Bob Mayo walks up 167th Street like he owns it.
He’s been practicing The Walk.
He’s got it down: the beat cop’s unhurried, unworried progress through the neighborhood. Every leisurely step marks his territory, every sideward glance warns local wannabe hoods to keep their pompadored heads down. This little corner of the west Bronx is his.
The Walk is powered by a subtle but distinct hip roll as the weight of his fullback’s (high school) body shifts from one large shiny black shoe to the other. The police special sits low on his right hip, ruining the line of the long blue jacket. He doesn’t mind the bulge. It and the shiny new badge on his blue coat are the reasons the crowded sidewalk opens before him. This swagger is the result of hours of practice up and down the hall outside of apartment 32A on the sixth floor of his building, under the eyes of disapproving neighbors and wide-eyed kids. Mayo has dreamed of this day. Too young for the Second World War, at last he has a uniform and a gun.
And bad guys out there to vanquish.
This is the sidewalk meltdown summer of 1953, a month of 90+ degrees. Eisenhower is in the White House, far less happy and articulate as a president than he was as a general. (He’s discovered that giving orders is easier than giving news conferences.) It’s the Korean rehearsal for Indo China and Viet Nam. More locally, the continuing Yankee dynasty renews itself (DiMaggio hands over to Mantle).
Now, in his new policeman’s uniform swinging his shiny new policeman’s billy club, Mayo proceeds up 167th Street towards the Concourse, surveying his territory under the brim of his new policeman’s hat. Glancing from side to side he confidently flips club at the end of its the leather thong, an act of lazy intimidation expertly practiced by generations of New York cops on their beats. But Mayo’s club flips counter-clockwise, then bounces off his outstretched hand, revealing a rookie on his first patrol. He quickly reels the club back in his hand and looks around.
A couple of smirking 10- year-olds stand outside the candy store. Mayo’s hands suddenly feel sweaty. With each step west up the hill it gets hotter.
He tries the club twirl again but now his hands are too slippery and his confidence melted.
He passes the delicatessen with hot dogs wrinkling and potato knishes blackening on the grill in the window. Then the “appetizing” store with its carp swimming in the window tank, pickles bobbing up and down in brine in open barrels on the saw-dusted floor, the hills of nuts and dried fruit, yellowish smoked white fish beside the smoked salmon, the mountain of halvah on the counter. Mayo takes an apple from cart outside and bites. Then, from a distance, two New York voices getting louder and louder, passions heated by the weather. At the top of the hill two yellow taxis sit side-by-side at an endless red light, gunning their engines. The drivers honk their horns, wave their arms and shout at each other through the open windows. Across the Grand Concourse, a 6-lane thoroughfare designed after the Champs Elysée as the Bronx’s own epic parade route, a man with a child is hailing one of them. Or the other.
Mayo has reached the Kent Theater.
On its marquee the word “S H A N E”, in huge capital letters, circles around. One by one letters appear from around the corner, each letter a score or more of white bulbs, until the word is present, and then disappears. Following it, in smaller blue letters with ice tops: “It’s COOL inside”. Beneath the marquee is a ticket kiosk and behind the glass with its mouse hole opening at the bottom sits a hot, tired, unsmiling woman in a hot, tired red uniform. The Kent, unlike the Loews 167th Street across the Concourse and especially unlike the Loew’s Paradise near Fordham Road, is no movie palace, not the place to take a date. It‘s a place to see a double bill and the Movietone News for 35¢, sleep all afternoon or shout at the screen. It had seen better days a month after it opened.
The woman is imprisoned and not just by her kiosk. On either side stand life-size cut-outs of Alan Ladd and Jack Palance, two actors of the Forties shooting their way into the Fifties. They face each other feet spread, bodies hunched, hands beside their holsters. She is directly in their crossfire. The cardboard Ladd has something he does not in the flesh: height. Here he is as tall as the unsmiling Mr Palance, Hollywood’s baddest Bad Guy.
Mayo stops and considers. He moves slowly around and in front of Palance. Facing him, legs spread, he pulls his hat lower at the brim. His right hand moves to his side and pulls the side vents of his jacket to reveal his holster. The two gunmen glare at each other. A mother and child walk slowly past, turn their heads, then hurry off, the boy dragging behind, eyes wide. Mayo turns away and swings his club now expertly, grabbing it just as it arcs up and is about to fall. He taps the rim of his hat and nods smiling to the woman behind the glass and walks into the cool.
The air is full of screaming kids and the smell of 30 years of popcorn, including the fresh handfuls flying through it launched by the audience. Shouting at the screen, they stop only to heave handfuls in their mouths too. Ten years before Mayo was in one of those seats, throwing popcorn from the balcony. Back in the kiosk the woman thinks: cops, punks, put a uniform on them and they think they own the place.
The sound of the movie intoxicates him. He sees the action in his mind before he sees the screen. Slowly, he climbs the stairs towards the balcony. Victor Young’s music rises with him. He and the men on the big screen are moving to a climax. In his mind’s eye—-as on the screen—Shane, the homesteader’s friend and Palance as Jack Wilson, the hired gun, are about to settle things: Good v Evil.
Earlier, Shane, the good gunman, gives every kid the right to feel forever OK about guns.
Shane: A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.
Mayo pushes passed the curtain on to the balcony. He stands to the side of the packed rows of excited young voices, eyes, like everyone lese, fixed on the screen. He slowly spreads his feet and holds his arms out wide. His body takes on the crouch of the men on the screen. Mayo pulls his coat aside and unsnaps the safety catch of his holster. He puts his hand not on his gun but just hovering above the handle. He is in the movie. He is Shane. At the end of a row a boy turns his head from the screen and stares. The theater has gone quiet.
Shane: So you’re Jack Wilson.
Jack Wilson: What’s that mean to you, Shane?
Shane: I’ve heard about you.
Jack Wilson: What have you heard, Shane?
Shane: I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar.
Jack Wilson: Prove it.
On the screen Wilson and Shane draw and fire.
On the balcony, Shane II also draws his revolver and fires at the screen. “Bang! Bang! Bang! he shouts at the top of his voice. And then, just after the action on the screen has gone silent, “Bang! Bang!” His voice fills the theater.
Every kid in the balcony is looking at him. Downstairs heads turn and look up. A dozing usher in the back row springs into life and shines her flashlight on him, picking out his silver badge. Mayo slowly replaces the gun. He rises from the crouch. The cop replaces the gunslinger. Freed from life on the big screen he slips behind the curtain and disappears.
He bounds down the steps, passes the kiosk and is up 167th Street. Turning left on the corner he walks quickly passed the news stand by the IND Subway entrance with Jewish Daily Forward, the Day, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Irish Times hanging above the cigar- smoking owner reading the Post. Only after the first art deco apartment building on the Concourse is behind him does he slow down. He glances back. No one. He turns and steps quickly down the steps and into the shadows of the narrow side alley which leads to the store room of the building. Standing by large cans of ash from the furnace he reaches into his breast pocket and takes out a half-smoked joint.
Minutes later he is back on the street, walking away from the sweet lingering smoke. Loosening his billy club on its leather thong, he begins to swing it, and proceeds, slowly, deliberately, down the Concourse, doing The Walk.