PASS IT DOWN
Two days after my girlfriend told me she was pregnant, I learned that the City of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, had issued a warrant for my arrest. Jasmin and I had gone home to North Carolina to celebrate Christmas, and I found three notices from the Municipal Court of Hattiesburg in the large stack of mail my father keeps for me. Every so often a letter comes to his address with my name on it, and he tosses it in a box in my old room.
The first letter was notifying me that I was to appear in court on October 20th. The second read that I had been sentenced in absentia and fined $602. The third read that if the fine was not paid by December 21st, a warrant would be issued with my name on it. I opened these notices the day after Christmas.
A few months earlier, in September, a very nice policeman with spiked, bleached hair pulled me over just to let me know my tail light was out. “I figured you may not have seen it, so I thought I’d tell you,” he said, and asked for my license, registration, and proof of insurance. I had the first two, but the third was in a drawer in my apartment; I’m not from Mississippi, and was unaware that I needed to have proof of my vehicular insurance on me when I drove. “I’m sorry, officer,” I said. “I don’t have it here, but I am insured.”
“Well, I have to write you up for that,” he said, “but it’s not a problem. Just go down to the court house and show them your proof of insurance, and it will all go away.” He gave me pink slip with some illegible carbon paper scrawl on it, and let me go. I thought that it sounded simple enough. Just go down to the courthouse. I should have looked into the situation, called and found out if I had a court date, but I didn’t. I put the slip down somewhere and just forgot. But I did have a court date, and the paperwork reminding me of that was sent to North Carolina. Because the license I handed the fair-haired policeman was an NC driver’s license with the address of my father’s house printed below my picture.
After Christmas, Jasmin and I drove the fourteen hours back to Mississippi very carefully, knowing that if we were pulled over and I was behind the wheel, I could very well be cuffed and hauled in. I made jokes, saying that at least our baby isn’t here to see papa locked up, and Jasmin didn’t think they were funny. I had $190 dollars to my name, and it needed to last three weeks.
I was raised in Willow Spring, a rural community, lots of small farms and not much money. Our school was a single seventy year-old building that shared a lot with an old fenced-in graveyard. Air conditioners weren’t installed until 1996. Things were lean, but could have been worse, and I remember it as a happy time in my life. But there was always a sense, in the community and in my family, that our situation was critical. We lived paycheck to paycheck, and a doctor’s bill, a flat tire, a leak in the pipes, was a catastrophe. There were stretches when my parents had my younger brother Joshua and me screen their phone calls because collection agencies were after us. “We have to be careful,” my mother would say, “All this can be taken away tomorrow.”
So I grew up a part of a group who disliked police, judges, bosses, politicians, bankers, and bill collectors. These were people grouped together on the other side of a line from us. They were people who could evict you from your house (this happened to three families I knew of growing up), could arrest you for having a little fun (my father’s uncle, who distilled his own corn whiskey, six months in jail), or just make your life miserable by hassling you for your last buck, always adding arbitrary late fees, penalties, surcharges. They were all in on it together, working against us at every turn.
“If you’re in trouble,” my father had always told me, “call me and your brother first, and we’ll come running. Then call the cops.” If we drove past a state trooper writing a ticket, or three or four black and whites flashing blue lights while the policemen that drove them cuffed people, my father would always say something like “Pig sons of bitches.” If we saw a police chase on television, we cheered for the crooks, no matter what they had done. And they always got caught.
So I didn’t trust the police, or authority in general, from a very early age. My mother worked as a secretary for the state DOJ, and would tell me and my brother Joshua stories over dinner of policemen who had gone bad. “Wife-beaters, every one of them,” she’d say, and she would give us examples, cases that had come across her desk. She once told us a story about how a group of Raleigh cops would pick up whinos, get them drunk, then take them to a city dump after dark and beat them savagely, just for fun. “They would always piss on them when they finished,” she said, and something about that has always stuck with me. They way they have power, and how they can use it to humiliate. “So never smart off to a cop,” my mother would say. “Ever. They’re not all bad. But even the good ones cover for the crooked ones. They can hurt you, and you can’t hurt them back without going to jail. So you say ‘yessir,’ ‘nossir,’ and other than that, you keep your mouth shut.”
I’ve only had a few dealings with the police, and they have ranged from pleasant to awful. I’ve been pulled over driving numerous times, stopped and asked where I was going, who I was, without explanation. Sometimes the officers were rude, sometimes kind. One even told me where I could find good barbecue. On the other hand, I was once the victim of a hit and run, and the policeman who arrived on the scene accused me of staging it. But throughout all of these, I became embittered towards authority in general, the police in particular. Meeting a polite cop was as frustrating as locking horns with one, because that made it more difficult for me to group them all together.
But until a year ago, my attitude towards authority and the police wasn’t very personal. It was a haughty pretension, me against the law, a Jesse James complex. It seemed cool to dislike them. Then a policeman, a city deputy, started following my brother around everyday when Joshua left work. One day he pulled Joshua over, had him assume the position, hands on the truck hood, while he searched through his tool box. Then he told Joshua that he was dating a girl my brother had been seeing, and told Joshua to back off.
My mother called her boyfriend, a state trooper, and he had the man reprimanded, and took care of the situation. She had left my father for him the year previous, balking when I would ask how she could go with a cop after everything she had told us about them. He is a high-ranking officer, stands a head taller than may father, as tall I, and smokes brown cigarillos. I couldn’t bring myself to thank him for helping Joshua. I felt that it wasn’t his responsibility or his right. I wanted to pretend that my father or I could have helped, could have put this thug sheriff in his place. But that isn’t the way it is.
The morning after Jasmin and I returned to Hattiesburg, I stood up in front of a judge and asked him to re-open my case. I showed him the notices that had been sent to the address in North Carolina, brought proof of my current address and proof of my car insurance. I respectfully explained the situation, referring to him as ‘your honor’ because that’s how it’s done on TV.
I disliked this judge the moment he took the bench. He was perhaps fifty, and wore a green and white striped shirt with khakis under his robe, which he zipped only after he sat down and called the court to order. His collar was too tight and his neck was dimpled fat, his skin pale and dull like he had wiped himself down with talcum powder before he left for work. His hair was thin and the color of cinnamon, combed back and greased, and his glasses perched on the end of a thin, womanish nose. I disliked him more when he started working me over in front of the fifty or sixty people also attending court that morning. “This isn’t our fault, Mr. Bowden. You could have told the officer that this wasn’t your current address. Keeping up with your records isn’t our responsibility.”
“Yes your honor. I should have told him. And I should have looked into it myself. I just forgot.”
His voice was nasal, a drawl that was southern, but sharp; I was talking to a city man, I was sure of it. “This isn’t the sort of thing you forget. And you mean to tell me your father received a letter from a court and didn’t open it? I find that preposterous.”
I wanted to say, “Opening someone else’s mail is a federal crime your honor. Surprised you didn’t know that.” Instead, I said “He just stacks it for me until I come home, sir.”
He shuffled some papers out of frustration, and shook his head. His nose crinkled and his lips pooched, the expression of someone who has just caught the smell of shit on the wind. “Well, since you have proof of insurance, I’ll dismiss the charges and sentence you to pay court costs. But you need to stop being irresponsible and keep your records current.”
I could and had conceded his point, my own failings and responsibility for the mistake. But I chafed at his tone, his attitude, and that he was addressing me, a grown man, this way in front of others. I wanted to say, “Your honor, go fuck yourself,” but I was in a court and this was a judge. I am not his equal. So I said, “Thank you, your honor,” handed half my money to a clerk, and walked out, humble as a puppy.
I was going to be a father, and I had just been reprimanded like a child. I felt like something about my character had been called into question, my maturity, I was already doubting myself before I walked in. But what bothered me most was that I hadn’t been allowed to defend myself. Like my mother had said, this guy could hurt me, and I couldn’t stop him. I felt the way I always feel around cops and law men: powerless, impotent, furious.
Jasmin had dropped me off earlier, run some errands, and was waiting for me in the car outside. “How did it go,” she asked me as I sat down and shut the door.
“Great,” I said. “Only had to pay court costs.”
I met a former highway patrolman the other day. He’s a student, working on a degree in criminal justice, a bear of a man. He stands maybe 6’2″, 250 pounds, but solid, not soft, with a head shaved to the scalp and a nose the shape of a mashed plumb. He rides around campus on a bike, a green book sack on his back. We agreed on politics, we both really like noir film, particularly Bogart’s stuff. He told me some moonshiner stories: “We weren’t their problem. Hell, I got nothing against folks making whiskey. You heard that old George Jones song, ‘White Lightning?’” I had. Apparently, we both loved old country music too. “It’s like that. Moonshiners only had to worry about revenuers. I just want to lock up people who hurt folks, and all those guys making whiskey were just good old boys. But they were bringing in all that money and not paying taxes, and god help you if you get tax men on your ass.”
A nice guy. I liked him. But if he was walking toward me wearing a gun and a badge, my first reaction would be to cross to the other side of the street. I wouldn’t, but only because it would make me look guilty.
I find myself in the interesting position of fostering a prejudice while I am perfectly aware that my reactions and opinions are skewed. Like any prejudice, it is based on a bit of fact and personal experience blown out of proportion, driven deeper by the desire to oversimplify. I’ve had no single traumatic experience that made me feel this way; I have had some unpleasant experiences, but nothing drastic or violent. I find myself despising an entire group, and reason tells me that the way I feel doesn’t jive with the reality.
I suppose my explanation for this, in part, is my raising. I have a wide range of friends with varied economic backgrounds, and it has been my experience that the lower you are on the economic scale, the less you trust authority. I know not to rail against police behavior around certain acquaintances; it angers them that I am insulting people that they think of as our protectors. In their view, policemen and judges are the good guys, and they work to keep us safe. I can’t bring myself to see it that way, and neither can most people I know who grew up rural lower class. We’re suspicious about authority and its enforcers, always assuming the worst of them, but I admit that if I call a cop, I expect him to show up on the double.
I’m an educated man, a first generation college graduate. That education tells me I shouldn’t have these knee jerk reactions every time I see a cop, that this kind of thinking is beneath me. But when a man in black uniform passes by on foot or in a patrol car, I feel an immediate fear, and I check myself, as if to make sure I’m not unintentionally committing a crime.
Last week I felt my son kick for the first time. Jasmin held my hand below her navel, and there was a tap against my palm. Sometimes she will be sitting, talking, and break out in giggles, cradling her belly because the kicking tickles her.
I want to be able to tell my son what my more affluent friends say about the police, that they protect us, keep us safe. I want that to be true. But mostly, I want to prove I can break a limitation of my own by giving him a clearer picture of the world than I have seen. And even as I write this, I know I will never do it. In my mind, authority and the power to enforce it are still “Them,” and my family, the people in my community, are still “Us.”
I imagine that I’m sitting in a chair five years from now reading a book, my son rolling a truck on the floor between my feet, and there’s a loud knock on the door. I stand and open it, and my kid follows, standing just behind me. Two men in black uniforms are standing there, haircuts that are all right angles, silver badges over their right breast pockets, silver buttons and silver guns gleaming. Maybe I’ve made some mistake, forgotten to pay some ticket, a notice got lost in the mail. Something has gone wrong, and I don’t know what it is. They can order me come with them, and if I say no, they’ll bind me and force me. If I fight them, they’ll beat my teeth out and lock me up. I have no promise other than words written in a law book that I will get a fair shake.
I picture this, knowing that one day I’ll tell my son to call me first when he’s in trouble, then I’ll tell him why. And I worry this won’t be the only fear I grind into him, that keeps him looking over his shoulder.
More by Nick Bowden