Excerpt: 'All the Centurions'

ByABC News via logo

June 29, 2004 -- For 20 years Robert Leuci fought crime on the streets of New York. He recalls his experiences in the following book excerpt from All the Centurions.

The Biggest, Baddest Gang in Town

It's the fall of 1961. I'm twenty-one years old and part of a phalanx of gray-uniformed recruits marching into an out-of-date building on Hubert Street in lower Manhattan, the NYPD's police academy. What I remember most are glimpses of things antiquated and worn and the smells, the pleasant aromas of cinnamon and leather that have lingered for more than a hundred years from the lofts nearby that were used as storehouses for bales of spices brought by nineteenth-century sailing ships. I felt the mix of excitement and unnamed anxiety that comes when you are about to enter an unfamiliar world, knowing full well that you are a long way from belonging there. I was at the start of a journey and willing to go wherever the trip took me. Soon enough, mysteries began to slip away and the trip became more important than the destination.

In the academy, time flowed gently — class work, the gym, and the pistol range. Every day we took a certain greedy pleasure in knowing more about the life we were going to live than we had the day before; and after a time the weight of a gun belt felt natural.We recruits got the feeling that there was nothing about police work the instructors didn't know, they were so confident, so sure of their view of the world. I'd ask a question and they would stand smirking at me with a fixed serenity. Though I looked for signs of uncertainty, none were there. I marveled at the number of medals they carried on their chests, and how their eyes shone when they repeated over and over, "Pay attention here and now or you'll pay a price later."

Most of us were in our early twenties, a time for illusions and wild imaginings, when dreams are new, dazzling. I was sure it would last forever; we all were.As those first days turned to weeks and then to months, I found what I was looking for — acceptance, connection, kinship — call it what you like — belonging just to belong, that kind of thing. It is a very particular sort of yearning, a curious personality trait that has afflicted me my whole life.

You have to learn to compartmentalize your life. You must separate the street world from your world. Do not bring the job home, they told us. When you are all alone on patrol and need help, you will learn to love the sound a siren makes.

The Baby was so small, two or three months old, and it cried a lot. Lover-boy wanted to have sex with the baby's mother; he wanted the baby to stop crying. He thought the bottle of sweet wine he gave it would end the crying. The baby went into convulsions, and I didn't have to wonder anymore how I'd behave at my first arrest.

It was an old story: a single mother, her baby, and a drunk, horny boyfriend. The first time you see such a thing it's a shock — the language, sounds, gestures. The veterans spoke to me slowly, gently, so I would understand that this arrest could turn a long night into an eternity.

I was on a training mission in Harlem. The veterans were telling me, "Rookie, here's your first arrest. You want it, you got it. This guy's going to be a pain in the ass to collar. Look at him."

We were standing in the kitchen, and cops and ambulance attendants seemed to be everywhere. The mother left with the medical people and the baby. I stared at the boyfriend. He seemed cool, aloof, detached. A small smile, his brains all down in his dick.

That first time and forever after you know you're part of something extraordinary. You begin to gain experiences that give you knowledge and pride. I don't mean all the bullshit macho stuff. Instead it's a real sense of accomplishment. Down deep you feel as though you're some kind of hero, the man in the white hat, the marshall of Dodge City.

"You're under arrest," I told him.

He said, "For what?"

It was a good question. "Don't worry, we'll figure something out," one of the veterans said.

When I tried to handcuff him, lover-boy went off and started throwing punches. He was tough, fast, strong, and a lot more rugged than I thought. There were cops in the apartment, cops waiting in the hallway, cops on the stairway, and they were all getting a laugh at my inability to handcuff this character.

Finally, two or three of them jumped in and gave me a hand; it was over in a flash. A veteran Harlem cop, a huge black guy, grabbed my shoulder.

"Kid," he said, "this is the street, not the Golden Gloves. There's no referee out here. Remember," he said, "you belong to the biggest, baddest gang in town. You need help, don't wait — ask."

In the detectives' squad room bright and early the following morning, I stood looking at a precinct detective who was wearing brown brogans, black ankle-length socks, a T-shirt, and boxer shorts. He was chomping on a cigar, banging away at his typewriter.His face was covered with stubble and there were bags under his eyes. He wasn't a bad-looking guy. He did not seem at all happy.It was early February, a cold and windy morning. I had dressed warmly, way too many layers for that sauna of a squad room.My prisoner sat in the holding cage across from the detective. His legs and arms were crossed like a Buddha's, his head was down, his eyes at half-mast, all the fight in him gone."A real pain in the a--," the detective said. "When I was printing him, he broke free and tried to dive out the window. Your sh---bird smashed our f------ window. We were freezing in here all night."

The foregoing is excerpted from All the Centurions by Robert Leuci. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022