Words to live by if you happen to be well endowed, but more importantly an example of the superb dialogue that makes Joseph Wambaugh’s novel, The Choirboys, such a treat. That, plus the fact that it shines a light on the real police, uniformed cops who hold the frontline in the fight against crime.
Not those swaggering Detective Inspectors, or Chief Inspectors, or Superintendents, or whatever rank they happen to be given in crime fiction these days. Men in suits who sit behind a desk while proper coppers do the work. I include frontline detectives in that, since they’re the ones knocking on doors and arresting criminals while their bosses face the press or make tactical decisions, but I’m mainly talking about uniform patrol cops.
The Choirboys is the perfect example of the frontline cop story. It chronicles the insanities of everyday police work and the strange characters that make up each tour of duty; only half of them crooks and vagabonds, the rest being fellow cops. There’s Spermwhale Whalen, the veteran who catches Lieutenant “Hardass” Grimsley with a prostitute on duty, bursting in after hearing the prearranged “balls like an elephant” signal. Then there’s Harold Bloomguard, the rookie on loan to Vice who can’t quite remember the requirements of the law as laid down by his Vice Squad sergeant. “Sucky fucky, ten bucks.” Or maybe it was five. And my favorite, Roscoe Rules, the borderline psycho, who, at the scene of a traffic accident, hides a decapitated head behind his back until some rubbernecker asks, “Anyone hurt bad?” To which he replies, “Yeah, this one got banged up a bit,” and holds the head out.
Great stuff. I’ve been misquoting that elephant line for years, somehow getting it in my head that it was “Balls like a buffalo,” which kind of rolls off the tongue better, I think. Maybe they changed it for the movie. I remember seeing it at the ABC Cinema in Leeds for a special late night police screening. Place was packed with off-duty coppers who were a few beers into their own personal choir practice.
I don’t know if the movie version inspired Stephen Bochco but the similarities to TV’s Hill Street Blues are plain to see. The ensemble cast of characters. The location being a single police division. The concentration on frontline cops, mainly in uniform. And even Charles Haid switching from playing Sgt Yanov to Andy Renko, TV’s version of Roscoe Rules. Hill Street Blues was an important step in the evolution of the cop show. It told stories with humor and pathos and sometimes slammed you with a surprising depth that could move you to tears. Just like real police work. Some days it flops you lower than whale shit. Most days you’ve just got to laugh about it. That’s how cops get by. Not that I’m advocating waving decapitated heads around to get your laughs.
Hill Street Blues gave way to NYPD Blue, another favorite of mine. The emphasis changed from patrol to a detective squad, and the tone shifted from overly humorous to a shade more serious. Still, excellent stuff. Another shot in the arm for frontline policing. There have been many incarnations of the cop show since, from Third Watch to the superb The Wire, all tackling the job from different sides. But if we’re talking down-and-dirty uniform patrol TV shows, then let’s talk about the new big boy on the block: Southland.
We didn’t get Southland in the UK when it first came out. It was released on DVD in the US long before we got our first showing on TV. What a travesty. After watching the truncated first season (only six episodes? Come on guys, WTF?) I immediately bought the Season One box set and watched them again. This was the next best thing to patrolling the streets in a black-and-white. This was policing writ large. On the streets of Los Angeles. In uniform. Coping with life as well as work. The time I realised this show was the real deal? When probationary officer Ben Sherman is second jockey to training officer John Cooper in a high-speed pursuit. Slowing just enough at intersections to watch for crossing traffic Cooper tells Sherman that it’s his job to check the streets on his side and yell, “Clear.” That’s just the way it is. Not so much a Hollywood car chase as self-preservation. Your co-pilot has a job to do and that’s to cover his side while you cover yours. That way you get through the lights safely and get where you’re going in one piece. I remember my sergeant telling me, once I got my police-driving permit, “You can’t help the people you’re trying to help if you go so fast you don’t get there at all.” That’s Southland in a nutshell. Telling it like it is.
Bringing things full circle I can’t leave without mentioning Joseph Wambaugh again, an ex-cop himself. The Choirboys might be history but uniform patrol officers are back on Wambaugh’s radar with his Hollywood Station novels. Characters like Hollywood Nate, who fancies himself as an actor, and surfer cops Flotsam and Jetsam patrol the streets of L.A. in much the same way as Spermwhale Whalen and Roscoe Rules did before them. With irreverent humor and down to earth practicality. What goes around comes around. Reminding me that briefly, just after being neutered like a junkyard dog, I too had balls like a buffalo and a whang like an ox. Until the swelling went down.
Colin Campbell is a retired UK police officer and The Choirboys inspired his first crime novel, Through The Ruins Of Midnight.