“Bring me a franchise character,” urged my book agent. “Someone you can pin a series on.”
I’d just published my first novel. I had a zillion stories yet to tell. Question: Why the hell would I want to lock myself into a singular book series?
Answer: Because I hadn’t met a character yet that made me want to write a multi-book serial. At least not until this story happened.
A few years back, when I was attempting to create some television, I’d met with a variety of producing partners all of whom were looking to develop a cop show. My initial reaction was something that must’ve sounded like a swallowed grunt. A cop show? How original. Nothing could’ve interested me less. As it turned out, it was one of those Hollywood zeitgeist things. Networks had whispered to their production partners who’d passed the word down the line that they were looking for police procedurals and serials. Thusly, every producer and their sixth cousin removed began grinding their head-wheels in search of the magic “re-imagined” idea.
I wasn’t one of them. At least, at first.
Yet as it is when there are people I want to work with, I will sometimes put aside my initial instinct to drop-kick a concept into the garbage bin and dig a little deeper into the unappealing subject to see if I can discover something to get excited about. Sometimes all I need is a shiny sliver of engagement to turn me around.
Now in the course of my career I’d spent a fair amount of time with police officers, be it tag-alongs or picking their brains over meals. But it was when I got hooked up with LA County Sheriffs that things got interesting. A producer with whom I’d partnered on a couple of pilot scripts connected me with a former deputy whom I’ll call Wild Bill. I laid out all my concerns to the ex-cop about avoiding all the old police show tropes in hopes of unearthing something new or original. Wild Bill heard me out and volunteered to show me around his old beat. Maybe a warm night tooling around the darker corners of LA might stir something. Wild Bill phoned an old pal who was still on the job and put in the request.
Fast forward to a dry Saturday night in early August. The Santa Ana winds had kicked up, and like a giant blow dryer switched to max, a hundred-mile-long phalanx of hot air swept across the Southland from the desert to the sea. I’d met up with Wild Bill at the LA County Sheriff’s Lennox station, one of the three triangulating police outposts that cover the high crime belt that runs from East Hawthorne through Compton, Lynwood, and Lakewood. There I was introduced to a beefy old detective I’ll affectionately call Cookie. The three of us piled into an unmarked radio unit and drove out into the night seeking adventure, something pretty much guaranteed if one considered the conditions.
“Saturday,” said Cookie. “Everybody just got paid or got their welfare checks. Hot as shit. And nobody has air conditioning to cool ‘em off. For sure things are gonna start poppin’ off.”
The plan for the night was to connect up with the Gun Squad—an ad hoc crew of sheriffs whose specific task was to, as Cookie coined it, “chase guns.” Ergo to seek out gangsters who were illegally packing heat. Primed with intel and years of street experience, this team was like a pack of roaming, ammo-sniffing dogs.
“Sounds like fun,” I said, excited to get in the mix.
Only there was a fly in the ointment. We’d have to find the Gun Squad. Based on Cookie’s conversations with other sheriffs and radio chatter, he felt confident that there’d be few obstacles zeroing in on their location. In the meantime, I was getting a street corner by street corner tour of both Cookie’s and Wild Bill’s cop careers. Nearly every driveway and crook in the road came with a story. Domestic violence calls gone wrong. A one-man foot chase down dark alleys with no back up on the way. The constant comparisons and conflicts with the seductive icons of the LAPD—an issue that has plagued LA Sheriffs deputies. In TV and film, LA sheriffs were practically non-existent. If cops were required in the story, writers and producers seemed to always cast the LAPD in their menacing blue-black togs. In real life, the LAPD would often joke that Sheriffs’ green and tan uniforms strongly resembled those worn by park rangers. And now that I was looking closer, I saw they were right.
But it became clear that some LA Sheriffs policed as if they had a chip on the shoulder. Like they had something to prove. And because the county was so massive, the number of cops in sheriffs’ uniforms dwarfed that of the mighty and infamous Los Angeles PD.
Underdogs, I thought. Living in the sun, patrolling the Southland yet in the collective popular conscious, practically invisible. Maybe there was something there.
There was more. Instead of being commanded by a mayoral appointee, the county cops were run by an elected Sheriff who, until recent history, generally ran unopposed and wielded enormous political clout. While LAPD took the media heat for scandal after scandal, the Sheriff and his top brass kept their peace officers out of the limelight and aggressively pursuing street crime.
“It was a great time to be a cop,” remarked Cookie. “We kicked ass and took names.”
“Speaking of kicking ass,” I asked. “Where is this Gun Squad?”
We’d been out in the car for hours already. And the mean streets of gangland were demonstrably quiet. But for a phony call about gunfire at a large quinceanera blowout, the radio hardly squawked.
“What is up with this night?” wondered Wild Bill. “It’s dead out here.”
I joked that maybe crime had decided to take a night off. And that might not be a bad thing for humanity.
After a ten PM lunch of tacos and soda, we ventured back out. With the hot Santa Ana winds came a visibility that was unusually crystalline. There was none of the usual marine layer. From Lynwood, we could see clear beyond the Hollywood Hills to the mountains that walled in the north end of the San Fernando Valley. We could see that the sloping communities of Chatsworth and Sylmar and Stevenson Ranch were on fire. From thirty-five miles away we could see flames licking at the horizon.
A phone call later and the mystery of why we couldn’t find the Gun Squad was solved. In case of environmental emergencies, Sheriffs deputies were often pulled from their usual duty in order to flood the zone which required attention. County cops had been culled from far and wide to protect and assist firefighters and residents in the Valley.
“So there’s fewer cops on the streets,” I logically remarked.
“Way fewer,” said Wild Bill.
“By that logic,” I continued, “on a night when things should be ‘poppin…’”
“Big fight,” said Wild Bill, snapping his fingers. “Pay per view deal, right?”
“So?” I asked.
They went on to explain the phenomena of crime stats plummeting during TV sporting events such as important NBA playoff games and big money prize fights.
“Ah shit,” pissed Wild Bill. “We picked the worst night to show you some fun.”
I assured both Cookie and Wild Bill that my time had hardly been wasted. There was no such thing as bad research. Something about the LA Sheriffs had hooked me. Maybe I could return for another ride.
“Since we’re out here,” offered Cookie. “How about we show him The Wilmington?”
“Some good stories there,” agreed Wild Bill.
“What’s The Wilmington?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” grinned Wild Bill. “Like no place anywhere.”
The New Wilmington Gardens is a public housing project in Compton. Practically disguised to look like an ordinary complex of two-story stucco-faced apartments, it was surrounded by a tall cyclone fence and boasted a newly built guard booth with a reinforced gate.
“So much shit goes down here,” said Cookie, “The state built ‘em a guard stand. Now the state pays the salary so gangs can have a fulltime lookout.”
“So the guard in the booth…?” I asked.
“Calls ahead to say that the Five-Oh is comin’ in,” confirmed Wild Bill.
The gate guard automatically waved at what obviously appeared to be cops touring in an unmarked radio car.
The projects were eerily devoid of much in the way of exterior light sources. As we crept deeper down the drive, doorways and balconies were lit up with cell phones. Incoming and outgoing calls, warning of our intrusion. Every few seconds, somebody would turn away from the car and walk quickly in the opposite direction.
“If they’re walking away from us, they’re probably holding,” said Wild Bill, describing a yet to be started or just completed drug transaction.
“If they’re running,” said Cookie, “They’re packing heat.”
“Not chasin’ nobody tonight,” said Wild Bill. “My ass is retired.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And I’m just a writer. But do they know that?”
“Nope,” chuckled Cookie. “They think you’re poh-leece just like us.”
The driveway jogged right then a ninety-degree left, flowing into a general parking area surrounded by more apartment units.
“Oh shit!” snapped Cookie.
“Fuck a duck,” wheezed Wild Bill.
“What?” I asked, sensing a sudden atmospheric shift in their cool.
“We just stepped in somethin’,” said Cookie. “Is there a vest back there? Shit. You’re not wearing a vest, are you?”
I looked past Cookie and saw what he saw. Shiny cars. A summit of gang-bangin’ bling-mobiles gathered at the center of the parking lot. Headlights on to put some blaze to a clear and present gathering of ghetto bad boys. Sixty-five feet away. Each and every twitch-less face engaged in our exact direction.
This last bit of dialogue I’m guessing at as to whom said it or the order in which things happen. Issues and facts can get confused when stressors reach their near-shattering point:
“Listen. If I tell you got to get down on the floor,” warned Cookie, “Think there’s a gun under your seat. You know how to use it? Shit. If stuff starts happening? Just aim for the windows and keep shooting, okay! You got that?”
Oh yeah. I definitely got that.
Next week, Part 2 of FEELING LUCKY?