Family is often dysfunctional; well, mostly families are dysfunctional. Young cops, early 1970’s, we cared about our town’s drunks. Nobody else cared, only us. We saw ourselves as their protectors, their family. They had no one else.
The old police station’s second floor had a lockup. Drunks at the station’s front desk chose to turn themselves in or we hauled them in and booked them overnight as a “sleeper.”
Every sleeper had a one-man cell, no longer suffering the heat, cold, rain, snow or ice. We treated sleepers like houseguests. The difference being, we locked them in; locked them behind jail cell bars.
We brought them to the station; fed them a hot meal or a big sandwich or two from the jail’s kitchen. Then bed sheets, warm blankets a pillow and a bunk. Morning-time the next day, before release, hot black coffee while the jail’s full time cook made them breakfast.
One evening the desk officer booked a sleeper. He counted the number of times cops had booked him. It was his one-hundredth time as a sleeper. Off to the grocery we bought a sheet cake, 100 birthday candles and a celebratory gift, a bottle of Mogen David wine.
Cops from the evening shift stopped in. Cake’s top on fire, Mogen David in hand we filed into his cell singing. He cried. Tears came hard because his family, the only family he had, brought him a cake, a gift.
Celebrating we laughed as we crowded into his cell. It wasn’t long before we were blowing out candles, eating cake and congratulating him on his record ”100.”
It wasn’t long before we were blowing out candles, eating cake and congratulating him on his record ”100.”
Ivory-tower-do-gooder-types decided that locking people in jail who weren’t criminals, well, that was bad. Cops were wrong. The law changed and cops could no longer book sleepers.
Soon we witnessed our town’s drunks lifeless. Some froze to death; others were beat to death, or run over by cars as they slept on the streets or in the alleys. Today we call them homeless.
Fast forward twenty years, the 1990’s, Zack, best described as a mostly incoherent drunk, carried a scar on his face; a scar that ran the expanse of his head up to and across one dead, discolored, blind eye.
Watching Zack walk along the hallway of the Judicial Center, diarrhea ran down Zack’s pant leg onto the carpet. I asked Zack where he was going. He said, “Court.”
I followed Zack into an overcrowded courtroom. Zack sat in the last seat just as the judge walked in and took the Bench. I stood in the back.
The court, an interior room with no windows, experienced a power outage, lights out, completely black. Zack, drunk, as was typical, started screaming, “I’m blind! I’m blind!”
Lights back on the judge ordered, “Officer, get that man out of my courtroom!” Zack did have a court date but he was seven days early.
Zack, unlike most of the town’s homeless had shelter and a monthly government check. In a patrol briefing, officers badmouthed Zack. I asked if any of them knew him personally. None did.
During the Korean War, on lonely frozen ground, deep in winter’s foreboding grip, during life or death combat, Zack jumped on an enemy hand grenade. He sacrificed to save the lives of fellow American soldiers. Everyday following Zack lived with the consequences of a traumatic brain injury.
Make no mistake Zack was a town drunk, but he was our town’s drunk.