Jonathan Yardley

'The Wagon,' by Martin Preib, essays on being a cop in Chicago

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 13, 2010


And Other Stories from the City

By Martin Preib

Univ. of Chicago. 167 pp. $20

The wagon of Martin Preib's title will be familiar to any city dweller: an enclosed truck, slightly bigger than a van, with "Police" on its sides and rear. The wagon in Chicago, where Preib has been a cop for several years, is painted white, with a blue stripe and the slogan "Preserve and Protect" on both doors of the cab. It's often used to transport newly arrested suspects to the police station for questioning or lockup. It's also used to carry dead bodies to the morgue. The first three essays in Preib's fine book -- the title essay, "Body Bags," and one called "Studio Apartments" -- are about this singularly uncongenial task and the occasional surprises it yields.

Preib was two decades out of college -- he never finished, in large part because he was more interesting in reading what he wanted to than what his professors assigned -- when he quit his job as a hotel doorman and joined the police force. He wanted to write about Chicago:

"I never aspired to haul the dead from their death places. I only wanted to be a writer, a Chicago writer, but now I am picking up dead bodies on the North Side of Chicago. The irony is a terrible weight. I look back at how I have struggled in this city, working every menial service job the city offers by the thousands: waiter, doorman; the thousands of bags I have carried, the train rides downtown looking for work with only five dollars in my pocket, applying for jobs so I can pay rent while I finish a story that won't get published and hear the personnel manager ask, 'Where do you see yourself in five years?' I remember long days in studio apartments wondering what I was doing wrong. Here in the city where my parents were born and raised and my family began, I see them seeing me, my father's disgust at my announcement that I wanted to become a writer, that I wanted to become a police officer as a means of seeing the city as it is, as a means of giving me the time and money to write on my own. I look at myself in a basement opening a body bag, and perceive the disconnection of my life from my most intense passions, and I can feel a weight descend upon me and spill over me."

As that searching passage suggests, Preib's is a voice that has almost never been heard in American writing: not merely the voice of an ordinary policeman, which is rare enough, but the voice of someone whose working life has been spent in the service industry, "the place for muddled worldviews, unclear ambitions, blunted desires, and other people who just never got it, or thought they had it but didn't: the divorced, alcoholics, the new age philosophers, dopers, the indolent, the criminal." That's a stern view of the life in which Preib spent two decades -- longer, if one considers the police force as part of the "service industry" -- but it is tempered by a deep sympathy for the ways in which these invisible, or at best semi-visible, people are exploited and tossed aside by the system for which they labor. Preib is no sentimentalist -- far from it -- but he believes that "the distracted life of the service worker [is] the most authentic in the city."

When he joined the police force, Preib "imagined the most glorious aspects of the job." As he says, "Everyone does. You are filled with this imagery in the [police] academy: catching murderers and gangbangers, working together with other units in stings, becoming a detective, getting promotions. Hauling dead bodies was rarely mentioned." Yet that's just what he found himself doing, entering "the world of the dead" as an inescapable part of the job. That it often caused revulsion is hardly surprising, given that most of those whose bodies he was called upon to remove were residents of "the unadorned city," the Chicago that's rarely glimpsed from the beaches of Lake Michigan or the condominiums and luxury stores of Lake Shore Drive.

As Preib hauled these unfortunates to the morgue, his emotions ranged from revulsion to pity with various points in between, but in one especially moving passage he describes something of an epiphany, the case of a "woman, in her forties, somewhat heavy with dark hair, [who] died in the bathtub, rolling into it in the spasms of a cardiac arrest." The scene as Preib describes it is terrible -- far too much so to be quoted further in this newspaper -- but as the cops wait around to make their reports they find heartbreaking evidence of "a family torn apart, her children and siblings no longer in contact with her," and on the walls they find "quotes from the New Testament, reminders of the power of God and prayer, of ultimate forgiveness and peace." Preib writes:

"We feel as if this apartment has been transformed into an altar as the fading autumn sun illuminates it. The filth and degradation of her body in the bathroom appears [sic] heroic from her struggle to rise up. A gentleness, a humanity, and a sincerity linger in the apartment in the quotes of the New Testament on the wall, statements about endurance, faith, and love, the kind of conviction that exudes and sustains a deep humanity. There is none of the judgment, spitefulness, or condemnation of the Old Testament, nothing in the apartment that is left to condemn the estranged family, no bitterness at a life ended too early, no rage at the cruelty of the employer or the coldness of the disability insurers, or the failures of the medical people to save her. In the things present and the things absent, the elements of a living religion linger about the body: endurance, faith, forgiveness, purity of heart."

That's a remarkable passage, but there are many others of comparable power in the pages of "The Wagon." Mostly Preib is meditative, but he also can be funny and/or angry. One especially vivid passage occurs when he and his partner see "three yuppies on the sidewalk" harassing "the African driver" of the taxi that has brought them from Lincoln Square to Clark Street. The yuppies -- two young women and a young man, all transparently drunk -- are refusing to pay the fare because they claim, inaccurately, that the driver cheated them. The women are nasty and abusive. One of them says to Preib, "I'm not paying anything. . . . I've got more education in my finger than you'll ever have." Preib finally gets the young man to listen to reason, they pay the cab driver and the confrontation ends, but Preib allows himself a most gratifying fantasy in which he arrests the three, handcuffs them, takes them to the processing room and sends them to the dreaded county jail. Too bad he didn't.

Apart from writing about police work -- taking the reader into a world few of us are likely to know -- Preib also writes about the literature he loves and the writing he's been working away at for years. He's a devotee of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville: "What calls me to them is their strong conviction, a faith in their writing, a religious sense." For himself, "there is a kind of faith that lingers in realism, a belief that knowing the city will lead somewhere beyond the city." He has justified and realized that faith in "The Wagon," a quite remarkable book that is much larger than its slender dimensions.

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