A Young Black Man, Being Late
When I was thirteen, there were two things I wanted more than anything else in the world: one was a girlfriend, the other to get my braces off. I assumed the latter would lead to the former, but this was also because I was thirteen, and at that point life is a series of obstacles past each one laying the promised land that so tantalizes you.
It also helped that the orthodontist gave out tokens for timeliness and hygiene, which you could then use to get gift certificates or other prizes. It may have also been my excitement at getting those (and my willingness to talk about it at length) that prevented me from finding a girlfriend, but let’s not hypothesize.
I had an orthodontist appointment one afternoon, and my mother and I were running late. The orthodontist was out in a white suburb of Dayton – you could try to find something resembling a medical specialist in our neighborhood, but it would probably be right alongside the Sublime fan club and the people jogging with small dogs – and a healthy drive away. The leeway was two minutes after check-in to get a token, ten minutes to avoid paying a late charge, the latter of which I couldn’t have cared less about.
We rushed to the orthodontist, and pulled in to the parking lot, right next to the path to the front door. I got out of the car, and noticed another car pulling in behind us. My mom, rifling through her purse, told me to go and check in before I was late, and then shooed me away. “Go! Go!”
As I took a step, I heard a loud voice yell at me, “Get back in the car!”
I looked over, and saw that the car behind us was a black police cruiser. No sirens, no lights, nothing to warn us of any impending trouble. Just a cruiser that pulled in behind us, and was now yelling at me.
I bent over and shot a look at my mom, silently asking what the fuck was going on. She looked up at me, still not aware the cop was behind her, and said, “What? Go inside!”
I stood up, and looked over at the cop, a younger white woman, tense and inexplicably angry, and saw her standing behind her open door, gun pointed at me. “Get. In. The. Car.”
I did, and I shut the door. My mom looked at me, ready to tell my knucklehead ass to go inside before she had to pay extra for this appointment, and then she looked in her rearview mirror. She saw the police officer, and went back to her purse, now looking for her license rather than her checkbook.
The officer came to the window, leaned over, and muttered, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
My mom, ever-honest and ever-not wanting to pay extra for things, said, “No. You want to let him go inside?”
The cop pursed her lips together, looked at me, and said, “Son, you do not ever want to try to escape when an officer of the law has stopped you, especially at your size.” The unspoken coda, of course, was, “That’s a good way to get shot.“
I plaintively looked at the officer, then at my mom, then back to the officer. “I wasn’t trying to escape! I was going in for an appointment.”
The cop, pointedly ignoring me, asked my mother for her license and registration. There’s a calculus that I believe went on in her head at that point, which was that whatever ticket she was going to get would probably cost as much as the missed appointment. Paying for both, however, was akin to burning money. She asked again, “Can he go inside to his appointment.”
The cop, losing patience, yelled, “You keep him in the car until I tell you that he can leave.”
A few minutes later, we found out that the officer was giving my mom a speeding ticket. Curiously, the ticket was for a stretch of road two miles away from the lot in which we were now parked, and she had only started following us within the last half-mile or so, but at that point, nobody was in a mood to argue.
There’s a reason that Trayvon Martin’s story hits me so hard. When you’re thirteen and threatened with a bullet through the chest for getting your braces tightened, it teaches you how the world works, and does it in a hurry.