Farewell, Pal – Robert Leuci (1940-2015)
On those occasions when a mutual friend passed, my pal Bob Leuci and I would get on the telephone together or meet up somewhere to talk over the amusing and important things the dearly departed said, or did. Bob called such things “the music of an absent friend’s life.” Recollections exhausted, we then fell into companionable silence. Soon one or the other of us would grimly say, “The shots are getting closer, boy.”
I am left alone now to write about the music of Detective Robert Leuci of the New York Police Department, gold shield Number 2905. It is fitting that I write of him, rather than speak; after leaving the department, my friend of nearly three decades became an accomplished author with a distinctive staccato prose style. (I am proud to say that Bob contributed a wonderful short story to “Brooklyn Noir III,” an anthology I co-edited in 2008. Bob’s story title: “The Ghetto Never Sleeps, Mister Policeman.”)
It is several weeks past the day Bob died—Monday, October 12th—at his home in Rhode Island. I think of him daily, and miss him enormously. I grow increasingly aware of how deeply our talks have affected me; how much I relied on Bob for a necessity of life as the Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan rightly sees it:
A woman may represent a man’s better half, but his friends are his other self. Whether they involve arguing, competing, or doing nothing much at all, male friendships are elemental.
Everyone who bought a ticket to the 1981 movie “Prince of the City” knows the story of Detective Robert Leuci. From 1968 to ’71, he was part of the famously corrupt Special Investigating Unit of the Narcotics Division—a unit composed of “meat eaters,” police lingo for cops with serious appetite for illicit gain. To those who would listen, Bob confessed his own guilt and his determination to atone. Some in the insular culture of the N.Y.P.D. accepted his word, others did not—and still will not.
Whether finding himself one fine and introspective day upon the Road to Damascus or merely trying to steer clear of prison, Detective Leuci atoned for his own transgressions. He did so by committing the number one sin of the police universe: he ratted out fellow cops. Never mind that they were wrong cops—narcs who not only took bribes from drug dealers but went into the business themselves by stealing heroin and cocaine from the Property Clerk’s office. A rat is a rat is rat.
So it was then, when Bob Leuci testified in during the 1971-72 Knapp Commission probe into police corruption, and so it is now. An alarming number of today’s rank and file New York cops, all born after the Knapp era, the name Leuci is not so much spoken as spat.
Based on evidence Bob gathered while equipped with a concealed microphone while going about his job with the S.I.U. back in the day, prosecutors indicted fifty-two thieving detectives out of the seventy assigned to the now defunct special narcotics unit. Two of the indicted ate their guns, as cops say; two more dropped dead of heart attacks; one was carted off to the puzzle house.
Twice, Bob was almost murdered by enraged cops who discovered he was wearing a wire. Bob persuaded his would-be killers to heed their better angels. Oh yes, the man could debate. As I once told him, “Bob, you could talk sweetness out of gingerbread.”
Nicholas Scopetta, a distinguished federal prosecutor, was one of the Knapp Commission lawyers. He persuaded Detective Leuci to spill. In an interview with the New York Times, he said Bob’s motive was professionally righteous: “He didn’t want to be treated as an informant, he wanted to be treated as an undercover agent.”
Further in the Times interview, Mr. Scopetta told of the deal he struck between Bob and the commission: “He had no stomach for what he was involved in. He wanted to get out from under it. He said, ‘Grabbing for cops is easy. If you investigate the whole system, that would be different.’ He took a chance—we took a chance—that there would be redemption and not retaliation.”
Bob himself told me, many times, that he eventually soured on the Knapp Commission because it failed to keep its end of an implicit bargain: to investigate higher up the ladder of corruption—to the top brass, the District Attorney’s Office, the politicians.
Oh yes, the man had regrets. Among these, the time-frozen regard of fellow officers who call him a lying rat.
Lieutenant Robert Knightly retired from the N.Y.P.D. to become a criminal defense lawyer, a career move he has characterized as penance. With reference to the Knapp era, Knightly told me, “No cop in that day can say how he’d react finding himself in Leuci’s concrete shoes, except to be grateful to be spared. Amen.”
For readers in German-language countries, Bob and I were published by Haffmans Verlag of Zürich. Our crime novels were translated by the esteemed Jürgen Bürger of Köln, who quickly became our friend.
Often over the past few years, Bob spoke of death in separate conversations with Jürgen and myself. We were saddened by this, Jürgen and I. But our colleague was wiser than we two. He was matter-of-fact about the dying light, choosing his remaining time and energy to encourage literary comrades—and his students at the University of Rhode Island, where he taught what he knew so well.
Typical of his spirit as a dying man was an email exchange in the tiny hours of October 12, 2013—two years to the day before Bob left us:
Jürgen: How are you these days?
Bob: Today sucks. And you, old friend? You OK?
Jürgen: Yeah. Only not enough time, not enough money. But big, big dreams. Still, after all these years.
Bob: Of course. The only way to live, really, is you have to keep it going. What else is there? Nothing.
On the 11th of September this year, I drove four hours from my home here in New York to Rhode Island to see Bob. I stayed overnight at his house, which gave us plenty of time for what I did not then realize would be the last of our longer talks. Bob’s breathing was more labored than ever; he suffered from emphysema and C.O.P.D. (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). He allowed me to see him attached to the portable oxygen tank I had known that he used, and kept mostly out of view for understandable reasons of vanity.
For hours that night, we kicked ourselves about our respective shortcomings as fathers. But we also bragged about the achievements of our grown children—far better people than us—and the cuteness and brilliance of our grandkids. Just a couple of poppas sitting around talking. Until I raised the subjects of doubt and discouragement, the paralyses that plague those who sit alone in rooms inventing stories.
“Bob, I’m not feeling so good about the future of what I’m doing,” I said. “It’s harder and harder to write. I’m never satisfied with the goddam pages. Maybe I can’t do it anymore, maybe I’m through with the writing dodge.”
“Knock it off,” gruffed Bob, masquerading his concern in the way men do in order to avoid the Dread Emotional Talk.
“You’ve got stories,” he told me. (How I needed this reminder.) “Some of the best I’ve ever heard, especially the ones about your grandfather. You got to keep it going, boy. Keep it [expletive deleted] going. Write your stories, even if nobody buys them; even if they just wind up being a [expletive] pile of manuscripts in the corner of some attic. Your grandkids will find them, and they’ll read them. It’s how you’re going to [expletive] live forever.”
My pal and I made plans to see one another again. I would drive up to Rhode Island one month hence.
“By then I should be feeling better,” said Bob. “Or else I’ll be dead.”
“Knock it off,” I said, masquerading my concern.
Bob shrugged, and ate some more of the items he requested that I bring from his beloved New York City: bagels and pretzels.
Come Sunday evening, October 11th, I rang Bob’s cellphone to confirm for the next day—Monday the 12th. He’d been in the hospital for gall bladder surgery, he explained; he was still there.
“Two days, I’ve been trying to get out of here,” he said. “Maybe they’ll let me go tonight, maybe tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow you may not be up for a visit,” I said.
“I’ll call you.”
“Please,” he said, “I’d like that.”
And then he was gone.
Like everyone who truly knew him, I loved Bob Leuci. He was a complicated man, maybe the most complex person I’ve ever known.
His father, a baseball pitcher in the old Industrial Leagues known as “Hooks” Leuci, was a disciple of the great Italian-American socialist and labor union advocate Vito Marcantonio (1902-1954). With reference to Marcantonio, Bob told me once, “He’d be at the house all the time when I was kid, him and all his Marxist buddies.” So Bob joined the N.Y.P.D. when he grew up, a department and a profession not known for leftwing sympathies.
Leuci père insisted that Leuci fils pronounce the family name LOU-see in order to sound “more American.” But I always pronounced Bob’s name correctly—Lay-OOTCH-chee. He never said so, probably out of respect for his old man, but I could tell he preferred it my way.
Bob’s mother was a beauty by the name of Lucy. Lucy LOUsee! Little Bobby tagged along with her on shopping trips through the immigrant commercial streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn—a boy protecting his mother’s honor as merchants blew kisses and wolf-whistles. His brother, Ritchie, died of a drug overdose; such irony in a family where one of its members was a narc.
He was proud of having been a policeman, never mind that he was taunted as “The Liberal” or “Baby Face.” Prouder yet that he never arrested a poor person for stealing food, and that he seldom drew his weapon. Once, though, he shot and wounded a youthful miscreant scrambling over a Harlem rooftop in the middle of the night. Bob felt so terrible about what he’d done that he found the lad a job, and guided him back to school.
Bob was troubled by what his fellow officers looked upon as whimsical conduct. His reservations began while a cadet at the New York Police Academy, and the day he was sent to a Bronx precinct stationhouse to fetch some papers needed by the academy instructor.
Bob found the papers in the custody of a Bronx officer seated on a chair outside the precinct holding cage—literally, a cage: a vertical one-man box of steel link fencing, used for the temporary confinement of an arrestee. The officer was guffawing at the spectacle o a man inside the cage, whose wrists were clamped to the fencing with handcuffs, arms stretched wide, feet suspended off the floor. “It looked like a crucifixion,” Bob recollected.
In July 1990, I came to know Bob well at the international crime literature festival La Semana Negra—an annual event in Gijón, Spain. So many of us came to know him then, and there. Memories of twenty-five years ago remain strong for us all, due in no small measure to Bob’s cop stories. Such as the one he told on a long, boozy night—the tale of the white rabbit.
We were gathered around a huge table for a late dinner at a café. The food was sumptuous, wine flowed. The languages were Spanish, German, French, Bulgarian, Swedish, Russian, and English. Bob was center stage, as it were, pausing between sentences of the story because his English telling required translation from group to group to group. Laughter burst in successive waves, from the French, then the Spanish, then the Swedes, then the Bulgarians, then the Germans, and finally the Russians.
Once upon a time, a certain interrogation room at a certain precinct stationhouse featured a small, nondescript closet situated directly opposite a chair that was bolted to the floor.
Picture the subject of interrogation: strapped in the chair, not readily coöperative. Nevertheless, the police inquisitor treated his subject with kindness. So kind was he that he asked the seated perp—cop shorthand for criminal perpetrator—how he preferred his coffee. After which inquisitor left the room to get the beverage.
Whereupon, the closet door popped open and a man in a furry white rabbit suit leapt out and began beating the perp over the head with a nightstick, softened by orange foam in the shape of a fat carrot. After several whacks, the rabbit hopped back into the closet, a second or two before the inquisitor returned with coffee.
Naturally, the perp squawked.
“What the hell are you talking about?” said the inquisitor. He stepped to the closet and opened the door—revealing an empty space for the perp to see for himself. “There ain’t nothing here, you hump. What are you, nuts? I’ll go get you some aspirin.”
The inquisitor left. Again the rabbit leapt from the closet. Again the prisoner was knocked about with a carrot club.
On the inquisitor’s return, the bound prisoner gestured with his aching head to indicate the closet, then shrieked, “I’m telling you, there’s a big white rabbit in there! He done it to me again!”
This dance routine went on several for a few more do-si-dos. The interrogation theory was sound: brains are not required for crime, and a “tune up” would soften the most recalcitrant resolve. More often than not, a perp never got it through his sore head that the closet had a back door, and that his inquistor worked in tandem with a costumed officer in the adjacent room. And even if the perp should catch on to the gag, whom could he finger as his assailant?
On hand that night in Gijón was Marc Cooper, the legendary American journalist. He provided a coda to Bob’s story, which began the rolling translations and laughter all over again: “Ah, the thin blue line!”
Bob laughed as hard as the rest of us. I may not have been the only one to notice it was not quite the laugh one hears when a man finds something funny.
The next year in Gijón, in July of 1991, the Bonn novelist Gisbert Haefs met Bob—and Bob’s temper. Oh yes, the man had a temper. Their first encounter came amidst booths and tents erected for the weeklong Semana Negra events. Vendors had strung out dozens of flags meant to represent the nationalities of attendees.
“I saw Bob flare up when he noticed the U.S. flag upside down,” Gisbert recalled. He likewise recalled Bob’s menacing growl: “Yank bashing!”
Fearing fisticuffs, or worse, Gisbert pulled Bob aside, to where he could see several other upside banners, including those of Luxembourg and the Chinese Imperial Navy—and the World War II-era German Navy flag, complete with swastika.
“Cool it, man,” Gisbert advised Bob. With a stink eye turned on the swastika, Gisbert said, “How happy do you think I am? They don’t mean any harm, they just don’t care.”
Bob and Gisbert repaired to a nearby café. Gisbert explained, “We had a smoke and a drink to all those who don’t care, an exercise we repeated several times in later years.”
When informed of Bob’s death, Gisbert responded with a rhetorical address to our absent friend: “No more flaring up or calming down, Brother, in that no man’s land without countries or flags. It’s been good to know you, and I’ll have a smoke and a drink to you tonight.”
Of our absent friend, the Berlin editor and radio producer Thomas Wörtche said, “He was a brave, courageous, and absolutely upright man. We were in touch until his very last days. We did a wonderful radio piece together, and had some plans for the future.”
Also in touch with Bob was Otto Penzler, the New York publisher and proprietor of the venerable Mysterious Bookshop in Lower Manhattan.
“I had just been corresponding with Bob Leuci a couple of weeks ago,” Otto told me. “We had both been excited about getting his books in front of new readers as e-books.” As a narcotics detective, Otto added, Bob Leuci “must have been a tough guy, but he was remarkably gentlemanly to me over the years.”
Steve Parrillo, one of Bob’s army of adoring students, is familiar with the tough guy part of the Leuci persona. He remembers his classroom introduction as that of teacher and a self-described “pompous little prick who walked through the University of Rhode Island with an undeserved arrogance.” On top of that, Parrillo said he showed up drunk that day.
“You’re going to have to give that shit up and focus on your writing,” Professor Leuci told his tipsy charge. “You have talent, even if you are a Republican.”
Over the next eighteen months, the professor drilled the pompous little prick on the art and structure of writing, especially for the screen. All the while, Bob goaded Parrillo on his politics. As Parrillo recalls, “He claimed I was too moral to be a Republican.” It was a means by which the professor inspired in his student the sort of spite that inspires writers to pour their boiling blood onto the page. It worked. Parillo says Bob Leuci is “someone who I owe much of my life to.”
Lisa Bruno wrote of another student who owes his life to the tough cop-cum-professor:
Once, a student had a seizure in the middle of class. Within two seconds, the professor was by his side and controlling the situation. ‘You and you—go get help!’ To me, ‘You—go get some water.’ Everyone had a job. It was like an aura of calm was cast over the room. We all did what we were asked, and the student got through it just fine. All the while, the professor [was] holding him, reassuring and comforting him. So many great stories and lessons, but that’s the one that sticks with me the most. It was a defining example of humanity and leadership.
Oh yes, Bob Leuci was a tough guy. As Lisa Bruno and I can attest, he was sweetest tough guy we’ll ever know.
Requiescat in pace, Roberto. Abbiamo apprezzato molto la musica della tua vita. Bellissimo.
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag