Thursday, January 28, 2010

On The Job, a short story...

On The Job
James Strauss

Forty-Second Street combines thousands of semi-repaired potholes to run it’s multi-lane misery past the Hyatt Hotel. Some call it the Grand Hyatt, but they’ve never stayed there. Traveling veteran’s call it the TAS, for ‘That’s A Shame,” which is the expression one hears cross the front desk when guests complain about having no hot water. The hotel’s water pipes run through the subway tunnels built directly underneath the structure. For some reason, unknown to any city employee or private plumbing contractor, the hot water to the hotel is almost never hot, nor delivered at any acceptable pressure level.
The subway station, and the TAS attached above it were on Hobson’s beat.
He’d been a New York City cop for eleven years. It had taken him almost that long to get a street beat instead of motor patrol. Mostly he spent his time inside, drinking coffee, rousting street people, or writing the numerous petty theft reports for the gallery owners who suffered continuous losses from shoplifters. Hobson never caught shoplifters. He’d had a variety of young partners over the past two years of running his beat, however, and it had taken some time to teach them that there really wasn’t much shoplifting to police. The reports written were for insurance claims. The shop owners made a bit of extra profit by juicing their insurance companies by making up claims.
Hobson liked partners. He had somebody to talk to when he had a partner. Metro was a comfortably safe job but it was boring as hell. The people who flowed through the hotel and underground station moved all the time. Fast. They did not stop to converse or pass social time. On top of that, all of the employees of the hotel worked like beaten dogs. They had no time to stand or sit around and be interesting. They were respectful, but not social.
Hobson’s only regular acquaintance was a small time crook and shoeshine expert named Kevon. The man had a whacked out expressive personality and almost never stopped talking, unless it was to listen to one of Hobson’s numerous stories about when he’d been a parking enforcement officer. Kevon, pronounced ‘Kee-von,’ loved the ridiculous excuses people sometimes tried to get out of a parking ticket, only one of which had ever worked. A beautiful woman had lifted her blouse to show Hobson her breasts once. That had worked. Hobson still saw the breasts sometimes when he lay in bed smoking his last cigarette of the day.
Kevon shined Hobson’s shoes for free. He gave him his best ‘before and after’ shine. A digital photo of scuffed boots before the job, and then another when the boots shined bright enough to see things in. Hobson had never found out what Kevon did with the photos, as his procedure was always the same; take the shots, show them once, and never produce them again. Kevon claimed he was maintaining a vast collection for his ‘constituency.’
Kevon ran cigarettes as a sideline, gambled to the point of complete poverty, and occasionally showed up drunk as a lord. People loved him, no matter what his vices, and Hobson did too. But he loved Kevon’s boy, Tyson, even more. The kid had just turned ten the week before. Hobson had found him one of those solar system projectors he’d found at the Anthropologie store in mid-town. He hadn’t considered the gift much, but had almost been brought to tears when Kevon informed him that the boy could no longer go to sleep unless the projector was on. The boy was going to be on the job one day, Hobson just knew, and he’d be sergeant material, unlike Hobson himself.
Ty could shine shoes better than his dad, but he didn’t work the shoeshine booth on 42nd Street very often. He never ran it alone. Although 42nd wasn’t dangerous, as far as New York City streets went, it did have it’s crazies, drug-addled peddlers and mean-spirited vagrants hanging about, especially into the evening hours. Although Ty’s crack smoking Mom had moved out years before, Kevon had proven to be a devoted and dependable father. Hobson counted the man’s treatment of his son as a wonderful asset to their friendship.
Whenever Ty was there, Hobson found some excuse to be nearby. He was convinced that only two beings on the planet really loved him. His cat, Tigger, and the boy, Tyson. Children and cats could be trusted to let you now what they really felt, or so Hobson fervently believed. He had never married because no woman he’d dated and asked had ever said yes. Secretly, he believed that the women he’d put the question to had exercised impeccable good judgment. Hobson was not very intelligent, far less than good looking, and had only one thing going for him. That was his tenuous relationship with the New York Police Department.
His own sergeant had confided in him one day, informing Hobson that his beat would protect him until retirement. No self-respecting cop on the force would take the job, no matter what the department threatened.
Hobson bought an egg and sausage filled croissant for his breakfast from Hidey-Ho, the street vendor on Lexington. He got his coffee from the underground joint called Brio. They didn’t give him his coffee “on the arm” however; instead they allowed him to tip a dollar for each cup. They were stealing Brio coffee at three bucks, and making Hobson pay one dollar to them in cash. He’d bought into the system for a year before he’d figured out their illegal trickery. By then it was too late.
Hobson went up toward 42nd Street.
He had no partner. His latest partner, Wilson, had had the Swine flu, then pneumonia, then migraines. No one had replaced the man in three months. His sergeant told him to ‘endeavor to persevere,’ like from the movie ‘Josie Wales.’ Hobson rented the movie but hadn’t been able to figure out the reference.
When he got to the street he looked for Kevon, who should have been at his usual place, standing in front of a bank of three raised shoe-shine chairs. Tyson’s smaller bent over body stood there in his place. He was working on one man’s shoes, while another filled the far chair.
“Morning Ty,” Hobson murmured, between bites of his thick croissant. He was worried, not seeing Kevon, Ty being there, and it being a school day, but he didn’t show anything.
“Good morning, sir,” the extremely well mannered young man answered, while he kept working polish into his customer’s shoes.
Hobson waited for several minutes, until it became clear that the youngster was not going to say anything else.
“Where’s Kevon?” he finally asked.
“In the precinct, “ Ty answered.
Hobson’s coffee cup stopped in mid-air. ‘In the precinct’ meant that Kevon was locked up. Saying nothing further, and in spite of the fact that he didn’t want to leave the boy alone working the shoe shine stand, Hobson walked back to his cop kiosk just inside the 42nd Street underground entrance. He called his dispatcher. Hobson was Metro, not City, so it would take some time to find out what had happened to Kevon. He put the word out, and then returned to the street.
The boy worked like a maniac, shining shoes, handing out the free newspapers Kevon distributed as a sideline and giving people directions. Long ago Hobson had stopped giving directions. If asked he just said he wasn’t from that part of the city. A police officer in uniform, standing at an underground entrance, could spend all of his time giving directions. He didn’t consider such contact befitting his status as a crime fighting police officer.
The call came in at mid-afternoon. Kevon was inside on Federal hold. The ATF had filed a complaint. Kevin’s bootleg cigarette operation had been uncovered.
His bail was ten thousand, when meant a thousand cash and a promise for the rest, if Kevon didn’t show up for court.
Hobson considered, sipping from his cold coffee cup. Cops didn’t bail Skells out of jail. Cops put Skells in jail. A Skell being a crook. But Kevon was one of his people. He worked Hobson’s beat. He was his only friend, and father to Tyson. Hobson concluded that Devon, although damaged and scarred, was not a Skell. And the ATF guys were Feds. Feds were lowlife creeps who lived and worked by their own arcane rules, almost all of which were stupid or wrong. Every Metro cop knew that. If you worked with Feds, you told them nothing and expected less,
Hobson used his cell to call downtown. Within ten minutes he made contact with a member of his old academy class. The thousand had to be paid soon, as Kevon would be transferred the following day to Riker’s, the only place Federal holds were kept. He hung up, went to the street to see how Ty was doing, and then crossed to Chase, where his money was. He had just over a thousand in his account.
Hobson didn’t call for a patrol car. He took a taxi to the jail. He didn’t want to explain what he was doing or let anybody know that he was temporarily abandoning his post. Everything went smoothly at the jail, until he found out that Kevon would not be released until the following morning. The Federal Court had to clear the bail, not City. There was nothing to be done. Hobson’s mind was so centered on the problem of Tyson being alone that he didn’t see his own sergeant.
He ran right into the big man’s jutting stomach.
“What the hell are you doing here, Hobson?” the man yelled. “And who’s standing it at your post?”
Hobson bounced back from the huge man, his mind frozen. He stood panting.
“Well,” the sergeant hissed down at him, bending slightly forward.
“Wilson’s covering,” Hobson got out weakly, “and I’m just visiting a friend.”
“Bullshit, you little maggot,” the sergeant stated, his voice more moderated, but filled with a tone of distasteful resignation. “You just paid the bail on some Skell. You think I’m an uninformed idiot? And Wilson’s back from sick leave? I didn’t know that.” He looked closely at Hobson’s shiny shoes then not so shiny uniform. “I don’t know what the hell you’re up to, but I don’t like it. Get outta here.”
Hobson nearly ran back to the street. He grabbed the first cab that came along. The exchange with his sergeant had been frightening. The man had not known that Wilson was still sick. That Hobson had left his post without approval or replacement was a potentially terminal act. But at least his sergeant had known about the bail, and had not seemed to care. That was a plus.
The boy was working when Hobson made it back to 42nd. Hobson breathed a sigh of relief. There were not patrons waiting for a shine, and snow had begun to fall, cutting passing sidewalk traffic to almost nothing.
“You’re Dad won’t be home until tomorrow morning,” Hobson mentioned, softly, looking out at the passing cars and trucks.
“Okay,” the boy answered, his tone uncertain.
“I live in Brooklyn. We can take the subway there when my shift is done.
We’ll have prime burgers and watch television, then come back tomorrow.” Hobson stopped talking, not knowing what the young boy might say.
“Will I get to meet Tigger?” the boy asked.
“Yes,” Hobson replied, with a big smile. “C’mon with me and we’ll get my stuff from the kiosk. You can have a hot chocolate from Brio while we wait the clock out.” Together, they covered and zippered up the outside shoeshine chairs.
Hobson didn’t notice his sergeant until they were almost to the kiosk.
“Oh Jesus,” he whispered, but it was too late, the sergeant had seen them
“Get rid of the kid,” the big man said, his voice ominous in tone.
Hobson fumbled for some change at the bottom of his pocket.
“Here, get the hot chocolate,” he said, shakily to Tyson. The kid grabbed the money and ran toward the coffee shop with a grin.
“So what have we here, Hobson,” the sergeant said, leaning forward, propping one elbow up on the flat surface of the kiosk desk. Hobson didn’t know what to say. He moved to stand at his station on the inside of the round counter area.
“Wilson isn’t back form sick leave. You abandoned your post. You bailed out some low-life Skell shoeshine guy for a grand. You couldn’t get him away from the Feds today so you’ve taken up with his ten year old kid until he gets back.” The sergeant stopped talking. He stared intently into Hobson’s eyes for the first time Hobson could remember.
“Have I got any of that wrong?” He said, when Hobson didn’t talk.
“No sir,” Hobson finally said, his heart sinking to the bottom of his well-shined boots.
The sergeant shifted from one leg to the other, and then turned his head to look up and down the underground corridors.
“You took care of the people today Charlie. You went right at the Feds, and you lied to me in doing it. And you’re not done. You’ve got the kid. You represented today. I underestimated you. For the first time since you’ve worked for me I’m impressed. You’re part of what not many people understand about the New York Police Department. You’re on the job.”
The big man straightened himself, and then turned and walked out to 42nd Street without another word or look. Hobson stood in shock behind the counter.
“He called me Charlie,” he whispered to himself. Nobody on the force had ever called him anything but Hobson.
The boy came back, whipped cream covering his mouth. They went home to Hobson’s cramped apartment in Brooklyn. Tigger was overjoyed to have a new admiring friend added to her extensive collection. When they got into Hobson’s lone double bed, the boy was uncomfortable, until Hobson switched on his own illuminated solar system. They stared up to watch the planets and moons slowly revolve around the sun until the three of them fell into deep sleep.
copyright 2010


  1. nice. a vivid portrait of the city.

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