In 1993, I was awarded a fellowship at Radcliffe College to work on a novel, but, as sometimes happens, I got ahead of myself and finished the book before I arrived. I was in the market for inspiration, and I found it in Glendale, Calif., sitting in my father's den, drinking gin and tonics, and watching a special edition of "Nightline."
Ted Koppel and then-police chief Daryl Gates were picking through the rubble of South Central Los Angeles. They were talking about the riots and Rodney King.
"There's a guy who did some good things for the city and some bad things," my father said about Gates. "But all that's over. Now he'll only be remembered for this."
My father had retired from the LAPD two years before. With Koppel and Gates in the background, we fell into a conversation about how the police force had been portrayed so often over the decades and yet was so rarely understood. Somewhere in my brain, a little light bulb switched to bright: I decided to write a book about the LAPD.
"You want to be a cop?" my father asked. Even with two books behind me, he still felt I lacked a professional calling.
"Not at all. Not even a little bit. I want to understand why other people want to be cops."
"But you'll try out, take the test?"
My plan formulated as the words came out of my mouth: Yes, I wanted to take the test, I wanted to go through the police academy, I wanted to write about it. This was part of the story, but not all of it. I was interested in the job these people wanted, but I was also interested in the job my father had had. My father and I were close, but we had seen remarkably little of each other in our lives. After my parents divorced when I was small, my mother had moved with my sister and me to Tennessee. We could go back to Los Angeles only one week a year, for no better reason than there wasn't enough money to go more often.
Now I'd have the chance to understand what it was that my father had done all those years I wasn't in the house. I would relearn Los Angeles. I would drive up Elysian Park and spend my days at the academy, where as a child I had swum in the long blue pool shaded by eucalyptus trees, eaten tuna melts in the coffee shop with my father, and learned to shoot a revolver.
I was 30 years old, a semi-ancient age for pursuing police work. I had no idea if I could pass the long string of entrance exams.
"The wall is what keeps women out," my father told me. "The women protest; they say it's unfair, especially the short ones. The first thing you have to worry about is getting over the wall."
I decided that the wall was as good a place as any for this book to start.