Welcome back, folks. This is Part Four of my piece "Poster Child," based on my fairly pathetic dealings with the police during my time in a New York band.
by Eli James
Tommy arrived half-an-hour after I did. He also wore a suit. Our choice of attire probably showed how new we both were to being summoned. Most of the guys awaiting trial were in heavy plaid shirts, the kind you wear to a building site and top off with a day-glow vest. Tommy gave me a wave and shook his bright red locks before finding a seat on the other side of the room.
After fourteen or so fines were passed down for drunken micturating, the seventy-year-old Adjudicator whispered my name. A female bailiff then bellowed it. I shot up from the bench, nudging past the big knees, buttoning my suit jacket. Before I could get to the witness spot—there was no stand—the public defender had already called out my infraction code and the embittered old arbiter was issuing instructions. If I had felt juvenile when the cops caught me posting, that was nothing to the feeling I got from the man handing down the verdict, who was so much like a principal I worried he would call my parents. “You are not to post signs on public property again. Do you understand?” And he waited for an answer. There are few things worse than being asked to respond to this question. “Do you understand?” is by nature rhetorical and used exclusively as a weapon of authority. And nothing angered me more than direct displays of authority, most likely because it was slipping further and further from my grasp with every passing month. However, now that my “permanent record” was on the line, I squelched my Wild One impersonation and played the model citizen. “Yes,” I murmured, serious and low. I couldn’t decide if I was at that moment Tommy’s hero, or someone both he and his parents would now sever all association with. I’m not sure why this was important to me as I made my answer to the judge, but there was something about this teenager’s image of me that reflected heavily on that of myself.
“A.C.D. six months,” he said. Apparently this was my sentence. I turned to the defender, looking confused. “Your case will be dismissed in six months,” he said in the tone of an avuncular guidance counselor. “Meanwhile, you are free to go, no fine.”
My entire trial had taken twelve seconds, and I had incurred no cash penalties. While I was relieved that my worst nightmare had not come true, I was oddly disappointed that there was no brouhaha. No courtroom drama, no objections, no media circus, no gavel. I was, and always will be, incurably greedy.
“Step aside,” the female bailiff roared, filling the role of what we public school kids called the N.T.A., Non-Teaching Assistant, the grumpy middle-aged woman whose job it was to survey the cafeterias for food-fights and smack anyone walking the halls between classes. I picked up my things and left the room. I collected myself in the hall, wondering if I should wait for Tommy to come out, when a blonde woman in a black skirt came up behind me.
I turned around. I had seen her in the courtroom, sitting to the side near the bench, shifting papers in a briefcase.
“Hi,” she said, and smiled ear to ear. “It’s Marie. Kevin’s friend? We came to your show last month?”
“Oh, yes. Hi.” I remembered her now. Kevin was an actor in my sketch group. He had brought Marie and several other friends to a concert the band had played at The Luna Lounge. I think she had actually bought one of my CD’s. “Wow. So you uh... Do you…?”
“I’m a defender. I thought that was you, but I wasn’t sure.”
“Yeah, it’s me.” I filled the ensuing pause with a short laugh. “God, how embarrassing.” I had always been a believer in saying exactly how I was feeling in awkward situations, taking the chance that stating my anxiety outright would cut down on the weight of it and allow both parties to somehow survive.
“Were you posting signs for your show? That’s not embarrassing. Peeing in public is.” She emphasized this point with a flip of her hair and a hard look in the eyes, smiling. She spoke with the reassurance of someone who sat in on these kinds of things everyday and knew what embarrassing was. “So you got ‘Case Dismissed?’”
“Yeah. A.C.D. six months. What is that?”
“It just means don’t get in trouble for six months and you’ll be fine.”
“Oh, okay. Great. Well, good, I can’t see that being a problem.” I was smiling now. The last time I’d seen Marie she was getting drunk at a corner table at the Luna Lounge with her arm around Kevin. “Well … this has been interesting,” I said, nodding my head heavily as was my way of saying, I am here and this is happening. “Sorry I couldn’t have you as my defender.”
“Yeah, that would have been fun.”
“Yeah. Actually, no. I think I would have had a stroke.”
She bit her lip, suppressing a grin. The policeman by the exit was eyeing me, probably wondering why a sentenced lawbreaker was sloppily flirting with a defender. Actually, he probably had no idea who I was. It was possible that if I had been wearing a wider tie I could have passed for a lawyer myself, and had there not been holes in the sleeve of my suit jacket. It was a costume I had worn in a play five years before.
“Right. Well…” I was sure she’d be telling Kevin about our meeting. I didn’t want to say anything too stupid. “You know we’re playing next week.”
I pulled a small flyer out of my bag. It showed a picture of me sitting at a table with my chin in my hands. She took and held it in the air. She gave it the “this is you?” look everyone gave my promotional photos.
“Careful,” I said. “Don’t leave it around anywhere.”
A policeman ushered me out into the rainy scaffold-covered sidewalk, past a line of dark men being stripped for metal on their way in to see the principal.
I waited for Tommy in a dingy deli across the street from the courthouse. I left him a message on his phone, telling him where I was. I was sure he’d want to wrap up on the event, as all bandmates must after a memorable performance. After all, this was one for the books. This was one of those events essential to the early cohesion of a group. Forty-five minutes went by, and when I called him again, he said he was already back at school. Case dismissed. “Gotta run,” he said. “My history teacher’s glaring at me.”
I woke from a rare peaceful slumber a month later, recalling the words written next to my name on New York’s law books. “A.C.D. six months.” All I had to do was lay low for half a year and, as Marie had instructed, not get in trouble. I’d gone my whole life not getting in trouble, and with the exception of a minor car accident and a mugging, this summons had been my first interaction with the police.
So what could have possibly prompted me, thirty days into a six-month probation, to go back on the streets with a bag of posters and Scotch tape stuck in my mittened paw? To this day, I still don’t know. It was either overachiever’s guilt about not working as hard as I believed I needed to, or else a subconscious longing to see the inside of a police car.
I bowled along the snowy sidewalk without an ounce of fear weighing me down, having worked it out mathematically. The odds of my being nabbed that first time were incredibly small, as close to negligible as one could get. I was one of the unlucky lambs whose duty it was to get slaughtered so that a thousand other vandals could continue freely. Good. Now I was over the hump. Getting caught a second time, in the same neighborhood, that was just out of the equation. So I made my way down Second Avenue once again, not about to let a lack of proper graffiti undermine our upcoming show at Don Hill’s, the band’s first good Saturday night slot at a halfway decent joint.
This time I had scissors and a system. I had precut some strips of tape and had laid the posters in the bag so that the top-right corners spread out in a fan pattern. I could grab them without having to drop everything on the ground. I wondered if I could even pull the whole thing off one-handed. That would be amazing. That – that would be a man who gets things done.
While I looked for spots I was more mindful of the mounds of ice collecting at the crosswalks than I was of any witnesses. The seasons had changed so quickly since the last time I’d been out doing this. Only two months since the summer had ended and we had already had an ice storm. I had bought a new jacket too—a 70’s tan suede overcoat from one of the consignment shops on St. Mark’s—and had only that morning found six-dollar gloves to match it. I crossed over to Avenue A, past several of the coffee houses and record stores. I got to about 6th Street when I spotted a wall next to the Sidewalk Café full of posters. It was a good spot – there were lots of other signs, and the Sidewalk was a place I had played a couple of times. A song popped in my head I would try to write later.
I did have to put the bag and the scissors down and take off my gloves. Only a superman could have done otherwise – but I was still disappointed at having to employ both hands. I smoothed the glossed paper from the center out, and quickly stuck clear tape onto the edges. I stepped back, picking up my bag, and saw that I was right in the middle of the wall, me and my blurry record player, my black glasses and serious expression, the letters of my name carefully enclosed in bold black circles in the top right corner, where the eyes of New York were sure to go. I no longer expected any poster of mine to grab newcomers off the sidewalks and into my shows, but I knew that having my image, my name, the idea that I was in a band and playing planted into the city’s visual current was part of laying essential groundwork, poising the world for a moment not far off when someone would read “Eli and the Indoor Boys” in a review in Time Out and think, “Oh yeah. I’ve heard of them. They play all the time.”
“Hey!” A shout came from behind me. It was close, maybe from the street. Was that at me? I think it was. I turned and saw a beat-up red car, a Chevy, with two bulky black guys in it. They had on puffy jackets and sunglasses, and the guy on the passenger side was looking right at me. At least, it seemed like he was.
“Come here!” he shouted. He was definitely looking at me. He was waving me over.
Come there? Go over to two strangers in a Chevy? Was he serious? To accomplish what? To be beaten into the trunk and taken to the rape spot? I turned down the street, walking the other way, toward the Sidewalk Café, calmly, dragging my feet to create the impression I wasn’t scared.
“Hey!” It was more urgent now. And it confirmed once again that this stranger in the Chevy was calling for me, my movement having triggered more anger. I kept on down Avenue A, in the direction of the bar, quicker, sliding a bit on the ice.
The sound of a car door opening and slamming changed everything. The fight or flight dilemma began, and I always went with the latter. I was fibrillating. My neck was sweating. I was never in this situation, so I had no idea what to do. I decided I needed to be around people. I opened the door to the Sidewalk Café on my left. In, into the bar, heart pounding, still trying to walk as if nothing was wrong, wondering if I was pulling it off, wondering if they were right behind me. I didn’t want to look. I knew they were after me. My flight was bound to end soon, and in a way I wouldn’t like. Wham. There it was. A claw on my arm. A pair of sunglasses in my face.
“You got I.D.?” His face was mean, his voice rough. And there, swinging nonchalantly from his neck, an officer’s badge on a chain.
“I- I- Yeah...” I fumbled for my wallet, shaking like a school kid. Okay, he’s a cop. He’s a cop, not a rapist, not a killer. I could calm down now.
No, wait. I couldn’t. Absolutely out of the question. That badge didn’t look a hundred percent real to me. I gave him my I.D. He gripped it like a club bouncer and stared it down.
“You live in New York?”
“You never seen a cop car before?”
The rational me, perhaps the wittier me, the voice in me that would later narrate this story would have then said, “You’re weren’t in a cop car.” But the me soiling his pants at that moment said nothing.
“Come outside.” I was shivering. I was also wishing this had happened somewhere else, not in this bar. I’d played here before on the stage in the back. Would I be able to show my face here again? Would this disturbance during business hours mean a ban? The waitresses here were very attractive, there was that one buxom one, who was kind of mean to customers but always sweet to me. The fries were good. The barmaid serving lunchtime beers must have thought I was an idiot, a stupid kid a little too old to be a kid.
His partner, the one who’d been driving, was at the door. Another undercover something. Honestly, I was still only half convinced these guys were cops. Yes, I had seen a badge, but I was still scared to leave the bar. You could pick those things up in costume shops. What if they told me to get into the car? What would I do then? I considered whether I would risk getting shot in the street for resisting arrest rather than get into the back of anything.
Plus, these guys had loved every minute of it. There was no mistaking. They’d relished in every stage of fear they knew I was going through. They’d waited for me to bolt, had probably hoped for it. Not only did it allow them to act like a pair of Shafts on an otherwise crummy shift, but it gave them the freedom to scare the shit out of a white hipster. I didn’t know I was running from the police. I’m not the kind of person who would. If I were, I would have run away faster, and not into a bar.
They took my I.D. inside the Chevy. I was finally convinced of their cop-hood when I saw the laptop and police radio. I stopped being frightened and commenced being pissed. These assholes had terrorized me. And now they were bound to find out I was on the record with an A.C.D., making me an official second-time offender. Now anything could happen. I’d signed away my future. I had hoped to at least get famous before appearing in any court, and then hopefully for a paternity suit. My terror had subsided long enough to be mixed with outrage at the wantonly disrespectful, possibly unlawful treatment I had received from these policemen, who’d be hard pressed to justify their use of undercover resources on someone who wasn’t dealing drugs, pimping, whoring, breaking and entering, or playing those bucket drums in the subway, which is a way worse crime in my estimation.
I poked my head at the open window of the car. “Sorry, Officer, but you scared the heck out of me.” This was intended to express my outrage. Note use of “heck.”
“That’s alright,” said the one in the driver’s seat. “We know how it is.”
What did that mean? How what is? Was that statement meant to make me feel guilty about something? Some racially biased assumption? Wow, if these guys only knew how much trouble they were headed for.
“Here, take this,” said the other one, the one who’d laid his gloved palms on me in the bar. Now his gloved palm contained a familiar sight. A pink summons. He explained, pointing to the slip, “You gotta show up at this address. The date’s here in the top corner.”
Let me guess. The Municipal Courthouse in TriBeCa, 325 Broadway? Indeed. I laughed out loud when I saw the date.
“Oh good,” I said to the officer. “My birthday.”
He made no comment. He looked at the bag I had somehow managed to keep holding on to. “Let me see those signs you’re putting up.”
I handed him the whole stack. He looked at the top one, removed it from the pile, and placed it beside him in the car. He handed the rest back to me.
“Take care,” he said, and they rolled off. Why was he keeping one of my posters? Fantastic, now there was an Exhibit A. Either that or else this guy didn’t want to forget where my show was that night. I saw myself stepping off the stage at Don Hill’s, and there in the back of the bar the only black guy over thirty stopping me on my way to the bathroom, his girlfriend on his arm.
“Hey... nice set, my friend. Linda, this is Eli. I chased him into a bar today.”
“Hi. We enjoyed your music.”
“Hey Eli, tell her. How scared were you when we ran you down? Did you shit your pants or what?” He would then let out a sharp burst of laughter, bending over a little and putting his hand on my shoulder.
I resumed my trail down Avenue A, very small steps, my heart still beating irregularly from what had just happened. I drifted aimlessly, in the opposite direction of my apartment. I decided the first person who needed to know what had happened was Tommy. I called him on his cell.
“Guess what just happened to me.”
“I got another summons.”
“For posting signs.”
“Are you serious?”
“You … you realize it hasn’t been six months.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Fuck, man. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s going to happen at the trial?”
“I don’t know, dude. I have no idea. But listen to this…” And I told him what had just gone down on one of the Lower East Side’s hottest stakeouts. Tommy was more shocked that I took my A.C.D. in my own hands than at my treatment by the NYPD. He was insulted that I’d put his band’s lead singer in jeopardy. I was actually pleased that he took it that seriously, worried as I always was that he was secretly grooming himself on the side for a better band. So far he was still loyal. Maybe he would volunteer the name of his father’s lawyer who would work pro bono to save me from incarceration or, worse, a compounded fine based on my current and retroactive misdemeanors.
That night at Don Hill’s, I told the cop story again, this time to the audience. I started by saying, “So I had my second arrest today,” and the crowd burst into cheers. I knew full well I hadn’t been arrested, and that I hadn’t been arrested the first time either. It just sounded so good, especially through a microphone. It was probably the most exciting moment of that night’s show, during which I broke two strings two songs in, leaving Tommy to blather into the mic while I sat on the stage floor unwrapping coils of wire. The cop didn’t show. Either he’d lost the poster or was at a show from another bust.