Sometimes we’d play a game. He’d name an old song and I’d have to say who sang it.
“Tears on My Pillow,” he’d say with just a hint of that Arkansas drawl. “Easy,” I’d say. “Little Anthony and the Imperials.” He’d smile and nod and on it would go. Sometimes out of nowhere, apropos of nothing as Sheryl Crow would say, he would look square at me with no facial expression and say, “In the Still of the Night.” I’d bite my lower lip. “The Satins”? He’d nod slightly and smile, like it was a math quiz and I was solving complex equations.
He was a cop named Alex Roy and I was reporter. It was 1974. The Arabs were squeezing our oil and economy was in the worst recession since the Great Depression. Gold was $800 an ounce. A local car dealer sold brand new 1974 Chevrolets for $1,700 in pre-1964 silver coins. I was single and like Billy Joel said, I ate a lot of late night drive-in food and drank a lot of take-home pay.
Alex was a detective back when it meant a lot of walking and talking and squeezing local snitches for information. DNA comparisons didn’t exist yet and neither did CSI, NCIS, computerized crime labs, or huge national data bases of information. Detectives still examined fingerprints under magnifying glasses, categorizing them manually by whorls and bifurcations.
Detective work meant knowing who drove what kind of car and where it shouldn’t be parked and who might be in it. It was knowing who liked to use a .38 and who preferred a 9mm and who wore a ski mask and who creeped houses by breaking a window and then waiting outside to see if anyone called the cops. Al Piske was the best detective you never heard of.
Pike kept exhaustive physical and mental files of who lived where, who hung around with whom, and who drove what kind of car. Who knew all the nicknames, and made notes what car was parked where at what time of the day when he drove through the darkened streets of Elgin on the night shift. When crimes occurred, other cops went to the scene but Pike looked for who wasn’t where he usually was and solved more cases on sheer detective work than anyone could ever appreciate.
The bad guys had nicknames like Gump and Strawman and Tic-Tac and they weren’t really bad guys, just adversaries to be picked off a city street and reminded how small the cells are in Joliet. They were clever but not too clever and as I think about it most of them ended up dead before they got old, victims of the street and the death-wish lives they led.
I was in the last generation of reporters who could walk right into the detective bureau at any time of the day or night and guys would look up from fingerprint analysis or mug shots and nod like I was just another cop coming to work. We’d shoot the breeze as beat cops brought in sad-eyed losers beaten down to nothing by a soulless life over which they had no control.
I knew all the guys and they knew me. And we skirted the sadness and despair with an immunity like doctors to disease. Sometimes if I worked at night, I’d ride in the unmarked car with Alex and we’d play that song game, sliding down tree-lined streets and melting into the night like so much of the shadows around us. I always forgot Fontella Bass.
Like all friendships, ours changed over the years. We played a lot of poker in his basement and I coached his kids in sports. He went back on the street and I became an editor and I didn’t see him that much until one day, he retired and moved to Arkansas and I never saw him again. One Sunday he sat on his couch to watch the football game and fell asleep.
His wife said he just never woke up. He was 60. We all know we’re going to die but we never really believe it. It’s over that horizon far from here on a day when everything we hoped would be has been and everything we hoped to do is done. But it never happens that way. So we make jokes about it or write songs about it (J. Frank Wilson, “Last Kiss.” Finally remembered that one Alex.)
The other night PBS had a special called “Doo Wop, Rhythm and Blues” or something similar and it was a live performance of all the old 50s and 60s singing groups. Many of them were balding and paunchy, wrinkled and tired but still powerful if only in nostalgia.
One after another they sang their famous hits like “Peppermint Twist,” “Lightning’s Striking Again” (Lou Christie, still in the falsetto with thinning hair). I missed Little Richard and I wondered if he still had a pompadour. Back-up vocals still swayed gently, snapping fingers while singing, “Shoo-wap, dooby-do.” I smiled, sitting in my living room chair, thinking of the past like all the other middle-aged baby boomers.
It wasn’t the songs that were precious but the memories of what we were doing when we heard those songs many years ago. Where were we in our lives when Lou Christie sang or the Delfonics or the Drifters? And, of course, I thought of Alex, my friend who was savant at old songs, sitting next to me in another time and another place when we both had our whole lives in front of us and didn’t yet have any regrets.