Sitting behind his captain’s desk covered with files, complaint reports, and official NYPD notifications along with my Timberland boots perched at the edge, Steve Bonano and I discovered that we had the same sophisticated culinary palate. It was uncanny. We both dined at the same establishment but at different branches and knew the menu as intimately as the chef. We ate there more than we cared to admit, which likely accounted for his slightly chubby physique and as I call myself, svelte with a twist.
“I always order at Taco Bell” my sentence began and Steve chimed in at the same time. “Combo number three!”
We both laughed and exclaimed, “Three tacos and a soda!”
Each time we saw each other we called out “Combo number three!” I can still hear his laugh.
Many people knew him better than I did. My time was spent sitting in his office chatting about life on the job. During my two years embedded in the 23rd Precinct for my book project, 23rd Precinct: The Job, I learned the rhythm, personalities, politics, intelligence, and eccentricities of the men and women who worked there. The blue wall is kind of a strange thing because from the inside, everyone has an opinion. And sometimes more than one.
The politics inside of every precinct and the New York City Police Department can be more demanding or draining than the work outside in the streets. Not everyone likes each other and some are fearful of the man or woman standing next to them, the fear that someone wasn’t street smart no matter where they grew up or wasn’t particularly adept at police tactics or had a temper or that a mistake could cost them everything and anything, including their lives. As an observer, I often wondered how people managed to get through the day. But they did with the hope that a split second decision would be the right one.
By the time I met Steve, his career as a street cop and undercover cop on the streets of the Bronx confiscating guns was behind him and he moved steadily up the police ladder, from sergeant, lieutenant, captain, deputy inspector, inspector, to deputy chief. He earned a Masters degree from Harvard University; was awarded the Combat Cross, NYPD's second highest medal; commanded the elite Emergency Services Unit; and flew a helicopter in the NYPD’s Aviation Unit. He served for 30 years. Steve loved working for the Police Department and somehow never seemed to be scalded by sarcasm or weariness, but with intelligence, warmth, and enthusiasm.
I remember him like series of snapshots, when you see people in a fixed point in time and then they are gone.
A licensed helicopter pilot, Steve spoke about flying seriously ill children to different hospitals for medical treatment. Others worried about how green the grass was. But to Steve, other lives mattered.
An eBay purchase of mine included a Speed Graphic camera, one of those old cameras that you see in black and white movies, but I couldn’t figure out how it worked. Steve had the solution. His father, he said, was a camera buff so he called him up, made the introduction and instructed me to call him. Tony Bonano, who lived in the Bronx and worked as a physicist, showed up in front of my building several days later, a tall, thin, elegant man who knew exactly how that camera worked. He set up a portable stool in front of my building and taught me how to shoot like a pro. We walked around the neighborhood, teacher and pupil, and took photographs of trees and buildings. I will never forget that.
What I most remember, though, is something kind of silly. Somewhere I had picked up one of those wooden paddles with a rubber ball attached to an elastic string that we all played with when we were kids. We were sitting in Steve's office and I pulled it out of my bag. He was impressed. After a few hits and misses with the ball hitting me in the eye, I surrendered it to Steve who stood up from his desk in uniform. With the glee of a ten-year-old, he proceeded to smack the ball around the office.
“Great stress reliever!” he called out.
After about 30 minutes, I excused myself for an appointed ride on patrol with two partners on the four-to-twelve.
“I’ll leave you to your fun,” I said. “But I gotta get to work.”
“Me, too,” he said.
I waved goodbye, walked to the end of the hallway and turned around. There he was, still hitting that small red rubber ball with the paddle.
Around the end of the 1990s or so, Steve moved up to the 34th Precinct, which covers Washington Heights and Inwood. I was working on another book project and we ran into each other from time to time.
“Combo number three!” we called out and reminisced about the paddle and ball.
“That was great,” he said, and I promised to bring him another one. I must have forgotten because I never did.
Steve left the NYPD to become head of security with Barclay’s Arena in Brooklyn and I thought this would be a chance to reunite after catching a boxing match or two. But he never had the opportunity to enjoy his life after the NYPD. He was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer thought to be a result of the many days he spent working at Ground Zero after 9/11.
While he was undergoing medical treatment last year, I sent him a wooden paddle with a red ball and a note in a small Tiffany shopping bag. The note advised him that we were unlikely to be a bone marrow match since he is of Puerto Rican and Dominican ancestry and mine is Greek, Russian, and Austrian. But, stranger things have happened and if he happened to get a craving for combo number three. . .
Steve Bonano died today, Friday, January 16. He was 53. His wedding date was a week away.
He is the third person I know from the 23rd Precinct who is no longer with us: Sergeant Kevin O’Rourke was killed in Afghanistan in 2012, a man known for his equanimity and problem solving skills; and Officer Kay Carroll who died of breast cancer in 2013. She was one of the first women on patrol, who talked about rolling around with suspects in the gutters of Brooklyn, wearing the policewoman’s uniform of a skirt, blouse, stockings, and pocketbook and then being taunted in the stationhouse for the crime of being a woman.
I think of the lives they touched, including my own; the impact they've had as pieces of this city’s history; and the promise of what they could have been.
In Steve’s honor, I considered stopping at a local Taco Bell and ordering combo number three.
Not the same anymore.