A cop's life in the South Bronx
Edward Conlon '87 cruises the streets of the South Bronx in an unmarked car looking out for Angel, an 18-year-old drug dealer suspected in the slaying of Mike "Murder." Though well earned, Mike's nickname was most likely not the reason he was killed; his predominant crimes were ripping off dealers at upwards of $200,000 a pop. In June, a masked motorcycle gunman put an end to that. "We believe Angel had something to do with it," says Conlon in his rumbling New York accent, "though it's a bit like Murder on the Orient Expresseveryone on the train wanted to take a poke at him." News of the murder reached Conlon just before he went on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to talk about Blue Blood (2004), his dynamic, dark-humored memoir of daily life on the NYPD. Late that same night, in an effort to get into Murder's locked apartment, Conlon found himselfstill dressed for TV success in his best black suitrunning across the roof of the old brick building and shimmying down the fire escape to try and climb in through the window. He could've been a well-dressed burglar. "I'm just hoping I don't get shot," he recalls with a laugh. "There's just no way to convince anyone I'm doing this in the public interest."
The Bronx-born Conlon has always had a foot in two worlds. He's equally at ease setting up a drug raid and setting a luncheon date with his New Yorker editors (though he might say the former was a lot more fun.) He's a Harvard graduate with an acclaimed book who spends his days (and many nights) as a detective in the 44th Precinct, a square mile that includes Yankee Stadium and has a somewhat outdated reputation as a drug-infested slice of hell. He deals routinely with teen runaways, drunks, assault victims, junkies, and drug-related murders while smoking a pack of Camel Lights a day and wryly observing the "raw comedy of street life" that swirls around him. "I had two vocations," he writes, "cop and writer, which called not only to me, but to each other. Much of police work is storytelling, from the journalism of an investigation to the post-arrest sales pitch to the [assistant district attorney]. I always felt a little superior when a sergeant or an ADA looked at my paperwork and said, 'This is very well-written, you know.'"
The apparent dichotomy of a literary Harvard man becoming a cop makes sense in Conlon's case. He grew up with a love of books and writinghis father's bibliophilic tendencies caused structural damage to the family home. He attended a rigorous Jesuit high school, where a sense of public service was intensified. Moreover, policing was in his blood: his great-grandfather was "a less than honest cop" during the early part of the last century; Uncle Eddie, for whom he was named, was on patrol for 33 years; and Conlon's father was an FBI agent. What seems to drive Conlon in his dual vocations is a sense of mission and a genuine thirst for real-life drama. It's what lured him to police the South Bronx for the last decade, and what propels him, still, to the keyboard. "To be a cop meant you would experience humanity at a level of skinned-alive intensity," he observes. What better job could a smart, ambitious writer want?
That's not to say he became a cop to be a writer. During his teenage years and even after college, "cops were still people you ran from," he says. Dances with juvenile delinquency included an arrest during his senior year of high school for breaking the plate-glass window of a Greek diner. During a fight a few months later, Conlon was pitched into another window, severing his median nerve. That prompted his father to take the long view: at least the injury to his shooting hand would preclude a career in law enforcement.
"I was hard to predict, which may have been a great part of my father's frustrations with me," Conlon writes. "I defied his expectations, high and low: I would be going to Harvard in the fall, but with an arrest record; I won the city championship in the half mile, and would become a pack-a-day smoker." (He later concludes: "Whatever I did as a young man could've prepared me for life on either side of the cell bars.")
At Harvard, a fistfight during the first semester landed Conlon on disciplinary probation for the rest of the year. Thereafter, he avoided trouble. Yet he was continually struck by the "rarity of physical confrontations" experienced by his classmates. "For some football players and other jocks, brawls were ordinary enough," he writes in one of his book's rare mentions of Harvard, "but I would guess that three-quarters of the rest hadn't been in a fight since the third grade. At home I knew people who fought every weekend, and most Saturday nights brought a few rounds of beers and a few rounds of punch es....Having learned the two essential drawbacks of fightingbodily harm and litigationI began to take the position I hold now, that it is to be avoided until it truly can't be, and on most occasions you can provide people enough room and reasons to agree with you. But my altercations had given me a reputation, which was neither very comfortable nor deserved...that I was a useful person to look for in the event of trouble."
Conlon did not perceive Harvard as a ticket to upward mobility, nor was it necessarily a transformative experience personally. "I went because I got in," he says simply. "I'm glad I went there. I don't have too many feelings about it as an institution." The Harvard connection is something he keeps quiet about on the job, saying only he went "to college" when pressed. At the police academy, a teacher pointedly told him it was nothing to be ashamed of. Conlon speaks with affection of the friends he made while in Cambridge (his book is dedicated to his mother and to his roommate Marc Deiter '86, who died in 1993), and of the late, beloved, Lowell professor of the humanities William Alfred, a playwright and poet who grew up in Brooklyn and attended parochial schools (a background not dissimilar to Conlon's). "I used to come over at four and we'd read and talk and so forth," Conlon says, "and if the meeting lasted 'til six then all of a sudden it would be martini time and then I'd stay for dinner and we'd just keep talking." Conlon's senior thesis was on Samuel Beckett; Alfred later passed on to Conlon a thank-you note from the playwright.
But Boston and Cambridge in general seemed quiet and small to Conlon, who lives in the Bronx. The plan always was to return to his home turf. After graduating, he "wrote a bad novel" and worked as a messenger, elevator operator, and "guy-at-the-copy-machine" at a law firm to raise money for a six-month trip to Yugoslavia. By the fall of 1988, he writes, "in terms of my prospects, my coin was still in the air." Then, soon after his Uncle Eddie died, his cousin, "Patty the Nun," introduced him to a priest named James Joyce (really), and Conlon became court liaison for an alternative sentencing organization in Brooklyn.
Excited by work in the courts and on the streets of the borough's roughest neighborhoods, and emboldened by a sense of moral responsibility, Conlon was also deeply touched by the people he met and the promise he saw in one particular teenager, Jack, who was "a rare case with a real chance." When, despite Conlon's passionate arguments, the judge nevertheless sentenced the youth to juvenile prison, "I felt nauseous," he writes. "'It's all right, Mr. Conlon,' Jack said, touching my arm. 'Thanks for everything. You gonna be okay?'" (Years later Conlon contacted Jack and was elated to find he was married with two kids, worked as a counselor for troubled youth, and had nearly completed a doctorate.)
Conlon also pursued freelance writing, publishing a piece on subways in the American Spectator, and, in 1993, an article for the New Yorker on Potter's Field, an historic cemetery for indigents, prisoners, and unknown dead on Hart Island in the Bronx. (Years later, after he became a police officer, the magazine published his "Cop Diary" series between 1997 and 2000 under the pseudonym "Marcus Laffey"which led to the nearly $1-million book deal for Blue Blood.)
On the brink of turning 30 and frustrated by the hustle of freelancing and its meager compensation, Conlonunbeknownst to his friends and familydecided to enter the police academy. His father had already died, in 1991, and his mother, a psychologist, was unhappy when she heard the news. Conlon says he wasn't quite sure himself why he did it, though it "seemed right." "I was tired of freelancing," he reports, "and I knew a lot of cops and got to know more by writing about crime and the city, and I saw that no one seemed to love their jobs like they didwhen it was going well." Uncle Eddie also bears some responsibility. "He embodied 'the Job' for me, in his steadiness, his thick skin, and the pleasure he took in the raw comedy of street life," Conlon writes. "He worked from his gutand it was a considerable gutin a way that is increasingly rare amid technologies and bureaucracies of today."
His six months of training confirmed a deep-seated inclination. "Though the [police] academy felt like an odd combination of kindergarten and boot camp," he says in the book, "I was nonetheless buoyed by a sense of mission, a heart-lightening hope that I was becoming part of something unexpectedly strong and large and good." Homework entailed memorizing New York City's dog-leash and pooper-scooper laws, the authorization dates for tire chains, and the seasonal rules for wearing short-sleeved shirts while in uniform. An instructor warned them not to get so fat they couldn't run up to the thirtieth floor of an apartment building on a chase, "or BAM! You are done!" Conlon had never worked so hard.
As a rookie assigned to public-housing units, Conlon patrolled the dirty rooftops, corridors, courtyards, and alleyways where drug dealing and other crimes were rampant, but where, he makes clear, there were also good people with legal jobs raising kids amid chaos. He began to get a sense of the elasticity of human experience. Some people thanked him for being there, others hurled things down at himbottles, eggs, a canned ham, and, once, a piece of brick, which he still keeps in his desk. "It is hard not to take that kind of thing personally," he says.
He also learned to answer that perennial question from a provocateur, "What the ____ you gonna do about it?" with "Whatever I have to." And mean it. Good cops are Method actors, he explains: "They make a controlled use of their emotions from empathy to anger, depending on whether the scene to be played is a conflict with a crowd or persuading an EDP [emotionally disturbed person] to go to the hospital.... The police work of action, of confrontation and force, the roundhouse punches and high-speed chases, is what makes both the movies and the news.... But what you say and how you say it comes into play far more often than anything you do with a stick or a gun, and can prevent the need for them. If you talk a good game, you're halfway there."
The sprawling, 559-page Blue Blood includes digressions into Conlon's family history and insightful observations on urban race relations, corruption, and anti-crime techniques (namely Compstat, a system of compiling and analyzing computerized crime statistics to better identify trends, deploy officers, and hold commanders accountable that was instituted by William J. Bratton, police commission er in the first Giuliani administration). Conlon's impressive knowledge of and passion for New York City history and its political characters shine through outhe cherishes his home town. This makes all the more wrenching a section on sorting through the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
The reader is also drawn to Conlon's vivid patrol stories: one hilarious anecdote about saving a woman from her "psychotic" cat; nightlife at an emergency room; interrogating "the Fat Kid"; painful efforts to interview a mentally retarded girl who claims she was sexually assaulted; and the harrowing tale of an elderly woman found alive in her bed, but covered with maggots and rat bites. After his public-housing stint, Conlon moved to a close-knit narcotics squad. He offers engrossing accounts of the history and underworld of drug dealingfrom its teenaged players and surprisingly entrepreneurial business tactics, to the desperate, cadaverous junkies and the never-ending waiting, watching, and pouncing that cops endure to nail an arrest that may not even make it to prosecution.
The stress and strain of "the Job"its basic insularity and unusual work shifts often result in cops who become either completely immersed in the work, shunning a home life, or end up leading double lives. At times, Conlon has done both. "I didn't see friends for months [when I was working on] a homicide; I didn't go swimming this summer until Septemberwhen I went to Miami on a case," he says. On vacation, it takes him a few days to get used to not carrying a gun. He dates, but is unmarried. Off-duty, Conlon keeps quiet about his job because people react oddly: strangers at a party might ask if he's killed anyone or whether there's corruption in the department. Sometimes they corner him to complain about a parking ticket. Conlon writes about how wonderful it is to watch one of the toughest officers on the drug unit be "tender and patient" while helping her son with homework at the precinct, to see the "contrast between home life, job life, and street life, and how it demanded a different person to meet each."
Conlon was once offered a post in the police commissioner's office, a promotion with regular day-job hours he felt obligated to take. But he was relieved when it fell through because "I had become a cop precisely to avoid work that entailed a suit, a commute, and a cubicle."
Indeed, the South Bronx, his workplace, is as far from an office park as you can get. The place was practically a war zone in the 1970s: fires raged in abandoned buildings, the homeless lived in rubble-filled lots, and many people simply moved, leaving behind a desolate wasteland. The controversial 1981 movie Fort Apache, The Bronx depicted the mayhem. (At one point the city painted board ed-up windows with flowers in pots and curtains to suggest a cheery domestic life withinan effort that fooled only those in town from another planet.) Conlon enjoys the fact that for decades the official Bronx flower was the titan arum, the putrid-smelling "corpse flower."
In 2000, municipal leaders shifted the designation to the daylily and debuted a gorgeous coral-pink hybrid dubbed "The Bronx""more benign and much less interesting," Conlon notes. Yet the change was emblematic of the borough's dramatic civic comeback. Most of the South Bronx's burned-out structures have been replaced with new housing stock, the parks are spruced up, and crime rates have dropped. (The 44th Precinct's annual murder count, for example, stood at 17 in mid November, down 70 percent from what it was at the same time in 1990.)
But the cops won't be laid off for lack of work anytime soon. Crimes still happen, Conlon says, especially at night, especially in one park, where prostitution of various kinds is common. Trafficking in heroin, crack, and occasionally angel dust (PCP) is still a thriving businessand oddly integrated into daily life, as any other local company might be. The trade's leaders are well known and their violent deaths sometimes publicly mourned. Around the corner from where Mike Murder was killed is a glossy, professional-looking, spray-painted mural featuring the beatific face of former dealer "Richie""RIP Dec. 9, 1978- Dec. 5, 2003"and a nearly life-sized image of his white Lexus sedan. A shelf standing against the wall holds a heart-shaped box of fresh red carnations, a white teddy bear, and a lit candle in a glass bearing the image of Jesus. "Bad neighborhoods are just that in part because of people like Richie," Conlon says. "There is a constituency that roots for the bad guyspartly in an old-fashioned outlaw way, because he makes money and fights the system. Murals like that are put up and protected by his crew, fellow dealers, and criminals, but I'm sure there are other people who knew him as a person...to his family and friends he was more than just a rap sheet."
And so "the Job" continues. At a recent reading of Blue Blood at the new Police Museum in Manhattan, Conlon was asked if he has anything left to say. "Oh yeah," he answered, "I'm working on a novel." Then he mentioned a case involving two men, one named Jesus DeJesus. The pair allegedly shot a woman who had moved into an apartment being used as a drug-packing spot. "They had words. It heat ed up from there," Conlon explained. The woman ended up with a bullet nicking the Jesus tattoo on her shoulderright in the middle of the crown of thorns. Conlon locked up Jesus that day and got the other man a week later. "Things like that happen all the time," he added. "You knock on a door and someone has to tell you a story."
~Nell Porter Brown