Parts of Milwaukee’s most derelict inner city areas have homes that were built in the early to middle 20th Century. They were, and remained as of the 1980s, beautiful buildings – at least by outward appearances. Their property values had fallen to a shockingly low amount, because of the crime and other negative aspects of their surroundings. There were some enterprising and rising young people who rented, and even managed to purchase, some of these homes. They had the courage to make good things happen, and stood their ground.

Many of these people are well-to-do business people, or public officials in highly advanced positions. They went to school, got their university degrees, and became champions of their old neighborhoods, as well as estimable leaders of Milwaukee’s society. They were always good citizens and kept to themselves, living good lives, raising their families in a responsible manner.

As a young cop and detective, I was privileged to meet many of them, and proud to become friends with some. Many of them were fellow police officers and squad partners.

One of the aforementioned homes contained a family consisting of a young woman, in her early thirties, and two young boys, around the ages of ten and twelve. This young woman and her two boys are among the most memorable people I met while on the police force.

It was cold the night I met them, on Christmas Eve. My partner and I were sent to followup on a “routine” burglary – there’s really no such thing, but through shear number of occurrences, they get mashed into a mundane grouping – and were greeted at the door by a young and beautiful woman who was dressed in expensive looking business attire. She smiled when she opened the door.

She motioned for us to enter and swung her arm behind her, and pointed at a lonely Christmas tree. I say lonely, because it was Christmas Eve and there were no presents under the tree. Or nearby. Of course, all of the presents had been taken by filth-of-the-Earth thieves who’d broken into the home of a single mother who was out to dinner with her two sons.

We learned all that and more while interviewing her about the break-in of her home.

“Lived in this house all my life,” she said. She was proud, and she deserved to be. It was one of those swanky two story brick buildings made of heavy brown brick. The interior was clean and had plush, well-cared for furniture. Except for the evidence of ransacking the burglars had done while looking for children’s toys to steal, the woman was obviously high-minded and cared for her family.

She was divorced, and her ex-husband was not part of her children’s lives. She did not elaborate.

“I’m a law clerk,” she said, and named an upscale law firm with a good reputation. “Wanna be a lawyer. Some day I will be.”

Her appearance and demeanor were startling. She lived in a very tough neighborhood where most people lived in minimal ways. There was crime all around, and it was not a restful place. Yet she was formidable against the environment – she seemed to be taking this horrible event, with horrible holiday season timing, completely in stride.

Her sons were in their bedrooms when we first arrived. After she provided the initial required information and described what had been touched, and told us what had been taken, she paused and looked at me with a sad smile. She said something to the affect that I see this kind of stuff all the time, and here she is acting like she’s the only one around who gets hurt this way.

I couldn’t belief what I’d heard. We were all together in the midst of a devastating event on Christmas Eve – she made sure to mention that she was a Christian, and that God has his mysterious ways – and she was the strongest one among us.

She called to her sons to come speak with us. The younger one had been crying, the older of the two simply looked depressed.

“They got everything,” the older boy said.

We looked in their bedrooms – their mother could actually afford to provide separate bedrooms for them – and saw the typical extra ransacking that is given to nicer homes. Pulling clothes down from their closet racks for no other reason than for the criminal to show their disdain for people who properly take care of themselves.

My partner checked for prints. That’s right, in the olden days detectives themselves carried their own forensics kits and dusted appropriate items for fingerprints. CSI? What? The boys down at the lab analyzed what we mostly brought to them. Things changed very quickly.

The young mother continued searching different areas of the home, for ransacking damage as well as additional missing items. Her sons moped. Who could blame them?

So here we had an ambitious woman fighting it out in what was still largely a man’s world, and doing so successfully in a respectable, decent paying career, living in a home she’d inherited but was still paying a mortgage. Raising two kids. She was winning in the losing-est area one could find.

Not good enough.

Creeps had to metaphorically smash her teeth in on the most important religious holiday of the year, according to her beliefs, and she had to quietly sift through the wreckage, keep her kids calm, and contemplate her immediate future.

Every now and then I investigated a crime where a particular victim’s plight gave me extra pause. This was one of those occasions, as my own spirits sank the longer I was there..Of course, cops are human and that happens to us all, although being professionals we keep it under wraps.

The woman had bravely maintained her tough-but-controlled demeanor, even making a few jokes. I stood in the dining room, writing notes in my memorandum book, and went to the kitchen. She’d gone in there moments earlier, and I had a question.

She was leaning against the sink counter top, with one hand stroking her chin. Her expression was blank but she stared straight ahead. She’d paid me no mind when I first entered the room. A single, thick tear streak slowly rolled down her cheek. Her eyes bulged slightly with moisture. She became aware of my presence and brought her hand to the rebellious tear streak and wiped it clean away. She looked at me, her expression dark and her features sagging, her eyes blank. Not teary and sad, but blank.

She instantly straightened, and her facial expression followed suit. The tear was gone, as was the defeated expression, and she actually smiled at me.

“So, what’s next?” she asked, obviously not to inquire about my duties, but to help her break the spell that had come over her.

I was shocked into silence, momentarily unable to comprehend her strength, her fortitude, her diligence at wanting to take care of things; her kids, her wrecked home and ruined Christmas celebration. A moment later she was looking and acting the same way she’d looked and acted when my partner and I first came into her home.

That moment was among the most powerful and memorable of any I’d experienced in my police career. I never forgot the visual details, the feelings of sorrow I felt coming from her – and being dissolved by her in an instant.

Back to business, you guys have a crime to solve. I’ll take care of myself, I could almost hear her thinking.

And I’d thought I was a tough guy.


ROb2This is the 14th in an ongoing series from Rob.

He spent thirty-two years as a Milwaukee police officer: seven years doing undercover narcotics investigations and twenty-two years as a major crimes detective. Writing and reading have been lifelong passions, and he began by writing short stories more than thirty years ago.

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