I feel so un-American as my husband José in the driver’s seat in front of me gets questioned by a local small-town cop. My deep and burning sense of shame has nothing to do with the fact that I can’t stop staring at the patch on the cop’s sleeve—it depicts a Confederate flag leaning to the right and an American flag leaning to the left.
I wonder for a moment if I am hallucinating but no, the familiar blue X filled with white stars on a red background is really there riding this guy’s beefy upper arm. Sitting next to my six year-old daughter, who likes to be entertained on drives long or short, I am trying to stay calm and as upbeat as possible.
This is difficult when I know José is dying to tell the cop where to shove his ticket pad and pen. The air is thick with tension. This is the first time we have been pulled over—ever. A minute ago we were enjoying the rolling hills, farm animals, and old buildings surrounding Middletown, VA, feeling very la la la on an early Saturday evening.
Now we are in some oppressive military state trying to remember if we did commit a serious crime—espionage, drug trafficking?
I don’t have much experience with law enforcement. My few encounters have involved asking for help rather than being looked at with suspicion. The cop is like that liquid metal guy from the Terminator movies—not much personality just a blank, steely stare. Seriously, he could lighten up a bit.
José is being incredibly compliant—I have never seen him so uncombative. When the cop asks if he knows he was going 40 in a 30, he agrees, even though we couldn’t have been going that fast. José was actually going 32 in a 25, he later tells me. Technically, he was speeding, but not by much.
The cop runs a check on José’s license and comes up with nothing because his record is completely clean. He seems disappointed as he explains the procedure for contesting the ticket and asks for José’s signature. Despite José’s polite tone, the cop’s flat voice contains more than a tinge of contempt as he asks, “Can I have my pen back.”
I want to laugh when I think about how cautiously this guy approached our car, sliding up along the side like a marine trying to avoid sniper fire in Iraq. I know there are dangerous people out there but we’re in a mini-van for crying out loud, barely going over the speed limit.
It’s the hair—I know it. I should have cut more off when I gave José a trim recently. His curly black locks are incredibly shaggy. This is his real crime, in addition to DWF—Driving While Filipino.
And that is where my shame comes in. I think there is something essentially wrong with me because, unlike most red-blooded American women, I don’t drive, or at least not much. If I had been driving, would we have been stopped? If the cop had seen me, with my unthreatening whiteness, my reddish hair and nerdy glasses, just another middle-aged mom driving her Toyota Sienna, would we have had a problem?
Out here, it is serious, shun-inducing blasphemy to be a non-driver. To live in rural America is to drive, even if it’s only a tractor you’re gunning.
I make it a point to roll down my window and smile at the cop as he walks away. I hate that my urge is to show him my face and that of our cute daughter as if to prove that we are regular people and to legitimize José. How twisted is that?
He ignores me and stalks back to his car stiff as an android.
Must be a slow day in the big metropolis I think—no Middletown chief of police to arrest for drunk driving, as happened three or four years ago. The first time that day, they let him off with a warning. The second time, they cuffed him.
Despite my fear of the open road, my fear of trucks and speed and switching lanes, I resolve right then and there to practice my driving. I have a license but have always been a public transportation whore, loving the metro, at home on buses. In DC, I never needed a car, never wanted or needed to leave the city.
But that was ages ago. It’s time now to grow up and relinquish childish notions like the belief that everyone sees the world the same way I do or that the world is an equitable place.
For the next few months, as I practice my driving, I suggest you stay off all roads that run through the northern Shenandoah Valley. My intentions are good but I’ve never been a natural.
Entire trees have learned the hard way.
If you do come up behind a light blue mini-van going way under the speed limit on some winding country road near Front Royal, please be patient.
I’m just trying to save you from Robocop.