For some, it’s a song — their song — no matter if a million other couples claim it, too. For others, it’s a place: the winding street where they first held hands; the restaurant where the candle sputtered and the night grew vast; the lake where they made love with a passion impossible years later to remember, or forget. Less romantic, but no less enduring, it might be a joke, private and immensely silly; a book; anything love touches and makes its own. The symbol may last longer than the love — haunting with painful memories — or the love may outlive the symbol: the old place torn down; the ring lost; time marching on, and love staying one step ahead.
For Norma and me, it was a television show, the only show we watched regularly, the show we never missed. Curled up together on the living room sofa — called out of our separate worlds by this world of cops and robbers, of power and justice, of real men and women as complex and imperfect and believable as the two of us — we gave ourselves over to an act of imagination that never failed to move us. Watching the show was a ritual so completely woven into our lives that we wouldn’t go out that night unless we were sure of getting home on time. We’d stop whatever we were doing when the show came on — even, on a couple of occasions, making love; even, though it called for more restraint, arguing. Outside, the crickets chirped, moths fluttered against the glass, a breeze nagged the topmost branches of the slender, swaying pines. Inside, with the mournful first notes of the Hill Street Blues theme song, we were in another world: of wasting streets and sudden violence; of another day in the noisy, crowded precinct house on the Hill (each episode ran one day, from early-morning roll call to late at night); of the bad manners and sprawling dreams that make a city, its pimps and pushers and pencil-pushers and civic leaders, its decent souls and its flawed souls, its frustratingly human cops.
On May 12, after nearly seven years on television, Hill Street went off the air. Seven seasons. One hundred and forty-seven shows. Yet when the final episode became history, and our odd ritual of togetherness faded and became history, too, I was alone in front of the television. My wife, a medical student, was at the hospital, dealing with real life-and-death drama, unable to come home. She had called earlier to tell me about her patient — a man who was brought in thrashing wildly, arms and legs jerking, eyes rolling in his head. Even after he was sedated and strapped to the bed, he kept twisting uncontrollably. The doctors couldn’t explain it. The seizures seemed too severe to be epilepsy; maybe he had a brain tumor; maybe he’d fallen and hit his head. A Vietnam veteran, he had no family; he lived on the streets; he drank most of the time. He’d fallen, I thought, through the cracks. Now the doctors would patch him up, get him back on the street, back to the war he keeps losing. Oddly, Norma said, even during the worst of it, he didn’t make a sound. He didn’t scream or cry. The silence, she said, was as eerie as the mysterious seizures.
It was an ironic way to say goodbye to Hill Street, yet somehow appropriate. Hill Street would rarely end (or begin) neatly; some story-lines would continue for weeks, plots and subplots twisting around each other like the destinies of strangers who meet suddenly in an alleyway or on a subway car. Dialogue would overlap, too, creating a mood that was naturalistic and credible; you had to pay attention to this show, as you would to a roomful of people, to catch the nuances, the humor, the stories within stories. Although I’m tempted to eat when I watch television (which is one reason I don’t watch television more), I couldn’t snack during Hill Street; the show was too intense. It would have been like munching on popcorn while a distraught friend told me a poignant and revealing story.
The characters on Hill Street were, if not my friends, certainly familiar and recognizable, as was the city. The city was unnamed — it could have been any city with a big, mostly black, ghetto — so it became your city, my city, the city. The opening shot of a dirty, dented squad car — its windshield wipers thumping as it sped down a grimy, nondescript street — always reminded me of New York, where I grew up. I knew those streets; I drove them with my father when I was a boy, taking every opportunity to be with him, to see the city through his eyes. I remembered, as the opening credits rolled by, my father’s big, messy car on rainy afternoons, the mingled smells of his cigar smoke, the slightly wet newspapers on the back seat, the orange rinds in the ashtray, our damp clothes, the soot outside, the rain itself — these smells as natural to me as a wet barnyard would be to a boy growing up in the country.
My father was a salesman, not a cop, but he brought to his work, to his “territory,” much the same caginess and affection and weariness as any old-timer on the beat. I got to know some cops, too, years later, when I was a newspaper reporter, and I learned to understand, though imperfectly, their oddly juxtaposed values; their mingled idealism and cynicism; their preposterously exalted role as arbiters of the law and defenders of the public order in a society that uses “law and order” as a racist slogan or ignores it altogether, in pursuit of profit and pleasure. The etiquette and the taboos of cops, the unspoken protocols, the shared beliefs — all this was reflected week in and week out on Hill Street, in dynamic scripts that eschewed macho heroics and cardboard relationships for stories that were realistic and funny and heartbreaking and surprising. Justice won, sometimes. There were cops who believed the best judge was a club or a gun — and cops who yearned to serve the highest ideals, who searched their own hearts, sometimes in vain, for answers to the suffering around them. There were cops who were brilliant detectives, and cops who couldn’t find their shoes in the morning. But Hill Street was less about crime detection than about crimes against the human spirit. For in a society where personal freedom is exalted and seemingly boundless, but where our dignity is assaulted daily and things are valued more than people, real police work is done in the precincts of despair and unimaginable personal anguish. Disaster strikes, some conflict arises, and suddenly we’re at the intersection of private and public, mine and yours, and we look for justice, for deliverance — for a cop.
Nobody can meet those expectations, certainly not fallible human beings; thus, Hill Street was less an epic of crime and punishment than a complex weave of ambiguity and disappointment and the occasional triumph. Its cops struggled against the sometimes overwhelming burden of being themselves. Life wasn’t fair; there were great moments, and grim moments, but happy endings are for fairy tales. Sometimes the bad guys got away; sometimes the good guys really weren’t; sometimes cops and robbers faced each other as mirrors, uncannily resembling each other, and is it any surprise? On that perpetual frontier of danger and lawlessness and outlaw dreams, they circled each other; for cops to interpret those dreams, to divine the symbols, to follow a trail into the criminal “underworld,” they needed to know more than a little of the passions and the haunted visions of those they were sworn to pursue.
On the last episode of Hill Street, there was a fire at the precinct house, a bad fire, but the old building just wouldn’t be destroyed. As a symbol, in any event, the Hill would endure.
It endures, certainly, in my imagination. As reminders of our shared humanity, the men and women we meet in books and movies and television shows may be no less important to us than the real flesh-and-blood characters in our arguably more real world. After all, the lives of real people are meaningful to us only insofar as we vividly experience them, interpreting the myriad images they present to us in a way the heart can comprehend. Always, we select from the sights and sounds around us those which make sense, creating our symbols as we go, and calling this reality.
They endure for me as symbols, then, these men and women of the Hill; they speak to me of a time and a place uniquely ours; of the burdened, striving heart of our great, decaying cities; of ordinary people trying to live moral lives.
I was melancholy that last night of Hill Street, and not just because of Norma’s absence. The show’s characters might live in my memory, but the show itself was over; on that balmy spring evening their lives ended, as finally as that of a fictional hero on the last page of a book. Appropriately, even this show didn’t have a neat ending. Except for the fire, it was business as usual. There were no goodbyes; life went on.
But I wanted to say goodbye. I wanted to ponder again the paradox that nothing dies, and everything dies; to remind myself that a television show, an act of pure imagination, was as real as the crumbling brownstones and litter-strewn lots where it was shot; to wave one last time to Frank and Joyce and Henry and Howard and Buntz and Belker and Renko and all the others — to the nights Norma and I couldn’t miss Hill Street; to an odd little ritual, a part of our lives, that’s now gone.