by Robert B. Cohen
They sat in the car, not talking. The only sounds were the engine idling and the windshield wipers. Quiet nights were nice, Frank thought, especially Sunday nights, although when it was quiet he tended to smoke too much. It wasn't even ten o'clock yet, and he was lighting the last cigarette in his pack. He crumpled the empty pack, dropped it on the floor of the car and then rolled his window down. Eddie shook his head and smiled. He knew that Frank's right elbow was out the window and that in a few minutes the drizzle would soak the right side of his shirt. Frank explained once that since he was soaking wet underneath his vest anyway, what difference did it make? He might as well cool off a little bit by getting his arm and shoulder wet, too.
The portable radio lying on the seat between them sputtered weakly to life. Frank picked it up instead of making it louder, and held it near his head. Making it louder just made the static louder. "Unit covering Seventh Avenue on the 'F', Seventh Avenue, come in to central." Silence. "Unit covering Seventh Avenue, come in to central." Another voice came over the radio: "Central, what's the condition at Seventh Avenue, kay?"
"Unit calling, what's your shield?" Silence again. Eddie laughed and said, "I guess he's got radio trouble."
"They're playing tag," Frank answered. If there was something serious, like a robbery in progress, central would broadcast the job straight out and cops would be tripping over each other to respond. When they called for a cop covering a specific post it usually turned out to be something like a drunk or a dispute, so instead of just blindly answering the cops would try to find out what the job was. On the other hand, the dispatcher would try to get the cop to identify himself on the air before giving out a distasteful job, just in case an anonymous cop should have a change of heart. It would seem to make for a pretty good game, except that if central couldn't get a foot cop to answer up for a job they'd refer it to the patrol sergeant. The boss would check his rollcall to see which cop had the post, and if he couldn't get that cop he'd assign somebody else. Then he would spend the rest of his night hunting down the missing cop and generally trying to make his life miserable. The game then, was basically futile. They still played it.
"I think Murphy's got Seventh Avenue," Eddie said. Frank checked his rollcall. "Nope, we do. Murphy's out to meal until ten-thirty. We've got the whole 'F' line down to where district thirty-four picks it up. Looks like we're covering half the borough. What's it now, a quarter after?" Before Eddie could answer, the car's radio came on. "Thirty Robert, thirty Queen on the air, thirty Robert or thirty Queen?" The dispatcher was calling either of the two police cars assigned to the section of Brooklyn's subways known as district thirty. The car's radio was a different frequency than the portable radio. It was loud and clear; you really couldn't play tag. Frank reached forward and keyed the mike without removing it from the dashboard. "Thirty Robert, go, central."
"Yeah, Robert, Seventh Avenue, female outstretch, blue ski jacket, southbound side. Call's from the railroad clerk, kay." He answered, "Robert, ten-four."
The first time he had heard the term 'outstretch' used, he thought it was pretty bizarre. It meant, quite simply, a person laid out. An outstretch could involve a wide range of underlying circumstance, but by September of 1988, it was usually nothing more than a homeless person sleeping in some objectionable place. Without realizing it he had become numb to the term and was now just trying to do some mental arithmetic. "Ed, how far out are we from Seventh?" Eddie said, "Maybe ten minutes. Why don't we let Murphy take it? He'll be coming off meal in a few minutes. It's his post, anyway." Frank didn't answer. It was bothering him that it was a female outstretch. It wasn't normal. Most police contacts with homeless people in the subway were with men, not women. "Nah, Eddie, we gotta take it. It might be a victim of a crime or something. I mean, if it ain't, I'll have Murphy pick it up, but we gotta go." Eddie put the car in gear. "Yeah, I guess," he said as he pulled away from the curb. He put on the defrosters, but the yellowish haze on the windshield was from weeks of cigarette smoke. They drove off slowly, partly because of the rain.
Frank had been looking at his rollcall when Eddie said, "We're here, Sarge." He eased the big black and white Suburban into a bus-stop, placed the shift lever in park and turned off the ignition. The engine started dieseling and the car shook as if it were having a seizure. "Shit," he said as he turned the ignition back on, instantly restarting the engine. When he turned it off a second time the car lurched once, sighed and fell silent. "Embarrassing," he said, "I hope nobody seen this." As they opened their doors and stepped down out of the car, Eddie pulled out his nightstick from where it had been jammed between the seat cushions. With a familiar cadence they locked and closed their doors and disappeared down the stairwell beneath the green globes.
It was a different world. The stairway led to a long, narrow corridor with a concrete floor, ceramic tile walls and very bright flourescent lights. There was a stench of urine as they entered the corridor. As they walked along the smell eased a bit. Frank wondered if his nose was simply adjusting. The corridor, like most of the subway, was an echo chamber. Some cops liked to make cop noise; they'd have all kinds of jingling things hanging from their gunbelts and they'd keep their radios turned up. Maybe they were hoping for a scarecrow effect, that the cop noise would precede them and shoo the mopes and the mutts away. Frank and Eddie were both from the quiet school. Neither of them jingled and they both kept their radios low. Eddie was even wearing black sneakers. As stealthy as they tried to be, there was still no mistaking the sound of the two uniformed cops in the Seventh Avenue station.
The corridor finally ended by opening up onto the subway station's mezzanine, an area about the size and shape of a football field, not as brightly-lit as the corridor. There were floor-to-ceiling fences and gates of dismally painted wrought iron everywhere, like jailhouse bars. Combined with dozens of steel pillars, the effect was visually disturbing. Maybe it was the low ceilings that did it, maybe the lighting. Frank knew that his eyes would adjust to this surreal view, as his nose had already adjusted to the smell.
There was a deep and increasingly louder rumble as a train pulled into the station down below on another level. Then abruptly, silence for a few moments. Then more rumbling as the train pulled out. They could feel the power of it through their feet as they walked. At the other end of the mezzanine, Frank saw several shadowy forms come up the stairs from the platforms below and disappear into the stairwells that led to the street. He heard a noise behind them, conversation and giggling. He turned and saw a group of teenage girls exiting through the corridor that the two of them had just come from, all wearing skin-tight stretch pants and bulky, oversized sweaters with the sleeves pulled out over their hands. As they disappeared into the corridor he noticed that they even had identical hairstyles.
At the center of the mezzanine they came to the token booth. The clerk didn't acknowledge the cops as they approached. Frank walked up to the front of the booth. The clerk was sitting and appeared to be reading something. He didn't look up. Frank waited a few seconds, then he tapped on the glass. There was a microphone in the middle of the bulletproof glass, but he leaned down and spoke into the change slot, "How ya doing?" The clerk, a cheesy-looking guy with cokebottle glasses, looked up for a second, said something he couldn't make out, and returned to whatever he was doing. Annoyed, Frank dropped his smile and said, "Hey, did you call us, or what?" The clerk looked up again and smacked the microphone with the back of his hand, "I said, she's down on the plat. Southbound side."
"Who's down on the plat?"
"Hey, what do I know? I'm up here. Go look." Rather than say something nasty, Frank turned and walked away while the clerk was still talking. Yeah, fuck you too, he thought.
They walked to the closest stairwell leading to the southbound platform and went down. At the foot of the stairs they stopped and looked up and down the platforms. The station was nearly empty. There were less than a dozen or so scattered people that they could see. From where they were standing they could see just about everything, except for what was behind the other stairways which came down to the platforms about every hundred feet - exactly where an outstretch could be. Frank said, "I'll go this way." Walking together, it would take them twice as long to check the station.
Frank was nearly at the end of the platform. He had one more stairway to go and his end was clear. He was hoping Eddie's end would be clear, too. He noticed a small pile of rags near the last stairway. He was just thinking that he could use a cigarette and remembering he was out when he saw the rags move. He stopped in his tracks and watched. He couldn't make anything out, in the rags or anywhere around them. He turned and saw Eddie coming back from the other end. He knew Eddie would come to him if he didn't go back, so he started moving slowly toward the last stairway.
When he rounded the stairs he saw that it wasn't a pile of rags at all. On the concrete floor was a girl. She was trying to sit up but it looked like the best she could do was to prop herself up on her elbows. As he approached she weakly pulled her legs toward her body, knees together. What he had thought were rags appeared to be a bag of her possessions. She seemed aware of his approach, but she didn't look at him as he walked to within a few feet of her and stopped. "How you doing?" he said softly. She glanced in his direction briefly, then turned away, looking across the tracks to the other side. "Okay," she said, her voice not much louder than a whisper. Frank studied her. She was a white girl, maybe Hispanic, with dull, matted black hair down to her shoulders. She was terribly thin, with big, blank-looking brown eyes. She was breathing through her mouth. Her face was so thin it made her look bucktoothed. She was wearing a cheap, down-filled navy blue ski jacket that was filthy and stained brown in places, and a odd-looking pair of baggy black plastic pants. She had no socks and only one sneaker, although the layers of dirt made the missing sneaker less obvious. Her ankles, and the foot he could see, were covered with festering, ulcerated sores.
She seemed afraid. He didn't perceive her as much of a threat, considering her physical condition, so he squatted down next to her, resting his rear end on his right heel. He took off his hat, leaving his sweat-soaked hair plastered to his head in the shape formed by the headband of the hat. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "I'm going to Manhattan," she said. Frank looked around to see if there was a sign they could see, but there was none. "You're on the wrong side. This train goes out to Coney Island. The train to Manhattan is on the other side." Expressionless, she said, "I know. Can you help me get to the other side?"
Eddie quietly walked up and said, "Spike." Frank turned and saw he was standing over a hypodermic needle about five feet from her on the side opposite where he was squatting. He had missed it. "Is that yours?" She shook her head without even looking toward Eddie. Frank nodded to him, and Eddie stepped on the needle, crushing it. He casually kicked the pieces onto the tracks. "What's your name?" She didn't respond. He stood up slowly, his right knee making a popping sound. "Listen," he said, "you don't look so good. You want to go to the hospital?" For the first time she made eye contact with him: "What are they gonna do for me?" Then she looked away, back to the blank stare across the tracks. "Well, I can't do anything for you, don't you understand? All I can do for you is take you to the hospital." Still staring, she said in a weak monotone, "I don't want to go to the hospital. I'm going to Manhattan."
"What's in Manhattan?"
"I got people there." If you've got people, how the hell did they let you get here, he thought. "Can you walk?" She nodded. "Go ahead, get up and cross over to the other side. Then you can go to Manhattan." She made a few weak, jerky motions with her legs, then she simply stared. He slowly removed his portable radio from his belt. "Thirty sergeant to central, kay." Static. Then, "Thirty sergeant, go."
"Ah, central, have EMS respond to Seventh Avenue on that outstretch job, kay."
"Ten-four, Sarge. What's the pedigree and condition on that aided, kay?" The city's understaffed emergency medical service was backlogged, and the hospitals were worse. Frank knew that all ambulance requests were prioritized based on the information that the dispatcher was asking for. If you exaggerated the seriousness of the condition, then somebody else might die waiting for the ambulance you got. If you minimized it, you might not get your ambulance as quickly as you needed it. Or at all. "Central, that's a female, uh, twenty-five years, kay."
"Ten-four, Sarge. Condition?" He had been looking at the girl the whole time. Suddenly, he realized something about her strange pair of pants. They were supposed to be skintight stretch pants. The girl as so emaciated they were baggy on her. "Thirty sergeant, kay?" He thought, how do you say, 'dying, no rush?' "Thirty sergeant, come in to central, thirty sergeant?"
"Thirty sergeant, go."
"Sarge, what's the condition on that aided, kay?" He felt very tired. "Exposure, central." There was a long pause. It was September. "Uh, ten four, sarge. Ten-four."
There was a jingling noise coming from the other end. "Well, Murph finally made it." Frank turned and saw another uniformed cop walking down the platform toward them. He recognized Tommy Murphy by his gray moustache and his big belly. Tommy's voice boomed out, "Hey, Big Ed! What do you got?"
"Hey, we got your aided here, you fat bastard. You done stuffing your face, or what?" They both laughed. Frank wasn't laughing. Tommy walked up, saluted Frank, and said, "Hey, boss, I'll pick up this job, no problem. Wanna scratch?" He handed Frank his memobook. There was a steady beeping echoing down from the mezzanine, the signal that a train was coming. While Frank was signing his book, Tommy was putting on a pair of work gloves. "How you doing?" he asked the girl, "You want to go to the hospital, dear?" Without looking at him, she said, "No... I'm going to Manhattan." He turned to Frank and said, "Hey boss, she's gonna refuse. The skell squad's probably at the end of the line down in Coney Island, they'll take her off to a shelter. Let thirty-four worry about it.” A southbound train was coming into the station. They couldn't see it yet, but the rumbling had started. Frank shook his head, and said, "Bullshit, what if they're not down there?" Tommy frowned: "Then the train pulls outta Stillwell, heads north, and she goes to Manhattan. Everybody's set." The rumbling was getting louder; they could see the reflection of the train's headlights moving down the ceramic tile walls of the station. Frank had to raise his voice now: "No, no good No good! You can't do that!" Tommy, also raising his voice over the incoming train, said, "What the hell we gonna do with it then?" As the train was barreling into the station, Frank yelled over the noise, "I'm gonna EDP her!" The letters stood for emotionally disturbed person. Only a sane person had the right to refuse medical attention. Tommy stood there for a second with his mouth hanging open, then suddenly he grabbed the girl, trying to pull her to her feet. Frank yelled something at him, but it was drowned out by the screech of the train braking to a halt. Frank grabbed his arm, his face inches from Tommy's ear. Tommy relaxed his grip on the girl as the screeching reached a crescendo and an instant later, as she slumped to the floor, there was silence as the doors on the 'F' train opened. They all just stood there. The girl was moaning. The few people leaving the train just stepped around them. Three cops standing over a girl lying on the floor and nobody paid any attention. The conductor's bored voice crackled over the train's speakers: "Stand clear the closing doors..." The doors closed and the train rumbled out of the station.
Before the noise died down completely, Frank started yelling again. "What the hell was that all about? What's wrong with you! Jesus Christ!" Tommy quietly said, "Sarge, can I talk to you a minute?" Taking the hint, Eddie said awkwardly as he started up the stairs, "I gotta go, uh, get something from the car, I'll be right back."
"Tommy, I say she's an EDP, she's an EDP! You don't turn around and do something else!" Tommy said calmly, "Frank, it's a bad call. She's not an EDP, she’s – ”
"Bad call? Who the fuck you talking to?"
“She's not an EDP. She's a skell. She's just a skell. She probably got AIDS or some fucking thing." Frank could feel his face getting hot, but he said nothing. Anyone overhearing this conversation would think that Tommy was a callous scumbag, he thought. They had known each other a long time, and he knew this wasn't so. Only two months ago, at Jay Street, a drunk had fallen to the tracks and was run over by a train. Officer Murphy, with seventeen years on the job, crawled under the still-electrified train to get to him. The terrified man spoke no English, so Tommy just held his hand as he bled to death. People said that that took balls, but Frank knew that wasn't what it took. He looked at Tommy's face, in his eyes, and saw there was no malice.
He looked down to the girl. She had tried to drag herself away while they were arguing. There were tracks of some type of bodily fluid on the concrete, and she was nearer to the stairs. He felt the frustration rising within him. He hated these jobs, when nothing he could do seemed right. He was looking at the girl, wishing she had gone some other place, any other place, when he noticed that the dirty shirt beneath her dirty jacket was a feminine floral print, probably very pretty once. Once. He had a sudden urge to leave.
"Yeah, okay. Fine," he handed Tommy back his book. Tommy saw the look on his face. "Hey, Frank, I'm sorry. I'll take care of this, all right, whatever you want to do." After a long, uncomfortable pause, Frank said quietly, "When I put this job on the air it went out as a straight aided. I didn't put it out as an EDP, you understand? Just an aided." Tommy understood. The two men stood there in silence. What Frank had told him was that if the girl got up and walked away, that he should cancel the request for an ambulance. If she got up and walked away - or if she left on a train. "Okay, boss, I'll take care of it. Go on, I'll see you later." Frank turned and walked away quickly.
Eddie was waiting for him up by the token booth. Frank didn't stop and he had to jog a few steps to catch up. They walked out through the long corridor, up the stairs, down the street back to the Suburban. The rain had stopped. They climbed back into the car and as Eddie started the engine he asked, "Where to?" Frank threw his hat on the back seat and said, "Cigarettes."
They drove to an all-night diner a few blocks away and made polite small-talk with the aging waitress as they had their coffee. When they got back into the car Frank lit another cigarette, even though he had just smoked two in the diner. On the portable radio central was calling for the unit covering Bay Parkway, only a few stops further down the 'F' line, but in the adjoining district, district thirty-four. They paid no attention. "You know, I can't believe him sometimes. That little scene back there looked really terrible."
"Frank, there wasn’t anybody there to see it. Besides, nobody gives a shit." Throwing his just-lit cigarette out the window, Frank turned in his seat, facing his partner. "Maybe I give a shit. The law says if an emotionally disturbed person is a danger then I can take her to the hospital against her will, right, and if she wants to lay there and die on a subway platform, then I can say she's nuts and she's gotta go, okay?" Eddie didn't answer. The dispatcher was still trying in vain to raise the cop covering Bay Parkway. "All right. Okay. I know she ain't crazy, I know she'd end up sitting in the goddam psych ward at Woodhull for eighteen hours until some doctor says, sorry, you're just screwed, next! So what are we supposed to do? At least I could say I tried to do something..." The game of radio tag continued. "Hey, Frank, I'm not arguing with you. As far as I'm concerned, you didn't do anything wrong back there." Then the car radio came alive: "Thirty-four William on the air, thirty-four William? Bay Parkway on the 'F', female outstretch, blue ski jacket, southbound side, kay." Frank looked away and they sat in the car, not talking.
© 2002 Robert B. Cohen
Bob Cohen was a New York City Transit Police Officer for ten years and is currently a captain in the NYPD.