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He Looked Just Like You
That time I was a bank robbery suspect
Nineteen years ago, I had been out of work for several months and had been preparing an application at Prosper.com to borrow money and keep from being evicted. I was an unemployed black man depositing a check of charity bucks in the bank. Ten minutes later I was detained as a suspect in a bank robbery. Here's the story.
Today has been one of those weird days of harmonic convergence. Every once in a while I have those days, and sometimes it goes on for a few days, in which I am the center of a lot of attention.
Last night, when I finally checked the mailbox, I found an unexpected gift. In fact, since I have humbled myself totally to a select group of folks, apropos my pathetic economic situation, I have been very very fortunate to have found people who have helped. It may not sound like much, but the fact that I can pay my October rent now has been the answer to the prayers of my family. I will be crafting thank you letters (as well as shareholder notices) this weekend. At any rate, I now have enough money to afford a $2 luxury and I tell you in all seriousness that I am taking my wife to McDonald's today. It will be a real celebration.
So I clean up and head over to deposit this check in the bank. As I am driving I get a phone call from my wife. One of my headhunters called. She's trying to get me a gig in Bethesda, MD. Well, that's good news. I spoke to her yesterday and she's already back with more information. Five minutes later I get another call. Sarah from the consulting firm I'm applying to called back, hopefully with news about my last interview. That's wild. Two calls in 10 minutes. So I make my deposit and am on my way from the teller window and the phone rings yet again. I answer my wife's special ringtone with 'You're kidding me.' A third guy is getting back to me about a resume I posted yesterday.
So I drive away with a little cash in my pocket and try to navigate my way back through the maze of parking structures that are Del Amo, formerly known as the world's largest shopping mall. There's a cop behind me. I make a left. There's a cop behind me. I turn into the parking structure. There's a cop behind me with lights on. I make a right turn down an aisle; the cop is out of the door before I can stop. Hey what's going on? I say. He needs me to turn off the motor and step out of the car. Did I turn incorrectly? No, there is no traffic violation here, he says. It turns out that there is a bank robber in the vicinity who looks just like me. Let me guess, black male five foot eleven, 199 pounds (yess!), bald head, cool goatee. Yeah everybody looks like me, but I make it work. Nevertheless, I am calm and relieved. I sure as hell didn't rob a bank, although the thought had literally crossed my mind last week.
After he finishes patting me down and I unlock my fingers from behind my head, I am able to survey the area. An older black man 15 feet away has got my back. He is looking intently at the scene and probably sweating bullets on my behalf. The thought calms me further. No shit is going down here. Nevertheless, by the time the cop tells his partner that I am clean, there are four squad cars in the immediate area. The officer is about my height, pale blue eyes, short cropped blondish hair. Easy smile, stout but fit. He's with the Torrance PD. I'd say he's about 32 years old. He's calm and persistent with the questions. His partner is about 6 foot 3 dark longer hair, slim face rather resembling the Daily Show's Jon Stewart. Also young. I think I can take him, but not both of them, certainly not all of them.
The guy looks exactly like me, he says again except no glasses. And since I'm driving a car with out of state plates, he decided to pull me over, he says. I tell him that the car is new, I really don't know where the registration is because my wife drives it. When I opened the glove box, in the gloom of the parking structure, all I could see was a blue package of baby wipes. That's strange because we don't have a baby. We got a deal and bought it from Detroit and drove it here. It's smogged for 50 states, but I don't know where the registration is. Is there a gun in the car? No there's no gun in the car. He asks that about 3 more times.
The call comes in that the suspect is wearing a black blazer and a cowboy hat. He weaves that into the conversation. I let him look in the trunk. He asks if I have any paperwork that can connect me to the car. I don't know I don't drive it. He asks where I'm coming from (BofA), where I'm going (Barnes&Noble - to price Quicksilver, in hopes that the copy I pre-ordered weeks ago wasn't a waste of money). I told him that I'm in the parking structure because it's the first left turn I could make. He sees the beach chairs and animal blanket in the trunk. Yes three kids. When am I going to get my California plate? As soon as I get a job, the software industry stinks.
Poor sap. They lost the real perp. I don't know if they redispatched the other cars, but I was out of there in ten minutes. I called out to my man "Thanks citizen. Thanks for keeping your eyes on things." As I looked towards him, but before I spoke, he scowled and raised his arms in questioning frustration. I know exactly what he meant and I know exactly how he feels. I hope he's not too worried for me.
It turns out that the news from my headhunters was mixed. One of the gigs of two from one agent is far too junior for me to consider hauling the nuke out of California and relocating. The other gig still doesn't have budget approval, and somehow people don't understand that I know everything about this technology. I don't understand the dichotomy between DBA and development work because I do both all the time... Anyway. All in all it has been an eventful day.
Oh, and I'd say that makes it about the 35th time I've been detained by law enforcement without a citation. I'd say it would rank in the top 5 for civility in Southern California.
Since then, I'd say I've had two or three more encounters with cops. None particularly remarkable. I'm not sure what I consider myself. A survivor? I do remember three or four times when I was really hot and mad about being detained.
The one that stands out was from 1993 or thereabouts. I would have been 32 and living in Boston. It must be said that since I moved from LA all other PDs have seemed particularly lax. People always joke that cops eat donuts. Maybe in places other than LA because here you imagine they eat steroids. Boston cops were a joke to me. I remember they sent a detachment to the release of Mario Van Peebles movie 'Posse'. Remember the America of 20 years ago when movies by Spike Lee and records by Public Enemy made police departments react? Yeah the good old days when no TV commercials used hiphop music.
Anyway, I'd already seen the 250 pound 5 foot 8 beat cops of Boston, and the slow moving cops of NYC who smiled and laughed. I had my guard down. Until one day I found myself on the transit bus at Logan Airport. I had just flown in from NYC, doing what down there I hardly remember. But I do remember that I was wearing my Madagascar print drawstring pants. Like kinte, but atypical. I was looking sharp, as usual.
It turns out that the scabby looking bum I glanced at several seats behind me was an undercover FBI agent, and when I got off the bus at the T station, his boss and several other agents were there prepared to nab me. Apparently, I fit the profile of a drug courier. I was traveling with no luggage. I paid cash for my ticket and had no frequent flyer miles. I only had a passport, and basically I looked too much like Nino Brown. It made me really, really mad. I realized they had been tracking me since I left NY on the Shuttle. I was trying to be as standoffish as I could be, because I was supremely insulted. I remember at the time that I had been reading about whether or not it was legal to give your social security number. And I was really mad that the agent asked me for mine. I gave it to him after some verbal judo. But what really got me was the look of the other passengers on the bus, business travelers and tourists who upon seeing the FBI jackets wanted to get the hell out of the way.
I didn't have the presence of mind to say what I wanted to say, because I had the small bit of satisfaction in sensing the anger of the lead agent that he was making a mistake in front of his men and he knew it. He knew it and I knew it and I was looking him dead in the eye, and he knew I knew it. So I went home to my apartment, knowing the FBI had my social security number and I wasn't sure that they should. And I kept thinking to myself, this is what I should have said: "Pay attention everybody! This is what it looks like when the FBI makes a mistake."
At the time, I was still coming down from my New World Afrikan kick. I was dating a French speaking law student whose brother was in the import-export business, and quite frankly my passport photo made me look Arab. No telling what might have gone down in other post-9/11 circumstances.
Still, I am always and everywhere aware of what it's like to be the big brother. I have an instinct for breaking up fights and sizing up the capacity of other men to fight. I understand what I have in common with cops and soldiers and those people Bill Whittle calls 'grey'. I pay attention to what breaks when people decide to buck the commons.
I find myself at this stage in my life rather disappointed in the ability for people to sustain hostility against first responders and second-worlders of all types. I think perhaps I'm gaining a new kind of appreciation for what people talk about as the wealth gap. It's not just money, but cultural and political sentiment exploiting dissonance.
As I review this old writing, the matter of today’s neo-racial essentialism makes me think of the round holes of black maleness that actual black American men squeeze their square asses into. Why? Because they lack literature outside of hiphop and drama made for television. I know this because I have a young nephew who doesn’t read. He’s a hell of a hard worker and knows his crafts, but he does it all to the boogedy beat. I don’t worry about him primarily because I know that he understands that he makes his own fate. Like my brother Doc, he’s very hard headed and self-motivated. He doesn’t sit around waiting for something to happen, and he rarely makes excuses.
None of us had ‘the talk’ about cops and what to do. All of us had psychologically large fathers with a tinge of menace. I can even sense the shadows of my grandfather on my own 86 year old father’s voice. There are lines in his life he dare not cross because his daddy told him so.
I won’t belabor the absent father story and make any commentary on ‘the state of black men’ other than my own idiosyncratic observations. Black identity is the ultimate Kafka trap of American life. As soon as you start learning the rules, you recognize that there’s no way to win. That is until you do win. Then you have to concern yourself with the question, “Am I really that black?” I believe that many black American men do ask that question seriously which is why we have so many different dimensions of keeping it real. It’s why we have such a difficult time trusting each other. It’s why we ultimately give it all up when our knees start to give out and we fall out of the party stud demographic, and we notice that cops don’t give a shit about us any more. Until they do, and then suddenly we know for sure that we are black. Kafka trap of our own device.
Today’s young punks will find their way to becoming old dogs. The balls keep rolling, the seasons come and go. Some new poets find a way to beguile the lonely and the lost, and some new schitzo scholar will tell us how it has always been sad and blue since we left West Africa. Ain’t that America?
PS. Interestingly and sadly enough, the man in the picture above bailed me out of jail the one time I got arrested back in 1984. He’s chilling in Paris these days and has been out traveling the world for several years. Sixty countries, I’d bet. Of course he’s most famous (via Google) for the arrest, which he, natural marketing dude that he is, turned into a production. Don’t know if he feels that it has overshadowed his life or turned it in a particularly meaningful way. He did play that role. I don’t care because I know him.
PPS. Shout out to the ghost of Nichelle Nichols. I saw her perform in Long Beach in the 2010s. I hung out with comedian Reynaldo Rey at the afterparty and I noticed that 80% of the black men my age were wearing the bald head, goatee, bad knees and untucked short sleeve shirts. I stopped shaving my head.