Christmas Eve in the drunk tank, well just outside it, not much difference tonight. It’s just the two of us working: me and Mitchell, the one copper even newer than me, though just past the three year mark I’m not that new anymore. This town’s not going anywhere; our police force doesn’t change much. I look at my watch, coming up on midnight, I stare at the phone as the second hand ticks round, it obligingly rings at 12:00 AM on the dot. I answer it just as the Christmas Bells start ringing at the church down the street.
“Just checking in, nothing to report.” It’s my buddy Harper, the poor bugger who drew patrol duty for tonight.
“Well nothing’s going on here,” I tell her. “Stop by in a half hour or so and I’ll have a cuppa ready for you.”
“Roger. Over and out,” she responds in her usual gruff manner.
Mitchell looks up hopefully from where he’s been trying to stave off boredom with a battered magazine. I shake my head and he sinks back into his stupor, clearly regretting the sense of professionalism that caused him to leave whatever his preferred form of entertainment is at home. Fifteen minutes later we are both a little glad (though neither of us would voice it lest we tempt fate) when Harper calls back to say she’s picked up an old guy wandering around totally sloshed and dressed completely inadequately for the weather.
Near one o’clock – just as Mitchell and I are beginning to give each other worried looks, wondering where in our patrolling area she could have been to take this long getting back – Harper finally shows up looking slightly damp and leading a positively sopping stringy old man by the wrist who seems to be trying to engage her in friendly conversation. It’s actually a fairly amusing sight, but Harper looks like she got done being amused by it about a minute and a half after it started, and it is with evident relief that she hands me the citation and indicates that the man is my responsibility now. As I glance over the paper, noting that it contains nothing like a legal name, she is already heading in the direction of the break room and promised cup of tea. “Water’s hot” I call to her retreating back before turning to the old man. “Follow me,” I tell him and start down the hall.
“I’m the old man now,” he says conversationally as he catches me up.
Despite that fact that this is how I have been thinking of him I make disbelieving noises. He’s that strange sort of pissed where sometimes he’s the poster child for falling down drunk, and other times he’s completely lucid, except the things he says are batshit insane. This type of dunk is actually my favourite because they tend to be friendly rather than aggressive, can usually follow simple directions, and more importantly, do.
“No, no,” his frustration is evident, “the one who talked to me, sang some even. Mountain Dew or sommat like that. He prolly wasn’t that old either, I’s so young then, he jus’ seemed ancient. Ha ha,” he laughs bitterly, “I thought the world was mine back then.”
He pauses a moment, trying to recall his point. It looks like he’s not going to remember, but then he rallies, “but I’m that guy now see. I need someone young to impart my wisdom to.”
I think he’s trying to make a joke, but it’s hard to tell. He slings his arm about my shoulders and I instantly regret the lack of handcuffs on his person. His breath against my ear is highly alcoholic as he slurs, “I could impart some wisdom to you!”
I don’t think he is trying to be creepy, but the effect is there intentional or not and I remove his arm from my person very firmly. “No. I’m the copper, and the reason you’re in the drunk tank. I am not a plucky young screw-up you can take under your wing. Now do you want your phone call or not?”
After some mumbled deliberation he decided yes and I dial the number before leaving him alone with the phone. Privacy is not a requirement, but unless someone is being a real wanker I let them alone. It doesn’t matter what’s said anyway, either someone will come to get him or he’ll be with us all night. When I hear the receiver click I open the door to the phone room. “If you could follow me sir” I ask politely.
He grumbles but complies and I lead him to his cell, give him the standard you-can-leave-if-someone-comes-to-get-you-or-at-7am-whichever-comes-first speech.
He looks at me, “you’ll be back later with the choir right?”
Say what? “Um…yeah….” Apparently agreeing with whatever was just said is how I react to being startled. Oh well, he looks like he’ll be snoring in a few anyway.
“Tha’s good, can’t have Christmas Eve without the NYPD choir,” he slurs as he stumbles to the bunk and slumps onto it.
I return to the front desk where Harper has pulled up a chair and is sipping a mug of tea blissfully while Mitchell looks on.
“He’s sure a character” I tell them, “asked me if the choir was going to come by later.”
They both laugh and Mitchell inquires about his conversation on the ride over.
“Mostly made no sense,” Harper informs us, “he seemed to just natter on about anything that came into his head, half the time he was going on about some woman, the ‘queen of New York City’ I couldn’t tell if she was a real woman or a film star.”
“Broadway star more like,” Mitchell interjects.
She ponders this a minute before continuing, “but then it would be like a switch had flipped and he would start arguing with this imaginary person, maybe the same woman, or someone else. Anyway he’d say really nasty things calling her a slut and junkie and such. He went back and forth the whole way here.”
The conversation moves on to other topics and all too soon Harper decides it’s time for her to head back out.
It’s about two hours later that the door chimes and a tired looking woman just approaching middle age enters.
“I’ve come to collect my father” she announces in a voice that brooks no argument.
“OK ma’am,” I reply, “we just have to fill out a short form, and then I can deliver him into your custody. Do you mind giving your name?” She hesitates. “It isn’t required,” I assure her.
“Oh, I’d rather not then” she tells me.
“Alright, relationship to detainee? This one you have to answer,” I smile and resist adding, “but you don’t have to tell the truth” before remembering that she’s already called the man her father.
“Father, daughter, erm, I mean I’m his daughter,” she replies, looking like she is currently having second thoughts about that relationship.
“Who’s the mystery woman, queen of New York City or what have you? And what’s all this about the NYPD choir?”
“Is that really on the form?”
I smirk, “No, but we’re all really curious. An hour ago he requested Gallway Bay,” I explain. “Repeatedly. And then Mitchell decided to oblige him, illustrating perfectly why we don’t have a station choir. After that he started reminiscing about a woman that he was close to eons ago by the sound of it. Loudly. And he talked our patrol officer’s ear off the whole way here about that same woman, or maybe a different one, we really don’t know.”
By the end of that little speech she is almost laughing, “that’s my dad alright, completely mad.” She sounds fond.
I smile encouragingly, “so naturally we’re all very curious at this point.”
“Well I only know bits and pieces myself,” she tells me and I see Mitchell discretely drifting in our direction. “This was long before I was born. He’s only begun telling these stories since Mum died, so about two years. I worry how much he seems to be living in the past, but perhaps he prefers it that way now. It’s just funny because he always used to absolutely refuse to talk about it. Anyway, from what I’ve pieced together I think he’s talking about Christmas ’62 when he was living in America. This would have been right before he dropped out of University and moved home.
“For as long as I can remember we’ve all know about how Dad lived in New York City for a year and a half in his early 20s but nothing beyond that, he just wouldn’t talk about it. We used to imagine all these tragic romantic things that could have happened to him, now I think that he was just young and crazy and couldn’t deal with the big city. Sounds like he had some wild times though. Dad certainly had a flair for the dramatic and I mean New York City, it sounds like a film! Anyway, there was a girl – there’s always a girl – and he was totally into her. I don’t know how she felt about him but it sounds like one of those explosive relationships where things are always either utterly fantastic or complete shite. Apparently that first Christmas he didn’t have the money to come home and was probably depressed and thus being even more manic about the celebrations in New York in order to forget that he’d rather be somewhere else.”
She pauses, sighing, “my father has a long history of self-medication with alcohol.”
I make a sympathetic face, I certainly have experience with that particular form of mental health management (or lack thereof).
She continues, “Despite the experience landing him in the drunk tank I think that night was the peak of their relationship, they were high on their dreams and certain of their future. Dad had one more year and New York and it was going be theirs.”
“What happened?” I ask, because it’s obvious that something did.
“Dunno,” she responds, “but it involved a lot of bitter words and blame and personal recriminations, it was that type of relationship, bound to blow up in the end. I get the impression she ended it, blamed him for things going bad. Apparently she accused him of taking her dreams or something. He resented that, defended his good intentions. I guess good intentions weren’t good enough for her. But really I think it was just too volatile to last, and neither of them wanted to admit it, so instead they blamed each other.”
“And the choir?” I have to ask. It’s what first drew me into the story.
She laughs. “I really don’t know,” she says, “I don’t believe a word of it, but Dad swears up and down that the New York City Police Department has a station choir, and that they serenade the inmates on Christmas Eve.”