By Stephen Owsinski:
Like many other years in my law enforcement career, as a midnight-shift cop I was on-duty Christmas Eve in 2005. I was once again in remission from recurrent cancer woes. Frankly, I was happy to be out on the streets, mending 9/11 tensions. It was great to not only be alive, but to be uniquely positioned to impact lives in extraordinary ways. As any cop can attest to, police personnel see things no one should see and hear things no one should hear. It is not just carnage to which I refer, but also emotionally charged human experiences. I include police dispatchers whose ever-ready listening ears consume the hair-raising screams for help as well as the stark barking of “Officer down!” across police frequencies.
I started my police career as a police communications officer (dispatcher), so I have been in that hot seat. Unseen yet accessible by 9-1-1 lines, dispatchers are the link between your calls for help and the cops who respond to deliver resolve.
Every year during Christmas, kind citizens who are supportive of and grateful for police efforts bring a robust, scrumptious, and colorful assortment of homemade food to police stations across America. They take a brief respite from their own Christmas parties to drive over to the police station and drop off well-wishes. Cards from residents adorn police station walls. The communications division (9-1-1 operations call center) would often maintain the food supply, and us street cops would drop in for a munch here and there.
When I worked, I relegated my shift largely to street patrol. This night was no exception. My internal argument to have just one more cookie needed abatement, so I went and stayed mobile. It is generally sedate on Christmas Eve, and burglars seek to take advantage of that. Working the streets as a cop was always fulfilling for me, and I knew I was where I was supposed to be.
I patrolled my zone, and at 4:35 a.m. on Christmas Day, I decided to park my cruiser in a Catholic Church lot to type my reports on my in-car laptop. Upon entering the church grounds, I observed a male figure sitting on the curb close to the main sanctuary. As per protocol, I notified the dispatch center of my location and purpose (Suspicious Person). I positioned my car with tactical purposes in mind. No matter how seemingly innocuous, preparedness is life-saving. I scanned the surrounding area: plenty of landscaping, sidewalks, classrooms (with computers and valuables in each), and egresses where light gave way to darkness. No other vehicles were present.
I scrutinized the male closely, he was an adult, about 50 years of age, with a white business shirt, khaki pants, and casual shoes. His arms were wrapped around his legs and he was bunched up in a ball. His hands held nothing; I saw no bulges in his pants or shirt pockets. He had no belongings whatsoever.
I greeted him with my name and told him why I was making contact. He politely said he understood and meekly asked if I wanted to see his ID. I thanked him for his mutual respect and understanding related to police procedures. An almost imperceptible smile arose; not forced, but not entirely jovial either. This man is carrying some mental weight, he is struggling, I thought.
Indicative of emotional fatigue, his movements were casual, slow, and largely resigned. In the ensuing chat, I learned that “Ben” was homeless, stemming from a divorce (with children) that led to a breakdown in his former stability. This led to career loss as a PhD-holding computer scientist, which resulted in economic ruin and the repossession of his automobile and foreclosure of his home. He had been walking the streets when he gazed upon the church, and wanted to sit in relative peace. I understood and indulged that wish.
Ben kept looking to his right (my left) where an enormous statue of Mother Mary overlooked gardens with ambient ground lighting that were festooned with lush oak trees, a gentle breeze teasing the tips of Spanish moss, and tropical plants. There was also a white rock bench there, below Mary’s feet. Her hands outstretched as if beckoning those who sought refuge to derive solitude below Her solemn gaze. (Only after did I wonder if he was conflicted, questioning his circumstances, trying to reason why he was embattled. Reflections of a constrained faith, or was he bringing his burdens to his Creator?)
The police frequency was meek, allowing Ben and I to talk for what seemed an inordinate period of time. He candidly explained how he had worked so hard, how he had once enjoyed the traditional American Dream, and how “in the blink of an eye” it all dissolved. I listened as he put words to his thoughts. He turned pink and hung his head whenever he mentioned his children. He was utterly respectful; he asked me nothing, asked for nothing. He just seemed simply relieved to have another human in his presence. In a non-judgmental way, I shared some of my circumstances: my cancer, my divorce, my children, and my hardships from these things. His face altered while I spoke as if he realized the plight he was living was not solely his, and he felt some sense of relatedness.
I removed what few dollars I had in my uniform pockets: $7.00 seemed meager to me, but I knew it would provide some restoration. With deliberation, Ben’s hand extended as he said “Oh, are you sure?” I sure was.
Ben staved-off weeping. I saw it in his pooled eyes, accompanied by a slightly quivering lower lip. Deferentially, he asked me if he were free to go. (Despite his dire circumstances, he still maintained respect, dignity, and decency.) I replied in the affirmative. He got up slowly, redistributed his bunched-up pants by patting his flattened palms in downward motion. He outstretched his right hand. Ordinarily an “officer safety” no-no, I shook his hand. From a man who seemed to be holding on loosely, he gripped my hand tightly. I was both relieved and honored by that gesture. Before he walked into the night, Ben muttered. “Thank you for listening. Oh, and be careful out here.” Among all his burdens, he mustered consideration for mine. With that, he sauntered east. My thought was he is headed east and the sun will meet him there. I hoped he had the same hope: a beacon.
After that chance meeting, I never saw or heard anything about Ben. The Christmas Night roll-call revealed nothing matching his description. I made a friend who I never saw again.
I can only assume I made a difference in Ben’s life. I know he certainly impacted mine. Sometimes the best and most indelible life lessons are the ones we never seek, they just show-up. Years later, I would encounter the exact same circumstances which had befallen Ben. Like a poignant prelude to my later life, I experienced them all—minus the conferring of a PhD. That relatedness I saw in Ben’s eyes is omnipresent in my mirror. And here you have a story of humans crossing paths, resolve engendered from another. Can you relate?
Life for a police officer has many fateful moments like this one, but these types of episodes transpire across the nation every day. People are hurting, and it often bubbles to the surface during holidays. Reach-out, you may change someone, and that someone may be you.
Stephen Owsinski is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer.