Tender Look at a Tough Job: Cop Culture as Family Legend

My Father’s Gun: One Family, Three Badges, 100 Years in the N.Y.P.D. , by Brian McDonald. Dutton, 309 pages, $24.95.

Brian McDonald tells the tale of his family’s centurylong relationship with the New York Police Department, and by doing so grabs a piece of a much larger story. When he traces his family’s journey from starving Ireland to the coal mines of Pennsylvania to the 41st Precinct in the South Bronx to the suburbs of Rockland County, he touches on one of the great social narratives of the late 20th century: the journey of ethnic Catholics from the working class to the professions. It is the story Samuel Freedman told in The Inheritance , his wonderful chronicle of three 20th-century Catholic families from the New Deal to the Reagan revolution.

Mr. McDonald’s grandfather was a New York street cop a century ago. His father was a cop, and so was his brother, but Mr. McDonald himself overcame a troubled young adulthood to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University’s journalism school. But, like many a successful son or daughter of the civil service not entirely comfortable with a white collar, he points out that he also worked as a bartender, serving beers at cop hangouts in upstate Pearl River. More recently, he has performed similar chores at Elaine’s, where, one suspects after reading this book, the conversation isn’t nearly as interesting as in those gin mills upstate.

Mr. McDonald’s book comes at a time when the N.Y.P.D. is suffering one of its periodic crises of confidence. After having won the latest war on crime, the police rightly have had to answer for the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the torture of Abner Louima and the broader complaints of police insensitivity. As Mr. McDonald’s book reminds us, police work is never easy, either for the officers themselves or for their families. So when public opinion turns against the cops, an often miserable job becomes that much more of a burden, and even the many good cops start peeking at their calendars to see when they hit that magic 25-year mark–retirement at half-pay.

While Mr. McDonald hardly excuses the police scandals of the past (in fact, he overemphasizes them), his descriptions of cop culture are a welcome antidote to the tales of New York’s brigade of knee-jerk cop-haters, who would have us believe that every white male in a blue uniform is at heart Gestapo material. (Exceptions, of course, are made for cops who are neither white nor male. They are thought of as helpless victims of an unjust socioeconomic system that forces them to betray their ideals and their communities by working with the enemy.)

Mr. McDonald sees the flaws (he doesn’t shy away from his brother’s bigotry, nor from the insularity of the police ghetto), but he also captures the courage and decency of most police officers, including his brother. Any son or daughter of a member of the city’s uniformed services will vouch for the authenticity of the following passage: “When I look at photographs of the soot-covered policemen holding the crumpled, blackened bodies of the seamstresses who died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire; or listen to Police Officer Stephen McDonald, paralyzed in a wheelchair and hooked to a respirator, forgive the young black man whose bullet put him there; or watch the news footage of the World Trade Center bombing and the blue shirts carrying people to safety; or see any news story of the funeral of a cop killed in the line of duty–the images of the grieving widow and children–my soul clenches.” It would be tragic indeed if only the child of the uniformed services responded in such a way.

Unfortunately, Mr. McDonald suffers a bit from the dreaded malady known as the well-educated-tough-guy disease. Its victims tend to be journalists from middle-class backgrounds who try to disguise their white collars with clunky street-smart prose and a distorted emphasis on the antisocial behavior of their family or ethnic group. Rich Cohen’s celebration of Jewish gangsters (read: murderers), Tough Jews , and the prose of many an urban journalist are symptoms of this illness. While preferable to the irony-laden pop-culture litter that defaces the prose of writers with other sorts of disorders, faux-blue collar inevitably sounds forced.

It’s a stouthearted reader who won’t cringe when Mr. McDonald tells us about his grandfather’s “skinny Irish ass” (my assiduous research of posteriors, skinny, fat and in-between, has yet to identify any uniquely Irish characteristics); that when his father talked about his work, “the words bubbled up uncontrolled, like gas from a corned-beef-sandwich lunch”; and that a neighborhood bartender kept an eye on teenage drinkers “like a defrocked priest in a Jimmy Cagney movie.” There weren’t many priests in Jimmy Cagney’s movies; what few there were tended to be fully frocked.

Luckily, Mr. McDonald is a skilled observer and a good storyteller, so his tough-guy pose is only mildly distracting. His social history, however, pushes the annoyance factor a notch higher. He dates the appalling Irish famine in the 1850’s; it was more like the late 1840’s. He kills off Tammany Hall with the resignation of Mayor Jimmy Walker, which certainly would have come as news to cop-turned-Mayor William O’Dwyer, not to mention legendary boss Ed Flynn, who used his clout to put Harry Truman on Franklin Roosevelt’s ticket in 1944. In a variation of the tough-guy syndrome, Mr. McDonald insists on describing Big Tim Sullivan, a turn-of-the-century Congressman from the city’s Irish subculture, as a “former Tammany king of the Bowery underground.” One wonders why Mr. McDonald doesn’t also mention that Sullivan worked with the legendary Frances Perkins, early feminist and social reformer, on limiting the workweek and on improving tenements. He supported women’s suffrage, and was the author of the state’s first gun-control legislation–Sullivan’s Law, named for the “king of the Bowery underground.” Doesn’t fit the image of a tough mick, does it?

Mr. McDonald is at his best when he sticks to the stories of his grandfather, father and brother. When he describes life inside the cloisters of cop culture, he is at his most authentic. Here he is on the culture’s subtle class distinctions: “Patrolmen’s kids wore hand-me-down clothing and inherited their older siblings’ bicycles. Lieutenants’ kids got their own bikes and shopped at Robert Hall for new Easter suits or dresses each year. Perhaps the biggest jump was from lieutenant to captain.” Here he is on the life of his sister-in-law, a police wife with two children in diapers: “She lived in a kind of suspended terror. Each time the phone rang late at night, a cold shiver ran through her.” Welcome to the other side of the news we hear about the police these days.

Mr. McDonald gets the culture right. He gets the fear right. He gets the heroism right. And he gets the broken families and the corruption and the brutality right, too. In essence, this is an authentic and honest book about people so many of us know very little about.

Somebody ought to send this book to the organizers of the next antipolice rally.