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A Certain Point of View

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The weary police lieutenant trudged into the roadside café and sank down on a stool at the counter. Business was slow; there was only one other person there, and no waitress. Grumbling, he idly picked up the menu.

The man on the other stool turned to look. “Rough day?” he greeted.

The lieutenant looked up. “Yeah, somethin’ like that.” He nodded to the area behind the counter. “Is, uh, this place even open for business?”

The other man smiled in amusement. “Oh sure. Just give May some time to sort out the food in the kitchen. She’ll be out.”

“Oh brother.” The lieutenant shook his head. “It’s been ages since I’ve been in such a slow joint.”

“City man?” His new acquaintance pushed up his fedora with curiosity.

“Yeah. New York.”

“You’re a long way from home.”

A shrug. “I was called out on a special taskforce.”

“Oh, I see. You’re in law enforcement?”

“Right. Juvenile Division.” The lieutenant rubbed his eyes. “Sometimes I can’t think of a worse assignment. You see so many kids gone wrong.”

Now the other man sobered. “Yeah, that’s tough.” He held out his hand. “Dan Mathews, head of the Highway Patrol in this state.”

The lieutenant’s eyes flickered in clear surprise. “No kidding. The people you meet.” He accepted the handshake. “Kurtis Schrank.”

“What kind of taskforce are you involved with?” Mathews queried.

“Eh . . . some kids on my beat back in Manhattan skipped out here and joined a street gang in L.A.,” Schrank growled. “The word is that they’ve got pretty high up in the ranks and the gang’s mixed up with the Mob. So they called me and my partner out here to help out, since we know those sorry excuses for human beings better than just about anyone.”

“Those are some harsh words,” Mathews commented.

“Yeah, well, they deserve ’em,” Schrank grunted. “I’ve tried to reason with them since they were ten years old and swiping magazines from Doc’s Candy Store. Now they’re seventeen and they’re wanted for several counts of grand theft and a couple for murder. Even their special girls couldn’t reason with them. Nice girls, too. They weren’t mixed up in any of that crud. But no matter what they said, those idiots wouldn’t listen. Now they’re in so deep they’ll probably spend their lives in prison, if not on Death Row.” He sighed, pushing back his hat. “As far as stupid acts go, theirs are the mother lode. Most of the headaches I’ve had to deal with ain’t quite this bad.”

“I guess that’s something to be grateful for,” Mathews said. “I know where you’re coming from. There’s some wayward souls who’re just more frustrating than all the others put together.”

“Ohh, tell me about it.” Schrank poured himself a drink from the courtesy water pitcher. “Not that the regular punks ain’t a bundle of laughs too. I’ve lost count of how many gang wars I’ve tried to stop. Even when I manage to, they always seem to find some way to go at it again later. It’s just plain disgusting.”

Mathews crossed his arms on the counter. “How long have you been in Juvenile?”

“Well, technically about twenty years, since I took the sergeants’ exam. But even when I was a patrolman I had to deal with that crummy neighborhood.”

“Over twenty years, huh? You’ll be up for retirement soon,” Mathews noted.

“Yeah, and that’s the big paradox. I could retire, get out of this business, and never have to deal with another hooligan again. But I dunno what I’d do with myself all day.”

“You’re not married?”

“Not anymore. I got no family, no nothin’ really, except my partner.” Schrank leaned back. “Everything comes back to my work. And since it’s all I really have, I dunno if I’ll retire or not.” He twirled the menu on the counter with his forefinger. “I might just keep at it until I either drop dead or somebody kills me. And on my beat that’s always a pretty big possibility.”

Mathews was preempted from replying by the arrival of the harried May. “I’m sorry, Sir,” she said to Schrank. “I heard voices out here and realized someone else had come in. Are you ready to order?”

“Yeah.” Schrank stopped twirling the menu and glanced at it. “I’ll just have this thing here.” He pointed at one of the advertised sandwiches. May leaned over to see.

“Oh, that’s one of our specials,” she said. “I’ll be back in a jiffy.” She hurried off, leaving the lawmen alone again.

“Tell me something,” Mathews said now. “If it’s not too personal to ask. Why did you decide to become a police officer?”

Schrank shrugged. “Why does anyone? I was a young, crazy kid. Thought I could change the world.” He paused, thinking further on it. “The street gangs back in my piece of the concrete jungle, they used to carry on, get into fights. . . . They scared the heck out of me when I was a kid. And I was mad, too. I just wanted to make them stop. I thought if I was a cop, I could do things different than the other cops out there and get them to listen to me. I thought I’d have it made.”

“But they showed you up,” Mathews surmised.

“You got it. It didn’t take me long to realize that I’d made a big mistake.”

“Oh yeah? What was that?”

“Thinkin’ they’d listen to me any more than any other cop.” Schrank sighed. “And as the years went by, I just got madder and madder. Funny, though; after ten years on the force I still thought I could make some difference. I joined up with a mentor program we were tryin’ out.

“For a while I actually seemed to be makin’ some progress with the kids. But then one of them up and went back to his gang and everything fell apart after that.”

“And you burned out.”

Schrank frowned, turning to really look at the other man. “Okay, you’re starting to creep me out,” he said. “How do you know so much about what was goin’ on? You weren’t even there!”

“I’ve seen a lot of guys like you,” Mathews said. “Guys who think they can make all the difference in the world and then come crashing back to earth when they realize they’re never gonna be able to make all the changes they wanted.”

“So what do you tell them?” Schrank was honestly interested. All he ever heard from headquarters was that he had to understand the hoodlums and their feelings before he could ever do a thing to help them. But for the life of him, he could not comprehend how a square of cement was worth more than a human life. The very thought made him furious. Somehow he had the feeling that Mathews would agree with him on that point.

“Well, first I try to find out if they’ve ever had any experiences that made them feel fulfilled, like they were accomplishing something. Most of them say Yes. What about you?”

“Eh . . . maybe a few times,” Schrank admitted. “But sometimes it went down the drain anyway. I felt fulfilled when I thought those kids were starting to warm up to me. And look what happened.”

“Think about this. How many people do you think you’ve protected from gang violence?”

Schrank considered that and shook his head. “I’ve got no idea.”

“And maybe you’ll never know. But chances are you’ve protected someone, even if you don’t know it. Some girl walking down the street might be dead if it weren’t for you. Some guy with a newspaper stand might be in the hospital if you weren’t around.” Mathews peered at the cynical man. “Did you know this was a thankless job when you took it?”

“In some part of my mind, yeah,” Schrank said. “But just like with everything else, I thought I could change that. A super-policeman, that’s what I thought I was gonna be.”

“So do a lot of recruits,” Mathews returned. “You’re sure not the first. And you’re not gonna be the last.”

Schrank was silent, thinking. At last he turned, looking back to Mathews. “You know, I guess if we’re really gonna get to the crux of the thing, if I honestly thought I wasn’t doin’ any good at all I would’ve quit years ago. I almost have more than once, but something’s always stopped me. And maybe it’s that I wonder what else might go wrong if I wasn’t around to stop it. As cheesy as that sounds.”

“That’s not cheese; it sounds like good sense to me.” Mathews was gruff now, but it was clear he was pleased.

“Is that the kinda thing you tell these other officers?” Schrank wondered.

“Sometimes,” Mathews said. “I like it a lot better when they figure it out on their own.” He gave Schrank a long look. “Yeah, it’s hard when everything seems to be going wrong, when nobody seems to listen and people are ending up hurt or dead because of it. And it’s hard when the people you’re trying to protect don’t want your protection and put you down every chance they get.

“But what if everyone felt like there was no point in going on? Then there wouldn’t be any law enforcement at all. This whole world would be a madhouse of mob rule.”

Schrank nodded. “If I think it’s bad now, that’d be a million times worse.”

May returned with a plate. “Here’s your sandwich,” she said, setting it in front of him. “Can I get you anything else?”

“Nah, this is fine, thanks,” Schrank returned.

“Okay then.” May smiled and left.

Schrank started to eat. “Hey, this is pretty good,” he said in approval.

Mathews leaned back, satisfied. “I told you May knows what she’s doing.”

Schrank studied him thoughtfully for a moment. “Tell me somethin’,” he said. “You’ve been around. You’re the first guy I’ve run into who acts like he really understands my side of things. You must’ve seen a lot of rotten stuff. How’d you not let it drag you down? Just by keepin’ hold of those ideals of yours?”

“If you want to put it that way, it pretty much comes down to that,” Mathews said. “But it’s not that simple, really. Sooner or later everyone hits that breaking point and has thoughts of wanting to quit. And sometimes it’s hard to drag yourself out of a funk like that. Real hard. Sometimes it’s your own determination and drive that finally pulls you through it. Sometimes it’s an outside force—something a family member or friend or even a stranger says . . . a situation you stumble on at just the right time to help out . . . any number of things.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Schrank looked ponderous now. “I’ve had some times like that.” Instead of sharing, however, he changed the subject.

“These kids back East. I’m always being told to understand them. And I’m not sayin’ that’s not important; I’m just wonderin’ how it’s done.” His eyes narrowed and flashed with a haunted look. “I’ve seen kids knife and gun each other down just to keep hold of some sidewalk. I’ve seen them lyin’ on the ground, their blood spilling all over that same stupid sidewalk as they croak out their last words. And I’ve seen them get put in body bags and rolled off to the morgue, just more teenage punks hardly anyone’s going to remember in a few years. How do you understand that, Mr. Mathews? How can anyone?”

Mathews looked back, his own eyes flickering with some semblance of recognition. He had seen things like that too. “Lieutenant, there’s some things you’re never gonna understand. People wasting their lives is one of the big ones.” He paused. “And no matter how hard we try, we’re never gonna rub that out completely.”

“That’d be too much to ask,” Schrank said ruefully. “People will be people. And people are stupid.”

“Yeah, they are, sometimes,” Mathews came back. “But there’s good in a lot of them. A lot of us see so much garbage in the world that we can forget that.”

“I’m guilty of that, I’ll admit it.” Schrank continued to eat. “I’ve got so I’m sick of seeing people move into the neighborhood, especially if they have kids. All the kids on my beat seem to think street gangs are a part of American life and they havta be in one to have a place in the world. Everyone’d be better off without people comin’ in with that mindset.”

“Everybody wants to belong somewhere,” Mathews said. “Are there any alternatives for the kids there besides the gangs? Something constructive, for instance?”

“Not much, no,” Schrank sighed. “Don’t think I haven’t thought of that, Mr. Mathews. I used to try to get stuff like that going. I always got told there wasn’t enough money. And somewhere along the way, I just gave up. Nobody was listening.”

“You don’t need a lot of money,” Mathews returned. “Just a healthy environment and some decent projects for the kids.”

“The next problem would be gettin’ the kids to do the projects,” Schrank grunted. “There’s been stuff like that, now and then. They act all tough and smug and like they won’t touch anything like that with a ten-foot pole. They don’t want the grown-ups any more than the grown-ups want them.”

“Maybe they’d soften up if they felt like they were really cared about,” Mathews said. “Nobody wants to be dealt with by someone who feels like he has to do it.”

“Yeah, I know.” Schrank leaned back. “It’s not always that simple. Not even caring about them does much good in their eyes. They turn up their ungrateful noses at anything and everything.”

“And maybe sometimes it’s hard to show you care, or even feel like you do, when they act like that,” Mathews finished.

“That’s right. Sometimes I think I’ve had it, that I don’t care what happens to them anymore. That they can go shoot each other’s guts out if that’s what they really wanna do.” Schrank passed a hand over his eyes. “But then it happens again and I know I still do care, that I’m just so sick of seeing it and them never listening to reason.”

“If you didn’t still care, you wouldn’t be fit to be a cop,” Mathews growled.

“You’re right,” Schrank conceded with a sigh. “Although sometimes I think it’d all be so much easier if we didn’t care.”

“Maybe at first,” Mathews said. “You could bust crooks a lot easier. But then there’d be a situation where you’d really need compassion and caring. It could be anything, from a crying witness to a nutcase holdin’ a bunch of people hostage. If you didn’t care then, who knows what you might screw up.”

“Yeah.” Schrank took a sip of water. “But then I guess as long as we ain’t forgot how to be decently human, there’s never gonna be that problem.”

“Let’s hope not.” Mathews glanced at his watch. “Well, I’ve gotta get back to the station.” He held out a hand. “Maybe I’ll see you again before you go back to New York.”

“Maybe. Who knows.” Schrank returned the handshake. “I’m glad we had this talk, Mr. Mathews.”

“Same here. I hope I gave you a little encouragement with your gang problem.”

“I hope so too,” Schrank nodded. “When I get back I’ll see if I can put it to good use.”

Mathews smiled a bit. “Good luck. Maybe it’ll work for you.” He slid off the stool, digging in his pocket for a tip for May before turning and moseying to the door.

Schrank watched him go, leaning thoughtfully against the counter.

Yes, he was glad that they had had this chance meeting. Mathews was something new to him—someone who understood and shared his frustrations and yet had not become altogether cynical. It both amazed and fascinated him. He wished that he could have some of that continuing faith in the human race.

On the other hand, he mused as he got up and also left a tip, maybe he did. Maybe that, too, was why he was still a cop.