In Her Words
Bad cops don’t always have the final say
-Melina Gerosa Bellows
Doing my part for recessionista chic, I take my pressing need for a new car and journalist’s budget to Craig’s List, where I score – ta da! – a Mercedes-Benz. An ancient black sedan with more miles (and less body work) than Bruce Jenner, but so what, it’s cheap, and now it’s mine!
A new old car virgin, I check the Washington D.C. DMV Web site for first-time vehicle registration. It states: “If a vehicle has tags from another jurisdiction, vehicle may be taken directly to the inspection station. Once the vehicle has passed inspection, it may be registered at a DMV.”
So the seller takes his tags, and I gamely proceed to the inspection and then on to the DMV to get the new license plates. That’s when I’m nabbed by the cops.
I pull to the shoulder of I-395, a busy strip of highway that cuts through the city, and watch in the rearview mirror as D.C.’s finest, and I do mean finest, strut up to my window. No prob, I think. I have the title, my spanking new inspection, a points-free license, and I’ve even had the forethought to call Geico. All I’ll have to do is tell this handsome man in John Lennon glasses my plight, and I’m sure he’ll help me. He may even ask me on a date.
“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” he says calmly, his smile framing perfectly straight white teeth. “I am going to give you a citation. And then I’m gonna impound the vehicle.”
I “But Officer!” him until I’m out of breath, but my explanations and apologies don’t work. He takes all of my paperwork and stomps off. I wait for 45 minutes, watching him swig his orange soda and “Call me in” on his walkie-talkie.
Finally he struts back. I’m confident that he’s going to consider this an adequate hand slap and send me on my way. I smile up at him and apologize again.
“You better find a ride, because I am going to take this vehicle,” he says, his eyes as flat and black as cigarette butts.
I’m surprised. I’m also scared, because I am on a skinny shoulder, between a high stone embankment and whizzing traffic.
“Can we at least drive to the nearest exit?” I ask.
He shakes his head no. “This car has no tags, you’ve broken the law,” he says. He goes on and on and on about what I’ve done wrong.
“Or can you give me a ride to the street, anywhere?” I ask, once he is finished.
“No,” he says. “You better call someone to pick you up. I’m takin’ your car.”
I burst into tears. The truth is I don’t have anyone to pick me up. My husband moved out a few weeks earlier, a month shy of our ninth anniversary. I think of our 2-year-old and 4-year-old waiting at home with the babysitter, and my chest begins to ache.
Where do I go wrong? I thought I was doing everything right, following directions, playing by the rules, trying my very hardest. Yet despite my best efforts, my entire life has veered off course. What I thought was just a marital speed bump, has become a fork in the road.
Stranded in my seat for another half hour, I start to worry about making it home before the babysitter goes. The ache in my chest gives way to sobs, escaping from deep inside me, behind a trapdoor that I keep jerry-rigged with busyness, a full-time job, two preschoolers, a house that constantly needs this or that.
With none of that to distract me now, I face the terrifying question: How am I ever going to do this all by myself? I don’t even know how I’m going to get home. Despair falls over me as the winter sky turns black.
That’s when I see a second cop car, lights a-twirling, pull up behind the orange soda-chugging crusader of untagged cars. I open the passenger door; I’m going to make a run for the second officer-
“GET BACK INTO THE VEHICLE!” they scream at me over the loud speaker.
I obey, and watch them shuffling my paperwork back and forth like they’re playing gin rummy. Finally the second officer comes up to my passenger window.
“Are you OK?” he asks kindly. His eyes are warm, kind.
Of course I’m not OK! “Happily ever after” has been flattened by a hit and run. And I’ve been here for over an hour dwelling on it.
“I’m sorry if I misread the Web site,” I say, wiping away my tears. “You can take the car; I just don’t want to have to walk along the highway.”
Suddenly I’m getting all of my papers back. I am no longer crying, but my hand shakes as I take them.
“Are you OK to drive?” the second officer asks. “Why don’t I follow you to your destination?”
When we reach the DMV in Georgetown, I get out my car to thank him. He is a Good Cop and, yes, serving and protecting is his job. But on this dark, cold, lonely night, he did something more for me. Maybe the Bad Cop doesn’t always have the final say. Maybe help is on the way, and you’ve just got to hang on until hope returns.
Melina Gerosa Bellows is a best-selling author and a leading magazine editor. She is a new columnist-blogger for BettyConfidential.com.