The events of which I speak transpired in the year of Our Lord, two thousand and four, in the final week of the eleventh month, in the city of Bloomington, Indiana. Bloomington isn’t much of a metropolis, but the vast number of students at Indiana University certainly try to make it one. The side-effect of this is the sudden decline in the town’s population during holiday breaks.
And so, during Thanksgiving week, peace reigns. That night, so long ago, the air was brisk enough to require a light jacket, but not so cold as to prohibit cycling. The hour was late, in that I had finished a long shift at the copy shop whose name I will not mention (it rhymes with “Pinkos”), and the quiet inspired me to push my bike home and relax.
On my right loomed the vast parking lot for the IU Stadium, on my left sat the houses unfortunate enough to be across the street from the stadium, and on my cell phone spoke the man who, unbeknownst to either of us, would one become known as “Best.”
We’d been trading vulgar jabs, as usual, through most of the journey, until a police car whispered up behind me and continued on. Given my history, I still flinch whenever I see a representative of the law, but tonight, I tried not to show it. I don’t have a firm grasp on the statutes of limitation on said history, so it was best I not draw attention to myself.
“Be cool,” I told my friend.
“Why should I be cool?” he replied.
He laughed. “You know I’m not actually there, right?”
“Be,” I repeated. “Cool.”
“Oh, shit,” I muttered, because even the most law-abiding of citizens tenses up when a representative of the law flashes its lights and performs an action-movie U-turn in his or her direction, which this one just did.
It took only a second for it to occur to me that the officer in that car was not after me. It’s not like I was carrying around a trunk-load of cocaine; I didn’t even have a trunk. The inspiration for this act of vehicular drama must have been quite spectacular, and I was sorry I had to miss it. I mean, this town was dead.
As the cruiser sped away, reflections of its lights receded behind me … except … except they weren’t actually receding. My heart leapt.
“Okay,” I said, “I think something really entertaining is about to happen nearby.”
“You’re going to have sex with a bunch of goat farmers?”
“I’ve been doing that the whole time we’ve been on the phone,” I replied as I looked over my shoulder, just in time to witness the same cruiser executing another U-turn in my direction.
This time, it took almost three whole seconds for it to occur to me that the officer in the car was not after me, even when the siren whooped that singular whoop that heralded an upcoming punishment for a traffic violation. Because that would be ridiculous—so ridiculous in fact, that the officer had to stop his car, jump out, and trot over to my side to get my attention.
“I’ll have to call you back,” I told my phone. “I just got pulled over.”
“What?” he replied. “I thought you were walk—”
I flipped the phone closed and faced the civil servant who was only a little bit out of breath. He asked, “Do you know why I stopped you?”
There are so many things I wanted to say at this moment. The first was, “Speeding?”; the second was, “That may be the dumbest question I’ve been asked in some time.” However, the police packed pepper-spray in this town, so I went with number three: “No.”
Before he could respond, a second cruiser came up from behind, passed by, flipped on its lights, turned with even more urgency and panache than the officer who currently held my attention, and came to a screeching halt directly in front of me. The driver swung open the door and stepped out, one boot at a time. The time of night forbade the use of the mirrored sunglasses clipped to his shirt, but in his heart, he was whipping them off with cocky menace. He swaggered up to the other cop, looked me up and down, and muttered something in his ear. Officer One muttered something back, which caused Officer Two to study me more intently.
I would have been more self-conscious, were I not more clean-cut at that moment than I had been at any other point in my life—up to and including my First Communion twenty years before. This left my current state of being squarely between “What” and “The fuck”—so much so that I was completely numb to the third cruiser that whipped around the corner. The fact that its siren was already wailing and its lights were already strobing ferociously meant that someone had dispatched it. For me.
The third cop’s assessment of me was much more appropriate given the situation. Frowning, he muttered to the other two, and they muttered right back.
After some intense chatter, Officer One stepped away from the group and asked me, “Do you have any idea—”
“No,” I replied.
“Well,” he explained, “this time of year, there is a rash of bike thefts while all the students are on vacation.”
Officer Two watched my reaction before adding, “And walkin’ on the side of the road like that, you look awful suspicious.”
“Can we see your ID?” asked Officer One. I complied, and he took it back to his car for further scrutiny.
Officer Two folded his arms. “That really yours?”
“Yes, it is.”
This was a challenge, inasmuch as there was no registration I could pull out of my glove compartment, inasmuch as I had no glove compartment. And yet, somehow, a clear thought jumped into my head just as Officer One returned, license in hand. “If I unlocked this chain,” I asked, “would that do it?”
Officer One frowned at Officer Three while Officer Two unfolded his arms so he could fold them again. “Sure,” Officer One replied with a shrug.
It took only a moment for them to witness my demonstration, return my ID, thank me for my cooperation, and drive off. The blue and red flashing from their roofs gradually faded into the amber of the streetlights above my head. That night, I learned very important lesson: if I ever want to steal a bicycle in Bloomington, Indiana, I should bring my own lock and chain.