To get in the true spirit of the Christmas holiday, some people go to church, some people go to the homes of family and friends, and some people go out and shop.
Me? I go to cop bars.
Cops are great storytellers. Perhaps its because they observe a segment of life that’s dramatic, tragic and funny. Perhaps its also because they spend so much time cruising on patrol that they’ve had the time to develop and hone their story-telling skills.
As a writer, I’ve talked to cops in station houses, in patrol cars, on the street and in bars. I’ve listened to their concerns, prideful boasts and sorrowful confessions. I’ve accompanied cops on patrol and witnessed them handle insane, intoxicated and incongruous citizens. I’ve observed how they console crime victims and their families. I’ve seen how they cope with the aftermath of criminal violence and man’s inhumanity to man. And I’ve come to appreciate their black humor, which like military humor, is a necessary safety valve to get them through the bad times.
I especially like to frequent cop bars during the holiday season and listen to cops at their very best. Some cops gather at bars after work to relax, drink and tell their stories. At this time of year, they are in very good spirits, a bit happier, a bit giddier and a bit more talkative.
Cops are generally in good spirits despite the fact that the holiday season is a busy one for them. It’s a sad commentary, but the holiday season is a peak time for crime. Criminals certainly love the holiday season, but not for spiritual or sentimental reasons. It’s simply a time of grand opportunity. And criminals certainly don’t take a Christmas vacation. As joyous and hopeful people go out to worship, shop, dine and visit family and friends, criminal predators go out and pickpocket, shoplift, mug, steal and burglarize.
My recent columns in a local newspaper covered the annual Christmas crime spree and over the years I’ve reported on and chronicled a good number of crime stories during the holidays. I recall covering the story of a do-gooder delivering toys to needy families who was viciously assaulted and robbed. Another story concerned two kids playing with their Christmas gift, a paint ball gun, when an irate neighbor came out and shot them with a real gun.
One year while out on patrol with the cops, I came upon a young couple who had started out drinking and getting high for the holidays and ended up with one murdering the other. I once covered a story about a man with a car full of gifts who ran into a store for a pack of cigarettes. He came out to no car, no gifts and no Merry Christmas that year.
I’ve covered an assortment of other stories about armed robberies, thefts, purse snatchings and other crimes during the holidays as well.
Despite the crime and tragedies I’ve seen, I still love the Christmas season. I love the lights and decorations, the hustle and bustle and all of the trimmings. I love Christmas music and often sing along, although admittedly off-key.
This particular year, even more than others in the past, I was in very good spirits, having recently recovered from severe spine and nerve damage that crippled me and caused God-awful pain. I spent several months in the hospital and convalescing at home. I’ve suffered with a bad back for many years, dating back to my years as an amateur boxer and playing other sports, and as a young sailor working on a U.S. Navy tugboat and an aircraft carrier. The build-up of damage to my poor back finally took its toll and crippled me.
The doctors at the hospital ruled that I was not a surgical candidate, determining that any operation would be too risky. As I was deathly afraid of surgery (pun intended), this diagnosis suited me fine. So they loaded me up with wonder drugs and placed me in physical thereby. The physical therapists, trained by Saddam Hussein’s secret police, I suspect, got me to my feet and ran me through a series of painful but ultimately beneficial exercises.
When I initially collapsed during the summer in my bedroom, I thought the searing pain in my groin and back was akin to being shot with a high-powered rifle. My wife called 911 and the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Rescue Paramedics rushed me to the hospital. Despite being in great pain, I managed to joke with the attending doctors and nurses that first night in the hospital.
This is the most painful day of my life, I told them - and I’ve been to Vietnam.
And I’m married.
And I have a teenage daughter.
I got a few laughs, which helped to lighten my pain. A ham to the end. In addition to the fine medical professionals who cared for me, it was my wonderful wife and family - who were often the brunt of my jokes and asides – who helped me through the worst time of my adult life.
Within the period of five months, I went from being bed-ridden in great pain, to twirling around the hospital halls in a wheelchair, to walking a few painful steps with a walker, to finally walking into a cop’s bar aided by a cane this fine Christmas season.
I’d recovered sufficiently enough to go out and stop by Johnny Drum’s Bar & Grill, a great little cop’s bar in South Philly. I had a lot to be thankful for this year and I visited Johnny’s place expecting to run into some lively characters that felt likewise.
I was somewhat disappointed to first encounter Sgt. John Snyder at the bar. Snyder was known as one mean cop. He was of average height, a bit stocky and had a large, pan-shaped head topped with thinning dark hair. He was an unhappy, gruff and miserable man. A cop once made the comment that Snyder "barked" rather than spoke.
I recall previous Christmas seasons when Snyder would be at the end of the bar by himself, miserly nursing his drink. In addition to being foul-tempered, Snyder was a notorious cheapskate.
"Merry Christmas, Ebenezer," I’d greet him in jest during those holiday visits. "Bah, humbug," he’d respond, playing along begrudgingly with my take on Charles Dickens’ classic holiday story, A Christmas Carol. I joked around, but in truth he was truly as mean-spirited as Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge.
Sgt. Snyder was widely known as "The Cop Who Busted Santa Claus." As the often-told story goes, Snyder pulled over a man dressed as Santa on a Christmas Eve. Observing that that the red-suited, false-bearded man was slightly inebriated, Snyder promptly placed him under arrest. He slapped the handcuffs on the man and then had had his car towed. The tow truck took the car, despite the jolly old soul’s somewhat slurred pleas that his car – a modern-day sleigh - was full of toys destined for children at an orphanage. A crowd had gathered on the street and booed the police officer’s actions. He cursed them and threatened to lock them all up.
"And a Merry, Merry Christmas to you as well," one bystander sarcastically remarked.
More holiday-spirited police officials quickly released the man dressed as Santa. The man, outraged by his treatment, promptly called a TV station and told his story. The mayor, the police commissioner and other police brass were not happy with the lead news story run on Christmas Day. The national press picked up the story and this did not help Philadelphia’s image. "The Cop Who Busted Santa Claus" complemented an earlier story of Philadelphia sport fans pelting Santa with snowballs.
A cop once told me that Snyder had him out walking on South Street on a very cold and windy Christmas Eve night. Snyder sternly ordered the beat cop not to hang out in a store, sucking up heat, coffee and merriment. Of course, the cop quickly escaped the bitter wind and cold and stepped into a shoe store for hot chocolate and conversation with the store owner and customers.
When the cop looked out through the store window and saw Snyder’s car roll down South Street, he stepped out and stood in front of the store, shivering. "Have you been hiding in a store?" Sgt. Snyder barked. "No, of course not" the cop told him. "Although it is really cold out here, Sarge."
Snyder placed his bare hand on the cop’s badge and found the metal to be nearly as warm as the hot chocolate in the beat cop’s stomach.
The chastened police officer told every cop, everybody, the story. "Do you believe it? The SOB chewed me out on Christmas Eve!"
There were also tales of Snyder locking up kids whose only crime was being merry. Sgt. Snyder was a one-man crime-fighting machine during the holiday season, targeting not thieves and crooks, but rather the people whose only crime was to be too joyous.
To his credit he still talked to me despite the two negative stories I wrote about him in the past. One of my columns covered "The Cop Who Busted Santa Claus" and I wrote another that dealt with Snyder’s arrest of a honeymooning couple who were visiting the Italian Market. Their crime? The happy couple, who were married on Christmas Eve, asked the good sergeant to pose with them for a photo. He didn’t like their attitude and placed them under arrest for disorderly conduct.
But this year, as I approached him at the bar, I saw that Snyder was clearly a changed man. Over a few drinks, he told me why.
A day earlier the gruff sergeant responded to the call of a residential burglary. The victim told the responding officers that among the stolen valuables were his military awards and other mementos of the Iraq War. He told Snyder that he had just returned from Iraq as a medically discharged soldier due to combat wounds.
"Who’d steal this stuff?" he asked Snyder. "Who would steal children’s toys at Christmas?"
The burglars stole the gift-wrapped presents from under the Christmas tree. The young former soldier was saddened by the loss of his gifts to his wife and children. He said he was not insured and he could not afford to buy new gifts. Snyder, the well-known mean, jaded and cynical cop, was truly touched by this young veteran who had just returned from war.
Snyder felt empathy for someone for the first time in many years. He thought back to his own return from Vietnam so many years before. He recalled how he then yearned to become a cop. He also yearned to marry his high school sweetheart and to have kids with her. He accomplished all that he set out to do, and now, in the midst of a crime scene, he wondered why it had all soured for him.
He marriage suffered from his penny-pinching, his chronic petty complaints, and his foul temper. His wife finally drew up the courage to throw him out of the house one night after he came home drunk, mean and violent. He would never hit her or the kids, he assured me, but he often gave the inanimate objects in the house a real good beating.
The kids, grown now and on their own, rarely spoke to him. He thought of them as he watched the veteran’s children. The sight of these kids, sitting close together on the couch, perhaps wondering if the crooks would come back, if Santa were coming now, or whether Jesus still loved them, broke Snyder’s heart.
Snyder made the rounds of the local veteran’s organizations the next day and told the story of the veteran who had been victimized. He collected a good bit of money from the veterans, from his fellow police officers and he personally donated a large sum himself. Having secured the list of stolen items from South Detectives, he ventured to the stores and purchased nearly all of the stolen items.
He also called his wife, sweet-talked her, told her he was a changed man and asked her to accompany him when, like Santa Claus, he would deliver the replacement gifts to the veteran and his family.
He was truly beaming as he told me this Christmas crime story. I had never seen him smile before.
He told me how the veteran’s kids were so happy they cried. The veteran was embarrassed, but thankful. Snyder explained that his fellow veterans and the local cops wanted to help him and his family.
By helping the veteran, Snyder recalled the true meaning of Christmas. He felt the joy of giving, of goodness and loving - even in a cruel and sometimes evil world.
"I have to run," he said, finishing up his story and beer, "I’m celebrating Christmas with my wife, my kids and all of my grand kids."
Before he left, Snyder, to everyone’s astonishment but mine, bought a round for the house.
"Merry Christmas to one and all," he barked.
Note: The above short story originally appeared in the Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine in 2003.