Friday, April 19, 2013

The State of Things

I want to caveat this all with: I really hate when everyone takes a moment of national importance to discuss how it makes them feel. Or to somehow color it as their issue. As if what happened is about them.

And yet.

I'm about to do that same thing.

So forgive me in advance.

I'm at work and it has been, like for most of you I'm sure, kind of a horrible week.

As the child, stepchild, and sister of cops, days like Monday make me more anxious than they did when I was younger.

When you're a kid and being the first at awful scenes is what your parents do for a living, you don't think too hard about it. It's just your reality. In the same way other parents went off to an office building, mine went to work as police officers. And it was actually a bit cooler than office work because they wore uniforms and carried guns and I got to ride in police cars a lot to be taken to school.

You're not exactly conscious of it. Mom and dad go to work. Mom and dad come home. End of story. And other than that both of my parents did it, it wasn't particularly unique. I went to grade school and high school with plenty of other cops kids.

But my dad's partner got killed when they were working together when I was nine, and I watched the funeral from the school yard at recess, hundreds of cops filing into the church attached to my grade school (they didn't think it was necessary for me to go) and an eight year old girl whose dad had just died wore my green velvet Christmas dress with the white lace collar to say goodbye to her dad and you never really ever again forget that what they do for a living is inherently dangerous, even if at nine you lack the skills to process that that's what your brain has taken away from the situation.

And yet you still mostly don't think about it. You make all sorts of macabre jokes. You develop a wicked sense of humor as deflection. You get comfortable with stories about car crashes and drug dealers and dead bodies. You have no aversion to blood or gore and have seen things that most parents wouldn't want their kids to see but which your family gleefully passes around at the dinner table. (Ever seen pictures of someone's throat ripped out by a tiger? I have!)

You tease your family because as their careers progress you know that day shift in the Sunset and afternoons in North Beach aren't exactly midnights in the Tenderloin as the first female officer assigned to that new station or endless buy busts in the narcotics division in the early 90s. Your brother has a sweet gig patrolling the Marina and flirting with girls in yoga pants and your world is relatively unscathed. They have merchant friends in many of the neighborhoods who treat you like royalty and you feel lucky to see a side of this city most other people don't. You know how things work. That tickets are solved with phone calls and that the police department is an endless font of gossip and your mother gets mad that you say it's really incestuous how they all date each other while at the same time missing the irony in the fact that your stepdad shares her profession. (And your stepmom. And your stepmom's ex-husband. And his second wife. And her brothers. Who know your mom and dad pre-any of this.)

There are times anxiety about what they do creeps in. There's the Christmas Day jumper that sticks with your dad long after it happens because he was unable to help as the lead negotiator. There are the sexual assault stories you don't ever want to have to hear again, retold to you so factually that you wonder if everyone you knows emotion chip is broken (it is). And even as a decidedly unemotional person, the weight of what goes on around you can at times feel overwhelming. Which is probably exactly why you remain unemotional and detached.

There's an awareness that I wish I didn't have, that when things go south at any point, most of the people I care about will be tasked with keeping peace...or even infinitely more dangerous assignments. I wish I didn't remember not seeing my parents for the week following the '89 earthquake as they pulled 12 (or more) hour shifts, a cop driving along our street telling my mom she should probably head to her station, leaving us with the neighbor, and then my grandparents, to go do her job.

But here's the thing: they're decidedly blase about what they do.

As my dad and I discussed what happened in Boston on the drive into work on Tuesday morning, being incredibly cynical about all the events in a way that it feels like only him and I are, conspiratorially pragmatic about how things unfold and the reality of our world, he said, "And ya know what? The word hero is really overused. 'Oh he was so heroic!' It's our JOB. If we didn't spring into action at the first sign of something amiss, we're doing our job wrong. Who wants to hire an incompetent cop?"

And he wasn't the only one. The bailiff and I were talking about murder classifications and how that analysis always drives me batty because you should start with "There's a dead body, who did it?" and the "well what were you thinking when you did it?" should have very little weight and he says, "I have a problem with the special classifications. When a cop gets killed it's considered just about the worst thing ever. Fuck that. We go to work, we do our jobs, sometimes we don't come home. That's the reality. That's what we sign up for. We know the deal. It's not special."

There's something oddly comforting (or maybe just plain comforting?) about knowing that they never take themselves, or the job, too seriously. There's a relief for anxiety in realizing it's not extraordinary super powers that cause them to spring into action but a sense of duty for the task which they are paid to do. They'd react the same in any situation they are faced with making all the totally out of the ordinary stuff that can happen in a day completely ordinary to them. The same as when you drive a car, (ideally) you check the mirrors, turn on your blinker, accelerate at a reasonable rate and a bunch of other things in between, without really thinking about it, to be a safe driver. They do the same with police work. See a threat, assess a threat, handle the threat, doing 800 tiny things in the meantime to get there. And if they do that, if they do their job, they can, in all likelihood, make a lot of bad situations not be the worst situations.

I say none of this to diminish the respect we should feel for them. They do work that most of us would balk at. I only say this to point out that these completely no nonsense discussions about what they do and why they do it sure as heck alleviated my anxiety about what was going on in the world. Because these people are just here to do their jobs. And to do them well. And we're all safer because of that.

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