I had never been to a community meeting with the police before. This one took place last Wednesday night at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the Bronx. For those of you who live outside of New York (or work for the Post Office), it’s “the” Bronx. That’s just the way it is, like Houston Street in downtown Manhattan, which, if you pronounce like the city in Texas, will kill any chance you have of blending in. Not that you really had any.
I didn’t know what to expect, so I got to the parish center early, which is good. Punctuality is important. I sat in the front row, which is bad. Why? First of all, it is very un-Catholic. In Roman Catholic culture, at least in North America, sitting in the back is regarded as optimum. It reflects interest but not fanaticism, a kind of detached engagement that might be construed as Zen-like to an uninformed observer. It also has historical precedence. In the church before Vatican Council II (1962-65), children sat in the first pews, women occupied the middle ones, and men either sat in the last pews or stood in the back so that they could leave for a smoke and dash back for the consecration. It was all very ordered.
The second reason you should never sit in the front is that it increases your chances of making an ass of yourself. This is important for obvious reasons and reflects the principle I have come to live by: try not to embarrass yourself. Sure, it may not be setting the bar high, but after pursuing loftier principles and failing miserably, I figure it is at least attainable. My batting average is about .300, which is nothing to sneeze at. Well, it was .300. It dipped just under that after the meeting started.
Before I tell you what happened, please know that the officers from the 48 Precinct, Sector B, were personable and professional, especially Justin Hoff and Andrew John, the latter having the good fortune of being named after two apostles. John also had been an altar boy and played football for a Catholic high school in Queens, which is a borough that does not require “the.”
We went around the room, introducing ourselves and raising concerns about the neighborhood. Hoff, John, and the others were “NCOs,” which I assumed meant non-commissioned officer. I got that wrong. It stands for “Neighborhood Coordination Officer.” NCOs patrol in both marked and unmarked cars, responding to problems reported to them by residents. Hoff and John gave us their cellphone numbers, encouraging us to report anything of concern, from drug dealing to bullying and unleashed pitbulls, which seems to be a problem. From what I can tell, if the Bronx had an official canine, it would be a pitbull. And I don’t mean the one from The Little Rascals.
I was the third person to speak. Not knowing the protocol, I introduced myself, described where I lived and the famous restaurant across the street, and then said I had no complaints. Had I left it at that, all would have been right with the world. But, alas, I could not help myself. You see, I have always been Mr. Levity. In seventh grade I skipped across the stage to receive an award just to break the monotony. It got a laugh. So, naturally, I thought my complaint to Officer Hoff would get a laugh. I told him I couldn’t take the Mister Softee ice cream truck anymore, which has been a theme of mine (see Killing Me Softly, Mister Softee).”What, you mean it’s double parked?” he asked. “Uh, no.” “It’s blocking fire hydrants?” “Not exactly.”
He waited, genuinely curious, to hear what I had to say. The room went dead. I had to backtrack and admit that, ah!, it was a joke. I was trying to be funny. I had to ask the other NCOs not to record Mister Softee on the whiteboard. Luckily, my friend, a true Son of Belmont, saved me from further embarrassment by explaining that the jingle bothered me, which apparently made some sense and put everyone at ease. Then it was his turn to speak, and the tumblers fell back into place.
That’s what happens when humor fails. It throws the audience off and leaves them out there without bringing them back home. And, as Bobby Bronco has taught me, when you do that you’d better exit stage right as fast as possible.
The upshot of all this is that I transgressed a ritual in a place devoted to ritual. People brought up some real problems: theft, assault, drug dealing, vandalism, tenant harassment. I had disrespected all of that with a flippant comment about an ice cream truck. Swing and a miss.
Luckily, I know that most people forgot what I had said within five minutes of hearing it, probably less than that. Besides, Hoff, being gracious, took it all in good humor.
Somebody stop me.