Blue Blood, By Edward Conlon, Riverhead, 562 pp., $26.95
In the days of rewrite men, copy boys, and cigarette smoke in the newsroom, we listened to the police radio on the City Desk. Along with the practical purpose of staying alert to possible news, there was a vicarious pleasure in envisioning where the dispatcher was sending the police, in delighting in the jargon and codes: DK was short for drunk, even though it had more syllables. A suspicious person was an SP. Code 10 meant lunch break. One dispatcher's inscrutable and frequent instruction was: "See a confused woman."
That the police world is fascinating is evidenced by the fact, pointed out in Edward Conlon's "Blue Blood," that there are more cop shows on television than any other kind. So maybe a lot of us would like to be cops but chose safer occupations. In the newspaper world, "bullet" refers merely to a typographical device. In contrast, somebody once dropped a brick from a rooftop, aimed at Conlon. It grazed his arm.
Along with the potential for violence come stenches and garbage and excrement, as well as exposure to all manner of bodily fluids and more roaches than anyone should have to contend with. Conlon quotes one transit cop: "You want to know what my job is like? Go to your garage, [urinate] in the corner, and stand there for eight hours."
Conlon took an unusual route to the New York City Police Department, majoring in English at Harvard. After several dead-end jobs, he worked in a court program for offenders who might be saved. "The Job" seemed the next logical step, as in the old Irish lyric, "I'm going on the police force, it's the only thing to do." As his title implies, it's also in his blood. His great-grandfather was a New York City cop, his father an FBI agent, and his uncle a cop.
Conlon starts by immersing us in his days on foot patrol as a Housing cop in the South Bronx. While shooting and car chases are what gets on TV, he reports that in the real world, "what you say and how you say it comes into play far more often than anything you do with your stick or gun, and can prevent the need for them."
Of patrol, he observes, "As theater, there is no match for it." There's humor and camaraderie. And if the Job is sometimes like the '90s TV show "Homicide: Life on the Street," it is also sometimes like Denis Leary's too-short-lived "The Job" or "Reno 911" with some hilarious encounters.
Conlon flashes us back to the academy (where he says he worked harder than at Harvard), then alternates his personal story with his family's history and the history of New York City and its police. (Among his childhood memories is his dad complaining traffic was "bumpita-bumpa." For years, Conlon thought it was an Italian term.) Given the Irish-cop stereotype, Conlon tells the story of many families, although there's more ethnic diversity on the force today. From Housing, he moves to faster action in a precinct narcotics squad that often involves a spotter on a rooftop radioing information about buyers and sellers to cops on the street who make the arrests.
"Perps" frequently become informants, sometimes to the point of playing cops themselves. Heroin is actually sold with brand names, and one of Conlon's snitches, Charlie, gets free heroin from dealers when they want to test a new brand.
Conlon sends Charlie in to make buys and finds him accommodating, noting wryly, "Charlie wasn't into crack, but he was a Renaissance addict, and he'd be happy to go there, too."
While there's excitement and satisfaction, the Job, like any job, has its frustrations and politics. A popular and effective sergeant is pointlessly removed from a squad. A captain inexplicably decides not to act on good warrants. One day Conlon is relieved to know he'll be going to the dentist rather than work. Good work sometimes goes unrewarded. The bad guys often walk. Good work is sometimes punished. Eddie Egan, the real-life counterpart of Popeye Doyle in "The French Connection" was unjustly fired, lost his pension, and died broke. And misdeeds by a few cops make the thousands doing a good job look bad.
As Conlon moves on to detective work and the horror of 9/11, he provides us with a well-rounded and insightful look at life as a cop. But we'll never really understand. Explaining the so-called "blue wall of silence," Conlon writes "it's not so much that cops don't want to talk, it's that they can barely begin to explain."