My father, James Emmet Tevlin, was born on Memorial Day in 1929. He died in 1996, before he reached his 67th birthday – way too young, and I miss him always. I’ve been thinking about my father lately since I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of The Job, True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop. The book is, as they say in my old hometown, “freakin’ hilarious.” Listen to the author, Steve Osborne, read it to get the true New York flavor – a taste of cawfee, “dirty-water hot dogs” and bagels smeared with cream cheese.
My dad was a New York cop, a patrolman, for 24 years. I don’t know whether he’d appreciate Osborne’s crudeness and salty humor. My dad might have been capable of vulgarity, but never in mixed company or with family. And he always maintained that the truest rendition of police work was more “Barney Miller” than “NYPD Blue.”
But one thing he had in common with Osborne was his ability to tell a story. Boy do I miss that. He didn’t tell many cop stories. But I could sit for hours and listen to his stories about “the old neighborhood” and “pallin’ around” the city.
My father was in some ways a typical Irish-American New Yorker. The son of Irish immigrants, he was tough, black-Irish handsome and garrulous. Where he came from, then an Irish enclave on Amsterdam Avenue and West 101st Street in Manhattan, he joked that you had three career choices: cop, priest or con.
Joining the force
After a two-year hitch with the Marines, he took the cop route,. He served 24 years on the N.Y.P.D., or as he called it, “the force.” He was proud of being one of New York’s finest. He didn’t make a big deal about it, and one of the happiest days of his life was when he retired. But he took the job seriously.
We were proud of him, too. I’ll always remember going up to the St. Patty’s Day Parade and seeing my dad pass by on Fifth Avenue in his pressed blue uniform and white gloves, marching with the Emerald Society, the police force’s Irish association. It was a thrill to pick him out of the sea of men in blue.
I grew up in a time when cops were regularly called pigs. But I never bought into that. Even as I was becoming a liberal hippie college student, I always liked that my dad was a cop. If someone asked me what my father did, it felt a lot better saying he was a cop than saying he sold insurance or stocks. Maybe I was hoping some of that toughness would transfer over to me, a halo effect.
Not that I ever wanted to be a police officer. Or that he ever wanted any of his kids to be one. He wanted us to get an education and do something different.
Defying the stereotype
But there were just as many ways he wasn’t typical. He went back to college at night and earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He stopped going to church. He turned against the Vietnam war and Nixon. And he decided he wanted out of New York City.
After he retired, my parents sold their home on Staten Island, and he started a new career with the National Park Service. He loved the outdoors, and he got to live a dream as a park ranger for a while. Later on, he and my mom moved to Oregon, and he took up carving birds from wood, scratching an old artistic itch. He got really good at it, and I still keep two of his carvings on my bookshelves.
Growing up, things weren’t always so great between the kids and my dad. But with time, we all seemed to mellow. After my wife and I moved to Oregon ourselves, following my two brothers, we got to see him and my mom a lot. Those were good times, many of them spent sitting around the dinner table after the dishes were cleared and listening to my dad hold court.
I didn’t get much of my dad’s toughness. But if I got a wee bit of his ability to tell a story (at least in written form), I’m forever grateful. Thanks, dad. I miss you.