A Simple Idea
This happened a long time ago. My best friend was in Los Angeles, and she and I talked on the phone a lot. I urged her to move to New York, and finally she did. She drove cross-country, and when she arrived, she was told she didn’t have to worry about the $10,000 in California parking tickets she had on her car. There was no reciprocity between the two states, she was told, so there was no way her car’s outlaw status would be discovered in New York. The guy who told her said he was a cop. They met in a bar, then they had sex. Anyway, I think they did.
My friend started accumulating NYC tickets. Blithely, for a while. She shoved the tickets into the glove compartment. I suppose people kept gloves in those compartments at one time. When there was no room left, she threw them on the floor of her car. Then she decided she’d better find a parking lot. But she didn’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for a space.
One day she noticed a parking lot near her house which was barred from entry by a heavy chain and lock. A week later she noticed a man walking to the lot. He used a key to unlock the gate. She got up her nerve and asked him if she could park there if she gave him some money. Would he make her a key? He said he’d think about it. The next day he telephoned her and said OK. So every month my friend handed the man $50 in a white business envelope. It was illegal, but she wasn’t getting tickets from the City and throwing them on the floor of her car.
She was relatively happy parking in the lot, relieved anyway, because there was one less thing to worry about. But after a while she thought some of the other drivers—men going to work in the building attached to the lot—were looking at her weirdly, staring at her and her car. Some seemed menacing, she told me. But then she was paranoid. She knew that, so she decided not to act on her suspicions.
Time passed. Time always passes.
One afternoon my friend received a call from a man who identified himself as a cop. He said, Hello, and used her first name, Sandra, and asked her sternly:
—Are you parking illegally, Sandra, because if you are, and you don’t remove your car from the lot right now—I’m giving you ten minutes—I’ll have to arrest you.
My friend hung up, threw on her coat, ran out the door to the lot, and drove her car far away. Then she phoned me and told me what happened. She was terrified. She thought the cop might show up and arrest her at any moment, she thought she’d be taken to jail.
—That was no cop, I said.
—How do you know? she asked.
—A cop wouldn’t phone you and give you a warning, I answered. But I was worried that I might be wrong, and that she might be arrested.
—And he’s not going to say he’s going to give you a second chance, because you don’t get second chances if you’re doing something illegal and they find out, unless they’re corrupt, and he wouldn’t say, I’m a cop. He’d give his name and rank or something.
My friend listened, annoyed that I was calm, and she wasn’t satisfied or convinced. She thought she might be under surveillance and would be busted later. She owed thousands of dollars in tickets in two states. It might be a sting operation, something convoluted. I had to convince her she was not in danger of going to jail. I told her I had an idea and hung up.
It was simple. I’d call a precinct and ask the desk cop how a cop would identify himself over the phone. I’d learn the protocol, how cops wouldn’t do what that so-called cop had done, allay my friend’s fears, and also show her I was taking her anxiety seriously.
I looked up precincts in the telephone book and chose one in the West Village, where I thought they’d be used to handling unusual questions.
—Tenth precinct, Sergeant Molloy, the desk cop said.
—Hi, I have a question, I said.
—How do police identify themselves over the phone?
—What do you mean? Molloy asked.
—If a cop calls you, what does he say?
—What do you mean, what does he say?
—I mean, how does he say he’s a policeman? What’s the official way to do it? The desk cop was silent for a few seconds.
—A cop called you. What’d he say? What’d he want?
—He didn’t call me, he called a friend.
—What did he say to your friend?
I couldn’t hang up, because I wouldn’t get the information I wanted. If I hung up, Molloy could have the call traced. I’d be in trouble for making harassing calls to precincts, which would be extremely ironic.
—He said to her . . . he said, Hello, I’m the police.
—Yeah. Then what?
—And then, then he said . . .
I didn’t want to tell him the story, give my friend’s real name, tell him about her tickets in two states, and her car being parked illegally, and her bribing the guy in the corporate lot. But I had to give him some sense of the situation in order to get the information I needed.
—He said to her, Hi, Diana. Hi, I’m the police. Then he said, he said, Diana . . . Diana . . . have you done anything wrong lately?
There was a very long silence.
—Have you done anything wrong lately? Molloy repeated.
It was weird coming from a cop’s mouth. He gathered his thoughts, while I remained breathlessly quiet.
—A police officer wouldn’t say that, Molloy answered soberly. A police officer wouldn’t say that.
—He wouldn’t, I repeated, just as gravely.
The cop thought again, for a longer time.
—Listen, I want you to let me know if he ever calls your friend again. Because a cop shouldn’t do that . . . He trailed off.
—That guy’s impersonating an officer.
—Oh, yeah. I’m sure he won’t . . . he probably won’t call her again. But if he does, I’ll phone you immediately, I promise.
—You do that, Molloy said.
—I will. Thanks, I said.
—Yeah, he said. Maybe Molloy didn’t believe any of this, but he did the whole thing straight.
I called my friend, and we stayed on the phone for hours, laughing about how crazy I was to say “Have you done anything wrong lately?” to a cop, with all its implications, and we laughed about her racing out of her house to the corporate lot, jumping into her car and driving off in search of a legal parking space as if she were being chased by the devil.
Maybe the devil was chasing her and me. Because we laughed off and on for about a year more, and then we had less to laugh about, and then nothing to laugh about. I don’t know, we grew to distrust each other, and stopped being friends. Maybe Molloy laughed later.