New York City, August 1963
Meara has a foot post, three blocks along Eleventh Avenue in the forties. The old hairbags tell him, You walk your beat, you keep your eyes open, you listen, you own your three blocks, the people who live and work there are yours.
His uniform, bought new for his first beat, is still stiff and uncomfortable after two months; it sticks to him in the already hammering morning heat, chafes at his neck. His scalp bakes under the peaked cap, his feet are dying in the heavy, rubber-soled shoes.
He complains to the old hairbags, and they laugh and say, Hey, you wanted to be a cop? Welcome to being a cop.
He’s surprised at how quickly he learns the faces on his beat, learns their names and the names of their wives and kids and annoying brothers-in-law and mothers living in Florida. If he closes his eyes, he still knows exactly where he is because of the sweet smell of Donatello’s fruit and vegetable stand, or the blood and sawdust smell of Ruffo’s Butcher Shop, or the smell of Old Spice and Vitalis from old man Donlin’s barber shop, or the stale smell of beer and cigarette smoke from Mickey’s corner bar. He knows that for God knows what reason, the sewer at the corner of 11th and 44th stinks like no other sewer in the city, and he wishes someone would get around to finding out what died down there.
He gets so fine-tuned to his three blocks that he doesn’t have to see or hear something to know when things are off. He can feel it. When he takes his post in the morning and hands it off at end of his tour, he likes how savvy he feels, trading information with the veterans who take the beat on the other shifts—like how, when Donatello’s wife wasn’t in the shop, he figured maybe Donatello had beaten her again, so he pulled that fat, red-faced prick aside, held his nightstick under the grocer’s double chin, and told him if his old lady showed up with a shiner, he and the grocer were going to have a talk. He knows, if he sees the MacAfee kid sitting on his stoop eating cornflakes dry out of a ten-pack box, that his pop probably tied one on the night before, and now he’s grumbling around the apartment hungover and looking for something to hit. Sometimes the boy sits with the Cazale kid, a fat little girl with bad teeth whose mom makes ends meet by bringing home new boyfriends every night. Every couple months, greasy-haired Feeney with the cigarette and magazine place has his pinky in a splint, and that means he’s behind to the shylocks, and the other shifts tell him, Screw it, Feeney’s a scumbag and a hump, he’s got it coming, stay out of it.
Donlin gives him free haircuts. He doesn’t ask for them, but Donlin comes out and says, Hey, Officer Jack, you’re looking a little shaggy. The Greek coffee shop lets him use the bathroom; they bring him in and sit him at the counter with a free coffee to get him out of the rain, offer a cold drink and a few minutes in the air conditioning when it’s hot. He doesn’t ask for these things, but they do it anyway. Donatello doesn’t even like him, and still he tells Meara that he’s gotten in a fresh batch of Rome apples from upstate that morning, that he should take a few home.
That’s how it’s done, the old hairbags tell him. That’s what they do, because they’re yours, they belong to you and they know it, and what they expect for their tribute is that you fuckin’ A better take care of them in return.
Because this is what it is to be a cop.
He’s twenty-six, and he’s two months out of training and still on probation, and this is his, these three blocks. He listens to the hairbags, and he makes himself know every crack in the sidewalk—where the curbside puddles will be when it rains, where the alleys are that the truants slip through when they see him coming.
He walks his three blocks at the same pace on the same route each day, so that his citizens always know where he’ll be if they need to find him. It takes him half an hour to make his circuit; then he stops at the call box on the corner of Eleventh and 44th to make his “30 ring”—his every-thirty-minute check-in.
It’s 10:30 a.m. on an August morning, and it is hot, awfully goddamn hot. He was already feeling the scratch of the uniform shirt on his skin before he pulled it on that morning, felt it even while he was lying there in the bed, fumbling to turn off the alarm before it woke up Mae. It’s 10:30 a.m., it’s hot as hell, and he’s just locking up his call box after making his 30 ring.
Then he hears the slap of PF Flyers on the sidewalk, hears the kids panting even before he turns, hears something desperate in the way they’re wheezing. He hears the MacAfee kid saying, “See? Here he is!”
They come up to him, the MacAfee kid and some other boy he doesn’t know, who turns out to be a friend from the next block.
“Tell him,” the MacAfee kid gasps out. But the other kid freezes up—this isn’t his cop, he’s from someplace else, he’s afraid to bring the bad, scary news. So the MacAfee kid says, “His dad told him to find you. He says somebody shot the other cop.”
Meara is already unlocking the call box as he asks, “What other cop?”
McAfee pokes the other kid, who finally blurts out, “Mr. McInerney. My dad, he says he heard the shot.”
McInerney. Meara knows him—not well, but he knows him; the other probie, a sunny, smiley guy, still with pimples, who drew the foot post just south of Meara’s. The old hairbags are always busting McInerney’s balls, saying he’s too nice to be a cop. “They eat nice guys out there!” they say, as if they’re telling spook stories to a little kid.
Meara gets an address out of the kid that’s down on 43rd, and now he has Dispatch on the horn. “Foot post 6-10, I’ve got a civilian reporting a 10-10,” and he gives the address. “Reports shots fired, possible officer down, requesting 10-13 all units. Please advise.”
It takes only a second before Dispatch comes back to him, but in that second the temperature seems to jump ten degrees, and he’s burning up in his scratchy blue, he has to take his cap off or his head will explode. He picks at the places where his uniform is sticking to him in large, dark patches. The kids are looking up at him; McAfee’s friend looks like he’s going to cry. Meara makes himself smile at the kids.
“Cover the door and wait for back-up, 6-10,” says Dispatch. “Do you copy?”
“Cover the door.”
“And wait!” They remember he’s a rookie. They’d never have to tell one of the hairbags twice. “Understand? Do not enter the premises until back-up arrives.”
He acknowledges the order, tells the kids to stay by the call box and, if any other cops come by, to point them to the scene.
Then he puts one hand over his holstered pistol. He doesn’t draw it—that still feels like too much—but he starts running, holding his cap in his other hand because it’s still too goddamn hot to wear it. And now he is really burning up, he can feel it on his neck, his ears; he’s swimming in sweat, and he knows it’s not just the summer sun because he can feel the pounding in his chest, like a gorilla trying to break through his breastbone with a twenty-pound sledge.
It’s a two-block run, and then he’s standing at the base of the stoop of a five-story walk-up, so dilapidated that he wonders if it’s derelict. Even when he sees scared eyes peeking out from behind ragged shades, he still wonders. There are people watching, keeping their distance, standing a few doors down on either side and across the street. If they didn’t hear the shot, they heard the news, and they’re waiting and watching to see what he’s going to do—what he’s going to do for their cop.
He can hear the wailing sirens. He climbs the steps to the top of the stoop. The outer and inner doors of the foyer are open, and beyond them the hall is dark; it smells musty, damp. PRs have been moving into the neighborhood for years, but this dump is still Irish, he can smell that sewagey smell of boiling cabbage and potatoes.
Do not enter the premises, they told him, and God knows he doesn’t want to go down that dark hallway.
Then he hears him, McInerney. “Oh, God… Help me… Somebody help me…”
He wants to call out to him, but if he does, then McInerney will know he’s there and will ask him for help, and he’ll have to say, No, they told me to stay here, watch the door. Sorry.
“Oh, Jesus it hurts…” The way he says it, the feeble, sobbing way, reminds Meara of a puppy whimpering. “Help me…”
Meara keeps seeing that sunny face in his head. He remembers McInerney telling him about his wife, how the new baby is colicky and keeping them both up all night. He wishes that he didn’t know about the wife, that McInerney had never shown him those pictures of his fucking kids.
He looks around at the people waiting, watching. They can hear McInerney, too.
“God, Jesus God, not like this…”
They teach you at the Academy, and your Training Officer teaches you on the street, and the old hairbags tell you in the station house locker room, Don’t be a hero. They say it over and over. You ain’t Superman, no bullets are gonna bounce off you. Don’t be a hero. Play it smart. Always, always, always wait for your back-up.
Then he thinks of that sunny, pimply face, and he can imagine it twisting in pain and in the fear of dying, and he thinks of McInerney’s wife and kids, and he thinks that maybe if McInerney just hears a voice, it’ll help him hold on.
He calls out, “It’s me! Meara!”
“Jack! Jack, God, Jack, Jack, I’m dying…”
The sirens are close, close enough that Meara thinks it won’t make a difference now if he stays or moves.
“Help me, Jack… Please, don’t let me die…”
Jesus, Meara thinks, he had to say my fucking name! I don’t know his first name, why does he know mine?
The civilians are still standing around, watching him, waiting.
I got a wife, too, he says to them in his head, and a shitty little apartment in a shitty walk-up in Brooklyn, and we talk about how once I’m through probation we’re gonna start a family and get a house. And they told me not to enter the fucking premises, so what do you want from me?
They still watch and wait.
It’s not as if he’s going to go hunting down those dark halls and stairways after the perp—that’d be stupid, that’d be insane. He’s just going to find McInerney, keep him company until the ambulance gets there. Maybe he can do some First Aid, maybe he can do…something. Anything.
He unsnaps the restraining strap on his holster and pulls out the .38, and he’s surprised at how light that pound and a half of steel feels, not tugging at his hand the way it does on the firing range at Rodman’s Neck but popping clear of the leather as if it’s on a spring, because he’s got so much adrenaline going through him he could spin a Mack truck on his finger.
He steps through the foyer and into the must-and-cabbage smell of the hallway, and it’s hot and close in there, and he wonders why there are no lights on.
“I’m coming, Mac,” he says, moving slowly down the hall, straining his ears, trying to find shapes in the dark.
There’s a splash of yellow sunlight at the foot of a staircase halfway down the hall.
“Jack…” From the stairwell.
“I’m coming, Mac.”
He hears the sirens; they sound as if they’re practically in the hallway with him, but he looks back and there are no cars on the street, no uniforms silhouetted in the front door, and he wonders what in God’s name is taking them so long? He’s so deep in sweat his uniform drags at him, won’t let him open his chest to breathe.
Then he’s reached the foot of the staircase. There’s a window up over the between-floors landing—that’s where the light’s coming from, all bright yellow with morning—and sprawled on the landing is McInerney.
Meara already knows it’s bad that he’s in the building, bad that he’s all the way down the hall. He knows it’d be really bad if he goes up those stairs.
Meara whispers: “Where is he?”
“Help me, Jack… God, I’m dying, I know I’m dying… Tell her for me, Jack, tell her…”
The fucking wife again.
Meara starts up the stairs, one slow step at a time, his pistol raised, his eyes looking up to the next floor.
Cars screech to a stop out front; the sirens fall into a dying moan, and now he feels okay—it’s going to be okay.
He kneels by McInerney, and he says that: how it’s going to be okay because the troops are here.
Then he hears a shout upstairs, something panicky about cops out front, feet stumbling down the stairs. He gets up, turns as a figure hurtles around the second-floor landing and down the upper stairs of the first flight. He barely gets his gun up, hasn’t even said anything when they collide, entangle. One, brief, brilliant second of mental clarity—when he’s swamped by just what an unbelievably bad idea it was to come down that hall—and then that clarity collapses into panic as he and the figure grapple and try to untangle themselves.
He feels himself losing his balance, falling backward, and he reaches a foot back, but there’s nothing there, and now he’s on his back, his breath punched out of him as he skids down the stairs to the hallway floor.
He’s still got his pistol in his hand, but he’s dazed, he can’t get enough breath to move, and he looks up, sees the guy he just wrangled with standing on the landing over McInerney, silhouetted against the soot-streaked window, sees the guy’s right arm coming up, and he knows what that means, he knows, and he feels everything from the pit of his stomach down to his groin turn to cold mush. He’s trying to draw in some air, enough to get his own piece up—
There’s a flash. Quick, bright, like lightning. In that flash, eyes look down on him, cold, hard eyes.
And with the flash there’s a POP—a small noise, like a single clap of hands, but in the confines of the hall it sets his ears ringing…
The guy runs down the stairs, jumps over him, heading for the back door. Meara tries to bring his pistol up, but suddenly it feels heavy, like cement, a ton of cement, and when he tries to move, all of him feels like that; he can’t budge.
He thinks about the flash and the pop and wonders if he’s hit, thinks he must be hit. But there’s no pain, just this heaviness, and now he doesn’t feel hot anymore, there’s a creeping cold, as if he’s lying naked on a winter sidewalk. He smells the warm, dusty wood of the hallway floor under him, hears the tick-tick-tick of claws out in the darkness, drawn to the smell of blood.
Somebody is looming over him, standing, kneeling, he’s not sure; the face seems a hundred miles away. He hears the shout echoing down the hall: “Jesus, they’re both down! We need a wagon!” Then, quietly, closer to him, “It’s okay, kid, ya gotta hang on.”
Another voice, another figure far away, looking down on him: “Stupid-ass rookies, man.”
Maybe he’s losing consciousness; maybe the darkness of the hall is filling his eyes. Or maybe he’s dying.
But in that dark he still sees the sudden flash and those eyes, those cold, hard eyes…
Median Gray is the story of two New York City policemen, each something of a time-shifted reflection of the other. Jack Meara is a twenty-year veteran on the verge of retirement, haunted by an incident from his rookie year, when he was shot and wounded and a fellow rookie was killed; he feels an obsessive drive to bring down the hood he thinks was responsible. Ronnie Valerio is a novice cop who finds himself drawn into Meara’s self-destructive quest. In Valerio is the cop Meara once was—eager, idealistic, a bit naïve, untried, a romantic. And Meara is the cop any cop can become after twenty years of—as one character puts it—“trying to empty a cesspool with a teaspoon.”
Set on the eve of Christmas 1982, Median Gray also reaches beyond the story of two cops at opposite ends of their career arcs. It is an attempt to capture a never-before-never-since time and place: New York City toward the tail end of a two-decade era in which the Big Apple came to be seen worldwide as a symbol of urban collapse, fading greatness, big-city craziness, and moral decay. It was an insane, frightening, funny, terrible time that could be as exhilarating as it was appalling, particularly for a young man in the big city for the first time.
I know; I lived through those years, and they were the inspiration for Median Gray.
Bill Mesce Jr. has been an adjunct college instructor for seven years and was recently invited to teach screenwriting full-time at the University of Maine at Farmington. He is a published author and a two-time recipient of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Individual Artist Grant Award (for playwriting and for prose). On lucky occasions, he gets to write for the screen and the stage.
Embark, Issue 1, July 2017