The Wagon and Other Stories from the City

The Wagon and Other Stories from the City

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by Martin Preib

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"Martin Preib is an officer in the Chicago Police Department - a beat cop whose first assignment as a rookie policeman was working on the wagon that picks up the dead. Over the course of countless hours driving the wagon through the city streets, claiming corpses and taking them to the morgue, arresting drunks and criminals and hauling them to jail, Preib took pen

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"Martin Preib is an officer in the Chicago Police Department - a beat cop whose first assignment as a rookie policeman was working on the wagon that picks up the dead. Over the course of countless hours driving the wagon through the city streets, claiming corpses and taking them to the morgue, arresting drunks and criminals and hauling them to jail, Preib took pen to paper to record his experiences. Inspired by Preib's daily life as a policeman, The Wagon and Other Stories from the City chronicles the outer and inner lives of both a Chicago cop and the city itself." "The book follows Preib as he transports body bags, forges an unlikely connection with his female partner, trains a younger officer, and finds himself among people long forgotten - or rendered invisible - by the rest of society. Preib recounts how he navigates the tenuous labyrinths of race and class in the urban metropolis, such as a domestic disturbance call involving a gang member and his abused girlfriend or a run-in with a group of drunk yuppies." As he encounters the real and imagined geographies of Chicago, the city reveals itself to be not just a backdrop, but a central force in his narrative of life and death. Preib's accounts range from noir-like reports of police work to streetwise meditations on life and darkly humorous accounts of other jobs in the city's service industry.

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Editorial Reviews

In Chicago at the moment, if one were to look at the city through the prism of its police department, it would appear that someone's yanked a loose thread, causing the city to unravel. Last month in a courtroom downtown, Jon Burge, a former police commander, was found guilty of perjury, for lying about having tortured scores of suspects over a twenty-year period in the 1970s and '80s. He was accused of using such interrogation methods as suffocating suspects with plastic typewriter covers, shocking others using a hand-cranked generator, and inserting loaded revolvers into the mouths of the accused. Six weeks ago, in a stable, middle-class South Side neighborhood, Thomas Wortham IV, was shot and killed as four men tried to steal his motorcycle. Wortham, who was 30, had served two tours of duty in Iraq and was a highly respected Chicago police officer. In the days preceding his murder, he'd rallied his neighbors as they tried to reclaim the local park from thugs who'd been shooting each other on the basketball court. And a few weeks earlier, as police Superintendent Jody Weis held a press conference in a hardscrabble neighborhood to address the scourge of shootings (the city's homicide rate is up again), shots rang out. A youngster was shot two blocks away, underscoring the ubiquitous nature of the city's violence.


These incidents speak to the bravery, the occasional dishonor, and the outright frustration of the city's police. In the wake of all this, Martin Preib's The Wagon and Other Stories from the City is a welcome, albeit at times maddening, effort to fashion a narrative that reflects the reality of this messy, yet vital American city. Preib has been a Chicago cop for eight years, but he's not defined by his police work. He greatly admires Walt Whitman and William Kennedy, writers who despite having seen the worst in mankind were (in the case of Kennedy, still is) capable of maintaining a faith - admittedly quivering at times -- in the human spirit. Before his police work, Preib worked as a doorman at a downtown hotel, and there witnessed the grueling and often humiliating labor of those in the service industry. He soon became involved in an effort to take back the union from the corrupt old guard. Preib's been around. He knows writing - and he knows the city's darkest corners.


Preib is at his best when he's telling stories. He opens with a trenchant and at times hilarious recounting of his first job in the police department, driving a wagon that transported dead bodies. His observations are keen and fresh, as when he informs us: "The dead seek the lowest places in Chicago. We find them in basements, laundry rooms, on floors next to couches, sticking out of two parked cars or shrubs next to the sidewalk." He talks of sussing out the truth in domestic disputes where in one instance a young woman uses the police to get back at a wandering boyfriend. He's called to a nursing home where an elderly woman in the early stages of dementia believes she's being held against her will. "She is listening to me explain away her independence," he writes. "Even in such a terrifying situation, she is calm and trusting of me. There is a good chance she won't ever get out of here. I am a used-car salesman." He is and he isn't. He tells her that if, after she talks with the doctor she still feels mistreated, to give him a call.


If only Preib had stuck to telling stories, shining a flashlight into the nooks and crannies of this patchwork city. At one point, Preib writes that what he's learned from Whitman is that "realism does not frustrate form; it creates it. You just have to be tough enough to ride it out." I have no doubt that Preib is tough enough to ride it out, but I wish he had more faith in the power of what he shows us. Too often he wanders afield, overreaching in an effort to ponder what he's seen and heard. The prose at times feels heavy and dense. At one point, Preib launches a diatribe against the cameras which in recent years have been installed in squad cars, suggesting that they only capture the surface of what's transpired, and that as a result they pose a threat to police officers whose work is not guided by science but rather by the vicisisitudes of human judgment and behavior. He seems defensive, put upon: not a good place for a writer to find him or herself. What's more, he can't let go of his distaste for these cameras, and surprisingly -- I say surprisingly because he clearly has such an agile mind -- finds himself in a rut, a phonograph needle stuck in the groove.


Preib is a promising writer, someone who we'll undoubtedly hear from again, someone we need to hear from again. I for one will read whatever he writes next. I only hope that he learns to trust his ability to spin a good yarn, and to know that a little reflection on the tails of those stories will go a long way.

--Alex Kotlowitz

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Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Chicago Visions and Revisions Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)

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The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 Martin Preib
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-67980-8

Chapter One


The sergeant handed me a large clear plastic bag from the top of a file cabinet outside the commander's office.

"This will be a good experience for you," he said.

The bag was wrapped tightly in binding cords and was heavy. I alternately cradled it in front of my stomach and hoisted it on my shoulder. I did not know what it was, or what the sergeant meant. It was my second day out of the Chicago Police Academy. My partner, who would be training me that day, was late. I had no radio. I never heard the assignment about a removal, and, even if I had, I wouldn't know what it meant. Remove who? Where? Why? Rather than look stupid, I nodded and stood off to the side of the hallway after the sergeant left, not making eye contact with any supervisors in white shirts who might approach me and ask me who I was and what I was doing. I looked at myself, standing in the hallway with a large plastic bag cradled in front of me, without knowing why. I imagined my voice responding feebly to any inquiries.

"I really don't know."

After my partner showed up and informed me I would be driving the wagon in downtown rush-hour traffic, he directed me to a café for his coffee, obviously in no hurry to reach our assignment. The brief narrative on the computer explained that a woman was dead, and removal meant we must take her to the morgue. The narrative stated she was in her fifties. That was it. My partner did not speak about the task ahead, though I could not stop thinking about it. The service entrance to the address of our assignment, a high-rise building on Michigan Avenue, was below in the labyrinth of alleys and parking lots off Lower Wacker Drive.

I had never driven a wagon in traffic. I made my way there slowly, constantly stealing glances through the large mirrors on both sides, bracing myself for a collision each time I changed lanes, squeezing my head into my shoulders every time a bike messenger whizzed by, waiting for the slap of his body on the metal of the wagon. After we descended the ramp connecting the surface with Lower Wacker Drive, we roamed the back entrances of buildings looking for the address, but never found it. Many times I had to back up the wagon in tight turns between delivery trucks or concrete braces. A few times we were called on the radio and asked when we would get there. My partner told them to hold on, we were looking for the service entrance, but he didn't really seem to care. Then we both chuckled about giving up and just carrying the body out in a bag through the main entrance onto Michigan Avenue in rush hour.

Pardon me, body coming through. Look out.

Even as I was engaged in my first removal, I fought the image of myself doing it. I conceived of the police job as my first real career at the age of forty. Instead, hauling a dead body hinted at my life before the police, where I ended up in service jobs, mostly as a doorman hauling bags, while I entertained and pursued, fruitlessly, other plans: teaching, trying to oust the old guard in union elections, and writing. With the security of a police job, I had told myself, I could continue wandering the city, keep writing, and live decently. I could buy nice cars, go out to eat when I wanted, go on vacations to tropical islands. I imagined the more glorious aspects of the job. Everyone does. You are filled with this imagery in the academy: catching murderers and gangbangers, working together with other units in stings, becoming a detective, getting promotions. Hauling dead bodies was rarely mentioned, mostly because the labor was canceled in the last union contract and was slowly being phased out, district by district. The sergeant's statement echoed in my mind.

Good for me?

Eventually a Latino maintenance man was sent to the entrance to flag us down. An elevator we never noticed before opened, and he walked out, waving at us. I parked the wagon as close as I could, and we walked into the building, the maintenance guy leading the way. My partner reminded me of the bag, and I went back to retrieve it, its purpose clearer now. The halls were dimly lit, the paint thick. It was a well-kept building, but old, requiring steady care. One could sense the many layers of paint on the walls and trim. We rode the small elevator together, not saying anything. When it opened, I smelled death for the first time. The question that had been lingering since we got the job now came to the forefront: Could I handle this? If I failed to complete this task, I feared I would never live it down. Would I be ostracized? My spirits plummeted; the smell was so awful.

I recalled somebody once told me to inhale through my mouth and exhale out my nose at the scene of a dead body. Two detectives stood down the hallway with gloves on. The door to the apartment, the obvious source of the smell, was held open by a small rug. On the floor they had measuring tape, clipboards with notes attached. As we walked closer, the smell intensified, so that when I walked into the dark room after we spoke to the detectives, I became a little dizzy. I looked down on the floor next to the bed at the woman wrapped up in blankets, only part of her face and her hair visible. I would learn later that a dead body wrapped up in blankets is usually a good break. All you had to do was carry the body with the blankets into the bag. Sometimes you never even had to touch them, just roll them into the bag. But since the cause of her death was still unknown, we had to unwrap her for investigation.

At my partner's direction, I set the bag next to her and tugged on the plastic binding, but could not open it. He whipped out a knife from his vest pocket and handed it over to me. The bag expanded out onto the floor of the apartment after I cut into it. He grabbed the outer, clear plastic and pushed it over to the side. It was garbage now. We took the remaining black bag and spread it next to the body, unzipping it all the way. I positioned myself at her feet and slowly tugged on the blanket, which was stuck to her decayed skin. I turned my head away from her. My partner said I needed more force. I pulled harder and she unwrapped, her decayed skin ripping from the blanket noisily. She rolled out onto the floor, much of her skin and face purple and green. Clumps of hair stuck to the blanket, the smell billowing out of the now-exposed body and secretions on the floor, the blanket, and her clothes. I turned my head. I became dizzier, left my position, and walked to the open window, pulling in clean air and dry heaving.

The detectives looked at me, then my partner.

"His first one, second day on the streets," my partner said.

They nodded and after they inspected her for any signs of foul play, the elder detective took my position and pushed her skillfully into the bag. I stood next to him. I never even touched her. They had no obligation to look out for me. Nothing else was said about it.

Somewhat ashamed at my inability to do the job, I now overcompensated. I grabbed the bag by the handles on the sides and slid her down the smooth carpeting of the hallway by myself, into the service elevator, and out to the wagon, where we each took a side and lifted her in. We pulled off our gloves and threw them in the Dumpster. Then I awkwardly maneuvered the wagon out of the narrow loading zone, back and forth at least six times, the reverse alarm sounding each time I shifted, and we ascended back to the surface of the city with our body bag in the back, my partner sipping his coffee.

Writing about Chicago poses a formal dilemma. On the one hand, I carried a heavy duty that obliged me not only to collect the messy remains of failed life and intent, and all its attendant baggage, but also to make sense of it, meaning out of it. Until that answer arrived, I was pulled downward by my experiences in the city, my need to know it, all the while craving the form that would let me transcend it. There is no more wrongheaded state of mind. I had no idea where I was going, but, in retrospect, I think this confusion serves a purpose: No one thinking clearly would keep going. I did not move in a straight line; rather there were stops and starts, rejections of the enterprise, then returns to it. Often, in the self-accounting that takes place when I recalled these experiences, these stops and starts were the most debilitating signs of what I conceived as my failure and my wasted life.

Let me be more specific. Capturing a place like Chicago poses a challenge because the various devices of nonfiction and fiction both fall short. Since the aim of writing about place is to illuminate it, not escape or transform it, I felt constrained to facts and realism. Yet I always sensed something more lingered behind them, particularly in Chicago, whose ambivalence to truth and fact is well known. To get there, I was drawn to the mechanisms of fiction. But it was my own experience in the city I wanted to capture, not an imagined character. In this condition, all forms, tenses, and points of view danced in front of me, canceling each other out, each one holding possibilities, each one showing its obvious insufficiency as it was written.

Nevertheless, a faith lingers, a faith that this desire to write about place will one day reveal the appropriate form. This form, unreachable for so long, seems to come all at once, unifying elements like point of view, tense, and substance. But there are, in fact, preludes with distant roots, recognized clearly only in retrospect. These preludes provide their own narrative, so I went back to them. A religious force moves to the forefront, unifying the writing. I passed through many intellectual and artistic "schools of thought": moral, didactic, political, from realism to romanticism, before I realized that what I was seeking was not necessarily a definable place, subject, or theme, but the appropriate understanding of a mystery, rooted in the city, that had drawn me in all along, a mystery that was alive and provided satisfaction these other forms could only partly, and therefore insufficiently, satisfy. Much of what could be called my "voice," I concluded, was the manner in which I would approach this mystery. I saw that not only does this mystery survive my lowest sinking; it intensifies along the way, undeniable evidence in my mind that the mystery is real.

In retrospect, I wondered at how long I fought the context of this mystery, partly from my own cowardice, partly in deference to current literary pretenses. Here my education proved destructive. It tended to pull me away from the base and unorthodox corners where I lingered, where I often preferred to go. Rather than embrace these places, I tried to escape them, seek other sources deemed more noble and appropriate. I got lost in schools, art scenes, planned trips to Europe, writers' workshops, repressing the sense that what was in front of me was already more compelling.

One bitterly cold day on the far north side of Rogers Park, I was assigned a removal in the basement of a large apartment building. I stood off to the side while another officer, Jimmy, finished his report and waited for the detectives to call back and declare, officially, no further investigation was required. I moved to the back of the basement, to the warmest section, holding a conversation with Jimmy but aware that, try as I might, I could not keep my attention away from the body in the corner, partially under the couch, as if the dead man had crawled under it. He was about the sixth body that month. I had had enough of them. I was sick of working the wagon, sick of Rogers Park with all its various dead, more dead than any other district I had worked. How could they make cops, wearing uniforms with ties, stoop to such labor, I groused. When it came time to turn him into the bag, I stopped, stood there. I could barely tolerate the job anymore. Only a sense of duty pushed me onward. Jimmy, with some fifteen years on the job, seeing my hesitation, taunted me good-naturedly, then walked over and pulled the body into the bag with an ungloved hand. Show-off . My partner and I lifted, bearing the body out the door and down the gangway into the brutally cold, bright winter day. The light reflecting off the snow contrasted with the dark basement, causing us to squint. We had to stop to rest three or four times; the body weighed about 275 pounds.

I looked at myself resting on the thin sidewalk between two buildings, the black bag on the ground between us, glanced at my partner across the alley.

Here in this gangway, I admitted a writer willfully loses his sense of direction, finds repose in an imagery that exudes its own music, one in which issues of form, fact, and fiction find their own resolution. Piety prevents me from dissecting this imagery further, dissection being, as they say, a fancy word for murder. My concern now was its life span, durability, and my ability to remain in it. What most terrified me, thrilled me, was not the resolution of form, but its hint of the divine, lingering, like an elegy, among what is lost and what remains.


The dead seek the lowest places in Chicago: We find them in basements, laundry rooms, on floors next to couches, sticking out of two parked cars or shrubs next to the sidewalk. It is more than gravity that pulls them down, for in every dead body there is something more willfully downward: the lowest possible place, the head sunken into the chest and turned toward the floor.

No matter the cause—an accident, a murder, or, as we cite on the Hospitalization Case Report, natural causes—all bodies express this downwardness when we remove them from the cavern they have created merely by their presence, by their being.

Some cops, like me, circle the periphery of the room before we encounter the body, making small talk with other cops guarding the scene, slowly putting on our gloves, unnecessarily double-checking that our path is clear, anything to avoid the inevitable bending over the body and touching it, shaking it from this descendance it insists upon and bringing it back into our living world, where it must be pronounced, photographed, identified, prodded, stripped, and categorized.

Their resistance is powerful. The dead roll back to their original positions, stuck to the ground or their sheets on their beds, their bodies unwilling to bend or sway into the bag, always pulling themselves back down, a force captured in the phrase "dead weight."

I am glad to have a partner who forces the issue. He positions the large diesel wagon as close to the site as possible and wordlessly takes off his radio, rolls up his sleeves, and tucks in his shirt. He grabs the body bag and the gloves from the truck. He marches into the building or crime scene and holds open the bag with a leg or arm while the rest of his body is spent maneuvering it in. I shake myself free from my limbo and jump to assistance. I take my side, and we work together until we can get the bag around the body and zip it up, communicating in short statements, "... his arm ... watch the head ... he's leaking there." My partner never wants to double-bag the dead as I do, dreading the fluid drips that in the smallest amount will ruin a uniform. Instead, he grabs the bag by the handles, lifts, and heads back to the truck.

"I just want to get it over with," he says after we get back into the front seats and begin driving to the morgue. He is polite, acknowledging and explaining the reasons for his taking control, the sign of a good partner.

"Oh yeah, sure, no problem. Me too," I say, letting him know I am glad he did.

The drive to the Near West Side can take forty-five minutes and is a welcome break. We listen to calls on the radio, look at beautiful women, and keep our hands away from our faces, fearing that despite our best efforts, some small remnant of the dead is on us. We remind ourselves to use extra soap and some kind of fragrance when we wash our uniform that night. Even so, we sense the dead person in the back of the wagon as if we are keeping a secret, and we are. None of the people with whom we make eye contact as we drive have any idea there is a dead body in the back of our wagon.

Even when we open the door to the wagon at the morgue, the dead seemed to have burrowed deeper into it, and again they fight us when we slide them out onto the gurney, though it is much easier to handle them now that they are in a bag. The gurney fits the level of the wagon floor exactly. All we have to do is pull on the handles and the body slides out.


Excerpted from THE WAGON AND OTHER STORIES FROM THE CITY by MARTIN PREIB Copyright © 2010 by Martin Preib. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Martin Preib is an officer with the Chicago Police Department. His essays have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and Tin House.



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The Wagon and Other Stories from the City 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
KMS97 More than 1 year ago
The Wagon tells of Martin Preib’s police job driving the wagon that picks up the dead bodies. As I am finishing up my senior year of high school, I am working on ethnography in English. Ethnography is a study of a culture of people. My ethnography is on police culture and stereotypes. This book was a beautifully written combination of cold, hard truth and life. His second day on the job, he is sent to retrieve a woman from an apartment building. “I smelled death for the first time,” he writes. “The question that had been lingering since we got the job now came to the forefront: could I handle this?” As the book goes on you see his strength and determination. Tears filled my eyes as I read about him carrying the body of a two-month victim of SIDS from the hospital to the morgue. “He rode in the front sear of the wagon between my partner and me, too small to be placed in a body bag in the back of the wagon.”  This book tells of harrowing experiences, happy times and all things in between. It is glamorized like on TV, it is real and it is truth .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Chicagoan10 More than 1 year ago
The Wagon is Martin Preib's first book and is a collection of his stories as a Chicago cop. By far the best example of this well-trod genre. His writing is sensitive yet gritty and he brings all of his life experiences to the page.