New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a plan to ban the sale of soft drinks in cups larger than 16 ounces.
It's my first night on the beat with the NYPD Cold Drink Unit and I'm relieved I'm riding with A.J. "Red" Olaf, a twenty-year veteran of the force. He's been around the block a few times, as they say back at the station house, so he'll know what to do if we run into trouble.
"I've got a 44-oz 7-Eleven Super Gulp in progress . . . send backup."
Not that I'm nervous or anything. I've paid my dues; I started out patrolling art house concession stands, collaring turtleneck-wearing Truffaut-loving women nibbling on dark chocolate Dove bars, then moved up to New York Rangers games, putting the Cobra Cuff plastic restraints on guys loading up on soft pretzels and kielbasa. My last assignment was the worst--the Saturday Matinee Special Victims Unit; kids flinging Raisinettes at me, sticking chewing gum under the arms of my seat, making fart noises by blowing into their empty Mike and Ike boxes right behind me. It was tough, but it prepared me for the ultimate; the toughest, most sugary beat in the city--The Big Gulp Squad.
"How old are you, kid?" Red says as we walk into a McDonald's on West 42nd Street.
"Thirty-two," I say, but hasten to add "I've been a Calorie Cop for six years now" so he doesn't think of me as a rookie or somthing.
"You married?" Red asks as we scan the menu overhead.
"Yep. Baby on the way."
"Congratulations," he says, but he's not exactly beaming. In fact, I detect a look of . . . angst? anguish? angina? . . . on his face.
"Yeah, the little woman, she's busy fixing up the nursery. Bought a bassinet--whatever that is--the other day, puttin' up curtains, got the big diaper pail all . . ."
"You think you can take me copper? Go ahead and try it!"
"Hey, kid," Red says as he spins on his heels to look me square in the eye. "You've still got time to change departments. You could be doin' sumpin' safe . . . like jaywalking enforcement, or crowd control at Occupy Wall Street, or bustin' street vendors who sell knock-off watches. Once your wife sees the screaming headlines in the Daily News--'Cop Killed in Cholesterol Crossfire!'--and connects the dots, she'll never be able to sleep in the few hours every night the kid isn't grabbin' for her nippers."
I bristled visibly. "I've been dreaming about this gig since I was twelve years old and watched Wayne Anthes wash down three chili dogs with a root beer float," I mutter under my breath so as not to blow our cover. "If you think I'm going to give up on that vision . . . now that it's so close I can smell the grease . . . for something as trivial as the future of a woman and a child, you've got another think coming."
"Look out--he's got an Oreo McFlurry!"
"Don't be like me," Red said as he turns around and pretends to survey the beverage selection as he checks out potential perps with his peripheral vision. "I'm 49 and I've got six more years of fast food joints ahead of me before I retire. You've got your slim, boyish figure and no double chin. Get out while you can."
I know in my heart of hearts he's right. I have no right to put my dream of fighting self-inflicted sugar violence ahead of my family, but something won't let me quit. "Look, maybe I have made a mistake, but let me just try it for awhile. If it's . . . too dangerous, I'll try something safer."
"I dunno. Alternate side parking enforcement. Bustin' Broadway musical ticket scalpers."
"Okay," he says and exhales a sigh of relief. "Let's get our grub."
We step up to the counter and he lets me order first. "I'll have a Big Mac, a large order of fries and a hot apple . . ."
I feel his hand land on my chest with a thud. "Listen, junior. You think you're so smart."
"You wouldn't last a week on this beat eating like that," Red snaps. "Here . . . watch how a pro does it."
Red steps in front of me and fires off his order rat-a-tat-tat style, like a human Gatling gun.
"We'll have one Filet-o-Fish--hold the tartar sauce and cheese--two Ranch Snack Wraps--grilled, not crispy. Two Premium Southwest Salads and two"--here he pauses for effect and turns to me with a malicious glare--"skim milks."
"Would you like fries with that?" the skinny, kid behind the counter asks. His complexion is clear--he's going to have to develop acne if he wants to make shift manager.
"Absolutely not!" Red says, before paying in small, unmarked bills.
We carry our trays over to a table with a clear view of counter, and settle in for the stake-out.
"So how hard can it be to nab someone buying a super-size soft drink?" I ask between bites of my Ranch Snack Wrap. "I mean--it's out in broad daylight."
"The criminal mind is blessed with remarkable reservoirs of ingenuity," Red says.
"Who said that?"
"I did, just now."
"Oh--it sounded like a time-honored if slightly-shopworn saying handed down through generations of detectives."
Community policing really works!
"Nope. Just my somewhat hard-bitten, epigramatic style of speech," Red says as he casts a wary eye at a guy in line fiddling with something in his pockets. "I owe it all to our omniscient narrator out there in fiction-land."
"The same guy who's lending an air of wide-eyed innocence to everything I say?"
"That's the one," Red says without looking at me. He keeps his gaze locked on the pocket-fiddler. "That guy's up to no good."
"You think he's playin' pocket pool with himself?"
"Something worse. Get ready for a collar," he says as he takes a last gulp of milk.
The man steps up to a counter and tries to finesse the kid into giving him an overdose of Coca-Cola--a 24 ouncer.
"You still got those Star Wars commemorative cups you was offerin' a while back?" the guy asks. His voice has a disingenuous ring to it, but that's not enough to bust him. We're in Manhattan, where air quality warnings routinely cite dangerous levels of irony in the atmosphere.
"They're banned," the kid says. "Mayor's orders."
"Sheesh," the guy says. "Typical repressive Republican."
"Actually, he's a RINO," the kid says, "Republican in Name Only. He was a Democrat before he became a Republican so he could become mayor, now he's a Democrat again and . . ."
"Can it," the customer says, cutting the kid off. Apparently, he's one of the few New Yorkers who isn't into political vitriol 24/7. "I'll have a Quarter-Pounder and a 16-ounce Coke, and a Happy Meal."
"You want the boy's or the girl's toy?" the kid asks, and I see the muscles in Red's neck tense, like a lion about to pounce on a Filet-o-Gazelle.
"You can keep it," the guy says as he pulls out his wallet.
"Let's roll," Red says and we draw our weapons--American Metalcraft PGC9 handheld cheese graters.
"McDonald's employees are not allowed to accept gratuities," the kid is saying as we advance stealthily up behind the customer.
"Turn around with your hands away from your body," Red says, and the guy complies, his face covered with a shit-eating "What have I done wrong?" grin.
"Is there a problem, officer?" he asks as he examines our badges.
"You better believe it," Red says. "Buying a Happy Meal for the 8 ounce soft drink to evade Mayor Bloomberg's maximum drink-size regulations is about as low as you can go."
"But . . . my kid is outside waiting," the guy says. "Here, let me show you his picture." He reaches into his suit coat pocket and I edge closer to get a look when Red screams "Get down!"--but it's too late.
I'm hit in the eye with a flying cucumber shot from a Presto SaladShooter and fall to the ground, banging my head and nearly knocking myself out. Red crouches but can't fire because of the hordes of kids and moms making their way in the door. The guy gets away, free to drink 364 calories--all from sugar!--another day.
"You okay?" Red asks as he bends over me and peels the cucumber from my eye.
"I think so," I say, my head aching.
"He got away, but he won't live long on the mean streets of New York," Red says with a mixture of pity and disgust.
"Why's that?" I ask.
"Because there's more fiber in this one slice of cucumber than in a hundred Happy Meals."