A dark drive. We stop. Doors open and shut. Meleen says, “I’m going to look over…” and his flashlight finds a pile. It’s moving, a man’s wasted look in the beam. Meleen jumps. I jump. We both drop back. “Hey, man, what’s up?” Meleen says. The man grumbles to his feet. He’s half-asleep. Another question, and the man is bitching, resisting. Meleen pulls the man’s hands behind his back to cuff him. Now the man’s pissed. When asked, he shoots back his name, Jesse, a dart of pride in it.
“Why are you staying over here, man?” Meleen asks. “Over here” is behind a stand of manzanita, underneath a date palm.
“I was just sleeping, dude. There is no why,” the guy says. “Your ‘why’ must produce a certain [garbled expletive] answer — ”
“What?” Meleen says, as in, explain that again, this time civilly.
“I have no why. I’m just trying to sleep.”
And so it goes. Meleen’s curiosity, Jesse’s defensiveness; Meleen’s query about drugs; Jesse’s blue denial; Meleen’s asking about sharp objects in his pockets; Jesse’s saying he didn’t do nothing, he’s totally sober, he’s a victim. The logic of the lawbreaker: his behavior is all the cops’ fault.
They run his California ID card and find a warrant for his arrest.
“Get these cuffs off,” Jesse says.
“No way,” Meleen says.
“You feel threatened by me?”
“Absolutely,” Meleen counters. “You already pulled away from me once.”
Meleen dons a pair of gloves (“He’s got fleas,” Meleen tells me later; the guy lives in his car), and the pocket-emptying humiliation ensues: Jesse’s worldly possessions — letters, car registration, the police warrant, wallet, candy wrappers — are tossed onto the lighted black trunk of the cruiser, the engine still purring. (Meleen says if he turned the Crown Vic off, the computers and gizmos inside would be dead in a half-hour.) Jesse hangs his head. His feet are in stubby golf socks. He wants his shoes. He can’t have them, not in central jail. Meleen tells him he’ll put everything in his car, parked somewhere else. I catch a glimpse of Jesse’s photo ID: that picture captured a better time. Now he’s puffy-faced, insolent, his middle-parted hair falling aside his downcast eyes. He’s put into the backseat and the insolence stops.
Eventually, we herd Jesse downtown, where he’s photographed and answers medical queries (“No, I don’t feel like killing myself”) and offers another critique of Meleen’s arresting style (“You’re gang-related, man”). He disappears into the jail fortress, those sliding/locking doors as final as hell’s gate. As we drive out, Meleen says, “I guess I’m off his Christmas card list.” I sense a kind of unbridgeable despair in Meleen for having to tend this diseased wing of the flock. There’s something stupid and sad about these petty criminals.
We hustle back to Poway at 88 mph. Meleen’s needed for a field sobriety test, his specialty. As passionate as he is about arresting drunk drivers (he was honored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving last year for his 67 DUI arrests), he’s sympathetic to the times. “We have a lot of people who are economically challenged,” he says. “To escape the problems of home life or financial debt, they go to the bar and drink or buy a six-pack and drink at home.” The tragedy is, when you’re arrested for a DUI, “now you have a whole new set of worries” to add to the ones that got you there.
Working Dawn to Dawn
In a bright-lighted room at San Diego Gas & Electric’s metro headquarters on 33rd Street, a crew of linemen assemble at a bit past 9:00 p.m. for a “tailgate,” a quick confab about tonight’s project: replacing an aging two-ton metal 12-kilovolt transformer, corroded within by sprinkler water, with a new two-ton stainless-steel 12-kilovolt transformer. The crew, many in blue work shirts and already a bit (to my glance) bleary-eyed, is composed of four journeyman linemen — supervisor Mike Taylor; foreman Willie Major; veteran Ismael Blas; “infant” lineman, the rawest with only five years, Nate Fairman — and a crane operator, Carlos Rivera. Each man has been up since 5:00 a.m. and at least two, by working all night and into tomorrow, will be hitting what the company prescribes as the wall: 30 hours straight.
They’re friendly, joking about catnaps, honoring seniority. Major talks the most; the other guys defer. With a meat-packer’s shoulders and narrow glasses, he’s got some 20 years under his hard hat. Good-humored, he runs the show. Nothing moves until he says so.
The unflappable Mike Taylor, with a stubbly red beard, is higher up the ladder. He holds back, observes Major and the crew, looks for signs of drooping: “Complacency,” he tells me, “moving not as they usually do, not sharp. Anytime the communication starts breaking down, I’ll talk with them. I’ll make the decision: go home and rest.” Taylor also notes that linemen have a “true brotherhood: You never want,” because of fatigue, “to put yourself or your brother in danger.”
Major says this outage, a set of medical offices where it’s likely no one’s at work, has been planned to least inconvenience the customers. “Marketing” schedules the optimal time and notifies residents. Invariably, Major warns, not everyone reads the handout. Once in Pacific Beach he showed up for a quick change-out at an apartment building. As he was back-beeping his truck in, an irate man came at him, cursing a blue streak. Major agreed with him, then “destroyed him with kindness.” He calmed the savage surfer, who “by the time I was done came back and apologized.”
Night work for this crew is sweet: double-time union wages, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 465. This crew is not composed of “trouble-men,” who sign up for night emergencies, where, after a day’s work, they’re called to freakish power outages, such as Mylar balloons stuck in the wires. These linemen are scheduled in advance, so they know, “there goes the weekend.” But no one squawks. Midnight comes with the territory. Like lawyers, they qualify for — and remain in — the trade by toiling 50–70 hours a week for much of their career.