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Riding Along

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Last night I did something I should have done 20 years ago: went for a ridealong with the Chicago Police Department.  V I Warshawski has a prickly relationship with cops, but intense loyalty to her police officer father, Tony.  The Chicago police have been uniformly generous in their response to my work, even when it hasn’t flattered the department, and even when I’ve gotten my facts wrong.  It’s been high time that I learned enough about their job to write about them with deeper authenticity.

I know Lieutenant Dave Case because he wrote a quite wonderful police procedural novel a few years back, and he’s friends with another crime-writing cop I know, Michael Black–who’s novel, Hostile Takeover, is a raw, terrifying look at a sheriff’s department sunk deep in corruption.

Michael Black is on the left

Lt. Case is now the watch commander for the 9 p.m. – 6a.m. shift in Chicago’s 18th District, which covers the Division Street bars, the Cabrini Green public housing complex, and some of the glitzy part  of North Michigan Avenue.  Even in the most crime-infested parts of the south and west sides, people stop maiming and murdering each other by two in the morning, but the tourists and youth who frequent the city’s bar scene keep going until 6 a.m.

Lt Case is a Sox fan, but I like him, anyway

I rode with Sergeant Wiberg, considered by his peers and subordinates to be one of the CPD’s best supervisors.

map of the 18th district

Here’s what I learned.

Even on a night of pouring rain, the crowds are thick all over the area between Division Street and Chicago Avenue.  About half the women wear four to six-inch heels.  No one stops to let a cop car through.  People get drunk and do “stupid” things–the police term for anything from fighting to running over a Chicago cop–which happened a week ago.  Some of the stupid stuff I saw: a couple fighting in the back seat of a cab.  The cabbie called for help and the male half of the sketch emerged covered in blood.  I didn’t get to see the woman.  They wanted to drive to a suburb a good 40 miles away, and everyone agreed separate cabs was the answer.  The man got angry when the police wouldn’t summon a cab for him: “You’re public servants,” he shouted through his bloody mouth.  “You’re supposed to serve me.”

I was thinking, these guys and girls, as the cops refer to each other, all have tasers, guns, and batons–don’t cop an attitude! But the guys and girls stayed cool, laughed it off and moved on to the next stupidity.

Here’s what else I learned.  The number one concern is keeping everybody safe.  Sgt Wiberg knows where every car in his unit is at all times, and when someone is in a tricky situation, he’s on it.  He’s not going to leave anyone alone on the street.  Number two–if you’re not enjoying the work, you should not be a cop. Number three, Chicago cops refer to each other as “coppers.” I thought that was only in British crime novels.

The department budget is stretched so thin that many of the cars have 150000 miles on them.  And sergeants, who can effectively supervise about 5 to 8 patrol teams, are being required to supervise 30.  Among the things the sergeant does–fills out a report on each incident one of his patrols is involved in.  Do that for thirty units who are responding to about sixty calls an hour–looking at the 911 calls stacking up on the sergeant’s computer screen–and you can see it would be hard to keep track of street action.

Don’t respond to panhandlers, especially at night–they can often be pickpockets as well.  And, speaking of pickpockets, be careful when you stop to listen to the kids drumming on their overturned buckets: they’re often distracting passersby while members of their gang pick pockets and purses.

Homeland Security has cameras at every intersection in downtown Chicago.

I learned that Cabrini Green smells horrible–buckets of disinfectant poured over the floors and stairwells to mask the stink of humans relieving themselves wherever they happen to be standing.

I learned that the city looks different from the front of a squad car than from a civilian car.  The camaraderie of the squad room, especially this squad room, feels very special and I loved being part of it. I tried to be alert to the street, especially after we stopped at a 7-11 and learned that punks had been in minutes earlier to steal a case of beer–but Sergeant Wiberg kept pointing out people and situations that I hadn’t noticed.

I watched two young coppers gently and deftly respond to a young woman whose ex-boyfriend beat her up in a car park.

I learned that a bullet proof vest weighs a ton.  Unfortunately, today, my neck and shoulders are reminding me that the injuries I got in a car crash 4 years ago have not left me behind.  I want to write a story about a police officer–Liz Milkova, who makes a cameo appearance in my upcoming V I novel–but today it’s icepacks and rest.  But Sergeant Wiberg, getting off duty at 6, went home this morning for 3 hours of sleep, got up to go to church, take part in his kids’ sporting events for the day, and is back on duty at 9 tonight, while I get to lounge around.  He called me his partner, so all I can say is, sorry partner, I’m letting the team down today but I promise to return to duty soon.

Art, 2, Market, Zero

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Brewster Rockit: 4.22.10 Oog Jobs and Og Bezos battle for cave art control in the Pleistocene

When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week, there were two wonderful surprises.  The Prize in Editorial cartooning went to San Francisco’s Mark Fiore, and the Prize in Fiction went to Tinkers, by Paul Harding, published by Bellevue Literary Press, a tiny press in California.

I’ve been watching Fiore’s animated cartoons for three years now.  He does a great job of nailing the politics and issues of our times.  He’s self-published on his own website, and he tried to sell an app to Apple.  They rejected it as too controversial, or perhaps as too inflammatory–I’m not sure what.  When Fiore mentioned this after getting the prize, Apple promptly back-peddled and sold Fiore his app.

Harding’s story is more poignant, at least to me as a writer.  The New York Times, acknowledging that they themselves had declined to review Tinkers, had a lovely story about “Mr. Cinderella.”

The Times wrote, “Six years ago Paul Harding was just another graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with a quiet little novel he hoped to publish. He sent copies of the manuscript, in which he had intertwined the deathbed memories of a New England clock repairer with episodes about the dying man’s father, to a handful of agents and editors in New York. Soon after, the rejection letters started to roll in.  They would lecture me about the pace of life today,” Mr. Harding said last week over lunch at a diner in this college town, where he is now teaching at the workshop. “It was, ‘Where are the car chases?’ ” he said, recalling the gist of the letters. “ ‘Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book.’ ”

Tiny Bellevue Press took on the book, which was highly recommended by Harding’s teacher, Marilyn Robinson–who wrote Gilead, a novel that I consider one of the ten best books of the last ten years.  The print run, 7000 copies, was too small for the big box stores or the chains, and it was the Independent book stores who brought Tinkers to the attention of readers around the country.  One of those readers was on the Pulitzer committee.

There were a few other unusual prizes in this year’s Pulitzer, but these two stand out, because for once, art triumphed over the market.  It doesn’t happen often, so let’s savor the times when it does.

Reeling and Writhing

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Tony Kushner was speaking on the University of Chicago campus the other night.  He’s a very animated speaker, interesting to listen to, and incredibly thoughtful.  The University theater is staging his play, Illusion, in a truly riveting production.

In between listening awestruck as he delved into Shakespeare and Brecht and why universities should not offer undergraduate theater degrees, I also felt an unexpected kinship with some of his ways of thinking about writing.  “I run from things,” he said, “It slows me down.”  Half the time he spends thinking how crappy what he’s writing is.

The same thing slows me down, depression about how truly awful whatever I’m working on is.  At the same time, I do believe like Kushner that “your only obligation as a writer is to tell the truth,” to perform surgery on yourself so that you’re exposing your bone–if you can bear to cut that deep you will write the truth and then it will speak truly to other readers.  It sounds so noble, and yet so many petty fears and angers get in the way of diving deep into the soul that I sometimes wonder how I even write a coherent sentence.

Kushner says that the process of becoming an actor means taking apart your preconceptions about who you are and what you know about life and reassembling them in new ways.  An 18-year-old doesn’t know enough about herself/himself to begin the process, and by the same token, the process will either be superficial or destructive for someone that young.  At the same time, the chance to explore many ideas in depth gives you grounding for understanding great texts when the time comes to act.

A play changes every time it’s performed, and he loves the incompleteness of all plays–it’s why he loves the live theater.  I think novels are changed by readers, too, not as dramatically as a director and actor shape a text, but still, the experience a reader brings shapes the text in his or her mind.


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April 2010