Category: Archive

The writer’s beat

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

“He hoped that I would do something more steady than writing, but not quite as steady as police work,” he recalled.
In the end, Conlon opted for both and has become a success at both.
They are his vocations, he said. He doesn’t use the word loosely: he talks of people being “called” to do certain jobs.
Harvard graduate Conlon began with “the Job” as a patrolman in the Bronx at age 30 in 1995, four years after his father’s death.
He’d previously been published in the New Yorker and elsewhere, but his “Cop Diary,” a series of articles written for that magazine under the penname “Maurice Laffey,” marked a breakthrough, drawing as much attention as for its literary style as for its content. He then won a book deal in a much-publicized auction.
Now, five years on, that book has appeared to acclaim. On Sunday, the New York Times reviewer said that although the New York Police Department has been the subject of numerous books, films and TV series, ” ‘Blue Blood,’ in terms of its ambition, its authenticity and the power of its writing, is in a class by itself.”
At the core of “Blue Blood” is Conlon’s own story, but he also meditates at length on the NYPD and its history over the last few decades. And in the course of tracing his family’s law-enforcement lineages, he brings the reader into Irish-American parlors over several generations.
John Conlon hoped his son would find a salaried job in teaching or publishing or advertising. Policing didn’t occur to him for his sons or to them while he was alive. It would not have represented a natural progression for the FBI man who was the son of a laborer for the phone company. He was a first-generation American. His mother, Delia Laffey, the inspiration for the New Yorker penname, set out for America on her own from her County Mayo home as a teenager. She never saw her parents again. (The Conlons were from Sligo. “We see ourselves as being from the West,” the author said.)
Delia Conlon went to Bronx political boss Edward Flynn with the request that he use his influence to get her eldest son, John, into West Point. She felt he’d be safer as an officer in the coming war. When Flynn couldn’t arrange that, she asked again for her next son.
Eventually John Conlon served with the Marines. The most intellectually ambitious of his family, he studied law, became a police officer briefly, before joining the FBI. He was also the guardian of his younger siblings after his parents died at the war’s end.
His brother Eddie, for whom the author was named, was happy to be a beat cop and served with the NYPD for 33 years.
Though the Conlons were “civil service Irish,” he said, on his mother’s side the NYPD tradition goes back almost a century.
His great-grandfather Pat Brown joined the force in 1907 and retired in 1940. When he was a teenager, Conlon stayed over at the house of a friend whose grandfather was a former police commissioner living with the family. He asked the former policeman if he knew Brown. “Sure I knew Pat Brown,” he told him. “He used to carry the bag on Atlantic Avenue.”
The allusion to police corruption delighted the young Conlon. When he relayed the story to his mother, she said simply that times were different then. Not that she wanted to defend her grandfather, who turned up every so often in her early childhood before his death in 1946. Brown had left his wife and three children in near poverty for a better life.
Pictures of him have “a note of elegant menace,” his great-grandson writes in “Blue Blood.” “He looked like the type of character played in movies by Brian Dennehy or Charles Durning, winningly fleshy, light on his feet, and quick with his hands.”
It appears that everyone loved Pat Brown except his blood relatives. Even his son-in-law, Conlon’s German-American grandfather, thought he was quite a character and enjoyed those few moments when he visited his daughter. She remained cool though polite on those occasions.
Brown wore the finest clothes and drove big, flashy cars. He lived at St. George’s Hotel, Brooklyn’s most fashionable. He was friends with William O’Dwyer, later mayor of New York. He retired to the horse room, where bets were collected from the track. After his death, his partner in the operation ran afoul of the law.
Brown was a member of Catholic lay organizations. When his wife died, he was free to remarry. The family kept in contact with the woman after his death, and Conlon recounts visiting her as a child with his mother.
Conlon says that his great-grandfather’s reputation might have survived over time if his family had loved him. He was, after all, a crooked cop when most people gambled and drank illegally. “[B]ut their private antipathy colored their view of Pat Brown as a public servant,” he writes.
Two of his three children had unhappy lives. The other, the only one who talked to him, Conlon’s grandmother, was happily married. The Trust family, being Famine descendants, and part German, were more Catholic than Irish, the author said.
Conlon speculates that his father married his mother, who was 15 years his junior, because her family seemed so happy. And they themselves had a very happy marriage.
Conlon went to the Jesuit Regis High School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he experienced an interesting remnant of the New York Irish story — Yorkville’s 84th Street Gang
“They were mostly Irish guys, who tried with mixed success to beat up the eggheads, which means rich kids [to them] from Regis,” he remembered. “But the great thing about Regis was there might be kids from Scarsdale but there were also some from Bensonhurst and Bed-Stuy. A lot of times they [the 84th Street Gang] got more than they bargained for.”
After Harvard, where he studied English, Conlon got a job as an elevator operator on Fifth Avenue. He worked also as a copy boy at a Xerox machine.
“I wanted to write, so I did everything,” he said.
He then stumbled into a job in criminal justice.
“I’ve a cousin who’s a nun who knew a priest named James Joyce, who knew a woman who ran a alternatives to incarceration program,” he said.
He wrote up defendants’ life histories that would make the case for them not doing jail time.
“My favorite kid, I lost the case,” he recalled. He did time, but following up years later, Conlon discovered that the former youthful offender got a PhD and is living with his wife and children in Maryland.
Conlon’s criminal defense work brought him into contact with street life.
And his freelance work in writing always seemed to involve crime in some way. “The first piece I wrote was about riding around with a good friend of mine who was a transit cop,” he said.
For years he wondered if he would ever make a living as a writer. Then an idea began to take hold.
“In talking to them [police officers] about ‘the Job,’ I found nobody loved their job the way they did,” he said. “So I said, ‘What the hell, I’ll get a job that I like, and write on my own time.'”
He said he has no routine. “I wish I did. The great thing about deadlines is they make you work when you don’t necessarily feel like it,” he said.
A police officer works two nights, two days and two off. Doing the book, he wrote every day, except when working day tours. Police officers don’t get paid much, but do have generous vacation time, and that has helped, he said.
“At the best of times, you can only write two or three hours a day,” he said. “It is a tough life.”
On the law enforcement front, Conlon proved to be an aggressive and enthusiastic policeman. Ethics aside, he found that a good cop is one who loves his job.
He said you go to someone’s front door and get a story. “What’s better than that?” he asked.
Much of his time has been spent in the area of narcotics. His favorite cop movie, “The French Connection,” showed that type of police work at different levels.
“I did both the little local-guy precinct narcotics team where you just run around with your friends and watch people, [and] the more sophisticated wiretap and undercover stuff,” he recalled.
He particularly enjoyed the camaraderie of the precinct teamwork before his promotion to detective.
“You have to be able to trust one another,” he said.
The team was mixed ethnically. “You had the Irish guy, the Italian, the Jamaican, the Puerto Rican,” he said.
He believes the time of the Irish has passed, will always be passing and has always been passing.
“The Irish have a nostalgic way about them, and I’m sure from the 1860s they were talking about it’s not the way it used to be,” he said.
For now he has no plans to leave the NYPD. “I’m definitely keeping my day job,” he said. But he adds that he’s never been good at predicting the future.
“When I was doing precinct narcotic stuff, I thought my whole team would go with me to narcotics, and they didn’t,” Conlon said. “I thought I’d go to vice and I didn’t. I thought I’d work with the commissioner and I didn’t.”
And things looked good on the crime front in the period before Sept. 11, 2001.
“We thought we could declare victory and go home,” he said. Now police work has a new dimension. “Your eyes are opened in ways they weren’t before,” he added.
Asked if any he would have a difficulty if any of his children wanted to be a cop, he said: “You wonder. You never know what the world is going to be like. You never know what’s going to be right for them.”

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