I love crime. That is not to say that I enjoy it when acts of crime are perpetrated on the innocent. In fact, I hate and despise any and all acts of victimization, think it is bad bad bad, and believe that criminals should be thoroughly punished in a manner befitting their charge.
What I do mean to say, however, is that I am flat captivated by all manner of reality crime television. “Lockup,” truTv, “Biography,” any sort of televised trial, and, of course, that old standby “Cops” all leave me spellbound. I can’t look away. Why is it that I meditate so intensely on what caused the lawbreaker to launch down the slippery slope of malfeasance? Why do I imagine the culprit as a child and how, if raised under different circumstances, he or she might have turned out differently? Why am I so drawn in by the sad, the scourge, the disenfranchised? For the love of Pete where are their broken-hearted mamas?
Well, I’ll tell you why. After some serious reflection, I have come to realize three things. First, I spent a good deal of my childhood at a police station. Second, while other little girls were playing Barbie, I was playing detective. And third, I have known more than one criminal in my life, and they were not all bad people.
I’ll start at the beginning, when crime and criminals were right across the street and not hiding in the picture tube.
The front door of the police station opened into a small, dark waiting room. To the right was a little hallway through which you could see the cell door. Sometimes when I stole a glance toward it, some reprobate would be staring back through the little, barred window. It was scary but thrilling, like riding the swings at the Greater Gulf State Fair. Mostly, however, the cell was empty since crime was not especially rampant in our little town.
If I stood on one of the brown, vinyl waiting room chairs, I was tall enough to see the wanted posters with black and white pictures of devious culprits on the lam from certain and swift justice. Bank robbers, kidnappers, thieves, and murderers all with fingerprints, descriptions of their crimes, identifying scars and tattoos, and occasionally the warning “armed and dangerous.” Menacing stares. Deadly limbs. Way yonder more interesting than Captain Kangaroo could ever hope to be.
Then there were the men of the Citronelle Police and Fire Department. Shiny badges, starched uniforms, guns. Jolly, joking, and smelling of Vitalis, cigarettes, and stale coffee. They would give me a Starlight mint or some confiscated brass knuckles, tell me a few tall tales of bravery and might, then send me to sit with Eva, the dispatcher, to wait for calls of grease fires, car accidents, or shootings that thankfully, more often than not, never came. The men would smoke and talk of all the latest news about town, sometimes with loud, boisterous laughter, sometimes in hushed and somber tones. Who was caught with dope down at the river. Who was running around with who. Whose kid was a trouble-maker and just plain bad. Who had a few too many and got in a fight down at Old Glory. They whispered the secrets of a small town, and I got to hear them all. Of course, I never told.
Many of those men who protected our town have long since retired or have died, Baw included, and there is a new police station which I’m pretty sure has two cells now. But the stories told by these very real people about their friends, neighbors, and families, their crimes, their passions, and their foibles, are all still very much a part of my reality.