After First Man ended, the boyfriend and I exited the theater, holding hands, a bit silent, contemplative. We muttered back and forth a bit about the progress of man, the quest to be the first country to touch the moon’s surface, and the billions of dollars it cost, all against the moving backdrop of Neil Armstrong’s very personal story. It was a beautiful film. We walked to the car holding hands then pulled out of the parking lot to drive the short mile home.
It was 8 pm on a Sunday evening. I stopped at the red light, left turn signal on, and thought more about the moon as I waited for green. The night was quiet, and no other cars were out. The movie had left me deeply reflective.
The light turned green, and I turned left onto the empty two-lane road headed east. Almost immediately, police lights flashed behind me, and I looked at them flashing in my rearview mirror with surprise.
“Is that for you?” the boyfriend asked.
“It has to be. Weird.”
I pulled into the nearest parking lot, to some business that was closed for the weekend, and watched the cop car pull in behind me at an angle. His lights flashed furiously, red and blue, in my mirror, and stayed that way for several minutes. obnoxious as the drew the attention of every passerby.
I rolled down my window and waited a moment for the officer to approach us. He had his flashlight out, shining brightly into the interior of the car, blasting me in the eyes briefly. I sighed in frustration, but immediately understood. It must be frightening approaching cars at night when on solo patrol. I know many police officers, have had them as both friends and clients, and I knew it was not an easy job in any capacity.
The officer was fit, dark-complected, and wore glasses. His head was shaved. He looked to be in his early 30s.
“Good evening, officer. How can I help you?”
The flashlight scanned the interior of the car briefly. “I pulled you over for two reasons. Did you know your car registration is expired?”
“My registration isn’t expi–”
“I said your registration is expired.” He was stern, blunt. “Now hand me your registration.”
I reached over to the glove box and pulled it out, immediately handing it over. I made eye contact with the boyfriend briefly and he looked nervous. (He hates conflict.)
“See, officer? It expires next year in 2019, look right–”
“Yes, I can see that. But there are no tags on your plate, son. Why are there no tags on your plate?”
I looked baffled. “I put the tags there, sir.”
“And yet they aren’t there, are they? Do you know why else I pulled you over?”
“I truly have no idea, sir.”
“Do you know how to make a left turn?” His voice was thick with sarcasm, and I felt my patience begin to wane.
“I do, officer.”
“Then why don’t you tell me how? Because I just saw you make an illegal left turn.”
I was baffled. I had used my turn signal, I’d waited for the green light. The road was clear. I hadn’t been drinking.
“I–I believe I did make a correct left turn.”
He tsked. “I just said you make an illegal left turn. Why don’t you define a legal left turn for me?”
“Officer, I’m not trying to be difficult. I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“Define ‘legal left turn.'”
“I don’t know what words you want me to use, and I feel like you are being very sarcastic and stern with me when I haven’t done anything wrong, sir.”
“Define ‘legal left turn’. This is your last chance. You got your driver’s license, correct? You passed the exam? If you read the driver’s manual, then you should be able to define ‘legal left turn’ for me.”
There was a beat of silence as I breathed in steadily, slowly. “Officer, I can’t provide an exact definition, but I believe I did turn legally.”
“Okay, fine.” He sounded exasperated. “You had your chance. Give me your license please.”
He took it and returned to his car. I sat there, baffled, not knowing what had just happened. My brain spun in a dozen directions. Had I done something wrong? Did I have a burned out taillight? Was the cop bored and needed someone to pull over? Why was he being so direct and sarcastic; was he having a bad day, was he on a power trip, did he hate his job, had I done something disrespectful? Had he seen me holding hands with my boyfriend at the theater, and did he hate gay people, and was that why we’d been pulled over? Oh my God, had I really just told a cop he was being stern and sarcastic? I felt a weird mix of confused, angry, embarrassed, and scared as we waited, processing all of this out loud now. I got out my cell phone and set it to record when he returned to the car.
Suddenly, the officer was calm, friendly, and clear. Was it because he knew my phone was on? “Hi, sir, here is your license back. When you are making a left hand turn on to a two-lane road, you must always be sure to choose the lane on the left. Not the turn lane, but the farthest lane away from the curb. You may then use your right-turn signal to move to the right lane. In this case, I witnessed you turning into the right lane of traffic, thus the one closest to the curb, which makes this an illegal left turn. Regarding the matter of your registration, it appears the sticker on your plate indicating the current registration has folded downward, and you need to get that fixed.”
I asked for a bit of clarification, finally understanding why I had been pulled over, though still frustrated as it seemed such a minor offense. I nodded a few times as he explained how to handle the ticket, an offense listed at around $90. I signed the form where he instructed, then took the ticket from his hand.
“Officer, thank you for explaining. I wish you had been this clear. I am confused by the sarcastic and disrespectful approach you used in our–”
He interrupted again. “You think I was disrespectful? Whatever.” He tossed his hands up in surrender and walked away from the car with a sarcastic “Have a nice day.”
And I found myself raising my voice after him, desperate suddenly to get the last word in. “Yes, and you are being disrespectful right now! Why don’t you have a nice day!”
I rolled up the windows in anger and frustration, then realized, again, that I had just talked back to a cop. I said out loud to my partner, “God, what if I’d just acted that way and I was a person of color?”
We drove the mile home in near silence. The boyfriend rubbed my back, reassuring me that things were fine, and I processed through getting the ticket and feeling okay about it, but just hating the way I had been treated. If I had done something wrong, he could have simply been kind and direct, and then issued a ticket, but the whole ‘legal left turn’ definition rigmarole had left me flummoxed.
Two days later, I delivered an official letter of complaint to the officer’s precinct. I let the officer-on-duty know that I go out of my way to report positive experiences when they happen, but I felt obligated to notify the precinct about this encounter. This officer was friendly, and asked if I wanted any follow-up from the complaint I’d issued, and I said that wasn’t necessary, and that I didn’t expect it to change the outcome of the ticket.
The day after that, I called the court number from the back of the ticket. It instructed me to call the number and request a ‘court-appointed mediator’ if I wanted one.
“Well, sir, we don’t have mediators here.”
“Um, the ticket specifically says to request a mediator.”
“Okay, well, we don’t have any. But you can either request a trial or a meeting with the judge?”
“What is the difference?” I asked.
“The difference between what?”
“The difference between a trial or a meeting with a judge?”
“Those are the same thing, sir.”
“You just said I could request a trial or a meeting with the judge!”
“No, sir, I said And, not Or. You can request a trial and a meeting with the judge.”
I sighed deeply, and made the request, feeling I had a valid case to contest the ticket. The woman took my citation number and looked it up.
“You can show up for court in four weeks, or you can pay $120 in advance to settle it.”
“Wait, $120? The ticket says $90.”
She grew impatient. “Look, sir, the police officers are now charging $120 for that offense. The tickets they are using still say $90 because they are using up the box of old tickets before they issue new ones.”
I hung up the phone exasperated, wondering if I ever wanted to drive again. But I had to give the officer credit for one thing. I was now indelibly recorded in my brain forevermore what a proper legal left turn was.