Most of the book comes from the elder Peller’s autobiography, written because his sons wanted to know about his life, and just in case someone else might be interested in his story (and more would’ve been if he hadn’t held back.) Like my ancestors who grew up in pre-glamor New York, he doesn’t seem keen to talk about the past, yet he does go into detail about the good parts. The Settlement House, for instance, and all the activities it had for kids, gives him fond memories. There were weekend getaways to upstate farms – not a luxury today – but an extreme change of pace for a boy in his day. The city was smoggy and sooty in the 1930’s, and train fare was expensive (besides, people made less money anyway) so getting to run barefoot on the grass, having air you can breathe, and having no sounds at night must’ve been quite a treat.
This book has an interesting angle on the issue of education in the days before the GI Bill. Peller was perfectly competent in the classroom, and could’ve gone to college, but didn’t. It seems that boys in those days were not encouraged to go to college the way they are now. He joined the NYPD during the Great Depression, when there were few jobs available, even to a skilled mechanic like him. He also describes how a lot of college-educated men joined at the time (including future chief detective Albert Seedman) thanks to lack of alternatives, and how it was these college-educated cops who brought about changes to policing.
There are funny anecdotes, like the crazy women who’d call the police so they could get a man. Then there were the bars on the East 100’s that catered to sailors of different nationalities. He mentions one that was frequented by Scandinavian sailors; they’d get drunk, get in fights, spill out onto the sidewalk, and a loud bark from the police would send them all shuffling back in. A frequent emergency in the days before WWII involved exploding refrigerators (they used volatile chemicals at the time) which were the cause of building fires.
Officer Peller’s post-NYPD career takes an unusual turn. He retires and gets a measly pension, but then finds that there aren’t a lot of jobs for guys in their late 40’s. He gets a bottom level job in finance and works his way up, taking whatever training he can get, and eventually building up a very nice career (though he was probably the only male employee.) It resonates with me, because even today it’s difficult to start a new career in middle age. However, I’m surprised he didn’t look for a job as an armed security guard or private investigator.
One of the problems with this book is the writing. It needs a huge amount of editing, and could do with more information about the other police officers. Peller doesn’t mention anything about corruption, racism, the roles of women in the police department. I can understand why he left these things out, but I would still like to know more about the other officers. Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable book about the city in a time when there was grit but no glamour.