It was around 10:30 on an unseasonably warm Sunday evening in October of ‘97 when a commotion began outside my Hoboken apartment that would eventually lead to one of my stranger nights in New Jersey.
I was on the couch, watching a movie, when the noise level outside got louder and angrier than usual. I went to the front window, pulled back the curtains and saw flashing lights coming down the block. Curious, I stepped outside just in time to see an upstairs neighbor corralling a young kid against a fence next door. The neighbor is a powerful guy and the kid – no older than fourteen – looked scared, like a trapped animal.
The cops were soon out of their cars, grabbing the kid and getting some details from my neighbor. When he was through, he came over to where I was standing with some other neighbors and explained that the kid – and some accomplices – were breaking into cars on the block. “I think you better go check your car. I saw them down there.” he said to me, pointing to where my car was parked.
Fearing the worst, I walked fast up the block to my car and got a sinking feeling when I noticed the convertible top unsnapped. I checked inside and (luckily) nothing was missing but a crappy old umbrella. The thieves were scared off before they had time to do any real damage.
I walked back to my building and thanked the neighbor for grabbing the kid. The cops asked me if anything was missing. I told them about the umbrella, said it was no big deal, and was surprised when they asked me to come downtown and swear out a complaint anyway (without complaints they had no case). I hemmed and hawed but then they offered me a ride (I was mostly concerned about losing my hard-won parking space).
When I got in the front seat of the police car I was surprised to see the three budding car thieves in the back. I was forced to listen while the three of them loudly, obscenely and simultaneously protested their innocence. When we got to the station, the kids were led into a small room and I went to a payphone to call home for messages.
I was finishing up my phone call when I noticed something strange about the Lieutenant on desk duty: he had a purple ribbon in his hair. I thought maybe it was some kind of a gag, what cops do when they lose a bet or something. But that wasn’t all - the Lieutenant also wore eyeliner, mascara, blush and lipstick. Putting it mildly, I was puzzled. Here’s this cop – who otherwise looks very much like Harvey Keitel – and he’s got a ribbon in his hair and makeup on his face.
Then I noticed the breasts.
They were small but they were definitely breasts. Then everything clicked and I remembered what I’d read in the papers months earlier, something about a cop named Janet Aiello filing a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Hoboken.
John Aiello, a 24-year decorated veteran of the Hoboken Police, was a husband and father to two kids. In 1994 he decided he’d been living a lie, gender-wise. He began the procedure that eventually turned him into Janet. In the “bloody obvious” department, this doesn’t go over too big with the Hoboken Police brass. That they’d accept, much less tolerate, a transgender cop in their midst was about as possible as Ol’ Blue Eyes coming back to Hoboken (and he wasn't even dead yet). They made the Lieutenant 's life miserable in an effort to get him to quit. He responded by hiring a lawyer and pressing a harassment suit. The story was picked up by the national press and the Lieutenant was soon billed as “the nation’s first transgender cop”. After 51 weeks of sick leave, the Lieutenant returned to her job rather than lose it and the accompanying pension (Hoboken releases officers after a year of sick leave). Hence the desk duty on the night we met.
We didn’t say much to each other. She wanted to know what I was doing there. I think she noticed me watching her and – in a gruff Jersey accent said, “Do you have business here?” I told her about the kids breaking into my car and said I was just waiting to make a statement. “Don’t wait over here. There’s a waiting area over there.” she said, waving toward some chairs off in the corner. I wanted to say something more. I wanted to ask her how she could possibly put up with the torment they must’ve put her through. I wanted to ask why she didn’t just wait until retirement for the sex change. But I couldn’t bring myself to say a thing. It was just too bizarre. Probably the strangest part was watching the other cops interact with her. They did so in a completely professional manner, like John had always been Janet. Like the Lieutenant had always been a woman.
I got a cup of coffee, went outside and surreptitiously watched the Lieutenant through the glass doors. It was a fairly mundane scene: cops coming in, cops going out, paperwork, coffee cups, etc. And this purple ribbon bobbing around in the midst of it all. At one point, a motorcycle cop whom I'd seen in town before came down the steps, looked at the parents of the young thieves, locked eyes with me, smiled and barked, "I say kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out." I smiled back and said, "I think that would be unconstitutional." He ran a gloved hand over his crewcut, snapped his gum and mumbled "Too bad about that..."
I finished up my business and got the hell out of there.
Months later, while riding to the train station, I got into a conversation with a cabbie. I mentioned the transgender Lieutenant and the cabbie told me she’d settled her lawsuit with Hoboken, retired and moved away. The cabbie said he knew the Lieutenant when she was still a man. Then he added, “That guy was the most macho guy you ever met! I mean, he got more ass than anyone I knew!”