Monday, December 1, 2008

Staying Safe

The further I got from work this morning, riding home through the crisp air of a developing cold front, the closer to tears I got. Caught up in the business of work it was easier to keep a lid on my emotions but I ran, no exaggeration, from the city this morning. I legged it down the stairs across the lobby and onto the Triumph, grateful for its speed, though it has no horsepower compared to Keith's pride and joy. Police officers part company at the end of each shift with the injunction to "stay safe," an acknowledgement that some days someone somewhere is out to get you, and survival is a thing to be treasured. Other days the gremlins that take up residence in the cold dark places in the back of your mind are the insidious enemy of safety, not the crowds on the streets.
Keith and Daxo featured on Canine Extreme.
When Keith's room mate called at three this morning to tell us the county was sending help because he had tried to take his own life the entire universe shrank to an impossibly tight little dot, for a while, a place of enormous gravity and no action. We sat there in the room and let the planet spin on without us, our own officers on the street unaware and continuing their area checks and traffic stops and arrests. "Is this the police department?" A grating voice said from a long way away. "Get me somebody who knows how to answer the phone!" she screeched in my ear like a badly tuned violin and hung up before I could collect myself. Poor thing, she calls frequently complaining about aliens intruding in her life and we handle her with kid gloves, she is our neighbor and we try to help make sense of her chaotic world by reminding ourselves she knows not what she says. "Keith's dying!" I wanted to say but of course one can't, not in our world, we keep talking and hope no one notices the helicopter landing in the Lower Keys is for one of ours. She was merciless, but she didn't know that his life was slipping away through the fingers of the strangers trying to save him, to bring him back to a world he no longer wanted to be in. They were returning the favor he had done so many times himself to strangers that crossed his young path and demanded his all, which he always gave, as officers do.

There's the rub, twenty eight years old, his only ambition to be a canine officer out of high school in his home town, successful in all ways, cheerful, ironic, lanky and never too tired to exchange a joking word in dispatch. He was trained to work in our tight little room but he hated it. When we were short staffed and begged to be relieved for a short while he could hardly be persuaded to sit in the chair with his dog at his feet and be still. I who have lived most of my life rootless and directionless envied Keith his clear path, his inner certainty that being here and living this way were right for him. His path was working the streets of his city at night, grumbling, joking and sighing as officers, the world over, seem to be trained to do. I sat in the periphery of his world happy those nights he acknowledged my essential brevity by not calling up and sighing how much he hated wordy people on the radio. When Keith worked, I struggled to keep it brief. Now I wish, too late, I had blathered on and had one more chance to hear him vent, exasperated, how much he hated endless dispatches on the radio and too much talk, talk, talk. "Kilo Thirty Three, Signal Thirty One, Chapman and Petronia" was all he needed. One more talk from Keith on the value of brevity would mean the world to me. But it's too late for that.

Tonight we go back to work and do it all over again, and as they keep doing what they have to do that platitude will roll around my head all night long. "Stay safe" indeed. The greatest dangers are those that sneak up and grab you by the throat when your friends and colleagues are turned away and thinking you are safe, at home, living the life you were meant to live.

Stay safe Keith, and I hope dispatchers in the Great Beyond know how to keep it brief.

Post Office

The US Postal Service is an institution I have long admired. Which puts me in a decided minority in the US, a nation that makes a national sport of mocking the postal system. I guess you have to have lived elsewhere to appreciate the USPS and its customer service attitude. These days the mails are transported by a semi-autonomous branch of the US government. As far as I can tell that means the postal service has to deliver the mails and not lose money because none will be forthcoming from the Federal Budget. I guess they will declare themselves a bank if they end up needing a cash infusion.Key West has two post offices, a nondescript hole in the wall next to Winn Dixie in New Town and the main post office a splendid brick structure whose official address is 400 Whitehead Street, but it actually exists in park-like grounds wedged between Eaton, Whitehead and Fleming Streets:The rear of the Post Office nudges up against the Truman Annex and its where the big trucks load up with the mails and haul them up to Homestead to be sorted. The weird thing is that of you post a letter to Cudjoe Key, 33042, which is served by the Summerland Key Post Office, the letter will go to Homestead for sorting and will come back down the next day for delivery, covering 200 miles to go 25...Whatever works I guess.When I'm at work we often get calls from people living in islands ten or more miles up the Keys, convinced they do live in the city when they are far outside city limits. That's because their address reflects the fact they are served by this post office and are considered to be part of zip code 33040- the city of Key West.When I used to live on sailboats the first thing I did when I settled in a city was to get a PO Box, it was my way of establishing residence and getting settled. In Santa Cruz, California, in 1983 there was a wait for a box as I recall, and I felt I had arrived when I got my slot in the main post office.In St Petersburg when I got a slip at the city marina in Demen's Landing I was enchanted to discover my little brass box lived al fresco in an indoor-outdoor post office. Key West has a similar arrangement:The fenced walkway around the front of the post office is usually open, but there are shutters that can be lowered ( in case of heavy weather of course):This a post office subjected to massive rains too so the gutters and downspouts are solid. Too bad they aren't directed into some sort of receptacle to store the rainwater:The post office has a light airy feel, its a place weirdly enough I enjoy visiting just for the hell of it. The parking lot is vast, and it has chickens too, but human visitors are strictly regulated of course:The post office parking lot is very convenient to downtown and the postal employees get testy when people park there in the day and don't use the facilities, so cars do end up getting towed. After hours though it's a different story. There used to be a parking lot attendant at night who took money to let people park and boy, he was as mean as a snake. I never used to go anywhere near him. Now he's gone and someone else will have to claim the title of meanest person in Old Town.
That last picture I took on a night time lunch break, last winter. Always pretty the post office on Whitehead Street.