Friday, June 8, 2012

Cops Have Always Hated Me

I had kind of a weird experience the other night: I was bartending my Monday night shift as usual, and as usual I was parked directly across the street from the front door of the bar, in a space that I know after years of parking there to be safe from alternate-side street-cleaning tickets, late-night No Standing tickets (that's only in effect on the weekends), and after the 7pm expiration of the 2-Hour Parking regulation.

But a little after midnight, one of the security guys stuck his head inside the door to tell me I was getting a ticket. This made no sense: though it's not uncommon for that space, and all of Ludlow Street for that matter, to get annexed for a movie shoot (I've narrowly avoided being towed a couple of times in that situation), there were no orange cones and no signs indicating that, as there usually are.

So I hustled outside and found a uniformed NYPD officer copying my VIN (and, by the way, the 'N' stands for 'number,' so "VIN number" is redundant and we all need to stop saying it) onto a fresh parking ticket. "What's the ticket for?" I ask him in a friendly voice. "No parking," he says without looking at me, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the three stacked-up parking regulation signs for this side of the street. Just as I start to wonder if maybe they've changed the rules for this block (which has happened before) and open my mouth to ask him just that, he turns around and looks at the signs himself, then mumbles, "Oh -- it's Tuesday now."

We both laugh, and I give him a buddy-buddy "better luck next time" clap on the shoulder, and he wanders over to the other side of the street to write some valid tickets and I go back into the bar. What's striking about this is that yes, it's very unusual for a cop to admit he's done something wrong -- everyone I told this story to said anytime they'd tried to move a car in the process of getting ticketed, the cop insisted that once they had begun writing a ticket they were powerless to stop writing it, whereas in my case the guy just balled it up in his hand and shoved it in his pocket -- but on a more personal level, I was struck by how unthinkable this interaction would have been only a few years ago. If the bulk of my previous interactions with cops are anything to go by, the guy would have slammed me down on the hood of my car, handcuffed me, and sent me to central booking for the rest of the week at the moment I asked "What's the ticket for?"

There seems to be something about me that arouses contempt in the heart of on-duty sworn officers. I had a few run-ins with cops in my 20s, never for anything serious, but I always got nothing but stonefaced, barely suppressed hatred in any of these incidents. I don't understand it, because I don't talk back, or cop an attitude (pun accidental), or do anything at all to provoke them, but in every case it felt like the guy would go out of his way to mess with me. Maybe it's something about my face. Maybe I just look like a hardened criminal, or like I hate cops, or like I've got an 8-ball stuffed where it won't get sunburned. Even though I know, and everyone who knows me knows I'm no threat to anyone (except maybe the odd inanimate object during a home improvement project gone pear-shaped), cops seem to see something different.

Examples? Oh sure, I've got examples.

Right after I finished college, I embarked on a cross-country drive by myself, making stops to visit friends in Buffalo, Cincinnati, Chicago, Breckenridge, Missoula, and Seattle before arriving at what would turn out to be my home for the next six years, San Francisco. I was driving south on the 101, coming down from Seattle, and had just crossed the state line into California; it was about 3am, and I'd been driving for 12 hours or so. I hadn't seen another car for hours, and I was only about 3 hours from the Golden Gate Bridge, so I was, needless to say, eager to get off the road and driving accordingly.

As I passed through a wide spot in the road I would later learn was a municipality called Willits, I slowed down a little, but not to the posted speed limit of 45mph, because as I mentioned it was 3am and the town was completely still and I was in a hurry and I could see the south end of the town as soon as I came in at the north end; had I kept my foot on the brake, by the time I got down to 45mph, I would have already been out of the town.

Indeed, I could see the sign raising the speed limit back up to 65 in the distance just as the red and blue lights went on behind me. I pull over, the guy gets my license and registration, and informs me that I was going 60 in a 45. I am, at least in my mind, answering his questions respectfully and succinctly, but apparently what he sees is a dangerous fugitive, probably with a couple of silver briefcases in the trunk and maybe a hostage, because he starts grilling me based on the fact that I have a Maryland driver's license.

I answer all of his questions about where I'm from, where I'm going, and what my general plans are honestly and patiently. I know better than to mess with cops. But he gets this strange gleam in his eye and set in his jaw, because the next thing he says is "I could give you a ticket, but you'd probably just go back to Maryland and forget about it, and there wouldn't be much I could do about it. So instead what I'm going to do is arrest you, book you, and set your bail for the amount of the ticket: $200." This seems insane to me, because it's insane, but I don't feel like there's much I can do about it but mention that I don't happen to have $200 cash on my person, but he says he'll be happy to drive me to an ATM.

My car is left by the side of the road, and he does me the minimal courtesy of not handcuffing me before I find myself illuminated by his headlights, withdrawing $200 from the machine. Then he takes me to a tiny police station and puts me in a tiny cell, where, mercifully, I am alone. An hour or so passes, and I am not sure what I'm waiting for; I can see there are no other prisoners here, and I can hear a few voices chatting and laughing as one does at a boring job, and I resist the urge to call out and remind them that I'm here.

The cop that arrested me suddenly appears and I think finally I can pay this stupid bail or fine or whatever it is and get out of here, but he says "Hey, we just got a call about a domestic dispute so we're going to have to go and handle that. We'll be back in a bit, just sit tight." As though there's anything else I can do. Another hour or so goes by, and I'm as tired as I've ever been in my life -- I'd been driving 12 hours before I got stopped -- but I can't sleep because a) the cell is too small to lay down in and has only right angles so I can't get comfortable and b) I'm so hungry by this time I can't think about anything else.

Finally the cops come back, let me out of the cell (no apologies or even acknowledgement of what they're putting me through), and process me: mugshots, fingerprints, and paying the fine. Then he drives me back to my car and as he's letting me out of the back of his squad car he hands me a business card and tells me, "Write a letter to this judge and tell him what happened, he'll probably refund most of that fine." He also told me I looked terrible and I should pull over and take a nap ASAP, and I resisted the urge to point out that I looked a lot better before he arrested me for speeding and then left me in a cement phone booth for three hours.

Is there any other explanation for this than that I somehow aroused the darkest, most sadistic impulses in this guy? Under what other circumstances is someone thrown in jail for speeding? If anything like this has ever happened to you, I would love to hear about it in the comments below, but as of this writing, I have never heard of anything like it.

But one incident is only an anomaly. One incident can happen to anyone. Two is when it starts to get weird, so without further delay, here's example #2, which occurred three years later and managed to surpass it.

I took my then-girlfriend/now-wife, her roommate, and my buddy Matt to a party just north of the Golden Gate bridge, in the big national park called the Marin Headlands. Whoever was throwing this party (and I have no memory now of who that might have been or how we heard about it) had somehow commandeered a park ranger station deep into the park. If you know your SF geography, basically we took a U-turn to the left just after the bridge and drove 20 minutes or so through unspoiled park land before arriving at this ranger station, which was like a big house with cement floors and no heat.

As it turned out, the party wasn't that great: it was cold (of course) and the only thing they had to drink was two kegs of homebrew someone had brought, and the homebrew was awful. So awful I couldn't even drink it, which anyone who knew me in 1999 would stipulate must have been some pretty awful beer. It was bad.

So, before very long, we got back in the car and started heading back. A few minutes into the trip back, through the Headlands -- guess what! -- the red and blue lights hit my rearview.

Little backstory: I had recently renewed my car's registration at the DMV, and for whatever reason they did not give me the sticker that goes in the corner of the license plate -- instead they explained that it would be mailed to me, and gave me a temporary paper registration, a little square that I was supposed to put in the back window of my car, until I could put the stickers on my plates. I don't know if they still do it this way in San Francisco (I left ten years ago this week) but these little square-paper temporary registrations were not uncommon at the time.

So I'm pulled over by an unfamiliar uniformed officer who I feared at first was a State Trooper but I soon realized was a Park Police officer, with a gun and everything, and I'm sure he assumed I was drunk driving.  That had to be it, because I wasn't speeding. If I'm being completely honest, had the beer not been so completely terrible, he probably wouldn't have been too far off base, my habits being what they were at the time. But as it stood, I was not drunk, not even close. I couldn't drink more than a couple of sips of that terrible homebrew. But I did see a familiar gleam in his eye, a gleam I had last seen in Willits, California, and the ranger ordered me out of the car for a field sobriety test: touch your nose, walk a straight line, the whole bit.

As I mentioned, it was cold, and it being the Marin Headlands -- basically an awning between the bridge and the Pacific -- pretty darn windy. So this field sobriety test, though easily passed by virtue of my not being drunk, was a bit awkward. My three passengers looked on in stunned, respectful, we-don't-want-any-trouble silence as I stood on one foot with my head tilted back and my arms outstretched, my hair and collar flapping in the breeze. Nobody protested. Nobody did or said anything to provoke him.

And yet, even after my sobriety was firmly established, the gleam returned and got a little deeper and darker, and his eyes narrowed, and he said, "Your plates are expired."

"Right, I know, but I have the temporary thing here, see?"

"Where did you get that?"

"At the DMV?"

"That's no good, your plates are expired."

"They're not expired, that's a 30-day temporary sticker. That big 11 means November, it expires in November, they're mailing me the permanent sticker. You've never seen this before?"

He doesn't answer me, because he's going to the trunk of his car. I worry for a moment that he's going for his shotgun or his taser or maybe his Park Police butterfly net. I am relieved when it is none of those things, and then I am startled when I see it's a screwdriver, and he's removing my license plates.

"What are you doing?" I say, of course. What would you say?

"Your plates are expired, I have to impound them."

"You have to impound them? How do I get them back?"

"You can pick them up at the Park Police station."

"Where's that?"

"In the Presidio," he says, meaning the big former Army base on the other side of the bridge, in the city.

"What am I supposed to do if I get pulled over? You're leaving me with no plates!"

He leaves me standing there, tosses the plates in his car, and takes off. Once again: what other possible explanation can there be for this, but that I awakened some kind of primordial adversary instinct in this guy? Once again: Have you ever heard of anything like this before? If so I would love to hear about it.

Postscript to that story: The next day I find the Park Police station in the Presidio, wander around until I find someone to talk to, and tell them my story. They can only stare blankly. It is, I see by their expressions, not common for Park Police to remove people's license plates, and they assure me they don't have mine, and they seem puzzled that someone from their station would have even been over there in the Headlands. This led to some very difficult conversations over at the DMV -- their expression when I told my story was the same I imagine it'd be if I was telling them I had a dog that smoked cigarettes.

So the very idea that I stopped a police officer from writing me a ticket, that I said something that suggested he was doing something wrong, and then clapped him on the shoulder, and then nothing happened, makes me wonder what's different about me now. Did I somehow shed my (otherwise unknown to me) air of danger and menace, and get respectable? I feel a little more respectable. And then I realized: I just got old.

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