In Times Square, the crossroads of the world, spring doesn’t show up like it does in other places. We don’t have birds, we have pigeons—flying rats we call them. And they don’t migrate. They spend the winter dropping all over the Father Duffy statue in front of the TKTS theater ticket booth and playing chicken with the pedestrians trying to walk by. Sure, the skirts are shorter, the streets are more crowded, and baseball is in the air. But mostly we know it’s spring by the distinctive smell of urine and rotting garbage, and by the skells that come out from whatever hole they crawled into over the winter.
My name is Tony Cavalucci, and this is my eleventh year as a New York City cop. Except for the six months I spent at FTU, or Field Training Unit, in Coney Island, I’ve worked my entire career here in Midtown Manhattan.
Skells is our name for crackheads, homeless, prostitutes, chicken hawks, and other lowlifes that make up the dregs of society. I used to look at them that way. Lately they just look lost and wounded to me, but I still call them skells.
They make up a good portion of the population here in Midtown, at least the population that smokes crack, urinates in public, prostitutes itself for drugs, has open containers of alcohol, and jumps turnstiles. We do a lot of sweeps now, getting them off the street early in the night for the little stuff, so we don’t have to come back later when they really get cooking.
It was the last week of April 2001, and the city finally sent a crew to the precinct to fix the heating system. We spent half the winter with the heat blowing cool air, making us put cardboard inside the vents to keep the chill out. Now that spring was here, the vents were finally blowing hot air, making the precinct feel like a sauna.
The city jumped straight from winter to summer. Instead of temperatures in the 60s and 70s like we normally get this time of year, the numbers were up in the high 80s, inching toward the 90 degree mark. I’m sure the papers will have the scientists speculating about global warming and all the other doomsday crap they come up with every time there’s a change in the weather.
I was standing in the muster room, waiting for roll call to start. The muster room is a dingy thirty-by-thirty-foot room where roll call takes place. Aside from the podium where the sarge speaks, there’s an old metal desk, vending machines, and old wooden benches that run along the walls. The walls are full of crime statistics, bios of perps, and missing persons pictures that nobody looks at.
I was reading a flyer for the second retirement party we’ve had this month. It was for Brian Gallagher, an old-timer who had done most of his time here at the South. The flyer had a picture of a fat guy on a lounge chair under a palm tree, with a hat over his head and a drink with an umbrella in his hand. Under the caption “Brian Gallagher Is Retiring” someone had written, “Why? The job is so great!” and “This job sucks.” They drew a picture of a keg with an IV hooked up to the guy’s arm, pretty much summing up Brian Gallagher. The party was at an Irish pub up on 45th Street. It was thirty bucks a head, with food and an open bar.
Originally I wasn’t going to go to the party, but my partner, Joe Fiore, and I have court the day of the party and would be working a day tour. I looked around for Terri Marks, a female cop with about eighteen years on, who works behind the desk. She was collecting the money for the party and I spotted her over by the desk, talking to Nick Romano. She was beautiful once, red hair, light blue eyes. But after almost two decades of wear and tear from the job, she looked worn-out as an old boot. No pension is ever gonna give that back.
“Hey, Nick, Terri,” I said as I walked over to them and shook Romano’s hand.
“You going to Brian Gallagher’s party, Tony?” Terri asked.
“Yeah, here’s for me and Joe,” I said, pulling out three twenties.
“Fiore’s going too?” She smiled and raised her eyebrows.
“Forget it, Ter, it’s never gonna happen,” I told her. She had a thing for Fiore that he politely ignored. She was probably hoping to get a few drinks into him to loosen him up, but that was never gonna happen either.
“Never say never, Tony,” she said, writing our names down on her legal pad.
“How’s it goin’, Nick?” I asked Romano.
He looked like he was hurting from too much drinking. I knew he’d been going to the bar over on 9th Avenue in the mornings, but I haven’t said anything to him about it. Last year Joe and I found out Romano’s father had been a cop and was killed in the line of duty. He was shot in the face during a domestic dispute. Romano’s been a cop for a few years now, and he hates it. He also has a baby with his self-absorbed ex-girlfriend, and they’re in court all the time over visitation and any other petty thing she can come up with. It all seems to be wearing on him. A couple of months ago he found out he’d be going over to the fire department. I thought he’d be happier about it, but he’s still miserable.
“Pretty good, nineteen more days of this and I’m outta here,” Romano said with feeling.
“I hear ya,” I said. “Pretty soon you’ll be one of New York’s Noisiest.”
Romano smiled. “That’s New York’s Bravest, Tony.”
“If you say so.”
“How come you never went over to FD?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I took the test. I got a 96 on the written test, but I was hungover for the physical and I only got an 85. I think I needed a 90 on the physical to have a high enough average to get in.”
“I made sure I got 100 on both tests,” he said. “I quit smoking for the physical, and I was running five miles a day by the time I took it. I started smoking again after I took the test, but at least I got in.”
“The Fire Academy is up on Randall’s Island, right?” I asked.
“Yeah, you ever been there?” he asked.
“Yeah, I went to a softball tournament up there for a cop who was killed up in the Bronx,” I said. “How long is the Academy?”
“Twelve weeks; I think I graduate like August 7.”
“Can’t wait to leave us, Nick?” Fiore slapped him on the back when he walked over.
“You know it,” Romano said, shaking his hand.
I started working with Joe Fiore last June when my old partner, John Conte, hurt his knee and wound up having surgery. John came back in December on limited duty, but he was out again having a second surgery on the knee. I had been drinking my way out of being dumped by my old girlfriend Kim and dealing with my psychotic family when I wound up with Joe. The summer was just starting, and the last thing I wanted was some do-gooder telling me how Jesus was the answer to all my problems. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me that the beach, the bar, and a willing woman wouldn’t cure. When things crashed down around me, Fiore was standing there when the smoke cleared, and he’s been there ever since. And I had a weird feeling, he would always be there.
Excerpted from SKELLS © Copyright 2012 by F.P. Lione. Reprinted with permission by Revell Books, an imprint of Baker Publishing. All rights reserved.
Skells: Midtown Blue Series #3