Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Twenty Years of Vaudeville and a Pension

My wife's birthday was Monday, and as usual, she coerced me into handing over her gifts a day (or at least a few hours) early. I can't recall whether I've blogged about it before, but my wife has this really annoying habit regarding books. Say I'm enjoying a book, maybe reading her a few excerpts aloud. Then I go to the kitchen to get a can of pop or something, and when I come back, she has my book firmly in her grasp. Worst of all, she doesn't relinquish it until she's finished!

I got even on Sunday night. I gave her several books for her birthday, and one of them was Twenty Years of Vaudeville and a Pension: What Really Happens Behind the Badge, a memoir written by former Chicago cop Richard Solita (for those who don't know, my wife is a Chicago police officer, too). After she opened her gifts (tastefully wrapped in a Barnes & Noble bag), I picked up this book, opened to a random page and started reading. And laughing my butt off. It was a vignette about a robber whose life was saved by his Bible. A storekeeper shot him in the chest, but the Good Book stopped it from penetrating. Alas, the man was dead because the storekeeper also shot him in the head. The punchline was that he should have started reading his Bible instead of just carrying it. I flipped back to the start, and that turned out to be one of the less amusing tales that Solita had to tell.

Solita's 20 years on the force have given him lots of great stories. He works patrol to start, then the gang unit for many years. When things go sour there, he transfers to traffic (hit & run), and in his last few years he gets shuffled around by vindictive bosses. As a patrolman, he has some of the funniest and most absurd experiences. In the gang unit part of his career, he talks more about "real" police work, getting into the nuts and bolts of how he and his partner nailed thugs. He matches wits with gang bangers, FBI guys, supervisors and Internal Affairs investigators. His later years pass quickly in the book as he grows tired of the department.

This book is an addictive page-turner. I never went more than three pages without laughing out loud. Of course, the nature of police work is such that there are lots of bittersweet or tragic moments, too. Solita doesn't ignore common police vices like alcoholism and infidelity; indeed he sometimes trivializes them. He writes about the politics of the job and how you can't get anywhere without a clout (he had one who helped him twice). The only thing that stopped me from reading the book straight through from cover to cover was my late start -- around 4 AM I couldn't concentrate anymore so I went to sleep.

Something that struck me was how much has changed and yet how little. One recurring theme is how the department brass values quantity over quality. They would rather see someone write three moving violations (i.e. speeding, running a stop sign, etc.) than nail one felon. Police had lots more leeway in the old days (Solita started in 1968), but aside from that I could have been hanging out at a bar listening to my wife's co-workers telling me these stories (my wife doesn't really get into that -- I repeat her stories to others more often than she tells them herself). Solita's conversational style rolls along steadily, and the narrative never lags.

Yesterday afternoon I gave my wife's book back to her. This morning I got up at 7 AM because the insulation guys were coming. She was just going to sleep, having spent all night reading Twenty Years of Vaudeville and a Pension. For an excerpt, click here.

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