An Ear Against the Blue Wall

I tire easily of Henry James and can countenance only so much blue. If I got a kick out of being cryptic, I’d say that about explains why this journal contains only a single reference to Dragnet, the influential crime drama that, between 1949 and 1957, caught the ear of millions tuning in to NBC radio. As much as I enjoy detective stories, I don’t warm readily to cop shows. Or cops, for that matter, the sight of whom is rarely a comfort to me. Let me give you a “for instance.” One sunny afternoon in September, I was sitting on a bench in Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It being the beginning of a new semester, and the beginning of my career as a doctoral student, I had a backpack full of books to pore over so as not to fall behind right from the start. I was—and am—a slow reader; and, when it comes to American and British fiction, a non-native one at that.

So, I took out the library copy of James’s Princess Casamassima, a tome so long and somnolent that I struggled to keep my eyes open. The next thing I know is that an officer addresses me from a police car several yards behind me, insists that I had broken a law, and hands me a ticket. I was very nearly speechless; but, after cautioning a few old ladies on the verge of dozing off over their cross-stitching that they would do so at their own peril, I betook myself, past the crowds gathered in the area for the annual German-American Steuben Parade, to the nearest precinct, where I protested against the treatment I had received. At that point I ran into what is commonly known as the blue wall. There was no alternative but to appear in court, a prospect likely to make the non-immigrant even more uneasy than the citizen.

However trifling, this experience made me think of those who had been abused in the name of the law, in the name of all the laws the breaking of which does not mean the least bit of harm or inconvenience to anyone, but whose enforcement provides those in uniform with the opportunity to intimidate, demonstrate their might, and put a few coins into government coffers. My case was ultimately dismissed; but the whole affair caused me no slight irritation. Is it any wonder that I prefer my Friday on a desert island?

Still, the chance of placing an ear on that blue wall and listening in on the workings of the force has an undeniable appeal. The one radio program to cater to spies like me was Night Watch (1954-55), billed as “the actual on-the-scene report of your police force in action.”

“You’re gonna ride with us tonight,” the narrator promised those tuning in to CBS on this day, 25 September, in 1954. “And remember, the people you meet are not actors. What happens to us, happens to you; because this is it. This is real. This is Night Watch.

This early reality show was presented with the cooperation of the police department of Culver City, California, and took listeners straight to the scene of conflict. In the 25 September 1954 installment, the cases involve stolen motel towels and a disagreement between a mother and her fourteen-year-old daughter whose unrehearsed, unscripted words and untrained voices leave no doubt as to the authenticity of the recorded incident, careful editing notwithstanding.

While Night Watch did not feature the sensational crimes that listeners came to expect from fictional programs, the reporter accompanying the officers was attacked, shot and stabbed, on at least two occasions while serving as proxy witness to scenes of juvenile delinquency, prostitution, domestic abuse and suicide.

No matter how diligent, courteous, and compassionate the officers, the star attractions of the series are the average, anonymous folks of whose lives the audience gets an earful as if being handed a glass to press against the walls behind which dwelled the neighbors to whom our doors are closed. Having been kicked off that bench, I can meet them with something else besides idle curiosity.

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