I’m sitting in the back of the car, wearing my letter jacket to keep warm in the Minnesota winter and my hands won’t stop fidgeting. The red and blue lights just kicked on behind us, and it was me who ran back into the car with the empty beer bottle. We were hoping they’d drive on by, but it’s after midnight and we are 3 teenage boys. Why didn’t I throw the bottle into the snow? Why did I get back in the car? I’m on the cross country team -even in the snow they can’t keep up with me. Billy’s riding shotgun and not saying much. Andy is behind the wheel of our parked car. And my hands won’t stop fidgeting. The policeman’s flashlight scans my lap from the outside, and his hand opening the door seals my fate.
Even now, twenty years later, I can hear the bottle bouncing on the crystallized pavement and the other policeman’s mocking voice as I step out of the car and he sees my jacket. We’ve got an athlete! That evening cost me a season of basketball and my reputation as a goody-two shoes. In true adolescent form I was only disappointed to lose one of those. It was the first (and only) time since that tour you get in kindergarten I’d been in the back of a squad car. I heard my name over the radio. My parents woke up to a cop on their doorstep. I’d like a redo for that night.
That evening has run marathons in my memory over the years. Seeing it with adult eyes, it makes sense. I messed up. I was punished. I learned my lesson. Only one scene from that one night play has escaped my understanding over the years. Until now.
When the lights clicked on behind us, my immediate response in the backseat was panic. Look forward, don’t move, don’t blink. Shove the bottle between my leg and the door. Maybe they’ll go away. Billy acted the same. But as soon as Andy saw the lights, he opened his door and walked towards the policemen with his arms up like he had robbed a bank. I mean, it was rapid response. Like he had been coached. All I could think was, What are you thinking Andy? Now they know we’re up to no good!
Now I know Andy had the talk before that night. Andy is black. To me he was the starting quarterback and the best power forward in school, but he had been told by someone to never assume people will see his letter jacket without first noticing the skin underneath it. I never had a conversation like that. I’ve never had to think like that. Of the three people in that car, Andy was by far the most innocent, yet there he was in the freezing cold with his arms up in the spotlight.
I don’t know what to make of this scene anymore. I realize now it has a depth I couldn’t comprehend in the back of that car. Perhaps this is me being able to see a little more clearly a difference in the world I grew up in and the world Andy did. We may have graduated together. Played ball together. Gotten in trouble together. But it is a different world.