January. Cold. Upper West Side. On the stoop of my penal colony, I smoke my cigarette and swig beer from a plastic bag-clad can of beer.
I got my mother on the phone (she doesn’t know yet of my exile) and we are chatting—about what I don’t recall. This is a normal night for me. Normal, that is, until two cops come sauntering down the street towards me. There’s a slight change in their direction and now they’re headed my way.
“Mom,” I say, “I’m going to have to call you back. Two cops are coming my way.” Click. I suppose that’s not the most reassuring way to tell your mother good-bye.
“Hello, sir,” goes the big burly officer with a crew cut. “Hello,” I respond pleasantly. “Is that your beer can, sir?” he asks. I pause, amused, and glance down at the plastic bag. I’m in a good mood (just enough to drink) and a bad liar. So I cop to it with an oh-shucks-you-got-me expression: “Yeah, that’s mine.” The woman with him asks me for my ID and I comply: “Sir, we just need to see if you have any outstanding warrants.” “Ok,” I say with a chuckle, knowing nothing will come up.
This situation could have been easily avoided if I had just told them, “No, that’s not my black bag with unknown contents.” They would have poured out the beer and that would have been the end of it. A bad liar (I get that from my father), I opt to avoid the vice. A decent sweet-talker (I get that from my mom), I strike up a conversation.
“So,” I say as the woman cop begins radioing my information, “What do you guys think of De Blasio?” Eric Garner had been choked out on Staten Island the summer before, and then two cops had gotten capped a month back. The mood has been tense nationwide to say the least. De Blasio had not ingratiated himself with the NYPD so I figured I’d get it from a horse’s mouth. “Well,” says the big cop, “Let me respond to your question with a question: are you anti-cop?”
Damn, straight for the jugular.
As a young, white, millennial male in NYC, it’s cool to be anti-cop. I have all kinds of privileges including preferential treatment when it comes to law enforcement (you wonder why marijuana couriers are predominately my type). Being anti-cop is the least I could do to expiate some of my original sin.
Not that he gave me much of a choice, but I laugh, “No, I’m not anti-cop.” Granted, every institution is in need of reform at one point or another, but pro-reform is different than being anti-cop. While the reformer works with the police and finds way to improve things, the later bigotedly rails against it and tries to break the blue line.
The cop nods, “Ok, so we can have a conversation.” I smile and give him a friendly gesture to answer my question. I’m curious but know what’s coming next: “De Blasio is bad for cops. He’s undermines us. Morale is low and cops are angry.” I nod, “Yeah, he’s a socialist dick.” He chuckles.
I’m blue-nosing a bit, but I want to get out of this ticket. I’m also curious, though.
Knowing I had him won over at this point I hazard to ask, “What was the deal with Freddie Gray, though?” Stoic, he shrugged, “You know, as with anywhere, you get some bad apples sometimes. That didn’t need to happen.” I nod, ok: “And what of the officers turning their backs on De Blasio?” Cop: “He’s disrespected the NYPD.” Ok, got it.
His partner has finished confirming I have no outstanding warrants. The burly cop nods and says, “Alright, then, so open container, I’m going to have to write you up for a $25 ticket.”
I said I was a “decent” not a “great” sweet talker. Mom would have gotten out of that one. Dad would never have tried. I languish between the two of them. But hey, I got to talk to a cop for twenty-five bucks. Not too shabby.
They hand me the ticket and as they bid farewell the cop says to me over his shoulder, “Make sure you pour that beer out.” “Yes, sir,” I reply. As they turn the corner I pick up the can, take a swig, light up another cigarette, and call my mother back.
How It Ends
I’m really terrible with certain tasks. Cancelling a subscription, getting my taxes filed, paying a bill, paying tickets—yeah, paying tickets.
It was only a $25 ticket, and as the cop told me I could mail the money, but only if I did so in the next two weeks. If I didn’t, I’d have to show up to court. Well, I forgot and two days before my court date I realized I couldn’t send the money in anymore (seriously, I hadn’t had that much to drink that night). Fortunately it’s a Tuesday, 9am court appearance, and I didn’t teach Tuesday mornings. If there were no delays, I could still make it to my first class. Still, it was annoying: that self-incriminating $25 ticket was now costing me time (and a train ticket to work).
Heading to court, I don’t know what I was thinking, but I half expected to stand before a judge in black flowing robes in a large wooden courtroom like in the show Law and Order. Yeah, not quite, and I should have known better; after all, I got a ticket on my first day in NYC parking in front of a fire hydrant. The judge sat in a small white office, wore some sort of amorphous sweater, heard my appeal, and wrote off part of my fine.
This time around a queue had formed up outside the side alley into the courthouse. At least it was sunny out. The doors opened and we filed through a metal detector, up some stairs, and then into a long room with cleric stations. The line moved quickly and then I got my turn. I handed the ticket to the slight looking man on the other side of the bulletproof glass. He scribbled something in a ledger, stamped the ticket, and handed it back to me. “Ok,” I go, “where to next?” The man gestured at the ticket, “That’s it.” I glanced down. “Dismissed.”
For pete’s sake, if you’re going to put me through the trouble of showing up to “court,” let me pay for it!
I suspect things would have gone different if I had been a black kid. And, no, I don’t mean I would have gotten a beat down. I simply mean that cops working their rounds have preset ideas where to expect trouble and with race relations what they are I suspect a black kid would be far more on edge than I was. Whether that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, reality, or some combination of the too, I’ll leave for others to argue about.