In Philadelphia, the cops group all young men into very few categories. Either you are black, Hispanic, possibly black or Hispanic, or you are a college student. College students present no threat whatsoever and are thereby good to go in any...
Photo by Scott Davidson, via Flickr
I like to think of myself as a fairly responsible pothead. I keep my blazing in the street to a minimum, I’ll go to lengths to hide it when kids suddenly appear in the part of the park I’ve co-opted, and when my potheadedness is conspicuous like it was today, traversing Manhattan lit as a daisy and rocking a Cannabis Cup shirt, I’m making more of a conscious choice to broadcast my passion rather than being an oblivious stoner. But mindfulness hasn’t always characterized my behavior.
When I was younger, any discretion that I had was the result of fear rather than decency, and it always took a couple of jolts for me to get it through my thick head that I need to keep my shit on the low. By the age of 22, I had learned plenty, but I was still an idiot. That’s what led to what remains my last serious run-in with the police. I dealt with suburban cops plenty in high school but I learned quickly that city cops are not to be trifled with in the same manner.
In Philadelphia, the cops group all young men into very few categories. Either you are black, Hispanic, possibly black or Hispanic, or you are a college student. College students present no threat whatsoever and are thereby good to go in any circumstance of infringement, save for murder. If you’re in any other category, you might spend a bit more time explaining yourself, and if you’re black you are as good as arrested—unless of course you turn out to be a college student. All in all, it’s a paradigm my homeboys and I were not considering when we went out this one night.
The evening had grown stale, and so Sour Joe (who advised me on bears when I was reflecting on acid), the homie John Smith, and I were riding around with Marv (who shit himself in a previous Weediquette). As it happens, Marv is a ginger Irish kid, Sour Joe is British, I’m brown, and John Smith is black. This joke-setup configuration of the crew wasn’t apparent to us until later. Marv had decided that we’d be driving around until something to do revealed itself, and so we made our first bad decision and cracked open a couple of the 40s we had picked up. Bad decision number two was a natural next step, so suddenly there was a big flat blunt in the mix.
So now we’re cruising through a pretty nice neighborhood in Philly, drinking beers and passing around an L with the windows rolled up. Rooting around in the Horders-worthy backseat of Marv’s car, Smith found a bag of bottle rockets, and so poor decision number three began to take shape. We had some friends who lived in the neighborhood and thought it would be hilarious to pull up outside their house and send a bunch of firecrackers careening up to their window.
Outside the apartment, Smith and I were out of the car, lighting off our novelty explosives and laughing heartily while doing it. Just then, I looked down the block and saw headlights coming towards us, noting that they were coming down the wrong way on a one-way street. Marv peered out of the drivers seat, noticed something, and suddenly his eyes widened. “Get the fuck back in the car,” he said firmly, his eyes still fixed on the headlights. The moment we got into the car, a streetlight revealed the cherry top—cops.
When the shit hits the fan, the man in the hot seat must lead, and so Marv slammed on the gas and my heart lunged as he led us into the mouth of hell. The cop turned on his flashers, making it official: we were now the prey in a police chase. Our car squealed around corners as Marv desperately tried to lose the cop, but after one turn, a second cop came racing down the intersecting street, and after the next another, and finally we saw headlights and flashers coming straight toward us and Marv finally screeched the car to a halt. Over the sirens he uttered a single, enraged, defeated, “FUCK!”
As it happens, we were right on the edge of a park in Philly that is commonly alleged to be the basketball court from the opening sequence of The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, but on this night a far more diverse crew was making trouble in the neighborhood. Several cops moved toward the car screaming for us to get out, which we were doing nice and slow until they saw John Smith’s black ass sitting in the back and lunged at his door. One of the cops screamed, “He’s reaching into his pocket!” and he and two others flanked Smith, yanked him out of the car, and slammed him into the trunk repeatedly. I distinctly remember his voice shaking out of him, “YoOOo, mAAaan, whaAAt the fuuUUUck?!” as they manhandled him. The rest of us stood outside the car. I counted six cop cars and two paddy wagons blocking us in from all four directions of the intersection. As our category became clear to them, the cops’ faces showed surprise, followed by relief, followed by pure mischief.
They asked for our IDs, which we duly handed over. All, that is, except for John Smith, who had no driver’s license. All he had was a photocopy of his birth certificate (note: birth certificate’s don’t have your picture on them). The cops cuffed him, snatched the document, and started cracking up. “This fucking guy’s name is John Smith and this is his ID. Nice try, dickhead.” They laughed some more before moving on to the ultimate culprit, our driver Marv. They took his license, cuffed him, and asked him—well, they didn’t really ask him as much as advance on him in a manner that demands some kind of response. Marv’s immediate reaction, drunk and Irish and from-Baltimore as ever, was a nice slurry slice of lip. The cops didn’t take kindly to this and one of them said, no lie, “Looks like we got a funny boy on our hands.” Marv refuted this, denying the insinuation and repeating his bon mot, which prompted the cops to keep insisting that he was in fact a funny boy, also using the phrase. Eight voices saying “funny boy” echoed through my faded brain, broken only by a cop who found the bottle rockets.
As it turned out, the cops had gotten a call from residents of this nice neighborhood who thought that our friendly bottle rocket beacons were gunfire. When we gave chase, they thought they had a firefight on their hands, and realizing that they were dealing with perpetrators of the college variety who had bitten off a bit too much, they were inspired to fuck with us. They started lighting bottle rockets and throwing them at Marv.
You’d think that at least one of these grown men would realize that bottle rockets are not great to throw because they will definitely fire off into an unpredictable direction, possibly even right back at the thrower. Nope. Saving some embarrassment, they moved on from the bottle rockets to the brown guy—not quite as enticing as the black guy, but this was just a couple of years after 9/11, so there was definitely some fun to be had. A cop read my Muslim name off of my license and said, “Are you kidding me? I could have you in Guantanamo Bay by dawn.” I must have looked pretty fucking scared when I stuttered, “B-but, I’m an American, m-man,” because the cop seemed to find the square inch of compassion in his coal heart. “I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying you can’t be fucking around like these other kids.” Even though I was clearly the guilty party in the situation, I felt enraged at this pigfuck telling me I have to watch myself a little extra because of my name and race. Then I looked over at John Smith bent over the hood of the car with his hands cuffed behind him, and I counted my blessings.
Finally, Sour Joe got an incredibly odd reception from the Philly PD, likely because he introduced himself as our attorney. They cuffed him and one fat cop dragged him into one of the squad cars and stuffed him into the back. Sour later told us that the cop rattled off a bunch of misinformed political op-ed aimed at insulting his British heritage and giving him cause to do something stupid. The cop underestimated his ability to remain British, and Sour emerged from the car without a scratch right around the time the other cops decided they were done with the rest of us.
They uncuffed everyone, corralled us together, and the cop who had threatened me with detention said, “We’re letting you go. You did a stupid thing. The car stays here, you walk home, and stick together. Safety in numbers.” We got the flying fuck out of there.
Like cops anywhere, these city enforcers aimed to teach us a lesson by scaring the shit out of us, harassing us, and overall letting us know how unpleasant it is to be on the wrong side of the law, or perceived as such. They just did it in a more intense way than I had previously experienced. What they didn’t do was actually charge us for the drinking and driving and smoking blunts and disturbing the peace. Marv got about 500 dollars in tickets, but that was the end of it.
Ever since that experience, I’ve remained clear of police scrutiny. I don’t drink much anymore, so such shenanigans don’t get the fuel they require. It’s just as well. I don’t think 29-year-olds get the same slack as college students when it comes to drinking and driving.
Previously - Getting High and Making Beats