Wambaugh, Thank You, Ma'am

Joseph Wambaugh was in town last night, and for the first time ever, the writer actually read his stuff to actual people.

Best-selling author Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD cop, did something last night he's never done before: He read from one of his books. In public. Twice. And it was hilarious.

Wambaugh, who was at The Writer's Garret thanks to KERA-FM, has written 12 novels since his first, 1971's The New Centurions. His non-fiction book The Onion Field was made into an award-winning film. His steady stream of fiction hit--such as The Choirboys, The Black Marble and The Blue Knight has of late taken a back seat to his non-fiction, but he's still an inspiration to writers such as James Elroy and Michael Connelly, who consider Wambaugh the father of the modern psychologically based police novel. Wambaugh was the first writer to go beyond police procedurals, to get into cops' heads and tell how the job worked on their psyches. But enough about then.

A born raconteur, Wambaugh last night had the audience laughing at tales of his days assigned to the Hollywood Station, where pulling over celebrities and has-beens was old hat. For his first book of fiction in 10 years -- titled, amazingly, Hollywood Station, which just came out yesterday -- Wambaugh has cast that particular station in the modern-day spotlight: After a series of corruption investigations, LAPD is under a federal consent decree where every incident is scrutinized by bureaucrats.

But Hollywood Station, the only precinct where movie posters adorn the walls, is still a hoot. "I want you to understand that doing good police work is fun," Wambaugh says. And he has the stories to back it up.


He described pulling over comedian Lenny Bruce and an up-and-coming British actor during a vice operation and discovering a bag of marijuana. The cops anticipated getting their pictures in the paper for arresting the cop-hating Bruce. But after a plea for mercy from the unknown actor--because a trip to jail would tank his big break, a movie guaranteed to win Oscars--the sergeant in charge let them go. Turned out the unknown British actor was Peter O'Toole and the movie was Lawrence of Arabia. And Bruce stopped blistering cops in his act.


But cops today have more to deal with than the bad guys, Wambaugh says. They've got to cope with female partners who are as likely to pull out a breast pump as a weapon and gang members who are better armed than their police counterparts.


To do research for his new book, Wambaugh recruited male and female officers from the station and took them -- four at a time, separated by gender -- to dinner. The male cops typically required "three-and-a-half drinks" to loosen up. "The females just had to sniff the cork," Wambaugh says. Then they were telling stories of their days on the job -- and their nights off.


That's where Wambaugh got stories like that of Budgie and Fausto. A young female cop paired with a washed-up veteran, Budgie is suffering from the pain of milk-swollen breasts after giving birth. When they stop for Budgie to pump her milk, the partners get a call of a crime in progress. Budgie runs out and they race to the scene. Turns out Budgie has brought the breast milk in its ice-packed container. But she's forgotten her gun.


"You know that really happened," Wambaugh says. "I could never make that up."


Just like he couldn't make up the surfer cops, Flotsam and Jetsam. Or the "tweakers" -- meth addicts -- who hang around Graumann's Chinese Theatre to charge tourists for taking pictures of them. Wambaugh described a real call from a dispatcher: "Proceed to Hollywood and Vine, assault in progress, Batman is assaulting Spider-man. Reported by Marilyn Monroe."


Sure enough, the cops get to Graumann's, and there's a tweaker dressed like Spider-man bleeding on the sidewalk. And there's Marilyn Monroe -- a 6-foot-3 transvestite dressed in a blond wig and the "air vent" dress -- telling them that Batman went thataway. No, you can't make that up. --Glenna Whitley

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