If you’re an ex-cop writing a memoir, the jokes have to all be on you, otherwise it won’t work. If you write about what a tough guy you were, then the readers will think your big stupid ego is getting in the way. But if you write that someone’s lunch fell on your head, then it can be funny. If you wonder that perhaps you’d made a mistake in taking the job, then the story gets dark. You can make the memoir creepy, funny, dark, or dull, and in this book, you get it all; a hair-raising roller-coaster ride through New York City’s worst times. It’s Death Wish, Annie Hall, Basket Case, The Lost Weekend, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, Escape From New York, and The Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3 all rolled into one. It’s both dark and humorous, horrifying and wonderful to read.
The author, Jimmy Wagner (aka Wags) 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 dump, then the East Village was the cesspool. 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 relieving 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 Wagner’s book is the cast of colorful East Village characters. There are the Bowery winos, many of whom are shell-shocked WWII veterans, and he cracks a missing person case in one of the flophouses. 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 accidentally shoots another (through the smell of cordite, he smells alcohol on their breath). 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 from the suburbs and not as tough (Baby Boom versus Generation X.) 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. Another one is so short that she’s obscured by a mailbox. None of them are intimidating enough to scare away the thee-card-monte man. Again I see life imitating art; a decade earlier it was Death Wish, now it’s the Police Academy movies.
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, 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-Beam-Koch era of Manhattan. You can’t walk a block without getting mugged, unless you look like you’ll fight back.
How I long for the bad old days.