To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Magic Of My Father's City: Remembering the 'Gendarmes Of The Generation Gap'


What did you do in the 1960s, Daddy?


As Father's Day looms, this question might be on the lips of many a “woke” son or daughter curious about their Boomer parents' relationship to the Vietnam War, antiwar protest or countercultural experimentation with drugs or sex. My late father, a World War II Navy vet who retired as a Detective Captain after 27 years in the NYPD, always had a singular answer whenever one of his children or grandchildren made inquiry. It was a response most definitely shorn of the moral vanity and generational narcissism permeating novels, plays and movies evoking that period, as well as the self-stroking memories of those who lived through it.


"I ran the Hippie Squad," he would say with a sly grin. The natural raconteur in him was always eager for yet another chance to describe an earlier chapter in what everyone refers to now as "Re-Imagining the Police" which, curiously enough, has evolved into what the now uber-trendy New York Times calls an "epic" youth scene where "the city streets are so teeming with fresh-faced pleasure seekers one might squint and think it 1967, the Summer of Love." 


During his long police career, my father had many interesting experiences and assignments. He guarded Fidel Castro in September 1960 during the Cuban leader's controversial trip to address the UN, led gambling investigations in Madame Sinclair's Harlem, made the first arrest in the infamous Harry Gross investigation, and held down the desk in the "Four-One" otherwise known as "Fort Apache," the arson-ravaged precinct in the South Bronx not too far from Yankee Stadium. He also claimed that he taught fellow baldino Telly Savalas how to answer the phone like a real detective would in Midtown's "Manhattan South" for Kojak. (Unfortunately when I tried to confirm this with Savalas a few years before he passed away, Lt. Kojak didn't pick up the phone.) 

But leading the twenty or so young undercover detectives in this little known, real-life The Mod Squad was his favorite command ---and his most satisfying. He was able to both police and bridge the Generation Gap, helping several hundred underage runaway Flower Children escape the depredations of countercultural charlatans and exploiters. Good Morning, Starshine: the next time your parents wax nostalgic about how "hip" they all were then, remind them that there was a certain period on St Mark's Place when it was hard to tell who was actually a Merry Prankster and who really was "the Man."


Flashback, October 1967: As the Summer of Love fades into autumn in New York's East Village, runaway teenage Connecticut socialite Linda Fitzpatrick is found nude and bludgeoned to death along with her hippie celebrity boyfriend, James "Groovy" Hutchinson. Just a few months before Fitzpatrick graduated from Maryland’s prestigious Oldfields School. The proverbial "girl who had everything", she was on her way to an art college in that fall. But at the time of her death, she had become a "meth monster," last seen strung out on speed and panhandling on the street. Later that night, Fitzpatrick and Hutchinson were lured into the basement of a decrepit tenement off of Ave B by promises of a late-night LSD party.


Fitzpatrick was only one of many runaway flower children who had flocked to San Francisco's Haight Asbury and New York's East Village. But her murder, which became the basis of a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times account written by J. Anthony Lukas, left parents and public officials everywhere desperate to understand the "forces at work on young people" who were, by the tens of thousands, "leaving middle class homes throughout the country for the 'mind-expanding' drug scene" in places like the East Village. Why would talented privileged teenagers like Fitzpatrick leave their gilded suburban lives ---and their guaranteed futures----for a life of "crash pads, acid trips, freaking out, psychedelic art, witches and warlocks." 

Sociologists leapt into the void, invoking "the generation gap." Pastors, parents and psychologists all scrambled for a way to bridge that gap. My father, then an NYPD Detective Lieutenant did his bit too. With Mayor Lindsay breathing fire down the police commissioner's neck, my father accepted orders to form an undercover unit whose mission was to infiltrate the hippie scene, locate underage runaways, reunite them with their parents and put countercultural predators---drug dealers, racial hucksters and Hells Angels types---behind bars. The squad's mission statement was emphatic: "To regain control of the Village: East and West."


At the time, the tide of runaway minors had completely overwhelmed law enforcement. According to former Squad Detective Greg O'Connell, who would later go on to become a major figure in the development of Brooklyn's Red Hook waterfront, "Before the Hippie Squad, parents of runaways were on their own." If the report they made to their local police department made it to the NYPD's Missing Persons squad at all, that squad was so overloaded with cases, all they could do was check the morgue. "There was just so much volume," O'Connell recalled.


In many cases, parents from Ohio, Wisconsin or Iowa would come to the city and walk the streets, carrying pictures of their kids asking random people if they had seen them. Empty storefronts, light poles and station houses were plastered with fliers, a la 9-11, describing the age, hair color, nicknames and "last seen" whereabouts of the missing. (At one point my father recalls having over 2000 displayed in or filed in his office.) Exploitation of parents by street hustlers and con artists was common, with an unmistakable racial edge. "A lot of the parents suspected they were being scammed," said O'Connell. "But if you were coming in from Minnesota, you'd take your shot."  

Like Linda Fitzpatrick, many runaways came to roost in the decrepit and abandoned buildings of the far East Village, aka "Alphabet City" --- Avenues A, B, C and D. Narrow, dimly lit and urine-stinking hallways were filled with squats, communes and shooting galleries. In some crash pads, 15 to 20 dirty mattresses would be spread out on the floor; bathroom facilities were often nonexistent. 


Free love, along with heroin and amphetamines had triggered an epidemic of VD, hepatitis and drug addiction, with junkies often involved in prostitution. Race relations between middle class hippies and impoverished local blacks and Puerto Ricans were bad, resulting in beatings, robberies, arson deaths and rapes. According to former Hippie Squad detective Robert Marshall, "rape was the norm for runaway girls." Linda Fitzpatrick's death got saturation coverage, but news reports of the day also told of a 13-year-old girl from Ohio raped and thrown off a rooftop and of a drug-addicted 17-year-old girl from New Jersey found in a steamer truck after floating in New York harbor. And I can tell you from having gone through the microfilm in the New York Public Library that these cases were not outliers. "It was a very intense era, a sad era," recalled now-deceased East Village detective Edward Murphy. "A lot of kids got hurt."


Prior to that assignment, my father had experience in culturally restive areas of the city, such as Harlem and the South Bronx, and didn't mind working at night. He also had eight kids, which he used to joke, must have made his commanding officers think he knew something about youth. "I was good at running away from the bosses too" he said. "So, putting me in charge of runaway youth must have seemed like a natural for them."  

Each detective squad in Manhattan was required to detail at least one of its members, preferably young. Many came from the narcotics squad and were familiar with undercover work. Although my father did not get to pick them personally, the Chief of Detectives promised there would be no deadweight, and he delivered, producing what police call a very "active" squad. The unit was also quite diverse---Irish, Italians, Blacks, Jews and Latinos---and forged a kind of family-like atmosphere, dining out together in ethnic restaurants downtown before beginning their 8PM to 4AM shift. 


To pass, some of the squad members merely grew beards or long hair and wore old, wore ratty clothes, guns holstered at the ankle under bellbottoms. Others got deeper into the part, donning buckskin and leopard print vests or putting bones in their ears and studs in their noses. The mufti got particularly extravagant whenever someone form the mayor's office would come downtown around the time my father was turning the men out for the night. "Born actors," my father would say of the squad members. "Should have been on Broadway." For his part, my father, then 45 year's old, never went native, dressing in an older detective style, a la Dragnet: Good suit, sharp tie and a fedora hat. 


The undercover detectives worked in groups of two or three and traveled in unmarked cars. They had no radios, and were required to call into the Squad Room every hour. "Every night was busy," O'Connell recalled. 


In the cases referred by Missing Persons, they sought specific individuals, using a network of street informants ---"stoolies"---to locate them. Other runaways were picked up randomly on the street and taken in for identification, their tender ages and demeanor a giveaway. The bulk of the squads action though involved minors taken in as a result of "no knock" raids on crash pads, communes or parties where both kids actively being sought, and many others, congregated. This being the late 1960s when the legality of warrantless searches was unsettled, "It was easier to take a door off its hinges,'' former Detective O'Connell explained, adding:  "We got results, that's all that mattered at the time. The situation had just gotten so bad."


Although many of the minors had fled abusive homes, many were simply naive "lost souls," according to Robert Marshall. "I don't believe they had the faintest idea what they had walked into and how they could be taken advantage of in such a short time," O'Connell added. 

Predators were arrested and charged, but as long as the apprehended runaway was not arrogant or verbally abusive to the detectives, the squad tried as much as possible to return them directly to their parents. This kept the kids from having an arrest record, which in those days was not as easy as now to erase and could affect their future prospects. It also spared families a stain on their reputation if news got out their child had been taken into the system formally. "We were looking for kids and trying to reconnect them to their families," O'Connell explained. "Ours was more a social mission than a law enforcement mission." 


Indeed, a lot of the kids had hit bottom, wanted to go home and just needed help in getting there. "We'd call the parents on their behalf and arrange tickets home, or a shower. If the kid was strung out on drugs, we'd take them to detox at Bellevue," said O'Connell. In one case, that of the daughter of a then well-known radio celebrity, detectives brought the girl home through the back door of the well-appointed uptown co-op, so newshounds and neighbors wouldn't see. 


Parents who came to New York to either report a missing kid or pick one up were never made to feel embarrassed. "Sometimes parents would come into the Squad and tell us what their son or daughter was like," O'Connell recalled.  "It was often the same sad story we had heard hundreds of times before. But they had taken the time and money to come to New York to look for their children and we felt it was our duty to listen. Your father having eight kids, he could relate to them, especially." The unit tied as much as possible to shield the parents from the conditions they found their children in. Upon seeing her dirty, drug-addled daughter, one middle-aged mother fainted as her brother, a priest, tried to explain that they were "a good family." 


Part of the squad's job was to help keep anarchy at bay in the streets. This wasn’t easy during the "long hot summer" of 1968. When the news would hit the underground press after a big "no knock" raid, hundreds of angry hippies would lay siege to the 9th Precinct---The Embassy" as it was called---- to protest, waving banners that said "Don't Bust Our Crash Pads" and "Join the Revolution." To have a station house taken over was the biggest fear any commanding officer could imagine, since it represented a profound embarrassment to the department. 


When such protests occurred therefore it would not be uncommon to see 50 mounted cops, a couple of busloads of riot police and 100 to 200 uniformed police ringing the precinct house itself. What was not so common to see, or to grasp if you did see it, were men from the Hippie Squad infiltrating the crowd in order to lead them off in other directions. Such operations the Squad used to call "cattle runs." 


"I'd talk to the Inspector," my father explained, "and when he thought they all had had enough protest time, he'd give me the signal and say 'Yep. Time to break 'em up." Often, they would lead them toward another precinct elsewhere downtown but by the time they were halfway there the energy ---and the threat---would have faded. My father would instruct his men "Don't ever tell the captain over there we tried to send them over. The captain over there would have killed me if he knew."   


This being the old NYPD, there was a definite political dimension to the job as well. My father often was asked to escort VIP's who wanted to see "the hippie scene" up close. He especially liked taking them to the Electric Circus on St. Mark's Place---"the Studio 54 of the Hippie Movement," as he called it when I interviewed him in 2000---and to the Rubber Room adjacent to it where most of the clientele was doing LSD and the pot smoke was so thick "you could get high just standing there." One night with an entourage from the Mayor's office, the experience got a little too mind-blowing. Standing on a balcony above a dance floor the group saw a woman and a man having sex. "Well, I guess we've seen enough for the time being," one of the mayor's aides said.

Another political aspect involved what police call "contracts"---non-remunerative favors arranged by senior-most department officials or City Hall politicos on behalf of celebrities, politicians or even their own relatives and friends whose children had run away. The Police Commissioner, the Chief Inspector, the Chief of Detectives---"God" as my father called him---all issued contracts which the Hippie Squad was bound to fulfill. 


One of the more interesting contracts that came down from on high involved the daughter of Maxie Levine, an old "tough Jew" who had been an enforcer for a mob family and who was owed a favor by someone, somewhere. Maxie's teenage daughter, a methamphetamine addict, had run away to the East Village and then had gone to Miami, taking the family cat along with her. With permission from on high, a Hippie Squad detective accompanied Maxie to Miami. According to the detective, they located the girl quite quickly. But Maxie wanted to party and they stayed at the Carlyle Hotel for three days, at one-point drinking with Jackie Gleason. Finally, Maxie gave the signal to pick her up where she was crashing. They whisked the girl by jet back to a private sanitarium in New York, the cat traveling in the girl's hatbox. 


Another political favor involved assigning a detective to protect a female stalking victim whose mother had connections to the Greenwich Village political establishment. My father had ordered the detective not to let the girl out of his sight. But two days later, after travelling with the girl to Puerto Rico, maintaining that the mother had told him higher ups had okayed it, the Boss was livid. "Get back here right away," my father growled into the phone. "Don't even stop to breathe." 


A few instances of rule-bending aside, the squad was definitely on the straight and narrow. This was a huge relief for my father given the potential for corruption that existed anywhere in the department at that time but particularly in the East Village and Lower East Side where gambling had always been rife and the influx of drugs and transients was as perfect recipe for shakedowns. 


"I told them right from the get-go, 'Don't fool around, it’s a small squad and a small village and you know it'll get back to me," my father explained. "And if you do fool around, and it does gets back to me, there'll be no mercy whatsoever. You'll go down."  And then he told them:  "And if you even hear I'm 'on' with someone, walk into my office and punch me in the nose before you even ask me about whether it’s true or not.' I was that sincere." 


As it turned out, the relative youth of the men and their excitement for the squad's mission kept temptation at bay." They all did good work,  my father said. "They knew they had a good job. They weren't just sitting there catching cases like they would be in other squads. It was amazing the appreciation they showed." In fact, the amount of autonomy given squad members and their responsible acceptance of it allowed my father, in the old department style, to occasionally helm the operation from the uptown comforts of watering holes like Toots Shors, where the banter was warm, the drinks were stiff and "Sinatra's "You Make Me Feel So Young" always seemed to be on the jukebox. 


As former Detective O'Connell: put it, "Your father knew the guys, knew who they were and what they were about. He felt comfortable with us. He knew we weren't going to jam him up or embarrass him." Of his relaxed management style, my Dad only said: "They knew where I was if they needed me. They had all the phone numbers." 

By late 1968, the high tide of hippie-dom was ebbing and the number of runaways was on the decline. Tired of what the Village Voice called the "bad vibrations" of the East Village, many hippies were ready for the country. En masse, they headed "back to the land." 

One night, my Dad told his men that the squad had been disbanded and that they were to report back to their original commands. They did so with their resumes burnished and good recommendations, which helped many of them throughout the rest of the careers. The squad's arrest and conviction rate were high, and they had found and returned 350 underage runaways. 


For my father, running the Hippie Squad was a chance to use all the investigative, managerial and political skills he had honed for more than two decades on the force. For him the Summer of Love became a second spring, allowing him to do something fresh and original---not often easy in that button-down bureaucracy. And, upon soon passing the captain's promotional exam, it helped him stake out a spot for himself as a Detective Captain in prestigious Manhattan South, no small thing to have in your New York Times obituary


But the most satisfying thing about the assignment was the gratitude of the parents---and that of some of the hundreds of runaways the squad were able to return---letters from whom my father kept until he died. As these letters tell, being the boss of the Hippie Squad was a chance to play a real-world "Catcher in the Rye,” scooping up endangered kids before they fell off the cliff, into the clutches of the predators and those Holden Caulfield liked to call the “phonies. “


“Solid,” as Linc Hayes, the young black detective on the television version of The Mod Squad used to say.