I once took the New York City police exam on a whim. In the suburbs of Long Island where I grew up, a large portion of high school buddies already had badges and guns by their early twenties. “Dude,” an acquaintance would say from the stool of a local tavern, “I shot my gun off the Brooklyn Bridge at three in the morning… It was friggin’ awesome!” I‘d played football with this guy in high school. He used to shoplift wearing his game jersey…with his last name stitched on the back.
Although from the perspective of a substitute teacher earning fifty dollars a day, his ugly boast was a bit intriguing. The undeniable fact that I would never posses a cop soul meant nothing to me at the time. I had no desire to fire rounds off an iconic bridge before sunrise, but the allure of Gotham and a steady paycheck would serve as my motivation. I signed up for the test.
Over a year went by before I was to report to the academy, an antiquated building in Gramercy Park. Only my interest had waned by this time. The vetting process was lengthy, my background investigator intrusive, and I’d just received a fellowship to a fine writing program. I now belonged somewhere and it wasn’t sitting before a detective explaining the origins of a fight I’d had in the eleventh grade.
Yet I still continued to show every time an official letter arrived, the interviews and finger prints, the psych evaluation and eventually the fitness portion at the academy. My outsider status was apparent the moment I arrived. In a frozen meadow of brush cuts, my hair flopped down to the jaw. When it was time to fire a dummy pistol at a dummy assailant, I was the only lefty. An instructor asked me if I had at least sixty college credits, I declared three times that amount with the pride of an English school boy.
I sensed this folly’s conclusion once the mile began. The track was small and narrow, eight laps instead of four. The first leg was slow so I took a commanding lead; a pleasant runner’s high settling my nerves. Here was where I might finally have a say: The best guy for the job was the one no longer interested.
I started to lap the pack, those lumbering stragglers in back, and everyone else. Then I lapped them again, thoroughly enjoying myself now. By the final sprint, I was determined to crush the others into a fine blue paste beneath my Nikes. I picked up my stuff and left, relishing the moment when I would tell them no thanks.
“Sir, this is Detective Hassle. It seems there’s a last minute concern with your employment record.”
“Apparently you ate a brownie without asking.”
“A fudge brownie, sir, from your previous employer… You were terminated but never mentioned it in your paperwork.”
“I didn’t think it was relevant.”
“Well, the restaurant did. According to them you were fired for stealing.”
“But…it was a brownie.”
The unauthorized brownie, I remember it well. It was covered in whipped cream and sprinkled with walnuts. It was made of luscious chocolate fudge and it went down smooth.
Allow me to explain. I needed a second job to supplement the teaching. Raised on a waitress’ tips, I’ve always held a reverence for restaurant work. Turns out my mother’s skills were not hereditary. I was the worst server in the history of food. On the night I was preparing to quit I’d been eyeing that brownie for hours. There were rules, of course, one cheeseburger allowed per shift. I’d never eaten any of mine so I figured twenty-five burgers were equivalent to one brownie. Not so. I was fired that evening, a scandal apparently that I would never live down.
At long last my fugitive days were over. The NYPD had cracked the case wide open. My character was called into question and I was declared unfit for the academy. All that time I thought I was in the lead, it was actually me who was being lapped, sunk deep in a chocolaty mire of my own doing.
In later years I taught numerous composition classes to students who needed credits for the academy. In the margins of their papers where I made my remarks, I felt obligated to warn them of the perils of illicit baked goods. Shoot as many rounds off bridges as you like just be mindful of temptation, those pies cooling in a window, the fresh doughnut in a child’s hand, look away candidate, look away…
JB McGeever is writing a novel about the closing of a New York City high school.