Left turn at the crossroad

Today began with bright spring sunshine. While taking the pug out, I was inspired to twirl around our back lawn singing “Who will buy this wonderful morning? Such a sky, I never did see!” from the musical Oliver. I was hoping for a relaxing morning, preparing for a meeting I didn’t need to be at until 1:00—just me, my computer and the lovely day streaming in through the front windows.

I had one errand to run before I got settled. All I had to do was drive the car across the train tracks to the auto shop. Four blocks one way, left over the tracks, two blocks the other way, then a fifteen minute walk home. I put on a pair of baggy men’s shorts, jammed a barrette on my haystack of bed head and ran out, looking like an Old Navy clad Miss Havisham—no purse, no wallet, no thought. At the intersection, a train blocked the way, so although I had a green light, a red warning sign prohibited left turns. I turned anyway, tucking my car in the space of road between the intersection and the railway signal arm. I looked around and noticed a police car idling perpendicular to my car in the train station parking lot. His windshield was facing me. As if I were lost in a scene from the wrong movie (wasn’t this supposed to be a feel-good film?), he pulled out and we turned the corner together, flashing lights but no siren, pulling off two yards from the auto shop driveway.

Most people lower the window in resignation and begin a humble drawl or flutter their eyelashes in embarrassment or simply keep the tone neutral, adopting some manner of subservience that has worked for them in the past. Instead, I jumped out of the car. I met him with a rush of exposition, urgently conveying the most pressing issue and possible solutions: “You might have to follow me home, officer, I live across the street, I just came to drop off my car, I did not bring my wallet, I don’t have my driver’s license, I live across the street, it was only going to be a minute, I did not think I would need it, my license, but I just live across the street, we can go and get it.” When I paused to take a breath, he asked, “Do you know why I stopped you?” He was youngish, a tall person whose soft appearance seemed to embody the word “nice.” His tone was adult to adult, procedural, but he wasn’t relishing it. I had to kink my neck up to answer, “Yes, I turned left on the no turn sign.” He nodded, but did not feel the need to repeat the crime. He asked for a registration.

He let me drop off the car while he checked his computer to make sure I wasn’t a wanted criminal. I walked back and sat on a park bench next to his car. I looked down at my truly ghastly shorts, spotted where I had spilled Clorox on them, my valentine socks and clogs, the high school lettering peeling off my t-shirt. I was part bag lady, part gawky teenager. I wondered what he saw. He came and sat next to me. He told me almost apologetically that although I did not have a record, he did need to give me a ticket. The city and railroad were working together to crack down on this illegal left turn problem. He was obliged to comply. He glanced around and joked that he had never given a ticket on a park bench before. He explained the forms, we stood up, smiled and said goodbye. I walked home, careful to wait for walk signals.

This story sounds mundane, simple. Why tell it? For me, this experience was extraordinary. I rarely react with such civility. I might have been outraged over the ticket or at the ticket giver or at my own stupidity. I usually launch into focused, brittle fury toward any perceived petty tyrant who hassles me unjustly about minutia. Today was a fluke. Perhaps it was the beautiful day. Or that I knew I was in the wrong. Or that the officer was not condescending. Whatever the reason, it was not like me at all. Breaking rules and getting mad is in my blood.

I have several Polaroids of my father in 1960. He is nearly seventeen, posing for the camera in pencil leg Levis and a white t-shirt, with a rifle in one hand and a cigarette in the other. His buddies are in a few of the photos with dashing sneers and attitudes that leap from the glossy surface in sharp black and white defiance. There is no doubt, these were bad boys. They caroused, they stole things, they made trouble. My father was saved by a heartbreak that sent him hitchhiking away from the gang into a new love and a new life. Had he stayed, he may have joined many of his friends who ended up in jail. He grew up and became respectable, but my memories reach back rather than forward. Once when I was very small, we came home late to a guy on a motorcycle parked in our apartment space. My mother rolled down her window and asked him to move. He called my mother an expletive. My dad got out of the car and punched the guy.

My mother’s prized possession was a black metal suitcase that her grandfather brought with him from Palermo, Sicily, through Ellis Island, all the way to Gilroy, California. We would run our hands over the battered, dented surface waiting for her to turn it over and reveal the best part—two bullet holes, quite distinct and ominous. She admitted that he never told her how they got there, but she would always speculate; her people were rebels as well. Proud of their native island, but rebellious enough to leave and cross both an ocean and an entire country, ferocity intact. I was too young to make complete sense of it, but I have a feeling that had I not been there, my mother might have taken a turn punching the guy on the motorcycle right alongside my father.

I am my parents’ daughter. Occasionally I fight with people: a security guard at a pumpkin patch, a blockade of four associates at a Sharper Image store, numerous airline employees, parking attendants and even a few cops. I also break rules. Making bad turns is one of a laundry list including jaywalking and a serious lack of cell phone judgment. Although my parents are tamer now, unrecognizable in a crowd of upstanding republicans, I remain scrappy enough to wonder if my nonconformist tendencies are hard-wired. I try to act nice, but time after time, my behavior says: “Don’t mess with me, I am the child of a hoodlum and an almost mafia princess.” My reactions seem to carry a pedigree of grievance.

But if my temper is purely genetic, why do I blatantly disregard some laws only to rise up with righteous indignation over the sacredness of others? Why is encountering some authority figures like biting into aluminum foil, all my nerves stand on end, while my boss, the Dalai Lama, and the entire IT department at my work I deign with utter adoration? Why, after thinking, this neon sign with a red slash through it does not apply to me, did I find myself quite subdued and even charmed by the person who reminded me that it did apply to me after all? If he had been a jerk and pissed me off, would I be in jail with Paris right now?

The ease of my conversation with the officer today was the result of objectively assessing the situation rather than responding impulsively. He chose to see me as an addled but logical woman just trying to save time. I chose to see him as just doing his job. Whether an interaction is polite or explosive can be determined by what each internal compass defines as right or wrong. Some things simply matter more to us than others. We allow some people authority because we deem them more worthy of our trust and therefore better able to speak what matters to the community. In my head, mutual respect and human connection trump all other values. In my gut, I dig in on a detail and end up shouting in people’s faces. The mystery lies in whether or not I am lashing out because my compass says the circumstance is wrong or whether I am acting from an inherited script.

In this case, what could have ruined the day did not. I enjoyed a reserve of self-control that I underestimated. But in the confusion as to why a person like me can turn against a train signal one minute and pick up litter from the same street a whistle later, I ultimately give more credit to the officer than myself. While I sorted through rules and reactions, he was simply gracious. There was no reason to resist. 

5 responses to “Left turn at the crossroad”

  1. Marleyfan says:

    You are a badass, and you know it. Rumor has it that the employees call you “The Black Widow”, any truth to it?

  2. AW says:

    I will never forget shopping with you at the Star Market on Brattle Street in Cambridge. Some woman (pity the person) made a comment about something one of your sons had just done that she perceived as a petty misbehavior. In a split second, you wheeled around and just about took her head off. Cowering, the woman, who only seconds before had been the sheriff-of-appropriate-Star-Market-behavior-for-toddlers, slunk off back into the frozen foods (and then probably ran out of the store as fast as she could!). It was one of those “don’t mess with mine” moments, and I was simultaneously impressed with the fierce protection you provided you child, and awfully glad I was on your side.

  3. Mary Fowler says:

    Miss Brewer,
    Though you have argued convincingly and though you provide evidence of a wily and tempestuous upbringing (even seem to be proud of it!), genes and childhood do not excuse “fighting with people” and “breaking rules.”

    Good for you for learning that you have a reserve of self-control formerly underestimated. You need to practice this self control. You need to build your ability to stay calm and collected, else you will pass on the viscious family tradition of violence and wrongdoing. Keep us posted on how this goes. We look forward to hearing more.

  4. I love the image of you craning your neck to look up at the cop. I also love the anecdotes about your parents. And I hope “Mary Fowler” is kidding, because I’d hate to see you lose the ability to snap at injustice and ignorance they way you do.

  5. PB says:

    marleyfan–actually at work they call it “when PB goes Sicilan.” very few have seen it, but still the rumors . . .

    Mary–I like the word “wily,” can I use that next time?

    Bryan–No chance of reform, ambivelence runs too deep, sorry Mary, I am just a bad egg.