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Us and Them 

The Code of the Cop Bar

Wednesday, Nov 3 1999
Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter
"BESIDES THE 15 WOODEN GUN LOCKERS MOUNTED ON THE BACK WALL BETWEEN THE BATHROOMS, there's nothing about the Short Stop that immediately gives it away as an LAPD hangout. While it may be heavy on department paraphernalia -- a display case full of miniature badges; fliers announcing retirement parties; a memorial plaque for a young officer killed in the line of duty -- the narrow room looks like any other Everyman bar, with baseball pennants and Bud pitchers and a jukebox in the corner. In fact, it takes newcomers a minute to realize they've entered a cop bar, and it's kind of fun to watch: Some hipster will wander in off the street, order a beer and take a stool. A few moments later, you'll see him indirectly eyeing the other customers, considering their short hair, thick necks, the occasional holster, the propensity toward mustaches. And then, as often as not, you'll see his back stiffen, as he runs a moral checklist the way one might, under different social circumstances, check for B.O.: Have I done anything I need to be worried about? Do I have a roach in my watch pocket? If I drink this beer too quickly, will I arouse suspicion?

They usually don't come back. While various locals -- neighborhood bohos referred to as "the artsy-fartsies," working joes -- can be found at the Short Stop, it's not the easiest place to relax, a fact that has nothing whatsoever to do with hospitality; in fact, the bartenders will introduce you to your neighbor and remember what you drink. Rather, it's the discomfort factor between "us" and "them" that dissuades most people who aren't involved in law enforcement -- a category that includes officers, detectives, firemen, 911 operators, court reporters -- from hanging out here, a perceived division that seems to be based not on behavior so much as shared experience.

"The first time I went there, I was dressed in sort of dominatrix wear -- a pink Naugahyde jacket and a Legionnaire's cap with a little bill," says a freelance photographer. "I walk in with my friends, basically a bunch of artists from Silver Lake, and this one customer says, 'You're never gonna get served unless I buy you one. I'll buy your first, but it'll be your last.' So we drink up, and as we're leaving, this cop stops me, looks into my eyes and says, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me.' And I thought, 'Whoa, and they think we're freaks.'"

As one senior officer explains the alienation: "Think back to an old Star Trek movie, The Search for Spock. Spock and Dr. McCoy are talking. Dr. McCoy wants to know what it's like to be dead. Spock tells him, matter-of-fact, no emotion, 'We can't talk about it. We have no common frame of reference.'"

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This lack of a common frame of reference drives officers into the Short Stop for more than a cold one: It's a country with a common language, where the guy next to you understands the stresses you're under every day, a haven when the public and even your family think you're not normal. A place, in essence, where no one calls you a freak.

IT'S A MIDSUMMER HAPPY HOUR AT THE SHORT STOP. The jukebox plays Garth Brooks' "Shameless" as a half-dozen midcareer officers sit at the bar, splitting pitchers of beer and hooting over each other's jokes. They're all built like football players (broad in the back, going slightly to fat), dressed in their off-duty attire, Dockers and sport shirts. If mainstream American masculinity, the kind you see in Miller Lite commercials, could be measured, this place would be off the charts. The amusements are likewise prosaic: trash talk about the Dodgers (the Short Stop is a former big-league hangout, hence the name), and some ribald flirtation with Deana, who looks more Kansas farm girl than Echo Park bartender.

"Please show me your tits," pleads a firefighter as he walks in the door.

"Oh, I can't do that!" Deana says. "Sheesh, and I thought cops were dogs." Most of the cops laugh; one barks.

Michael, who does contracts for Reuters, comes in and orders a Mantini (a Royal Crown martini) and starts shooting the shit with Leonard and Tony, firefighters wearing Hawaiian-print shirts. When I ask if they called each other before they came, like 12-year-old girls, to see what the other was wearing, they bookend me. ã

"You're calling us girls?" asks the 6-foot-4 Leonard, who wears a massive gold crucifix and works in South-Central. I expect to get a noogie. Instead, he tells me a joke: "What do firemen and cops have in common? They all want to be firemen."

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