It was 4 p.m. on a Saturday. I was heading home from the grocery store, a mile from home. My son’s dog riding shotgun. Lots of traffic.
I spotted a police car on the side of the I-64 overpass. All those things that go through your mind when you see a police car on the side of the road went through my mind.
Am I speeding? No.
Should I have used my blinker? No.
I buckled up faster than you can say “Click it or Ticket.”
Whew! That was a close one, I thought, as I turned into our subdivision at a jaunty 18 mph.
That’s when the red and blue lights came out of my trunk.
I immediately pulled over so the police car could catch up with that car in front of me. Probably a drug bust, I thought.
No such luck. He was after me.
I heard his all-business voice on the radio, no doubt checking my license plate with HQ. Oh no, I thought. I hope he doesn’t find out about my record. I had been pulled over 23 years ago for a burned-out headlight. A no seat belt ticket in 2004. Next thing you know, I’ll be sharing a mess hall table with O.J. Simpson.
So there I sat. All alone with a steady stream of rubberneckers going by. Probably some neighbors. Each one would slow down, press his nose up against his car window and gawk. Some made faces. Kids in the back seat pointed. “Look at the bad man, Mommy.” One elderly lady with a scarf on shook her head. A teen driver gave me a thumb’s up and smiled. You go, dude!
When you’re sitting there all alone lit up like a Christmas tree, you think crazy thoughts. I went through those five classic psychological stages. I was in denial. (I forget what the other stages are. My college psychology class was so long ago, they knew about only three stages then.) Why me, Lord? Shouldn’t they be going after a speeding BMW rather than an unbelted 2005 Nissan Sentra with a dent in the side and a folded piece of cardboard holding up the back window? It’s not fair.
Don’t cops have better things to do, like catching thieves and murderers? It’s not fair.
Don’t they know I grew up when cars didn’t even have seatbelts. When Ralph Nader was still running through his house with scissors. When Pop would take the family out for a drive in the country, I got to sit on Mom’s lap and no one thought anything of it. It felt pretty safe to me.
When I got a little older and all the big kids had called shotgun and all the other seats, I had to sit on the hump in back. Humps don’t have seatbelts. It’s just not fair.
But it’s the law. And I was breaking it. I’m not proud of it. So, like I tell my kids, crime doesn’t pay. I had to face my responsibility. Do the crime, do the time. Pay the piper.
“Sir, you were not wearing your seat belt.” The officer’s polite voice snapped me back to reality. “Was it the dog’s fault?” he said, trying to break the tension. It didn’t. “I’ll need to see your driver’s license and proof of insurance.”
“Sure,” I said innocently. (Guiltily?)
I fumbled through my wallet. Sam’s card. Credit card. Note to pick up milk and eggs. The old press card I keep to show people what I used to look like as a cub reporter with a beard. Seven bucks. A couple of business cards. The picture that came with the wallet. The ID card that came with the wallet — which I intend to fill out someday. A free car wash card that I’m saving for a sunny day. Ah, yes, my driver’s license and not one, but five insurance cards — I’m in really, really good hands.
More sitting. More gawkers.
After an eternity, the nice officer returned with a ticket.
“We’re pretty strict about seatbelts,” he said. “You can either plead guilty, sign it here on the back, pay the fine and send it in ... or you can go to court and plead not guilty.”
“I’m not going to lie about it,” I said. “I did it.”
“I’m not going to take your license this time,” he said.
“That’s good,” I said. “You don’t look anything like me.”
Note to self: Don’t joke with nice police officer giving you a ticket. All I need is another ticket for smarting off.
He rattled off something else and said it’s all explained on the ticket.
“Remember to wear your seatbelt, and you have a safe day now,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said.
Thank you? Hey, Mom always told me to be polite.
I drove off in a funk. But at least I was in a safe funk.
When I got home, my wife could tell something was wrong. I confessed. I was guilty of not wearing a seat belt.
My son got a kick out of it. He took the opportunity to remind me crime doesn’t pay. I’d have to face my responsibility. Do the crime, do the time. Pay the piper.
“So how much did it cost you, Pop?”
I looked on the ticket. Sixty bucks.