“Crap. I’m going to jail.”
Parking my car last night, I caught its front-end reflection in the back of the car in front of me on the street. My driver’s side headlight is out. I immediately flashed back to one of the worst 10-minute experiences I’ve ever had. Worse than Glenn Beck. Worse than American Idol auditions. Worse than listening to my mother talk about sex.
Three months ago, I was speeding along a highly traveled main road on my way to work. I was running late and working, as always, on a deadline, so I was in a hurry. I also have very little patience for people who seem to have nowhere to be at any particular time, but are out on the road anyway. Suddenly I heard the ominous woop-woop of a police car and saw the flashing lights in my rearview mirror.
I pulled over, knowing I was in trouble just on spec. I’ll be completely honest: I got two tickets in three months last year, which looks really bad. I was guilty both times; the first time, deeply upset and distracted (and a trip to court did not give me the benefit of dropped points because that judge didn’t do that). The second time, I was in Virginia, where troopers are notoriously heartless, and I honest to God thought I was in a 65mph zone, but it turned out to be a 55. I was doing 71. And I couldn’t go to court because I was hours from home.)
So now I’m sitting on the side of this road, thinking of the bitter irony of being even later for work and wondering what this was going to do to my insurance (which had so far remained unscathed), as the officer comes to the side of the car and asks, not at all pleasantly, for my license and registration. Like the respectful person that I am, I hadn’t reached for anything while I was waiting for him. I told him where I had to reach to get both items. He didn’t seem appreciative of my consideration.
“Your registration is suspended,” he spat.
“What?!” I reacted, wide-eyed, searching the flip-files of my brain for some memory of what might have happened.
“Your registration is suspended! You were supposed to have the emissions checked back in October! You didn’t! They suspended your registration on twelve seventeen!” (December 17th… a month or so before.)
“But… but…” I sputtered.
“I don’t want to hear it. I feel like locking you up right now,” he declared, looking down the road.
I am not one to argue with police. Ever. And I was in a city that is known for its troubles and I didn’t want to mess with this guy, who was clearly in a mood. And then suddenly it hit me: I had moved a few months before, and it had never occurred to me to tell the DMV. My mail was being forwarded, so I figured any notification of anything would get to me anyway. But I never got the emissions test notification. I explained this to the cop.
“Well, that’s your problem,” he told me.
“No, no, I know,” I assured him. “I just… I just didn’t know about the test. How fast was I going?”
“Too fast,” was his reply, as he looked away.
Hey. Wait a minute. Does that mean you don’t know how fast I was going?
A glimmer of hope. But then I sorta pushed it.
“Okay, but how fast?” It wasn’t a challenge. I really wasn’t sure, and now I was curious about whether he could back it up in court, if needed.
“It doesn’t matter! Way too fast!” he shot back.
What came out of his mouth now left me absolutely bamboozled.
“I’m supposed to lock you up now.”
It’s true: in this particular jurisdiction, a suspended registration means you get a trip to the pokey. But surely, law enforcement would see that this was really just a case of not receiving the notice and I certainly had no criminal or even misdemeanor evasive intent.
This officer did not appear to see it that way.
He launched into a verbal tirade that left me stunned, screaming at me about the other tickets (the information on which he, strangely, had written on his hand) and how I apparently hadn’t learned. I knew that, in a fact-based discussion, he was right: on paper, I was terribly, terribly guilty. But who doesn’t speed? My commute is an hour each way. I drive a lot. Mathematically, I’m probably far more likely to pick up a ticket than someone else. I did need to slow down, it was clear, but still, I couldn’t help but feel like this guy was giving me more of a tongue-lashing than was necessary right now.
Also, he had threatened to arrest me. So there was that.
Trying to sort through all of this in my head while keeping my face from showing too much expression, I respectfully listened to him yelling at me. I was still hoping that he would get the anger out of his system, write me a ticket and let me go. Surely, I couldn’t get arrested. But then…
“Ma’am, I need you to step out of the car,” he said.
Oh my God. This is happening.
I don’t know at exactly which point I started crying, because that’s not a card I play. I don’t cry at work and I don’t cry to get out of a ticket. I don’t let people see me cry. I cry alone, like any self-respecting “strong” woman. But this officer was going to take my 5’7″, 132-pound ass to jail. JAIL, on a Saturday, in a very tough city. I’m the equivalent of a soccer mom, minus the kids and the gas-guzzling SUV. I’m not kidding you when I say the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life, in the eyes of the law, was to drive too fast and not get a notice to get my car’s emissions tested. I’ve never so much as been out past curfew, be it municipally or parentally instituted. I was fairly sure that at least two of the people who had crossed the street since I had been pulled over were guilty of far, far worse things. But this was happening.
By the time I had gotten to the spot on the curb where he had demanded I go stand, I was definitely mid-water works. I had put my hands in my pockets on the way there, then jerked them out, thinking I should keep them where he could see them, but then I put them back. I stepped up on the curb and turned around to face the officer, surprised he hadn’t cuffed me while my back was turned to him. I ducked my head, feeling for all the world like a little girl, helpless, powerless, and terrified. I also happened to have a fever at the time, and a burning ache low in my belly that indicates a certain minor medical malady that all women who’ve had it know will result in hellacious, easy-access-to-a-bathroom mandating misery until a full 24-hours of antibiotics are onboard. It had started the night before, and these things tend to get worse fast, and I hadn’t gotten to a doctor yet. I was vaguely aware that they would consider me a high-maintenance, spoiled brat in jail if I said I needed a doctor, but if I didn’t get one in the next day or so, I’d wind up with a very serious medical malady instead of the minor one I was presently fighting, and then I’d be the chick sweating and trembling in the corner while my cellmates taunted me.
As my brain spasmed with the fear and possibilities, the officer launched into another diatribe.
“You haven’t learned! You got two tickets in three months and you still haven’t learned! I’m supposed to lock you up! The only way you’re gonna learn is if I lock you up for the weekend and take away your car! I’m supposed to take your tags! You can’t drive! You are going to jail! I saw you all the way down there (he pointed vaguely from whence we came) and followed you! You weren’t going with the flow of traffic! Changing lanes and driving way too fast…”
And on and on, like this, for a length of time I cannot approximate. With tears running freely down my face, I wiped at my eyes and listened, head still bowed. I felt like I was seven years old and my father was reprimanding me (though my father was not a tyrant); I knew I’d better not say a word, and even if this officer decided to accuse me of crimes against humanity in his rant, I had to keep my mouth shut or I’d be in even bigger trouble. This guy was, it was becoming clear, on a huge power trip, but I could do absolutely nothing to stop him. It was incredibly frightening.
“Where were you going, anyway?!” he demanded.
I tried to find my voice, and catch my breath. “To (gasp) work.”
“Where do you work?”
I told him. I won’t say here where I work, but suffice it to say although my specific position is not a public one, there are many people I work with who are well-known in the public sphere.
“Why didn’t you tell me that before?” he asked, throwing his arms up in the air.
“Why didn’t you tell me before that that’s where you work?”
I basically said something like, “Because I’m not going to tell you where I work to try to get out of a ticket.” I don’t think I got the whole thing out before he cut me off.
“Alright,” he said, much more calmly. “I’m not gonna lock you up. I’m supposed to! But I’m not going to. But you. Have GOT. To SLOW. DOWN.”
I’m nodding, crying harder, realizing this is going to be over, and inexpressibly relieved.
“And Monday morning, you have GOT to GO to the DMV, and get this registration thing cleared up. You HAVE to do that. And don’t give ANYBODY else a reason to pull you over, because they WILL lock you up!”
Nodding. “Okay,” I choked out. “I will.”
“Alright, wipe your face, it’s alright,” he mumbled quickly, with what appeared to be a momentary gap in his resolve.
A minute later, I was back in my car, no ticket, no cuffs. Sobbing freely now, shaking and not at all confident that I’d be able to pull back into traffic without causing a wreck because I was so scattered. I was still crying when I got to work, but since I was so late, I had to go in. It took half an hour to get myself together.
On Monday, I called the DMV to find out if there was a way to resolve the registration issue. It was incredibly easy. The very nice lady, who didn’t even once tell me I should be in jail, changed the address on their records, and told me she’d lift the suspension and change the deadline for the emissions test to the end of May (four months later). It was astonishingly painless.
But I still haven’t gotten a notice that I need to go for the test, and I was just thinking the other day that I might have to call the DMV again and make sure everything’s kosher, because I don’t want to miss the deadline again, and I think I need to present the notice at the testing facility.
And now my headlight is out. Cops will pull you over for that, especially late at night, which is when I’m driving home from work. And even though I’m 100% sure the DMV lady on the phone said I would have til the end of May, and it’s only the second week of April, I’m still a little freaked.
I feel fine, but I’d better get a supply of antibiotics, just in case.