The first time I sat in the back of a police car, I was 11 years old. That’s a severely misleading sentence; I wasn’t there in that way. I sat in the back, door open, comforted by an officer while waiting with my sister for an aunt to pick us up. My parents had just been arrested; they would be detained overnight. The cops had somehow pegged them as the masterminds of a counterfeit clothing ring, set up a fucking sting operation and everything. Only my folks weren’t the manufacturers the cops thought they were, or anything close – they had just been buying knock-offs in bulk from places in LA and selling them for a marginal profit. They ended up getting fined and put on probation.
Myself, I never got in trouble much. A friend approached me for advice once with the rationale that I was the “most moral person” he could think of. It was an absurd claim. Still, I really don’t have it in me to be anything other than vanilla; my naiveté perhaps an Achilles’ heel. A cop stopped me once outside the Angel Stadium box office after I inquired about seats on behalf of a shady character. The guy had watched my stuff for a moment, and I stupidly felt compelled to return the favor, even taking his cash for the would-be purchase. Okay, so I’m crazy naive. But the tickets turned out to be unavailable, and I returned his cash. Of course, I told the cop everything when he asked. Nothing came of it.
My actual transgressions too have been limited. An officer approached me, my cousin, and his friends when we were waiting for a ride in front of the local high school (I was 13 or 14): someone had accused us of throwing rocks at cars. In fact, I had been chucking pebbles at a nearby road sign, though it occurred to me that the cop might not appreciate the distinction. I stayed quiet, being the youngest, the semi-guilty, the scared. My cousin vehemently denied any and all wrongdoing on behalf of the group. Eventually, the cop let us be. That, a stop sign ticket at 17, a warning for speeding at 26 – that’s been it.
But I do have one more story, perhaps more interesting than exciting.
About 18 months ago, I drove across the country from Boston to Los Angeles, in order to leave my car and stuff at my mom’s place before moving to Tokyo. My friend Roger joined me in Chicago for the rest of the trip, and we maneuvered north from there to stop and visit my cousin in Williston, North Dakota. He and his wife were restaurant entrepreneurs; they had previously spent time in Casper, Wyoming, and recently shifted to Williston to ride the wave of the ongoing fracking boom. It was an incredible scene: construction, 18-wheelers, and temporary housing all ubiquitous sights.
Anyway, on our way out of Williston and towards the interstate, Roger and I crossed the border over to Montana. We drove through a couple small towns, and I – somehow unable to locate a McDonald’s for breakfast – hopped directly aboard the on-ramp, probably a few miles above the speed limit. The flashing blue lights appeared in the rear-view mirror maybe a mile down the road. It’s an almost indescribably shitty feeling, of course, to know that the day is already ruined, the trip suddenly far costlier than anticipated. I pulled over. The guy – highway patrol, I think – approached my window, took my license and registration.
From there, the officer asked us a few questions. Where we came from, what we were doing, where we were going, what was in the car. He checked Roger’s ID, asked about the car owner (my mom), and wanted to know if we had any cash on our persons. Of course, he was professional, though conversation enough not to make me nervous, or at least more nervous than I already was just interacting with a cop. Eventually, he returned to his patrol car, taking my license and registration with him. He suggested he would let me off with a warning. Roger and I sat there, waiting, quasi-celebrating quietly. Eventually, he came back round.
This time, the officer asked me to step out of the vehicle, said he wanted to chat with me. I was weirded out, naturally, but obliged, stepping onto the road as Roger sat firm. He then suggested that we go sit in his patrolcar. I asked nervously if I was being arrested, but he assured me this wasn’t the case. He asked for permission to pat me down for weapons and did so; then we walked over to his car. There, he noted a box of assorted electronics was taking up the front passenger seat, and directed me towards the back. And that was the second time I ever sat in the back of a police car.
As the officer ran my information, he engaged in more chatter – asking me questions about the circumstances under which Roger and I were in Williston. I eventually mentioned the move from Boston, and he said he had spent time there. Slowly, he revealed more about the situation. He was part of a interstate task force, he said. Williston – thanks to the boom – had seen a rise in crime, drug activity, trafficking, and so forth. He had pulled us over for speeding, but we had enough red flags to arouse his suspicion: my California plates, my Massachusetts license, Roger’s California license, a third party car owner (my mom kept her maiden name), all my shit in the backseat.
I felt like I spent a good 10 minutes in the car. Because he was upfront with me, because he said he believed me, because he remained friendly, I wasn’t too anxious – or at least, more anxious than I normally would be sitting in the back of a police car. Eventually, everything checked out, as of course it did. He came around back and let me out, thanking me for my cooperation. Mentioned I at least had a story to tell. I chuckled, shook his hand, headed back to my car. Roger and I went on our way. Didn’t even get a ticket for speeding.