Quiet state highway in California just outside a town called (of all things) Shafter, only a few cars are humming along this beaten, almost empty road. The sun is shining, but light drops of rain are beginning to gather on the windshield. I’m driving down there in our new Ford Mustang, car got in san francisco, and doing around 85-90mph. I hadn’t seen the speed-limit signs.
Suddenly, just like you see in Blues Brothers, a black and white car spins out from behind a roadsign, I watch it in the rear-view mirror, and even before the red and blue party-lights come on I get that horrible sinking feeling in my gut. The cop could have been after any car on the road, but I knew it was me. I pulled over to the side.
A big, shaved-headed cop stops his car behind me, lights still flashing, and comes over to the passenger-side window.
“Good afternoon officer” I greet him as he approaches the window.
“Good afternoon gentlemen, I’ve stopped you for your speed. Can I see you license please?” I hand him my license, but he doesn’t take it; just looks at it, meanwhile I’m thinking about the cigarette I have in my hand and suddenly realizing for the first time that I don’t have an ashtray in the car. “Get rid of that trash!” he orders, and for about three seconds I don’t understand if he’s talking about the cigarette or my European drivers license which he is refusing to take.
I look around frantically for the non-existent ashtray… “Put it out in your drink, anywhere, I don’t care — but if it goes out the window it’ll be a hell of a fine for you.” I didn’t need the warning, I knew it’s a 1000 dollar fine for littering the state highway, but I just couldn’t think of where to put the damn cigarette. I put it out in my Nestlè iced-tea.
I continued to hold out my license for the cop to take, but he just stared at it then looked at me sternly, “what’s your problem?” What, apart from having a cop about to give me a killer fine for speeding? I wasn’t aware of any other problem I had, but I didn’t say anything. I proffered my license once more and again came the question, “what is your problem?!”
The cop was getting visibly more agitated at this juncture. Was there something wrong with my license? The cop had been mostly ok until he saw that I was British, was this the problem? I decided that the conversation wasn’t going anywhere so I took a breath…
“I’m really sorry officer, but I don’t think I understand what your question means,” I said in my most reverent and subordinate voice and it helped a bit, because the cop went on.
“I don’t want that!”
“Wha… what? My license?” I said, getting more confused by the second. Did he want the car registration? What did he want from me?!
“I. Don’t. Want. That.” It felt like he wanted to add, “You stupid fucking limey,” but he didn’t. I just stared dumbly between my license and the cop. “What’s the speed limit on this road?” Damn it; I hate those trick questions. I felt like I was back in school again with a lame “my dog ate it” absent-homework excuse.
“Erm… well… err… 60?”
“Miles per hour, sir.”
“Oh, sorry, I meant kilometers per hour! I’m always getting those mixed up….”
Nick had started to smile here, or something, but it was bad news for both of us because the cop turned to him and said, “what’s your problem!?”
“Who? Me? Well… I don’t have a problem. Sir.”
I decided to intercede here as the conversation clearly wasn’t going anywhere good. “Look, officer, I’m real sorry, but you know, we got off to a late start this morning, so we were just trying to…”
“The speed limit on this road is 55 miles per hour. 55! Not 65, or 85 or 105. 55! Do you understand that?”
“You shouldn’t even be driving!”
“Shut up!” I didn’t say anything, but bowed my head. “It’s about respect! Do you know what that means?
“Yes, sir,” I nodded.
“When you’re over here you need to respect others!” this was said with such clear anger that I really felt quite chastened, but also slightly fearful of a nationalistic bent to the cop’s fervor. But I always have respect for people! Ok, I sometimes drive fast, but I have respect for people and I always drive carefully.
“I’m sorry sir.”
“Remember: respect. now get out of here,” said the cop, and away he walked.
Good Cop, Bad Cop?
What? That was it!? No fine? He could’ve had me paying 200 dollars easy. But he didn’t. What was the deal? Why no fine? This cop was one of the most officious people I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet and he was clearly angry and what’s more, he was cool until he saw my British license, so why didn’t he give me a fine? And where did all his anger suddenly come from? And why, at the end, did he let me go away without any punishment? I was doing almost 90 in a 55 zone!
I guess there are two possibilities. Cynics would say that it was too much paperwork for him to bother giving us a fine, plus, we being British meant that we probably wouldn’t have paid it anyhow and he was upset that he couldn’t do anything to us.
I prefer, however, to imagine that he could’ve done whatever he wanted to us, but chose — for some reason (maybe he has sons of his own of our age) and figured that he didn’t want to ruin our holiday and that telling us off would do the job fine.
I definitely drove slower after that (at least for a while), and I remain grateful to our compassionate, angry cop.