First Person / The phantom of Night Court

A hard system nevertheless had a soft spot for guys like Jake

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I'll always wonder what happened to Jake, the man who lurked in the shadows at police headquarters.

I first met him while turning a corner in a quiet building at one-thirty in the morning after returning from a fatal fire in Squirrel Hill. I barreled into him in an office doorway and am ashamed to admit that I nearly soiled myself -- he was just that scary-looking.

This was before people chatted cleverly over cocktails about neurofibromatosis and Proteus Syndrome, and -- mercifully for Jake -- before the film "The Elephant Man." Jake didn't talk about his afflictions either, except to once tell me "I'm pretty messed up."

In those days the city police had their headquarters in what was then the Public Safety Building at Grant Street and First Avenue. Strangely enough, it previously had been the Post-Gazette building and I spent my nights there from 5 to 2 as a PG reporter covering what was called "the crime beat" -- police, fire and coroner's news.

Jake was the night janitor. An immense, thickset man, Jake nonetheless ghosted around the building, keeping out of the way and out of sight of people coming to Night Court on the mezzanine floor. There were those who had been arrested and those who came to post their bail. There also were detectives headquartered upstairs. The traffic division was on the first floor. Add in the turnkey, bailiff, the bondsmen and the magistrate and it was a very busy place, at least until midnight.

If this were a work of fiction, I'd say Jake spoke like Walter Cronkite, was as strong as a bull and had a lovely tenor voice when he sang "Danny Boy" while swinging his mop in the men's room where the drunks vomited. I'd say he kept the premises immaculate, despite the trash -- human and otherwise -- that plagued the place.

The reality was that Jake had difficulty breathing and seeing, perhaps because of the facial tumors.

Oftentimes around midnight a vice raid resulted in a crew of gaudy prostitutes getting a group hearing to pay their fines and go back on the street. Jake would watch shyly from the stairwell as they paraded before the magistrate in their lacy tops, leather miniskirts and go-go boots. He rarely missed that show. But it didn't seem that he looked at them lustfully, but with wistful curiosity.

The magic hour usually occurred about 12:30 when the bondsman showed up with, typically, a couple of six-packs of Rolling Rock and a big basket of fried shrimp from Mitchell's. We'd sit in the press room, the five of us -- Jake, me, the bondsman and the two cops who ran the court. Sometimes, depending who it was, the "judge" (as they liked to be called) would join us in bawdy conversations about sports, politics, women, and -- well -- crime. Looking back, it was disgraceful. But that's what we did to shake off the grime of the evening's proceedings.

Jake joined in with great relish, even though his eating manner was less than dainty and we rarely understood what he was saying when he got excited. Despite everything, he seemed to have a grand time for that hour. He had a smile like an angel, right up there to his eyes.

Sometimes he said he lived in Lawrenceville with his mother. Other times he said "the church, down on Stanwix." Possibly it was both, possibly neither. If any of the boys knew much of anything about Jake, they never told me.

In those days, farther along Grant Street, the Allegheny County Courthouse had elevators that were non-self-service. Four elevators, one in each corner of the grand building, were operated by older men dressed in snappy blue outfits with bright metal buttons and epaulets. You might have mistaken them for police captains in full-dress uniform. But what you really noticed was that each of them had a bum or a missing leg -- whether from polio, war wounds, or something else. They were well-groomed and helpful. And you were polite to them, if you knew what was good for you.

Was Pittsburgh a kinder place in those years? Probably not. Prejudice was rampant and everything having to do with politics was wired up and fixed.

But there was this -- the fix made a place for the elevator guys, and for Jake.

opinion_commentary

William McCloskey, a self-employed writer and editor who lives in Regent Square, was a Post-Gazette reporter from 1968 to 1977. He can be reached at wmpgh@msn.com.


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