. His father rose fast and bottomed out quick. He made Chief. He got mired up in local politics. Political shit taxed him and forced him out. He quit the PD in '43. He returned to factory work.
Joe was six then. Joe loved to read. Joe loved animal stories and kids' adventure books. His snout was always tucked in some book. He never read crime books. They just didn't jazz him.
Hismotherhad fivebrothersout in thewar.Uncle PatMalloy's case was outre. He fought in World War I. He went from doughboy to town drunk. Uncle Pat never worked. Uncle Pat scrounged booze money. Uncle Pat got drafted in the Big War. He went from East Pittsburgh souse to army training officer. He met a rich woman and married her. They moved to California. They bought a chicken farm outside L.A. They boozed the postwar years away.
Uncle Pat always drove drunk. Career drunk driving lays tits-up odds against you. The odds crunched Uncle Pat in '51. He plowed an orange truck. He died. His wife died. Joe and his folks came out for the wake. They liked California. They stayed.
They settled east of the San Gabriel Valley. Ontario, Fontana- L.A. satellites with grape vineyards and orange groves. Joe's dad got factory work. Joe dug on the California weather, the California beauty, the California absence of grime. He attended Chaffey High. He graduated in '54. He did three years in the Marine Corps. He came home and found work. Kaiser Steel in Fontana-private-duty fireman.
Factory work, mill work, grub work-strictly the shits. He wanted to work with his mind. He wanted to take his love of books and extrapolate. He enrolled at Chaffey J.C. and L.A. State. He married his girlfriend. He got an English degree. He wanted to become an English teacher. Fate keestered him.
A simple ad. A page portion in the L.A. Herald. Police Officers wanted/$489 a month.
Adventure. Romance. Five yards monthly. It's like his favorite kids' book: The Call of the Wild.
Okay, you'll do twenty years. You'll retire. You'll become an English teacher then. You'll be forty-three. You'll be a two-career man.
No. Fate is more quixotic and complex than that. You'll witness crazy shit. You'll fight in a riot. You'll battle butch fags in movie-house men's rooms. You'll get shot at. You'll kick ass. You'll get your ass kicked. You'll dig on more race schtick than 86,000 Redd Foxx albums. You'll nosh pickled pigs feet in Watts at two-fucking-a.m. You'll slop scorching chili verde on your bluesuit. You'll meet baby fuckers, dog fuckers, cat fuckers, penguin fuckers, wombat fuckers, turkey fuckers, syphilitic drag queens, sink shitters, public masturbators, tubercular pimps with six months to live, and geeks who shell-fuck three-hundred-year-old turtles. You will witness human bravery and honor in quick-march proximity to depravity and blasphemy of unimaginable measure. You will distill and contain your knowledge. You will give the world horrifying and hilarious books that only a cop could have written-books of deep and true human measure.
Officer/Sergeant Joseph A. Wambaugh. LAPD: '60 to '74.
He stayed fourteen years. He wanted to stay twenty. His celebrity sandbagged him. His author life fucked up his cop life. Suspects recognized him and begged autographs. Agent calls and producer calls swamped the Hollenbeck squadroom. He had to go then-but, oh Jesus-the ride.
It was a fully contained and wholly uncontainable funhouse tour, replete with shape-distorting funhouse mirrors. The distortions were human behavior rendered grotesque. A couple fights over custody of a child. Both grab the child and pull his limbs in opposite directions. The child almost disarticulates and snaps in two.
The severed-penis boy. The double amputee wino bragging that his dick hits the ground. Officer Charlie Bogardus, dying of cancer, short of twenty years on the job. His family needs his pension. He needs to die on duty. He blind-charges a burglary suspect and takes two in the pump.
Ian and Karl. The Onion Field. The funeral and bagpipe wail.
The transy whore on Chenshaw. His first Vice bust. He-she pinches his thighs beyond black and blue. Pain off the charts-let's kill him-no, let's don't.
The pool-hall caper. The cat with the shotgun. The orange flame and pellets over his head. Fred Early's his partner. Fred traps the cat and nails him between the horns. The cat's dead. Fred's shot and killed ten years later. It's still unsolved.
Jesus, the ride. The homos, the hookers, the hugger-muggers, the heist men. The wineheads, the wienie waggers, the pill poppers, the pachucos, the Jailbait Jills and the jittery junkies. The lazy daywatch tours, the late-nite losers, the lessons.
He brought fear to the job. It was the informed fear of the intelligent and imaginative. He surmounted his fear in repeated context. He learned that you never quash your fear for good. Cop work is always the next context.
He learned that boredom incites rage that leads to chaos and horror.
He learned that the strongest human urge is the simple urge to survive. He learned that this urge mutates. He learned that it induces pity in good people. He learned that it inspires brutal willfulness in the bad.
He learned that crime is a continuing circumstance. He learned that a cop's split-second choices poised him a heartbeat close to laurels and dishonor.
Joe Wambaugh. LAPD: '60 to '74.
He should have stayed longer. He couldn't. He had to write. He had to transpose his lessons. He had to share the ride in all its power.
He turned informal on-the-job notes into sketches and short stories. He submitted them to magazines. An editor at the Atlantic Monthly advised him to shape them into a novel. He wrote The New Centurions and sold it for a modest advance. The book was a critical sensation and a big best seller. He got packaged and somewhat pigeonholed as this anomalous cop-writer. The book portrayed policework as a troubling and morally ambiguous journey. Some cops hated the message. Most respected the inherent truth. The LAPD high command disapproved. That was a fucking heart-breaker.
The Blue Knight, The Onion Field. Big bestsellers, big bucks rolling in, big-time acclaim. Big movie sales, big hoo-haw, the dis-juncture that big recognition always brings.
He wrote The Choirboys. It was scheduled for mid-75 publication. The job pulled him one way. The craft pulled him in reverse. The craft was the job. That consoled him somewhat. He shut down the ride.
My ride waned. Outdoor living and booze and dope sent my health south. Jails, hospitals, rehabs. The nadir of early '74 to mid-'75.
I read The Choirboys late that summer. I stole the book from a Hollywood bookstore. It was Wambaugh's finest work. The locale was Wilshire Division. A group of nightwatch cops unwind in Westlake Park. They call their soirees "Choir Practice." It's kicks and chicks for a while. An undercurrent sets in. They're too stimulated and tweaked by the job. The job sates their curiosities. They're public servants and voyeurs. The job gives them a steel-buffed identity. They're macho-maimed and frail underneath. They brought a surfeit of fear and hurt to the job. They're overamped and stressed and more than a little crazy. They're in over their heads. Crime as continuing circumstance claims them. Their collective fate is madness.
The book tore me up and oddly consoled me. It reindicted my moral default. It diminuitized my street-fool status. It put me at one with some guys as high up on a ledge as I was.
It forced me into a corner. It jabbed my imagination and made me cough up portents of a story. It was a potential novel. I knew I had to write it. I knew I had to change my life first.
I did it. I'll credit God with the overall save. I'll cite Joe Wambaugh and Sex as secondary forces.
I knew a couple named Sol and Joan. Sol sold weed, played the sitar, and pontificated. He was a gasbag hippie patriarch. Joan loved him heedlessly. I was in love with her. She haunted my head. I placed her in fantasy contexts with the cops from The Choirboys. She leaped from Wambaugh's pages to my prospective pages. She haunted my first novel four year later.
I was at their pad. Joan sat to my left. She wore jeans and a man's white dress shirt. She reached for a cigarette. Her shirt gapped. I saw her right breast in pure profile.
Oh, shit-you must change your life. No shit, you did.
That was almost thirty years ago. Joe Wambaugh's sixty-eight. I'm fifty-seven. I'm at that elegiac, debt-acknowledgment moment. My debt to Joe stands out brightly.
Joe and I are friends. We're cordial, but not close. He's a tough nut to crack. We share the same film agent.
He's thirty-one years gone from the LAPD. His book career sits at age thirty-five. He has produced a legendary body of fiction and nonfiction. His most recent novels portray exile. Aging ex-cops roam affluent settings. They fall prey to odd temptations and reach for the fortitude that fueled their cop days. Joe left the job early. He's always looking back. It isn't regret. It isn't nostalgia. It's something sweeter and deeper.
It's hushed visitation. It's the faint heartbeats of our lost ones. It's a feminine stirring in our male-crazed world. It's a woman's breath in ellipsis. Joan. The white-shirt moment. Another Joan nearing forty, dark hair streaked with gray. Joan.
I might visit Joe next month. I might cohost his screenwriting class at University of California, San Diego. We might sit around and talk, arriviste to arriviste. I can see it. I can hear it more. We're two word guys from Jump Street.
Joe's Catholic. I'm Protestant. I'll confess to him anyway. I'll urge him to forego exile and return to Then. I'll tell him my head is still full of fucked-up and magnificent shit. I'll describe the breadth of his gift. You granted me vision. You unlocked the love and dutiful rage in my heart.