This Word Is Cop

By Harmony Button

I had a pretty awesome childhood. My best friend Greg lived on a hill out in the middle of farm country with corn fields and grape vines and crab apples. In the fall, the trees would drop buckets of gnarly apples that would roll down the drive and collected in a soupy bank at the side of the street. This was back in the days when disgusting things were totally entertaining, so of course we poked at them, squealing at the worms and mush. We didn’t have The SnapChap or The Twittergram, so instead of taking pictures of ourselves pretending to eat nasty worm-apples, we had to get a little devious.

I don’t remember whose idea it was, but it didn’t take very much effort to relocate the sweet heap of semi-rotten fruit into a speed-bump-ish berm that spanned both lanes of Dublin Road. Then we crouched down behind the corn stalks in the field on the far side of the road and waited, gleefully, for the next vehicle.

After what felt like an eternity, there it came: a big granny Buick. It was boxy and white, like a big, blank canvas barreling full-tilt down the hill toward the apple pile. I’m not sure if the driver didn’t see the apples, or just didn’t care, but when that Buick hit the bank of rotting fruit, I swear to god, it accelerated — wham! — and then everything happened at once — there was this great, delicious, wet sounding quack and applesauce went ev-er-y-where. The windshield wipers smacked it back and forth — the tires smeared a moist streak into the future and, from the sidelines, Greg and I — we cheered. It was awesome.

It was equally awesome the next three times, but by then, our apple-berm was beginning to resemble something that came out of a Mott’s snack pack, so we took advantage of a car-less interlude to rebuild our masterpiece.
That’s when the cop car pulled up.

Now, my memory is a funny thing: I’m never entirely sure of what was real and what has been so thoroughly composted by time that it is nothing but fertilizer for what I wished or worried or thought might have happened in such a situation. But here is what I remember:

The corn was taller than both of us — this was before Greg started to really grow, taller than anyone else I know — and the stalks smacked our hands and faces as we ran. My heart has never been so light, so full of delight, so completely devoid of remorse as I ran — oh joy! Oh happiness! Did you see that last car? There was applesauce up to the roof! Clearly nothing this fabulous could possibly be dangerous.

It wasn’t until twenty minutes later that we began to worry. The cop car was still parked off to the side of the road. Were we going to be arrested? We were somewhere in that ambiguous age between Little Kid and Pre-Teen: eight? nine? ten? This was not fun anymore. It was getting cold. If we tried to call our parents, would the lines be tapped? Could we ever go home again? Would we have to live out of a boxcar and eat canned beans? It was settled: we would live out our lives as outcasts, on the lam.

But first, we needed to pack some supplies. So we doubled back, approaching Greg’s house from behind. Being the young criminals we were, we entered the house via the basement, which involved shimmying through a muddy window-well full of dead leaves and probably spiders. The plan was to pack some sweatshirts and a jar of peanut butter. Greg’s mother — my godmother, Eileen — met us at the top of the basement stairs. She knew everything.

The cop was long gone, but Eileen had let us sweat it out in the corn fields, knowing that our own anxieties and the opportunity to contemplate our poor choices and the potential consequences of our actions would probably be more effective than any kind of lecture or scolding.

It is also possible that she couldn’t have given said lecture without laughing. I do remember that she was the one who taught me to make homemade applesauce — the kind you cook on the stove and eat with cinnamon and agave nectar. It’s rare that best friends come with equally awesome moms, but like I said: my childhood pretty much rocked.

*

As slang for a police officer, there is an urban legend that the name ‘cop’ came from a reference to a cop’s copper badge, but this is probably not true — most badges have been made from alloys such as pewter or tin, even though they have a gold or copper sheen. It seems far more likely that the term ‘cop’ derives from the use of the ‘copperstick,’ a constable’s truncheon. The derogatory suggestion is that a constable or officer of the law is a blunt instrument, a cudgel in comparison to the sharp teeth and knife blades of the criminal low-lifes. This is not very flattering.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I like clear designations of authority. I like it when people wear badges and uniforms and name-tags. I like to know where I stand. I also tend to trust these people blindly. This is sometimes a point of tension between my darling domestic partner and myself. It goes something like this —

Me: I hired a plumber so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.
Jason: Just because he’s a plumber doesn’t mean he’s doing it right.
Me: I hired him because I don’t know what’s right!
Jason: Well, that certainly isn’t.
(Camera cuts to a sad plastic bucket underneath the bathroom sink. Bloop!)

*

The first time I went into parent-teacher conferences, I was terribly nervous. I was terrified of parents: would they judge me for my assignments, my pedagogy, my baby-face, my bad handwriting? But then, a dear friend and mentor and long time teacher reminded me that it was the parents who were intimidated by me. I was the figure of authority: I was the scary one. Now that’s just ridiculous! I thought. But she was right — my role in the school community naturally gave me the kind of ethos that was simultaneous respected and resented. Who else can students complain about? Seriously, chances are that kicking a soccer ball inside will not result in the crashing, disastrous downfall of the delicate ceiling tiles that I always warn children about… but it could. So I tell them to take it outside. Take it outside. Take it outside. Over and over and over.

This same friend has talked me off of several other ledges. She reminds me that when it comes to their kids, all parents are crazy — as they should be. Parents are always allowed to be emotional and irrational and defensive and scared. My job, as a teacher, is to be the responsible adult in the room. This means that no matter what anyone — student or parent — says or does, I should respond professionally, predictably, and without taking it personally.

This is hard for me. I take everything personally. I can accept a hundred compliments, but one slightly disapproving comment can undo me. I will replay the situation. I will oscillate between insecurity and indignation. I will wonder if perhaps the world might be better off if I were to just hide in bed forever. I will fantasize about biting someone and/or lighting their house on fire. Still, I find this instruction incredibly helpful: whenever I feel the bile of righteousness rising in my throat, whenever I am hurt, offended, betrayed or insulted, I can take a deep breath, exhale, and try to be the responsible adult in the room.

*

The term “cop” is an auto-antonym: its meanings include their own opposites. Other examples of auto-antonyms (which is a term that is, ironically, known by a half a dozen other names such as ‘contronym’ and ‘enantiodrome’) include ‘fast’ — describing either moving quickly or holding motionless — and ‘cleave’ — to split or to join. Sometimes, auto-antonyms arise from glitches of linguistics: two distinct etymologies will percolate down to the same homonym that, strangely enough, means the opposite thing. Sometimes, such as in the case of ‘cop,’ a word gets so loaded and murky and overused by slang that it gets thrown about to refer to all sides of a situation. In case you’re curious, this quirk of language is known as polysemy, and I find it very pleasing: I find my favorite examples apre-ski. The snowboarders always toss them around without irony: sick! fat! wicked! and my latest acquisition, dead to me — as in, “dude, that snow was so sick, it’s dead to me.”

*

Summertime, 10pm, my second year in the project house. We are all getting ready for bed, and by all, I mean the three of us: Jason, the dog, and I are all crammed into the tiny 1920s bathroom. Bedtime is a bonding experience: you can’t move anywhere in that bathroom unless someone else moves out of the way. So I am brushing my teeth in the shower; Jason is washing his hair; the dog is licking water off the shower curtain because he’s freakin’ adorable and is still a little concerned that we might drown in all that falling water if he doesn’t keep an eye on us. The shower is noisy, but over the hiss of water and the clanking of old pipes, we hear a hollering. It sounds like someone is shouting in the kitchen window — the cranky neighbor? Is he yelling at us? We turn off the water and freeze, silent and drippy. There it comes again: “SLPD [mutter mutter mutter] bitten by a dog!”

Someone was bitten by a dog? Do they think it was my dog? It can’t be my dog, because my dog is the best and cutest puppy in the world, and also, he is currently sleeping on the bathmat.

Jason wipes the soap out of his eyes and cracks the bathroom door.

There is a police officer standing in the front room of my house. He has opened the door and started to enter, one hand on the leash of a very large German Shepherd.

“Hello,” says Jason, the unflappable.

The police officer hollers at him to come out right away. Jason requests the chance to put on some clothes.

“YOU CAN’T HAVE MY PUPPY!” I cry while putting on Jason’s pants. This leaves Jason with no pants, which is awkward for him. At this point, Jason exits the bathroom wearing my bathrobe, I come out wearing men’s pants and a toothbrush, and the puppy follows both of us out, suddenly aware that there Something Happening. You can see the look in the cop’s eyes: how many other soggy redheads could possibly be hiding in that bathroom? It was like a clown car of adorable, soapy creatures!

Clearly, this is not the situation he anticipated.

The officer quickly backpedaled, quite literally. The attack dog was whisked away. We got our stories straight: no one was bitten by a dog — the police had received a report of a potential burglary in progress and, seeing all the lights off in the front of my house, had proceeded to enter with the police dog to apprehend the criminals. He was shouting a warning to any potential burglars before releasing the hounds.

My own hound snuffled the cop’s knee and left a wet mark on his uniform.

“The neighbors reported seeing flashlights in the darkened windows,” the cop said.

“You mean, like those? Over there?” Jason pointed to the house next door, where the dusty beams of flashlights could clearly be seen in the front room. The old tenants — the ones who had been so hard to evict — had returned to check out the remodel that was in process. Apparently, they hadn’t noticed the entourage of cop cars parked outside the house and were still standing there, admiring the refurbished hardwood floors and new kitchen island, swooping their flashlights all around like it was Area 51.

The officer in my house turned to look at the lights in the windows next door. There was a quick rattle and chug of radios and uniforms.

“I’ll be right back,” the cop said, and hurried next door. Okay, I thought, and took the opportunity to put on appropriate pants.
No harm no fowl, I thought, making a note to self to always, always lock the front door when in the bathroom. But I’m still a little jumpy in the shower — there could be a police raid at any moment. And we won’t think too long about what would have happened to the world’s best puppy had he tried to protect the house against invading German Shepherds.

*

In Britain, they’re called Bobbies, or bogies, rozzers, rollers, ginger-pops, cozzpots, fuzz. In the U.S., we call them bulls and fingers, Old Bills, roaches, flat foots, pounders, woolies, mugs, Smokey Bears and heat. They’ve been Shamuses and nabmen, scuffers, nailers, Johnnies and narks. As kids, we learned to keep an eye out for them on the highway. Cop, we’d say, and catch our breath, as if it was a big fish and we, some kind of Nemo. Copper, look out — even when we were five miles under the speed limit and doing nothing wrong.

*

Look at how cops are portrayed in the media: they are either the hardworking, hardboiled, unsung heroes, or else they are the mindless drones of a military state. Even the TV shows and movies that try to explore this dichotomy (props to The Wire for portraying people as people, instead of people are the parts they play) have to push back against this tendency for typecasting, thus bringing it right back into the public conscious. There is a reason why we are obsessed with cop dramas: we know that these figures are set up for failure — we want them to be larger than life, tortured by a sense of integrity that they can’t always uphold in this imperfect world. We recognize that they are cogs in the machine of the law, even as they are good-hearted, idealistic individuals who believe that their efforts can help build a better world. What do you think the movie Robocop is all about? Man vs. machine. What use is the law if it is not imposed with a sense of reason behind it, by a conscious figure? We need our officers to be human, but to be human means to make mistakes. To be human is to be subjective and inconsistent, full of contradiction.

*

To ‘cop’ can mean to excel or surpass: he copped all expectations when he aced the exam. But to be ‘copped’ means to be peevish, headstrong, or saucy; to talk back: don’t be copped with me. You can cop a fly ball or you can cop out of the game entirely. To ‘cop it’ is to receive punishment — I really copped it from my parents when I broke curfew — but to ‘cop on to (oneself)’ is to get a grip or regain control, to sober up: the criminal copped onto himself and asked to cop a plea.

*

Several years ago, back before I bought the house, I spent a lot of time at Jason’s apartment. He lived next door to a coffee shop and across the street from a park, so I was used to seeing a lot of cops around. One morning, I took my usual walk to the coffee shop to pick up a latte, and, as I returned, I gave a friendly wave to the cop parked outside Jason’s apartment. I’m a big believer in waving to cops. They’re people too, you know. Hi mister police officer! I waved, sipping my latte. I was a law-abiding white female wearing semi-professional clothes. Of course I could wave to the nice cop man.

What I did not see what this: as I walked down Jason’s long driveway to get my car, several other officers pulled up, got out of their cars, and intercepted Jason as he left his house. They asked his first name, which he told them, and his apartment number, which he confirmed. Then they got all serious and asked him to please set his bag aside and place his hands above his head, facing the house.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jason saw my little car coming down the driveway. This is how it goes, when we tell the story.

Jason: So there I was, all spread eagle against my downstairs neighbor’s window —
Me: … and I was pulling down the driveway, sipping my coffee,
Jason: … and I was like, “keep driving, babe, keep driving,”
Me: — and I didn’t see him at all.
Jason: And the cops were like, “have you been to the IRS building this morning?” and I was like, “was I supposed to be there?” Because, you know — you never know. And then they started to pat me down, right there on the porch.
Me: — and I looked both ways, put my blinker on, and drove away!
Jason: — and she just drove away. Bye-bye!

Long story short, there used to be another Jason who lived in Jason’s apartment years ago, who apparently never officially changed his address. This imposter-Jason had shown up at the IRS building that morning, waving a gun and threatening to do himself and others serious bodily harm — and then he disappeared. The APB went out to all emergency services: the ambulance and fire trucks showed up at Jason’s apartment just as the cops were figuring out that my Jason was not the suicidal, gun-waving Jason that they were looking for.

“But I may have some of his mail…” Jason admitted, a little concerned.

This was not the first time that I was grateful to have a very unusual first name, but I sure hope it was the last time those police officers tried to arrest someone without asking for a last name.

*

A cop is a police-person, but ‘cop’ has also been used as a name for the criminal that the officer chases, as well as slang for the informant that snitches on the criminal to the police-person. As a noun, a ‘cop’ refers to the head, the top, or the conical shape of something. A ‘cop’ is the crest of a bird or a lofty, impressive headdress: she donned a feathered cop and silken gloves. As a verb, ‘to cop’ can mean everything from ‘to hit’ or ‘to catch’ to ‘to avoid’ or ‘to make out with.’

This can lead to a lot of confusion: the copper copped the cop on the cop with his copperstick after the cop tried to cop off with some other copper. Or try this one: this cop copped off the other copper’s cop when he tried to cop a deal — what a cop-out.
But this ambiguity of term makes a lot of sense: it fits in the general synchrony of cop and criminal, robot and iconoclast, power-tripper and peace-keeper.

Identity matters: a cop is a person inhabiting the role of a police officer. In many ways, the general public doesn’t treat cops like individuals; we see the uniform first and foremost. Cops don’t just speak for themselves: the mistakes they make are representative of all cop-dom — they represent a slice of our society that holds power and influence. Cops must always act as the best versions of their personal selves, as well as a pretty good version of their professional self. No matter what happens, a cop has to be the responsible adult in the room.

*

This is the real story, the one I needed to tell, the one I’m still trying to cop, myself.

Last week, early evening, Jason and I took the dog on a long rainy walk into the up and coming arts and dining area of Salt Lake City. We had the city to ourselves: no one walks in the rain in Salt Lake unless they have to. We cut through the park, laughed at some ducks, and swung by the liquor store to pick up a bottle of wine. I left Jason and the dog in the cover of an awning while I dug out my ID to buy the wine.

The man in front of me in line was trying to buy a bottle of what looked like the cheapest alcoholic beverage he could find: he counted out a dollar and some change for the cashier.

The cashier calmly told the man that she could not sell to him because he has already been turned down once this evening because he did not have an ID. The man, who appeared to be in his late 40s or 50s, began to grumble.

Immediately, the officer on duty was at my side. He calmly asked the man to leave and not return that night.

The man said he was just trying to buy some beer.

The cop reasoned with the man: this was the law. For all they knew, the man could be working for the state, and selling to him would cost the cashier her job.

The man accused the cop of lacking male genitalia, and shuffled to the door.

“That’s not what your mom said last night,” said the cop.

The man made a half-hearted comeback that didn’t make any sense and boiled down to your mom [something something].
And then, the cop said this —

“That’s right. Go panhandle or something. I hope you die out there. We’ll scrape you off the streets in the morning and nobody will care.”

What. The. —

“Everybody deserves beer in the rain,” said the man as he exited the building.

The cashier scanned my bottle of wine.

The cop apologized to the cashier.  “I hope he didn’t bother you,” said the cop.

“Not at all,” said the cashier. “No bother at all. Credit or debit,” she said.

I was bothered.

“That’s what happens when you make poor life choices,” said the cop. “Seriously, they could all die and we’d be better for it.”

“Credit or debit, hon,” said the cashier.

I was very bothered. What should I say? That I didn’t think that a cop should say such hateful things to anyone, regardless of the situation? That he was completely over-simplifying the soul-sucking cycle of poverty that trapped homeless people regardless of their so-called life choices? That I would like his badge number and I would be reporting the incident to his superiors? That I would like to buy that cheap bottle of piss-beer, and I definitely wouldn’t be giving it to anyone outside? That he was a big — bully — meanie-pants?

The man re-entered the liquor store.

“I came back in to apologize,” said the man, to the cop. “I’m sorry for what I said. It’s not your fault that I had a really bad day.”

It was raining even harder outside. His jacket was some duck cloth slicker that was long soaked through.

“Fuck off, asshole,” said the cop. “You’re a waste of space, a total loser –“

“Debit,” I said, and swiped my card, and left.

*

The earliest version of ‘cop’ is a cup (a coppe) — a receptacle or catch-all, a drinking vessel. When weaving, the cone on which the yarn is stored in called the ‘cop.’ This may come from the Middle English ‘cop,’ which is a spider, the weaver of copwebs and traps. The worst thing the insect can do when caught is to struggle — the disruption of the web draws the spider’s attention.

Most of the time, I walk around this world with a face that goes unquestioned. TSA agents laugh when they have to scan my bags at the airport, as if to say, “isn’t this ridiculous? Obviously you aren’t a terrorist!” Bankers give me lollypops. The one time I ran a red light and then stopped cold on the wrong side of it, the cop sitting at the intersection laughed and waved me on. Most of the time, having privilege means being invisible — and letting figures of authority show blatant disregard for human life even as you clutch your plastic and punch in your PIN a few feet away, avoiding eye contact. What coward I was, what a cop out. What had happened to that girl on the lam, that applesauce fugitive, that rebel spirit who didn’t give a damn? The world has become more complicated than cornstalks and basement window wells. And I don’t like spiders.

*

The truth is, this town is too small to piss off a cop — you never know what the ramifications can be. If I couldn’t trust that cop to show even a little respect for human life, then how could I trust him not to turn on me, as well? He was not the responsible adult in the room. But neither was I. So I walked out into the rain with my wine and my safe little world, and I told Jason what had happened.

“That guy?” Jason asked. “Oh.”

It was the kind of ‘oh’ that had a story. I had to ask.

“Oh, just that I’m the one who gave him the dollar,” said Jason. “You know he’s been standing outside all day. Everybody deserves beer when it’s raining.”

In that moment, my heart swelled to hold them all: the homeless man, the cop, my Jason, myself. We are all so very imperfect, so flawed, so fearful and hopeful and cowardly and beautiful. We are aspiring fools and misfits and cop outs and cops. Maybe, if we live our lives inside these contradictions, we can all be childishly gleeful and justifiably passionate and responsibly adult, all at the same time. Mostly, I was glad that I was the one who went into the store, instead of Jason. You know he would have caused a scene — as he should have. And I would have bailed him out of jail, found a good lawyer, and kissed him on his broken jaw. I would have been mortified and proud, all at once.

Harmony Button is a contributing editor for Paper Tape. She has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy of American Poets). She attended Middlebury College and University of Utah (MFA). You can find her work in Colorado Review, Southwestern American Lit, Ithaca Lit, BlazeVOX, and other publications. She is currently English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. More of her work can be found at harmonybutton.wordpress.com.

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