june 22: I've decided to take a vacation this week. I can do that; I'm the publisher.

june 15 1996: cop fear

've been seeing a lot more cop cars around this summer. I do a lot of walking when I get back home for summers and breaks, as opposed to being at Vassar, where everything worth walking to is about five steps away. But in my daily travels in Berkeley, I put in as much as 3 hours a day on the road, wearing inadequate sneakers, usually with the Walkman on but sometimes not, by day or by night, to places I could often get to much faster on public transportation. I don't have my license yet. I hike a lot of suburban blocks, get nervous when I get to a corner at the same time as a passing car wants to go in front of me (no one wants to be an annoying pedestrian, after all), and I see a lot more cop cars this year.

This wouldn't make me as nervous if it weren't for the fact that these cop cars are all new-model cop cars, rounded American 1993 jellybean Fords, with black and white panels instead of the smooth jellybean colors we're used to. They look like killer whales.

back to the present...

i got a free willy for ya... huh huh, huh huh

All of the local departments have these new cars. This is counting north Berkeley, Albany (my home), and Kensington up in the hills, all composed of little more than house after sunny stucco California house. It would be uncharitable of me to assume that all these police departments got new cars because of the growing fear of crime amongst white suburban dwellers. I haven't noticed any increase in the so-called "undesirable elements" in my walkings. I just notice more cop cars driving around than I used to.

I think that the average member of the current generation is less likely to be able to believe that "the innocent have nothing to be afraid of." We got caught in one of those cultural feedback loops, where television and movies pick up on cop-anxiety and start reflecting it, and we watch the movies and TV and believe in their world, and now (particularly for those of us who have a slight persecution complex going already) whenever we see a cop go by we start imagining that they're going to harass us for some random reason, and before you know it, we're gonna get Sent Up The River For A Crime We Didn't Commit! (Of course, this also sort of stems from the media-induced sense that we're all starring in our own short-lived 1995 NBC series.)

I never had any cop sightings (that I remember) back in my old high-school sanity-walk days. The primary source of high-school angst is time angst: not enough of your time is your own. So I wasted my afternoons, then I had fits about having to wash the dishes or whatever, then I sat there looking at my homework and listening to my stepsisters watch television at full blast, and I would just have to leave the premises and take a sanity walk. This happened usually around 10:00 or so, but sometimes later, year round. I'd like to say that I filled myself with a sense of serenity and perspective on these walks, but it's not true; I was 17, so mostly I seethed. I did notice the beauty of my town at night, though. In those days no one else was out and the streetlights lit everything up in orange, like the stage of my school theater that had been shellacked 17 times over and glowed when you turned lights onto it.

Even in those days I knew that my walks were a male privilege. A six-foot-five, 250-pound, just-barely-balding white man isn't gonna run into any trouble on the streets of Albany, so my parents let me do what I wanted. If I had been born female, I often said to myself, I would have killed myself or someone else by then, just in my efforts to get out of the house. (Of course, if I had been born female, the 250-pound part of my situation would have caused bigger problems.) I thought of my many female friends, who were all too smart to deserve the kind of sheltering and stifling that they got, but too pretty to be let outside after dark.

I've had two cop incidents so far. The most recent one doesn't bother me much, since it was actually just because the cops were already up and about, looking for some scary dude who'd been nosing around the high school campus (a block from my house). I was walking home from a late night hanging out with Aubie, who also lives a block from the high school. I started to get paranoid as soon as I spotted cops out looking around. I passed by the school courtyard and continued on my usual route around the corner and back home, thinking about how they can surely tell when someone is just an innocent by-passer and I should have no problems, and just when I was about to turn the last corner towards home the cop who was following me shined one of those big goofy spotlight-flashlights on me and told me to Please Wait A Moment Sir. He walked up to me and I turned around to face him - he was your average, pudgy glasses-wearing suburban cop, and he says into the radio, "False alarm, it's just Mr. Sugarbaker." It ought to warm my heart in a sitcom sort of way that the town police recognise me, when I don't actually know the name of the family that lives next door (we're quite friendly with the folks across the street though), but mostly it annoyed me. The whole thing just annoyed me.

I often worry about whether people consider me scary. I'm a big guy (as careful readers will remember) and sometimes my faraway mentality and occasional neediness cause me to do things that unnerve people. Sometimes I also just like to take my friends by surprise, disappear around corners when they aren't looking, sneak up behind them and kiss them, whatever. But when I'm trying to get closer to a person, or work my way into a group and make friends, the scary-guy thing can get in the way.

My first cop incident happened on New Year's Day, this past January. I had gone to my first really enjoyable NY Eve party the night before - the parties I went to in high school were generally sordid affairs where no one talked to people they weren't close with (i.e. to me) and from which I went home without letting anyone know, feeling sorry for myself, but this time I had stayed on, chatting with old friends and underage drinkers until 5 AM, and finally shuffling home. When I woke up on 1 January, it was dark already; this increased my post-party feelings of wonder and vague sadness, and I decided there was nothing for it but to take my usual uphill walk into Kensington, all the way up to the FUCK church at the top of the hill (so named for its status as a First Unitarian Church in Kensington) where I went to elementary school for a number of years. So it's always a bit of a nostalgia thing; I first arrived at the route simply because I wanted a walk to the top of the Berkeley hills, and that was a place that I knew how to find. The round trip is about two hours. Much of the route follows the route that I got driven to school on, morning after morning, usually not very happy to be going.

So I was on my walk, with my Walkman, running out of tape on one side and flipping it over, passing various people in front of their nice hill-type homes with views of the Gate and the city skyline across the bay. I like to look at houses, and there are some cool houses up there. I was up towards the top of the hill when this cop car pulled up behind me and threw the spotlight on me. I crossed the street, thinking maybe they were mad because I was walking off the curb (there was no sidewalk), and the cop car pulled up ahead of me, parking diagonally in a driveway to block my further progress, and an officer stepped out and asked me (nicely) to put my hands up. Lo and behold, I was being searched.

I asked them if something exciting was going on, and the officer who was patting down my thighs said they had "received a report of an individual matching [my] description, carrying a gun." I wiggled the black plastic Walkman I was holding up in my right hand. "It was probably this," another officer keenly opined. I remembered the family I had passed earlier, when they were gettingout of their car, and I had taken out the tape and flipped it over just after I passed them, which they had probably heard as clip-changing noise or something.

So the officers finished up and we exchanged our polite have-a-nice-evenings. I kept walking up towards the top of the hill, where the main drag of The Arlington Ave. meets insanely steep Moeser Ave. under the electrical towers, and I tried not to think about sheltered rich suburbanites and the fact that I hadn't shaved in a few days. I had chosen a nicely moody soundtrack tape for the night's trip, Hips And Makers by Kristin Hersh: "If I walk down this hallway tonight / It's too quiet / So I pad through the dark / and call you on the phone / push your old numbers / and let your house ring / till I wake your ghost."

And then the oddest thing happened: as I was coming back down the hill, about to come up on the darkened site of my old after-school bus stop, someone started coming up towards me, walking on the same side of the street in the opposite direction, about to pass me on a narrow, awkward stretch of sidewalk. It was a slim young woman, so I immediately got paranoid about whether I was making her paranoid inadvertently. She was wearing jogger-like clothes and maybe a Walkman as well, with earbuds. As she was passing right next to me, she sort of looked down at the ground disdainfully and said "hi" in a low voice, and I saw that she looked scarily like what my old friend, prom date and first kiss, Tracy, looked like in eighth grade. Not a total clone, but very, very close. And that embarrassed, hostile "hi" sounded exactly like what Tracy's eighth-grade self would have said had she met me in the same situation! She passed me up quickly, as per the laws of physics, and I did double-takes over my shoulder for about twenty yards: "hey... you, uh, ... nahh, it's not... hey..."

And I wondered for a while, somewhat romantically, if I hadn't plunged into a time hole or something when I slept through that day; if I had permanently become an aged interloper into the normal reality of memories of eighth grade, or... something. Then I went home and checked email.

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in other news...

So maybe you are wondering idly about what Tracy looks like. Well, I do have a scan of our prom picture. But Tracy's eighth-grade self was more straight-figured, long-haired, and geeky, so it woudn't really materially contribute to your understanding of the story. Also, I don't know what I was trying to look like when the picture was taken, and would not be interested in hearing speculation on the subject. And anyway, that's such a home-page thing to do, and I... but no! I shall not give in to the evil forces of cynicism and bandwidth conservation! Here is my prom picture! Kiss my ass!

Last week's piece got some good email responses, for which I am very grateful. It is good to know that someone's reading, after all. I discussed with one person how it takes a while of reading someone's page to get up the momentum to email them, and even then it takes courage. It's true; so much can go wrong when you mail a person or group you admire, wanting to establish some sort of relationship. Someday when I am less interested in protecting my ego, I will write at length about my many calamities and embarrassments in trying to de-lurk myself, both in online discussions and with regard to web pages.

The killer whale graphic came off of the very first page listed in an Alta Vista search for "orca" or "killer whale." It was almost exactly what I had in mind. Two minutes of Photoshop tweaking and I was set. Yes! Who needs stock photo CD-ROMs when you've got the net. The "cop porn" thing came from Crap Hound #4. The new issue of Crap Hound will feature sharks, insects, and bones, and should come out late next month, so order it.

No supplemental reading this week, go look at the Top 50 Things instead if you haven't.

Tales From The Dork Side are copyright Mike Sugarbaker, email for permission to redistribute.
Updated June 15 1996