The car, van and truck occupying the two left lanes in front of me had slowed to less than 70 mph, the legal speed limit, and formed a sort of blockade I couldn’t get around. I dropped in behind them, eyeing the foreboding dark clouds hanging over the eastern foothills, my destination some 40 miles away.
I was eager to get the big Beemer home before my leathers got drenched by the first storm of the season.
There are three lanes on that particular stretch of highway and a car was in the far right lane, just far enough ahead of the traffic in the left two lanes to contemplate a pass. It would take a little speed and some fancy driving, but it could be done.
I followed along impatiently for a half-minute or so until I’d had enough. I dialed up the throttle, swooped past the traffic on the right side and veered back in front of it with room to spare, only then noticing that the car in the far right lane I had just passed was a CHP cruiser.
How many times in the past have I arrived at exactly this same configuration on the highway?
Everyone sees the CHP cruiser and slows down because they’re afraid they’ll get a ticket and the traffic scrunches up like an accordion. How could I be so stupid? The cruiser’s blue lights flashed before I could answer the question.
I looked back at the cruiser, acknowledged the fact that I’d been busted, and pointed to the right lane. I signaled and changed into the right lane, the cruiser slotting in behind me. I slowed down, pulled onto the shoulder and brought the Beemer to a complete stop. I watched in my left rear-view mirror as the cruiser pulled up to a stop 50 feet behind me.
I was acutely aware I was about to have a face-to-face encounter with law enforcement, like thousands of Americans do every day. For the past three years, we’ve been inundated with news stories about such encounters going fatally wrong. Almost every one of those stories begins with a civilian disobeying a lawful order made by a police officer. Stay calm, I told myself, and behave yourself!
I’ll reluctantly admit that in the past, I haven’t always behaved myself during police encounters. Many years ago, I lived in a small, nameless northern California town. At the time, I was in a highly volatile relationship that resulted in multiple domestic disturbance calls. On two of those calls, I didn’t behave myself. The first time the cops pepper sprayed me and gave my ribs a good bruising. The second time they tased me.
After each of these incidents, I attempted to righteously prosecute what I saw as a ridiculous, unlawful use of police force against my 170-pound body. I got nowhere. Eventually it dawned on me that both incidents were my own damned fault for not conforming to standard police etiquette, for not behaving myself during the initial encounter.
I had it coming, both times.
That’s the hard truth, but the good news is, I’m still alive and now I understand the etiquette. Contrary to popular opinion, police don’t generally stop you for doing nothing. There was no question that I’d pulled a bonehead move right in front of the trooper. It was time to sit still, shut up and take my figurative lumps.
I straddled the bike and with my hands in plain view, removed my gloves and placed them on the gas tank in front of me. Then I removed my wallet from my jacket pocket and placed it on top of my gloves. I returned my gaze to the left rearview mirror and waited for the for the state trooper to emerge from the cruiser.
And waited. And waited. Where was he?
“Over here!” came a voice on my right.
He had approached me from behind on the right side and I hadn’t seen him. I wear ear plugs when I ride so I hadn’t heard him either. He was my age, a little taller, with close-cropped silver hair and a handsome face that was trying its best suppress the grin resulting from the scare he’d given me. The grin was encouraging.
“Take your helmet off,” he said.
I’ve been stopped on the motorcycle before, but for whatever reason, no one has ever asked me to take my helmet off before. It seemed like a good idea though, because I couldn’t take my ear plugs out without taking my helmet off, so I took my helmet off.
In doing so, I shed the layer of anonymity that comes with wearing a full-face helmet. I’ve got one of those mugs that, if I’ve done even the slightest thing wrong, there’s no way my face is going to be able to hide it. I could already feel the sheepishness creeping into my features.
He motioned for my license which was already out and I handed it to him. He studied it. It has my address in the eastern foothills on it.
“Are you in a hurry?” he asked.
There was no point in lying. My face had already given me away.
“Well, I was hoping to make it home before it rains.”
“Let me see your registration and insurance.”
I handed him my registration and the card from the insurance company I’ve had for more than 20 years. My registration is current and so is my insurance, but the card is out of date. It’s reason enough to go back to the cruiser and run a records check on me.
What if he did? The only charge that ever stuck relating to the incidents above was expunged long ago, but law enforcement have access to expunged records. He could peg me as a cop hater, lord knows it’s going around, has been going around, way before Black Lives Matter, way before NWA came on the scene and “Fuck the Police” became the national anthem.
“Where you coming from?” he asked.
“Shasta Lake,” I said, immediately regretting it. In my mind, that fat southern sheriff from the Dodge Boys commercials drawled, “What you doing in Shasta Lake, boy?”
What is anyone doing in Shasta Lake?
Before I could think of any reason but the only reason, he handed me back my insurance card. I grabbed it but he held on to it before letting it go. Our eyes met.
“The rain isn’t going to hit until 7p.m.,” he said sternly. “Slow down. Pay attention to the traffic around you. Watch out for cops.”
“That’s good advice,” I said.
He smiled, then returned to the cruiser.
He was letting me go and I wasn’t about to squander the gift. He could have ticketed me for going more than ten miles over the limit, which I would have paid, no problem. He could have upped it to reckless driving, had he been feeling ornery and had I misbehaved. I would have taken that one to court. He saved us both the trouble by rendering judgement right there on the side of the highway.
I was a free man. I made a resolution to curb my enthusiasm on the motorcycle. I put my license, registration and insurance back in my wallet. I put my ear plugs back in, strapped on my helmet, fired up the bike and pointed it toward home.
He was right about the rain.