I was 25 when I had my first and only experience in a police vehicle.
I was returning to Philadelphia for my brother’s wedding. I had just completed a residency in Basin, MT at the Montana Artists Refuge. The town there had about 300 people there, and I did things that I never would have done otherwise, like get on the back of ATV and drive hours into the mountains to see deserted mountain towns with a gun-carrying Latino elder named David. I had no fear. A story for another day.
On the way back from weeks of starting to write the poems that would eventually become Boogeyman Dawn, I followed the interstates: 90 to 80 to 76. It wasn’t the fastest route, but it was the easiest for me to remember without consulting a map. I didn’t have a GPS back then.
I left on the day of the first snow in late October.
On those roads, the speed limit was 75, I believe, but I believe it was 80 in Wyoming and had just dropped to 75 in South Dakota. I was sure enough going just a touch faster that that. I specifically remember that I was passing a truck, going 85. Just crossing over the border into South Dakota, I saw the flashing lights and heard the siren. I pulled over, worried about the ticket.
The officer asked me the odd question of, “Do you know how fast you were going?” and I answered honestly, “About 83, officer.” He asked where I was going and I said where I had come from (artist residency having been there for a month to explain all of the items in my car), what I was doing there (writing a book), where I was going (to a wedding in Philadelphia). He asked me to step out of the car and follow him.
He asked me to sit in the car, in the front seat.
I was scared, and so I followed. It was early morning, around 11 am. I kept looking at the windows, watching the passing trucks. I commented on the rifle above my head, how I had never been in a police vehicle, how there were so many gadgets in the front, how I was studying for my PhD in education, etc. I was very talkative; it’s a nervous habit. He didn’t use any of those gadgets to run my license. He took his time writing the ticket, not even giving me a lecture about the speeding. He took his time.
Eventually, he advised me on the ticket, how I could come back or just pay the fine, said he was doing me a favor by knocking the miles to 83. He told me nothing about being able to get a lawyer to represent me. I later looked into it and decided to just pay the fine, over $300 I didn’t have. I didn’t tell him that. I mentioned the wedding, how I was expected there and I was stopping in Chicago to see friends.
He walked me to my car and gave me the ticket there and went back to his.
I spent a few minutes holding the wheel. He didn’t pull off. He watched me go. Perhaps it was the best place to catch folx crossing the state line. Perhaps not.
Everything about that stop was wrong. Was I wrong for speeding? Yes, but everything else was wrong on another level.
The jurisdiction was called Deadwood.
I didn’t have the fear of sirens before that day that I have now.
There are songs that I can’t listen to because of the sirens within them. A tsunami of anxiety rushes up, and I find myself gripping the wheel suddenly. I play my music so that the speakers thrum just barely, but even with that, the sirens wail.
I recognize that the sirens in a song are also an attempt to replicate the sounds of a (generally) urban landscape and to, in someway, reproduce the variety of feelings that one associates with what is familiar within this space, what is deeply personal. I still wish musicians would leave that sound out of music or that there was some little warning to that it was coming, that the sirens are not real, that my terror/anxiety/anger should not hold sway, that I can drive through pine trees and over roads and past green hills in peace.
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