Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gee, Officer Krupke...

On February 28, 2007, something happened to me that had not happened in almost 25 years.

I got a speeding ticket. On a cold, gray morning on Interstate 90 in the State of Washington, driving from Spokane to Post Falls, Idaho on a routine booze run, I went to pass another car and as I did so, the speedometer on my 2006 Chrysler PT Cruiser crept up to 70 mph. Next thing I knew, wham, there were those flashing lights in my rearview mirror. Now, I had thought that that entire stretch of I-90 was posted 70, but it turned out that I was wrong -- the 70 mph zone did not begin until a few miles further down the road, when the Interstate passed the town of Liberty Lake. Where I was,the limit was still 60 mph.

Just in case anyone wants to ask the obvious question, why was I driving all the way from Spokane to Post Falls, a distance of about 20 miles, just to buy liquor? Washington and Idaho are two of many states (Virginia is another)  where the sale of distilled liquor is monopolized by the state.  Beer and wine can be purchased almost anywhere, but if you want a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label  or Stolichnaya, you have to go to the State liquor store. The State of Washington does not have any sales tax, so naturally they make up for that by taxing the bejeezus out of specific things, like booze.

Idaho, unlike Washington, DOES have sales tax, and for that reason the state levies fewer taxes on  hard liquor than its neighbor to the west. Hooch is cheaper in Idaho than it is in Washington, and I was willing to drive a few miles out of my way to save some money.

Okay, now that we've gotten past that, back to my adventure. I got pulled over by a Washington state trooper. From the looks of him it was obvious that he most likely had not even been born yet when I got my last speeding ticket, which I picked up in the spring of 1982 on I-5 in Tehama County, California while driving from Benicia, where I lived, to Redding, where I was to be interviewed for a job on the newspaper there. Somewhere between Corning and Red Bluff I got pulled over and cited for doing 75 in a 60 zone.

1982. I was 26, Reagan was president, and the film E.T. The Extraterrestrial was about to hit theaters.

You get my drift. It had been a long time between tickets. The trooper cited me and handed me the ticket. I could not resist telling him what I just told you, that in all likelihood he had been in kindergarten, if his education were that far advanced even, when I'd gotten my last speeding ticket.

I paid the fine.

But that was only the beginning, as I was to learn. In 2009 I began driving a taxicab out of Alexandria, VA, just south of Washington, D.C. Over the next year I would get three tickets: one for speeding, one for rolling through a stop sign and one for driving around with a busted taillight (I'd backed into a tree while trying to park my cab.)

Those experiences, plus a few that I've had while driving a cab in San Diego County, convinced me of the truth of one of life's great truths: cops LOVE to hassle cab drivers. I treated of this subject in a blog posting in April, 2010 (see "Homage to Bratfisch,"

This ain't paranoia, folks. The truth is that cab drivers and cops are enemies as natural as cobras and mongooses (mongeese?)

You see, cabbies are "easy pickins" for cops: for one thing, there are a lot of us out there. We're highly visible, owing to the markings and dome lights on our cabs. We spend more time in our cars than most people do (I would daresay that includes most cops) and, perhaps most importantly, to your average CHP, state trooper or local cop, a cab is more-or-less a "known quantity." When a cop pulls over any chance motorist, the Forrest Gump principle applies: he doesn't know what he's going to get.

But because taxicabs are highly visible, plentiful and usually on the road, we're easy prey, and then there's also the fact that cab drivers are just business people doing their jobs, not partiers on a possibly-sociopathic binge. There is a San Diego county ordinance prohibiting us from carrying anything to protect ourselves with: we're not even allowed pepper spray. Hence, when a cop pulls over a taxi, he can be reasonably sure that the driver is (a) not soaring on crack cocaine or khat, and  (b) that there is virtually no possibility he'll be packing a sawed-off Remington 12-gauge, a Saturday Night Special or a live python.

In short, for your average cop, hassling cab drivers is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. If it's close to the end of the month and the cop has not yet met his quota of traffic citations, pulling over cab drivers for chickenshit offenses to "fatten up" the old citation book is a cheap out.

But of course that doesn't explain why I think the cops in my home town of Chula Vista, California are more reality-challenged  than most. Read on.

My experiences with Chula Vista's Dumbest go back to the 1970s. I'm a native of this area, so I know whereof I speak, as my father used to say.

Back in those days, our city had a Police Reservist program. I guess the idea was to train the Cop of Tomorrow, I don't know. Maybe they were just short-handed. But the city had a program through which almost anyone who had ever dreamed of himself on the screen as one of The New Centurions, and who could sit up and say "da-da," could get the experience (unpaid, of course) of wearing a real police uniform, carrying a real police badge and toting a (heaven help us) real police service revolver, usually a hair-trigger Colt of the sort most cops, real or imagined, carried in those days.

Word on the street back then was that the PD would "hire" virtually anyone who walked in (and didn't already have a rap sheet) as a reservist. Hence, by the late seventies, the streets of my home town were swarming with armed nitwits whose day job was probably at K-Mart, now empowered to Enforce the Law (read: play out their fondest Joseph Wambaugh fantasies.)

Talk about asking for trouble.

Now, I won't get into any freudian cheap shots about the gun's status as a substitute penis. That would be too easy. Suffice it to say that it was pretty easy to spot the difference between a real cop and a reservist. Real cops were generally laconic, even in the performance of their duties, generally soft-spoken and, to give credit where credit is due, generally polite. If you've been doing police work for a dozen years even emergencies become routine. Most cops were, to put it simply, businesslike. That is, real cops were.

Reservists thought they were in the movies. If you, as a citizen confronting the law,  found yourself on the receiving end of smart-ass talk, put-downs and wisecracks of the sort you'd expect from Clint Eastwood playing Dirty Harry, chances are you were dealing with Weekend Officer Lester Clopps, whose real job was changing tires at the Big O and had decided that his dull, gray little life needed some real macho excitement. At the Big O he was just Lester the Jester. But once he had that CVPD uniform on, he became Martin Milner on Adam-12. (I'm using dated TV analogies on purpose: remember this is the 1970s I'm talking about. NYPD Blue and CSI were still years away.)

Okay, so C.V. went through its historic period as the Barney Fife Training Academy. But that was in the 1970s. Things are different now, right?

Well, not so much. The Chula Vista PD still has an unfortunate tendency to recruit the odd Eager Beaver, from whom heaven protect us. The Eager Beaver is a usually-younger cop who takes himself VERY seriously. He or she has absorbed the message learned at the Academy, "We're the Good Guys," lock, stock and autographed photo of the late Jack Webb." That means everyone else, you included, is potentially "The Bad Guys."

See "heaven protect us," above.

Back shortly before Christmas of 2010, on a rainy Friday night as I was getting ready to go out and drive my cab, I received a Facebook heads-up that Chula Vista was going to be gridded with DUI checkpoints that night. Now, to a cab driver such as myself, who doesn't drink either on the job or off, this was good news. Drunks are good for business if you're a cabbie, and if word is out that the local constabulary is trolling for drunks, that means that even more of the Friday-night party crowd will be conscientious about not wanting to get caught, and will naturally incline toward taking cabs home.

So I was looking forward to a busy and profitable Friday night.

But then I ran head-on (figuratively) into an Eager Beaver.

The cops were running a DUI checkpoint at the J Street Marina, right next to the on-ramp for Interstate 5. I knew about this, not only from the Facebook warning, but also because I had seen them pull over a driver there already. Whoever the poor schmuck was, they had him sitting on the curb while they roamed around, red and blue lights on their cars flashing, and looked officious. I was impressed, all right. Was the guy DUI? Who knows? He was no customer of mine.

About an hour later I was sitting down at the J Street Marina myself, waiting for calls. I often sit there waiting for calls, because it's peaceful, I like being close to the water and anyway, seagulls are my kind of people.

I got a call to go and pick up a shopper at Wal Mart. Pulling out of the marina, I made a mistake. Yes, I admit it: I made a mistake. It was raining, I was in a hurry and when I got to the stop sign just before the trolley tracks, I did a "California" boulevard stop, which is to say I slowed to a crawl, saw that no one was coming, and proceeded. Yes, I failed to come to a complete stop at the stop sign. My bad.

But, oh, you should have seen the hell that broke loose! The Eager Beavers were running a DUI checkpoint, you see, and a cabbie who rolls through a stop sign just HAS to be two sheets to the breeze, right? What?

All of a sudden I had a squadron of them all over me. Those red-and-blue lights flashing like Armegeddon, they pulled me over and pretty soon there were three police units and six cops on the scene, armed and ready to protect the public from this desperado who had gone through a stop sign at about four mph.

One of them must have been bucking for merit badge: this armed youngster simply could not be convinced that I wasn't "on something," if not booze, then something else. As I stood there like some inmate of San Quentin who's just been caught trying to go AWOL in a laundry truck, surrounded by vigilant protectors of the public safety, I was subjected to all of the following: (remember, all I had done was roll slowly through a stop sign.)

1. Eager Beaver No. 1, finding no booze on my breath or anywhere near me or my car, wanted to know if I was in the habit of using cocaine. I was nervous, and had had a lot of caffeine, so naturally I was shaking. He refused to accept nervousness and coffee as explanations. He insisted that I must be either on cocaine or "tweaking."

2. He took my pulse, looked in my mouth, looked under my Boston Red Sox cap, and then, for the piece de resistance (no pun intended), he made me put my hands behind my back and patted me down for weapons. (A cab driver, wearing sweats. Where would I have a weapon?)

3. (I LOVED this one). He asked if he could "search" my cab for "illegal substances." 

"Be my guest," I replied. "Enjoy yourself. You won't find anything in there but two library books and a 7-Eleven coffee cup."

E.B. eagerly searched my cab. He found ... two library books and a 7-Eleven coffee cup.

By this time two of his colleagues had decided to join in the fun. "Sir, would you object to taking a breath test?" one of them asked me, looking no doubt, for panicky evasiveness.

Oh, dear. They were disappointed again. "Bring it on," I said. "Bring it on! I haven't had a drink in weeks!" 

I was telling the truth, by the way. A recovering alcoholic, I had quit drinking by then. For good. Yes, it was, perhaps a bit sadly, true: I hadn't had a drink in weeks. (I haven't had once since, either, but I will say this: had I still been a drinker that night, this experience would have been enough to send me -- or nearly anyone else, for that matter -- over to Third Avenue for a stiff belt at the Silver Dollar.)

After about 20 fruitless minutes worth of this roadside-drunk routine, they had to let me go. E.B. was so visibly disappointed at not getting the drug or alcohol bust after which he'd been lusting that he didn't even bother writing me up for rolling through the stop sign. I could just picture the poor thing going to his mother that night and, with a chagrined snap of his fingers, saying something like, "Aw, gee, Mom! I almost HAD one!"

I had a similar experience again recently. No DUI checkpoint this time, and it was the middle of the afternoon. I had just bought some items at the grocery store, one of which was a roll of paper towels. I keep paper towels in my car in case I spill coffee or something like that. I was waiting to make a left turn, and as I did so, trying to get this roll of paper towels "started." You know how that is? Your fresh roll of paper towels is glued. You have to tear the first sheet free before they start unrolling. Well, I was waiting for the guy in front of me to make his left turn, and as I did so, was also trying to get this roll of paper towels "started."

Wouldn't you know it, the light turned red in that fraction of a second that my attention was on the paper towels. I looked up and there it was, a red light, with me still sitting in the middle of the intersection. I followed my instincts and quickly darted through my left turn, wanting to get the heck out of that intersection as fast as I could. Well, of course some automaton in a pickup truck had decided to go ahead and proceed across the intersection whether I was there or not. I had to swerve to avoid him.

One of our local dumbest -- er, finest -- saw that, and came after me with red-and-blue lights a-flashin'. Now, as Arlo Guthrie once sang, there was only one or two things that Officer Obie could have done, and the first was to bawl me out for not getting out of that intersection fast enough. But I hadn't reckoned upon the collective IQ of the intrepid PD. When I had seen this officer's red-and-blue lights in my rearview mirror, I had reacted as any motorist would: before pulling over to let him have his fun, and with a few choice obscenities to myself, I threw that roll of paper towels down on the passenger seat.

You wouldn't believe it, but I actually had a conversation with this reincarnation of Dudley Do-Right regarding, not my momentary brain-lapse about the turn signal, but what it was I had actually thrown down on the seat. He had seen me do this, you see, and he had himself convinced that it was a map I had thrown down, not a roll of paper towels. He insisted that it "looked like a map" to him. "No, it was a roll of paper towels," I said. "It looked like a map," he insisted. "Where's your Thomas Brothers'?"

I had to reach over and get my Thomas Brothers street map out of the passenger door compartment to show it to him.

Now, would someone please tell me just what in the world difference did it make whether what I had thrown down was a roll of paper towels or a map book? I threw something down. But it wasn't a gun and it wasn't a hand grenade and it wasn't a rocket launcher. It wasn't a map, either.  It was a roll of paper towels. But whether it was a roll of paper towels or a map, the fact remains that it was nothing that could have hurt him, or anyone else. Still, we spent two full minutes discussing whether it was a map or a roll of paper towels that I had thrown down.

Why? I'll bet if you asked this criminological genius, he couldn't tell you.

But he wasn't finished. "Are you all right? What's that on your steering column? It looks like blood," he observed.

No, it didn't look like blood. Dried blood is brown. This stuff was red. And sticky. It was ketchup from my lunch.

"That's not blood, it's ketchup from my lunch," I insisted.

"Yeah, well, what lessons did we learn here?" he evaded the ketchup.

I knew what he wanted to hear. And I have long since learned never to argue with the police. Well, maybe if it's a fine point of criminology such as, "Was that a map or a roll of paper towels?" I had to stand up for my rights that time; I was right, after all. But maps and rolls of paper towels represent the highest level of debate upon which I'm willing to engage in repartee with the New Centurions. Anything involving an ordinance, well, I think we all know that the deck is somewhat stacked there. Even if you know, from the bottom of your heart, that you did, you did come to a full stop at that stop sign before proceeding, if Officer Obie says you didn't stop, save your breath. The police always win arguments, because they're the ones whose careers depend upon not making -- or admitting to -- mistakes. And after all, the cop is the one holding the ticket book. You're not going to win an argument with a cop, I don't care if you have 72 witnesses who saw you stop at that stop sign. So save your breath. And your time. Smile, pay the fine and shut up.

"Don't multitask," I recited like a kid in catechism class. "Don't try to do anything else and drive at the same time."

"And that includes eating," he triumphantly pontificated.

I never eat while driving. I might get ketchup on my steering column, (I'm not the world's neatest eater) but I always park somewhere to eat my lunch. Not just for safety reasons, either, but because I like to relax and enjoy my food. But I let him have the point. Had I opened up debate on the subject of my luncheon habits, we might have been there for another 20 minutes. And I had cab business to attend to.

I didn't bring up the one form of multitasking that is most deadly, and which our intrepid cops never penalize, precisely because they like to do it themselves, to wit, steering with one hand and blabbering into a hand-held cellphone with the other. "Guns Don't Kill People, Drivers With Cellphones Do," declared a bumper sticker I saw recently. I loved that.

But there was no more point in bringing that up than there would have been in bringing up how I go about eating a ham-and-cheese on rye. I might have opened up a whole new discussion upon which I didn't care to waste any more breath. Or time.

I decided to just "hang it up" and drive. With gritted teeth, but within the speed limit of course, and without paper towels. Better all around. And if I'm going to be rousted and handcuffed for resisting arrest, I want it to be over something more important than a roll of paper towels.