The Stacks: The Cop Who Loved the Oak Bar
Jack Maple was a New York City cop with champagne taste and a beer wallet. When he fell for the swank charms of the Plaza Hotel, his life began to unravel.
Richard Price's latest novel, The Whites, written under the pseudonym Harry Brandt, is getting rave reviews. Last week, Price was asked by The New York Times about his favorite New York stories. The first magazine piece he mentioned was “The Cop Who Loved The Oak Bar,” by The Daily Beast's own Michael Daly. Originally published in New York Magazine (April 11,1983), and reprinted here with the author's permission, this little gem will bring to mind Runyon, Hecht, Mitchell, Cannon, and Breslin.
By his twenty-first birthday, Jack Maple had signed on with the Transit Police, married his high-school sweetheart, and taken out a mortgage on a two-family house on a tree-lined street in Queens. He was in every way a perfect officer of the law, and only when he chanced to stroll past the Plaza hotel did he reveal aspirations that set him apart from his fellow officers. Much to the amusement of his colleagues, Maple would peer through the windows of the Oak Bar and announce that he would someday join the men in suits and ties who laughed and drank on the other side of the plate glass.
“I always felt I belonged there,” Maple says.
Over the years that followed, Maple spent much of his time with thieves and killers and rapists, and there was no hint that he would ever come closer to the Oak Bar than the sidewalk. One evening, a dope peddler in Bryant Park pointed a pistol at Maple's face. Maple knocked the barrel to the side, and the muzzle flash burned his cheek. Maple then shot the peddler. That night, he headed home past the Plaza wearing a bloodstained T-shirt. Again, he gazed through the windows of the Oak Bar. He remembers, “It looks like nothing bad could ever happen in there.”
By late 1980, Maple had made some 400 arrests, and, at 27, he became the youngest detective in the department. Deciding he needed a more dignified image than that of a fat cop who grimaced because his pants were too tight, Maple embarked on a diet of 30 cups of coffee a day supplemented by an occasional bite of fish. In five weeks, he dropped from 225 pounds to 160 pounds. His waist melted from a 40 to a size 30. He had three designer suits fitted to his new physique and hung them on his bedroom wall like paintings. He also purchased a homburg and a dozen bow ties. Maple says, “I always felt the bow tie had a classic look.”
And so, as he chanced to pass the Plaza hotel in his fifth week as detective, Jack Maple found for the first time that he bore a certain resemblance to the people behind the plate-glass windows of the Oak Bar. Maple had just completed a day tour, and he was wearing a three-piece pin-striped suit, a white shirt, and a bow tie with red and gray stripes. He had stopped earlier in the day at the flower stand in the Union Turnpike IND station, and he had a red carnation in his lapel as he walked up the marble stairs and into the Plaza.
A few cushioned steps across the carpet and Maple was in the Oak Bar. The coolness of the dim lighting was balanced by the warmth of the polished wood. The voices in the room never rose above a murmur.
“The first time I walked into the Oak Bar and sat down, I knew that was where I should always be,” Maple says.
Throwing a $20 bill on the bar. Maple ordered a Chablis on the rocks. The bartender ignored the bill and rang up the drink on a check. Maple remembers, “The bartender looked at me like I was nuts for putting the money up. I never made that mistake again.” Maple slipped the $20 bill back in his pocket. He sipped wine and engaged a corporate lawyer in what he would later call “chitchat.” Maple remembers, “He said he made a lot of money, but he didn't have the time to enjoy it. I said to him, 'You give me the money and I'll send you postcards saying what a great time I'm having.’”
In the days that followed, Maple visited the bars at the St. Moritz, the Waldorf-Astoria, and the Sherry Netherland. After a return engagement at the Oak Bar, he strolled through the lobby and came upon the Palm Court. Maple took a seat, and a waitress appeared to take his order of a coffee and chocolate cheesecake. The waitress seemed to know the exact moment Maple wanted a second cup of coffee. And just as Maple felt a desire for a glass of water, the waitress came up to fill his glass.
“Their timing is perfect,” Maple says. “They know the right moment.”
Soon, Maple was a regular at the Palm Court. After one particularly bad day in the subway, Maple slipped the violin player a $5 bill and asked him to play a tune from when Maple and his wife fell in love, “Lara's Theme.”
Maple remembers, “Of course, he looked over, saw I was settled, and then picked up the violin and played.” Only once did the Palm Court seem less than perfect. On that night, a waiter asked Maple to hurry with his coffee because Alan King was scheduled to film a movie scene there.
“I was very annoyed,” Maple says. “I told him Mr. King had to wait.”
After each evening at the Plaza, Maple would hop the F train back to Queens. He would play with his three-year-old daughter and scold his dog and watch television. From the bay windows in the living room, he could look out on the tree-lined street. An occasional teenager in designer jeans passed on his way to score angel dust in Forest Park. Sometimes, a car came up the block, stopped at the intersection, and drove on. There were no people in evening clothes. There were no limousines or hansom cabs.
“Before, I thought my house was Tara in Gone With the Wind,” Maple says.
During one of his evenings at home, Maple saw a commercial for a company called the Money Store. He scribbled down the phone number that flashed on the television screen, and picked up the telephone. He remembers, “I knew I was in trouble when they were overly friendly.” Saying he would call back some other time, Maple hung up. Over the days that followed, he forced himself to stay away from the telephone. Finally, the temptation proved too great and he grabbed the receiver.
“I tried not to call, I really did,” Maple says.
Two days later, Maple went into the Money Store branch on Long Island. He signed a paper that put his house up as collateral, and he picked up a check for $20,000. To this he added an $8,000 pension loan. From then on, he stopped at a Citibank branch every few hours to see if the two checks had cleared. Finally, at the branch on Lefferts Boulevard, Maple slid his plastic card into the computer and saw the figure $28,000 flash on the display screen. Now Jack Maple was ready to roll.
In keeping with his new wealth, Maple now washed down his $4.50 slice of cheesecake at the Palm Court with a $110 bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne. After years of patrolling Times Square and watching well-dressed people pour into the theaters, Maple went to see a Broadway show. The show was 42nd Street, and Maple's favorite tune was “We're in the Money.” On another night, Maple went to the River Café, in Brooklyn. There, he tried sushi.
“I didn't let anybody know I didn't know what it was,” Maple says.
As commuting by subway was not in keeping with his new lifestyle, Maple purchased an Alfa Romeo Spider sports car. He had never driven a stick shift, and he caused considerable excitement as he pulled away from the dealership and tried to work the car's five-speed gearbox. As Maple neared home, the car broke down. Jack Maple, man-about-town, had to push his Alfa to a gas station.
When summer came, the Oak Bar, the Palm Court, and the other spots on Maple's itinerary filled with people who had Hamptons' tans. Maple spent hours sunning himself on a dock in Dead Horse Bay, in Brooklyn. Off duty, he took to wearing open-necked white shirts, gray slacks, and soft black loafers without socks. Maple remembers. “No socks—that's the very preppie thing. I was dressed casually elegant.” On duty, Maple stayed with the bow ties and sported a straw boater. This, of course, drew some comment from his neighbors.
“They'd ask me, what was I, undercover?” Maple says. “And I'd say to myself, 'If they only knew how undercover I was.’”
The wardrobe also proved to have a certain effect on felons, and Maple was able to arrest 15 stickup men in a month without so much as a tussle. At a Sands Street housing project, Maple encountered a large purse snatcher who threatened to do him bodily harm. Maple pointed out that he was wearing a $400 suit and $100 shoes. Maple then held open the door of his unmarked car. Apparently sensing that something terrible would happen if Maple were to wrinkle his suit or scuff his shoes, the purse snatcher slid into the backseat.
After a particularly tough day, Maple would head over to the men's room at the Plaza to wash and shave. After splashing himself with Zizanie cologne, he would leave a dollar tip for the washroom attendant. Sometimes, Maple would sit in the lobby and read yachting magazines. Maple remembers, “I really believe when I was born they messed up and put me in a civil-service bassinet by mistake.”
And all Jack Maple had to do to support this wonderful life was slide a plastic card into one of the Citibank computer terminals. Maple remembers, “I was like a Citibank junkie.” During one trip to the computer, Maple hit the button for account information and saw that his fortune had dwindled below $2,000. Maple checked into the Waldorf and filled the bathroom sink with bottles of champagne. Later, at the Oak Bar, Maple found himself standing next to a real-estate magnate and his wife. “My wife is better looking,” Maple says.
That weekend, Maple went to Broadway shows and ate at his favorite restaurants and had several slices of chocolate cheesecake at the Palm Court. He stopped by the Stage deli for a late-night sandwich and encountered Raquel Welch. The following morning, Maple took a final stroll along the Waldorf's Peacock Alley and then went home.
The next day, Maple went to the Citibank branch in Kew Gardens. He slid in his plastic card and hit a button. The green numbers that flashed on the screen informed that his total personal fortune now stood at $12. Maple says, “It was something horrible.” In the days that followed, Maple was seen in such spots as a doughnut shop on Eighth Avenue and a lunch counter in the Times Square subway station. One afternoon, he took his daughter to McDonald's in Queens. Maple had a cheeseburger and fries while his daughter raced around the playground.
“This is some fall, from the Palm Court to the playground at McDonald's,” Maple says.
For some time, his wife had suspected that he was living beyond his means. Somehow, Maple had been able to conceal from her the full extent of his extravagance. Now, faced with a future that promised little more than years of payments to the Money Store on an annual salary of under $30,000, Maple decided he had nothing to lose. He confessed all. His wife is a practical woman, and after her temper cooled, she directed Maple to begin his penance by painting the inside of their house.
“I like painting, I love it, I really do,” Maple says.
No longer able to afford to be a man-about-town, Maple continued to be one of the town's most able defenders. He was promoted to sergeant and adding a Churchill cigar to the homburg and the bow tie, he cracked a ring of jewel thieves. One $4,500 Rolex watch ended up in the possession of a vice president at E. F. Hutton.
“When Sergeant Maple talked, E. F. Hutton listened,” Maple says.
Skipping lunches, Maple saved enough money for one more appearance at the Plaza. On a warm afternoon a few weeks ago, he walked into the Oak Bar. Many of his fellow officers sought to escape the stress of the streets in gin mills. Some had become alcoholics. A few became suicides. And as he sipped a Chablis, Maple decided that his friends would have done better to have had a fling at the Plaza.
“It would be hard to be an alcoholic at $4.50 a pop,” Maple says.
Two rookies came up the street and spotted Maple sitting by one of the windows. Maple raised his glass. Later, he went down to the men’s room. The attendant asked, “How have you been?” Maple said, “I haven’t been around for a while.” Then Maple left his usual dollar tip and headed home to Queens, smelling of Zizanie cologne.