A Safe Ending

Sophie stayed out past curfew. Not the curfew Susan and I set—we didn’t set one—but the curfew set by the state of Pennsylvania: seventeen-year-old drivers are banned from the road by eleven. Sophie’s never had a parental curfew; she’s never stayed out unreasonably late, and she’s never done anything to make us doubt her judgement. Plus, she has her phone. We can always get in touch.

She texted: I’ll just drive home after midnight, the odds of getting pulled over are slim. Susan walked in the house just fifteen minutes earlier after picking up Eli at a friend’s house, they got pulled over driving home. Susan drove the car with the burned-out headlight. We expected the cops would be looking for reasons to stop people on New Year’s Eve, we figured it should be either Susan or me presenting our license and registration, not Sophie. Sophie took the car with working headlights.

I texted Sophie back: No, we’ll come get you when you’re ready.

She responded: Eddie Tyler can bring me home at 1:30. He’s eighteen now.

Is he sober?

We’re all sober.

Wake me up when you get in the house. I’ll set my alarm for 1:40.

Sophie shook me awake at 1:28. And I dodged a bullet; no cop-encounters for me.

Three years ago, on my way to pick up Sophie from a party, I happened upon a sobriety roadblock. I crested a hill on a pitch-black country road and nighttime turned to day. With flashing roof lights, road flares and a cop pointing his flashlight into my eyes, I could barely see where to pull over. My prior three hours were mellow. When Sophie called for her ride home, I sat sunken into a couch, reading a novel and petting a cat. I wasn’t in social-mode. It was an hour past my bedtime. I think my brain was moving a little slow.

“Could I see your license and registration?” I dug my wallet out of my pocket and handed the officer my ID. “Mr. Cann, have you been drinking?

“No, I don’t do that anymore.”

“You gave me your credit card.” I opened the glove-box and started rifling through the trash—car repair receipts, unused fast food napkins, a tangled hairbrush or two. I couldn’t find my registration. “Hey, what’s in that bottle?” I looked to my console where drink-holders are carved into the plastic. Nothing. I turned to the passenger seat and dug beneath the napkins, receipts and hairbrushes I just put there. No bottle here either. “Mr. Cann, what’s in that bottle?” He sounded a little agitated this time.

I looked in my glove-box. There was an AC plug adapter. It’s gray, one end pokes into the cigarette lighter, the other end flares out and has an outlet where I can plug in my laptop when I’m writing in my car. I guess it looked bottle shaped. “Do you mean this?” I held up the adapter.

“No, I mean the bottle right next to your hand.” The dude was getting pissed with me.

“Oh, you mean the pill bottle.” It’s a small white bottle with a safety cap. It used to be for antihistamines, but now it was full of Tylenol, ibuprofen and Aleve. It’s our headache stash. “It’s full of analgesics.” By now, I expected the cop to assumed I was drunk, so saying analgesics was to put him at ease. No drunk person is going to use the word analgesics without slurring. I handed him the pill bottle.

“Mr. Cann, why is the word ‘PAIN’ written on this bottle?” Why indeed?

While packing for a two-week-hiking-vacation years back, Susan and I wanted to bring various medicines for headaches and other aches and pains. Since I already had an identical bottle full of antihistamines, I wrote PAIN on this one with a blue Sharpie. At some point after the trip, it made its way into the car. That seemed like a lot to explain. Instead, I said “Um, I don’t know.”

“Mr. Cann, this isn’t a trick question, you have unidentified pills in a bottle marked PAIN. I’m simply trying to ascertain what we have here.” By now, two additional police were crowding around my car window. One, a higher ranking officer, worked to diffuse the situation. After a bit of rapid fire questions and my confused responses, he took the bottle of pills and my drivers license and disappeared into the dark. The original cop and I waited in awkward silence. When the boss came back, he handed me my pills and told me I was free to go.

Now whenever I read a news article about a traffic stop that needlessly ends with a man of color being shot, I think back to that night and recognize how privileged I am. I haven’t been pulled over since, but when I am, I’ll do my best to respond in ways the officer expects. Some people take a few extra minutes to get their head wrapped around a new situation. We don’t all perform well under pressure. I think in the future, I might just start the conversation by telling the officer that.

This morning, I got up and replaced that burned-out headlight. Then Susan and I went to retrieve Sophie’s car.

28 thoughts on “A Safe Ending

  1. I liked this one. Worry about your kids never ends. And knowing that had you been another color, something bad might have happened. Just getting stopped makes people feel guilty or defensive and act stupid sometimes. And cops need to be better trained to handle that without anyone getting killed. Privilege is real.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. So far the girl doesn’t give us much to worry about, but next year she’s on her own and I imagine I’ll worry nonstop when she isn’t under my watch. In my town, cops actually get training in pulling over drunks. They pay people to come in and get absolutely loaded and then practice breathalyzing and arresting them. I’ve heard some sad tales about that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gad, what an experience you had. Early in my legal career I prosecuted misdemeanor criminal offenses in district court. Got to know lots of cops and often asked what they looked for when stopping drivers. I learned they love burned-out tail and head lights, or expired license tabs, an excuse to pull over a vehicle to check the driver for visible contraband, like your suspected “pain” bottle. They especially loved stopping a vehicle for a burned-out tail light if driven by someone they already knew to be a “frequent flier” in the local legal system and so likely to be driving on a suspended license or under the influence. I was actually astounded how many DUI/drug arrests started with a burned-out tail light pull-over. Ever since learning that, I have fixed dead lights on my vehicle immediately! You were wise to insist Sophie not drive herself home after curfew, even if both headlights were working.

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    • My headlights always burn out in the winter. In the summer, it would be a mild nuisance. In the winter I always finished with cracked and bleeding knuckles. I agree with you. I should have fixed it immediately, especially since my daughter is driving it. At the time, I was really shocked how the cop honed in on the pill bottle. I truly felt guilty until proven innocent. Good thing I didn’t have any prescription meds with me. God knows what he would have done.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t drive, so my experience of being pulled over was as a passenger. So far it has only been the once – in QLD. I was with orange-cloaked nuns of a yoga and meditation group/sect. Some were people of colour and the cop was white and he was not friendly. The nuns were well trained in remaining calm and pleasant under pressure, and it ended well.

    I appreciated your acknowledgement of privilege. And empathised with both your concern for your daughter and your experience of needing time to wrap your head around new situations. At the airport I was once pulled aside at the baggage carousel because I looked nervous. Of course I did, I am agoraphobic, but he didn’t know that. The uniformed bloke asked me abruptly worded questions while his dog sniffed my luggage and identified scents of contraband (fruit). In the end I was able to tell him I have an anxiety disorder, and show him my medication, but it took a while. Have to admit that the presence of a beagle helped me. 🙂 Happy New Year!

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    • I used to carry a Tourette Assoc. of America card identifying me as a person with Tourette. I never wound up using it, so I ditched it. I think it would be useful for those of us who need identification sometimes to be able to point to a box checked on a card that gives us an excuse. But then, of course, we’d be registering ourselves as ‘mentally ill’ and god knows how that would come back and bite us.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Man, after that experience I wouldn’t let Sophie drive past curfew either. I know I would stutter as an adult. As a teen I probably would get myself in trouble just from the scare of the encounter. Geez.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have a life long automatic ‘anti-authority’ tendency. I think it’s apparent in my body language when I’m interacting with cops. Plus there’s the whole anti-gun thing that shows up as well. I never seem to have good interactions with police. Even once when I was reporting a stolen bike, the conversation got ugly. I don’t have a feel for how Sophie would do interacting with police. she might wind up feeling a bit standoffish, Maybe she and I should talk about it before it happens.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I loved your piece! My son is 21 “choir boy,” and biracial -he’s never smoked pot and just tried alcohol on his 21st birthday -but didn’t like it, thank goodness.

    However his college roommate was a pot smoker and my son was driving home from Houston to Kansas City when he got pulled over by an Oklahoma cop who was spitting sunflower seeds (get the picture)?

    My son was in a rented car because his car had been hit so of course the cop assumed the worst -and my son got the scariest police encounter of his life with drug dogs and everything.

    He called me shaking and on the verge of crying and I felt so damned helpless. He’s such a good kid and there was nothing I could do. Thank God I taught him to respect authority and he was let off with a warning. (I’m sure the Eagle Scout card in his wallet didn’t hurt either).

    God help us all if any of my children were ever to be hurt by a policeman whether they were doing wrong or not I don’t know how I would cope…

    Mo

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I can totally relate to this post….I got pulled over in Dallas one time for driving without my headlights on….I JUST got into a rental car and was driving down a very lit, toll road, so I didn’t notice. To make a long story short, it took me a while to find a safe place to pull over so this cop wouldn’t get hit by a car. Once I stopped, he came at me yelling and screaming for me to keep my hands on the steering wheel. The amount of rage this guy exhibited was soooo out of line – scared the crap out of me. I had PTSD for a week!

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  7. Scary. I think I can put myself in the mindset of a cop making a stop, But it’s not acceptable to make the assumption that everyone is dangerous. We all have different ways of interpreting a situation and because you felt it was smart to find a safe place to stop seems perfectly reasonable to me. When my wife got pulled over on NYE, she said she pulled into a parking lot thinking about the impact it would have to stop in the middle of the main street of town. My gut reaction was “just stop, if the cop wan’t you to move, he/she will tell you.” The other thing that happened was the window wouldn’t go down so she started opening the door. My son freaked on her screaming ‘no, don’t open the door, you’ll be shot.’ We live in a screwed up world.

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  8. I was stopped once and also handed a credit card instead of my license because I was so nervous. I was obsequiously polite and compliant and it helped to be a tiny blonde fifty something. I got a ticket but for a minor violation. Who knows what would have happened had I been 20, male, black.

    Liked by 1 person

      • No. A new stop sign had been installed at a T intersection and Just didn’t notice it. The cop was lying in wait to nab folks. It was a Sunday morning. He made joke saying could really use the card but that I probably needed to find my license instead. I laughed nervously and fumbled in my wallet while apologizing profusely.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. First, so glad your daughter got home OK on New Year’s Eve. I can remember pacing the floor waiting for my boys to get home when they were the same age.
    Second, my daughter-in-law is a person of color. When the Eagles won the Super Bowl, she begged her brother, who lives in Philly, works for the mayor, and has a graduate degree from Temple, NOT to go out to the celebrations that night. She was afraid of any encounter he would have with the police ending very badly. It’s something I would never have thought to worry about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know this WordPress crowd is a pretty liberal/introspective group, but I’m finding it surprising to get so many comments relating to mistrust of the police. Because I have a few ‘problems’ that make it hard for me to communicate effectively, I sometimes put myself in the mindset of a minority (this situation was one of those cases), but I’m sobered by the realization that this fear runs so deep across lines of race and age.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I also had an experience a few years ago that made me think about how brave police officers are on a daily basis.

        I don’t think they are bad people, I just think they need better training in how to react to stressful, conflict-prone situations.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve only been pulled over a handful of times, but like you I’ve been lucky. I’m not good with social situations, in the BEST of times, but when I’m stressed, and it doesn’t get much more stressful than being pulled over by the police, fugetaboutit. Your description is EXACTLY how it would have gone down with me, too. Still, it’s nice to read about a safe ending, rather than the wild west shoot ups that seem to be most of the headlines these days.

    The headlines are a bit unfair. I mean, there are shitty cops, and there are terrible things that they do, but news isn’t newsworthy if it’s not sensational. Actually, that’s why I quit watching the news, cut the cable, about 15 years back. Anytime I think about the nature of what passes for news I think of the lyrics to Vicarious by Tool:

    “We all feed on tragedy
    It’s like blood to a vampire”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Catching up? I feel like my experience must happen frequently. I’d think cops would be trained to deescalate tensions from the start… unless they feel that the fear they generate benefits them–sort of like a hornet’s nest.

      Liked by 1 person

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