Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Sit-Down at Woolworth's

Ever since our folks plopped us in kindergarten we've been finding company with people our own age. This began when we were united with similar other kids who couldn't tie their shoes, got their shirts on backwards (I still look to make sure the label is in the back), or failed to cover their mouths when they sneezed or coughed.

And growing older, we still tend to flock together.

So, it is nice when for just a few hours family custom somewhat corrals us into the same spot and we once again seem to be with more people our age than we usually are.

One such occasion was my grand-daughter’s first birthday party, when, because we are all still here and not mad at each other, we get to be around her other grand-parents.

I love talking to my daughter’s father-in-law, who is a retired NYPD detective whose attitude is so sufficiently submerged that it would take a while to guess his prior occupation. And since neither of us are at too advanced an age, we still remember what day it is and the score from yesterday’s game. We remember the same presidents, mayors, police commissioners, newspapers, and despite my not being Catholic, the same cardinals and popes.

The birthday party was in November 2008, and Tim and I got to talking about Spitzer. I had to recount my memories of cops in Times Square having to take pictures of prostitutes with Polaroids. I knew it might reach a knowing ear and make him tell me about more wacky crime remedies.

Since he worked in the Bronx his whole career, he, believe it or not, was not always paying attention to what was going on in Manhattan. The story though did prime the pump and made him remember when he was just starting out on the force and the older guy he was teamed with told him about his early days.

It seems his mentor had his own picture taking regimen. When he encountered a neighborhood trouble-maker who he wanted to make a crime deterrent impression on, he took the subject to Woolworth’s.

Woolworth’s had everything, including instant photo booths where you could get a wallet-size strip of black and white pictures taken of yourself (or giggling others, depending on who else you hauled into the booth) for maybe a quarter. They weren’t of the greatest quality, but they were good enough likenesses that someone could recognize you. And that was the point.

Tim’s mentor plopped the subject down in front of the camera, extracted the quarter from the subject, and kept the photo strip for his own mug shot collection. He wrote the subject’s name, address, phone number (if any) on the back, and impressed on them that he could now show their picture around if something happened and he thought they might be involved.

The number of laws this broke, then and now, is probably astounding, and would make a 9th grade law student leap out of their classroom chair. How effective it was is not known. Measurements could be challenged. But it does show that all ideas come from somewhere, and the mentor from the 60s might have been incrementally promoted to someone in the 70s who tried to clean up Times Square.

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