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An excerpt from BECOMING HUMAN


A young city cop learns to work in complicated settings where race and class differences between groups create disagreements regarding what they feel is right or wrong. Working the streets of a particular neighborhood, the patrolman often feels ambivalent regarding the best action to take in a specific situation. People in his assigned patrol district can be at odds with city hall and police administrators regarding which laws they value or despise, and what constitutes order or disorder.

And no community wants all its laws enforced, for that would force most of us into jail at one time or another. An ancient Asian poet once astutely observed, “Both good and bad: the police box put opposite our house.” We want the cops to ferret out our neighbors’ crimes, but not sniff out our own.

Some individuals in any community will blandish a cop with sexual favors or bribes of free food or money in exchange for the cop’s willingness to ignore inconvenient statutes. Some cops become cozy with these arrangements. So, while working alone may be a bit more dangerous, the patrolman who works with a partner occasionally faces an additional job complication--his partner’s desire to take.

Officer “F” and I didn’t like each other, but one night on graveyard shift he and I were partners in a two-man car on skid row. Just after midnight, we got a call on a dead body at a rundown tong on Third Avenue. This tong was one of several Chinese benevolent associations on skid row that housed elderly men who had worked much of their lives in menial jobs tied to the fishing, canning and agricultural industries. They were impoverished in their old age and the tongs provided sleeping rooms and meals for them, all funded by more affluent members of the local Chinese community.

The tong was housed in a second floor walk-up at the top of steep stairs, and when we banged on the entry door, a casually but expensively dressed, middle-aged Chinese American introduced himself as a member of the tong’s Board of Directors. He’d been called away from his suburban home an hour earlier, for one of his resident elders had died. He led us into a drab room where the Jack Paar Show was playing on a black and white television with a rabbit-ear antenna.

In front of the TV was the dead man clad in shabby cutoffs and sandals. His worn tee-shirt was covered by a tattered wool vest that had small holes in its front, as though eaten out by moths. He’d been sitting on a three-legged stool watching the television when he died.

His corpse was an extraordinary sight, for in the instant of death he had slid forward onto his knees and had arched himself backward. The stool had tilted forward just right and lodged against his lower back, propping him up. His arms had flung wide and were just now going into rigor, while his face was pointed straight up toward the heavens. His mouth was wide open, as if in a scream, and a single strand of spittle arched between his upper and lower teeth, many of which were missing. His whole posture was one of beseeching, as though in his final moment of life he had flung wide his arms and cried out to God for mercy, begged to be taken home.

We walked down a narrow hallway and looked through the dead man’s small sleeping cubicle, not sure what we might find. This drab space was filled to head height with stacked newspapers, moldering magazines, and empty, flattened grocery sacks, all hoarded against some anticipated, anxious time of need. Through this sad array, only a narrow path remained, leading from the doorway to the pallet where the dead man had slept for many years. The air in the room was redolent of old-man smell and that of humid newsprint.

After a cursory search, we’d found nothing more of material interest, so I went downstairs and called for the deputy coroner on our car radio. When I returned, “F” had just begun to take notes from the man who’d first greeted us. The dead man had worked in canneries along the Oregon coast for decades, was around 75 years old and had been in America since the 1920's. Information about him was sketchy, though he had no family and no money. He wished for his body to be returned to China when he died, but the tong didn’t have money for that, so he’d be buried locally.

As “F” scribbled his notes, I looked at the dead man more closely. His features were waxen; his animating force was gone. As my eyes roved over him I noticed that in one of the moth holes in his vest was something that looked like paper grocery sacking. I bent and touched it, felt around and realized it was a flat packet several inches long. Opening his vest and looking inside, I saw the lining was torn. Tearing the lining a bit more, I was able to pull the packet free, then I loosened the twine that bound it.

“F” and the Chinese man and I were stunned by what I found. The packet was a bundle of federal reserve bank notes, mostly one hundred dollar bills. They had been printed in the 1930's and 40's and the dead man obviously had been hoarding them ever since.

When I counted out the notes on a small table and announced, “There’s $10,689 here,” “F” cursed disgustedly. I looked at him, uncertain at his reaction, but he just shook his head. I didn’t like “F,” for he was embarrassing to work with: always on the lookout for little gratuities from local business people: cigarettes, food, a bottle of whiskey. I’d never seen him take money, though I assumed he did so, but likely he just kept such transactions out of sight....


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