Day 11 of the menstrual cycle is my bête noire – usually manageable with medication, fucking dire when you’ve reduced it because you’re overseas longer than planned and don’t want to infuse the craptastic US health system with any more money than you’ve already given it.
Think weepy existential crisis. Nothing I did (bath, loud music, gardening, crochet) fixed my feeling of general wobbly despair and dislocation. And so, in an effort to get out of the house and do something positive, I decided to drive to the supermarket and get some milk, bread and red wine. The stupidity of this was that I could have survived without the first two, and there were about 20 bottles of the latter in the basement. But I felt like I should get out of the house – to try and maybe be a bit normal.
I was in the car for seven minutes. A school bus approached from the opposite direction (don’t worry, I didn’t kill anyone) and stopped to let a kid off. Obviously the exit was on to the kerb – there was also a swing-out stop sign on the side of the bus nearest to me. I stopped, waited. A kid got off, came around the back of the bus and walked past the front of Bob The Jeep – all good – his dad was standing there to walk him back home. No other kids got off.
And then I had my very expensive brainsnap. Slowly, in first gear, I started driving past the bus – and it was like someone flipped a switch. As if I’d come up for air from the depths of a crowded public pool. The dad turned his whole body toward me and started yelling, the bus driver leaned across to the window and began yelling, some other people that had been out of view behind the bus collecting their kids started screaming at me – I had no idea what I’d done. And then the car that had been behind the bus must have fanged a u-turn. And turned on flashing lights.
Never in my whole life have I been pulled over by a police-car, and it had to happen over here, in the USA, in Bob The Jeep. I pulled over, and knew (mostly from American television) not to get out of the car and to keep my hands on the wheel. At that point I kind of devolved and watched what happened as if it was some contemporary Raymond Chandler novel.
He took his time getting out of the car, crew cut, not tall, but in no way a dim-sim. He wanted no conversation, no explanation, he only wanted my license and registration. Thank god, when I opened the glove compartment, the first bit of paper I put my hand on appeared to be the registration information.
At that moment, a car came by, slowed down, and a portly woman screamed, “I think it was YOU who just nearly ran over my NEPHEW.” Had I been alone, I might have told her to get a hobby, or shrieked, “Je suis Australien!”
Luckily, the human cannonball that was the Ulster County Sheriff told her to move along. She moved as far as the seedy local store on the other side of the road (the one I recollected SB said he would only ever enter if surrounded by a posse of at least four large dudes) and waited there.
“This is very very serious,” said sheriff guy. “You endangered the lives of children. You ARE going to get a ticket. You WILL have to go to court.”
I sat, hands on the wheel, eyes getting bigger and bigger, while part of me remained resigned – it was so obvious that something like this would happen to me today, and at least now I knew what it was. After answering the obligatory questions about whose car it was, how long I’d been in the country, what kind of driver’s license I had, and why was I not observing the road rules of New York state, he disappeared to process my ruin in the comfort of his patrol car.
The portly woman over on the other side of the road was still waiting me out. I sat and mused on my fate. The ridiculous cascade of bullshit that had led me to this point, on the side of the road, chased by a yokel and becoming a felon. A reprobate. Why had I not paid up for the prescription and the medicine? Isn’t sanity important? Where were my priorities? I began reading articles on my phone about long sailing passages across the pacific, where I wouldn’t need a car for a Very Long Time.
I kept my eyes down, reading, while my left ear (closest to the window) eventually told me that the car over the road had given up and was driving away. I’d been waiting about 15 minutes when I finally heard the crunch of cop boots on gravel. He handed me a piece of paper and eventually let me speak;
“I had no idea I had done anything wrong!”
“If you drive in New York State, you need to know the traffic laws…”
“But I didn’t know that I didn’t know!”
“You need to read the traffic laws if you’re going to drive here.”
“This isn’t just like running a red light. This is a lot more serious. You could have run over a kid. You’re lucky I was right there, because those parents… well, you just never know what’s going to happen. There are parents and there are parents. You get what I mean?”
I nodded mutely.
“So you’re gonna need to call up the courthouse in the morning and see if they can fit you in. When did you say you were leaving?”
“In five days.”
“And when are you coming back?”
“No idea. I haven’t been here for ten years. I don’t know how long it will be. Probably never.”
“Well let me tell you, if you leave the United States without dealing with this issue, when you come back – if you are driving and you are pulled over, you’ll be arrested. So, I suggest you do your best and try and see what you can organise with the court tomorrow.”
“OK. I will do that. And I think I’m just going to turn around and go back to the house now, I don’t want to drive anymore.”
“No, no – you don’t need to do that, you can keep driving to wherever you’re going. Just keep an eye out for schoolbuses. Right?”
A pause. Maybe he had a flash of insight that I was crumbling on the inside.
“You okay otherwise?”
I gulped, blinked, nodded. Deep breaths.
“Alright then.” He walked back to his car.
I was now so paranoid about driving that I was too scared to start the car in case I forgot to indicate as I pulled back on to the road. I waited, pretending to search through my bag, until he did a U-Turn back the way we had come from, and then ever so carefully started up the car and eased my way back on to the tarmac.
When I finally made it to the supermarket and got out of the car I felt bruised. Fragile. Stupid. I bought two bottles of wine instead of one, to make it all remotely worthwhile. Everyone I dealt with was particularly nice to me; I obviously looked shellshocked.
After telephoning first thing in the morning, I got myself to the courthouse at 5.55pm. It seemed that every other felon in town had got there before me. I squeezed Bob The Jeep up on an incline at the back of the block, yanked the handbrake, crossed my fingers and headed inside. Was immediately turned away – no bags allowed. I returned for a second try, chastened, holding only my keys.
The courthouse was packed. There were only a about four free seats in the whole place. It seemed I was part of a new world, surrounded by probable traffic criminals. The judge sat up the front on his special judge-seat, looking worn and tired. I presumed this was how he spent most of his Wednesday nights. Dealing with erring humans, tattooed, frustrated, occasionally repentant.
To the left of the judge were two women, sitting off to one side and lower down, with computer monitors in front of them. The one nearest to the judge I suspected was actually running the whole place – the judge was just a cog in her wheel. It was she who chased up felons, booked the appearance dates, liased with the DA’s office and listened to people like me bleat about their circumstances.
Further to the left were the cops. I’m not sure of the difference between sheriffs and cops – although a couple of the uniforms were darker blue, and a few were lighter. There was a sheriff from the town of Rochester, and one from the County of Ulster. Regardless of their locale, they all had a similar build. Solid, large dudes. I probably weigh about as much as all the hardware they carry on their belts. All crew cut. Many of the audience of felons seemed to be well-acquainted with them – saying hello – one guy got fined by the judge for whatever he’d done and shook the hand of the biggest cop on his way out.
Was I supposed to shake the hand of my traffic cop on the way out? Because he was standing up there too, blending right in with the rest of them. We’d nodded at each other as I’d signed myself on to the attendance register. Then I’d excused myself past a few people and plopped down in one of the plastic chairs. On one side I had a young guy on crutches, his ankle in a cast, and on the other an aged gentleman with stringy arms and the appearance of having (in addition to his traffic misdemeanours) at least one illegal whiskey still.
After the first four or five people had been dealt with, the judge looked down at a piece of paper and over at my traffic cop. He requested a short recess and they both disappeared into a back room. They’d just got to my case, I knew it.
I tried to calm myself by observing everyone as if from the middle of a Coen Brothers film. The guys with wiry beards, hands and arms tattooed, older women – tired, with empty piercings like pockmarks under their lips, the elderly, looking battle weary. It was easy to imagine that losing your driving license here would be completely dire, public transport being non-existent.
The judge and the traffic cop emerged, and returned to where they had both been situated. The judge shuffled papers, put on his reading glasses, and of course, called my name. I walked up to the barrier in front of him. The traffic cop came and stood nearby. Again I was told about the severity of my actions. If I chose to plead not guilty, I would be required to contact the DA and attend court in August. I said that would be impossible. Alternatively, he said, I could plead guilty and be fined here and now. Was I going to plead guilty or not guilty.
“Um.” I could feel the cop standing next to me, and it somehow seemed as if he was willing me toward a particularly option, but I had no idea which one.
“I suppose I’ll go for ‘guilty’ because… well, because I kind of am?”
“Hmmmm,” said the judge. “Let me see. I understand the situation, I’ll try to give you the minimum penalty. Sooooo that will be, in addition to the $95 in court costs, a fine of $245 for failing to observe the road rules in relation to the school bus.”
I was unable to silence my reaction. “Wow. Really?”
“Really. And now, just for official purposes, tell me again. How do you plead?”
He banged his gavel (why is it called a gavel? It should be called a law-mallet.) and waved me over to the woman I’d dealt with earlier in the day.
“Can you pay now?”
“No. I cannot.”
I didn’t have enough money in my bank account, and I didn’t want to burden my card of evil (credit card).
“Well,” she said, handing me a slip of paper, “This is where you can pay online. You have one month, and understand me – you MUST pay this. OK?”
I nodded. “OK.”
Couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Extricating Bob the Jeep from the spot I’d jammed him in to required a five point turn in order to avoid side-swiping a police car. Out on the road I was so adrenalised, but so nervous that a bloody deer was going to throw its svelte like sueded body out in front of the car, followed by a fawnlet with suicidal tendencies, that I crawled around the curves in the road, only able to exhale when I finally pulled into the driveway.
No way do I want to pay that fine. If I had no Smalls, I’d let it go – but I hope at some point I can take them cruising in Bob the Jeep, so…