I opened the big glass door to the 3rd Precinct station and walked in. It was an old place, with a lot of that police station charm you see in movies dating back to the 1940s: creaking ceiling fans, a wood floor with a three-inch layer of wax, a couple of wobbly tables and half a dozen very solid oak chairs whose sculpted seats had been worn smooth and flat by the bottoms of generations of complainants and malefactors.
Directly ahead of me was the impressive abode of the desk sergeant, a raised wooden edifice that resembled a judge’s bench. Two globe lights on pedestals were mounted on the desk, one at each end. Between the two beacons loomed the massive red face of the desk sergeant himself, staring in restrained, but nonetheless, high, dudgeon at the parties standing before him.
It was an odd group, even seen from behind at thirty yards. Three large men stood off to the right, all clad in purple shirts. They might have been members of the original Barney the Dinosaur fan club, gathered for a reunion in a strange city and sadly caught in the coils of unfamiliar laws and obscure municipal regulations that they had unwittingly, and quite innocently, violated. To the left stood an elderly, but energetic, little woman wearing a plain gray dress that had gone out of style a decade before color TV came into vogue. She was wearing one of her distinctive hats – a little pink straw number entwined with artificial leaves and a stuffed bird; the hat had slid over to one side of her head, so that the bird seemed to be emerging from her ear, like a cuckoo from a clock. She was vigorously waving an umbrella in the air. Ominously, it was bent at a 90-degree angle, as if it had come into contact with a firm and unyielding object. A bandage wrapped around the head of one of the purple-shirted men gave me an insight into what, exactly, that object had been. Sheila stood to one side and slightly behind her mother, her shapely figure tense and erect and motionless, a goddess who had involuntarily found herself embroiled in an episode of slapstick street theater.
The desk sergeant’s name was Charlie McKenzie, and we had known each other for many years. When he saw me approach the desk, his face brightened, in the manner of a man who, marooned on a desert island for months, at long last glimpses a billowing white sail on the horizon. He motioned the rowdy crew to silence.
“Detective Paco! Boy, am I glad to see you!”
“Hi ya, Charlie. What’s the charge?”
“This, er, lady here claims these fellows assaulted her. And vice versa.”
I now got a good look at “these fellows”. Far from being acolytes of a harmless prehistoric television character, they turned out to be members of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU.
Sheila came over and put a grateful hand on my arm, which her mother quickly removed.
“What’s he doing here?”
Sheila said, in a placating voice, “I called him, Mom. I thought he could help you make bail.”
“He’s not my mouthpiece! Listen here, judge…”
“’Desk Sergeant’’, McKenzie corrected.
“Well, whatever you are, you can’t lock me away! These union goons grabbed my sign and tore it to pieces, and they roughed me up. Just look at my hat!”
McKenzie spurned the invitation to gaze upon her eccentric headgear, and addressed himself to one of the SEIU men instead
“And what do you have to say, Mr. Kowalski? The three of you ganging up on this poor little old lady.”
“Who’s old?” Mrs. Doherty growled. “I’ll have you know, flatfoot, that I…”
“She’s lyin’, your honor!” The SEIU man had finally tired of his non-speaking, walk-on role. “We wuz just walkin’ t’ru Lafeyette Park, mindin’ our own business, when dis ol’ battle-ax…”
“Battle-axe?!? How’d you like me to whomp you another one upside your head, you union stooge?”
The union man flinched, his hand automatically going up in a defensive gesture. Then his two comrades began shouting, and the chaos became general. McKenzie called over a couple of policemen and stationed them between the warring factions, then stepped down from his desk and motioned Sheila and me to one side. He briefly explained that the altercation had occurred at a Tea-Party demonstration near the White House, and that it seemed like the SEIU boys were swaggering through the crowd, looking for an excuse to make trouble. They didn’t deny tearing up Mrs. Doherty’s sign, but they claim she started the whole thing by baiting them. They appeared to be eager to drop their charges – McKenzie’s guess was that somebody may have captured the incident on a video camera, and that Mrs. Doherty was the one telling the truth (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).
“Look,” he pleaded, “we don’t need these people clogging up the justice system. A court will probably throw out all the charges, anyway. Now, I talked to the two arresting officers, and they’re willing to let this thing go. The union guys want to drop it. The only person holding up a peaceful resolution is the old…beg pardon, Miss…your mother. She’s got this whole ‘death before dishonor’ thing going on, and if she won’t back down, the union guys won’t either.”
“McKenzie,” I smiled. “I know just how to fix this. Get back up on your throne, there, and play like you’re going to book the lot of them.”
McKenzie resumed his chair and slapped the top of his desk with a mighty paw.
“All right, I’ve had just about enough! Mrs. Doherty, are you going to drop your charges or not?”
Sheila’s mother raised her umbrella on high; she resembled a small-scale model of the Statue of Liberty, assembled by an incompetent third-grader the night before his history project is due. “No way! I want these thugs put away!”
“And how about you, Kowalski? Are you and your associates going to press charges?”
Kowalski and his friends looked at each other uneasily, but the union rep decided to call Mrs. D’s bluff.
“Yes, sir. I guess we have to.”
McKenzie cleared his throat and gathered himself for his big pronouncement. “Then I’m going to book you all, and you can spend the night in jail thinking the whole thing over.”
I sidled up to Sheila, and slid my arm around her waist. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Doherty. I’ll see that your daughter gets the best of care while you’re paying your debt to society.”
Mrs. Doherty’s sense of justice underwent a sudden and obvious transformation. No matter how righteous her cause, she didn’t want to leave her daughter in the clutches of what she took to be a skirt-chasing maniac. She grimaced as if she’d accidentally swallowed a mouthful of sour milk, and I could hear her teeth grinding. In a symbolic act of striking her colors, she lowered her umbrella and turned to McKenzie.
“Ok, copper. If the offer’s still open, I’ll drop the charges.”
McKenzie cocked an inquisitive eyebrow at Kowalski. “Yeah, we will, too, sergeant.”
“Very well. Get out of my precinct, and I don’t want to see any of you here again. Ever.”
On the way out, Mrs. Doherty furiously tried to straighten her umbrella.
“Mom,” Sheila asked, “what are you doing?”
“As soon as I get this thing back in shape, I’m going to give your boss there a wallop that he’ll never forget! I think he tricked me into dropping my complaint.”
“Easy does it, Mrs. D. What you need is evidence. This Tea-Party protest is still going on, isn’t it?”
“Then why don’t you go back to the demonstration, and I’ll send a man along with a camera. Next time, if there’s any trouble, we’ll get the incident on film.”
She paused for a moment, mulling over my suggestion. “You know, Paco, I hate to admit it, but sometimes you do manage to use that head of yours for something besides a hat-rack.”
Basking in this high praise, I led the ladies to my car and filled them in on the details of my plan.