NOTE: As unbelievable as this story may sound, it's 100% true and actually happened to me when I was a rookie patroman on M.P.D.
“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure of the former.”
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
“EVERYBODY COMES TO VIC’S”
by MICHAEL BERISH
“DID YOU CALL THE POLICE?” I yelled—over the band—to the White/male in the yellow short-sleeved shirt with green palm trees all over it, who was sitting atop a bar stool.
I’d gotten a call from the dispatcher reference a 29 (robbery) at Vic’s. Contact a White/male tourist at the bar. No further information. It had to be this doofus in the high chair, swaying back and forth—like a bobble doll—to the rhythm of the music while singing to himself. He was a little glazed over, but he wasn’t behind the cork…not yet, and he was the only White/male at the bar. He had to be a tourist, considering the shirt he was dressed in.
It was the middle of January; I was wearing my M.P.D. (Miami Police Department) winter jacket and this kid (he couldn’t have been more than twenty-three or four) was in a short-sleeved shirt. And he was White, all right. Most definitely White. He couldn’t have been a paler shade of white if he’d painted himself the color of china. John Doe had either been living in a coffin like Dracula, or else he’d been chained to his bed since Hector was a pup and only recently chewed through his leg irons and went over the wall.
It was the early 70’s and Miami was a big/little town back then. The tallest building was the courthouse on West Flagler Street and Northwest First Avenue, which was under twenty stories, not like the seventy-story plus hotels they have today. I’d just cleared probation and was working “C” shift in 40 sector and Vic’s was the only nightspot in downtown Miami still open at two in the morning; that shows you how small Miami was in the 70’s.
I looked around. The gin joint was filled with smoke as thick as a wrestler’s arm, louder than a convention of daquifried Shriners, and filled to the rafters with the dregs of society: small-time chiselers, big-time swindlers, dope dealers, streetwalkers, pimps, burglars, smugglers, pickpockets, and snowbirds. The typical night trade in this muckheap consisted of the beaten and the dispossessed; it was a place where the riff-raff and alcoholics could go to bond. I was reminded of that line from Casablanca—starring Humphrey Bogart as the owner and namesake of Rick’s Place—when Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) says, while looking for a suspect, “There’s no hurry. Tonight he’ll be at Rick’s. Everybody comes to Rick’s.” In addition to being the Cocaine Capitol of the World, Miami was fast becoming Casablanca West.
Numbnuts cupped his hand over his right ear and yelled back, “WHAT?” which was followed by, “YOU MUST BE LOOKIN’ FER ME.” It was late and I had done my fair share of yelling for the night. I signaled the complainant to follow me outside where it was quieter.
“You call the police?” I asked when we hit the street.
At least, he was a polite kid. “What’s your name?”
“Jamie. Jamie Baluster.”
He looked like a Jamie, too: pale and underweight. “Somebody rob you, Jamie?”
I pulled out my notebook. “Okay, tell me about it.”
“This Black guy, he made me write him a check for ten dollars.”
Ten dollars was worth a lot more back in those days. “What’d he do? Pull a gun on you? Threaten you with a knife?”
This inauspicious beginning gave me considerable pause for thought. “What d’ya mean: ‘No?’ He musta had some type of weapon to make you write him a check.”
“He didn’t have any weapon.”
“Did he make any verbal threats against you, or your life?”
I put my pad in my back pocket and tried concentrating on whom I was dealing with. “You know, Jamie, I’m trying awfully hard, but I just don’t seem to be getting this. If he didn’t make threats against your life, or use any type of weapon, I’m sorta in the soup here as to precisely how he made you write him a check.”
“I felt I had to.”
“I felt if I didn’t, something would happen to me.”
“Something? Something like what?”
“I don’t know exactly…But, it wasn’t something good.”
“What’d this guy do with your check after he made you write it?”
“He put it in his wallet.”
“That’s it? He just put it in his wallet and resumed drinking?”
Shaking my head, I continued. “So, then what’d you do?”
“I called the police, of course.”
“Of course,” I repeated—very skeptically—then rocked back on my heels for a second or two wondering if I should Baker Act (transport to the psycho ward) this lounge lizard or “check a 12” (go to supper) when the fool with goose bumps all over his arms piped up: “Why don’t you ask him?”
For a moment, I thought he’d suddenly turned into one of those smart aleck Bowery bums who spew out brickbats and which most cops usually bump into at two on a Saturday morning. And here he’d been so polite…up to now. “That’d be nice, Jamie, but how in the world do you expect me to find him now?”
“You walked right past him. He was the brother sitting next to me.”
“WHAT?!” Flabbergasted, I tried to get my tongue under control as I spoke. “Wh…Why didn’t you say something?”
“I mean before he left!”
“He didn’t leave. He’s still there. Sitting at the bar, smoking a cigarette, right next to my drink.”
I peeked through the window. “You mean the bro in red bellbottoms with a yellow Superfly hat on?”
Doofus looked through the same pane of glass, then stepped back. “Yeah, that’s him.”
“UN—F---ING—BELIEVABLE! All I’m missing here is a monkey and a crank handle,” blurted out of me. “Wait here,” I told Baluster as I stepped inside and approached the Black/male. At least, the band was on a break.
“Excuse me, sir,” I began, “but I’ve got a bit of a problem, and maybe you could help me out.”
“If I can, officer.” Another polite soul, I thought to myself. Everyone’s so polite tonight. I wonder how long this is gonna last.
“What’s your name, by the way?”
“Willie. Willie Charles.”
“Well Willie, you see that White huckleberry outside there, peeping through the windowpane?”
“You know him?”
“No, I don’t know him. He was sitting next to me before, drinking, and we talked back and forth for a while. But, that’s all. I don’t actually know him.”
“Right. Well, look…This is my problem. He claims you made him sign over a check for ten dollars.”
Superfly stared at me, as if I had two heads, and one of them just caught fire. Then, he burst out laughing. “You’re kiddin’, right?”
I shook my head, no. “I wish I were.”
“This is some kinda joke, right? I mean, you White guys really got some kinda weird sense of humor at times.”
“Well Willie, that may be, but this ain’t one of those times.”
All the blood suddenly drained out of Mr. Charles’ black face; he turned as white as my complainant. “You’re serious, ain’t ya?”
“‘Fraid so, Willie.” Then, he got belligerent.
“Hey! I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no check. Nuthin’, ya hear me. NUTHIN’! And I don’t appreciate some White honky framin’ me up!”
“Nobody said you did anything, Willie.”
“That White dude did! He said I MADE him write me a check for…for what?”
“Yeah. Ten dollars. Ten dollars ain’t nuthin’, that’s SUMTHIN’!; otherwise, you wouldn’t be standin’ here askin’ me all about it, if it weren’t NUTHIN’!” Superfly’s voice was so high pitched and fast, it sounded like he was talking in Mandarin Chinese, and his eyes were as big as buggy wheels.
“Settle down!...Settle down!,” I said, “Don’t go getting all excitable on me now.”
“It’s just that I ain’t taken my medicine today, and I get all sorta fizzed up when I’m being falsely accused of sumthin’ I didn’t do.”
“I’ll tell you what.”
“What?” inquired Mr. Charles rather suspiciously, as if he’d been down this road before…Quite a few times before.
“There’s one way we can clear this mess up, once and for all,” I told him.
“Since you say you don’t know anything about this guy and his check,—
“Which I don’t!”
“—then you wouldn’t mind if I gave your wallet a quick thumb check, just to see if there’s anything in there belonging to a Jamie Baluster. Since you didn’t do anything, then you wouldn’t mind, would you?”
“No, I wouldn’t mind.” Mr. Charles pulled out his poke and emptied the contents on the bar; some currency, paperclips, a condom, but mostly bits and pieces of paper and matchbook covers with phone numbers, addresses (one even had his blood type on it), and other miscellaneous, useless information spilled out. I eyeballed a lone, folded piece of paper, then opened it. Bingo! It was a check for ten dollars, drawn on a bank account in Maryland, belonging to a Mr. James Baluster. I looked at the check, then at Willie Charles. Willie Charles looked at the check, then at me. Then, we both looked at the check, then at each other.
“I suppose you don’t know how this got in there?”
Mr. Charles looked at me as if I were speaking in tongues, all of which he didn’t understand.
“Look, Willie. I wouldn’t want to get you ‘all sorta fizzed up’ or anything, especially since you ‘ain’t taken your medicine today’ and all. But, it seems to me I remember you telling me you ‘don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no check,’ so—and I’m just guessing here—you probably have absolutely no idea how this check for ten dollars—signed by that White honky freezing his ass off out there on the sidewalk—got in your wallet.”
Mr. Charles took a deep breath and a large gulp. “I have no idea.”
“I didn’t think so…But, I got one. It just came to me, sort of like an epiphany you’d get while in church. You do go to church don’t you, Willie?” Superfly had a look on his face that said: If I get through this, I’m gonna start this Sunday.
“I’ll bet you,” I continued, “that’s how that slick White dude—who falsely accused you before—carried out his frame-up of you. He put his check in your wallet when you weren’t looking. I’ll bet you that’s how this all happened.”
“You think so?” Even Superfly sounded like he kinda half-assed believed that story.
“Sure. But, I’ll tell you what. We ain’t gonna let him out-fox us.”
“Nah. Here’s what we do. Since this check really isn’t even supposed to be in your wallet anyhow, I’ll wager you wouldn’t mind me tearing it up. That way, Jamie out there, can’t get away with this frame-up.”
“No, I wouldn’t mind.”
“I didn’t think you would. There ain’t no flies on you, Willie.” I ripped the check into several pieces, tipped my eight-cornered police hat, and walked outside. “Here,” I said to the halfwit in the tropical shirt, then handed him the shredded pieces of his check.
“Oh, thank you. Thank you, officer.”
“No problem. But, I’d call it a night if I were you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean: I wouldn’t go in there, sit back down next to that buckaroo, and start drinking all over again as if nothing happened. I don’t think he’d be real happy to see you.”
“Oh. Yeah. Maybe you’re right…I better not do that…Thanks again.”
By now, several police units had swung by to back me up; they were gathered on the corner, talking. I strolled over and joined them. Several minutes later, Pinhead traipsed-up and thanked me again for my help. I told him, again, to forget about it, then lumbered across the street to one of those all night open-air cafeterias that sling hash.
When I turned around after ordering, he was back with a bang; there stood my complainant who proceeded to thank me profusely—again. “No problem,” I told him for the umpteenth time.
Ten minutes later, I was back on the corner with my sidekicks when along came Numbnuts, AGAIN! He threw his right arm around my shoulder as if I was his long lost buddy, as if we’d gone to boot camp together on Parris Island. There’s nothing worse in life than having some rum pot—who’s walking around like he’s got gum on the bottom of his shoes—horse collar you and blow his hot, drunken breath into your ear while you stand there, cold-stone sober, trying to eat your supper—a hot dog—and drink your Coke in peace. Suddenly, the thought struck me: This bozo must think we’ve got some kinda relationship going here; I’d better nip this in the bud.
I turned on him. “Show me some I.D., Jamie.”
Usually, police officers never run the complainant of a call, but this kid really aggravated me. Who knows, I reasoned, he might come back a hit reference a bench warrant from an old ticket, or maybe he’d be wanted on some bygone misdemeanor like pilfering an altar cloth from a monastery.
He grinned from ear to ear. “‘No problem,’ as you say,” and whipped out a Maryland driver’s license.
I ran him through N.C.I.C. (National Crime Information Center: a computerized index of criminal justice information run by the F.B.I.) which took about ten minutes. He stood there, right next to me the entire time—chatting incessantly—oblivious to the universe around him.
Finally, N.C.I.C. came back. He was a hit, alright. But, not reference a bench warrant, or anything as trivial as that. He was wanted for escaping from the Maryland State Penitentiary where he was doing twenty years for armed robbery. Whoa! No wonder he was so pale looking.
Later, I surmised what must have happened. Superfly was a pimp and had offered to procure a prostitute for my stick-up artist, and Numbnuts—who must have been short of cash—wrote him a check. Once Willie had the check, he simply reneged on the hooker.
As I cuffed Baluster and put him in the back of my squad car, I couldn’t help but think: If I’d just escaped from the big house, the last thing I’d do was call a cop…FOR ANYTHING!
Jamie must have been a lot more bemused from the boilermakers he’d been drinking than I first thought, or else he had rubber cajones the size of Florida. But, let’s say I was soused to the gills and didn’t have any common sense, like my escapee here. After a police officer helped me out of whatever problem I might have had, I surely wouldn’t have hung around and cheesed him off (especially after he hinted to me—three times—to disappear) to the point of running a background inquiry on me. Then, give him my real name on a valid driver’s license, along with a current bank account! What was he thinking? As a fugitive from a federal prison, he wouldn’t be in the computer? I knew two things for sure though (other than he certainly made a hash of this vacation): This would be his last evening with the living and that shirt with the palm trees all over it might even be back in style when he finally got out of the slammer. I guess it’s true what they say: Some criminals just want to get caught.
I peered back at the entrance to the dive and there—standing by the door—was Willie, smiling. What a pimp he must be! I mean: What flesh peddler takes a check, then denies—to a cop—that he took it; then, lets the same cop rummage through his wallet and ferret out the check he isn’t supposed to have taken! I couldn’t decide which of these two losers was more in need of a brain transplant.
I squinted back through the cage into my cruiser; there sat Jamie, jabbering away. It was as if he lived a life without consequences, impervious to any of its dangers. I shook my head. The cosmos is full of idiots and nutters, and they all—I mean—Everybody comes to Vic’s.
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