The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Lawful Contact

When I tell the uninitiated what I do for a living, I typically am asked questions implying that the person with whom I am speaking believes that I travel to exotic locales for amazing adventured. The truth, as the regular readers of this blog are only too well aware, is quite different. But, of course, just because I don't travel to exotic (read third-world) countries for work doesn't mean that I don't run into the sorts of incompetence and corruption that are typically associated with places that you'd rather not be.

Take, for example, the following illustrative story from my time in Taft*.

One evening, a good hour after every business but one had closed, I found myself in need of a snack. The only place that was open at this point was the 7-11 a couple of blocks down the street from my hotel, so I high-tailed it on over there to buy a bag of chips and a diet Pepsi. On my walk back, a police car passed by, turned around up the street, passed by again, turned around behind me, and then stopped, lights flashing, on the road twenty feet ahead of me.

The officer got out of the car, a short, skinny, pale man with rather large eyeglasses. He walked up to where I stood on the sidewalk, hand on his tazer as if he feared I'd throw a deadly bag of Fritos at him. He glared at me in what I am sure he thought was an intimidating and commanding manner, but was actually just comical. I could see the bulge of his chewing tobacco under his lip, and every few seconds, he turned his head to spit.

Good lord, I was being stopped by Barney Fife.

"Good evening." He said this in a manner that I'm sure was intended to convey that he didn't care what kind of evening I was having, but, given his over-all appearance, it instead conveyed that little Junior had dressed up in daddy's uniform and was playing cops n' robbers.

"Hi," I easily conveyed indifference because I was, frankly, rather indifferent to Officer Buddy.

"Do you know why I stopped you?"

"Haven't a clue." I was probably beginning to convey mild annoyance rather than indifference.

"I haven't seen you 'round these parts before. I don't know who you are." Ahhhh, yes, he had apparently forgotten that he was a police officer in a 21st century Californian town, and had become convinced that he was a bit player in a 1950s B-grade gangster movie. It's so sad when these things happen. Really, no bad excuse? No you look like someone we're supposed to keep an eye out for? No Have you seen anything unusual? No there has been some problems int he neighborhood and we're trying to keep an eye out? Really, if I am going to be harassed by a law enforcement officer, the least they can do is have the courtesy to make up a thin excuse, it is these little niceties that make human interaction worthwhile, after all.

"Uh-huh." I just stood and looked at him. I considered, briefly, that, had I been the sort to do such things (which I certainly wasn't) and had I been ten years younger and living in Taft as a teenager, I'd likely have trash-canned this guy in high school. Then I went back to alternating between indifference and mild annoyance. Sure, he was a cop, and he was armed, and he apparently felt that he should behave like a Jim-Crow era southern policeman out to bust up an outsider (and probably a "college boy" at that!)...but I just couldn't take this guy seriously. I don't know if it was his appearance, his chewing tobacco, the fact that he kept rubbing his tazer in a manner that bordered on the obscene, or what...but this guy was his own punchline, a self-telling human joke, and I just couldn't find it in myself to feel the least bit threatened by him.

"So, do you live in Taft?"

"No. I'm here for work." Taft, being an oil town, is always host to gangs of out-of-towners here for work. This had been the case for over eight decades. Whatever trajectory this guy's career would take, it was clear that he'd never become a detective.

"I see. Where are you staying?"

"The Holland Inn."

He gestured to my hotel, "Over there?"

"Yes, that is the Holland Inn."

He looked at the hotel, then looked at me, and then looked at the hotel again, and then back at me. "You know, drug dealers sometimes stay in that hotel."

"Is that so?" I feigned interest. Of course, I already knew the answer. Taft, again, is an oil town, routinely filled with itinerant workers. It is also a town where you are either a part of the very small number of affluent people who have done well in the oil business, or you are living in poverty. It's also a very small town with literally nothing for the youth to do, I mean, the kids there go to Bakersfield of all places when they are looking for excitement. In other words, there is not a single hotel in the entire town of Taft in which drug dealers don't stay and do brisk business.

"Yep, drug dealers like to go there." He eyed me again. "I go in there every now and again and root them out."

"Well, then I feel safer staying there." My mind filled with an image of this guy attempting to root out violent drug cartel sorts, and the film that played in my brain invariably ended with him finding some way of shocking himself with his own tazer. With this, I became more amused than annoyed or indifferent. What was this guy's deal? You have a tall, decently dressed man, who has clearly just gone for a snack to the only place in town to get one, and you decide to stop the guy for no real reason and go just short of accusing him of drug dealing. Did this guy have something against tall people? Probably. Maybe he had some strong evidence that an army of Swedes would soon be pouring cocaine into the streets of his beloved town, and to stop this scourge he had decided to stop and pester every tall blond he saw in the hopes of letting the evil-doers know that he was on the job. He wanted to let the Norse pushers know that Taft would not fall, not on his watch.

Or maybe he was just an idiot with delusions of authority.

On reflection, the latter option seems the most likely.

"Are you here with the geophysical crew?"

I confirmed that, indeed, I was. He asked if I knew a few specific people, and I confirmed that I did. He walked back to his car, and spoke on the radio for a couple of minutes. I had to fight the urge to ask him if he was speaking with Andy, and whether he could have Aunt Bea send over a plate of fried chicken.

"Okay" he said, sticking his head up over the car to look at me (and probably standing on the tips of his toes to do so) "you can go."

As if there was ever a doubt. I'm cleaner than a nun. I don't even smoke or drink. Hell, I don't even use prescription drugs other than Nasonex. I really feel sorry for the cop who ever decides to bring me in on suspicion of drug use or dealing. That is a man who is doomed to a future of crossing guard duty.

And with that, he got in the car and drove off.

And understand, I don't have a problem with police as a general rule. Yes, there are people who are attracted to police work for all of the wrong reasons. But most of my own interactions with law enforcement have been good, I have almost always been treated well, and all but three of the cops who I have met over the years have been professional, disciplined, and intelligent people. But, apparently, the City of Taft had decided to recruit not from any of California's many fine police academies, but rather from the Ringling Brother's Clown College. And more's the pity.

*Yes, I know, there are alot of Taft stories, but I did live there for seven months and it is quite possibly one of the most absurd cities in North America, so what are ya' gonna' do?

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