Since retiring from the San Francisco Probation Department and relocating to Sarasota, Florida, I have been lunching with Roscoe Bennett in a pizzeria on Route 41. We don’t go there for the pizza, which tastes like warmed-up cardboard; we go for the happy hour and a generous choice of beers.
Roscoe, a former vice squad detective, is overbearing and loud, qualities I do not admire since I’m a compulsively private person. But we share too common a legacy for our differences to endure. Although Roscoe may be a vulgarian, we both are former cops, and so we too easily tempted to match each other’s war stories. It was in the spirit of comradery, our baptism of born of fire, that Roscoe told me about the time he busted Willie Sherman.
“Yah, it happened right here,” said Roscoe in his lazy southern drawl. His voice bore a hint of pride, as though he had collared Al Capone, but Willie Sherman, an androgynous clown, did not seem to merit such swagger. Willie had once hosted a nationally televised children’s show, and his mincing walk, staccato laugh, and elastic facial expressions suggested that he was already a captive of his trifling persona. But, when Sheriff detectives arrested him, the media took the bust seriously and plastered his Liliputian mug shot in newspapers across the country.
“So you were the one who brought him to justice,” I said in a teasing tone. “I thought that happened at an adult movie theatre.”
“It did,” said Roscoe, pausing to belch. “The theater was right where we sit. This place was the South Trail Cinema before it became the Mellow Mushroom.”
“I hope you allowed him to mellow his mushroom before you slapped him in cuffs.”
“I let him finish—yah,” said Roscoe. “Whaddya think I am?”
The hardon police, I said to myself, and I felt an uncomfortable anger. Had I been given an order to patrol an adult theatre and bust its sad clientele, I’d have told my chief to go fuck himself and handed him my badge.
“Tell me that wasn’t your idea.”
Roscoe folded his muscular arms and leaned back in his chair. His face was so broad and jovial that he looked like a tipsy Buddha. “Nah,” he said, “but it was kind of fun. You know, we actually trained for it. We put pants on first aid dummies and sat them on rows of chairs. And then we tucked hotdogs into their crotches and practiced our arrests.”
“You’re kidding,” I muttered.
“Not a bit,” Roscoe said. “We couldn’t go in half-cocked. Now if a dummy was holding his hotdog and the dog was still in his pants, we hadda let that go ’cause it didn’t add up to indecent exposure. And if a dummy was holding the hotdog of a dummy sitting beside him, we hadda let that go also unless we could see the dog.
“But if a single inch of pooch was exposed, that was a legal pop. And it didn’t matter whether the dummy was holding it or not.”
“Didn’t you feel rather intrusive?” I said.
“Nah, we gotta uphold the law. The sight of an unholstered wiener can traumatize someone for life.”
“I doubt if anyone would have been shocked in that darkened movie theater.”
“Maybe not,” Roscoe said. “But if ya don’t set firm standards, things’ll get outta hand quick.”
“You mean give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.”
“Exactly,” Roscoe said. “Libraries, schools, and churches will never be safe again. Hell, it won’t be long ’til the entire country has San Francisco values.”
“So tell me how it went,” I said while hating myself for inquiring.
“We trained for two weeks,” said Roscoe. “Up to ten hours a day. Ya can’t leave nothing to chance when you’re busting godless perverts. No telling what them sickos will do when you try to hook ’em up.”
“Sounds like a pretty stiff challenge,” I deadpanned.
“We rose to the occasion,” joked Roscoe. “We dressed in jeans and old sweatshirts ’cause we wanted to look like slobs, and we practiced making arrests in teams so’s to keep the odds in our favor. We even practiced buying tickets and popcorn while keeping our eyes half closed. Yer pupils have gotta be big as saucers when ya enter a den fulla perverts. Ya can’t be protecting society if yer stumbling around half blind.”
Roscoe grinned like a diva embracing an applause—he was clearly enjoying the strained fascination with which I listened to him.
I said, “Tell me about the day that you arrested Willie Sherman.”
“We had been making busts for about a week,” Roscoe said, “and we had become a well-practiced team. I was the spotter, which meant I sat in the theatre pretending to watch the movie. But all the time, I looked for stray franks outta the corner of my eye. My partner, Martinez, he was the relay—he sat at the back of the theatre. When one of them bums was done bleedin’ his dog and shuffled back up the aisle, I signaled to Martinez so he could run out and alert the arrest team. As soon as that scumbag walked out the front door, the arrest team hooked him up, then they tossed him into the meat wagon so he could be hauled downtown for booking.”
“And that’s how you caught Willie Sherman?” I said.
“Yah, it was a textbook bust. ’Cept, at the time, I didn’t know that he was Willie Sherman. He was wearing a beard and a hoodie when he walked into the theatre, and, all the time, he kept looking around like a shoplifter casing a store. I suspected right off that he was a flogger, and I sat down close to him. If we hadn’t had to make our quota, we’d have probably called it a night, but we’d only busted three perverts so far and that number was pretty sad.”
I said, “I guess you have to expect a slack night now and then.”
“Not if the movies are spicy,” said Roscoe. “But the movies were bad that night. They was showing a triple feature, and all three of them flicks were duds. We were thinking of asking the management to raise the quality of the flicks. If they were showing Deep Throat or Debbie Does Dallas, we’d have made our quota like that.”
Roscoe snapped his fingers, making a sound like a chestnut popping. He then leisurely chugged a glass of beer and wiped the foam from his mouth.
“Wouldn’t that be entrapment?” I said.
“Yah,” said Roscoe, “I suppose it would. But I hadda wait thirty minutes while Willie sat there, snacking on quiche. Now I can’t even stand the smell of quiche—only commies and perverts eat it. But I sat there, holdin’ my nose, in order to save us from ’Frisco values.”
“The free world owes you its thanks,” I said dryly.
“Nah, the thanks goes to a flick called Nurse Nancy—it wasn’t quite as bad as the others. It was while they were showing Nurse Nancy that Willie released the hound. Well, I waited ’til he was finished ’cause that’s the considerate thing to do, but, after he left his seat, I gave Martinez the signal.”
“The poor little squirt,” I said. “Did he put up a fight at all?”
“Yah,” said Roscoe. “He fought like a ninja and bellowed like an ox. I could hear him out in the parking lot while I was sittin’ inside the theatre, so I pulled my taser outta my pocket and ran out to assist with the bust. Well, it took me and three other detectives to clap the bracelets onto him. From the way he was struggling to get away, you could tell that he had an agenda—that it wouldn’t be long ’til he let slip the dog in libraries, churches, and schools.”
Roscoe picked up a napkin and used it to blow his nose. He then yawned like a hippo and ordered a waitress to fetch him a pitcher of beer.
“And so you became a hero,” I said.
“That ain’t exactly what happened,” said Roscoe. “But hold that thought for a minute ’cause I gotta take a leak.”
After he drained his lizard, Roscoe told me the rest of the story, and his voice took on the sobriety of a martyr facing the rack. It was a voice of noble disparagement, a voice of brave despair, a voice of an unbowed paladin whose toils had come to naught.
“When I got home,” said Roscoe, “some shit began hitting the fan. By then everyone in the country knew how Willie Sherman got busted. They even knew he’d been packin’ quiche when he moseyed into the theatre. Well, my wife she met me at the door and she looked me right in the eye, and she sez to me, ‘Roscoe, tell me the truth. Were you involved in that?’ Well, I sez to her, ‘Honey, I wasn’t involved no more than I hadda be. I wasn’t involved no more than was needed to save us from ’Frisco values.’ And she sez to me, ‘Roscoe, you always think the country is going to hell. I doubt if we’d be dining on little French pies if you’d left that poor man alone.’ ‘He was defiling the public trust,’ I sez. ‘He was screaming like a baboon.’ ‘Oh really,’ she sez. ‘If that man was so ill-bred, he wouldn’t have been eating tarts. And I doubt that he’d have been sitting there having some gentleman’s time.’
“I sez, ‘What are we gonna do about our libraries, churches, and schools?’ And she sez, ‘What’s your daughter going to do without The Willie Sherman Hour?’ Well, that’s my daughter’s favorite show, and I once saw her nibblin’ quiche, so it wouldn’t have hurt her none to be watchin’ Home Improvement instead. But my wife she called me a fascist and she said no more nookie for you, so when I went back to that theater to bust some more perves, it was hard not to look at the screen. Hell, I kept getting stiff all the time I was keeping America safe.”
“What an unfortunate ending,” I said, although I felt little pity for him.
“That was just the beginning,” said Roscoe. “Soon the public got involved. Folks picketed CBS in droves when it killed Willie Sherman’s persona, and the Catholic Church received hundreds of letters asking that Willie be canonized. And celebrities all over the country spoke out on Willie’s behalf—Za Za Gabor and Annette Funny Jello and Bill Cosby got involved. ’Course a bust like that woulda been a step up for a fella like Bill Cosby.”
“How sad,” I said to Roscoe, and I paid for his pitcher of beer. “How sad that our culture celebrates icons and leaves its true heroes unsung.”
Roscoe topped his glass off. “Celebrate, hell,” he said. “The public worshipped that little fucker like he was the second coming of Christ. Hell, signs started popping up everywhere like mushrooms after a rain. Signs that said ‘Free Our Willie,’ signs that said ‘Willie for Pope,’ and the fertility clinics were posting signs that said ‘Willie, Send Us Your Seed.’ On top of that, a buncha his fans held a prayer vigil in Bayfront Park, and dozens of mothers all prayed that their sons would grow up to be just like Willie.”
“That’s about as bad as it gets,” I conceded.
“Nah, it got a whole lot worse. Willie took a plea bargain for ten hours of community service, so we had him picking up a buncha dead fish that washed up on Siesta Key Beach. And that’s when the American Civil Liberties issued a proclamation. It said the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery over a hundred years ago, and if we were going to have Willie pick up dead fish, we oughta pay him for it. Well, I was supervising Willie while he was picking up them fish, and, when the press came crowding around us, I made a public statement. I said dead fish smell like pussy and Willie was ogling that, so Willie oughta be happy to be pickin’ up them fish up for nothing.”
“So how did that make things worse?” I asked.
Roscoe frowned like a judge. “I was quoted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and I appeared on the local news. And the pervert lovers found out where I lived, and they decorated my lawn. When I walked out of my house the next morning, my whole lawn was covered with fish. There was grouper, kingfish, and snapper. There was tarpon, sheepshead, and trout. It looked like half the fish in the bay had been dumped on my front lawn. And my wife came out on our front porch, and she told me this stupid joke. She sez, ‘Roscoe, how do men and fish get in trouble?’ I sez to her, ‘I dunno.’ And she sez, ‘Men and fish get in trouble when they can’t keep their big mouths shut.’ And my wife she took my daughter and she drove away in our car, and the next day she sent me a divorce petition that was wrapped around a cod.”
When I offered to buy Roscoe some artichoke dip, he said, “Lemme finish my story. We thought we was cleanin’ the city up when our task force snuck into that theatre. We thought we was busting the dregs of society and getting them outta our hair. But, after a while, it seemed that we was nabbin’ the pillars instead. We arrested a banker and a gynecologist and a high school principle. We arrested a surgeon, a football coach, and a coupla firemen. Hell, we even arrested a priest from a local Catholic church.”
I said, ‘What happened afterwards? Did the Knob Squad lose its pull?”
“The mayor shut us down,” Roscoe said, “and none of them folks got charged. But we did nail Willie Sherman, and we can be proud about that.”