The Thing About Stereotypes

Matt Paczkowski

When I passed my road test at seventeen and took to the streets alone, I often found myself wondering what it would be like to get pulled over by the police. For, you know, speeding, running a traffic light, striking a pedestrian, or some other minor infraction. I was intrigued. Not necessarily by what the officer would say or how I would be treated, but more so by how I would react. Would I be affable? Indifferent? Apologetic? A fucking asshole?

Anything seemed fair game, because here’s the thing about automobiles: they act as paint strippers, tearing away at our composed facades, revealing our inner ugliness. I’ve seen friends and family members transform into irate, aggressive monsters behind the wheel of a Chrysler or Subaru. For instance, my typically tranquil father has been known to get out of his car, pound on windshields, and scream at other drivers… thankfully, I only witnessed this once, slouched down, covering my eyes so that I wouldn’t have to testify against him in court. When my brother, Mark, drives, his middle finger spends more time hoisted in the air than on the steering wheel. And my sister, Christine, becomes more villainous than the eponymous car in Stephen King’s novel. The Greeks say in vino veritas, but I say in currus insanis.

Last week, nearly ten years and 75,000 miles after obtaining my license, I was finally pulled over for the first time. I noticed the shiny police-issued SUV following me for a couple of blocks, switching lanes whenever I did to remain behind closely. Then the flash – blue, red – blinding, even at noon.

I put my Jeep into park on the side of a fairly busy road and watched two officers exit the SUV, with one approaching on either side of my vehicle. This led to a paranoia that I had committed some federal crime: why two? I later learned that this buddy system was a temporary safeguard in the wake of the deadly police shootings in Dallas.

As one of the officers approached, I slid my window down, surprised by how similar he and I looked. The policeman was also young, white, in his mid-to-late twenties, with short blond hair: he had the same “baby face” people accuse me of having. Seeing this officer stirred up similar sentiments to when I had taken Mark to the emergency room after he’d torn his rotator cuff in a snowboarding accident. While waiting in a hideously florescent waiting room, Mark and I noticed that the nursing staff (and even several of the doctors) were quite young. It’s disconcerting when someone your age wields the power of a gun or scalpel (think of some of the awful human beings you went to high school or college with), and I imagine the feelings strengthen as you eclipse the officers and doctors in age.

The policeman requested my license and registration with a deadpan expression partially masked by mirrored sunglasses, before finally asking if I knew why I was pulled over.

“I don’t think I did anything wrong.” I said this in the inquisitive tone I use in the classroom to get students interested in material they despise.

He leaned down to look inside my car. “You have a brake light out and you rolled through several stop signs.”

“Oh,” I replied, my curiosity gone, “fair enough.” I handed him my documents. The other officer was peering through the rear passenger window at my backseat, which contained a stray copy of Moll Flanders (something I’d considered adding to my syllabus to punish my students) and a Settlers of Catan board game (something that I hate to admit is actually kind of fun).

“Where do you live?” the officer at my window asked, and I responded, “several blocks away,” pointing south. He seemed to verify this with a quick glance at my license. I noticed a judgmental glance at my LEGO Boba Fett key chain dangling from the ignition slot, and I raised my eyebrows, unashamed. Maybe the officer was wondering what happened to Boba’s left arm, which had fallen off somewhere.

“And where are you headed?”

I had not anticipated this question. I was headed to Nathan’s Famous, a particularly disgusting “restaurant” (a term used loosely) in my neighborhood that hasn’t been renovated since 1994. The sudden horror of having to disclose this fact to a law enforcement officer seemed a new pinnacle of humiliation. Boba Fett I can live with; Nathan’s I cannot. Did he need to know this?

I replied, “to get lunch” while rubbing at my forehead. Vague. Non-committal. A politician’s answer.

“Where?” he asked.

A long pause. I was beginning to feel like a criminal. “…I’d rather not say…”

I noticed a shift in his facial features, a get-out-of-the-vehicle expression prompted by my nebulous legal discourse.

“You’d rather not say?” he asked.

I sighed, my soul in pain, wanting nothing more than to falsify facts, to replace those greasy fries with something noble and self-sacrificing. Why couldn’t I have been on my way to a gym or speeding to visit my aunt in the nursing home? But alas, I am cursed with a never-lying syndrome that causes me to tell people “I don’t want to see you,” rather than a cheery, “Sorry, I’ll be out of town next weekend!”

So I looked at the officer and said, “I’m heading to Nathan’s,” with abject finality and shame, the way a hardened criminal might have confessed to a bloody gun in the glove box.

I should have expected that he would laugh, which he did. Loudly. “Oh, the Nathan’s down the block?”

“Yes. But please don’t write that in the report.”

“Will you be getting cheese fries?” he asked, grinning.

“I hadn’t planned on it, but now that you mention it…” There was a moment of silence, and he took off his glasses, I suspect to enjoy what was about to come. I began a half-hearted explanation: “Look, I’m hungry, and it’s been a long week, and it’s not like I get Nathan’s every day, and…” I don’t recall everything that was said at this point, but I went on for at least a minute, vacillating between justifying and apologizing for my unhealthy choice of lunch. There were a lot of hand gestures, and I may or may not have mentioned mozzarella sticks. I don’t recall.

The two officers laughed, and one told me to enjoy my shameful lunch and to get my brake light fixed. Oh, and to stop running through stop signs.

That was it. Done.

We drove off in opposite directions, the SUV headed south, its blue and red lights fading into the distance, as I continued north, toward the yellow and green lights of Nathan’s Famous.

*          *          *

I told my brother about my encounter later that day because I knew he’d enjoy the absurdity of evading a ticket with Nathan’s. His response surprised me: “Man, you played that like a pro.”

I laughed and suggested he name-drop Nathan’s the next time he gets pulled over.

“Yeah, I don’t think that would work for me,” he said.

Mark’s words stuck with me that night as I tried to fall asleep, and a feeling of guilt began to gnaw at me. He was right: it wouldn’t work for him… I played that like a pro. It sounded so manipulating, so premeditated.

I had told multiple people the story, and they all essentially reacted the same way: a laugh or a cynical smile which amounted to, “Of course you got out of a ticket by explaining that you were craving fast food. How typical.” On one hand, I am proud of my interaction with the officer and my ease of diffusing tension with farcicality, but simultaneously, I am disturbed by it.

I keep thinking back to a sociology class as an undergraduate, where we learned about birth order theory and family structure. My short professor with the crazy hair explained Alfred Adler’s assertion that the youngest child in a nuclear family is a kind of entertainer, one who gets away with misdeeds because he can charm his way out of conflict. Ever since attending that class session, a part of me has unconsciously wondered whether I am the narcissistic asshole described by Adler. (Incidentally, this would make Christine the insane perfectionist and Mark the neglected middle child.) It always bothered me that these scholars could generalize entire populations based on the timing of one’s birth, and it’s partly the reason I eventually dropped sociology as a minor. (It turns out most respectable academics don’t buy into birth order theory, anyway.)