After hours of shifting in the sheets, I finally slip into slumber…
What the hell is that racket? A cruel reality registers—that irritating rhythmic clamor is my alarm. I stare in disbelief as I reach for the Baby Ben on the nightstand. Why is my alarm going off at quarter after midnight?
As I strangle the alarm, my sleepy brain makes an unwelcome discovery. The hour hand is on the three. The minute hand is just past twelve. Instead of quarter after midnight, it’s a couple minutes past three.
I swing my legs over the side of the bed as I run my hand on the wall. It has to be here somewhere. When my hand finds the light switch, my eyelids slam shut. Fumbling like a blind man, with one hand shading my eyes and the other waving in front of me, I find the bathroom. It’s quite a feat, considering I only moved in yesterday.
After relieving my bladder, I make my way to the kitchen for a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and Tang. My orders are on the counter. “All recruit officers shall report to the gymnasium at the police academy at zero-four-thirty hours wearing appropriate business attire…”
My suit and tie will no doubt meet the LAPD’s appropriate business attire standard. That’s not what I’m worried about. Appearances have never been my problem, except maybe for a few cases of mistaken identity. Like that woman on a flight from Chicago who thought I was one of the actors who played in Deliverance. I told the woman I wasn’t that actor, but she kept asking for my autograph. It took the stewardess to get the starstruck passenger back in her seat. I would have thought flying coach, not first class, should have been evidence enough. Still, I don’t expect anyone at the police academy will ask me for a souvenir signature.
My concerns are harder to describe. Imagine a thousand people spread out in a freshly planted Nebraska cornfield. I’d be the one struck by lightning. Yeah, I’ll admit sometimes it’s my fault, but most of the time shit just happens.
“About as subtle as a train wreck.” That’s how my high school English teacher described me. More than my forthright verbal manner, maybe it’s my mischievous sense of humor that pisses some people off. Whatever the reason, I’ve got to dial it down a notch. I just want to go unnoticed, remain anonymous, and stay in the middle of the pack.
Out the door an hour early, I’m enveloped by the musty shade of gray that invaded while I slept. The fog has even seeped into my apartment’s underground garage. Rivulets of condensation cascade down the driver’s window when I insert my key in the door. Breathing into my hands, I wait for the engine to warm up and clear the windshield.
The fog-shrouded streets are nearly deserted. Heading toward the freeway, I’m trying in vain to adjust my windshield wipers to keep time to the Motown tune on the radio. What is that orange glow? Before I see the highway patrol car that blocks my onramp, the source of the mysterious glow becomes apparent. A jackknifed tanker is sprawled across the highway, engulfed in fire. The huge flames silhouette the twisted wreckage against the veil of moisture.
The only way I know to get from my new apartment to the academy is via the freeway. A few minutes ago, I was second-guessing my decision to leave this early. Now my abundance of caution looks more reasonable. I take a residential street south, but it ends after only a couple of blocks. I make a left at the T-intersection, then a quick right as I try to zigzag my way closer to the academy.
At a divided boulevard, I have no choice but to make a right. Ornate concrete guardrails tell me I’m on a bridge. Miraculously, the bridge spans not only the river, but the freeway, too. My good fortune ends on the other side, where the topography steepens, and the visibility drops to near zero. My right thumb presses against the selector on the dash and confirms it is on defroster. Despite the whoosh of air from the vents, my curled index finger tugs on the fan switch, but it is already on full blast.
When the road veers to the right, back toward my apartment, I make a left turn onto a residential street. I plan to make the first left to get back on track toward the academy, but the side streets aren’t cooperating. The tangled roadways rise and fall as they curve around the steep terrain. Each stretch of asphalt ends, either at the edge of a ravine or the base of a cliff. I have to turn around again.
Straining to see through the heavy blanket of moisture, I have lost my sense of direction. With each glance at my watch, my stomach twists a little tighter. I can’t be late to the academy. Not on the first day. Even juggling three part-time jobs in college, I was never late to work!
Everything beyond my windshield is a shade of gray. At any moment, I expect to hear Rod Serling’s voice. “Next stop The Twilight Zone.” Finally, I stumble upon a frontage road that leads me to where I would normally exit the freeway.
My orders were explicit: “All recruits shall park on Academy Road, not in the parking lot.” There isn’t time to search for a closer spot. I pull to the curb at the end of the long line of cars. My sport coat can’t keep out the cold as I walk toward the foggy aurora of lights in the parking lot. Maybe it’s nerves, too, but by the time I reach the main gate, I’m thoroughly chilled.
My only previous visit to the police academy was for the physical agility test. I had to leave for work right after the test and didn’t get a chance to explore the iconic facilities originally built for the 1932 Olympics. How do I get to the gym? At this hour, I don’t even consider the door adjacent to the dark offices. I eschew the stairway on the left, opting instead for the service drive on my right. Quickly beyond the reach of the lights in the parking lot, I move cautiously amid the foul odor of Dumpsters. Finally, I find a door, but it’s locked. In near total darkness, I feel my way along the cool concrete wall. Finally, I find another door. This one yields.
The tiny muscles in my eyelids quiver as my dark-adapted eyes squint against the gymnasium’s bright lights. My footsteps blend with the muffled conversations echoing throughout the cavernous space. Crossing the basketball court, I detect the distinctive odor of aged hardwood covered in years of lacquer varnish. The smell reminds me of my grandparents’ home in Chicago. In addition to the slightly sweet smell of old school varnish, there is the metallic scent of artificial heat. Looking up, I can see rows of blue flames inside a natural gas heater suspended from the ceiling. By the time I make it to the other side of the gym, the initially welcoming warmth begins to stifle.
I resist the urge to take off my jacket. I don’t want to draw attention to myself. Likewise, I keep my distance from a guy in a lime-green leisure suit.
At precisely 4:30 a.m., four members of the academy staff in perfectly tailored Class A uniforms scream at us to fall in. As soon as we assemble in ranks, two instructors begin to circle the leisure suit like a pair of cheetahs stalking a lame zebra.
The cheetahs pounce. “Who the hell are you supposed to be, Mister? Soupy Sales or the Good Humor man? Get down and give me twenty.”
In my peripheral vision, I can see the guy in the pastel outfit assume the position. He wearies after only a couple of push-ups.
One of the cheetahs speaks, his gravel voice dripping with sadistic sarcasm. “Gentlemen, none of you has to be here. But as long as you are here, you will all work together. Since the Good Humor man can’t seem to give me the push-ups I require, I’ll get my push-ups from all of you! Everybody assume the position!”
My academy experience began less than ninety seconds ago, and here I am in the push-up position, my imported silk tie sweeping specks of dust off the varnished maple floor with every repetition. As we struggle to give twenty good ones, the instructors meander through our ranks and spread the word. Any of us can stop at any time. Just say you want to leave, and it will be that easy. No more yelling. No more push-ups. No more standing at attention. Just quit.
The Good Humor man was the first to take their offer. No one ever saw him again. Although he was the first, he wouldn’t be the last. In the next four months, I’ll admit there were a couple of times I was tempted, but something inside me knew I would never quit. I really wanted to be an LA cop. Besides, I wasn’t going to give the bastards the satisfaction. I don’t know where it came from, or how it got into my head. I just know it became my mantra: They can kill me, but they can’t eat me. It is amazing how much it helped.