If you'll indulge a confession, I'm a happy guy sitting across from a cop -- or even a retired cop -- with my notebook on the table and a beer in my hand. They've all got stories, some funny, some dark, some of them even true.
That's what led me to call Joseph Wambaugh at his home in San Diego last week and see if he wanted to meet for dinner and a margarita or two at Villa Sombrero, a Highland Park institution and longtime hangout for him and other cops. The Sombrero was preparing to shut down, at least for now, because of a dispute between the restaurant owner and property owner.
But Wambaugh, who long ago gave up chasing bad guys to write about it, was pushing up against a hard deadline on a Hollywood project. He couldn't make the trip to L.A. but suggested I call his old detective partner and longtime pal Richard Kalk, who had put in more than a few good years at Villa Sombrero, especially after retiring and helping to open the nearby Los Angeles Police Historical Museum.
Kalk and I were set up two tablecloths away from Wambaugh's regular table. Behind Kalk was a lacquered portrait of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, and 10 feet away was a poster-size photo of Wambaugh, an only-in-L.A. juxtaposition.
I looked across the table at Kalk, who Wambaugh describes as having "a face like a catcher's mitt," and sized him up as one lucky lug. As a Marine, he saw duty in Okinawa but no action. As a cop, he saw plenty of action in 30 years but never had to pull his trigger.
Kalk did a little moonlighting as a cop and partnered on a real estate investment that turned a tidy profit. He sunk his good fortune into a house in San Marino when they went for $75,000, and don't we all wish we were as smart? There, he raised two daughters with Heidi, the love of his life, who died in October 2006.
Wambaugh set Kalk up as a technical advisor on the NBC-TV series "Police Story." This led to a few snippets of screen time, with Kalk usually playing a cop. He was in "Shampoo," "The Onion Field," "The Blue Knight" and "The New Centurions."
"It was fun, but oh my goodness was it boring," Kalk said of his life as a Hollywood big shot. Six hours to adjust the sound or the lighting? Thank the good Lord for catering trucks.
Kalk socked away about $200 an episode to come up with story lines of his own or to find cops with fresh material straight off the streets. The cons, the cranks, the bungling bandits and crusading cops. Kalk and his mates had PhD's in fresh pulp.
But it wouldn't have happened without Wambaugh.
When they worked "the burglary table" together in Hollenbeck Division, Kalk had no idea Wambaugh was working on a book, and wouldn't have guessed he could write anything other than a ticket.
"He knew I dabbled in photography and asked if I could take a photo of him for the jacket of his book that was about to come out."
Long after Wambaugh traded badge for pen, he and Kalk, along with another musketeer -- the late LAPD Det. Nick Romero -- kept close. Over drinks, Wambaugh kept a note pad in front of him as they talked about the last nitwit they'd collared, or about Bullets Bambarella, their name for a fellow cop Kalk describes like this:
"That was a guy who could walk into a church and get involved in a shooting."
Wambaugh caught it all, Kalk said.
"Somebody would say something and Joe would write it down and put the note in his shirt pocket. At the end of the night, the pocket was out to here."
Maybe Wambaugh can work up a little something on the unsolved murder of the gypsy woman -- the one Kalk still thinks about decades after the body landed on a slab at the morgue.
"She had a bad habit of inviting everyone up to her room to tell them their fortune," Kalk said, still wondering which suspect might have taken her life near 6th and Alvarado.
Maybe there's a book or movie on the guilty-as-sin murderer who beat a rap and is still on the loose somewhere in Long Beach, the last Kalk checked.
I could go on forever. Kalk's got the material. He didn't even get around to the one about the time he was standing in line at a bank, 225 pounds of plainclothes cop, and the guy in the next line pulled a gun on the teller.
It was Wambaugh who told me how Kalk calmly waited for his opening, put a high school wrestling move on the robber, and told a teller to run outside and get his partner, Nick Romero.
Romero told the teller it was raining and he wasn't getting out of the car.
You might want to reconsider, she told him. The bank's just been robbed, there's money and a gun on the floor, and your partner's sitting on the bad guy.
Kalk was awarded the LAPD's Medal of Valor.
But as Kalk drank his beer and ate his tacos and told me his cop stories, I was thinking back on the look in his eye when he'd told me his wife died of breast cancer.
"Forty-six years," he said, leaning back a bit, like he still needed to distance himself from the idea of losing her.
When I brought it up again, a change came over Kalk, the tough guy going soft, with a tear coming up in his eye.
He never had an affair, Kalk told me, and he adored his wife. But he had a mistress, he said, pointing to his beer. It was the job, the brotherhood, the guys getting together at Villa Sombrero or some other joint after working yet another homicide.
There were too many rounds of drinking the night away, Kalk said, and he wishes he'd spent that time with his wife. As a tough guy who always knew what to do on the street, he wishes there was more he could have done when she was so sick she couldn't stand.
"I'm sorry," Kalk said, trying to compose himself. "I thought I was past it."
I told Kalk to go easy on himself. Who else but cops wade in the darkest depths, the bloodied bodies lapping at their feet in tireless waves? Maybe a drink with the guys was his way of keeping it all where it belonged, I suggested, away from the wife he loved.
With Wambaugh and Zapata looking down on us, we called it a night. I don't know how many stories there are in the dust of the restaurant, which closed Tuesday. I only took away this one.
Adios, Villa Sombrero.
The food was good, but the company was better.