Night view looking north up North Swan St. in Arbor Hill Feb, 1967, in Albany, N.Y. (Times Union archive)
Silhouetted by the yellow light of a single table lamp, its shade tipped and scorched, I didn’t recognize Mimi at first. In fact, I thought she was just another of the thousand or so domestics I’d interviewed in their quiet or hysterical moments after men had beaten the hell out of them.
When I sat across from her in what passed for her living room, dining room, and bedroom, I still wasn’t sure this was the girl who had been my daughter’s classmate from grade school and into high school. It had been nine years since I had last spoken to her. About the last time I had seen my daughter.
“Mr. Dinovo,” she said, a glimmer of hope flashing in her eyes at the sight of a once-familiar face. Just as quickly that look was snuffed by a sullen darkness, eyes downcast in an attitude of shame or secrecy. I’d seen that too many times over the past 25 years, as well. The difference with those girls was they hadn’t been to my daughter’s sleep-overs sixteen or seventeen times.
“Hi, Mimi. You doing okay?”
She now had assumed the tone of the accused, the tone I’d heard so often from the time I was a rookie right up to these days of leading murder investigations. No defiance, just vague false sincerity. Two words welded into one, implicit with the message: “Please leave me, please go away, please, I don’t want no trouble anymore.”
“OK, honey, have you been seen by the EMT, the fireman?”
“And you’ve been talked to by the officer; she explained your rights?”
She turned away from me, the light now illuminating more of her face and my memories of recognition.
Mimi was a girl of exotic beauty in this dark and barren place. Even now, her skin was smooth and brown as a caramel apple, a face some men might dream to make art about. There were a few things beside the passage of time that kept her from the perfection of her teens. The first was the plain fact that she was a whore, a prostitute in a city where many could be declared such, but she, unfortunately, was one by definition.
Second, was that scar at the corner of her left eye that ran down and around her cheek, curving back toward where it came from. The track of a tear she decided to uncry, maybe. I had a feeling she’d cried her share.
“Lieutenant, do you want me to finish this interview?” The female uniform wasn’t used to detective lieutenants sitting with just another beat-up black girl in the Arbor Hill slums.
“That’s okay, officer, I can handle this.” I probably was a little sterner with the young woman than I should have been, but this wasn’t something I wanted somebody else to handle. This was something I was doing for my kid.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened tonight, Mimi?”
“Nothing, I just had a accident.”
“No you didn’t. Did your boyfriend Maurice hurt you, tear this place up?”
“No. I…I got high and I must have flipped out. I tripped on the lamp cord and fell.”
“High, huh? I smell a lot of smells around here, but none of them are weed.”
In addition to the usual aromas in apartment buildings like this one–that odor of boiled cabbage, urine, vestiges of The Joint, and I don’t mean marijuana–there was the tell-tale stench of a combination of burnt plastic and sugar. I didn’t need to see the crack pipe.
Mimi became my daughter Dawn’s friend in third grade. Her mother got her into the Catholic school Dawn attended after Mimi’s father was shot and killed in a convenience store holdup. Her mom did the best she could to support Mimi and her younger brother, Ervin, but they ended up moving to a neighborhood where the department used to send the rookies. Nobody else wanted to work there except the cowboys hoping to make a score in totals of arrests for themselves. That’s where I saw Mrs. Jenkins hanging on a street corner one night with other girls. I saw her a handful of times more and I figured out what was going on. After that, I told Dawn it might be a nice thing to invite Mimi for some sleepovers every once in a while.
“Where’s your family, hon? Can your mom look after you, anyone else?” I asked.
“My mom died four years ago. You know about Ervin.”
Mimi’s younger brother had been swept up in gangs at a young age. He was convicted of assault on a police officer and a couple of other beefs. Last year he was sent upstate to a facility deep in the Adirondacks. These were two good little kids who got sucked into a sociological whirlpool from which they could not escape. I was one of the caretakers that guarded a wall containing that eddy.
“I try to visit him, but I got no money and it’s a long trip by bus,” Mimi said.
“Is there anyone else who could put you up tonight?”
“I can take of myself.”
“Yeah, I see that.”
“County took my baby, you know.”
“I didn’t know you had a baby.”
“Little Maurice, yeah.”
She put her face in her hands and started to cry. As always, I was clueless about what to do in a case like this. I motioned the female officer over. I pulled out of the circle of yellow light and thought about how Dawn was taken from me.
As my career was moving along, I started drinking more than I should. I mean, you finish the second or third shift in this jungle around 11:00 o’clock and you can’t go right home. The day’s work stays with you awhile, keys you up. The feel and the smell of it stays with you. Eventually, I believed I couldn’t wash it off, so I washed it down.
I’d get home as the sun was coming up and I’d go to bed, hardly ever seeing Dawn until I woke up and she was coming home from school. And then I’d have to head to work with barely a peck on the cheek for her. Maybe not even that for her mother, Gail.
By the time Dawn was 13, I was a detective and her mother told me she’d had enough of being the lonely police widow, only without the benefit of my death. Gail was fed up with me being drunk and abusive whenever I was home. Arguments would start and a couple of times I even hit her. Sometimes right in front of Dawn. When she called the cops on me, I showed the officers my shield and all was forgiven, at least as far as the official record.
Gail knew she was in a no-win situation. To her, I was as much a criminal as the ones I was chasing and arresting. You spend enough time in the jungle, you can become an animal, too, if you allow it. Her choice was an easy one.
She bailed and took Dawn with her. I was so messed up, hurt, and angry, it was easy for her to get sole custody. It took me four years after that to get straight. It was either dry out or lose my job, which turned out seemed more important to me than a family. It was after that I began to try to make things right.
“Lieutenant, Ms. Jenkins wants to talk to you,” the young uniform said.
“What’s up, Mimi?”
“Mr. Dinovo, I’m tired. Can’t you all go and let me sleep?”
“Not until you tell me what happened, Mimi. I gotta make a report.”
I didn’t tell her to whom. I was tired, too. I was working day shift now and not used to being up all night anymore. I was a little more than three weeks from retirement, the start of a new life. I’d already scored a job as chief of security in a little college in South Carolina. I was determined to leave the jungle behind.
“Just tell me it was Maurice and we’ll call it a night.”
“No, you don’t know what he’s like. And I still love him. I just was bad, that’s all.”
“Look, Mimi, yeah, you’ve been bad, but you don’t deserve to be beat up like this.”
“Who asked you to come here, anyway? Was it that bitch daughter of yours?”
“Hey, knock that shit off. What if it was Dawn?”
Over the past few months, I had reconnected with Dawn. I still was trying to take care of all my twelve steps and the making amends part was the toughest. I don’t think Gail will ever forgive me, though I keep trying. I couldn’t find Dawn, though, and Gail wasn’t in any mood to help. Then, three months ago, Dawn called me. We’d exchanged emails and some phone conversations since then and I was hopeful of a continuing thaw, even though she said she couldn’t see me.
“She’s the reason you’re here? Shit, she’s the reason I’m here,” Mimi said.
“What the he’ll are you talking about?”
“Dawn got me hooked up with Maurice.”
I jumped up and pulled her around so she faced me.
“What do you mean?”
“Was Dawn got me with Maurice after he was done with her.”
“Done with her?”
“Was her boyfriend. It was while she ran away from her mom a few years ago.”
My heart sunk. How the hell could a police lieutenant, someone who reads every report every day, not know a teenage girl had run away? Where the hell was Gail? Why didn’t she tell me?
“Girl angry at everybody, just had enough and started hanging in this neighborhood. Had to get away from her mother. She’s a big drunk, you know.”
No, I didn’t know. Dawn hadn’t given me any idea of this.
“Anyway, bitch took a shine to my cousin’s boyfriend and stole him. She said she loved him and he loved her. He just used her, though, the crackhead bitch.”
“What are you saying?”
“She’d do anything to keep him happy, and for some free rock. She even turned some tricks for it. But, he…”
“That’s it, Mimi, cut this shit lying.”
“Ain’t lying. She nothing but a crack whore; no better than.…”
“No. She got greedy, though. Started business for herself. Maurice found out and smacked her good. Serves her right. Bitch couldn’t even kill herself right. Found her beat up on the floor of my apartment one day, laying next to a puddle of puke, crying. Got a cab and sent her home to mommy, haven’t heard from her since.”
Gail never called me. Her hatred was too big, I guess.
My hatred had just been recharged, though. I knew what I had to do.
“Okay, Mimi, enough. I tried to help my daughter. Yeah, she called me. I don’t even know where from. Look, tomorrow an officer’s going to stop by here. You’d better be here, too. The officer is going to give you a bus ticket to Plattsburgh. She’ll give you an envelope with money in it. You’re going to take that bus and visit Ervin. I don’t want to see you around here for at least a month. I’m going to call the State Police troop captain up there and he’s going to make sure you’re set up for a while.”
“I ain’t leaving. I got to see Maurice or he’ll…”
“Oh, you’re going alright. And don’t you worry about Maurice. He won’t be following you. He’s going to be staying here.”
“You ain’t gonna hurt him, are you? Like I said, all this was my fault.”
“I don’t care whose fault any of this is. I’m just trying to tie up some loose ends before I retire. You were a good girl. Your mother tried her best for you, more than I ever did for Dawn. I owe it to both of them to set things straight,” I said.
“You don’t owe them nothing. Why don’t you just go away and leave everybody alone, just like you did before?”
I turned to the uniform.
“Officer, I want you to stay with Ms. Jenkins until your shift is over. I’ll see that you’re relieved. Make sure she cleans up this place and packs some things for a trip. She’s leaving town for a few days tomorrow.”
“I ain’t going. When Maurice hears about this ain’t nobody gonna be happy.”
“Enough! Maurice won’t care. Officer, take over.”
I stepped quickly out of the apartment. Outside, the air was cold and the eastern sky glowed pink above the tenements.
Red sky at morning, sailor take warning, I thought. Yeah, take warning.
By noon, I made sure that Mimi was headed north and the State Police would meet her at the bus station. I called in every chit I had up there to have her driven by a Trooper in a cruiser to the correctional facility. The Trooper would drive her back to the city later. When she got back, a city cop would see she got a place to stay and was kept busy for the next four weeks. I figured in Plattsburgh, she might just pick up her life where she left off. With luck, it would be some brighter part of her life before Maurice.
All day I coasted the neighborhood. Searching. I found him that night walking alone a couple of blocks from Mimi’s. Looked like he’d been searching, too. Too bad I found what I was looking for before he did.
I called Dawn that night to tell her I was leaving for South Carolina in a few days, burning some of my remaining vacation time rather than sticking around until my last day. I asked if I could see her before I left. She wasn’t sure if that was a good idea. Maybe she was right. Some things are hard to change.
It sounded like Dawn had changed, though. She asked me about Mimi and I told her she was going to be okay. That she was visiting her brother for awhile.
“What about Maurice, Daddy?”
“Looks like he’s gone, too, hon,” I said.
The other day, I got a call in my new condo from an old detective buddy in Albany. He said that Maurice Bidwell’s body was found by some vagrants under a pile of bricks next to a burned out vacant tenement.
“No shit. Any suspects?”
“Kinda,” he said. “He was shot in the head. Ballistics said it was a 22-caliber that had been used in a couple of robberies you investigated. Did you have any leads on who was the doer in those stick-ups? Anything?”
“You know? I always thought it was Maurice who was good for those. Couldn’t prove anything. Guess I was wrong.”
“Okay, thanks, Tony. Hey, how’s that soft new job going for you down there? We had our first snow here last night.”
“Well, Billy, tomorrow my daughter and granddaughter are coming down for a few weeks. Never even seen the little one before. And the weather? Let me just say I’m sitting here on my deck drinking a beer, watching the sun set. Red sky tonight. You connect the dots.”
This is one of my Albany stories. I write about Albany a lot, whether I identify it as such or not because it’s as much a part of me as my hand or heart. As part of my Story a Day challenge, I was tasked to write a story in which the setting is key. In Albany, historically there were two major underprivileged areas, The South End and Arbor Hill. Of the two, I know the latter more. I grew up next to it, delivered newspapers in the West Hill, on the edge of Arbor Hill. Things have improved there, but back in the late 60s and the 70s, it was very rough.