The other night I was driving home from a bartending shift and noticed a police car in my rearview mirror. I had not been drinking, nor had I any illegal substances in the vehicle, yet still, when I saw the cruiser, a deluge of terror pitched through my body.
I felt like I was transported back to my teens.
See, back in the day, I used to be one drunk-driving sumbitch. I got my driver's license when I was 17 and immediately started drinking and driving. I used to drink and drive all over the place. And I was a sloppy drunk driver: I backed into telephone poles. I pulled away from curbs with my drunky friends not quite all the way in the car. And I got into accidents and didn't die because I was so drunkenly limber. In fact, it wasn't until my DUI some dozen years ago-on a night I call Black Wednesday-that I stopped drinking and driving altogether.
But here's the thing. In all those years before Black Wednesday, I had many DUI close calls. I've been pulled over dozens of times while drunk, and always managed to get out of it. Sometimes it was by luck; other times it was by sheer politeness. Mostly it was because I was extraordinarily proficient at taking the DUI field-sobriety test. You know, those, “Walk-the-line-and-touch-your-nose,” dexterity tests? Well, I was the best walk-the-liner-touch-your-noser guy the world ever saw.
I remember the first time. I was 17 years old, coming back from a graduation party. I was driving my parents' six-cylinder silver Aspen station wagon through my hometown of Monroe, N.Y. When the cop pulled me over, I was immediately stricken with this unbelievable fear. Fear of authority. Fear of jail. Fear that my parents were going to put a bullet in my head-I was 17 years old and so fucking out-of-my-skull petrified, it just sobered me right up.
Others call it a buzzkill.
Anyway, I walked that line like a pro. I felt as sober as a tailpipe and walked that line like I've been walking that line all my stinking life. Johnny Cash would have been proud.
I remember another time. I was 19 maybe. Mitch and I were cruising around town in my primer-black, '66 Mustang with eight gorgeous cylinders, a Hunter S. Thompsonian carload of intoxicants and some stolen flares in the back seat. We were blasting a cassette of-well, I don't remember exactly what we were blasting, so let's just assume it was Sabbath-when the Townie appeared in the rearview mirror.
So, like idiots, the two of us start throwing cans, and bags, and tabs, and joints, and fifths, and pints, and pipes out of our respective windows in full view of the cop. When he pulled us over, I was sure we were busted. But along came that tidal wave of fear and adrenalin flooding through my body, washing away all the drunk in me and, per the officer's orders, I closed my eyes, outstretched my hands in Jesus pose and attempted to touch the front of my nose with my index finger. You can imagine my elation when I found my nose right where it should have been, right where it's always been-on my face, in the middle of my face, just like a good nose should be, and god damn if this wasn't the easiest shit I was ever asked to do.
I tell you true when I say-the man, he let us go.
Admittedly, times were different back then. MADD had not yet been formed. The dangers of drunk driving were just not quite as understood or feared as they are today. But still. It was clear I had super-human super powers.
Of course, there was also a luck factor. Like the time when I was about 21-Paul and I were working down a case of beer while driving around Middletown in my four-cylinder red Pinto hatch-back.
When we saw the red and whites, Paul said, “Gun it.”
So, back to the other night, here I am, drunkenly trying to outrun a cop in my four-cylinder Ford Exploder, careening around curves, squealing re-tread wheels-until we get finally get cornered and the two cops are on us screaming, “Out of the car now, now, now!” with weapons drawn. And what I'm thinking-as we both open our doors, hands up, beer cans spilling onto the pavement clatter clunk clatter-is that it's all over now but for the bullet in my head.
Or so I thought. It turned out Paul has some drunk driving super powers of his own: While I had my “field-sobriety-dexterity-test-taking” super powers, Paul had his “my-brother-was-a-Middletown-cop-and-recently-got-transferred” powers. After the cops recognized Paul, they holstered their guns and hugged and patted backs laughing and saying something like, “How's your brother Paul?-I see you're a hell-raiser just like he was!”
By the time I moved to San Diego, I noticed things were changing. There was a change in the nation's attitude toward drinking and driving. And, of course, there was a change in me. After years and years of dodging DUIs, I developed a superiority complex and became somewhat fearless, forgetting that it was the fear and adrenalin that always saved me. And on that oh-so-black Black Wednesday-with the shimmering red and yellow Roberto's a mere hundred feet away-SDPD put me in handcuffs and carted me away to my most wretched undoing.
Next week: How to pass the DUI field sobriety test.
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