Off Duty

Off Duty

Everyone involved would be ashamed to be identified in this story except for me. Most of the people who were present when it happened were already ashamed because they were homeless which, during the Reagan years, was hardly something to be ashamed of. It happened. For some reason as a nation we had decided that it was a great idea to take all the most deeply wounded and hopeless people from every arena of injury and grievance and to house them together in church-run dormitories called homeless shelters. The other people in the story should be ashamed, but God only knows how they handle their memories of the evening. They’d be ashamed if you knew what they did. Maybe they would tell you I’m lying. Maybe their colleagues would rally around them and tell you I’m lying.  I understand that impulse.  But I’m not lying. This is true.

I was 21 years old and working the overnight shift in a shelter for homeless single adults in my hometown. Back then I looked like a dirt bag most of the time, with my long hair, stupid novelty T-shirts, and dirty jeans from my day job with Habitat for Humanity. Even though I have never smoked up in my life, back then people used to always ask me for weed. I looked the part. Anyway, the shelter was usually a pretty quiet place after lights-out. It was unbearably hot and airless that night, and one of the residents had propped a door open to let some cool air in. I was still awake at around midnight, at the far end of the shelter from where the residents slept.

The four men who entered through that open door looking for a guy named Juan were tall and muscular, and they came in banging doors and making angry noises. “Where the f*ck is Juan?” they roared. I could hear them but not see them, so I ran toward the dorms. The residents—some addicts, some abuse victims, some vets– started shrieking in fear, and by the time I got to the dorms the four intruders had split up and had entered the women’s dorm and the men’s dorm, turning the fluorescent overhead lights on and yelling, over and over, into the faces of the residents. I did not know these men, and it took me longer than it should have to realize that they were all in uniform, probably because this sort of thing didn’t happen.  Not in the world as I’d understood it until then.  The residents all already knew how to do something I was being invited to learn right then: How to cower. Rosa was curled into a ball on her bunk, motionless. Seth, a Vietnam vet and the gentlest man I’d ever met, shuffled away from the commotion and pretended, as much as possible, that it wasn’t happening. “Where the f*ck is Juan? I know he’s in here. Don’t f*cking lie to me!”

By some miracle, the practical dimensions of which I forget entirely, I was able to corral these four men into a little common area outside the dorms and to try to talk reasonably with them. They said, “Oh, so you’re the staff person here? Well, where are you hiding him?” I said, “Look, really, what the residents said was true. There’s no one named Juan here.” I experienced all four of them as huge and menacing and angry as hell. They thought maybe he’d changed his name to hide here, so they described him. He wasn’t in the shelter. It dawned on me—they shouldn’t be here, either. I had to get them out of here.

Three of the intruders were from my home town, one from the next town over. Interesting. I knew from the patches on their uniforms. They had removed their badges but they still had their guns. One guy fiddled with his gun nervously. He looked up at me in embarrassment and anger when he realized I was watching him. Maybe I was about to be shot.

“How did you get in here?” I asked.

“We came through the f*cking front door. It was propped open.”

“That’s not OK. You can’t do that,” I said, because for some reason I believed that I had some sort of power that could stop what was happening.

“We are looking for this mother*cker, and we know he’s here.”

“Well, this is a private place. You need a warrant to come in.” How’d I know that?

“WE HAVE A F*CKING ARREST WARRANT!” one of them yelled into my face.

“But I think you need a search warrant to come in here unless I’ve welcomed you in, and I did not welcome you in, and you are scaring the residents and you need to leave.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Mark. Mark Shiner.”

“OK, Mark Shiner. Well, we will remember your f*cking name. Don’t expect us to come running the next time one of these pieces of sh*t causes you trouble. We’ll take our good f*cking SWEET time getting here. See how you like that, Mark Shiner.”

After a few more door slams, a few more shouts, and a long, sneering look into my eyes from one of them who’d stopped just to look into my eyes and sneer, they were gone. I locked the doors, tried to calm the residents down, talked to them for a while, and then I called the director of the shelter. She came in. The two of us talked for a long time. I didn’t cry. Maybe you don’t cry on this side of that sort of experience.   The shelter had never had a bad experience with the police, she said. They’d always been great. The next morning the chief promised he’d look into it, though he didn’t ask to talk to me and didn’t get any descriptions of the officers and never called back.

I worked in that “bad” neighborhood for an entire summer, and the one time I felt genuinely terrified it was because of four police officers.

When I was a kid, my favorite Sunday school teacher was a police officer and I thought the world of him. I love and admire every single cop and safety officer I’ve actually met—something I definitely can’t say about the clergy I’ve known– and I can’t fathom the underlying terror of being an agent of the state’s violence. But since that night in Pennsylvania in 1989 I also know the other side, what it’s like to be targeted and harassed, what it’s like to be innocent and yet find your self on the wrong side of anonymous men with authority and guns.  Once you’ve been on the “wrong” side, you can never wholly return to the “right” side. Some gnostic substance seeps into you and carries with it tiny cells of solidarity, mistrust and revolt, and they don’t go away no matter how good you’ve been or how established, safe, and non-threatening you eventually become. My life had been easy and I was always warm and well fed, free from abuse and violence, educated and secure. But that night, without knowing I had somehow also become poor, homeless, addicted, and marginalized. Whatever empathy and hunger for justice that I have now began to bloom in the night soil of that encounter.

You need to remember what horror is possible even with the “good guys”, and you can’t be ashamed of what you know.  I remember, and I am not ashamed.


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