If you’re an ex-cop writing a memoir, there’s only one way for it to work; the joke has to be on you. If you write about what a tough guy you are, people are going to think you have a big stupid ego. If you write that shit fell on your head, then it’s funny. You can make the memoir dark, or you can make it funny, and in this memoir of a horrible place and time, Wags is a hilarious, wild ride.
Jimmy Wagner was a cop in the East Village back in the 1970’s, at a time when the city had gone to pot. If you remember 1970’s New York as a cesspool, then the East Village was like a cesspool that hadn’t been cleaned. It’s the same neighborhood where Travis Bickle shoots all those people in Taxi Driver, and where you had to be crazy to go at night. The area was full of junkies who relieved themselves on the sidewalks, and any minute you’d find a dead body on a doorstep. Maybe it was an overdose, maybe he fell off the roof, maybe a shooting. Regardless, nobody would’ve been shocked. Take this for instance; they get a call because a film crew has come across a dead body on the roof, and it’s going to set them back a few hours. Now guess who the star actor is? Charles Bronson! The movie they were shooting was Death Wish. Talk about life imitating art.
One of the things I love about Wags is the way it describes all the different characters of the East Village. There’s the Bowery, where a flophouse wino gets murdered by a transvestite. There’s the Hells Angels (the least difficult group, it turns out) and the Filmore East, crooked cops, a mystic named Oric Bovar, teenage runaways, and more. Some of the funniest things happen after Wagner becomes a sergeant, like the “easy” parade detail that becomes an ordeal when one cop shoots another (“I was just showing him my gun and it went off”). I shouldn’t say that’s funny, but Wags talks of it like a comedy. By the time he got promoted, the younger cops were not as tough (he says it was like babysitting a bunch of suburban white kids.) One of them is bitten on the ass by a pit bull, beaten by a gang of punks and saved by a local, then trips on his own nightstick. One of them is so short she’s obscured behind a mailbox. None of them are intimidating enough to scare away the thee-card-monte man.
If you’re a NYC history buff and you can’t get enough of 1970’s New York, then you’ll love this book. It progresses right into the 1980’s with the cocaine, Wall Street execs, yuppies (don’t worry, the yuppies get theirs too) and he loses his hat in the Tompkins Square Park riots (among other things.) You get heroin, vomit, blood, trash, graffiti covered subways, abandoned tenements, pimps, prostitutes, grimy streets, cult leaders, and in short, it’s a wild, smelly, sweaty, drunken ride through the mean streets of the Lindsay-Koch era Manhattan. You can’t walk a block without getting mugged, unless you look like you’ll fight back.
Do you feel nostalgic now?