10/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Only in Chicago

I was walking out of Pops on a freezing cold night last winter and came upon a scene only Chicago provides. A big Chicago cop, standing in the snow, in a retro Soviet-style Chicago police cap. The kind with flaps on the sides and front and back. Under the warming lights of a hotel, looking like a blue block of granite in a double-breasted, early seventies long overcoat. The snow coming down hard lit by the hotel lights explaining to three out-of-towners how to get to the Viagra Triangle. The Viagra Triangle: that triangle of streets containing Gibsons, Hugo's Frog Bar, Tavern on Rush, and in each of them a four-to-one ratio of desirable young women and their desired, older richer Viagra-ready prey. The cop was putting on a show. "Down this street over by der," major hand gesture, "walk nort," his leg kicked out, "once past Oak yer home free." He solemnly shook hands with each of them. As if bidding them farewell, off on a dangerous suicide mission, and saluted them as they walked away.

As I waited for my car he walked by. Officer, I called, and introduced myself. I told him he represented the finest the city could offer, kidding, but I meant it. Thanks, he said but look around you, look at this city. I spent ten years in (I don't remember the district). Everyday there were shootings and stabbings and broken car windows and women getting beat up and children that would break your heart, and now look ... he gestured to the tall buildings disappearing into the snow clouds, the city lights higher up that looked like constellations in the snow, couples huddled against the storm walking arm in arm. It was silent for a minute, he and I in the big city. Buses gliding by, no sound of the El, no sirens, the snow deadening everything.

Nice cars around, he said, nice people asking for directions, no shooting, hey buddy, he stuck out his hand, nice to meet you but I got to patrol.

I told this story two nights later to Jack O'Malley, the former Cook County State's Attorney, and now a distinguished Appellate Court Judge. Before becoming a lawyer, while going to night school, a tough street cop, 19 with a badge and a gun and a desire to do good. Then a Tactical Officer, spending the years I spent in college in the college of the streets. He laughed and laughed at my story, and said he knew what the cop was feeling. That he too went from the Wild Wild West Side of Chicago to Lincoln Park, one day to the next. It was like one day he and his partner were patrolling Beirut and the next helping citizens concerned about a hurt dog on Lincoln Park West.

Walking over to Heaven on Seven we saw the cop again. Dressed as before on an equally cold night. "Hey officer," I yelled across the street as he started to walk west as we were walking north ... "Wait a minute." He stopped, peered back at us. "Are you taxpayers?" He called. "Yes," Jack yelled back. "Well if you guys are taxpayers I'll wait right here."

Only in Chicago.

Jack has always said there are no more genuine humanitarians than cops. Albert Schweitzer for the most part he says. They've seen everything, heard everything. Cops see the worst and best of humanity day in, day out. Despite being surrounded by brutality and lies and ignorance and human cruelty most of them keep their sanity and their senses of humor and they are the ones that show up when you need a cop. You call and they will always come.

My babysitter was brutally raped and murdered and raped again over a decade ago. They caught the animal that did it almost immediately but the detectives assigned to the case still had to follow up. They needed to interview me: I was one of the last people to see her alive, when she left my house after babysitting my kids. As the detective asked me questions over the phone I answered as best I could. It was tough. He handled it as professionally as you could expect. But, he also handled the questioning with kindness and with a real sense that we were talking about a wonderful young woman. A woman he had only known as part of a crime scene. But, even in that, he didn't just see a victim, he saw a person.

At the end of the questions, he asked me if I was all right. Yeah, I said, I guess.

"Michael," the cop said, dropping the Mr. Jones, "let's go get a beer sometime. My partner and I will treat." And he meant it.

There are good cops and bad cops but mostly there are good cops. I know a lot more about Chicago's cops these days. Not just from personal experiences and Jack's stories, or a cop giving directions in the snow. There are cop blogs in Chicago. They are riveting reading. Profane, funny, racist, real, white hot, fascinating, reporting what the Trib and Sun-Times don't.

Only in Chicago.