Police Report: A Memoir Fragment for the Holiday Season

He was some mother's darling. He was some mother's son.
Once he was fair. Once he was young
And some mother rocked him, little darling to sleep,
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

"A Tramp on the Street," lyrics adapted by Grady and Hazel Cole, 1939,
from a poem published in 1877 titled "Only a Tramp." (see postscript below)

Funny, in the bright afternoon sunlight the lines of the policeman’s face appeared incised into his flesh as though carved into pale, earth-colored clay, his face a sculpted mask. His eyes, two small dark points, focused on me. For a second I imagined that the flesh surrounding them was expanding into an immense barren landscape of hills and valleys -- monotone, dry and desolate.
I glanced down at his nametag. “CHAN,” it read.

As Officer Chan asked me questions, his partner exited the driver’s seat of their police car that he had just parked by the fire hydrant that is slightly forward of the last parking space on Forsyth Street’s southeast corner where Broome Street temporarily dead-ends. He stepped onto the sidewalk and positioned his body so that it closed the space between Officer Chan and the corner building.

A second police car drove up and parked illegally at the bend of the curve of Forsyth and Broome. Two officers got out, a woman who immediately leaned back on the car looking at me and slowly folded her arms with false nonchalance, and a man who took a sturdy stance stationing himself on the Broome Street sidewalk between the car and the corner building. In doing so, the two new arrivals made a complete semi-circular barrier that surrounded me and a homeless man who had asked me to help him. With the corner building to our backs, I felt imprisoned in a zone of deadly unfriendliness.

What had I got myself into? Why had two police cars shown up for a simple report of the theft of an ID, a bankcard, and a phone? Why were they surrounding us as though we were criminals?
“I own a business up the street at 293 Broome,” I said to Officer Chan. “This gentleman asked me to call the precinct so a report could be filed recording that his wallet and phone were stolen last night as he slept on a bench across the street in the park. The 5th precinct is too far away for him to walk with his unsteady leg. Would you please write up a report for him?”

The homeless man was small and short, probably of Irish descent. He leaned on a cane. Once he was a licensed plumber, he told me, and he had a grown daughter living somewhere near NYC.
Officer Chan said that he wanted to take him into the precinct to write the report. I argued and insisted that the cops write out a report on the spot. All of a sudden the homeless man said something flip. I immediately turned my face to him and said, “Don’t make jokes. This is serious. I am trying to help you. Don’t make it difficult,” all the while thinking to myself, “Oh, no, he could be one of those lost souls who want to provoke the cops into beating them up,” and all the while becoming panicked by the scenario unfolding. “Be careful.” I thought to myself. “These cops have guns.” My brain shifted into high alert, with an awareness that was not fear, but a distant cousin to fear.

I said firmly to Officer Chan, “You can’t take him to the precinct. I won't let him go with you. I know you don’t want to write up reports that make New York City look like a place full of crime, but this man needs a police report number in order to get replacements for his papers.”
After a brief exchange of words, one of the cops got a clip board out of the police car and began to question the homeless man and to write a report. It took about 20 minutes to get the information, and the task was done on the sidewalk in the daylight.

The report completed, the lady cop -- trim, tall, well-groomed, neatly costumed in NYC cop blue, cool, prime, fine, armed, and still leaning on the police car with her arms across her chest -- focused her eyes on me and asked with a touch of disdain in her voice, “Why are you helping him?”

Funny, I looked her square in the eyes and surprised myself as I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind, “Because I am a Christian.” Then I added, “Last year I had a stroke and everyone helped me, so now I have to give back.”

The evolution of the lyrics of "A Tramp on the Street" and over ten recorded versions of the song, including those sung by Molly O'Day, Hank Williams, Joan Baez and the Staples Singers can be heard on "Joop’s Musical Flowers: original versions of famous songs and songs covered by famous people."


The 1877 lyrics:

Happy Holidays,

Minerva Durham 917-375-6086
Minerva's Drawing Studio
293 Broome St.
New York, NY 10002