We made our way up the three flights of stairs to the filthy apartment we called home on River Street. It was 1992 and I was eleven years old. My three siblings were younger, but not by a lot. We were all children, I just happened to be the oldest.
We piled into the kitchen, throwing our backpacks and books and coats onto the cracked and stained linoleum, yelling for our mother. She wasn’t home, but none of us were really concerned because that wasn’t exactly out of the norm. After about a half an hour of unsuccessfully rummaging around in the cupboards for snacks, talking amongst ourselves, and attending to our own needs, I decided that we needed to do something. Mom was somewhere else, and we needed to keep ourselves occupied until she got home. There would be chaos otherwise. An apartment full of a bunch of kids that had just sat still the majority of the day was not an orderly place.
In my infinite eleven-year-old-wisdom, I decided we were going to go to the Lewiston Mall.
It wasn’t exactly a long walk, but it wasn’t really a short walk either. Maybe just under two miles, give or take. For us, it was an adventure – and, as I had desired, it kept us occupied. We talked about school, we chased each other through the old Androscoggin mill – full of large rusty pipes to walk through – and we strolled up the length of Lisbon Street, playing on people’s lawns in what we considered the “nice” part of town. We were dirty, we were rowdy, we were Lewiston kids.
When we arrived at the mall, we walked through the Sears entrance at the back and made our way through the various stores, often being ushered out by impatient employees. They knew we were loose and unsupervised and potential thieves. In Ames, a department store of the time, we roamed the toy section, looking at things we would never own, but which we coveted all the same. That’s when things unraveled.
My brother Gary, who was three years younger than me at eight years old, decided to tease us. He began to run away from me and tell me to come get him. I could sense things going downhill, so I gathered my other two siblings and we tried to leave, hoping he would follow. Gary wouldn’t come with us. Every time we tried to leave with him, he would rush back into the aisles, giggling and running around corners just before we could catch him. Finally, in anger and tired of the chase, I said loudly “Okay, Gary! We’re going to leave you here! Bye!”
With that, we started walking.
I knew that Gary knew the way back, and I hoped that he would just run after us. But after finally arriving home, Gary didn’t show up. At least not for almost a half an hour. When he did, he was bawling his eyes out, his face red and puffy and tear-streaked. A tall police officer trailed just behind him, cautiously peering up at me as he ascended the stairs behind Gary. Gary was just a kid, and when he had become worried about being left behind – he found himself a police officer for help.
My heart began to hammer in my chest.
I had a phobia of police officers at the time. To me, they were a constant threat in my life. Mysterious, dangerous, and seemingly unchecked. When I was just four years old, I had seen a team of five or six officers roughly detain my mother as I looked on in horror – as she screamed, they threw her around, often slamming her face against the floor, and then after unceremoniously taking her away, they left me in the care of a stranger for a day or two until my mom was released from jail. The experience had stayed with me, and I’d had even more bad experiences after that, with police officers crashing through our door, guns drawn, arresting everyone in sight. Shouting. Screaming. Now here there was a police officer walking up our stairs, soon to discover that our mother was not home. My heart pounded even harder.
“Where’s your parents?” The officer asked as he dipped inside our apartment, Gary running bawling into the next room. The officer’s eyes flitted to the unwashed dishes in the sink, to the messy floors, to our dirty clothes.
“She’s at a friend’s,” I said, voice quavering. I wasn’t sure what to say in this situation. My breathing became shallow, my hands clammy.
As the officer then began to say things into his radio, I heard him say some things that were damning even to me, when I was only eleven years old. “….Bunch of kids….mess…parents aren’t here…“. I only caught choice words being spoken, but I knew that we were increasingly headed toward something bad, something none of us wanted. My mind reeled.
At that moment, impossibly, my mother appeared – shambling up the stairs and more drunk than we’d seen her in a couple of weeks. The officer regarded her trying to walk up the steps. He watched in silence as she struggled with each step, slurring out demands from us before she’d even seen the officer at the top, waiting for her.
“M’aam,” he said, sternly. “Where’ve you been? Your kids have been alone for a few hours?”
She looked surprised to see the officer. Her drunk eyes darted to each one of us, as if we’d betrayed her.
“No, no, no…” she said. She made her way to the top step and set her bag down. “I was just at my friend’s house for a little bit until they got out of school.” Her words were slurred into an almost-indecipherable mess. “They were fine.”
“M’aam,” he said again. There was anger in his voice. “Are you drunk? I can smell it on your breath.”
“No,” she said, weakly. “I just…just had a couple.”
There was a long and seemingly drawn-out silence as the officer regarded her, contemplating what to do. A lump formed in the back of my throat. My siblings began playing in the kitchen. I went back and tried to tell them to be quiet. Within seconds, the officer stepped into the kitchen and cleared his throat. We all stopped what we were doing and stared at him.
“Okay. Kids? I’m going to need you to grab some clothes. You’re coming with me.”
Our mother broke into a scream, and launched herself into a chair at our cluttered kitchen table, loose with old cans and bottles, and multiple ashtrays. She put her head down on the table and sobbed in desperation.
We all retreated into our rooms. My breathing sped up again, and I paced in front of my drawers. I half-rummaged through my clothes. The officer was now telling my mother that it was her own fault, and was lecturing her on the finer points of being sober and not endangering her children.
I thought about going with the officer, of being separated from my siblings, of leading a life different than the one I knew, the one I was comfortable with at the time. Something within me broke. I screamed in rage, tears pouring out from my eyes and down my cheeks.
My brother Gary watched as I turned over a nearby trash can, emptying its contents on the already-dirty floor. A roach scurried away. I hefted the can over my head and I stomped out into the kitchen, screaming.
“GET OUT!” I shouted at the police officer.
He backed up, unsure what to do initially. My mother kept crying. She was lost in her own guilt and despair, hindered by the effects of alcohol in her effort to fight for us.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. His hand lingered near his gun, but then came up and he held both palms outstretched at me.
“GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE,” I screamed. I screamed some more. I shook the trash can above my head for emphasis. I began to sob. “GET…..OUT! WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE!”
The officer remained calm, lowering his tone of voice to be soothing.
“Hey, now,” he said. “Listen. Just talk to me a minute. Put the trash can down. What’s your name?”
“Joe,” I mumbled.
“Joe, nice to meet you. My name is Officer Wallace. My friends call me ‘Hammer’. Can you please just put that trash can down and talk to me? I’m not going to hurt you.”
I hesitated. He took off his hat, revealing a bald head.
“See this? Everyone tells me that I look like Bull from Night Court. You ever see that show?”
I involuntarily smirked, sniffled. My “weapon” lowered. I started to cry.
“There,” he said. “See, now I just want to make sure you guys are okay. I am worried about you.”
“We’re fine,” I said. “We don’t want to leave.”
“Okay, all right. But this isn’t okay.” He pointedly looked at my mother, who had looked up, though her face was hidden behind her hands. “Your mother shouldn’t be getting so drunk like this and leaving you guys.”
I stayed silent.
“Now, if I leave you here – will you make sure to call me if she does this again?”
I shook my head emphatically. My other siblings were all crying now behind me.
The officer bent down, pulled out a baseball-style card with his image on it. “This is my card,” he said. “You call and ask for me if you need me, okay Joe?”
“Now, let me just talk to your mother a moment,” he said. We complied and went into my room, closing the curtains. We heard his voice and some more of my mother crying. Eventually, he left us and for a long while, the only sounds coming from the kitchen were sobs of regret and anger.
When my mother called for me to come into the kitchen, I was expecting a thank you. I had helped make it so that we weren’t taken away. What I wasn’t expecting was the beating I got from her, and the verbal abuse. After all, it was ultimately my fault that the officer had come to the house, wasn’t it?
I never did call on Officer Hammer, but I often thought about him whenever I saw Bull on Night Court with his bald head and tall stature.