from Distance No Object
reprinted courtesy of City Lights Books copyright 1999
I was cruising
home after a late movie and a glass of wine with an old friend. I
was in no particular hurry, just carried along by the beat of Paul
Simon's "Graceland," window rolled down, and the night breeze fluffing
my hair. In the film, which was very French and cool, the women were
bored, even capricious with the emotions of the men, playing with
them just to pass the time until something better came along. The
men tried earnestly to woo the women, first with surprises, then with
logic, but the French women beat them at their own game.
close to midnight. The streets of Berkeley were empty. Paul Simon
was singing that "losing love was like a window in your heart, everybody
knows you're blown apart, everybody sees the wind blow...."
thinking that I wasn't so sure about that, though it sounded poetic.
I've noticed that people tend to take you for what you say about yourself,
and more and more they're less interested in how you feel or what's
happened to you.
getting chilly so I rolled up the window and cranked up the sound.
red lights flashed in my rearview mirror like a hundred Christmas
trees. Groaning, I pulled over and rolled down my window before the
officer got out of his car. He was slow about it, pretty short for
a cop, thin, pale-faced, with a few pimples and a lot younger than
why I stopped you, ma'am?" he said in a flat Dragnet tone. He didn't
look at me directly but with one of those gazes that if you followed
it, you would feel you were sitting about a foot to the side of yourself.
I think people used to call it "wall-eyed."
were doing thirty-nine in a twenty-five-mile residential zone."
of crimes, I thought. Where were you last month when that uninsured
motorist smashed into me? Why aren't you out looking for muggers?
But a wave of contrition overtook me about not actually knowing how
fast I was going. I like to be conscious of my transgressions.
"I'm sorry," I said softly, not wanting to open my mouth too wide
because he might smell the wine on my breath.
over my license before he asked for it.
ever been cited before for speeding?"
"Never," I said. Never in California, I squirmed, hoping I was telling
the truth, because it was easy enough for him to find out. By now
the statute of limitations had surely run out on my teenage crimes.
sorry," I said again, trying to throw my voice like a ventriloquist
while keeping my lips together but not too together.
his flashlight on my license and peeked inside my car.
"Alone? It's pretty late."
"I'm too old for curfew," I smiled.
"Well, you seem like a good person," he said.
My smile was beginning to irritate me like a stiff collar. How could
he come to such an assessment from such a brief encounter? Of course,
Berkeley cops are famous for their mustaches, longish hair, and sensitivity
training. "We have to be alert to cultural differences," an officer
once comforted us when the neighborhood complained about the unreported
robberies at the liquor store across the street, the crack addicts
with their Uzis, and the owners with their .45's not too hidden behind
a good person, I thought, and while I have broken the law, I have
not broken it very much.
from Berkeley, huh? You're probably well-educated. You're probably
sophisticated. Are you sophisticated?"
I suppose you could say that, but it's usually a word you don't use
that right?" he said. "I didn't know that." There was genuine curiosity
in the tone of his voice, no sarcasm. "So
how do you use it?"
you might call someone else sophisticated, like you called me, I mean,
you used it right...." "So,
you seem sophisticated, or maybe you just don't like to toot your
own horn. That's good," he said. "Modesty is a virtue, you know. Should
I give you a ticket?" he asked. "What would you do if you were me?"
not know why I seemed sophisticated to him. I was wearing blue jeans
and a T- shirt and driving an old Datsun. I certainly knew I did not
want eight hours of sick yuk-yuks in comedy traffic school, steeper
insurance premiums, etc. Of course, I didn't think all of this in
so many words, I just thought No Ticket. Not Want Ticket.
I, ah. . . . "
"Think of it this way," he said. "Do you deserve a ticket?"
blew out like a lightbulb. This was a moral inquiry. Was I guilty
enough to deserve punishment? Now he was asking me an ethical question,
perhaps with metaphysical consequences.
admit, being a little drunk and not wanting to show it forces you
to focus a little too hard on the immediate. I wondered if he could
tell, if he was just playing with me. I pondered the word "deserve."
do you think? You've been loose with the pedal foot, you've been tooling
along--and by the way, your stereo was way too loud--and not paying
any regard for the fact that people live on this street."
the roof of my car. "People live here," he insisted, "so they could
be coming home and parking and crossing the street. And you could
be failing to see them. You have, in effect, robbed these residents
of their right to safety. I'll bet most speeders don't think of themselves
as thieves, do they?"
that's the first I've heard of it, officer. You've created the perfect
that's right. Like Time Bandits, huh? Of course it's late and your
subconscious probably thought, 'Hey, I can just drive like I want
'cause there's no one around. I can just do what I like, I own the
road.' But now that I've stopped you, you'll drive along this street
and soon you'll come to a commercial zone, and you'll have to slow
down, there'll be a light...."
I said, trying to be fair, "you could give me a warning citation."
me put it this way," he ignored my offer and cleared his throat. "Should
I ticket you? Objectively speaking, should I ticket you? What would
you do if you were me?"
know," I said. "If I were you... I'm a college professor."
he jumped in immediately, "what if one of your students cheated on
know, I don't know," I said, stuttering, not sounding like a college
professor at all. "I don't know what you should do. I don't give tests.
I teach poetry."
"Oh," he said,
"poetry. Well, what if one of your students turned in some writing
and you knew it wasn't theirs, say it was by Hemingway, you knew the
I thought, hardly wrote poetry, but I wasn't in a position to defend
genre just now.
I said, "once I taught in a jail and an inmate used a piece of a poem
by Walt Whitman. I was so astounded that I didn't even call him on
it. I mean, he had memorized Whitman!"
so?" the policeman said, rubbing his eye underneath his glasses. "Those
cons, they'll take anything. But about you? Have you decided? About
growing impatient, even irritable, and exceedingly sober. I was made
to understand that I would be responsible for my own ticket. I did
not want to be responsible. It was enough work to have to pump one's
gas, bus one's dishes, unload one's groceries onto the conveyer belt
at the grocery store, etc. I envisioned a world where criminals, real
criminals, went before judges who would impose the extra burden of
making them sentence themselves--given the options, so to speak--will
that be five years at hard labor or leg irons and solitary? I did
not like such options, I did not like having to choose... I wanted
someone else who had some authority in his field--the field of moving
violations--to actually make a judgment so at least I could protest
it if I wanted or accept it. I grew up in a world of protest--where
did that go? Where was the hard edge of pompous authority to butt
up against? I wondered if this cop was lazy, just part of a growing
generation of lazy people who did not want to make decisions or exert
authority because they were afraid you might not like them. The anxiety
of making the wrong choice overtook me. I recalled images of people
saying the wrong thing and then having to dig their own graves. Only,
I had the chance to say I didn't want to. Just give me the fucking
ticket, I thought, just ticket me.
I tell you what," he smiled. "I tell you what, you were polite, you
were honest, you didn't give me a hard time."
"Oh," I said,
"people give you a hard time?"
he said. "Oh yeah. You bet they give me a hard time. I stop 'em, they
bad-mouth me, some of these kids. They talk like devils, some of these
kids, you know, from Oakland...."
"Oh," I said,
now that's a word. Is that a word Hemingway would use?"
know." "Well, you're the professor. Is that a Hemingway word?"
be. It very well could be."