You can get killed hopping buses Reminiscing about Baltimore

Chet Dembeck

June 04, 1991|By Chet Dembeck

THE motorcycle cop cuts me off as I run into the narrow alley. I am fast, but even at 13, I can't outrun wheels. I see him out of the corner of my eye the minute I jump off the back of the 23 bus at Fayette and Highland.

He does a quick U-turn, and this maneuver puts his huge Harley-Davidson right in front of me. I see two of me reflected in his mirror sunglasses as he sits there leaning back on his seat, arms folded like a cowboy, high in the saddle.

"Where do you think you're going?" he demands.

"Home," I answer.

"Don't you know you can get killed hopping buses?"

I'd been hopping buses about three months, and I think back to how it began when my friends Pat, Bob and Ricky Ennis showed me how easy it was to hitch a ride. That hot day on Monument Street we three hopped buses all day long, late into the airy night, riding free all the way from Highlandtown to distant Westport. Occasionally, the bus driver stopped his bus, jerked on its noisy emergency break, then ran to the back and tried to chase us off.

But by the time he got to the front of the bus, we were his unwanted back-of-the-bus passengers again, and of course now we waved wildly and smiled at him through the back window, just to let him know we were still keeping him company. Up and down hills we rolled, holding on white-knuckle to a small, square Marlboro sign that was the only thing keeping us from free fall. The smell of frying 15-cent hamburgers hit my face as we rode past Gino's on Washington Boulevard.

Sometimes the driver got nasty and deliberately tried to shake us off his tail by stopping suddenly or speeding up as we approached a sharp corner.

My mind flashes back as the cop loudly cracks the gum he's chewing.

"What's your name?" the thick-necked one barks as he produces a small notebook.

"Billy Nowicki," I answer.

"Yeah? Where do you live, Billy Nowicki?" My mind goes blank. I cannot speak.

"You're lying, aren't you, kid?" I nod, my legs are jelly.

"Now, kid, I'm gonna ask you this one more time. What's your name, and where do you live?" He takes off his sunglasses and stares hard.

I tell him the truth.

"What's your mother and father gonna think when I tell them you're out here hopping buses? Betcha they won't like the idea of their son falling off and getting run over by a car, will they?"

I panic. I think about what my father will do to me. I beg the cop not to tell, promising him that I will never hop another bus as long as I live. Then I cry.

"Dry those crocodile tears, kid. I don't know why I'm doing this, but I'm gonna give you a break and let you go this time. But if I ever see you out here hopping buses again, you're gonna wish you did fall off one."

I walk home, swearing to myself that I will never hop a bus again. I keep my promise, but my friend Pat falls off a bus a week later and breaks his leg in three places.

The moral of this story is that one good cop in an alley ends up saving me from a broken leg or something much worse. Isn't it funny that we rarely hear about these kinds of everyday, positive occurrences between cops and kids?

Maybe we don't because they're simply not glamorous or violent enough. Perhaps they're not hard copy because they don't re-enforce the image of that darker, cynical side of human nature that sells so many newspapers and magazines. Instead, these quiet incidents simply point out what most of us already know intuitively:

There are always more good cops than bad.

Chet Dembeck writes from Baltimore.

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