Friday, December 7, 2012

Booze, guns, and off-duty cops

The case last year of an off-duty county cop suspended for pointing his gun at a bartender — apparently in inebriated jest — in a Long Island pub had me wondering just how common that type of thing is.

In the early 1990s I tended bar in the lounge of a hotel in Nassau County, Long Island. The neighborhood could be plenty dangerous. I knew firsthand, having worked nearby as a security guard. (My boss at the security gig survived a particular Saturday morning shift when a shotgun wielded by the bad guy, the so-called "ninja robber," misfired at point blank range.)

The hotel where I worked behind the bar was known as an airline hotel. Commercial flight crews were bused to our location from JFK and LaGuardia aiports. The pilots and flight attendants were a spirited bunch and I was proud to know them. Inevitably, the lounge became a hangout as well for off-duty cops eager to meet flight attendants.

One quiet night a pilot on a lay-over suggested to his friends that they all go across the street to a neighborhood bar. Not really a good idea, I advised him. The pilot was middle-aged but in shape and confident as all pilots. He had learned to fly in the U.S. Marines. He wasn't afraid to go into any bar, he said.

Personally, I had never been inside that particular establishment. I did know a regular hotel guest who frequented it to play pool. He told me once that the locals were convinced he must be insane so they left him alone.

Sandwiched between a check cashing place and a Spanish eatery is a dive bar with a history of dead bodies.

I figured other hotel guests might be able to go into the bar as well, have a drink, and leave without a problem – if they were lucky. But bringing a couple of hot flight attendants in there with you would, in my opinion, change the equation incalcuably. Besides, what was the upside of escorting attractive women into the ghetto to taste the watered-down liquor in a dump where bad things happened with the sad regularity of a video loop?

"Why not ask this gentleman what he thinks," I said to the pilot, pointing to an off-duty police sergeant at the other end of the bar. "He works in the neighborhood." So the pilot asked him. The sergeant, looking unremarkable in street clothes, turned to the group of airline crew members and smiled. "I was only in that hole in the wall on two occasions," he said, "and both times it was because there was a dead body inside." The pilot quietly dropped the idea.

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I was always glad to have off-duty cops in my bar, especially given the neighborhood. On another slow evening, as I was chatting with the same off-duty sergeant, three young males walked in. They were dressed like mopes, to use the vernacular of that time and place – hooded sweatshirts, baggy jeans. One of them sat on a bench near the entrance. Another walked toward the far corner and stood facing the bar. The third came up to the middle of the bar. No words had been spoken.

The sergeant and I exchanged a knowing glance. He casually reached down and unfastened his ankle holster, then moved to a table where he could cover the unfolding scene with his back to the wall. I walked over to the young man at the bar, fully expecting to be looking down the barrel of a handgun. Instead the guy pulled a key from his pocket and asked if he could charge food for himself and his two friends to his room. Sure thing, I exhaled.

And so it was normal for me to greet warmly a group of four off-duty cops who met up in the lounge one night.

They were drinking at the bar next to the floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the entrance to the underground parking garage. One of the cops, John, had parked his motorcycle on the walkway outside where he could keep an eye on it through the vertical blinds. At one point his buddy — all four were white males — slapped him on the arm and said, "John, don't look now but there's a n----- by your bike." We all turned toward the windows. Outside, a black police officer from their department was inspecting the motorcycle. The black cop, tall and lean and sharp-looking in his uniform, stepped to the glass squinting. Apparently he couldn't see into the bar because of the tinted glass. He put his hands to his temples and leaned against the window — peering. John took out his nine millimeter handgun and pointed it between the black cop's eyes, muzzle up against the glass. The cops laughed. I held my breath.

That type of gun was known for firing a round that could go right through a person. Surely if the gun went off by accident that plate glass would not slow it down. There were a few other groups in the lounge at the time but I don't think they saw the gun or knew what was happening. The black cop gave up trying to look through the glass and walked away. John holstered his weapon and the group ordered another round. I believe I poured myself one, too.

The black cop walked into the lounge a minute later to say hi to his colleagues. He figured they were there because he had recognized John's motorcycle. I offered him a drink. He was working and would only take a Coke. The cops shook hands all around and spoke briefly, I didn't hear about what. Then the black officer left.

The off-duty cops stayed for a couple rounds. But flight attendants were scarce that night and the group soon took off, as usual leaving plenty of money on the bar for me. That night, for some reason, it felt like I'd earned it.

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