Thursday, October 1, 2009

Stopped



In all the years when I probably could have been stopped by a cop for a wee bit more alcohol in my system than should be in anyone behind a two-ton machine, it never happened.

Well once, after a very late night at a bar sometime shortly after I graduated from college, I did pull out in front of a car a bit closer than I should have. It happened to be a cop and I did get stopped. But he let me go after a quick chat. And frankly, I was more tired that intoxicated anyway, something he probably knew.

No, I tend to get pulled over for weaving when I’m perfectly sober. It’s now happened twice.

The first time was years ago when I was driving through Michigan’s upper peninsula with my mother. It was late. We were exhausted. We were coming home from Montana. I was driving my father’s boat-like Mercury Grand Marquis. I knew I was tired but was in the zone where you don’t grasp just how tired until you fly over small hill a bit too fast — like a roller coaster — and find yourself gripping the wheel as the car makes a slight screeching sound rounding a curve. Even my mother perked up to say, “Watch it.”

And then came the cop. Thank god. He surely thought I was DWI until he saw us, me worn out looking in a baseball cap with my mother beside me. “Get some coffee and some sleep,” he urged us before letting us go. And we did.

That episode came back to me in the past few days as I was ruminating about what happened last Thursday night when I was stopped on my way home from a visit to my cousin’s house.

Let’s start with the facts: I had a mild headache, I was quite tired, though not sleepy, and I was, though I admit I should not have been, chatting on my cell phone. There’s more: I was wearing my glasses (which I’m not as used to as I am my contacts) because my eye was healing from an infection. The roads were dark and it seemed I kept coming upon construction zones and orange barrels placed in ways that I found confusing in terms of which way to go around them. Plus, I was driving on a road I’m never on, even though I was by now just a few miles from my home.

Oh, yes, I’d had a couple of beers, but that was early in the evening, at least two to three hours earlier, followed by water and soda pop and about half a can of mixed nuts.

So there I am, sitting at a light, a big bright red left-turn arrow signal. I don’t see those too often so I was especially diligent to heed it. As soon as it turned green, but not too soon, I proceeded through the light to turn left and head south.

Then I saw the lights. “It can’t be me,” I thought as they continued tight behind me.

“You’re kidding,” I said, a little irritated as I pulled to the right of the southbound lane stopping as close the curb as I could. By then I’d realized it could be something as simple as my tail lights not working.

A female officer appeared at my window as I grabbed for my wallet. “Can I see your license and registration and proof of insurance please?”

“Sure,” I said, adding a bit incredulously: “Did I do something wrong?”

“I’ll tell you in a minute.”

What’s the big secret? I thought as she walked back to her car, my mind fumbling for what I’d done, thinking it can’t be the alcohol. I’m fine.

She came back to my window. “Where are you coming from?”

I told her the city where my cousin lives, probably 10 to 15 miles away.

“What’s in That City?” she said in what sounded like a mocking sing-song voice.

“My cousin,” I said flatly.

“You were weaving and then when we stopped you you nicked the curb.”

Weaving?? Where? I thought. And hitting the curb? On a dark road, with a cop tight behind me with blinding lights and no shoulder to pull onto. Are you kidding me? I nick curbs all the time, I wanted to say.

I don’t even remember if she asked if I’d been drinking but I knew that’s what she thought.

I felt mild panic as I told her I had two beers much earlier, that I’d had an eye problem and didn’t see as well with my glasses, which I was not used to wearing. Then there was all the construction, unfamiliar streets, the headache, the tiredness. I almost said: Feel free to breathalyze me. Then thought, don’t be stupid. What if…??

“Are you using eye drops?”

“Yes,” I said, wondering what that had to do with anything.

She shined a light in my eyes and asked me to follow it.

Then she asked me to recite the alphabet “without singing it.”

By now I was feeling guilty. My heart was beating a bit faster. I was even nervous about reciting the alphabet.

I think I did okay but all of a sudden after V and before W I sort of wondered if I did something wrong. I think I did okay.

“Without looking at your watch or clock can you tell me what time it is?”

I said I thought it was about 10:30/10:45.

The second she walked away, I looked at my clock: 10:30 on the dot.

She returned for more. This time asking me to step out of the car and walk back right into her bright headlights. By now I saw she was with a male partner, who was letting her run the show.

I was almost finding this comical had it not been so unnerving. Still tired and headachy and not feeling 100 percent, I was putting my energy into being as normal as possible.

“Do you have any weapons on you?”

I nearly laughed as I said, “Of course not,” as she — with the first bit of humanness I’d seen — said as she PATTED ME DOWN: “Sorry but I have to do this to everyone.”

Then she asked if I had good balance.

“Well, I do yoga…”

“Oh, then you have VERY good balance,” she interrupted, again sounding slightly mocking.

“Well, I don’t know if it’s THAT good. I don’t normally do yoga in these shoes,” I said looking at the black wedge sandals on my feet.

“You can take them off if you want.”

“No I’ll try like this first, I’m pretty comfortable in them.” I didn’t want to stand barefoot, which felt naked, on the concrete road.

I did as she told me, hands to my sides, one leg up straight in front of me several inches above the ground while counting until she told me to stop.

I got to about 19 before she said stop. I was still on one foot. Steady. I was pleased.

She wanted more. She told me to walk toe to heel for nine steps before turning around and walking back nine steps in as straight of a line as possible.

Now these things can be a challenge if you have had NOTHING to drink and feel fine, are in the comfort of your own home and have no one judging.

Go ahead. Try it. I’ll wait.

See? It’s not so easy, is it?

So there I am thinking, nothing I do is convincing her. I wished I could have been a fly on the wall to see what I was actually like.

I did the heel to toe. I thought I did fine, especially considering how I felt and now with the added stress of being treated like a criminal, out in the street with blinding lights on me.

I kept waiting for them to let me go. What more did they want? I was not drunk. I knew that. I didn’t know if I had some trace of alcohol in my system. What does .08 feel like anyway? I have no idea. I wish I knew. But I knew it couldn’t possibly be what I had in my system.

It wasn’t over.

She led me up from the curb onto the grass where her partner was standing. She put the light in my eyes again, asking me to track it. I thought I followed it fine.

“How am I doing?” I finally asked.

“We’ll let you know.”

Again, what is the big secret?

Suddenly, her partner is asking me to take a deep breath and blow though this plastic straw.

Finally, I thought. A breathalyzer. Why didn’t we just do this from the beginning? At the same time I hoped those two beers two to three hours earlier weren’t in my system more than I thought.

I finished. He looked at the instrument and said, “You’re free to go.” With that they both turned and hurried to their car.

I was a little stunned. “What was it?” I called to them as they moved away from me.

“Zero,” he called to me.

They barely turned back.

I felt vindicated as I called something to them about being sure to be careful and alert on my drive home, something I’d have expected them to offer to me. I mean, after all, here they went through all this thinking I’m intoxicated, but when I blow a zero, they just take off? Suddenly the “weaving” they saw as enough reason to stop me wasn’t worth a word of caution for any other possible reason?

At least that cop up north cautioned us to get some coffee and sleep and be careful.

I felt used.

It also left me wondering if they really did suspect I was intoxicated. Were they just cracking down on everyone? Practicing their skills?

So many questions.

At least I know one thing. I can handle a couple of drinks as long as I don’t have any more within a couple of hours of hitting the road.

And, it’s not a good idea to be chatting on your cell phone when you’re behind a two-ton machine.

And those are lessons worth knowing,