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.