What Stays With You

For as long as I can remember I've wanted to be a writer. Looking back now, it's as if much of my life was mapped out with author in mind, having spent my childhood growing up in places like Mexico City, Beirut, Stockholm and Mallorca. So many collected memories. 
            My father worked for the State Department, so between countries Washington, DC was always home base. It was there where I got the idea to write my first book. I was sixteen. The book was about Armageddon. I spent most of my summer vacation days locked away in my bedroom pounding away on an old typewriter that belonged to my dad. I didn't have time for showers. I let the peach fuzz on my face grow. And two months later, I finished what in my mind was a masterpiece, the book I was destined to write, even at such a young age. And so, dewy-eyed and green and based on strong family member praise, I sent it to Little Brown. A few months later I got a letter. Little Brown didn't agree with me. Words like, "Highly unbelievable", "Predictable", "Missed the point" and "childish", come to mind. I was devastated. That rejection letter was enough to do me in for the next few years.
It was around 1981. Another Summer vacation, but this time from Cal State University in Long Beach, California. I was on a plane and headed to Washington, DC to spend the summer break with my father. Inside my carry-on shoulder pack was  a screenplay I just completed for a class assignment. I was a film major. On my lap was a class textbook (can't remember the title) on film.
Sitting in the window seat beside me was a scruffy, Lee Marvin-like older man.  He had two cigars in the breast pocket of his white short-sleeved shirt. He was gaunt, with unkempt white hair and had the appearance of a man whose age could go one way or the other. The weathered look and lines on his face storied the possibility of a rough life. He looked familiar, but I just couldn’t place the face.
You cannot measure the influence someone can have by time spent together.  The contact might be seconds, minutes, hours or spans of moments over great lengths of time. There's always something significant that comes with a genuine encounter. Such was the encounter I had with the man sitting next to me. After the plane had leveled out and the stewardess was beginning to make her rounds, he pulled out one of the cigars and lit it. A waft of thick smoke was immediately drawn upward, sucked into the planes filtration system. I was reading my text book. The stewardess appeared.
“You can’t smoke cigars on the plane, sir,” she advised him.
The scruffy man looked up, smoke easing out of his mouth like air. He muttered something like a huff for the word horse and then the following expletive.
“Only cigarettes. We don’t allow cigar or pipe smoking on the plane, sir. I’ll have to insist you put that out.”
“All the cigarettes these people are smoking on this damn plane right now don’t equal the smoke I’ll exhale out of this single cigar,” he said without looking at me. “I hate putting the damn thing out.” 
He tilted the cigar in the tiny armchair ashtray, his index finger barely touching it like he was trying to prevent the heavier moist end from teetering down and flipping the cigar to the floor under his seat. He mumbled and huffed for a while and after a moment I believe he felt that it was safe enough to leave the cigar on its’ own. 
He faced me, looked briefly at the book I was reading and said, "I'm mentioned in that book. A few times as a matter of fact."
I looked at the book sitting in my lap and then at him. He had a genuine smile.
“You’re in this book,” I said with a suspicious smile.
He asked if he could have the book. I was doubtful, but I played along and handed it over to him.  He turned to the index, stopped when he reached the Fs. His index finger followed the names and stopped.
“Samuel Fuller,” is all he said. He handed the book back.
I didn't believe him, of course. Why would writer/director Samuel Fuller, whose many films such as Steel Helmet were essential viewing in film school, and whose last film, The Big Red One starring Lee Marvin, I had seen two times, be sitting beside me on a plane headed to Washington, DC?  
The future cop in me became evident as my line of questioning seemed more like an interrogation. I even asked to see some identification. He smiled a crooked smile and pulled out a Passport. It did indicate that he and Samuel Fuller shared the same name. At that time I was only familiar with the name and the movies behind the name so even though he looked like someone I may have seen during the course of my film studies, I still doubted that I was seated next to a legend. That is, until he started talking about his latest film, “White Dog”.
He told me that he had a lay-over in Washington, DC before hopping another plane that would eventually land him in Paris.
“They banned the film in the United States,” he said with contempt. “They think it’s a racist film.”  He explained that was the same as calling him a racist, something, he said, he is far from. According to him, the film dealt with a difficult subject and obviously one that the U.S. was not ready for. He admitted with more than a crooked smile this time that Europe loved it. He was a hero in Paris.
Over the next few hours, he shared stories, he even read a little of my screenplay and encouraged me to keep writing. "You've got talent," he told me.
After that flight, I was reenergized. I knew what it was I had to do in life. 
            Over the years I would have so many more encounters and relationships with legends - John Cale, Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson come to mind. I did eventually make a film, but it was only based on a story of mine. Roadside Prophets. I was signed on as a co-producer and it was released in 1991by New Line Cinema. It starred Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, punk legend,  John Doe, John Cusack, Arlo Guthrie, David Carradine and my friend, Timothy Leary, whose home the story for the movie was conceived at. It was a film that sadly left a bad taste in my mouth with respect to the industry.
            After the end of a disastrous, long term relationship and the even more painful realization that the film business, a career I worked toward for years, was not fulfilling me, I dropped out of the scene. After months of sitting around, contemplating life and feeling sorry for myself I remembered that I was a writer at heart. I thought about Samuel Fuller and all the real life adventures that he must have had. So many of those adventures and tragedies coming across in his work. So after realizing that, what do I do?  I spend the next year getting in shape and then I join the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC. After long eight months in the police academy, I hit the streets with a badge and a gun. Maybe it was a romantic notion, something I thought about doing in the past, but my mind back then was too focused on another kind of success. The writer in me had this naive idea that it'd be great adventure, something I’d do for a few years then write about it. But the job got into my blood. It became something more than just a career. It was a responsibility, a way of life, or as Simeon, my protagonist in A Detailed Man puts it, “a bond created by fraternity, years and years of sodality engrafted in us through the installation of some magical oath.”
            Being a detective on a large Metropolitan Police Department, has allowed me to see humanity at its best and its absolute worst. Something I never would have otherwise realized. Definitely not something you can research. More than anything else in my life, it has made me the writer I am today. A Detailed Man, was a book that took its early form while I was on the department. Whatever off duty time I had, was usually spent writing it. It is a book that could not have been written without the life experience. When I finished I didn't think "masterpiece", or feel that it was the book I was "destined" to write. I just felt satisfied. 

Article in The Washington Current

Photo by Mark Regan

Current Staff Writer

David Swinson took a
roundabout path to becoming
an author, writing his
first novel as a retiree after experiences
in Hollywood and D.C.’s
Metropolitan Police Department.
But “I always knew I wanted to
write,” he said, and the impetus
for his crime novel, “A Detailed                              
Man,” came when he was still
working as a detective. “This book
has been in my head for a long
time,” he said.
“A Detailed Man,” published
this winter, follows veteran D.C.
detective Ezra Simeon as he takes
on a high-profile case involving
the murder of a young escort.
The investigation brings
Simeon in contact with a lonely
professor at the University of the
District of Columbia and a posh,
confident software developer who
lives in Dupont Circle. Pursuing
his instincts in spite of practical
reasons not to, the detective digs
into the connection between the
two men and the murder.
Swinson envisions “A Detailed
Man” as the first in a series of
crime novels featuring reappearing
characters, and taking place on the
same streets where he once lived
and worked.
Swinson joined the D.C. police
academy in 1994 and started out
as a uniformed officer in the
Adams Morgan area of the 3rd
District. He later advanced to
become a detective, specializing in
burglaries (which he describes as
“the gateway to every crime imaginable”)
and particularly “narcofencing”
— investigating locations
known to traffic in both stolen
property and narcotics.
He ended up in the Special
Investigations Bureau and the
now-defunct Career Criminal Unit,
debriefing criminals and taking on
cases that could last several years
or even go international. In 2003,
he won the honor of “Detective of
the Year.”
Police work in D.C. was a second
phase of adulthood for
Swinson, who also spent more
than a decade in a vastly different
environment in California.
“I fell into the punk rock
scene,” Swinson said of his postcollege
years. Almost accidentally,
he landed in the job of concert
promoter for two venues in Long
Beach, booking acts like Devo,
Social Distortion and the Red Hot
Chili Peppers. “I had some wonderful
times with all of those
bands,” he said.
He also pursued his interest in
filmmaking, producing the cult
classic “Roadside Prophets.” The
surreal road movie — penned by
“Sid and Nancy” screenwriter
Abbe Wool, and starring Adam
Horovitz of the Beastie Boys —
came out in 1992.
But Swinson’s experience with
the film soured him on
Hollywood. “I started seeing the
script get lost in translation,” he
said, and he grew to despise “the
politics of filmmaking.”
At the age of 33, he did an
about-face. “I made a decision to
become a cop in D.C.,” he said. “It
was where I wanted to be.”
The location choice wasn’t random:
Swinson moved into the
Dupont Circle condo where he’d
spent a large part of his childhood.
Growing up, his family had traveled
the world with his father’s
Foreign Service career, but D.C.
was always home base.
To transition from punk rock
and Hollywood into the “paramilitary”
atmosphere of the D.C.
police academy was “scary at
first,” Swinson said. He quit cigarettes
and put himself on a strict
regimen of push-ups, sit-ups and
running. “The structure did wonders
for me.”
And though police work
involved some inevitable disappointments
— “you realize that
although you’re doing some good
stuff, you’re not changing much,”
Swinson said — he never experienced
the same disillusionment
that he did in Hollywood.
“It got in my blood,” he said of
his career as a detective.
These days, Swinson lives with
his wife and young daughter in
Fairfax Station, Va., and has
devoted himself to writing after
retiring from the police department
in 2009.™
Though his personal experiences
certainly informed the details
and setting of “A Detailed Man,”
and Swinson prides himself on a
“realistic, not Hollywood-style”
portrayal of the city of D.C., he
said the story isn’t based on any of
his real-life cases. In fact, he
began writing with a character in
mind, rather than a plot or ending.
“I liked the idea of a character
who was really flawed,” Swinson
said of Det. Simeon, a divorced
man who lives alone, carries on a
long-distance but platonic relationship
with a female friend, and, at
the outset of the novel, is healing
from a case of Bell’s palsy that
leaves half his face immobilized.
“A Detailed Man” starts with
Simeon working in quiet isolation
on the cold-case unit. But the sudden
death of a colleague — a
friend from his academy days —
jolts the detective into a more
demanding reality. Taking over a
homicide case his friend had
investigated, Simeon challenges
himself and some of his authorities
in pursuing some initially
improbable leads.
Swinson said this character
might not feature as prominently
in his next novel. “I’ll probably
get more into my love/passion for
burglary,” he said, hinting that
Det. Simeon may be partnered
with a “more innocent-looking
detective … someone like a
younger version of myself.”

Swinson will appear at One
More Page Books in Arlington to
celebrate the book launch for “A
Detailed Man” on Saturday, Feb.
11. The event will take place from
3 to 4 p.m. at the store, at 2200
North Westmoreland St., #101.

Digging Up the Past

Moving away from books, crime and shameless self promotion to the distant past, which doesn't seem all that distant. It was the eighties. Long before I joined the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC. I used to promote alternative/punk concerts at a couple of venues in Long Beach, CA. I found these concert flyers a few months ago when I was going through old boxes in the garage. I thought I'd post some them here for your viewing pleasure.