24 August 2005

Dantés Auto Return

One fine day in April, my 11-year-old son, who I'll call, say, "Liam," and I, were heading toward the Bay Bridge in my spiffy 1995 Seafoam MomMobile to see The Homeopathy God. The Homeopathy God is this amazing world-renowned Homeopathic MD that I've been seeing for years in Point Richmond, in the East Bay, for my unique set of physical symptoms. The Homeopathy God only has an appointment available about every 4 months to hear my bubbele-meinzes (that's "grandma stories" in Yiddish, aka "complaints," like as if that's all Jewish grandmas can tell stories about). No one understands my bubbele-meinzes better than The Homeopathy God, except maybe a real bubbele. In this particular case, Liam had some bubbele-meinzes, too.

The winter had been, for us, a bumper-crop year for flus and their ilk. Liam and I were still suffering from the tail end of a flu that had wrecked my already iffy nervous system so thoroughly that walking into my studio (next door to my bedroom) felt like an expedition to the South Pole. Panting, shivering, I'd sit down at my Mac and be jolted clear across the room by Brian Eno's perky bonggg; then I'd squint at my computer's unforgiving, nonsensical shaft of rectangular light before turning the darned thing off and shuffling back to my blankies. Liam missed a lot of school, and when he wasn't missing school entirely, he was calling me from school to get picked up because he was sicker than we thought he was. It seemed like it would never end. Every day I had a fever. A friend of mine who's a lawyer had fallen victim to this same awful fate, and for what seemed like centuries he and I exchanged brown paper bags full of books and videos and vitamins. I was horrified that he was working in his office and driving his car and actually appearing in court on behalf of his clients in this condition, because for me, heating up canned chicken noodle soup in a little pot was about all I could manage.

Anyway, this went on for quite some time, and I remember it had some gruesome effect on the tummy, too, which is gone now but kina hora, you can just imagine. What's that disease that's supposed to make all your organs decompose while you're still alive? I am not going there on the internet. Well, anyway, for the first three months of 2005, Liam and I wrestled with this abomination of the flesh, and by the first week of April we were well enough to trundle off to The Homeopathy God in search of some immune-system-sustaining homeopathic support.

We were late for our appointment, so naturally our freeway entrance was closed. I drove around the block several times, saying things I'm not particularly proud of saying in front of a child. Down Market Street to Eighth we went, turning right, moving over to the left, signaling all the way, eager to drive onto the freeway. Then I became aware of the flashing red and yellow lights and the siren and the speaker saying "pull over to your left...don't get out of the car." Surely this was not intended for me, as I had been extra-careful to drive perfectly; I had recently been towed unexpectedly (anyone here ever expect to get towed? hands?) for outstanding parking tickets, an experience I vowed never to repeat. I thought this special attention was intended for someone else, certainly not a busy mom in her MomMobile heading purposefully to the doctor with her son. Perhaps there was some poor soul nearby who really needed the help of a friendly California Highway Patrolman?

Perhaps not.

I pulled neatly over to the left, right across Eighth Street from the Holiday Inn, where I could see the helpful California Highway Patrolman unmount his motorcycle and head right over to my car, obviously eagerly anticipating a personal consultation with me.

As it happens, he was distressed by the fact that I didn't have a current California registration sticker on the rear bumper of my car.

"Yes, officer, I can explain that" I said, pulling out my current drivers license, my current insurance statement and my current registration payment receipt. "You see, it's all paid for; I registered the car and paid the full amount, $285 and my firstborn son, but I still needed the Smog Certificate,*" and, smiling triumphantly, I proudly presented my current Smog Certificate, which I had finally managed to pull together the previous week, thank God. "Here's the Smog Certificate," I said, helpfully. "I've just been sick, you see, and hadn't gotten a chance to go b..."

The officer was nonplussed. "You were supposed to have your sticker by now. You applied for it —" He lifted his darkly-tinted motorcycle goggles to examine his UPS-style electronic clipboard. "Last November. That was six months ago."

I can't believe I fell for that. It was five months ago, actually. Four and a half, really. Four, if you take off for Christmas and, well, Chanukah came early last year. I think it was Thanksgiving Weekend, in fact, which was absurd. So it was really three months.

"It's PAID, Officer. I just don't have the little bitty sticker."

"Yes, but even if you did pay for it, the rule is that if you're driving around without a sticker for six months, I have to have you t—"

My doctor's appointment was just being frittered away, and it was making me crazy. It was at this point that I became a bit overwrought, causing me to revert to my native speech pattern, that of Queens, New York, where I'm originally from. Occasionally I find that Californians aren't so fond of my speech pattern. It is best exemplified by those old screwball comedies where Eastern City Women are trying to explain things to Cowboys. The City Woman, played by a fuel-injected, fast-talking blonde like Judy Holiday — who died tragically of cancer at 43 and, incidentally, is reputed to have had an IQ of 170 — babbles, in a squeaky voice, something like, "I nevah shoulda come heah in tha foist place; whaddid you say yaw name was? I sweah, someone has gotta get me outta this joint."

"The END of November, yes, officer, but you see, then there was Christmas, and since New Year's my son and I have been ill constantly. In fact (bringing my voice up an octave here) we are right now going to the doctor because, (another octave up, and a little faster because I had the sense that he was getting a little impatient) because we are sick and have had the flu for weeks and please officer please let us go, it takes months to get an appointment (a few coughs here I think) with The Homeopathy God and my son here needs to use a bathroom and so do I and please officer I already paid the registration and you can see I have everything here, I just haven't had time to go back to the DMV and get the actual sticker because we've been sick. Isn't that in there somewhere?" I pointed to his clipboard.

Then Gary Cooper pauses, takes the weed out of his mouth and goes, "huh-yup."

"Please step out of the vehicle" said the Helpful Policeman.

We were beginning to create a bit of a scene.

Liam started to panic.

"Officer, I can't step out of the car, I have to get my son and me to the doctor. We're already late for our appointment." I waved my cell phone at him and indicated that I had finally reached The Homeopathy God's Receptionist, who was comforting me as best she could by suggesting we do the appointment right then, over the phone. I had become quite distraught, and I couldn't find my Rescue Remedy.

Liam said, "Mom, I've gotta puke."

We got out of the car so Liam could puke.

"You are a very, very bad man." I said, like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, except under my breath. Go Dorothy!

We were detained for an eternity. This guy was one of these guys that actually gets off on watching women and children suffer. I think they're called "Sadists" or "Nazis" or something; he was one of those sick people. I was gobsmacked to be having an interaction with such pure, crystal-clear Evil. When Liam told him he needed to use the bathroom, the officer said, "You can go to the hotel across the street." My jaw dropped. We were not even at a crosswalk.

"My son is not crossing this street by himself and going to a public restroom in this neighborhood without me," I asserted. "Mooom" said my son, desperately. "Sir!" I pleaded. "Please let me and my son cross the street and let me take him to the bathroom!" Liam and I started to cry.

"Ma'am, if you don't calm down, I'm going to have to call my Supervisor." Well, all right! I can really wield my power over a hysterical woman thought the Policeman. She probably deserves it. Hell, they all deserve it. Women, bah.

"Call your Supervisor! Please call your Supervisor!" I bellowed, clutching my child. I had trouble imagining one person this nasty; it was impossible to envision another. I was certain I could convince this Supervisor that this was just a terrible mistake, an intrusion into the everyday business of a workaday mother, PTA member, university instructor, art director, published writer, upright contributer to the community — and her sweet, innocent — sickly even, as he is quite slender — little boy, and that he would admonish his subordinate for being needlessly cruel, snatching away his badge, cartoon beads of sweat popping off his demoted forehead as he pleaded for mercy.

As Liam says so often and so eloquently: "Ri-i-i-i-ght."

Suddenly I had two motorcycle cops on my hands, as well as two large motorcycles and a small but colorful group of onlookers. As The Supervisor unmounted his horse, I mean bike, I started explaining the details of how I was being detained unnecessarily to the point of abuse.

There was a long pause as The Supervisor lifted off his helmet, revealing an unusually large head. He took out his clipboard.

"It appears you also had a fix-it ticket for a broken tail light," observed The Supervisorator.

"I had it fixed," I said, pointing out my fixed tail light. I started jumping up and down, shaking my hands from my wrists like a teenager doing the Frug.

"But you didn't send in the fix-it ticket with the $10, saying you'd fixed it."

Yeah, fine, make a federal case out of it.

"I had no idea. I got a fix-it ticket, so I fixed it. I never got one before. I thought I just had to fix it, not show it to anybody."

I had not previously even heard of a fix-it ticket. I had gotten a fix-it ticket the week before, but I was drunk. Fortunately, I was not driving; my date, the Designated Driver, was driving. The cop that escorted us off the Bay Bridge that night gave the Designated Driver a sobriety test, and he passed; then he gave him a fix-it ticket and mentioned that I should get the car smogged, which I did, the next day. But I was drunk, so I don't remember the rules regarding the fix-it ticket; it's not against the law to be drunk in a car you own as long as you're not driving it, right? And by the time I sobered up and got the damned Smog Certificate, I'd been dumped by the Designated Driver. Even now, he won't take my calls.

"Look, I don't want to get back together with you," I could have said; "I just want to know, do you know what I'm supposed to do with that fix-it ticket?"

"Boy, that chick was really needy" my ex-Designated Driver would have commented astutely.

I looked up and saw a tow truck backing up to the front of my car.

"Lady, we have to tow you," said The Evil CHP Supervisor-dude.

"What?! You're not serious. You're kidding, right?" I searched the windows to the souls of both California Highway Patrolmen, but didn't find any. I looked around wildly for help. The crowd had dispersed by then; even the vagrants in the Tenderloin had more important things to do. So I got in my car.

"I'm not moving" I said. "Liam, get in the car."

"Mom, I have to use the bathroom!" said Liam.

"Get in the car! I yelled like a crazy person. "I am not going anywhere." I said emphatically, to everyone, even the people who weren't there anymore.

Liam got in the car.

"Ma'am, I don't want to have to take you down to the station house," said Sadistic Highway Cop #1.

I sat stonily, facing forward, arms crossed. "We're not getting out of the car."

The tow truck driver started feeling up my front bumper. I felt violated.

"Leave my car alone!" I shouted.

A woman pulled up next to me and rolled down her window. Liam unrolled the passenger window.

She leaned out of the window. "Are you getting out?" she hollered.

"What?! Am I getting out? You're kidding, right? I'm in the middle of getting arrested. Yeah, I'm getting out," I cackled insanely. "In five years, with good behavior!"

I settled back down. "I do not believe this" I said to Liam, while a part of me totally believed it and was stowing it away for a screenplay, a comic, a column. Something. I was increasingly floored by how difficult life had become in this town, and I was, and still am, considering a flight to the suburbs. I considered Fairfax for a minute. Then I dialed my Lawyer Friend, the one who had been sick with me, whose office was nearby. I had no idea what he could do, as he's not a Registration Sticker Lawyer, but he's always worth a try. He does have his own kindly way of helping, even if it's just standing by, looking tall and blonde and dapper in a pressed suit, letting me blow my nose on his crisp sleeve.

The last time I called my Lawyer Friend in a Time of Need it went something like this:

Violet (on the phone): They turned off my electricity! Those bastards! Can't you do something?
LF: Um, yes, I'll call you right back.
He calls me right back.
LF: Well, I fixed it, you're ok now.
Violet: Really? What'd you do?
LF: I paid the bill.
Violet: Paid my bill!? Oh, come on. You can't have paid my bill!
LF: Yes, well, I find that the easiest way to get people like PG&E to cooperate is by giving them money, so I gave them some.

So my Lawyer Friend came by, and advised me to get out of the car and to let them tow it. Then he tells me that cops hate lawyers; who knew? I never watch TV. He thought it best just to go along with it and deal with it later. (Stop the presses, he's a lawyer.) I took a few things out of my car and clasped his starched arm while he walked us three blocks over to the AAA office, where I didn't even have to wait in line to get my sticker. Before dashing off, he threw us a few extra bucks for a taxi down to the Courthouse, where I was charged $600 and directed to go even further down, to the Pits of Hell, to be exact, to get my car.

I enlisted my friend Lisa to help us with that part. She met us while we were sipping expensive, frosty, rejuvenating shakes in front of a Jamba Juice at the Potrero Shopping Center, and drove us down there. As it happens, it was the day (of the month? of the year??) that they auction off the unclaimed vehicles at the Pits of Hell, so it was teeming with sweaty men of just about every description, some of them women. I was trying to get my car back before they auctioned it off. I had to beg and plead and cry for them to pay any attention to me at the creepy trailer office parked at the bottom of the Pits of Hell. I felt extremely prim and delicate. Getting my car back was like having to step through the Hell Panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights in a white linen suit. Without the good sex.

I was a nervous wreck because Lisa was with Liam in her car, and had to drive over to UC Berkeley and teach that evening, and had I not made a big fuss, all three of us would still be there right now. I was SO happy to drive up the long ramp out of the Pits of Hell, pick up my son, bid adieu to Lisa and drive off, it felt like I was being brought back to life on the emergency room table.

"Mom," says Liam on the way home. "You know what was the funniest thing? You know that lady that wanted our parking spot? On the way to AAA I noticed she'd just waited behind us, and when they towed our car, she actually took our spot!"

"You're kidding!" I grimaced, unable to actually smile quite yet, but telling myself there would be a time in my life that I would in fact smile again. It was hard to fathom.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I was in an accident on the Grand Central Parkway, near Grandma and Grandpa's house in New York, with my boyfriend Jonathan Wallace when I was 19?"


"We were in his mother's big, fancy Citröen, driving past Creedmoor State Mental Hospital, and there was a ten-car-pileup, and we were in the middle of it. Lots of people got hurt; ambulances and fire trucks rushed to the scene. But the car was so well-appointed and plush, all we did was bash our lips on the dashboard, so we both had blood dripping from our mouths, but we weren't badly hurt."

"I know, Mom."

"Anyway, ambulances arrived, there were stretchers and tow trucks everywhere, and while we were stumbling around with blood-soaked Kleenex hanging from our chins trying to figure out what to do next, a woman driving along the Parkway pulls up next to me, rolls down her window and says, "Is this the way to the Cross-Island Expressway?"

That's the New York version of THAT story.

"I know, Mom. You told me."

And so, you might ask, why do I bring this up now?

Well, subsequently, I got two additional bills from the Department of Parking and Traffic regarding my driving without a sticker and having not reported fixing my tail light. For a total of over $2000! No way was I going to pay that. So I went to court Monday. I brought all kinds of documentation, medical records, papers from my glove compartment. Waiting in line for the doors to open, I shared my story with a young Realtor who had gotten in trouble for not knowing what to do with a fix-it ticket for a broken tail light. Ten minutes later, we were both dismissed, and I was ordered to go downstairs to the cashier and pay $20. No one had the faintest idea of how to file a report against having been abused by a California Highway Patrolman. They said it wasn't their department.

*For those of you who live in states without compulsory Smog Certification (are there any? West Virginia? Montana? The Bronx??), you should know that this is — quelle suprise! — a total Racket. If you have a car that's such an old shitbox that you know it can't possibly pass certification, you are exempt and you can just go without it. If you have a modern car that can pass certification, you have to pay $95 and show the DMV a certificate. For an explanation of why this is weird, Google B.F. Skinner.


Anonymous said...


I only do stuff like this in ways which are massively financially injurious to myself. Your story, excellent though it be, is a little spoiled by your actually getting some relief, a small reprieve, at the end. How could that happen?



Aunt Violet said...

Dear Aidan,
You must stop doing that. That's what I usually do, but I think sometimes if you take it far enough you can be vindicated!

You know, the day I wrote that my Lawyer Friend paid me a short visit in one of his crisp grey suits. He was all excited I'd gotten off with reducing the $2000 to $20. But, you see, that further vindicates that exacting a toll of $600 and a horrendous day of my life and my child's life plus the loss of whatever business I would have/could have conducted that day (AND the day I shot going to court) to MAKE money was totally out of proportion to the committed offense. All that, for $20? Doesn't that make those guys even more creepy and insignificant? Don't you think I should sue them??


morgan stewart said...

i thought that was hilarious... ha ha ha lol