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The Wagon: On Being A Chicago Cop, And A Chicago Writer

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 23, 2011 8:20PM

2011_06TheWagonMartinPreib.jpg Martin Preib did not always aspire to be a cop. He wanted to be a writer, and so worked in the service industry mainly as a doorman to cover expenses while he wrote. Preib only became a cop “as a means of seeing the city as it is, as a means of giving me the time and money to write on my own.” His work certainly offers these advantages, but there is heaviness and melancholy associated with what he sees everyday, too.

The Wagon and Other Stories from the City, recently published in paperback by The University of Chicago Press, is a short collection of his essays about his work in the Chicago Police Department, starting with “Body Bag.” In this essay, Preib describes his first day as a rookie cop, when he’s sent around the city to pick up dead bodies and shuttle them to the morgue. As Preib describes the squeamish details of his job, he reflects on how his work and personal life play into the whole of Chicago. The gritty essays in The Wagon are just as much about being a Chicago writer as being a Chicago cop:

I feel the weight and absurdity of my own failures in the very act of carrying the dead. Images of my life in Chicago spill over me, pushing me down. I never aspired to haul the dead from their death places. I only wanted to be a writer, a Chicago writer, but now I am picking up dead bodies on the North Side of Chicago. The irony is terrible weight.

These short and colorful bursts of introspection are Preib’s specialty. Throughout The Wagon’s 165 pages, he shares with readers behind-the-scenes snapshots of life in the police force, folds in snippets of his own past, and ties the two together to draw conclusions about Chicago and about himself. His observations serve his writing and his work well. For example, he constructs a woman’s life story from a couple hours spent in a run-down apartment as he struggles to wiggle her heavy body into a body bag.

As Preib trains a rookie cop and responds to sometimes dangerous and oftentimes ludicrous calls, he unveils his tricks of the trade. He can leverage the authority of his uniform to crisis manage on the job, but some pages read like an enormous and never-ending sigh of frustration about his day-to-day work. As far as good cop and bad cop goes, he can be both, in varying degrees; it just depends on the circumstances.

Furthermore, in an era when controversial cases involving cops and impending crime are forever in Chicagoan’s minds and newspapers, a view from the other side is both interesting and insightful. Preib shares tedious anecdotes of working for the Chicago Police Department as the public eye becomes more critical and cynical of its officers. As more and more video cameras are installed to monitor the officers and complaints and media coverage of corrupt cops increase, Preib defends the validity of his work. Here is a cop who has not coerced confessions to crimes or committed reckless homicide while off duty.