One morning a few weeks ago, on the way to the office of my friend and colleague John Huston, I stopped at a local café to get us a few cups of java to go. Pulling in to the café parking lot, I spotted a small, black object lying near the lot entrance. Someone must have dropped their wallet, I thought to myself as I got out of my car and walked toward it. Half submerged in a slushy puddle, the thing would barely budge when I nudged it with the tip of my boot. Only when I pried it out of the ice and turned it over did I realize it was a police detective’s badge.
As I walked toward the café my mind rapidly began playing out different scenarios that could explain why it was left in a (now frozen) puddle: Was the detective called away to the scene of a crime, and the badge left on the hood of the car? Was there some kind of police raid or something? I looked around the parking lot, but didn’t see any police cars. Maybe something else happened to the detective, something nefarious? I wondered, absentmindedly thumbing the surface of the badge as I walked in the café.
Inside, I Googled the Madison Police Department on my phone, found the detective’s phone number, and left a message on her answering machine: “Hello, my name is Jason and I found your badge in the parking lot next to Ground Zero Coffee. I’m not certain if I should drop it off at the police department”—immediately the thought popped into my head that the detective might be disciplined, or at least subjected to ridicule, if anyone found out she lost her badge—“or if you want to come by my office and pick it up. Either way. Give me a call and let me know. Thanks.” I went on to leave the detective my phone number, picked up coffee for John and me, and headed over to his office.
Four hours and a stack of page proofs later, there was still no word from the police detective. I was beginning to feel that I would be carrying this badge around all day. I resolved to drop it off at the downtown precinct on the way home that evening, repercussions be damned. Yet on the drive back to my office for lunch I couldn’t help thinking about the missing police detective; not so much what had happened to her, but how she would navigate her daily tasks without her badge. After all, it identifies her as an officer of the law, as someone whose job it is to protect and serve. It’s her calling card.
Of course, it’s a calling card with different meanings to different people: To someone who has broken the law, the sight of the badge might provoke fear or feelings of regret; to a victim, the sight of a badge can provide succor or a sense of safety. Beyond this, the badge is a symbol of the police detective’s authority, her power. Moreover, as a symbol the badge has the accumulated weight—you could say, burden—of experience that comes with being a police detective and perhaps the attendant memories many of us would not want to have as our own.
At this thought the badge grew heavy in my pocket. It suddenly felt strange that I should be carrying around this badge, like I was carrying around a piece of her. I laughed nervously at this thought. Had my imagination gotten the better of me, I wondered, or is there something to this? It got me thinking about the different ways in which people enter our lives. Sometimes through a chance encounter we unknowingly fall into a friendship or intimate relationship. Other times relationships are forced upon us or forged through circumstance.
Through circumstance I had found this police detective’s badge. There was a story behind this badge, her story, and I had—for better or worse—opened myself up to that story. I was now a part of it.
The stories and essays we read bring people into our lives, too. We form relationships with the characters and subjects of written pieces (and, occasionally, those who write them) that can be just as meaningful as any chance meeting. The essays in this issue, for example, are extremely personal. You can feel the emotional resonance of the subjects, see the patina of symbolism in the struggle to find a common language between a photographer and a writer, in the performance of a concerto at the deathbed of a colleague, in the stain on the ground where a homeless man once slept.
The act of reading an essay is an intimate one. To understand a particular subject, you have to bring your objectivity, curiosity, and compassion to the table. If you do, you will learn something about the subject, yourself, and your shared humanity. In this way an essay is not a one-way street, but, rather, an exchange: the reader takes away a piece of the subject and, too, perhaps the subject is relieved of his or her burden of experience by the knowledge that someone understands them.
These were the thoughts that swirled around in my head as I went to the downtown precinct at the end of the day. The detective wasn’t in her office, but the young woman behind a bulletproof window at the front desk assured me that she would discreetly place the badge in the detective’s mailbox. I crammed the badge—wrapped in a Wisconsin Academy envelope—through the narrow slot at the base of the window and turned to leave.
“Sir, wait,” said the young woman through the speaker, “Can I tell the detective who brought in her badge?”
Smiling, I slipped my calling card through the slot and said, “A friend.”