When I was a detective, my partner Richard Kalk and I got a call to meet a man under the Fourth Street Bridge between Boyle Heights and downtown L.A. We found a middle-aged homeless man living under the bridge high up among the steel girders. He had fashioned an elaborate rope ladder to get up there and once ensconced, you would never see him. It was the week before Christmas and his name was Preston Tingle.
He wanted to report some young burglars breaking into a railroad car containing TV sets, across that trickle of water known as the L.A. River. We caught a couple of them. I was not yet the writing cop but I was never short on imagination. I called the newsroom and told a Los Angeles Times reporter that we had discovered a watchful "troll" named Preston Tingle who lived under the Fourth Street Bridge. And of course I pointed out that his name rhymes with Kris Kringle, and reminded them that Christmas was just a few days away. That did it.
Three of the news channels and the L.A. Times were all over this holiday story. The next day Preston Tingle was deluged with gifts. The nearby Sears store delivered a sleeping bag, Coleman stove, and all sorts of camping gear for the modern outdoorsman. Other stores and merchants were generous with canned goods and all manner of Christmas cheer for the suddenly famous troll. Preston demonstrated on TV how his ingenious rope ladder worked and how it could be hidden so nobody knew he lived up there with the pigeons.
The honest troll was instantly offered a very good job as a night watchman for a movie studio where he could guard the backlot the way he guarded the territory around the Fourth Street Bridge. And then came the Big Mistake. A reporter gave Preston a bottle of very good booze.
When my partner and I arrived the following morning for a big televised event at St. Louis Drugstore, across the street from Hollenbeck Division police station, the lunch counter employee, Fanny Frank, everybody's Jewish auntie, had a fabulous breakfast prepared for Preston Tingle and the place was buzzing with excitement.
Then Preston Tingle arrived in a news van and he was blitzed. Pickled to the gills. And he was surly. With Richard on one side of him and I on the other and the cameras rolling, he looked at me and said, "This is a sham! This is a gud-damn sham!" Which of course it was. However, the publicity for us was great and I kept trying to get him under control just long enough for the three-minute Christmas news feature, but it was hopeless. After numerous takes I was drenched in sweat, and so was my partner, and so was Fanny Frank by the time the lights were extinguished and all the reporters left the drugstore. Only then did Preston Tingle wolf down his breakfast.
It was Preston Tingle's most miserable Christmas ever.
We drove him back to the bridge and when we wished him a Merry Christmas and asked if he was going to take the job at the movie studio, he rooted in his ears and nose, scratched his lower body front and rear (encased in brand new Sears khakis), climbed his rope ladder and announced, "This is all a gud-damn sham!"
By Christmas Day, Preston Tingle felt obliged to escape all the do-gooders, well wishers and looky-loos who kept lavishing gifts and food and job offers on him. He left his home under the Fourth Street Bridge and that was the last we ever saw of him. Somehow, I think that if I had recalled Mark Twain a little better I could have predicted this outcome.
It was Preston Tingle's most miserable Christmas ever. We had ruined his life.
Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD detective sergeant, is the bestselling author of 19 works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Choirboys and The Onion Field . In 2004, he was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. He lives in Southern California. His new novel Hollywood Hills is out now. Learn more at thehollywoodnovels.com.