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It was well before dawn on a typically hot and steamy night in June, a night often found during a stifling New York City summer, when my life changed in ways I could never have imagined. Most people sleep through the ungodly hours between midnight and morning, safely locked in their homes and oblivious to the underworld that exists outside their windows. For me, though, this was the time of night when I did my best work. Yes, I knew my job was dangerous, which is why I endured weeks of intense training, learning all I could about how to keep myself alive. But all the training in the world didn’t prepare me for the dire situation that awaited me on that fateful night in 2001. Eleven years later, I am still baffled as to how a single event can spin a person’s life so profoundly out of control. It is hard to understand, and even harder to explain, but my hope is that by sharing my story with you, I can pull together a few more fragmented pieces of what has become the puzzle of my current day existence.
People often ask me, “Have you seen the HBO show "The Wire," Andy?” Then they try to discuss the characters, the details of last week’s show, the difference between real narcotics undercover work and the fiction they see on TV. Television characters engulfed in a world of senseless, greedy violence, undercovers trying to break up the scummy underbelly of a city gone awry…. “Is that what your job was really like?” friends ask. They expect me to know. I stare at them with a blank look on my face while I try to go about the impossible task of recalling what last week’s episode was about. I’m sure I saw it and I probably liked it — I am guessing anyway. But, no matter how hard I wrack my brain, I just can’t remember. See, I can only retain memories for about 5 days before they drift away, lost in a fog of jumbled, irretrievable events that I somehow participated in — if only I could remember how. I mumble something unintelligible back at them then change the subject fast. I want to talk about now, about today, before this day’s memories disappear along with the rest of them – into the vast sea of thoughts and impressions that I can no longer discern.
Yes, I have a pretty severe case of memory loss. For reasons no one can explain, my brain’s electrical system is no longer able to imprint permanent memories. It sounds like the work of science fiction — the fact that all of our memories, our joys, our sorrows, are nothing more than a fleeting bit of electrical impulses. But that’s the way it is. Fortunately for me, my memories of the past are still intact, so I am able to tell you my story without relying too much on input from others. So, here’s what happened:
There were about 35,000 police officers in the NYPD when I started working as a patrolman. I remember patrolling the streets of Bronx, breaking up domestic incidents and chasing down petty thieves. I just assumed it would be my life for a very long time, but, when my friend, Pete, asked me, “Andy, do you want to try something new?” I responded, “Hell, yeah!” Back then, I loved a new adventure. A career with the elite undercover NYPD narcotics force would suit me just fine.
Undercover was totally different than anything I’d ever done before. I spent months training before I could even begin, learning how to be less like me and more like the people I usually arrested. I was taught how to walk and talk in ways that didn’t give away the fact that I was a cop. Ironically, I was even taught how to forget my own name so I didn’t startle and fall out of character if someone recognized me on the street. It wasn’t easy — forgetting who I was and becoming completely immersed in a different identity, a character I would portray for weeks, if not months at a time. I had to learn how to live two different lives, how to be unrecognizable, even to myself. Little did I know that this new skill would save my sanity all these years later. For then, though, I was just having a really good time.
Much to my amazement, I was a pretty good performer. I remember working Harlem and Washington Heights, not an easy place for a 6’1” white guy to be undercover – but I pulled it off. Through the years, I created many different personalities. I was a homeless guy, a mechanic and a junkie to name a few. When I worked lower Manhattan, my job was to create the persona of a drug addict who hung out at after hour clubs. I grew my hair long, dyed it black, and became a greasy and disheveled street level guy named Mike. I wore black everything — pants, jacket, t-shirt and shoes. I changed my voice and my gate and even my attitude.
I must have been pretty convincing, because one time, when I was jogging near my house, trying to lose weight so I could look more like a junkie, a man from the neighborhood drove by in a car with his wife. I saw him look at me with disgust as I ran past him, my waist long hair dripping down my back, my beard unshaven and unshaped. He turned to his wife and just shook his head. A few months later, I was in a meeting at work, when in walked that same guy from the neighborhood. We stared at each other for a minute then broke out laughing. He was a fellow undercover. Neither of us knew what the other one did for a living. He said when he saw me jogging that day all he could think was, “what the hell has happened to my neighborhood”. We became great friends and co-workers from that day forward.
Being an undercover was a lot like being an actor, but with higher stakes. I knew I had to put on a great performance each and every day. Bad acting might get someone bad reviews. But a bad undercover performance would definitely get me killed. Yeah, it was dangerous, but I loved every minute of my job. It fit me well.
The downside of the job was my home life. I would disappear, sometimes in the middle of the night, not able to tell my family where I was going or when I would return. I’d be gone for days at a time, leaving my wife with the task of managing the entire household alone. She was raising our two small children single-handedly. She didn’t like my job – the erratic schedule, the difficulty arranging childcare, the fearful and sleepless nights. But she knew I loved it, so she hung in there for my sake, doing what she needed to do, doing her part to get along.