Thursday, June 23, 2011


When I lived in downtown Des Moines I met a cop who used to handle the city jail's drunk tank before funding was cut off and it was shut down. That left a handful of private shelters as the only places that would take in the city's population of homeless people on cold nights. (On warm nights most of them slept under bridges on the river.)

A few months away from retirement, Jeff, as he asked me to call him, was the only cop patrolling the downtown skywalks (elevated and climate controlled sidewalks), which is where I met him. He shared with me some of his observations about society, based on his experience on the streets of Des Moines.

Working nights in the skywalk put him in close contact with the people, all of them Latino immigrants, who cleaned the office buildings every night. He couldn't prove it, Jeff told me, but he was convinced that a majority of them were illegals. Whenever he ran into them in a break room somewhere, eating their lunches, as soon as they saw his uniform and his badge they would scatter, he said, "like cockroaches when you turn on the light."

He told me that it always amazed him to think how far they had come, from Honduras and El Salvador and even South America, confident that when they got here there would be jobs waiting for them. And the city's homeless, all of them American citizens, couldn't find a job, hit the streets and got shitfaced every night.

He was retiring in a matter of months and knew exactly what he was going to do: he was going to live near Veracruz, Mexico. "On my retirement pay from the city I can choose to live like a bum up here or like a king down there," he said. I wonder if he could see the irony in his plan, exchanging destinies with a Mexican coming all the way to Iowa.

One anecdote stood out. "One night in the skywalk I had to take a shit really bad, but I was too far from the office. I heard some guys speaking Spanish down in the atrium food court, so I got on the elevator and went down. They were mopping the floors and i knew they had the keys to the restrooms. As soon as they saw me running towards them, they started to run, too. So I yelled, "Toileto, toileto! Emerhensiya, emerhensiya! I was putting the accent on the next to last syllable, like 'emerhensiya'.

"As soon as he figured out my problem, one of them took me to the restroom and unlocked the door. He corrected me - the accent is on the third syllable, like 'emerhensiya'. What balls! But I thanked him, and on my way back upstairs I yelled to them, 'Muchas gracias! Buenos noches!' I thought they would laugh but they didn't."

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