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General Interest, Short Story, Uncategorized

OLD SLIP STATION, HIPPY COPS, A BLACKSMITH, AND THE ROOSEVELT DESK

It was 1972, when 205 Mulberry Street was Building Maintenance headquarters for The New York City Police Department, and Police Headquarters was a few bocks away at 240 Center Street, a building whose purpose had outgrown it, and was in the process of being replaced by the nearly-completed 1 Police Plaza.

I was 19 and working in the carpenter shop at 205, a temporary job working for the City of New York, but funded with Federal money, and a position I got via nepotism. My old man was the Chief Engineer of the Police Department, responsible for the HVAC systems of the NYPD’s more than 100 buildings. I worked with two master cabinetmakers, Carl and Tony, who were mostly exasperated with me, but very good teachers once they figured out that the more I did, the less they had to do.

Since they both hated making fingerprint cabinets, that’s the first thing they taught me to do, once they were satisfied I wouldn’t chop off any major limbs while operating the various saws, joiners, drills, lathes and sanders. 

So I wound up making a lot of fingerprint cabinets, flip-top affairs that were bolted to the wall where you lifted the cover and found the roller pad attached to the surface, and pigeonhole compartments beneath them for the standard fingerprint blotter forms, spare squirt bottles of ink, and the solvent that was supposed to, but didn’t quite, remove the ink from your fingertips.

Perhaps some of you with some years under your belt were once fingerprinted on one my my fingerprint cabinets after some youthful indiscretion? You would not forget the experience if you did. Unlike today’s digital touch screen process, getting fingerprinted was dirty and time consuming, so much so that you really knew you were in deep shit when an officer went to the trouble to fingerprint you.

Another thing Carl and Tony were sick of making were map boards, so they taught me how to make the aluminum frames for either plywood or foam board backing, proper glueing techniques and the like. There was a busy map-making department in Police Headquarters for the entire department, filled with special printing machines, and they would deliver them to us rolled up in tubes and attached to a work order, with their part of it checked off.

Since police departments of big cities are run by guys in suits looking at maps of the places where the guys in uniforms are assigned, we made all manner and sizes of maps, from the ever-popular pin maps to the fancy ones of the entire city in every Precinct House. Detective Squads also required lots of maps, as did patrol commanders, so I was busy.

Between fingerprint cabinets and map boards, I welcomed assignments out in the field that got me learning new things from other tradesmen, as well as seeing different neighborhoods in the city, the field being the Police Precinct Houses in Lower Manhattan, and Police Headquarters itself, a domed Italian Renaissance palace that was a throwback to the grandiose official architecture of the Tammany Hall days of New York City.

The 4th Precinct (now the 1st Precinct) was pretty cool, an old House on Varick Street that had once been part horse stable, as were most of the older Precinct Houses, and was featured in many a movie and TV show as your prototypical older NYPD precinct house. It is a beautiful old building, built to last, and designed and built by the same architectural firm that build Police HQ on Center Street, both at super exorbitant prices in order to accommodate all the official graft and kickbacks that ruled NYC politics of the day.

The actual horse stable for lower Manhattan in the 1970s was in Chinatown on Baxter Street, where I was assigned to help install new creosote-soaked oak floorboards and stall partitions, which need to be replaced regularly due to the horses stamping and kicking in their stalls, and the acid content of horse urine. 

Police horses are massive creatures, chosen not only for their size but for their intelligence, as horses go, since New York’s Mounted Units were often deployed in very sensitive crowd-control situations. Horses frighten a lot of people, and people frighten a lot of horses, so both the animals and their riders had to be special. The reason I was pulled out of the shop and into the field was because one of the carpenters assigned to Lower Manhattan was deathly afraid of horses and so was never assigned to Baxter Street.

Having grown up in Brooklyn’s Bergen Beach just a couple of blocks away from 3 horse stables, I was not afraid of horses. They were a familiar sight in our neighborhood and the stables were magnets for little boys begging for a ride or the chance to help groom and feed a horse. I first started admiring Mounted Cops and their horses as a little boy when they patrolled Coney Island, looking so regal in the saddle, like giant mounted knights to little kids, and pretty much never changed my opinion of them.

The Blacksmith for Baxter Street was an older Irish immigrant named Tom who told me the title Blacksmith was among the oldest job titles in NYC Civil Service, and he was one of perhaps a dozen left. I had seen blacksmiths at work at the riding academies near my house, and they were huge men who seemed as strong as the horses they shod, and were loud and profane characters.

Tom was on the short side for a Blacksmith and kind of quiet for an Irishman, and was well past 60, but had a thick and solid torso and powerful Popeye The Sailor Man forearms as well as the gait of a sailor, which he said was courtesy of being a Blacksmith’s Mate in the US Navy in the 1920s and 1930s, when Navy ships squired horse-mounted US Marines to America’s South American interventionist wars.

Mounted cavalry required the services of a blacksmith, so Tom wound up seeing many a Banana Republic before a single international hotel chain or oil derrick soiled their pristine shores. “There were beautiful cities surrounded by paradise for the most part, and the people there were wonderful, gentle as lambs. Anything would grow in these places too, and it was nigh impossible to starve, so I never knew what all the fighting was about. I just tended to the horses and drank rum with the Marines until Uncle Sam pulled us out.”

“All you could hope for was your friends didn’t get hurt, or your horses, and that the Navy would send you someplace for a different reason than fighting some Generalissimo’s war. I left the Navy in ’33 and came home to work for the NYPD, where me brother Ewan was Chief of Mechanics, the only way I managed to stay a Smithy, or employed at all in 1933. Never thought I’d last here all these years…”

But there he was, shoeing horses for New York’s Finest, and knowing every mounted cop by name and every horse’s name too, and how best to deal with every one of them and soothe them when they were stressed, whether on four legs or two. Tom was a man comfortable with himself and was comfortable company, especially considering he was a walking anachronism. Not that Blacksmiths were nonexistent in the 1970s, but close enough, and there are even fewer today.

You know how you wonder about people you see all the time on the subway, wondering what they do? I bet no one guessed they were commuting with a Police Horse Blacksmith every day. Just like few people would have guessed what some of the cops did at nearby Old Slip Station, then the 1st Precinct. Old Slip was also the headquarters for the NYPD Undercover Squad, an entire Command of cops who did not look like cops.

Some looked like long haired hippies, some like slick-dressed mobsters, depending on who they were trying to infiltrate, and their captain looked like a sidewalk hotdog vendor. The cars parked outside were Volkswagen Beetles with flower decals or gaudy Cadillacs instead of the standard-issue Fords. Old Slip was the only precinct I worked at where no one remarked about my own long hair and unconventional wardrobe. At other precincts I had been subject to abuse and often forced to produce my ID because of my appearance.

That was not unusual at all for 1972, when cultural tensions were running very high over issues like war, race, drugs, music, hair, clothing, politics, art and sex (which covers pretty much all human experience), with fiery clashes between generations commonplace. I was a long haired Rock & Roller rattling around a police department dominated by the Old Guard during a time of big changes in America, and big changes for the Department as well in the wake of the Knapp Commission, which swept out a lot of corruption following the Serpico affair and other major scandals.

The biggest change was Police Headquarters itself, with Boss Tweed’s Beaux Arts palace giving way to the modern 1 Police Plaza, a large imposing building right beside the Brooklyn Bridge and across from City Hall. Of course this meant emptying out Center Street, as HQ was called by everyone in the NYPD, and that entailed less than one would imagine since the new and the modern awaited, so the furniture was for the most part up for grabs once the artwork and important files were removed.

After the transfer was complete, I found myself in the nearly deserted building assigned to a crew that was tasked with saving anything worth sending to Precinct Houses, like office furniture, fans, tables, wastebaskets, fire extinguishers, lamps, equipment cabinets, etc. We were given green labels for the movers to identify good stuff, and every police precinct in the city would get to call dibs on at least some of it.

The rest of it would be consigned to one of those companies that empty the contents of great buildings into dumpsters to prepare them for renovation and/or sale. One of the things left behind in a big upstairs office was a great big roll-top desk with a bunch of drawers and pigeonholes, with a canvas-backed oak slat roller that worked perfectly. It was beat up by long use, but solid and still 100% functional.

I asked about it and one of the guys who had worked in Center Street forever called it “The Roosevelt Desk.” The what? I asked. I knew Teddy Roosevelt had been on the NYC Police Commission in the 1880s, but Center Street was built in 1905, and no way could that be his desk since he was President of the United States in 1905.

“I never said it was for sure, only that’s what I was told, that it came over here from the previous HQ and that it had been Teddy Roosevelt’s. So maybe it was or maybe it wasn’t, but that’s what we always called it, the Roosevelt Desk. And now it’s garbage…”

Well, it wasn’t garbage, I decided. I called my cousin Michelle’s boyfriend Johnny Vigilante who grew up around the corner from me and owned a van, and he was kind enough to back it up to the loading dock at the erstwhile Police Headquarters the next afternoon, and suddenly I was the proud new owner of the Roosevelt Desk. After we wrestled it into to his van in two pieces I was making all sorts of plans to refinish it and restore it to its former glory, with perhaps a drop darker stain.

I was all of 19 with a very pregnant wife at home, and I excitedly told her all about our new piece of furniture and how it would fit perfectly in that corner of the living room. Linda did not share my enthusiasm, and wondered why we needed an antique roll-top desk, Roosevelt or no Roosevelt. I said it would be fun to refinish it, she said no that’s not fun at all. I said we could turn it into a TV/stereo stand, she said we already have those things.

Anyway, our arguments were rendered moot once Johnny and I arrived with the desk the next day. Try as we may, the thing would not fit through our apartment doorway, even after removing the door, and leaving it in the vestibule was only a temporary solution. Johnny didn’t want it any more than Linda did so he left us to our dilemma.

Several phone calls later we had a taker, my sister Nancee’s boyfriend Richie, who offered us 50 bucks for the desk if I helped him load it on his pickup truck. Deal, I said, and by 9 o’clock that night I saw the last of the Roosevelt Desk. Of course it’s very possible that I called it exactly that when I might have told Richie it really did once belong to Teddy Roosevelt. After all, I wasn’t certain is wasn’t Teddy’s desk, and really needed to get it out of my vestibule. 

Anyway, I didn’t work for the NYPD much longer since the Federal program ended after a couple of years and I moved on with my life. So did my sister, who dumped Richie before he unveiled his refinished desk, and so did the New York City Police Department. 240 Center Street is now condominiums, the Baxter Street Stable is an upscale eatery and Old Slip Station is now the NYPD Museum, giving up its prestigious 1st Precinct name to the erstwhile 4th Precinct.

As far as The Roosevelt Desk, I hope it’s being used by someone who truly appreciates it, it really was a fine old piece of craftsmanship.

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