B A R E L Y B A D  W E B  S I T E  

True story

A judge I used to know when I was a claims adjuster asked to read some of my writing, and I in turn asked to read some of his.  He said he had recently written a brief essay but that he couldn’t publish it, he could show it only to people he trusted.  I asked why and he said, “You’ll see when you read it.”

A few days later he sent me the document I've transcibed below.  The envelope it came in was marked “Personal and Confidential,” and there’s a sticky note on the cover page that says, “August 26, 1983. John -- For your eyes only” and his initials.  For reasons that will become obvious, I’ve changed a few unimportant words in this account to disguise the identity of the author.  Otherwise this is a verbatim transcription (including a bad word) of the true story, and a well-written one at that.

It's titled "Midtown."

 

I read in the obituaries this morning that Woodrow Johnson died.  He wasn't the sort you thought of as dying of natural causes, but he did.  It was a short article with his picture, and he looked just as I remember him -- the only way I'd ever seen him, in fact, because he always looked the same.  He didn't look at all like a detective really looks.  His face was black with a white man's features, a long narrow nose and a distinguished mustache in a squarish face.  His snap-brim hat was slightly back on his head, the way it always was, and the expression was the same too, a poker-faced nonexpression that never gave you even a hint about what he was thinking.  I looked at that face staring back at me from the newspaper for a long time, wondering if he ever knew the impact he had on my life.  Of course he didn't; he barely knew who I was.  But if life is truly a series of milestones, he planted one in mine.  He planted it that warm summer night fifteen years ago, and on that night I turned a corner forever.  Now, looking back, the event had a definite prelude, the incident at the Heartland Bank, which happened four years earlier.  Strange that it, too, was born of terrible violence; that it, too, was conceived by Woodrow Johnson.

I was a new policeman when the Heartland Bank incident happened.  I was working on the paddy wagon in another district that day.  My partner and I were assigned to give what assistance we could, and when we arrived the excitement was about over.  There was a crowd outside the front door, and a young sergeant stopped talking to reporters to take us aside and tell us what happened.  Detective Woodrow Johnson had been driving down Sacramento Street on his way into the station when he came upon an hysterical woman screaming in the street.  He quieted her enough to learn that a few minutes before a deranged man walked into the bank with an automatic rifle and just started shooting people.  Johnson picked up the microphone, calm as you please, told the dispatcher what he had, and said he was going in.  Without waiting for help, with his little five shot snub-nosed revolver, Woodrow Johnson went in to meet the crazy man with the automatic weapon.  What happened next was unclear.  Woodrow somehow surprised the guy with the rifle -- the "offender," as we referred to him -- and ordered him to drop the gun.  He whirled and fired at Woodrow, and Woodrow shot him dead.  The deranged man had killed five people, and several more wounded.  The sergeant told us all except the dead offender had been removed to a hospital.

I got a stretcher from the back of the wagon and went into the bank.  Blood was everywhere, dripped and splattered, and in one spot it was smeared across the blue tile floor where someone had slipped in it.  I tried hard to pretend it didn't bother me, to pretend I saw this kind of thing every day, but I was afraid I was going to be sick, and then I slipped and nearly fell myself when I stepped on an empty brass rifle cartridge.  I saw they were scattered everywhere.  We found the offender in the vault.  He was wearing combat fatigues and camouflage paint on his face.  His eyes were only half closed and he seemed tranquil, like he'd just had a lobotomy, which I suppose he had.  He'd been shot several times, once right between his eyes.  I wondered exactly what kind of weapon the dead guy had used, since there was none to be seen, and then something else bothered me, something which flashed dimly in my mind, but then my partner spoke, and I lost what it was.  Many years later it came to me: there were no empty cartridge casings in the vault.

My partner wanted to know if the crime lab was going to take pictures before we removed the body, so I went out into the lobby to find someone in charge.  A woman was standing in a corner, facing the wall, sobbing quietly.  Another woman was being led in by a patrolman when she stopped suddenly, staring at a pool of blood, and started to scream, her fists pressed into her cheeks.  The patrolman took her arm and said, "Easy now, that ain't your husband's blood, ma'am."  An odd thing to say, I thought, but she quieted down.

Then, for the first time, I saw Woodrow Johnson.  He was sitting at a loan officer's desk, a 30-round assault rifle lying in front of him.  The Deputy Commander was sitting across from him in a narrow, armless chair.  He looked like he was applying for a loan.  Woodrow's snap-brim hat was pushed back on his head and he was leaning back in the chair, popping the empty shells from his revolver.  While the Deputy Commander talked, Woodrow fished five cartridges from a holder on his belt and loaded each empty chamber.  Then he carefully stood the five empty shell casings in a line across the desk.  He wore the only expression I ever saw on him: calm and dispassionate.  Bored, in fact.

Although I had not yet fallen prey to the cynicism that absorbs most policemen, I would even then have denied having any heroes.  I had become a policeman as a sort of knight errant, eager to foster virtue, to extol justice, to slay the dragons of evil.   I was a missionary, and I truly feared nothing.  It was only later, when I came to know that the world did not hold much evil precisely because it did not contain much good, when I realized there was little worth saving -- it was then that uncertainty pried open the door to my soul, and fear crept in.  But now the image of Johnson sitting there, so perfectly cool and utterly selfless, was to me the epitome of what a police officer should be.

That was the prelude.  The major incident happened four years later, when I was working in the detective division.  I made detective fast, not because I was particularly good, but because I was a college graduate and so was adept at passing tests.   Johnson worked out of Homicide, across the hall from my office, and on the midnight shift we all had roll call together in the squad room.  I never really knew him.   He always sat alone, impeccably dressed, and he performed a little ritual each night, while the Lieutenant talked.  He would take a white handkerchief from his pocket and wipe it carefully across the toe of his immaculately shined shoes.

On the night of the incident I was out on the street in a one-man squad -- we always worked alone on the midnight shift -- and I saw Woodrow just a few minutes before it happened.  I was waiting to turn right at a stop light when he pulled alongside.   He stared straight ahead, his face like some ancient sculpture chisled in onyx, impassive in the blinking lights of Sanderson Boulevard.  The light changed and I made the turn, and it was less than a minute later when the call came in, a robbery in progress in a deli about eight blocks away.  I responded on the radio and when I arrived at the scene a beat car was already there.  One of the officers was standing on the sidewalk in the midst of a group of grim-faced people, and he yelled to me that the stickup man, wearing a green shirt and khaki pants, ran south.  I headed south for a block, giving this information to the dispatcher, then turned into an alley and cut my lights.  I turned down a perpendicular alley, cruising slowly. I couldn't see much, but I avoided using my spotlight so as not to be seen.  When I reached the mouth of the alley I paused a moment, then drove out slowly, looking both ways down the sidewalk, and I saw a figure in a green shirt, about a block away.  I turned down the street in his direction, feeling the excitement rise in my chest, lights still off, moving slowly so as not to alarm him.  I saw the other car with its lights off then, coming from the opposite direction.  The car stopped and its lights came on, and I saw Woodrow Johnson get out, beckoning to the man in the green shirt.  The man turned back, walking in my direction.  I flipped my lights on and he started back toward Woodrow, who was standing in the middle of the street in front of his car.  I didn't see the man pull the gun; I saw the white flashes and heard the quick, flat reports as he fired at Woodrow four times.  Woodrow crouched and twisted sideways, jerking his arms up to cover his face, knocking his hat off.  I slammed on the brakes and started to shoot from the open window but the man suddenly threw his pistol down on the pavement and he thrust his hands straight up, yelling “Don't shoot me, I give up, don't shoot me," and I glanced quickly up at Woodrow.  He had not been hit.  He bent over very slowly to pick up his hat and became inordinately involved in brushing it off.   I was holding my gun on the man and told him to place both his hands on top of his head, but he ignored me.  He was watching Woodrow brush off his hat, staring with a wild, primitive terror I did not understand.  "I give up, please don't kill me," he said, and he started to tremble, a long darkening shaft growing down one pant leg where he urinated on himself.  Woodrow put his hat on.  He walked over to the man, drew his revolver, and shot him five times.  Then Woodrow spoke, very quietly.

"Now motherfucker," he said.  "Now you give up, motherfucker."

Woodrow didn't say a word to me.  He didn't even acknowledge I was there.  I walked back to my car and picked up the microphone, but I didn't know what to say.  I looked at the man lying in the street, his legs twisted the way they are when a man dies before he falls, and then I looked at Woodrow, popping the empty shells out of his revolver and standing them in a line on the hood of his car.  I called the dispatcher and told him to send an ambulance, that we apprehended the offender and he was shot.  I told him that he fired at Detective Johnson, and that Detective Johnson returned the fire.

 

This is the last of the claims adjuster stories . . . for now.

 

 

  
The Projects
Mrs. Smith's leg
Free surgery
     Scalpels
     Trocar
Bad surgery
Margo Staples
     Police report
Ricky Taylor
"Listen carefully"
Honest scumbag
"It's my baby"
True story

 

 

The Projects
Mrs. Smith's leg
Free surgery
     Scalpels
     Trocar
Bad surgery
Margo Staples
     Police report
Ricky Taylor
"Listen carefully"
Honest scumbag
"It's my baby"
True story

 

B A R E L Y B A D  W E B  S I T E