You Say Baksheesh, I Say Sheesh

Guest Columnist

My father was a Detective in the NYPD. Reflecting on my working-class childhood, more than one of my friends heard me say: “If he stole, he didn’t steal enough.
I thought about this while listening to President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan speech and the post-speech pundits. All decried corruption in that country.
No one considered the notion that the kind of corruption that we are objecting to is culturally acceptable.  It is only decried by Afghani officials when they are talking to western reporters and U.S. government officials.
These same Afghanis speak with a forked tongue because they want to keep the cash pipeline flowing.
By Western standards it does not get much worse than corruption in Afghanistan.  The latest rankings by Transparency International put Afghanistan at 179 of 180 countries.  [Number 180, Somalia, is not even a government.  Iraq is 176.]
The recent Afgan elections make clear that political integrity is also at the bottom of the barrel.
Not surprisingly Afghanis do not see it that way. Baksheesh, as they call payoffs throughout the Third World, is not seen as evil or corrupt.  Baksheesh is seen as a normal for government and commerce.
But before you look down your nose, consider this.  What is “illegal and what is culturally “wrong are never fully congruent.  It will always vary with local values.
Who thinks that slipping a ten-spot to the headwaiter at Joe’s Stone Crabs is the crime of corporate corruption?  Actually, it is.
There are substantial populations in the United States that believe cheating on income taxes, selling pot or mixing up a little moonshine are okay even if it means paying off government officials.
Corrupt public official that are demonized by some are lauded by others.
Boston re-elected a mayor while he was in jail. Allow me to remove the smugness from the faces of those who look down on Black voters for sending an impeached federal judge to Congress.   For over a decade Broward’s upstanding White Christian population repeatedly elected Sheriff Walter Clark even though he stole, had a partnership in the illegal gambling business with mobsters and organized public lynchings. 
What it all comes down to is:  “He may be a crook, but, he’s my crook. 
In Afghanistan, there is a public wink and a nod at heroin production. Yet these same Muslims would stone to death a public official who tolerated hooch. In the hills of Kentucky it is just the reverse. 
Like politics, all morals are local.  Which brings me back to my father and his career in the NYPD. He honorably retired in 1958.  He saved lives.  He killed bad guys in shootouts.  He had the medals to prove it. 
Later in his life he would talk candidly about being “on the job—as it is called in the NYPD.    He explained the difference was between taking “good money and “bad money.
Bad money was drugs or violent criminals.
Good money included gifts from bookmakers and local businessman who needed favors.
It was like the speech Don Corlelone gave to the other Families.  He defended payoffs for gambling and women, but warning them about getting into the drug business. 
In my father’s case he went around and collected on bad checks given to local businessmen.  For his trouble he received a commission.
Fearful of a robbery, restaurants were more than happy to give him a free lunch because the till was filled with cash.
As long as I lived in Far Rockaway we never once paid to go to the movies.  I have vivid memories of my father dropping my sister and me at the RKO Columbia or Strand telling the manager:  “I’m gonna to put the kids in for a show.
I didn’t even think of the word corruption.  It was just the way it was. 
He was hardly alone.
Back in the early 1990’s I represented some Nigerians [The country should have “Home of Corruption in their license plates.] who were arrested for lying to get into government subsidized housing.  
To a person, they admitted what they did and acknowledged that it was “technically against the law.  What they could not fathom was that they were arrested much less going to prison.  Why did I not give the FBI, the judge or the U.S. Attorney baksheesh and make this go away?  That was their moral code.
Which brings me back to Afghanistan where nothing gets done without kickbacks.  For centuries the size of the economy limited the baksheesh to nickels and dimes.
There are now billions of American taxpayer dollars to steal. 
And we expect that by increasing the size of the pot they will adopt the Western standards of honesty?

4 Responses to “You Say Baksheesh, I Say Sheesh”

  1. The Reasons says:

    Buddy remembers correctly.

    The reasons were out of respect not at all to be corrupt. Everybody in the neighborhood knew those cops didn’t make much money. But they also knew that when the time came, that cop would defend you against bad guys and take a bullet if necessary. They’d be there. And so neighborhoods stayed safe.

    Few people then or today are willing to take a bullet for anybody.

    So if a cop got a sandwich, or a cold beer on a hot day, or got to send his kids free to the movies, it wasn’t seen as corruption at all. It was civic pride to treat cops with respect. It was the least you could do for the guy.

    But then things changed.

    Cops started shaking down restaruants and small businesses for the mob. They stopped taking bullets for people. They started framing innocent people they didn’t like for crimes they didn’t commit. It got out of hand and they stopped being the heroes they used to be in neighborhoods.

    What started with a sandwich to thank a public servant ended up with them being the number one thieves in the community.

    Then there’s the old story. Cops walk into an apartment of a drug dealer, things get stressful, befor you know it pop, pop, pop. There’s a dead guy on the floor, probably the drug dealer.

    And there on the kitchen table, in plain sight, there’s a few hundred thousand dollars in cash. One cop looks at the other, it’s only between them as partners. Before you know it they retire to South Florida, buy a house for cash and keep busy by running for local office.

    It happens still.

  2. Charley Varrick says:

    Sam ,

    I laugh when we speak about rampant corruption in “third world ” countries. We don’t even have to look outside Broward County for corruption in our school boards, poice departments and political and business communities. Also the global financial crisis was caused by the rampant greed here in the U.S. so lets get our own house in order first before casting stones at other countries.


  3. Sam Fields says:

    Dear Reasons;
    Today’s cops are still willing to take a bullet for us.

    Let also add that I told you very little about what my father said. In the name of expediency and “law and order” he did shit that would curl your hair.

    Based on the moral code at the time it was all acceptable

  4. Yes Sam says:

    Sam, I agree generally with your above post but there has definitely been a change in the relationship between cops and residents. That closeness that you and I remember isn’t there anymore.

    Also forgive that I thought Buddy wrote this piece instead of you.

    Our standards have changed. For example, used to be a cop would take a knucklehead kid aside and provide some positive reinforcement toward that kid’s development into an adult. It helped put the kid back on the right track without clogging up the criminal justice system.

    Today we’d rather prosecute that child. Not sure that’s the better approach.

    Anyhow, well done on the article.