Memories from a crime reporter’s Christmas
By Scott Thomas Anderson
I was sitting in the Boxing Donkey Irish Pub, watching tiny ice-lights glint on the clover-green walls and the old oak curving above the Guinness sign, when The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” came into my ear bud. Shane MacGowan’s voice croaked over the Celtic piano with a sloppy, swinging sentimentality: “It was Christmas Eve, babe / In the drunk tank / An old man said to me, ‘won’t see another one.’”
The tipsy tune lulled me back into the kind of holiday memories you only have if you’re a newspaper crime reporter.
The night was Dec. 17, 2010. I was on a routine ride-along in my home county in California with an Amador deputy named Chris Crandell. We’d been at the jail some nights before on an earlier ride-along, and as Crandell booked two jolly junkies into their cells I noticed a large man glaring at us through the glass of a holding tank.
“Oh yeah, I’m a mercenary!” the man bellowed when we made eye contact. He took a careful study of Crandell’s sheriff’s uniform and then me, dressed in jeans and collared shirt with a press badge around my neck. “What, are you in the CIA!” he demanded, spouting comets of spit. “I C-U, C-I-A; but hey, you won’t get me like you got Kennedy, fucker!”
I turned to a correctional officer. “What did he take?”
“I don’t know,” the C.O. answered, “but it must have been something special, because he’s been amped up like that for 24 hours without closing his eyes even once. See all those weird track marks through his buzz cut? Yeah, he tried to give himself a new hair style with a safety razor. He can’t stand still.”
“It’s a Christmas meth miracle,” I uttered.
As Crandell and I were leaving we passed the holding tank. The big man suddenly slapped his chin against the glass, causing Crandell to pause in front of him. The man began to slowly raise his hand into an official military-style salute. His face grew calm and serious. His eyes tried to convey a hallowed reverence to the deputy. Bringing his straightened fingers up to his temple, he suddenly changed the form of his palm into an imaginary gun. A reveling smile broke through his features and proceeded to click off invisible bullets at both of us. “Hah! Hah!,” he howled. “Never trust — a mercenary!” Coughing to suck in a huge breath, his eyes bulged and cheeks puffed to the size of balloons before his jaw wrench wide to, again, scream, “Mercenary!!!”
Now it was long in the evening and a tangle of manzanita and old shattered stumps passed intermittently through the headlights, alternating from carbon to a russet nail color in the vehicle’s beams. An emergency call came over the radio. A major bar fight had broken out at the Annex bar in Sutter Creek. The city had one graveyard officer on duty and he was heading into a raucous melee involving numerous people swinging glass pitchers, throwing haymaker punches and wildly trying to choke each other. Crandell could hear units from other parts of the county racing to the scene.
Hammering rain pelted the windshield. The tires warbled on the wet pavement and I got a better look at the searing, magenta vision that was emanating on the treetops for miles: It was a fast, crimson barrage of rioting strobes. Crandell’s patrol car turned on to the city’s Main Street — and this spectral wave of red suddenly misted over every sidewalk and Victorian balcony. Patrol cars from all sectors of the county had converged on a one-block stretch of the historic district. Their roof flashers appeared like a slightly drunk choir of shining signals. The fight was over; suspects had been detained. With the windows down, Crandell’s car pulled to a stop at the epicenter of the blinking lights. The holiday ornaments strung high over Main Street were basked in a ruby quilt of surreal light. Sutter Creek’s elegant arraignment of bulbs, wreaths and mistletoe were consumed by the cherry patterns and sharp, scarlet flickers. It was the most memorable yuletide show I have ever seen.
“You actually let that reporter ride with you, Crandall?” a cop named Mike Collins barked with a smile. “I’ve spent about $300 in doughnuts for my office this year because of stuff he’s written!”
“That’s right,” a K-9 handler named Al Lewis agreed as he stepped out of the rainy shadow. “The article he wrote last week made my dog sound smarter than me.”
“Who says he’s not?” Collins shot back.
The two veteran officers laughed and gave me a welcoming handshake.
“How you boys been?” Crandell asked.
“Good,” Collins said. “Everything’s calm now, but it sounded like a barn-burner on the radio, didn’t it?”
“Yeah it did,” a third voice said. I looked into the alley to see an officer who I’d publicly nicknamed ‘the Tweeker Hammer’ come stepping through the splashing, sorrel lights.
I glanced at the door to the bar and realized it was best the brawlers gave up the ship, because the graveyard officer had plenty of backup tonight.
For a few moments, the officers from different departments smiled as they caught up with each other — sharing how their jobs had been lately, and how their families were doing. For me it was part of an ongoing window into the profound camaraderie that connects those who wear the badge. I knew these guys swapping jokes and stories may wear different uniforms, but they all took the same risks each night.
“Got to get back out there, boys,” Crandell said. “If I don’t see you next week, have a merry Christmas.” The others waved in their heavy patrol jackets and walked back to their cars as the downpour started again.
And the black-and-white units and the green-and-white units all pulled off of Main Street, breaking in different directions, each slipping back into the December darkness — waiting for the next emergency call.