By James Maher
Name: Christopher Reisman
Occupation: Police Officer, retired
Location: 9th Precinct, 5th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue
Time: 11 a.m. on Monday, May 5
I’ve lived here since 1969 and I also used to work here. I was a cop. I grew up in the suburbs, in Westchester, and I left school early and wound up in the Army when I was 21 years old. Most of the guys who I was hanging out with there were from New York.
I got out after three years — two years, 11 months and 14 days. I knocked around for a little while and came over to the neighborhood when I was 25. When I was in college I used to come around here for music. I used to listen to a lot of music. You had the Five Spot on 5th Street and then they moved up to St. Marks. You had Port of Call East, East Village Inn, Pee Wee’s, Slug’s.
The area always intrigued me. It has always been unusual. The area was unique in the city for a number of reasons. It had been crushed by urban renewal. There was a very strong neighborhood identification in those days. There were Polish blocks and Italian blocks and Ukrainian Blocks. For the most part, the Jewish families were gone by then. In those days, nobody owned the entire neighborhood. They might have owned their own blocks, but no one group was strong enough to bully the others. If you were going to be a bully you had to stay on your own block. It was almost exclusively blue collar. By the late ‘60s people were starting to be damaged by the war.
As in most communities, the low level criminality was always the cottage industry — selling little pieces of dope or betting on the numbers. Socially, everybody stood down from whatever their position or status was. I remember in Phebe's you’d see cops, actors, firemen, dancers, kids from Chinese youth gangs, and Hells Angels all drinking together, because nobody was in charge. That was the deal.
There were a lot of people involved in the arts because they could afford to live here and work some little job to pay the rent and then practice the rest of the time. It was always to a degree bohemian. It was inexpensive. It was a community that did not for the most part sit and judge you. Everybody had a place as long as you didn’t impose yourself on people.
I knew Hilly Kristal, the guy that owned CBGB. That was an interesting place. It was kind of a sentiment of the times too There were some of us who drank at his other bars — he had a bar on West 9th Street and another bar on West 13th Street, and those were part of the nightlife. We all knew each other and long story short, the night before he opened Hilly’s on the Bowery, typically, he was not ready to open. He still had to put down the floor, which he had neglected to do. So it was me, my roommate who was an electrician, a waiter, and one of his bartenders, and we laid the floor the night before he opened, for a bar tab. This was probably in ‘73 or ’74.
When I joined the cops, I kind of engineered my assignment here, and I wasn’t disappointed. I worked at the 9th Precinct and I first started in May 1969. You had an area where there wasn’t a lot of money and there was certainly very little affluence. For the most part it was not considered a choice assignment. As a matter of fact, very often, cops who couldn’t be punished would be assigned here under the theory of how much harm can they do?
Beginning in the late 1960s, drugs started to erode the social fabric of the neighborhood. I didn’t have any basis for comparison because I hadn’t lived here before, but it became very obvious that this was increasing. There was also a little street culture here, for everybody, in the sense that most people lived in very small apartments, but they lived with their whole families and there was no air conditioning.
Consequently, any opportunity they could get out the apartment was a good thing. So people literally lived on the sidewalks. It was either that or go to a gin mill. It was much, much tougher. Jail was not a unique experience. The sensibilities and sensitivities of incarceration were pretty much evident on the street. If you stepped on somebody’s foot and didn’t sincerely apologize, you’d probably get badly hurt.
We came right during a social change, for us as well, because the department and the city were changing rapidly. The older fellows… we learned from some of the smartest cops in the city, because they had defeated the police department. There were some very creative and intelligent men. Many of them were veterans from the Korean War and several World War II vets. They were all from the city. And then there were the people that you didn’t want to spend any time with.
In those days you worked around the clock. We used to say, if you want to [sleep on the job] it was pretty safe in the daytime, you could go to sleep, because nothing was going to happen. From 10 at night to seven in the morning it was usually pretty busy. They called it the three-platoon system. The first platoon was from midnight to eight, the second was the day shift, and the third platoon was four pm to midnight, and it changed every week. Consequently, you were always sleep deprived.
As time went on you’d probably end up in a job where your hours were a little more regular, but by that time your children were already grown, and your wife was already completely estranged. It was tough that way. There was a very intelligent reform, maybe around the late ‘70s, when they gave cops the opportunity to pick their hours. It also gave them an opportunity to get side jobs, because when you worked around the clock it became very difficult to get a part-time job.
For a cop to get a side job they had to submit a request and identify the employer, get permission and almost always the conditions were impossible, so the cops would take the job on the side and hope they didn’t get caught, cause you had to. I was making a $112 a week, but I was single. If you had a family, you couldn’t do it. Now you had a choice. You either had a part time job or you get cozy with somebody who was going to give you money. In many cases, to some extent it was deliberate by the powers that be. Jimmy Walker had a famous saying when somebody came up to him and said the cops want a raise. He said, ‘Let them get their own raise.’
When I came on the job the police department was very conservative, and part of it still is today. A policeman was fired because he was living in sin with his girlfriend. If you were working here, everybody in the whole world is doing it. The irony was very often that the cops were expected to respect the rights of the individual that they themselves were not entitled.
The early ‘70s was at a time where the police department as a whole was very passive. If you were in uniform and arrested a man for narcotics, the cop would be investigated automatically. If you had too many of these they assumed you were a crook. The official orders would be, if you see narcotics, do not take action. So the public sees me walking by a drug dealer and thinks I’m corrupt. Out of an effort to be genuinely pristine, the job inadvertently created a mass corruption image. So Tompkins Square Park was the result of this type of a free zone, which was really sad for the people that had no other place to be. It was pretty much no blood, no foul.
For the most part, I always worked at night. I worked what was called the public morals, which was called the vice squad. I was assigned to the career criminal apprehension unit. I did that for three years and then went into detective work. I was what they called an active cop. I made a lot of arrests.
We would get what you’d call a kite from a precinct commander, ‘there’s a bookie and he’s working out of candy store x’. We’d go in and place bets and so on. When we started here we didn’t have radios. When you worked the foot post you worked by yourself and it was very instructive because you had to learn how to cope with whatever was going on by yourself without any help. It was only your reputation or how you presented yourself initially that enabled you to do anything at all so you stayed alive.
Burglaries were certainly prevalent. We used to wonder whether there were more than five television sets in the entire precinct, because they would be stolen and resold everyday, which was particularly savage because it was almost always poor people being robbed. The poor people were at the mercy of the vestiges of the middle class and the upper class. Polite solutions were imposed on situations that just didn’t work.
Everybody has watched television, and so everybody knows about crime and how that works and how institutional corruption works, but they don’t have a clue. It’s not their fault. They’ve been educated to think that they know. So this also created problems for us, not the least of which was that none of us have a 26-minute solution to a problem. It’s much more dull and much more unsatisfactory.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.
In Part 2, Christopher Reisman talks about the murder of his partner in 1975.