September Create: The Guilty Pleasure of the Soft-Boiled Cop

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Not all guilty pleasures are the same. Some can be revealing.

The Guilty Pleasure of the Soft-Boiled Cop

A New York Police Department traffic policeman's badge.

Back in the early 90s, I was an adjunct instructor at a community college in southwestern North Carolina. For those who don't know, a community college is a non-residential institution of higher learning that provides reasonably-priced education to school leavers and adults across a broad spectrum of the community – hence the name. Community colleges offer two-year 'associate of arts' degrees and certificate programs in all sorts of subjects, including nursing, engineering, and even landscaping. They're good value for money.

'Adjunct' is the euphemistic term for an odd-job instructor. It means, 'We'll pay you by the course or hour, and don't ask for office space. You're lucky to get a parking permit.' I was teaching ESL (English as Second Language) to working adult immigrants, reading the newspaper to the visually impaired over the radio (the Dean kept saying, 'Hearing impaired,' which sounded like I was shouting), and holding German classes in the night school and over the campus radio. I also took courses in broadcasting, since free tuition was one of the perks, and did a lot of volunteer announcing. My Friday-night poetry-and-New-Age-music programme was very popular with the more relaxed rednecks, who informed me it hit the spot if you listened under a secluded tree while in an altered state.

Being chronically underemployed, I hung around campus a lot – probably more than the full-time instructors. In fact, the station manager and broadcasting instructor, who lived across the state line, relied on me for the nightly weather report. I didn't understand why he wanted to know if it had rained on campus, until he fired the evening talk-show team. It seems they'd been closing the station early, due to threatened lightning storms (we couldn't afford the repairs to the tower). When I reported a beautiful, starlit night, the station manager had had enough. Fair cop, but I ended up recruiting replacements, and baby-sitting my Peruvian students while they played salsa records for the Spanish hour. Federal law prohibits leaving non-citizens in charge of the airwaves without supervision. (They might foment Communistic revolution, or something.) I graded papers, and waved at the dancers in the sound booth as they macarenaed.

Our community college was guarded, if you may call it that, by three campus cops. Campus cops wear uniforms and carry walkie-talkies, but – as much as they like to pretend to be in Law Enforcement – they are really a cross between night watchmen and meter maids. Our campus cops were interesting characters, and fairly typical of the species.

The oldest campus cop was Harvey, a diminutive, white-haired man who engendered protective instincts in the broadcasting crew. Particularly when he walked you to your car at midnight, for your safety. The campus cops lived in fear that the dangerous inmates of the minimum-security facility next door would jump the fence and do us harmless folk a mischief. The inmates did jump the fence on a regular basis, particularly at weekends, but they always returned, and had never interfered with the DJs. They were a non-theatening lot, mostly, as I knew from my friendship with our inmate student John, a middle-aged white collar convict who studied Criminal Justice on day-release. I'd visited him next door, and the residents were, well, mostly harmless.

Our second campus cop was an imposingly tall African American named Charles. Charles was handsome, too. My friend Cheryl, a local reporter I had talked into doing the Texas Swing hour, had a huge crush on him, although he was very married. Cheryl enjoyed Charles' 'cop talk', such as referring to threatened snowfall as 'possible frozen PRE-cip'. But her admiration slipped a notch when she discovered Charles' secret fear: skunks. They were out there in the dark, he could smell them, and he was terrified. Even heroes have Achilles' heels.

The leader of the campus cop pack was Officer Hinckley, a paragon of cop virtue. Imagine someone who looks like Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night, but acts like Barney Fife of Mayberry, and you'll have Officer Hinckley. Hinckley was a by-the-book, no-nonsense enforcer of the parking regulations, particularly m regard to the dictum that cars should be parked with the rear-end permit sticker clearly visible to strolling enforcers. Unfortunately, the way they put it was, 'Don't back into a parking space,' which led to a contretemps with a student who protested, 'but Ah didn't back in. I pulled through to the next space!' (North Carolina logic.)

Officer Hinckley acted tough. He was tough. He was a Vietnam War veteran. He had aspirations. Hinckley ran for county sheriff. He got 300 votes, most of them from his relatives. Undaunted, he continued making the campus safe. However, he had a personable side. He often visited my ESL classes to converse in Vietnamese with some of my students. They liked him. I suspected the hard-boiled exterior was a bit of a veneer, but I had no idea how much of a veneer it was until one day when the campus was nearly deserted.

It was a late afternoon. The cafeteria was closed after lunch, so I'd scored some machine sandwiches and a Coke, and was having a bite to eat on one of the benches outside. My thoughts about whether I should teach the class to sing 'Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikin' as a pronunciation exercise (I decided, definitely) were interrupted by a curious dialogue from around the corner of the building.

'Kootchy-kootchy-coo….awww…'oo's a pretty boy, then? Is 'oo hungry? Come on and get it, aww, you're so coooote…'


'Come on, you know you're hungry, that's a good fella…snookums…'

And more of the same. I peeked cautiously around the corner. And was rewarded by the sight of Officer Hinckley feeding one of our tame squirrels. He was totally absorbed in his communion with nature, so I was able to slip away before he spotted me. I attribute my ability to elude the trained professional, not to my stealth skills, but to the awesome cuteness of North Carolina squirrels. They charm even bikers, trust me.

I never let on that I'd spied out Officer Hinckley's guilty pleasure. But I had his number. The next time he growled at the faculty and students about the 'regulations', I smiled to myself. Our chief campus cop was a pretty soft-boiled guy, after all. Sometimes, what we do for fun, when nobody's watching, says more about us than our most polished public peformance.

A red squirrel.
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