Interview with Paul Bacon
“The book is a comedy of errors based on my tendency to empathize with everyone, including criminals. If anything, I wasn’t mean enough.” -Paul Bacon
In 2001, Paul Bacon was a typical young guy in New York: overeducated, liberal, hip, a little aimless. But when 9/11 came, he was galvanized into action. Feeling that he had to do something to help his fellow man, he raced to Ground Zero, where he stood around for several days before finally realizing that he had no skills that were of any use in a crisis. So he applied to the fire department-and was summarily rejected; he was too old, they said, and he couldn’t do any pull-ups. So he decided to take what was available to him: He joined the NYPD.
Bad Cop, published by Bloomsbury USA, is Bacon’s hilarious and thoughtful memoir of his three years among New York’s Finest. Beginning with his tenure in the police academy (where he’s mostly interested in pursuing the lovely cadet Clarabel – until he finds a surprising new love in the form of his 9 millimeter), it follows him through a reluctant apprenticeship and out onto the streets, where the sensitive former freelance writer is transformed into a rough-and-tumble Harlem beat cop. Brimming with great set pieces and amazing characters, this is both a love letter and a send-up of the squad that keeps New York safe – sometimes.
Paul and I spoke in Bend, Oregon, where Paul now resides.
What motivated you to have a career as a writer?
I’ve written stories for as long as I can remember. But the writing bug really bit me when I lived in Japan. The differences I found between Japanese and American culture were fascinating, and often very funny, so I wrote essays and articles about my experiences that I sent to my family and friends back home. One of my family members shared an essay with her friend who happened to manage the Japan office of a U.S.-based company. He paid me a hundred dollars for the right to distribute my essay to his American employees working in Japan. After that, I knew I was on to something, and I decided to dedicate my life to writing as a profession.
What inspired you to become a cop?
Witnessing the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11. I was on the verge of moving away from New York City at the time, but the event inspired me to stay a while longer and try to do some good.
What does the term “Bad Cop” in your title imply?
It’s a pun. The expression usually means a corrupt cop or a abusive cop, but in the case of my memoir, it meant someone who wasn’t cut out to be a cop. The book is a comedy of errors based on my tendency to empathize with everyone, including criminals. If anything, I wasn’t mean enough.
What were some of the mistakes you made as a rookie?
Luckily, nothing serious. But one time, I tried to take a nap in my patrol car and I accidentally locked myself in the back seat. I was all alone in the middle of the night and no one was around to let me out. I had left my police radio in the front compartment, so I couldn’t summon assistance without calling 911 on my cell phone. The 911 operator laughed at my request, then told me to sit tight. For some reason, between the time I made my request for non-emergency assistance to the time it was broadcast over the police radio frequency, my situation was escalated to a “10-13” which is police radio code for “officer down.” This is only used when a cop is being attacked or has been shot, so the entire precinct came rushing to my location, driving around the area at full speed with lights and sirens. I still consider myself fortunate that no one was hurt for my mistake.
Who were most of your “collars?”
Of the thirty-plus people I arrested, shoplifters were in the plurality. They were mostly homeless people stealing items from CVS Pharmacy, which they intended to sell for cash on the street. After I arrested them, they almost always claimed imaginary illnesses, which meant I had to take them to the hospital rather than to Central Booking. In the hospital, the perps got a bed to sleep on, free medical care and a meal. In a sense, I was doing social work, so I guess I did do some good in uniform.
How did police establishment respond to your book?
Cops loved it. I got tons of very encouraging fan mail from them. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which is like a union for rank-and-file officers, also loved it because the running theme of the book was that cops have very difficult jobs. They endorsed it and wrote a glowing review in the PBA Magazine at publication time. The police “establishment”, however, was less than enthused. An NYPD spokesman interviewed by the New York Times about my book mocked the entire concept, which was to be expected. Otherwise, he would have had to address the issues I brought up.
What inspired you to write your cop experience in a book?
The situation was similar to my Japan experience. Being a cop is like being in a foreign country because you see so many things that most people don’t have a chance to see. I wanted to share my amazement about those things with others.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished a middle grade adventure novel titled SNAKE FIGHTER. It’s set in Maui, where I lived for eight years after leaving New York. Hawaii has no snakes because of its geographic isolation. The story is about a 12-year-old girl who tries to stop an evil exterminator from secretly infesting the Hawaiian islands with snakes so that he can profit from exterminating them. I developed my interest in writing children’s literature after becoming a dad.
What is your process for constructing a book? Are you a planner, or a free-form writer?
I do a little of both. BAD COP was based on a number of free-form essays I wrote about certain experiences I had while on the job. It didn’t have a plan, per se, until my publisher suggested I turn my essays into a long-form book with a strong narrative arc. That’s when it took shape. For SNAKE FIGHTER, I spent a lot of time planning. I developed a very tight outline before I started to write prose.
Have you ever faced writer’s block? If so, how did you deal with it?
At worst, I take a few extra minutes to think of the right word, or I might spend a long time on a certain passage of text that I really want to shine. But I have never experienced writer’s block.
What is the greatest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your writing career?
Finding time to write.
What is your advice to aspiring writers?
Find time to write.
When you’re not working, what are some of your favorite ways to relax and have fun?
I like hiking and biking and playing with my kids. And after being married to a yoga instructor for eight years, I have finally started taking yoga.
YOU LEARN A LOT of things in three years with the New York City Police Department. Some of these things are indispensable bits of wisdom and tactical knowledge, the kind that impress the hell out of first dates and job interviewers for the rest of your life. But most are along the lines of this pearl of NYPD wisdom: “Pepper spray only works on cops and innocent bystanders.”I’d heard this particular saying many times, but I never wanted to believe it. It sounded like just another depressing thing to mutter about our jobs between snack breaks, another excuse to sit back and not try anything too risky.
So it came as a shock when my partner, Officer Clarabel Suarez, took aim at a suspect one night in Harlem and pepper-sprayed me right in the mouth. In that instant, years of good intentions went up in flames, along with my lips and taste buds. It wasn’t the most brilliant move on her part—opening a can of liquid whoop-ass in a small, windowless room—but I didn’t fault her. The situation had called for it. We’d been wrestling this muscle-bound, coked-up shoplifter around the Old Navy security office floor for almost a minute, and we still hadn’t handcuffed him. (If a minute doesn’t seem long enough to break out a chemical weapon, consider how you might feel after trying to bring down a grizzly bear high on crack for the same period of time.)
“Watch out, Bacon!”Clarabel had shouted. “I’m using my spray!”
I froze in position—that is, with my head stuck between the shoplifter’s steamy armpit and the cold cement floor. With 250 pounds of perp between me and the coming onslaught, I figured I’d be safe.
Alas, as Clarabel shot off her spray, the supernatural magnetism of my cop face pulled the stream toward me, bending it around body parts and funneling it between my lips. The perp, naturally, was totally unfazed and kept gyrating on top of me.
The electrifying pain in my mouth sent me into a kind of seizure, firing every muscle in my body until I broke free of the shoplifter’s massive frame. I wiggled my way out from under him on my elbows, then rose to my feet and leaned against the door to catch my breath. Gazing down at the perp, I watched him flopping around like a deranged elephant seal, his hands pressed behind his back to prevent us from cuffing him.
“Shoot me, officer! Shoot me!”he began shrieking. “I wanna die! I wanna die! ”He had a surprisingly high-pitched voice, I noticed, especially for a man his size. He kept screaming like a ten-year-old girl while banging his thirty-five-year-old head very hard against the wall. He recoiled in pain after each impact, then pounded away again.
I should have done something to stop him, but I just stood there thinking, All this because he’d tried to steal a couple of ugly sweaters. Now he wanted us to give him the death penalty on the spot rather than take him to court. Knowing that we’d be babysitting this basket case for the next twelve hours if we put him through the system, I was tempted to grant his request.
Getting a better look at him, I noticed some unusual contours beneath his billowy white dress shirt. They looked like . . . no. Were they breasts? The possibility brought to mind a strange comment the Old Navy security guard made when Clarabel and I’d first responded to the call.
“He, she, whatever,”the security guard had chuckled to himself while leading us to the back of the store. “It seems more appropriate.”I remembered the security guard had given me the perp’s welfare card, so I took it out of my pocket and looked at it carefully. I saw a picture of a bemused individual with a thick neck and a wide, flat brow. Next to this prizefighter’s mug was the perp’s name: “Geraldine Harris.”Geraldine? I hadn’t heard that name since The Flip Wilson Show. Judging by the perp’s date of birth, he was about the same age as I was. That meant that, like me, he would have been a pubescent boy when Flip Wilson was playing a woman on television. Three decades and an apparent sex change later, he was a she. And, just as unlikely, I was a cop.
The fact that I’d been on the receiving end of Clarabel’s mace, and not the other way around, was no coincidence. She wore the pants in our partnership out of necessity. Perps and crazy people were smarter than they got credit for, having a sixth sense about which cops were willing to use force. I tried to act mean when I had to, but I was sure my suspects knew that if they resisted, I wouldn’t give them a beating like some officers might. This may sound noble (or at least law-abiding), but in fact it was often against my professional interest. Instead of looking like a serious authority figure, I came off more like a tackling dummy.
So I maintained a safe distance while Clarabel squatted down by my assailant’s body and tried to flip her over. She grunted and heaved to no avail, then widened her stance for better leverage and tried again. Finally Clarabel looked up to see if I was going to help her. It was only then that she realized she’d just sprayed me down like a patch of Kentucky bluegrass.
“Oh, shit,”she said, her eyes widening. “Did I get you?”I wanted to swoon, but I never admitted weakness to Clarabel, especially when she was in a zone. When she was high on adrenaline, she expected Herculean efforts from everyone around her.
Even though I was having some trouble breathing, I shook my head and said stoically, “No. I’m good.”
It seemed my act was a bit too convincing. Clarabel, holding her manacles in one hand, wrinkled her nose and lost what remained of her composure.
“Well,” she snapped, “you mind helping me get these goddamn cuffs on?”
Why bother? I thought, certain that I had lost all sense of humanity. Three years earlier, I would have done almost anything to stop people from hurting themselves. But now, another cynical cop milking the city payroll, I just wished Geraldine would hit her head hard enough to knock herself out.
“This is why I stayed up until almost midnight, it was too funny to put down! Two thumbs up.” –GoodReads
“Grotesque and hilarious.” —New York Post
“Humorous.” —New York Times