With it being Thanksgiving Week, I figured this was a good time for me to reflect on what I’m thankful for. However, this particular thing is not a person or a place, but a moment in time that could have gone all sorts of sideways on me. So, sit back on this pre-turkey day and take a stroll to March/April 1999.
It was during my last year at Georgia Tech, at the end of Winter Quarter… finals week. I don’t know how many finals I had that quarter, I believe 4, and of course, I had 2 scheduled on that Friday.
Which wasn’t supposed to happen. The policy at Tech was that you only should have 1 final per day. They figured, smartly, that you were under enough stress studying for a test that would pretty much make or break your grade, so why complicate things with trying to study for 2 at once. And let me tell you, I tried to get one of them rescheduled for earlier in the week. I begged and pleaded, and each of the professors told me that I needed to talk with the other one as “Their class took prescedence”. After banging my head against that wall, I sucked it up, and took my medicine like a good boy.
I don’t remember what the classes were, nor do I remember how long I was up the night before (heck, the week before). What I do remember is that feeling of relief as soon as I finished that second test. I walked out of the classroom feeling both the extreme fatigue, but also filled with a warm feeling knowing that I was that much closer to being done with school (I would graduate at the end of the year). The Mountain Dew surging through my veins had managed to keep me awake long enough. So, I begin driving back to my apartment in Decatur, Georgia.
Again, I don’t recall much of the drive until I got into the city limits. Only 1 mile away from my place I come to a stop at a redlight. All I want at this point is to go and take a nap and not wake up until sometime on Sunday. My body ached, my brain ached, and my eyes ached. The light seemed to go on forever, but with the free time afforded to me suddenly, I took a glance into my rearview mirror…
And saw one of Decatur Police’s finest behind me. Now I pass the Police Station almost on a daily basis. Never worried about it…
Until right then.
What’s the problem you ask? Well, there was one other thing that happened to me prior to my double finals. My poor Pontiac Sunbird was in the shop (I was just hoping to get through school with it, figuring once I got a job I could get a new car). Courtney, my girlfriend at the time (and my wife now) was going to Cancun on Spring Break. She made me a deal (she loves to make deals, her nickname is Monty Haul): I can use her car for the week if I take her to the airport (or perhaps it was to MARTA) at some ungodly hour in the morning. Not having much of a choice, I agreed. As I dropped her off she said these fateful words:
“Hey, if you get a chance, could you swap out my tag, I haven’t done that yet.” (She placed the physical tag in the passenger seat so I wouldn’t forget.)
Oh, and if you don’t know, her birthday is in December…
And it was now late March/early April.
And the tag still hadn’t been changed.
Anyway! Flashback to me in the car with the cop behind me.
Please don’t notice, please don’t notice…
Light turns green. I press on the gas and the red lights flicker on behind me.
I pull the car over on the next sideroad. Annoyed. Nervous.
Oh, and the window on her car did not work (did I mention that this Honda Civic from the stone ages was effectively a lemon?). So I have to open the door when he approaches. I’m sure that got his Spidey Sense tingling.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“I’m assuming it is due to the expired tag?”
“Look, it is right here. This is my girlfriend’s car. I’m on my way home and I was going to change it.”
When I handed him my licence and insurance card my hand was shaking. Visibly shaking. The kind of shaking where you realize that it is shaking and the more you try to stop it from doing it, the more it continues…
“Why is your hand shaking son?”
Because I’m running on about 4 hours sleep for the week. Because I have enough Mountain Dew in me that my blood is yellow and not red. Because my brain is fried from taking two finals in one day.
I did not say any of those things.
“I don’t know.”
“Please step out of the car, son.”
A second police car pulls up at this point.
“May I search your vehicle?”
Yeah, I’ve got nothing to hide. I’ve never done drugs. I’m not drunk.
NOOOOOO! What are you thinking? This isn’t your car. You don’t know who Courtney might have had in the car. Yeah, you trust her, but what if they stuffed something under the seats?
Well, too late now.
The second cop pulls me aside while the first begins to go through the car, my backpack, glove compartment, trunk, etc. I joke that Courtney is going to get an earful after this. A few minutes later, the first cop calls me back over. Stacked in a nice row on top of the car are pills of various shapes and sizes.
Courtney was notorious for opening her pill bottle and having them go flying about the car. She never cleaned them up, so the floorboards were littered with various pills. If you knew her, it was no big deal.
These guys don’t know her.
“What are these?”
I looked at them, fear in the pit of my stomach.
“Those are herbal diet supplements my mom sells.”
“Those are my girlfriend’s epilepsy medicine.”
Those I have no idea what they are.
“I think those are more epilepsy medicine.”
And then came the words I never hope to hear again…
“This will go a lot easier on you if you just tell the truth.”
What!?! But I am… I don’t… WHAT!?!
“Are you on something? Speed?”
“No, sir. I don’t do drugs.”
“And this diet pill, if we call your mom and she comes down to the station she’d confirm that?”
I don’t think I was trying to be a smart-ass, but…
“Well sir, she’s in Richmond, Virginia.”
A third cop pulled up (I am not kidding). Apparently it was a slow day in the City of Decatur. That or I was Walter White 10 years before Breaking Bad… or would that make me Jessie?
At this point, I was led to the first officer’s police car and placed in the back seat.
A couple of observations:
Not a ton of legroom. Guess they shouldn’t be all that concerned about whether the criminals are comfortable. Still, I’m 6’5″ and I was kissing my knees.
This was the first and only time I’m ever been in the back of a police vehicle (I’m hopeful that this remains true for a very long time). I missed that opportunity earlier in my life by 15 minutes back in high school (another story for another holiday).
While the 3 officers searched the car, ran my information, and made me sweat, three songs played on the radio. I wish I could say that I remember them (my guess is that there was a Red Hot Chili Pepper’s song since they are the bane of my existence and 99x played them about every 5th song), but my brain focused on the various scenarios where my future mother and father-in-law would have to come bail me out of jail.
My friend Egg’s voice popped into my ear, “John, they’re cops. They can do anything they want.”
Later, when I relayed this story to my sister, she said, “You do realize that there was probably a drug deal going on within 100 yards of you and yet they are harassing you.”
My Dad said, “Well, you did fit the profile. 20-something, expired tags, beat-up car.”
So about 10 minutes pass and the first cop comes around to the door and opens it up.
I stood up as he handed me my information (along with the tag).
“We’re done, for now. Get that tag changed.”
Drive that last mile home. Go upstairs and grab my tools and CHANGE THE DAMN TAG.
It was only at that point did my pounding heart begin to slow down.
A small postscript to this story. That night, Courtney called me to tell me she was in Cancun. By this point, I’d relayed the story to my roommate and to another friend, so it was becoming something funny (Comedy is just tragedy from a distance). So I started telling her about it. I was about 1/3 of the way into the story when I heard her start balling on the other end of the phone. “I’m so sorry!” over and over. I felt so bad about making her cry I don’t think I ever really gave her the business about the incident in the first place.
I guess I still owe her for that fun experience.
But, yeah, I’m (very, extremely, beyond, etc.) thankful that I didn’t go to jail that day.