The Voice Behind the Screen
Front Seat Freestyle
Down at Portland’s Central Precinct, down three floors, three cops sit slack-jawed staring at the biggest flat screen TV I have ever seen. A deep TV narrator voice says, "Lil' Rick's crippin' had gone too far. The balancing act was torture."
It's 10 til four, and the cops lounge around a long table, the kind we use at work for important meetings. Lil' Rick is a man now, but on the History Channel, he's still a Los Angeles teenager wielding big guns and blue handkerchiefs. Being a Crip, he says, meant hating everything red -- even strawberry soda.
I’m here for a ride-along with Officer Chad Stensgaard -- a cop who spent a day in court last month after parking in a no-parking zone to eat dinner and watch the Blazers game. I’m a newspaper reporter, new to the night cops beat after spending a few years writing about education. Tonight, Chad’s going to take me through the dilapidated part of downtown known as Old Town, show me how the crack addicts have migrated north again. Two years ago, the police chief had declared victory: The big raid had sent 158 dealers or users to jail. Crack was gone.
"It just went downtown for a few years," Chad says, handing over a bullet-proof vest. "Now we've been policing downtown, so it's moved back here."
I put on the vest. It's extra-large, the only size they have. I just topped 110, and the vest hangs off with arm holes so big I could step through them.
Chad is young, studly with a spikey handsome-man haircut. He spends the first hour rolling slowly through the streets, coolly telling me about this or that time he arrested someone. He drives by a hair salon twice, tells me his wife works there. The shop is part of the new, remodeled plaza that city officials had said would turn Old Town around. It’s upscale, but close enough to the downscale area that Chad likes to check in on his wife. The car windows are down, and Chad says a police-like "Hello" to nearly everyone we pass. People are quick to greet him back, as if an officer's hello mandates a respectful reply. "Good evening, officer."
It's 5:30, a Thursday night in the middle of June. Nothing is going on yet. I only have a few hours, and I feel impatient for some kind of action, something I can go back to work and write down so my bosses will think I’m a go-getter. I’m the youngest person on staff, and I want to stop feeling like I’ll never catch up to the other reporters.
“The commander thought I could use some good publicity,” Chad tells me. “That’s why I agreed to take a reporter with me tonight.”
I’m not sure what to say back to him, so I don’t say anything. Chad turns the radio on -- the pop station, not the police scanner -- and sings softly as he drives. I look out the window, wondering what people think when they see me in the passenger seat. After half an hour, Chad jerks the car into an old Burger King parking lot. Someone burned the insides out long ago. The sign is gone, but its essential Burger Kingness -- the drive-through, the mission-tile roof -- is intact. I try not to smile. Maybe this will be something.
Chad pulls up next to a No Trespassing sign alongside a curb in front of the restaurant. He says some code into his police radio then motions to a group of five people -- all black, maybe homeless, maybe in their 40s -- a few feet away. They’re standing in a line, leaning against the building. Chad swaggers out of the car. Outside, he looks bigger. His blue, short-sleeved uniform clings to his bicep as he walks toward the group. He doesn't tell me to get out, so I don't, but I hold my notebook out the window and write descriptions of the trespassers: over-sized t-shirts, sweat pants, windbreaker. The woman on the end of the line is all teeth chattery and bouncing in white tennis shoes. While Chad checks IDs, she sneaks away, tip-toes through a crosswalk and is gone.
"Officer, there may be a discrepancy with my address," another woman says.
She says her name is Angela. She's wearing the kind of pants suit I’d expect to find at Sunday School. She has a brand new bicycle, a nice voice and a felony warrant out for her arrest. Next in line is Yvonne. Later, Chad shows me Yvonne’s license: She's 5'4, 260 pounds, it says. In person, her hair is short and wild, natural. Her license shows a woman with smoother, longer hair. Chad tells Yvonne to turn her pockets inside out then he runs a gloved hand over her pocket, holds his hand up to eye-level.
"Is this all the crack you have?" he asks Yvonne. "Or am I going to find more?"
"No, sir, I just had a little something this morning," she answers. Two officers show up on bicycles. One, a female, is wearing shorts. Chad asks her to frisk Yvonne.
Something -- Was that a tooth? I think -- falls out of Yvonne's mouth. The officer ignores it.
"I'm going to frisk the front of you, make sure you don't have anything, OK?" she tells Yvonne.
Yvonne pulls up her shirt and her bra, revealing no drugs, only large, dark breasts. A studious-looking man walks by the scene and hollers to the cops, "Don't be startled; I'm just a black man walking behind you."
I scribble his quote down in my notebook. Oh that’s good, I think.
Half a decade ago, when I was 20 and working in Mississippi, I spent my nights hanging out with black men who hated cops. I was on their side, I told them. I wanted to tell their stories. I was white and never had any run-ins with cops, but I felt more comfortable with black people in the South. My family was poor, just like theirs. I was against privilege and the establishment. I idolized the Freedom Riders.
When I first moved to Portland, every black person reminded me of home. I’d tell black grocery store check-out workers that I’m from the South, hoping they’d understand how similar we are.
“Never been there,” they’d say.
Outside the old Burger King, the female cop handcuffs Yvonne then guides her to the curb, right outside my window. Yvonne tells the cops that her tongue ring fell out. Can an officer screw it back on for her?
Not a tooth, I write in my notebook.
The female cop picks a little knob off the asphalt and bends down to tighten it onto Yvonne's tongue. She jumps back when she realizes she's stepped in human shit. The other bike cop cackles. "Those are your new shoes, right?" He’s eating a granola bar.
"Yvonne," Chad says sweetly. "What's moving around in your purse?"
"A dildo vibrator," she says, glowering.
Chad helps Yvonne into the backseat of the police car. He leaves her alone with me. I hide the notebook. I don’t want her to know I’ve been writing. I don’t want her to think I’ve been judging her.
"It's just crumbs," she says -- to me? I’m not sure. "Ain't a whole lotta dope. Just three crumbs. Shit."
The granola-eating cop tells one of Yvonne's friends, the only guy in the group, to break a crack pipe found in Yvonne's purse.
"Man, shit," Yvonne says. "There isn't nothing wrong with that pipe. Wasn't even used."
"They told me I hafta," the guy says, then places the pipe on the curb a foot away from me. He steps on the pipe. Parts of it fly through the window and land on my button-down shirt. I’m not sure if I should wipe it off.
Chad guides Angela to the back of the car, too. She's handcuffed, but after Chad leaves, she wiggles around until she's holding a cell phone up. She doesn’t seem to notice that I’m sitting in the front seat.
"Hey, I'm going to jail," she says into the phone.
A few minutes later, Chad slides in the driver's seat. Yvonne asks, "Why are you wasting your time on me? There a lotta dope out there."
"There is a lot of dope out there," Chad says. He emphasizes the is, but doesn’t turn to look at Yvonne. "You're part of the problem. If you didn't buy it, dealers wouldn't be able to sell it."
"I didn't buy it," Yvonne says. "Somebody bought it for me."
"Anyway," she adds, "if there wasn't dealers, there wouldn't be anyone to buy from. "
“New dealers would just come around,” Chad says, looking down at arrest forms. "Alright, I'm going to read you your rights."
I’m mad at Chad. He’s putting on a show for me, I think. This arrest won’t solve anything. I look back at my notebook. This isn’t a story. I had wanted a story, and there isn’t one, and I am mad at Chad for arresting people so that I can have a story. So that he can have some good publicity. So that I can look good for my bosses.
A few minutes later, Angela clears her throat. Her phone is hidden again. She has been crying. “I’ve lost everything I’ve ever worked for," she says.
“What’s that?” Chad asks. He's filling out paperwork and hasn't really been listening.
“Nothing,” she mutters.
“She said she’s lost everything she’s worked for,” I tell Chad. My voice is stern but quiet. “She’s sad about the bike.”
“I don’t care about my bike,” she snaps. “I’m going to lose my job, my house, my fiancee, over something I did 10 years ago. I tried to get it taken care of in court, but I couldn’t get a document from Florida.”
Chad turns to me. “The warrant is over a dangerous drug possession.”
She doesn't look like the threat he is implying. I feel uncomfortable, witnessing the ruining of Angela's life. The day Angela lost everything won’t warrant even a brief in my newspaper. I feel, suddenly, like a different person than I used to be. When did I switch teams?
“Am I going to get a bail?” Angela asks Chad.
“Uhh, no,” he says, eyeing a processing paper. “Hey, Yvonne, what’s your address?”
She’s silent. “You not talking to me anymore?” he asks.
I look back at Yvonne, but she's staring out the window, biting her lower lip. I’m due back at work. There’s crack pipe on my shirt.
Chad's headed to the jail, but he drops me off first. I’m not ready to go into the newsroom yet, so I walk to the grocery store, buy a sandwich, read The New Yorker. Two weeks later, I see Yvonne again. I’m biking home from work, late at night, and she's sitting on a bench with a new group of friends. I stop at a red light and she looks up. We stare at each other. I’m not scared, but the light turns green, and I pedal -- quickly -- north. The next night, and every night after, I take a different route.Casey Parks is a reporter at The Oregonian Newspaper. She grew up in Louisiana with library fines in four cities. She is directing a documentary, The Diary of a Misfit, that traces the mysterious beginnings and endings of a woman who lived as a man in Delhi, Louisana.