Monday, May 20, 2013

Front-seat freestyle

An essay I wrote a few year's ago is on the Dossier Journal Website now.

Down at Portland’s Central Precinct, down three floors, three cops sit slack-jawed staring at the biggest flat screen TV I have ever seen. A deep TV narrator voice says, “Lil’ Rick’s crippin’ had gone too far. The balancing act was torture.”

It’s 10 til four, and the cops lounge around a long table, the kind we use at work for important meetings. Lil’ Rick is a man now, but on the History Channel, he’s still a Los Angeles teenager wielding big guns and blue handkerchiefs. Being a Crip, he says, meant hating everything red — even strawberry soda.

I’m here for a ride-along with Officer Chad Stensgaard — a cop who spent a day in court last month after parking in a no-parking zone to eat dinner and watch the Blazers game. I’m a newspaper reporter, new to the night cops beat after spending a few years writing about education. Tonight, Chad’s going to take me through the dilapidated part of downtown known as Old Town, show me how the crack addicts have migrated north again. Two years ago, the police chief had declared victory: The big raid had sent 158 dealers or users to jail. Crack was gone.

“It just went downtown for a few years,” Chad says, handing over a bullet-proof vest. “Now we’ve been policing downtown, so it’s moved back here.”

I put on the vest. It’s extra-large, the only size they have. I just topped 110, and the vest hangs off with arm holes so big I could step through them.

Chad is young, studly with a spikey handsome-man haircut. He spends the first hour rolling slowly through the streets, coolly telling me about this or that time he arrested someone. He drives by a hair salon twice, tells me his wife works there. The shop is part of the new, remodeled plaza that city officials had said would turn Old Town around. It’s upscale, but close enough to the downscale area that Chad likes to check in on his wife. The car windows are down, and Chad says a police-like “Hello” to nearly everyone we pass. People are quick to greet him back, as if an officer’s hello mandates a respectful reply. “Good evening, officer.”

It’s 5:30, a Thursday night in the middle of June. Nothing is going on yet. I only have a few hours, and I feel impatient for some kind of action, something I can go back to work and write down so my bosses will think I’m a go-getter. I’m the youngest person on staff, and I want to stop feeling like I’ll never catch up to the other reporters.

“The commander thought I could use some good publicity,” Chad tells me. “That’s why I agreed to take a reporter with me tonight.”

I’m not sure what to say back to him, so I don’t say anything. Chad turns the radio on — the pop station, not the police scanner — and sings softly as he drives. I look out the window, wondering what people think when they see me in the passenger seat. After half an hour, Chad jerks the car into an old Burger King parking lot. Someone burned the insides out long ago. The sign is gone, but its essential Burger Kingness — the drive-through, the mission-tile roof — is intact. I try not to smile. Maybe this will be something.

Read the rest on Dossier.

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