This is part two of a continuation of the “momma don’t let your babies grow up to be carnies” chapter of my “all the dumb things” series. This chapter deals with the time when I used to work for a Laser show, travelling the carnival and car show circuit in the US back in thi late seventies and early eighties.
After finishing the Arizona state fair in Phoenix (1980) I took a one-week break from the Laser show. I had to fly to Houston Texas to meet up with Buzz and Jordan, who had driven the truck across. On the way to Houston (to do a car show), the guys got a ticket in Oklahoma for having one of the headlights, on the truck, out of order. In the meantime Tom who worked at the head office in Columbus Ohio as a technician also came down to Huston to help out.
One night after a show, Tom and I decided to go out on the town. Buzz and Jordan were tired and went back to the hotel. We’d taken the un-hitched truck and had driven few blocks from the Astrohall (where the show was), when we were pulled over by a police car. We turned into the Holiday Inn car park and waited, with our hands in plain view, for the policeman to come to the truck. As one does, if one doesn’t want to get shot by a justifiably nervous policeman.
We waited and waited, for what seemed like about 10 minutes, still no policeman. The lights on the patrol car were still flashing but the cop stayed in the car. After a while we were thinking that perhaps it wasn’t us that he wanted to pull over, but we still stayed put and waited some more, speculating why we’d been pulled over. Perhaps it had something to do with the ticket Buzz received for the damaged headlight, a week previously that still hadn’t been fixed. Finally I got the none too bright idea that I’d ask the policeman what he wanted. I got out of the truck and asked the policeman what was up. He started screaming at me, as he was getting out of the car while simultaneously pulling out his baton.
PLACE YOUR HANDS ON THE FRONT OF THE PATROL CAR!
SPREAD YOUR LEGS!
He then called for back up, after which he walked up to the truck and started yelling at Tom.
GET DOWN FROM THE TRUCK!
PLACE YOUR HANDS ON THE FRONT OF THE PATROL CAR!
SPREAD YOUR LEGS!
Tom, being the quiet and unassuming guy that he was, knew the drill and did as he was told in mute compliance. The cop then rewarded Tom’s unquestioning obedience by unnecessarily hitting him on the insides of his knees with the baton to get him to spread his legs even further. At this point I asked to policeman what was going on.
SHUT YOUR F#$%ING MOUTH YOU HIPPY A$$HOLE!
Within about 2 minutes the back up arrived. First one, then two, three, four police cars, all with lights flashing, arrived and out leapt another six or more police. So now there was about seven police on the scene.
The situation was getting ridiculous. A crowd was starting to form. They must have thought some of the F.B.I’s most wanted had just been captured. The police were in a circle around us about 4 metres (about 12′) away and not approaching. Just standing in a circle, hands resting on their guns and batons with the flashing lights adding to the surreal scene. It was like a piece of dada theatre, it just didn’t make sense. Everything the police were doing seemed out of proportion and inappropriate.
After a while I called out to them, “hey don’t you think you’re overreacting, we’ve only got a headlight missing”.
SHUT YOUR F#$%ING MOUTH YOU HIPPY A$$HOLE!
YOU’RE GOING TO JAIL!
Then one of the other policemen came up to us with his baton out and very wearily from as far from me as he could get, patted me down with his truncheon. Tom, who hadn’t said a word, was also patted down the same way with the exception he got hit on the leg again, for no good reason. After the pat down, the back door of the patrol car was opened up, all the cops stepped back a pace and we were told to get in. The police had seemed very nervous and stayed at least 3 metres away (with the exception of the pat down) the whole time. Luckily we weren’t handcuffed.
On the way to the police station, I asked our host and chauffeur what were we being charged with.
SHUT YOUR F#$%ING MOUTH YOU HIPPi A$$HOLE!
ONE MORE WORD OUT OF YOU AND YOU’RE GOING TO BE REEEEL SORRY!
As we came to a halt at the police station another cop stuck his head in the open front passenger window and exclaimed,
YOU GOT YOURSELF SOME MIGHTY PURDY GALS THERE!
LOOKY THAT HAYAR!
This stuff was starting to wear thin, so I (unwisely) said to our latest acquaintance, “you know you wouldn’t say that to me on the street if you weren’t in that uniform, so why are you saying it to me now?” Strangely he didn’t reply or do anything. In retrospect, I realise how lucky I am to still have all my front teeth. WHEW! That was a close call.
In the police station we were booked in, fingerprinted and photographed. I still didn’t know what we were arrested for. After processing we were led into the holding tank.
The holding tank was a big cell with about another thirty or forty mostly white guys in it. So there I was in a cell with a bunch of other desperados of the most minor kind, doing the jail meet and greet thing, just like in the movies. “Hi, what are in for?” Sort of thing. The guys had been mainly brought in for fighting, shoplifting and being drunk. Every one was amiable and soon everyone knew everyone else’s story.
There were a few anomalies though. There was one guy dressed up as Jesus who had been dragging a large wooden cruxcifix across the country and he had been picked up for vagrancy. Another guy that stood out was an impeccably dressed old (he looked about 70) black man. He wasn’t dressed in an overly flash way but I could see he was a man of quality and style. I went up to him to find out why he was in. He told me that he’d gone into bar and ordered a cocktail. He was half way through his drink when the manager told him to leave. To this, the old gentleman replied, “I’ll leave when I’ve finished this drink I’ve paid for”. Fair enough I thought. Who’d want to stay in such a place any way? The manager called the police, they arrived within minutes and this lovely, refined old man was arrested for trespassing! It’s no wonder that some black people in the U.S. are so pissed off.
The highlight of the evening came, when a very tall and thin guy in his early twenties, with a T-shirt covered in vomit and his face all smashed up and smeared with his blood, was brought into the cell by two very beefy policemen. This battered, bedraggled, beanpole was wearing a T-shirt that had written on it, “winning isn’t everything but losing sucks”. As the police let go of their grip on him, he fell face first into the concrete floor of the cell and didn’t move. The police just slid the cell door closed and left. Some guys lifted him up onto a bench and put him into a recovery position. I asked the beanpole in the morning what had happened, thinking perhaps the police had done a number on him. The beanpole told me that he had been drinking all day and then took a couple of hits of acid. Apparently he’d been staggering around the streets, doing face plants into the pavement every now and again. The police had picked him up for his own protection.
Oddly, there was an almost party atmosphere of bonhomie in the holding cell that night. Everyone was getting along and I think that most of us were almost enjoying the novelty. I can remember thinking to myself “so this is what it’s like to be in jail”.
Later that evening we were divided up into groups of six and put into smaller cells. In the morning we were herded into a big holding cell again and given breakfast.
Breakfast was grits, a piece of white bread and a splash of corn syrup on a greasy, chipped enamel tin plate (What did I expect? Silver service?). I just put it aside. This weedy little mouthy stoat of a guy who’d been yapping on and on all morning came over to me and asked if he could have it. “Sure can”, I said, and I was shocked to see the noisy little stoat wolf the lot down with so much relish. He even licked the plate while declaring his love of grits. It was a real lesson to me about what I thought normal was and what “normal” is for other people. My idea if a normal or even acceptable breakfast sure wasn’t even in the same universe as the as the one that was home to the stoat or the justice department of Huston. Now these thoughts weren’t occurring to me because I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, they were occurring to me because the jail food was just bad on so many levels. It was tepid, bland and had no nutrition other than carbohydrates. The thing that really got me about the stoat and his love of the breakfast was it got me thinking about what kind of home he came from if he thought it was such a great breakfast. No wonder he was in jail….. hang on a second, so was I, and I was brought up on much better breakfasts!
The people in the morning’s holding cell were a totally different crowd from the night before. There were some very salty looking hard guys giving off a decidedly cold vibe that put a shiver up the backs of us minor transgressors. They were real hard-core criminals. Nobody asked those guys what they were in for. Everyone was quiet except for the stoat (there’s always one). He was crapping on about how he was going to kick some pig asses and what a tough guy he was. He wasn’t fooling anyone. Every one in the cell had his measure and I’m sure that if push came to shove, there wasn’t anyone there who couldn’t kick his butt. It was bizarre how out of touch this guy was, with the reality of his situation. Must have something to do with being raised on a diet of highly processed carbohydrates. Maybe he was tripping on sugar.
Eventually one of the stone cold guys who looked like a solid lump of angry gristle, growled at the stoat to “shut tha’ f#%k up or I’m gunna f#%k yoo”! I’m sure he didn’t mean in the nice way either. That didn’t stop the stoat, so the gristle dropped his plate, got up and started moving towards him. It was like the gristle was Moses and the rest of us were the Red Sea. He stepped forward and we parted. The stoat just stood there mouthing off. We all knew things were going to get ugly for the stoat and I’m sure that just about everyone in the cell, sided with the gristle.
The stoat was saved from a character building experience by the timely appearance of a policeman at the bars of the cell. The policeman got our attention by running his baton along the bars. As one, our focus snapped from the gristle and stoat train crash that was about to happen, to the huge silverback in uniform that rattled our cage. This cop was really scary; he made the gristle look normal in comparison. The silverback didn’t seem to be interested in what was going on in the cell, he just told us what was on our agenda for the morning, in a voice, that left none of us in doubt of who was really in charge.
We were told that we were going to be taken into a courtroom where we were to either plead guilty or not guilty in front of a judge. If we pled guilty then we either paid a fine or went back to jail. If you couldn’t pay your fine, then you’d have to stay in jail for one day for every $10 or part thereof. So if your fine were $45, that would mean that you’d have to stay in jail for five days. We were then told that if we pled not guilty, we went back into jail to arrange bail until the trial. We were told bail usually takes several hours and that if we pleaded not guilty we’d get out of jail by late afternoon. We were also told that if we were being held for a misdemeanour, the bail would be for about $10 more than the fine and we’d have to come back in a week for the trial. I understood the announcement as; plead guilty, get out quick. Plead not guilty, pay more money, get out much later and then get messed around some more in a week with the possibility of paying even more money. I still didn’t know what I was charged with and I hadn’t seen Tom since the night before.
After the announcement (luckily for the stoat) we were led into the courtroom and sat in a block of pews together. As I walked into the courtroom, I could see Buzz, Jordan and Tom in the visitor’s seating area. What was Tom doing there I thought? Maybe he’d been proiessed earlier and had phoned (I hadn’t been allowed to phone anyone) Buzz and Jordan to come and pick us up. It was nice to see the guys, it was just like when you arrive from overseas at an airport and your family is waiting for you.
I found out later that Tom was released at 3am after he paid the fine for driving the truck with a headlight out. Tom told me that the police had asked him what my problem was when they let him go. PROBLEM! WHAT PROBLEM?!
One by one our names were called out and the charges were read and pleas of guilty or not guilty were made. Woes betide those who said anything other than guilty or not guilty. The judge was a short tempered, jaded piece of wrinkled meat. A Hispanic guy tried to protest that he was framed by the police for marijuana possession and shouldn’t even be there in the first place, was told to shut up and plead or his “wetback” arse was going back into jail for contempt of court. Now I can understand that judges are probably so sick and tired of having their time wasted by people who lie to them. It was the public nature of the “wetback” remark that blew me away. I didn’t think that was something that people (particularly people in authority) said in public and front of large groups of people. Up until that moment I thought that racism was an old fashioned private thing that people were ashamed of and kept to themselves.
Finally my name was called and the charge of “public intoxication under an unknown foreign substance” was read out. This was the first time I’d heard what I was being charged with and what the fine was going to be. The fine was about $70, so I had about three nanoseconds to make up my mind. To either plead not guilty, pay $80 for bail and get out later that day, to then come back about a week later for the court case (such as it was) or plead guilty and pay $70 and get out straight away. For me it was no contest, just plead guilty and get the guys to pay the fine to get out straight away.
So there you have it, I pleaded guilty and now have a record just so I could go about my business without being deprived of my liberty a second longer.
I didn’t get my drivers licence for another 10 years because of what I went through in Huston. The way I had it figured, was that if you drove a car, the police could step into your life; take away your freedom; stick their hands into your pocket and help them selves to whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted for whatever reason they could think up.
As I was paying my fine and my possessions were being handed to me, the policeman who I was dealing with noticed my passport and saw I was from Australia. His mood changed completely and a smile swept across his face as he said to “you’re from Australia?” “That’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit”. “So what do you think of Huston?”