A couple months ago I wrote an essay for an “Unheard LA” event put on by KPCC, my local NPR affiliate. They broadcast my reading on “Take Two” a week later. It was fun to hear my writing talked about by Larry Mantel and A Martinez, the same voices that comment on world affairs and local news while I cook dinner and drive to work.
My essay was about the day a police officer was killed in my community. I sent the article to one of my writing professors who passed it along to people he knew at the radio station. They were very positive about the piece, which was nice, but uncomfortable too. Being praised for writing about something tragic. A bit like Vonnegut’s comment about every dollar he’s made per person killed in Dresden.
It was fun to tour the radio station, though.
It was exciting to work with my professor, who also presented an essay at the event.
It was scary too, as I have a congenital choking condition when I’m on stage for stuff like this. I was once given the lead to sing in “The Longest Time” for a school event and completely forgot the words. My backup singers continued to hum and snap while I stumbled around the stage searching in vain for the lyrics and my dignity. My ex-girlfriend sat in the audience and smirked.
When rehearsing the essay at the radio station I squeaked and crumbled, which terrified me even more.
The house was packed the night of the performance. The station had overbooked the venue. People stood in the back, in the foyer, out in the hallway. They were all primed for listening. Every hint at a joke by the presenters was welcomed with generous laughter.
I didn’t choke, thankfully. It went about as well as it could have.
There was a standing ovation for all of the performers. Lots of praise from random strangers, which was frankly quite flattering. My mother was there. My wife. My good friend. My professor and his family. It felt like the culmination of something. A moment of grace. All the clichés. Someone even recognized me in town a week later and talked about how much they loved the performance.
But at the expense of a police officer who was shot to death.
The essay was about my complicated feelings regarding Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and the false dichotomies we are sometimes forced to draw based on politics.
I didn’t know at the time that I wrote the piece, but I had, in fact, met the officer a week or so before he was killed.
My next door neighbor had passed away. They found her dead in her apartment a couple weeks after she stopped coming to work. This officer was the first person on the scene. He knocked on my door and asked Columbo questions about the last time I saw her and if she had any friends. He had a mustache. I remember thinking, “Here is an interesting guy. He’s seems goofy. Almost certainly someone’s dad. He tells the kinds of jokes that make kids groan.” I remember him chatting playfully with the detectives and the firefighters outside my window.
In the memorials and reporting about him after his death, it seems that my impression of him was pretty accurate. A nice guy, a good dad, a professional cop killed while investigating a traffic accident. All true.
I hope the discussion does him justice.