Activism, Grief, Guest Posts, motherhood

“17”- A Poem Plus an excerpt from “Good Cop, Bad Daughter” by Karen Lynch

March 14, 2018

By Karen Lynch. 

17

When you were born, I nestled you in my arms and nursed you on demand to help build your immune system and keep you safe from disease.
933 breast feedings

When you were 18 months old, I cut your grapes in half to keep you safe from choking.
3,406 grapes sliced

When you were 2, I bought you the bicycle helmet ranked highest by Parenting Magazine.
5,327 miles peddled

When you were five, six, seven, I let you watch only PBS kids to keep you innocent of the violence in the world as long as possible.
1,273 episodes Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood watched.

When you were 12, I let you ride your bike across town and prayed for your safety as I waited for your call.
17 petitions offered up to the universe.

When you were sick and no one knew why, I took you to a faraway clinic and found a doctor to heal you.
522 miles driven, 4 doctors seen, 18 bottles supplements purchased.

When you were 16, I found the best driving instructor in the county. I told you to call me for a ride anytime, no questions asked.
2 speeding tickets, 1 fender bender, 0 calls for pickup.

When you left for school today, I gave you an organic Fuji apple with your whole wheat almond butter sandwich. I reminded you to eat fruit and veggies in college next year.
2,367 Fuji apples washed and sliced.
1 Valentine slipped into your backpack.

When the deputy called this afternoon, I was selecting your senior picture.
17 dead. 15 wounded. 152 shots fired.

Excerpt from Good Cop, Bad Daughter

Day One

I was hoping Mom and John would miraculously disappear on another one of their European adventures before I started the academy, but no such luck. Though Mom had never learned to drive and probably wouldn’t be able to find the police academy, I still worried she might show up drunk and create trouble. She’d been calling me daily as my hiring date approached.

“Jesus, Karen. Even that ridiculous wench job was better than this idiotic police thing. At least Ben Jonson’s had a decent happy hour.” Mom and John had enjoyed the complementary hot hors d’oeuvres at the bar, the Merlin’s Meatballs and Ann Bo-links.

I got up at 6:00 a.m., giving myself plenty of extra time to get ready. After I dressed, I checked and rechecked my purse four- teen times for my driver’s license. I grabbed the ream of paperwork and scanned it one last time: Bring valid driver’s license had been highlighted in bold print. I hopped into my blue Ford Falcon, a rusted heap that threatened to die each time I started it, and headed downtown. I was nagged with thoughts that if I made one small mistake, lost my paperwork, or got stuck in traffic, my entire career would be over before it began. But mostly I was excited as I looked forward to being sworn into my academy class. This would be my fresh start, my chance to be part of that happy family I’d longed for. I was almost delusional with joy that this exclusive men’s club was considering me for membership.

The letter told us to meet in the assembly room of the Hall of Justice, a dilapidated building with a décor apparently inspired by the color of bile. I soon learned the police and attorneys who worked there called it the “Hole of Justice.”

“Take a seat, people! I am Sergeant Meyer, the leader of your academy staff.” Sergeant Meyer was a basso-voiced, mustachioed linebacker of a man. He wore his glossy, black hair slicked back; his broad chest strained the polyester of his white polo shirt. “I, along with these other officers, have been assigned the tedious and thankless job of training you for the duration of the police academy, starting right now. From now on, you answer to me, and to these officers.” He waved dismissively at the four men standing beside him, all wearing matching blue slacks and white polo shirts bearing the academy emblem.

Sergeant Meyer’s speech seemed well rehearsed. His canned gestures and facial expressions made me think he’d watched every movie ever made about boot camp drill sergeants and stolen all the lines.

“Look left, then right. Take a good, long, hard look.” Following his order, all forty-seven of us turned to meet the eyes of the recruits beside us. The guy next to me was Marty. He had introduced himself when I sat down, and I liked him immediately. I counted only three other women in the room. I felt conspicuous being in such a small minority, but also a little proud, as if I was making some sort of crucial feminist statement merely by showing up.

“One out of the three of you will not graduate from this academy,” Meyer announced bleakly. His announcement alarmed me. We’d all gone through loads of testing and had waited on the hiring list for months. While I’d assumed some recruits would not graduate, I had never anticipated losing a third of our class. Maybe this academy would be harder than I thought.

“Right now, you people are losers. For the next nineteen weeks the academy staff will work to mold you into police officers. Most of you will never have what it takes. Few of you will ever be real cops. Think about this carefully. There is no disgrace in walking out the door right now. If you leave now, you may save yourself further embarrassment down the road. This job is not for everyone.” Meyer looked us over, dubiously, as if we were the sorriest recruit class ever. “Some of you should probably leave right now and go apply for a job driving a bread truck.” This would be the first of many occasions when Sergeant Meyer would suggest the bread truck driving job as our only alternate career path, as if law enforcement and delivering baked goods were simply different branches of the same line of work.

Though we were not being sworn in as actual police officers, we raised our right hands and pledged to protect and to serve the City and County of San Francisco anyway.

“You are not allowed to do any police work. You will not be a police officer until Chief Murphy pins that star on your chest.

You have no police powers!” He said police powers as if they were superhero powers. “Don’t go out there playing the Hardy Boys. Do you understand me?” We all nodded, but his instructions were annoying me. It was vaguely insulting to be told not to do something I had no idea how to do in the first place.

“I said, ‘Do you understand me?!’” The walls reverberated with his bellow.

“Yes, sir!” responded someone behind me. We all followed suit. “Yes, sir!”

“You are members of a paramilitary unit now. The next time you dimwits forget to say ‘sir,’ you will regret it! This organization is all about discipline. Our discipline equals our strength.” My palms began to sweat. Up until now, my life had been completely discipline-less.

“Betcha he says something about the weakest link,” Marty whispered.

“We’re only as strong as our weakest link!” Meyer bellowed, right on cue. I stared at Marty as if he were psychic. He smiled proudly.

The sergeant then issued each of us a requisition for uniform shoes.

“Report to Butler’s on Market Street and get fitted for your shoes. Then report to the academy with them by one o’clock.”

The academy was on the other side of the city. It was 12:15 p.m. when he distributed the vouchers. It seemed unlikely that a group of nearly fifty people would be able to accomplish the shoe-purchasing task in the allotted time, and I sensed there would be repercussions if we failed. I imagined myself scrubbing a toilet with a toothbrush or washing the academy windows with my underwear while my classmates jeered. Some already seemed to have inside information about how things worked. I learned, by eavesdropping, that a few recruits had been through the academy before. They were known as recycles. One of the recycles was yelling at us.

“Get your asses moving fast, people! We’ll be in deep shit if we’re late!” He was tall, older than most, sporting a gray buzz cut. I sensed he was former military. Someone call him Ed.

Boot camp anxiety had begun. We would soon learn that when one of us failed at a task, we would all pay the price. If we wanted to avoid mass punishment, we would learn to ferret out and eliminate any recruit who held us back. It was Darwinian. Learn to kill and eat the weak to save yourself.

We formed impromptu shoe-shopping teams. I searched for a group quickly, afraid of being the last one chosen. Of the other three women, I found myself most drawn to Molly, a spunky, curly-haired-blonde with a smattering of freckles. We were both relatively big and strong, and I sensed a determination in her. I attached myself to Molly, who I learned was the single mother of two young girls. A handsome young Chinese American named Keith was our driver, and Mark, an extremely attractive blond Irishman, rode shotgun. We set off for the shoe store like kids heading out for a scavenger hunt. We sprinted to Keith’s car and sped to Market Street, noting with satisfaction that we were the first team to arrive. We were quickly fitted and were paying with our vouchers as recruits continued to stream into the store. We dashed back to Keith’s car, clutching shoeboxes to our chests like winning lottery tickets.

It was 12:45 p.m. when we left the store. The Silver Avenue academy was a sixteen-minute drive. Lunch was out of the question—not that I had much desire to eat anyway. With my stomach anxiously roiling, it was probably best to avoid food. Keith raced to the academy.

“Yay! Record time! We won! First team back!” I cheered and high-fived Keith as we ran through the cyclone gate into the concrete schoolyard.

Sergeant Meyer was leaning against a rusty cyclone fence, arms crossed. He looked bored, not even a little impressed by the amazing time we’d made.

“You’re a minute late. You get to wait for everyone else, show-offs.”

We huddled as our remaining forty-three classmates trickled in.

“Let’s tell each other how we ended up at the academy,” said Molly. “You first, Keith.”

“OK. Well, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. My family owns a food company. My parents always expected me to someday run the business with my brothers. Maybe if this doesn’t work out, I will. But I always dreamed of being a cop, ever since I was a little kid.” He turned to me. “How about you?”

I remembered that strange afternoon. Should I tell him the story? I saw myself driving a police car on Columbus Avenue and took it as a sign from the universe. Would he think I was a nut? I decided to play it safe.

“I guess it was like a calling. I felt like I was meant to do it.” I checked his face but found no indication that my answer was too strange.

By 1:45 p.m., all our classmates had found their way to the academy. Most of them, empty-handed and defeated, hadn’t had enough time to claim their shoes.

“OK, recruits, listen up! Because so many of you dawdled at the shoe store, I’m going to teach you a lesson about punctuality,” Sergeant Meyer shouted. “Get down and give me fifty burpees right now!”

We looked around with confusion. The letter the police department sent us specifically stated we were to wear business attire. I was proud that I’d finally learned what business attire should look like and thought I’d made a sensible choice. To make a good impression on the first day, I’d worn the new suit I’d finally purchased—eggshell white, skirt hem two inches above the knee—and sensible high heels. Molly wore a black skirt and heels, and the men wore suits or sport coats and ties.

We’d been told that Day One would be our swearing in, nothing more. No one mentioned we’d be doing physical train- ing. But a burpee, we soon learned, was an acrobatic version of a push-up (probably invented by a sadistic police academy drill sergeant) in which we started from a standing position, fell down into push-up, then jumped back up and into the air with our hands over our heads. Had I known we’d be doing burpees,

I would have worn pants. I felt foolish in my suit. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that I had really had no idea what I was signing up for when I put in my application.

We counted repetitions: “One, sir. Two, sir.” My classmates in the back row were being treated to a no-doubt unappetizing view of my panty-hosed, stuffed-like-sausage booty as my skirt crept higher with each backward leg thrust. Luckily, everyone seemed distracted with other clothing challenges. Some of the guys were cramming their neckties down their shirts to keep from tripping on them, and I heard an occasional seam ripping.

I scrutinized the competition as we waited for Sergeant Meyer’s next order. If two out of three would quit or be fired, who would they be? Almost everyone was in decent shape, and a few even looked like former athletes. And then it dawned on me. Me! It was me! I realized with some despair—there was no question about it—I had an excellent chance of being among those eliminated.

“That was just a taste of how things work here. When I say, ‘jump,’ you say, ‘how high?’ Got it?”

I rolled my eyes at Molly.
“What movie is that line from?” she asked. “I said, ‘Got it?’ dimwits!”
“Yes, sir!” We replied—but too late.
“Get down and give me a hundred!”

Sergeant Meyer and his cohorts had a full afternoon of physical fitness planned for us, the 145th San Francisco Police Academy class. Although I discarded my shoes early on, running foot races in shredded, panty-hosed feet was not at all how I’d imagined spending my first day. Then again, I hadn’t really been able to imagine much of anything. I had no idea what went on in a police academy. It would be years before the satirical movies depicting academy life would hit the movie theatres. The police world was still a secret brotherhood, a mystery to most civilians.

“Left, left, left, right, left,” we chanted as we marched in formation. Turning while marching presented a challenge for our group. There were many collisions and much stepping on other’s feet as we mastered left face and right face. Our civilian attire gave the whole afternoon a surreal effect, as if an evil genius had kidnapped a bunch of stockbrokers and forced us to march around for his amusement.

Then the 143rd class strutted obnoxiously into the yard with their training staff. Molly and I gasped as they fell into pristine platoon formation. They were to graduate in just a few weeks and they marched in obscenely perfect unison. It was impossible to imagine our mangy group ever resembling them.

As he excused us for the day, Sergeant Meyer shouted, “Report here tomorrow at 0700! Full uniform! By the flagpole!” It was four o’clock. The shoe store closed at five o’ clock. I began to feel anxious for those who might appear the next day without correct footwear. And then, remembering we were all for one and one for all, I felt anxious for us all. Anxiety, my childhood companion, would be my default emotional state for the duration of the academy.

George Davis, a scrawny recruit with a face like a weasel, introduced himself before we left for the day. “Hi. You can call me Golden Gloves.” He offered his hand, and I instantly regretted shaking it. “I have it on good authority that three out of the four women in this class are dykes. Which one are you?”

“You’ll never know.” I walked away from him quickly.

Before leaving for the day, we were told to purchase our uniforms: pants and shirts the color of cigarette ash adorned with cheap black clip-on ties. Previous recruits had dubbed it the Maytag repairman uniform. The outfit reflected the dismal gray theme of the building we inhabited. It was a nondescript Halloween costume, a Greyhound bus-driver’s uniform.

We would wear the Maytag until the last four weeks, when we would finally trade it for a genuine blue police jumpsuit. Sergeant Meyer told us we could purchase a brand-new Maytag or choose one from the recycle rack. I briefly wondered if buying a secondhand uniform might be bad luck, but I’d always loved shopping thrift stores. While rummaging through dozens of extra-large uniforms, I met a knee-bucklingly handsome recruit with golden-brown eyes named Art. It dawned on me that I was single and surrounded by attractive, single young men. I’d been so obsessed with proving I would be a great cop, and so desperate to show Mom my choice had been right, the prospect of also finding a relationship at the academy had never crossed my mind. I was stuck at the lowest rung of the pyramid of human needs, focused only on providing myself food and shelter. A relationship had seemed like a luxury, or a distraction.

Then I considered the consequences of dating a classmate. Not only would it complicate things but the skewed ratio of men to women might also be cause for resentment. And what if the relationship ended badly and we were trapped here together? No. Best to abstain.

On the other hand, going through months of self-imposed celibacy could also prove challenging. Temptation was every- where. I wondered about the best way to treat these men. Clearly, some of them did not approve of women police. I’d already over- heard a few conversations: “The girls aren’t strong enough.” “The girls will wimp out when the going gets tough.” Was there some way to win them over? What if I pretended they were the broth- ers I’d always longed for?

I sized up a few pairs of pants and rejected each of them while chatting with Art. He was almost thirty, a senior citizen by the standards of our class.

“I was teaching high schoolers at a seminary, but this police idea just wouldn’t go away. It reached the point where I could no longer ignore it.” Art was well educated and clearly possessed marketable skills, yet he felt his true calling was police work. Calling was a word so many classmates echoed that I began to feel the job had some mysterious spiritual facet. With rare exceptions, my classmates were idealistic and had chosen their profession driven by the desire to help people.

By the end of week, Father Art as he quickly came to be known, would become a reassuring figure to the entire class. He had a gift for listening with rapt attention, making everyone feel they were fascinating. And his years of teaching experience made him the perfect den father for our sophomoric class.

I finally found and paid for my uniform, relieved that I’d made it through the first day without a Mom appearance. But I shuddered at the thought of getting through nineteen weeks with the constant expectation she might appear any moment.

I said good night to Art, and headed home with my ill-fitting, recycled Maytag. The uniforms, made for men, provided little accommodation for female curves. I got home, tried my “new” outfit on, and took a look in my bathroom mirror. The boxy cut of the shirt flattened my breasts as if I’d wrapped them in Ace bandages. Where I was once curvy, I was now matronly. Examining myself sideways, I had the appearance of a barrel-chested, but not wholly unattractive, man. My requisite short haircut and the fact that we were allowed no earrings or makeup further accentuated my manliness. On the bright side, I would most likely no longer have to worry about my classmates dueling for a chance to date me. My evening was spent laundering, ironing, and study ing the reams of department general orders for the next day’s test.

Karen Lynch was a Homicide Investigator in San Francisco, and after 29 years of police work, and a bout with breast cancer, retired to become a full time writer. Her memoir, “Good Cop, Bad Daughter-memoirs of an unlikely police officer,” is the story of how being raised by a bi-polar mother, and a tribe of hippies provided the perfect training for police work. It was published by NBTT in February. Karen is a native San Franciscan, and proud Cal Bear. Her essay, “The Road to Kyra” won the national Notes & Words contest in 2012.

Order Good Cop, Bad Daughter here.

Featured image by Barbara Potter.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Barbara Potter March 15, 2018 at 11:51 pm

    Love you Karen Lynch

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