©1999 - 2005
Edward D. Reuss
All rights reserved. Including the right of reproduction in whole or part in any form



  June 1, l964 was a clear warm day when I stood roll call in the 4th Precinct.  Did I say the 4th Precinct? That's right. During the city financial crisis back in the l970s, the NYPD merged a number of precincts. The old 4th Precinct was merged with the Old Slip Precinct and redesignated as the new 1st Precinct. The stationhouse is located at the corner of Ericsson Place and Varick Street in Manhattan. The brass plate over the entrance still has the original precinct designation and year of dedication.

Sergeant Lambertson, the patrol sergeant, called the roll and glanced at me with a funny look as he instructed me to relieve the cop from the late tour at the Bond Hotel. The cop was guarding a DOA who was discovered in one of the rooms.  Sergeant Lambertson marched us out the doors of the stationhouse into the bright sunlight to take our posts. I turned right onto Varick Street and began walking south towards Chambers Street when a patrol car pulled up beside me. I immediately recognized Patrolman Jim Hennessey with his partner Officer Roy Brennan. Hennessey motioned for me to sit in the back seat of the car. Those were the days before air-conditioned police cars. All the windows were open and the heat from the idling engine filled the interior. The uniform of the day was summer blouse with shirt and tie. The temperature could be over 90 degrees, but until orders came over the teletype allowing only shirt and tie, the heavy blue jacket called the "blouse" had to stay on.
 The four sector cars and the sergeant's car on patrol in the 4th Precinct were in operation for the entire 24 hour period, seven days a week. It amazed me how those cars could run continuously. You could always tell a car that was assigned to a Manhattan precinct. When going on a radio run, they could rarely move out of their own way. From hours of idling and slow traffic, the engines just couldn't get up the speed. The sector cars were painted a drab combination of colors. The roof was white, the trunk and hood were green, and the fenders were painted black. On a warm summer's day, the interior of the cars would usually be like ovens. The seats were upholstered in black imitation leather. In an era when smoking was almost a universal vice, the dashboards of those radio cars would be scarred with burn marks of cigars and cigarettes.  The floors of the cars would be covered with white ashes and portions of uneaten pizza pie crusts along with old newspapers crammed under the seats. It was amusing to hear the cops yelling at each other at the end of the tour when the new crews came on. Leaving the car filled with trash or without filling the tank with gas was a cardinal sin with seasoned officers. Most of the platoon were foot cops and glad not to be in the hot and dirty radio cars. Walking a foot post was a pleasure compared to working radio motor patrol.

Hennessey was a streetwise cop with a sense of humor. He always seemed to have a twinkle in his Irish eyes. I liked him. He had a good heart. Turning to me, he asked if I had ever had a really bad DOA job. He smiled at his partner when I shook my head.  We moved into traffic and came to the side entrance of the Bond Hotel. I noticed an Emergency Service truck parked in front with a tall veteran cop pulling out large canvas body bags. The Emergency Service cop turned and asked who was assigned to the body. He glanced at me without comment. We entered the shabby lobby of the hotel and waited for the elevator.
The Emergency cop looked at me and said: "I only got one thing to say, Kid, this is the worst DOA that even I ever handled." (He stressed the word "I" for the obvious reason that he handled many such dead bodies before).
 Hennessey and Brennan grinned with raised eyebrows. I had a little trouble swallowing as the perspiration formed on my face.

When the doors of the elevator opened on the floor, the air was thick with the odor of burning coffee grains and liquid ammonia that the cops had splashed on the floors covering the hallway and room where the body was located. A second Emergency cop wearing a gas mask was backing out of the room. He left the door open to vent the vile odors wafting out of the tiny rental room. He had opened the window and the cheap drapes flapped with the breeze blowing inside. The cop that I relieved was Patrolman Jimmy Carrara of the 4th Precinct. Jimmy handed me the UF 95 tag (dead human body tag) and briefed me about the details of the dead body. He looked tired and green around the gills after spending his late tour with the decomposing body. He would be glad to leave to return to the precinct and go home.

We peered into the room and I was initially stunned by the appearance of the body, which was lying on a small bed. The cadaver was blackened. The stomach and entire body was bloated to an unbelievable size and appeared to be ready to burst from the gasses that had formed inside the corpse. The droning of flies filled the air. Maggots swarmed in the center of the abdomen where the rotten flesh had split. The first impression that I had was that I was looking at the remains of a large animal. In life, the man had been a cook who weighed over 300 pounds. One of the other residents who knew him said he had been ill with kidney problems. I had been to many funerals in my life and I had seen dead people lying in their caskets at wakes. I had also read books about war and was always struck by the impact that death had on soldiers in battle.  But nothing prepares you for the foul smell of death. The eyes see; the fingers touch; and ears hear, but those are generally external sensations. But the foul odor penetrated into your body through your nose and mouth until they reach the taste buds.  The small hairs inside your nasal passages seemed to absorb the horrid smell and hours after leaving the scene of a dead body, the taste of death remained.

 Two morgue workers from the Chief Medical Examiner's office were already on the scene and they gladly stood aside as the Emergency Service cops did their workThe two Emergency cops were busy lashing the two body bags together. They knew from experience that a body the size of this one would never fit inside one bag. Sergeant Lambertson arrived on the scene and watched as they cut off a ring from the blackened and swollen fingers with a ring cutter. We all gagged as the Emergency cops searched the body. Thank God for gas masks.
Next, they took steel bars and punched holes into the adjoining room. The plan was to place the body bags on the floor next to the dead man, and then tie ropes to his right wrist and leg. At a signal, we would all pull on the ropes and hope that when the body fell onto the bags it wouldn't burst.

I'll never forget the sound of that body hitting the canvas bags. The plan worked. The Emergency men with their faces covered with gas masks entered the room and began fastening the straps together. My eyes were tearing from the ammonia and I gagged as my stomach retched from the smothering stink.  I grabbed a corner of the bag and the five of us strained as we lifted the burden. We squeezed out the door of the tiny room and into the hallway. A trail of body fluids indicated our path to the elevator as it leaked out of the canvas.

We stood inside the confines of that elevator with barely enough room to move and the smell was overpowering. I prayed that the gasses inside the corpse wouldn't burst while we were taking that ride down to the lobby. As the doors opened, we lugged the bag through the lobby into the street to the waiting morguewagon. I watched as the vehicle left for the medical examiner's office uptown. Hennessey turned to me and said: "Remember to tell the Desk Officer to post change you to the morgue tomorrow. You've got to identify the body to the ME at the autopsy."

I remembered that in cases of sudden or unexplained death, or when no doctor was in attendance, there would have to be an autopsy to determine the cause of death. This was done for good reasons. Many times, when a body was in a state of advanced decomposition, the precinct detectives couldn't do a thorough examination of the body at the scene. It was not unusual that at the autopsy, the pathologist doing the dissection would discover that the victim had been murdered.

 That evening, when I returned home, Laurel had prepared dinner: chicken cacciatore with Spanish rice. For some reason, I lost my appetite.
The next day I reported for a day tour and was given a post change to the Chief Medical Examiner's Officer on First Avenue in Manhattan. From the street, the building looked like any other office building, but once you entered the front doors and went downstairs to the morgue and dissection room, you entered a world of death. It was a busy place. The pathologists and morgue workers seemed determined to shock visiting rookie cops. There were often four or more bodies that had been surgically cut open revealing all of the internal organs of the body. The skulls had been cut open with saws and the face pulled down with the scalp. For non-medical personnel, witnessing multiple autopsies in progress could be sickening. The officer assigned to identify the body to the pathologist played a key role in the chain of custody of evidence, especially if a homicide was involved.

When I made the identification at the autopsy, I gladly left that place of death and walked onto First Avenue and looked up at the clear blue sky. The sun felt good on my face as I filled my lungs with air. It was great to be alive. I returned to that place quite a few times during my career, but I never could get used to it. It would always put things in perspective for me, though. Life was precious. It was to be lived one day at a time.

©Copyright  l999 Edward D. Reuss



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