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’Twas the Night Before Christmas

December 28, 2009

On the night before Christmas, former police commissioner Bill Bratton finally received an answer to his longstanding dinner invitation to Ray Kelly.

In a cryptic text message [Kelly still refused to actually speak to Bratton], Kelly wrote that an unmarked car would pick up Bratton outside Police Plaza at 5 P.M.

“Due to security concerns, I cannot at this time divulge the location of our dinner meeting,” Kelly’s message read.

It concluded: “Make sure you come alone.”

Unknown to the top brass at Police Plaza, Kelly had ordered Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne to ask Jimmy Breslin whether “Mama Mia,” the restaurant next to Un Occhio’s storefront in Spanish Harlem, was still in business. Breslin assured Browne that, although Un Occhio had passed on and the wolf he kept in his basement had been taken by the ASPCA, Mama Mia remained open and was run by Un Occhio’s nephew, Bruno.

“Tell Kelly to avoid the veal piccata,” Breslin said.

Meanwhile, Kelly’s message had so spooked Bratton that he badgered his former spokesman John Miller, a reputed Gambino crime family expert, to learn the location of the dinner meeting. Miller, who had also dated a secretary in Browne’s office, discovered it minutes before 5 P.M. He told Bratton that he could have a .38 taped to the inside of Mama Mia’s toilet bowl if the dinner went south.

Bratton told Miller he’d seen too many mafia movies.

Miller offered Bratton some advice: “Don’t order the calamari.”

At 5 P.M. in the darkening twilight of Christmas Eve, an unmarked car appeared outside Police Plaza for Bratton. “Sorry, boss,” said the driver. “The commissioner says I got to frisk you.”

But, instead of heading uptown, they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. Bratton’s heart fluttered. Had Miller failed him?

Then, in another apparent security maneuver, the driver made a u-turn — and headed back towards Manhattan, then north on to the Drive. Bratton sighed with relief. “I never doubted John,” he told himself.

Outside Mama Mia’s, five men in plainclothes, carrying semi-automatics, were trying to blend into the neighborhood. “That’s the commissioner’s Hercules team,” the driver explained. “The commissioner says terrorists can strike in unlikely places.”

Mama Mia’s was a cozy joint with six tables, each covered with a red and white checkered tablecloth. Kelly was already there, seated with his back to the wall. Bratton noticed he was wearing a bespoke Martin Greenfield suit and a Charvet tie that cost at least $195. Bratton also noticed a large man with a red beard at the next table, who appeared to be wearing a blond wig.

A waiter in a white apron placed a bottle of Chianti and two glasses before Kelly. Bratton wondered if the waiter was Bruno. He wondered whether Un Occhio had kept a wolf in his basement or whether Breslin made it up to sell newspapers.

Speaking his first words to Bratton since returning as commissioner in 2002, Kelly said, “O.K., you asked for this meet. Now talk.”

The former police commissioner of Boston, New York and Los Angeles was unaccustomed to taking orders. He repeated to himself something his sidekick, Jack Maple, had told him about Rudy Giuliani: “Behind every bully lies a coward.”

He glanced again at Kelly’s Martin Greenfield suit. Before Kelly became police commissioner, he had dressed like a schlepper, buying his clothes off the rack at the wholesaler Carmen Fabrizio’s.

Bratton didn’t bother mentioning that Martin Greenfield had also been his tailor. Before Bratton became commissioner in 1994, he, too, had dressed like a schlepper.

Instead, Bratton said, “That’s a Charvet tie you’re wearing, Ray.”

“As I told the New York Times, my tastes have sort of matured through the years,” Kelly answered.

Omigod, when did Kelly become such a pompous ass? Bratton asked himself. To Kelly, Bratton said, “Ray, I think we have more in common than you realize.”

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“Like what?” snapped Kelly.

“Like Giuliani.” Bratton knew Kelly hated the former mayor for firing him in 1994. Bratton hated Giuliani for firing him in 1996.

“Like squeegee?” Kelly snarled.

Uh oh, thought Bratton. Squeegee was a sensitive subject. Kelly had rousted the squeegee-men back in 1993, but he had been reluctant to take credit because virtually all of them were black, as was the mayor, David Dinkins. In 1994, Bratton and Giuliani had no such reluctance.

“That wasn’t me, Ray,” Bratton tried to explain. “That was Rudy.”

“Like community policing?” said Kelly.

Uh oh, thought Bratton, another sore subject. Rudy and Bratton had ridiculed community policing as “social work.” Bratton feared the dinner was going south before he even received a menu.

“Like crime?” said Kelly. Uh oh, yet another hot button issue. Although crime had begun dropping under Kelly, the dramatic double-digit declines began under Bratton.

Bratton soldiered on. “Look what Rudy did to me, Ray. Those trips I took with Henry Kravis on his private jet to the Dominican Republic violated the rule about not accepting freebies for more than $50. Rudy used those petty lapses to force me out.”

Bratton thought how lucky Kelly was to have Mayor Bloomberg, who didn’t care where Kelly went or how many freebies he accepted. Bratton had heard of Kelly’s trip last fall to a Notre Dame football game on Regis Philbin’s private jet. He shuddered, thinking what Giuliani would have done to him for that.

Suddenly, the man in the blond wig leaned over and whispered to Bratton, “Your self-absorbed bitterness and inaccuracy remind me of an old biddy, an aging malicious gossip I knew growing up in the Bronx.”

Bratton did a double-take. He recognized the face under all that blond hair. It was Paul Browne.

Struggling to remain calm, Bratton said, “You have quite a turn of phrase.”

He thought it might be best to depart Mama Mia’s before Browne acted out. He had heard stories.

“Well, I’m glad we straightened out some of our differences,” he said to Kelly, standing up and walking outside.

By then, the Hercules team had vanished. At a traffic light, two squeegee-men were lathering the windshields of waiting cars. Their drivers were waving their arms.

Bratton snickered. “I heard that,” growled Kelly, who had followed him outside. “No one snickers about squeegee.”

With that, he jumped into the unmarked car, followed by Browne, who was still wearing his wig. They shot off, leaving Bratton, stunned and alone on the sidewalk.

He asked himself, how had Christmas come to this? He recalled a happier time, 15 years before, when, as police commissioner on Christmas Eve, he and Maple had pranced together down Fifth Avenue from the Plaza Hotel to see how many New Yorkers recognized them.

The two squeegee-men cut short Bratton’s reverie. Each asked him for a dollar.

“Hey,” one of them said. “Don’t I know you? I seen your face on TV. Ain’t you the police commissioner or something?”

A miracle, Bratton thought. Fifteen years later, they still recognize me. Tears came to his eyes.

He reached into his pocket but, instead of a single, he handed each squeegee-man a twenty-dollar bill.

“Merry Christmas, gentlemen,” he said.

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