“Hello, David? This is Officer Menendez. We’re arresting your friend Paul.”
It was 8:30 in the morning and Paul had gone, supposedly to move the car. He had driven down from Maine the night before because his brother was in the hospital. When the phone rang I knew that trouble had found Paul, whose bad luck verges on the comical.
“You’re arresting Paul? Really?”
“He wasn’t wearing his seat belt.”
“He wasn’t wearing his seat belt?”
“You need to come over here and get his car or we’ll impound it.”
“Impound it? Hey, I can’t drive in the city.”
Then he put Paul on the phone.
“This is bullshit, David. I got a ticket ten years ago for not wearing my seat belt and now they want to take me to jail for it. You gotta drive my car to a garage so they don’t impound it.”
“I don’t believe it. Wait. You know I don’t really drive, right?”
As much as I worried about what the police were doing to my hapless friend, the looming fear of driving in New York City now stood as the greatest challenge in this unfolding débâcle. Yes, I have a driver’s license, but do I drive? No, I do not drive. In Vermont I drive a little on winding country roads, but that’s about it. I’m a New York City lad. I got my “license” at the age of 36 in a small Vermont town, where it’s impossible to fail the test unless you’re drunk or suicidal. I like the idea of driving, but only the idea of it.
“The car’s on Delancey Street. Come down here, David. Help me out!”
They were the worst kind of cops: fat, mean, and dumb cynics. They grunted when I tried my winning smile on them. They were a multiracial gang, a fact of no practical use, but in a sidebar train of thought made me feel positive about race relations in New York City. There were five of them surrounding my poor friend’s lame little car near the mouth of the Williamsburg Bridge. They had placed traffic cones around the offending vehicle. It was as though they had just nabbed the deadliest kind of fugitive.
“He’s visiting his brother in the hospital,” I implored. “Any way we can resolve this?”
“No, it’s in the computer. We can’t do a thing. We have to take him in.”
One of them was on the police radio and kept referring to Paul as the “prisoner.”
“Your friend needs to go in front of the judge. But he’ll be out by 4:30.”
“Do you have a license?” barked another cop.
“Yes, well, sort of,” I said. “You see –”
“Show it to me.”
I tried pleas of incompetence.
Officer Cho said, “There’s a municipal garage just around the corner. It’s easy; you can do it.”
“I don’t think so. I’ve never driven in the city.”
Paul looked ready to throw up.
“David,” he said.
There was no way out of it. So I got into the car and strapped on the seat belt. I adjusted the rear view mirror. I remembered this from a class in high school. The cops watched, bored. Then I tried to shift into drive.
“Oh, officer? I can’t get the car into ‘drive’.”
Officer Cho looked down at me with a friendly kind of pity.
“You have to turn the car on first.”
Now these five police officers realized what they were dealing with. They fanned into the street, arms raised, and held up traffic coming off the bridge. Officers Cho and Menendez dragged the orange cones to create an unmistakable path for me.
I turned on Paul’s car. I shifted into drive and slowly pulled away from the curb.
“You can do it, David,” said Officer Cho. He looked worried.
Somehow, driving with the caution of an old lady, I snaked into New York City traffic. Impatient taxis honked. I carefully angled around corners and tried to avoid hitting suicidal pedestrians bent on throwing themselves in front of me. I finally found the entrance to the garage and wound my way up until I saw some empty spots. One of the garage workers happened to be around so I asked him if I could park anywhere. He looked at me as though I had said something incredibly stupid. I guess I had said something incredibly stupid. After a few tries I got the car into its slot, though not exactly evenly. The walk back home felt pretty damned fantastic. But there was still the matter of Paul.
Paul. He didn’t get out by 4:30. In fact, it was 4:30 when I finally got a call from him, from the holding cell in Central Booking where he stood with 180 criminals and two overflowing toilets. It wouldn’t be until the wee hours of the next morning that I would see him again.
“I’m in hell, David.”
“Paul!” I shouted. “I parked your car!”