Sometimes life offers us unanswerable questions. In my family we call questions like that questions for god. You know the song that Elvis sings about taking a walk down lonely street to Heartbreak Hotel? Well that song was about a guy from my neighborhood who broken hearted and desperate stuck up a bunch of stores then walked into Albany Park, my local precinct, to confess. When I was a kid, Albany Park was the station they hauled us off to after we pissed off a cop or when they thought they could sweat something out of someone. On the nights we got busted we’d sit on steel benches waiting for morning when they’d give us a cup of black coffee in a bent tin mug, a baloney sandwich on white bread and a bored “get the hell out of here” from the jailer. Then we were free once again, standing on Pulaski seven in the morning and no way home. Every once in a while though, if they had reason to do more we’d leave the station in handcuffs, ride in the back of the paddy wagon down to County jail for hearing and bail but mostly it was crowd control, trying to keep the punks in line.
I was one of the punks for sure. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, living in and out of the house, out all night and always on the edge of something that could go wrong in a big way. Like the time I was living back home with my mom for a few weeks and coming home one night I decided to check out the cars on the street and see if there was anything good to be had. Up near the end of the block, my head inside of some guy's car, my hands inside his glove compartment I heard a loud “Hands up or I’ll shoot!” I jumped back up, saw the guy standing on his steps and took off running. “Stop you son of a bitch” he yelled and I heard a shot go over my head. I kept on running only now running doubled over so low all I could see was black pavement rushing by in front of me. I ran and ran till my lungs ran out and the fear subsided but now what? The apartment and my car were only a half a block away from the scene. There was no way I could go back while the street was crawling with cops. Three or four blocks away was an all-night deli. I headed there and huddled in a back booth drinking coffee and reading a newspaper trying to look like I’d been there all night. After a while some cops came in for coffee and sat in a booth nearby talking. I hid my scared ass behind the paper holding my breath but eventually they went away and now I had an alibi “Hey, I was sitting in Friedman’s drinking coffee. There was even a couple of cops in there, ask them” so I figured it was safe enough to walk home and I did. That was one of the lucky nights. Sometimes though we’d be close enough to whatever had happened that the cops would bring us in on suspicion. Then we waited in the holding tank while one guy after another was questioned in the little room with no windows.
Cops aren’t stupid. They’re not always right and they have their prejudices but after a few years on the street they can smell the difference between plain old rat in a trap fear and I’m fucked, how am I going to get out of here fear. It’s just a question of breaking someone down. On the other hand experienced criminals, even punks quickly learn how to size the situation up, know when to hold and when to fold and often if you don’t fold from intimidation and maybe a little roughing up you walk away with nothing but a story.
One night the cops locked a bunch of us up for something or other. When the shift changed at 6AM they paraded us out in front of the day crew so they could get to know our faces. The sergeant gave us each a minute of sarcastic description but when he came to a guy named Stokes he changed his tone. “This is Harold Stokes” he said “he’s a real tough guy. He’s gonna end up on a slab one of these days”. And of course a few years later Harold proved him right. I always wondered about that sergeant, how his nose was so good, how he could smell a bad end for one guy and a different life for the others. One of those questions for god.
In any case I got lucky, quit being a candidate for evenings in the lockup and until fifty years later never had any idea that Heartbreak Hotel was written about a guy from my neighborhood and that some of his story had taken place in the Albany Park station.
True story, there once was a guy named Alvin Krolik who stuck up a bunch of places, started feeling guilty about it and walked into the Albany Park police station to confess. He had started his little crime spree he said after his wife of five weeks left him (Well if you’re baby leaves you and you got a sad tale to tell..). He had written an autobiography too and in it he said “This is a story about a person who walked a lonely street”. You can imagine Alvin didn’t fit the usual cop/crook story line. In any case the cops took a liking to him and the judge gave him a pass and for a little while he changed his life. But then whatever drove him got back in for another ride and Alvin crashed and burned spectacularly, shot dead and covered in blood lying on a liquor store floor in El Paso. He was twenty seven. Harold too was in his twenties on the night he got into an argument at a party and someone shot him down. I knew Harold well, hung out with him and remember him as a crazy tough guy, but one who had my back. I didn’t see him as fated to die even if some of the world did…but I was wrong.
I escaped all of that life by means that are still not clear to me. I hung out on the same corners, got myself into the same jams and spent nights in the same jail but somehow I didn’t come at the same end. Instead I lived a full life, came miles from where I started and finally grew comfortable enough to sit here and ponder. I have a few theories about why things turned out the way they did but I’m afraid I have no answers, just a few questions for god.
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