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I have always wanted to write about my relationship with the police. There are those in the culture who have a daily connection with them and there are those whose only connection revolves around traffic tickets and accidents. I come from a comfortable immigrant culture, obedient, law-abiding, grateful, unquestioning, and destined for a little success in America, at least in Pittsburgh. I myself was an angel who believed literally in what was told me—at least to a certain age. I don’t know if it was the sudden death of my sister—when she was nine and I was eight—or the move to a new neighborhood, in the mid-thirties, in order to escape her memory and presence, that changed me. We were living in a crowded little settlement, in a small house across the street from a woods, in what was then a suburb, and we were the only Jews on the street. The new neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, was all apartment houses, densely populated, and predominantly Jewish. I suddenly had many friends, I hung out on the streets, and there was no more Jew-baiting. No one broke my glasses or pummeled me with snowballs because I killed Christ. And no gang of twelve-year-olds ever left me bleeding—from a nose, a mouth, an eye, an ear—because I was rich and abused Christians, especially Catholics.
As far as the police were concerned, they were benevolent and gracious, and I never could understand why Crazy Cat threw bricks at Occifer Pup. When I was fourteen or fifteen, things changed. The high school I went to, Taylor-Allderdice, and the streets and alleys around it, suddenly found itself the center of a real battle between the Jews—sons and daughters of storekeepers, salesmen, and a few professionals—and the Hunkies, sons and daughters of the mill-workers, mostly of eastern and southern European stock. The Hunkies, a pejorative term ridiculously connected with “Hungarian” probably, relieved their frustrations and lack of hope, and coupled it with the anti-Semitism they brought over from Europe by beating up isolated Jews. After one Jewish boy was permanently paralyzed from one such beating, we fought back by surrounding our enemies when they left school and inflicting a little damage. The police arrived in force, arrested only the aggressors, and took us off to Juvenile court. I remember the ringleaders, myself foremost, were held overnight, and I remember I made a speech.
I think I was shocked by the stupidity, deft ignorance and insensitivity of the police. They apparently had never heard of anti-Semitism, and knew nothing of the conditions at our high school. In my innocence, I had believed the police’s own version of themselves, that they were above the fray and interested only in justice; but quicker than you can say Eugene V. Debs or Karl H. Marx, I learned that they not only had the prejudices of their own class, including religious, racial, ethnic, geographic and economic bias, but were themselves a kind of class, with their own beliefs and prejudices. This is certainly a no-brainer today, but I’m writing about a fifteen-year-old boy in the thirties and his education. I was a quick learner, though my grades were bad; and my own experience taught me, over the period of a couple of years, where I was arrested several times for the same charges (I remember it included ‘inciting to riot’) and delivered over to the same authorities, where matters truly lay.
It’s hard for me now—in my seventies—to know when I finished my learning. I was already in my late thirties and early forties during the civil rights and anti-war protests. I had small children and a university teaching job. I made a speech or two and read some poems, as far as the Vietnam protests, which came very close to getting me fired; and I organized and led the largest civil rights march in Pennsylvania, which required the cooperation of the local and state police, but by then I knew the rules, and it was easy enough to get them to protect the marchers. Also I, and my family, were permanently barred from using the local (segregated) swimming pool by a retired state-trooper with a bad heart who “didn’t want any trouble” when a small group of us, black and white, dipped our bodies in the bigoted water, but no one got hurt, and no one got arrested. You never finish learning, but I understood things and was “armed” maybe when I was twenty or twenty-one. Maybe the poor and tinted know it when they are half that age; whatever their verbalizations are. I at least was caucasian, educated, and had a smart tongue. And I could “escape” anytime I wanted, just by doing nothing.
I was arrested and taken to one station or another a number of times. It happened mainly because I was out there, active, in the way. And I stayed up late. The best single way not to get in trouble is to stay home, bolt the door and turn on the TV. If a child is bleeding to death on your stoop, for God’s sake, let it die. It’s the best way. To avoid getting finger-printed, of course, one shouldn’t dress oddly, or drive an unusual car, or stop to pee against a bush or a wall. I remember a friend of mine—late fifties, Philadelphia—parked his rusted-out Chevy a little close for a policeman’s comfort to a hydrant. We measured and won. But the policeman was furious. He kept saying, “You’re a dead giveaway” and his face got redder and redder. I don’t know if he was referring to the rusty car or to my friend’s full beard, not yet in style, but what he was really saying was, “Behave according to a convention I can recognize and approve of; don’t be a ingrate, wise guy, intellectual; bohemian, arrogant, irresponsible; pay your goddamn taxes, get your sticker in time, commie bastard homo.”
Or am I being excessively hard on him? Wasn’t he underpaid, overworked, lonely? Was he having trouble, was he sick, harassed? If he was defending class interest, was it working class or middle class? What did it have to do with his uniform, his sense of duty? Did he think at all in terms of class? What was his value-system? If it was hard work, punctuality, toeing the line, dependability, suspicion of the outsider, one form of puritanism or another, weren’t we perfect game? Even in our lack of respect and fear? Even in our dress? Even that we were not working, but floating about. Free. How old, and persistent, is this love affair?
One time, in Pittsburgh, Dick Hazley and I made arrangements to meet, probably at eleven or eleven-thirty at night, on a certain bridge on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. We had gone earlier to a meeting of the Progressive Party in someone’s living room. It was 1948 and Henry Wallace, vice-president under Roosevelt, was running for president against Truman and Dewey. I was in my aesthetic and anti-political phase at the time, so was Hazley, and we went there to get free food and to pick up girls. The one we both wanted preferred Hazley to me, hence our agreement to meet on the bridge afterwards, to walk awhile and discuss the evening. Just before Dick arrived, an unmarked car with two detectives inside stopped beside me and I was arrested—at least they pushed me into the back seat of the car. “Where’s the other guy?” they actually asked, and just at that moment Dick came up the hill, whistling, probably from his conquest. He was pushed into the back seat too. When we indignantly protested that we both lived a few blocks away I think they knew they had made a mistake, but they were determined to go through with it, especially when they learned we were at a meeting of the Progressive Party, nor would they listen to our pleas but berated us for being “communists.” It seemed that two sexual predators used that end of the bridge for their forays, and that’s why we were stopped. So they claimed, but they said nothing more about it, drove us to old number eleven on Northhampton Street and kept us overnight. In the morning they let us call our parents, who were extremely angry—at us—and we were released, with no charges, but dire vague warnings. I don’t know if a phone call was a nickel or a dime at the time. I voted for Wallace, the first time I voted.
Maybe six months later, Jack Gilbert and I were taking a walk in that section of Squirrel Hill that had huge houses and large lawns, off Shady Avenue, between Forbes and Fifth. It was about midnight; we had finished talking about poetry and, in the presence of these grand homes, we were doing architecture. I think I was delivering a lecture on the Georgian style when suddenly a black wagon pulled up and we were forced inside by Pittsburgh’s Finest. Again it was a mistake—someone had reported prowlers. After all, it was late. We were taken to no. 11 and, in front of a huge desk out of Kafka, we were questioned by a very heavy sergeant. He paid very little attention to me at first but lectured Jack, whose father he had known, about walking down the streets late at night and thus giving the police trouble. Jack’s father, who fell out of an attic window to his death, had been a slack-ropewalker and dog-faced boy in the circus and, later, an exterminator. He was a well-known figure about town, and the sergeant was particularly angry at Jack for disgracing his memory this way. By way of pride, he ordered Jack to remain in East Liberty (three blocks away) and not return to Squirrel Hill. Instead of agreeing with this absurd demand, Jack insisted on his right to go anywhere he pleased, and I almost ended up in one of those cells again. What distracted the sergeant was a poem I was carrying around about Jonah and his reluctance. He was very distrustful of the poem, questioned me about it, and even held it up to the light. It saved the day and we were discharged, with a warning.
I don’t know if I’m getting these in the right order or even the right year. I think I am. Except for the high school incidents, they were preceded by two arrests (for the same charge) while I was in the army just after World War II, but I’ll come to that later. In the late spring of 1949, just after I had returned to Pittsburgh from New York City, where I had gotten an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University, I rendezvoused with the future Pat Stern (then Miller), who was a student in the Painting and Design department at Carnegie-Tech (later, Carnegie-Mellon) outside the Carnegie Library. On the steps. Her grades had suffered a lot since we met—a year or so earlier—and she was feverishly trying to get through several projects before graduation. (Two of her classmates were Andy Warhol and Philip Pearlstein, a high school friend who introduced me to her, albeit grudgingly). She had to get back to her dorm by ten, so we had about an hour together. We were sitting on a park bench under a street lamp faced away from the street—it was Forbes—about fifty yards from the library. Suddenly we were approached by a man who identified himself as a detective and placed us under arrest. (The dear words again). Pat was startled and confused, and I was alarmed and suspicious. He showed me a badge but was evasive when I asked what the charges were. He and a colleague drove us in an unmarked car to the local police station, where we were held overnight and driven down to the court house the next morning. I knew the detectives were from the vice squad, and I knew the vice squad generally preyed on homosexuals, so I was trying to figure out why we were being held. They probably had no luck in the latrines and had to move one step up (or down) the sexual ladder. I knew the charge would be sexual and I assumed we would be accused of committing an “unnatural” act, probably fellatio, which, in legal terminology, is called sodomy. A crime then, when done in public. Probably still so today.
I called my parents as a matter of course, and my father came down to the courthouse. He was furious and embarrassed, and though no charge had been made yet, the nature of it was in the air—you could smell it. I think we had about eighty steps to climb to arrive at the entrance—enough to make us breathless and humble—and while we were walking up we were approached by someone who claimed to be a lawyer, insisted he knew our family, said it was a mistake, and offered to “fix it up.” He took the three of us into a side room to sign some papers and asked us for a little money, five-hundred, a thousand, whatever the false fee was in those days. My father was ready to sign but I wouldn’t let him. After a few minutes we were called into a small courtroom, full of police, social workers, reporters and a judge. The odd thing, now that I think of it, was that there was no police presence when we were with the lawyer, or even before. We were just left in his custody—or company—without any formal or legal sanction. There were no handcuffs; we could have just walked out. Pat was in a daze from the whole thing, she was stunned, but her main concern, I found out later, was how to explain her absence from the dorm the night before. She was due to sign in at ten P.M., but she didn’t arrive till the next afternoon. She couldn’t very well say to her house-mother that she was arrested by a detective from the vice squad, held in a cell overnight and charged with sodomy. Nor would it have helped to explain the corruption in the system, neither to the house-mother nor the dean of women; not in 1949. The assumption was that she had spent the night with me and didn’t cover her tracks. Indeed, her close friend, Ellie, hedging her bets, said that Pat had spent the night at her house, so we had to accommodate to that lie too. What we came up with was that I got sick—I fainted, or had a heart attack, something like that, and we went to my house. Luckily, my mother corroborated the lie. Carnegie Tech, of course, punished Pat. They let her graduate but forbade her from participating in the ceremonies. Which infuriated her father.
At the hearing I was lucid, calm and convincing. I explained that we were sitting under a street lamp twenty feet from the street and that it was not a likely place for us to have oral sex. That we were engaged—Pat and I—and I would not expose her to the indignity of sex in a public place, and that it was clearly a vicious trap involving lying and intimidation. And false, even fake, arrest. My memory is that the detective gave a lame and unconvincing argument.
We were sent to another room, the three of us, and the vile prick who “represented” us kept bouncing in and out. I was reminded by Pat, with whom I checked the events out on the phone yesterday, that his name was Martin. She remembered that. Finally Martin told us the case was being remanded to the grand jury, but not to worry, it was common practice.
On the way out I insisted that we go see the family attorney. My father, who now believed my story, was ashamed and just wanted to give Martin the money. However I did persuade him, and when our attorney found out the facts he thought it was a perfect opportunity to get Martin—whose “work” he knew well—disbarred and the vice-squad detectives fired, maybe jailed. But my father didn’t want my name in the newspaper. His attorney found out in a few minutes that there was no case—that it had not been remanded to the grand jury—it had been thrown out by the magistrate.
For my part, I visited Martin every few days to see how things were going. We were both keeping each other on the string, only I had the advantage. The reason I didn’t confront him then was that I was worried about him interfering in some way with Pat’s graduation, by a dumb phone call to the wrong person, for he was not only vicious but a little stupid. As soon as Pat got her diploma—through the mails—I visited Martin for the last time and calmly told him what I knew before I cursed him out. He wasn’t embarrassed, indignant or apologetic. What he said was, “you could at least give me fifty bucks for my time.” I refrained from breaking his jaw and left. I was starting to pity him.