Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Trouble in Texas: How I Almost Became A Lone Star Prison Inmate

I’m zipping down the 10 East Interstate, my car is stuffed to the gills with everything I own, and I’m munching on a mcdonald’s double cheeseburger that tastes better than it should. Life is good. Life is close to great. I was unhappy in Los Angeles so I decided to make a change. And somewhere between then and now, this road trip has morphed into a three day exhibition of me patting myself on the back. I am the master of my own destiny. The captain of my own ship. The singer of my own song.  Life is great.
            I’m halfway through my cheeseburger and Texas when I run into my first problem. A great line of cars appears on the road in front of me, all of them in a dead stop in the middle of the vast Texas desert. As I apply the brakes, I notice a sign on the side of the road that tells me I’ve come to a security check point.  Nuts. This is only a minor annoyance, but I’ve never been a patient person, especially when I still have another fifteen hours of driving ahead of me. I take a bite of my burger and stare out at the dry abyss and admire the view. The sun is still at least an hour away from setting, but the way the light hits the land makes the sand look orange, the cacti brown, and the rocks yellow. I feel like I’m on a different world. 
            As I’m admiring the view, something out of the corner of my eye catches my interest. There is a cop on the side of the road, on foot, running against the line of cars. Well, not running, but jogging. And he’s not alone. With him, on a sturdy black leash, is a giant German Shepard, who matches his bipedal partner’s consistent, patient stride.
            The curious thing is that neither one seems to be paying any attention to the cars next to them. I can only assume the dog is of the drug sniffing variety, and yet neither him nor the officer has so much as glanced at a single car. They just keep on jogging down the road, down the line of cars.
            Psh, what a waste, I think. Taxpayers’ dollars are being used for this kind of security? Any one of these random vehicles could be sneaking off with ungodly amounts of nefarious drugs and these bozos wouldn’t have a clue.
            As the dog and his officer get within a few cars of me I am allowed a better look at the two of them.  The thing I find the most fascinating about them is that they  seem to be sharing the exact same facial expression. It’s that no-nonsense, we-are-the-law-and-you-aren’t look that I’ve seen on a thousand other cops, but this is the first time I’ve seen it on an animal before. For some reason, I can’t tear myself away from this very serious Shepard. I’m compelled to watch him as he and his partner strut up beside me, ignoring the cars along the way. 
            But then something happens.
            As the six-legged cop crew comes to my car, as I am enjoying a close up view of this serious dog, I see the animal’s nose lift up, his ears prick forward, and his head swivel towards my direction. And suddenly his eyes are on me.
            Then things kind of go in slow motion.
 I watch as the dog’s huge mouth opens. I half expect him to shout something like “There he is! That’s the criminal!”
            He doesn’t do this, but he might as well have. Because instead he lets out a ferocious bark, and then launches himself at my driver side window. Two meaty paws attack the glass that’s inches away from my face. What the hell is going on?
            “Pull over!” orders the officer as he pulls his partner off my car.
            I do as I’m told while I try to get a handle on what has just transpired in the last five seconds. Why has this dog taken a sudden interest in me? I look around the piles of belongings stacked around me. Nothing but clothes, notebooks and other personal, non-illegal items. I am completely dumbfounded. Then I realize what’s in my hand, my delicious cheeseburger. The old girl must have been hungry, I figure. I mean that’s the only aroma in my car that would be attractive to a dog, so it’s gotta be that, right?
 The officer approaches my car, he's a big man, in his late-thirties, with a grey mustache. He asks me why his dog would be so interested in me. I confide in him my double cheeseburger theory. He is not impressed.
            “Your cheeseburger?” He lets the word drip from his lips in disgust. “You think my partner picked you out because of your cheeseburger?”
            I open my mouth to argue my case but he cuts me off.
            “Listen kid. This dog is trained to detect only two things: Smuggled people and smuggled drugs. Now, which one do you have?”
            The absurd image of a small Mexican man hiding at the bottom of my stack of laundry and suitcases, whispering silent Spanish prayers to himself, pops up in my mind and I do a poor job of hiding the smile that comes with it.
            “Are you smiling at me, kid? You think this is funny?”
            “Absolutely not, officer.” I say, trying to convey complete sincerity.
            “Well, why don’t you step out of the car and we’ll see just how funny this all is.”
            I step out of my car and follow the officer as he takes me a good ten yards away from the road. I try to focus my attention on him, but it’s hard to ignore his partner, who’s behind him, back at my car, his nose inches away from my door, whimpering with desire to explore inside. What the hell do you smell in there anyway?
            “Look at me son.” He says as he puts up a hand, partially blocking my view of the scene at my car. “This is important for you to hear." I look him in the eyes, the intensity contained in those pearly blues of his are disconcerting to say the least.
             "Now, what’s gonna happen next is you're either going to tell me right now what you have in your car... or my partners, who are on their way,” he uses his other hand to point down the road where I see a group of three more officers jogging towards us, “are gonna let the dog into your car. He’s gonna search through your stuff, and if he finds anything, anything, then me and you are through. Do you understand?”
             We’re through? You’re going to break up with me if you find people or drugs in my vehicle? The smart ass in me yearns to utter these words, but my maturity, and survival instincts, know better. 
 “Yes, officer, but I promise, there is nothing illegal in my car.”
            “Oh no?” He smiles a disconcerting smile behind his grey mustache. “Well, let’s just found out for sure. And while we wait for my partners, why don’t you tell me a little about yourself. Where you coming from and where you goin’?”
            “I’m from Los Angeles, and I’m going to New Orleans.” I see a twitch of excitement on his face after I say this, as if the towns of New Orleans and Los Angeles have reputations for illicit activities or something. 
            “I see,” He replies. “And exactly why you goin’ to New Orleans?”
            “I’m moving there.”
            “Why?” He asks again.
            “I don’t know, to get a fresh start, I guess.”
            This third why catches me off guard. Am I expected to explain the falls and failures that have led me to my current state of being?
            “…because I was unhappy with where I was and the person I had become, and I’m hoping to change that with a new beginning.”
            “I see.” He says with zero inflection.
 His partners arrive at the scene. They call him over and he motions for me to stay put and goes to them. As they confer, I continue to rack my brain, trying to figure out what the dog might be smelling. Did I have anything in my suitcases or luggage that I shouldn’t? Nothing comes to mind. I barely use my two suitcases for anything, my hamper is just filled with clothes, I don’t have a backpack…
   A cold bolt of lightning hits my spine.
  I do have a backpack, I realize. I remember because I randomly found it as I was packing. I thought I had lost it the last time I used it, when I went to the Music festival Outside Lands, but there it was under my bed. Did I check the backpack before I packed it in my car… I don’t think so. I actually remember it was one of the first things I threw into the back footwell of the car. I was in such a hurry to get everything in. But what could be in there? I don’t remember putting anything incriminating in there…
Oh damn, I think, and another cold bolt of lightning strikes me. I remember a certain glass instrument, about two inches long, given to me by some music loving hippy at the festival. The clear memory of me putting it in the outer pocket of my Jansport backpack crawls over my eyes. Did I ever take it out? Is it still inside my backpack?
            “OK, son,” The Grey Mustache returns. “So Officer Daniels here,” He tilts his head to the scowling officer standing next to him. “he’s gonna stay with you while I, personally, go with the canine and see what’s what.” He gives me a smirk as he says this. As if to say he knows what’s going on, and he’s gonna be right there when the shit hits the fan.
            I watch Grey Mustache walk to my car, pats his dog one time on the head, then looks back at me and smiles. Then, he opens my driver door. I watch as his furry partner eagerly hops onto the seat, stepping directly on the burger without so much as an afterthought, immediately destroying my theory, and then positions himself so he’s facing the mound of crap in my back and seat, and immediately dives his head and front legs into the barrage of my belongs, digging furiously down towards the bottom. I watch his head momentarily disappear into my stuff. I feel my balls lurch up into my stomach.
Seconds later, I watch the head reappear, this time with a black Jansport backpack hanging from his mouth. I watch as he leaps out of my car and hands the backpack to his partner. And finally, I watch in disbelief as he puts his nose against the outer pocket.
            “ Officer, there might be a pipe in there.”
            “A pipe?” Officer Daniels replies, gravely. “Is there anything in it.”
            “No.” I tell him, “I’m sure of it.”
            “Not even ash, residue or resin?”
            “Well… maybe some of that.”  
            He shakes his head a bit. “Well, son, Texas is a zero tolerance state. So even a trace of marijuana is a felony.”
            I hear the words, but they don’t make sense. I feel numb in a way. Like I’ve been dropped in the North Atlantic and slowly freezing over.
            Zero tolerance? Felony? I try to make sense of these terms.
My God, my attempt at a fresh start has led me to a prison cell in Texas. What the hell am I going to do? I don’t have money for a lawyer. My only chance would be to call my parents… my parents. The image of calling them and telling them what has happened makes me physically sick.  
            “Alright, where’s the rest of it?” Grey Mustache is holding the pipe out in front of him with a beautiful smirk all over his cop face.
            “I don’t have anything else,” I tell him. “I didn’t even realize I was carrying that.”
            I can tell by the steely look in his eyes that this remark has does nothing to dissuade him. “Don’t give me that. I know you got more. Now tell me where it is, cause if I send my dog back in there and he finds something else… me and you are through.” This is his second threat of breaking up with me, but I can tell this time he really means it. Luckily for me, I know I don’t have anything else.
            “Officer I promise you, I don’t have anything else.”
            “I don’t believe you.” He says immediately. “I can tell just by looking at you that you’re high right now.”
            It’s funny that he says this because I feel high right now. But not a good, happy weed high, it’s more like I-took-way-too-much-acid-and-the-world-is-crashing-around-me high.
“Why would I get high during a thirty hour road trip?” I try to reason with him. Apparently this was the wrong tactic to use. I see his smile turn into an ugly sneer.
            “Because this is what kids like you love to do." He says as he leans in closer to me. "I see it every day.”
            “Officer, I swear, that is not who I am, that is not what I did.”
            “So I’m a liar, is that it? You callin me a liar?”
            This response confuses me. Isn’t he the one calling me the liar? How can I be calling him a liar when he is the one accusing me of something that I’m denying? Clearly he’s playing some sort of Texas Ranger mind game on me, and it’s almost working. 
            “No.” I state adamantly. “I am not calling you a liar.”
            ‘So where are the drugs then?”
            “I don’t have any drugs!”
            The two officers look at each other and murmur back and forth, but I can’t make out what they’re saying. Even if I could, I’m far too distracted with my mounting legal woes to care. I can’t believe one drive through Texas has caused so much carnage in my life. I try to imagine my life after time served. How would I be changed as a person? Who would give me a job? Would my buddies even recognize their former friend, now hardened criminal? I could feel my head spinning.   
            “OK, Mr. Walker, you’re free to go.”
            At this point, I’m almost convinced he’s talking to someone else, either that, or this is another Texas Ranger mind game.
            “I said, you’re free to go. Pick up all the stuff that we took out of your car and get out of here.”
            These next two minutes, as I throw everything back in my car and disappear down the desert, are probably the closest I’ll ever come to participating in a prison break. Yes, it’s not quite the same, as most prison breaks don’t include the granted permission from the police, but by God, it's just as terrifying to me. Even once I am safely away from the check point and the prying eyes of Texas Law, I still constantly check my rear view mirror. Just to make sure the desert is free of any grey mustaches and jogging dogs.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

I Watched the Alabama-Auburn game in a Alabama Bar With My Uncle

I don’t think anyone would deny that the State of Alabama has a certain reputation. I mean, the state’s motto is: Dare To Defend Our Rights, after all, which I think just about sums people’s misgivings of the state.

Anyway, this Thanksgiving I visited my uncle and his family who live in a small town outside of Birmingham. Obviously I was excited to see them, but I was also interested in experiencing Alabama, to see if the Yellowhammer State matched it’s reputation (also, Yellowhammer? Dare to defend our rights? You know your state is hardcore when it could easily fit in as a noble family of Westeros .)

Anyway, after telling my uncle my desire to experience some authentic Alabama living, he suggested we go watch the Alabama-Auburn game at a local bar.  Admittedly, I don’t know much about or care for college football, but I was aware that it was taken quite serious in these parts, so I agree to his proposal.

So, on Saturday, my uncle and I drive down to the local bar, which turns out to be the restaurant/bar chain Buffalo Wild Wings. I ask my uncle if there isn’t another bar we could go to, one maybe a bit more authentic to the area. He explains that this isn’t New Orleans, and that places of ill-repute aren’t highly thought of around here, and anything that isn’t a church is considered ill-repute (OK so I made that last part up, but given the amount of churches in the area, I feel this is kinda true). So when it came to the bar scene, Buffalo Wild Wings is about as authentic as it got for this area. 

And so we enter the Wild Wings establishment, and one thing becomes immediately clear: we should have come earlier. The place is beyond packed and the hostess literally laughs at us when we ask what are chances are of getting a table. Through chuckles, she points towards the bar and wishes us luck.

As we make our way through the crowd to the bar, I find myself slightly disappointed. I know this is horrible to say, but it’s my blog so I can say it, I was kinda half-hoping to find a rowdy red neck crowd here. Kinda like that redneck bar in Blues Brothers where they throw beer bottles at Jake and Elmwood who hide behind chicken wire. But there is no chicken wire here, no missing teeth, or any other silly stereotype I had been maybe sort of hoping for. Instead, I find a lot of families, people of all different ages, pretty women (Alabama seems to have a surplus of pretty women, I had no idea… southern girls man…), and a blinding sea of crimson red and passionate faces. I feel a bit overwhelmed by all of it, but I keep it cool. 

We arrived at the bar to find yet another row of crimson red jerseys occupying every stool. We realize that the next four hours would be standing only. Now keep in mind that my uncle is a man in his fifties, and I am a younger man who loathes standing. But in that moment we glance at each other and nod. It’s understood, we are staying put, we are in this for the long haul.


We manage to get our first drinks just as the opening kick is underway. Everybody goes quiet except for these two Auburn fans that appear out of nowhere at the end of the bar and start heckling the crowd. At first I think they are gonna get jumped, but everybody just ignores them and focus on the game.  Someone yells Roll Tide. I consider asking my uncle what that means, but decide against it, don’t wanna look stupid.

On the first drive, the Bama kicker misses an easy field goal, and that pisses people off.

“Roll tide?” I suggest out loud, but that doesn’t go over well.  

"Randy!" My uncle scolds me. 

The orange jerseys grow even more vocal when Auburn manages to score the first touchdown of the game. I look around the room, expecting distraught faces amongst the crowd, but for the most part everyone seems quite calm. I ask this rather large older man with a white goatee (no lie) if he thought we were in trouble.

“Nah,” He says with a cool southern accent. “Alabama gonna be just fine.”

For whatever reason, the way he pronounced Alabama, with that southern twang, sticks in my head. I repeat it to myself quietly, it’s a lot of fun to say.

 The quarterback for Bama completes a thirty yard pass.   

“Alabama!” I shout in celebration.

“Randy, don’t say it like that.” My uncle warns me. “People are going to think you’re mocking them.”

“OK.” I say.

A few plays later the qb makes another completion.



I apologize once more, and remind myself not to say it like that. And then the QB throws a touchdown and the whole place goes crazy. People who were strangers before are now eager to slap hands with me.  It seems making friends is easy here when you roll with the tide.

2nd  Quarter

Auburn fumbles the ball to start the new quarter. Everybody cheers and slap hands again, and I order another beer from the bar.  “There’s no way we lose this game. Third championship here we come. Roll tide.” I hear an excited gentlemen announce next to me.  

As I’m half way through my second beer I start to feel a little loose, so I decide to ask my uncle a few questions about the team.

“So, what does this roll tide thing mean anyway?” I ask.

“Randy!” My uncle exasperates.   


“Come on son, use your head. It’s our cheering cry.”

“Oh OK. So, where are is Alabama ranked in the league?”

“Randy! Stop saying it like that. And you can’t just go around asking those questions in public. That’s like asking who’s the president. Bama is ranked number one. Everybody knows that.”

“Oh, wow.” I say, thinking to myself that I shouldn’t ask any more questions. “So who is their coach?”



“Nick Saban is their coach. He is the coach of college football. Now stop asking these questions before someone overhears you and kicks us out.”  You should know, my uncle isn't seriously angry with me, he's only half serious.

Alabama scores another touchdown and the score is now 21-7. Things are looking good for the home team. I share this sentiment with my new friend with the white goatee. He responds. “Roll tide.” It’s a special moment.

During the last drive of the half, Auburn manages to go down the whole length of the field and score a touchdown. The two pesky Auburn fans go crazy over it, and I feel the urge to remind them of the score. But I decide against it and instead head outside to find a place to sit for a little bit. I hate standing still.


As I go outside, I foolishly try to take my beer with me, forgetting I’m not in New Orleans any more. The hostess immediately reminds me though, and admonishes me. I apologize with a sly “roll tide” and all is forgiven. Then I sit down on a curb and look up at the sky and wonder about stuff, the way we all do after a few beers. It’s a nice, quiet break from the madness from inside. I enjoy it.

And then I hear cheering from inside and realize the second half has begun so I run inside and find the hostess that has my beer.

3RD Quarter

In the third quarter, things get better for my uncle but worse for Alabama, and pretty much stay the same for me. My uncle has managed to procure a seat from one of the tables near the bar. Alabama has allowed Auburn to score another touchdown while missing another very makeable field goal, and I remain standing, with a fresh beer in my hand, getting smiles from wandering women who are forced to go around me because I am standing in the walkway, my temporary home.

At the end of the third, the score is tied at 21-21 and a worried fog has settled in at Buffalo’s Wild Wings.

4th Quarter

There’s less than a minute left in regulation and the score is 28-28. Alabama has the ball. The camera switches to Nick Saban, the coach of college football, and a few more chants of “Roll Tide” come from the crowd as they pray their genius coach knows what he’s doing.

 The Bama QB slings it to a receiver at the first down marker, he catches it, and gets out of bounds. One second left in regulation, they are near the 30 yard line.

“Hail mary!” Someone in the crowd yells. But Saban never hears them. Instead, he decides to go for a kick. But this time, because his kicker has forgotten how to do his job, Saban wants to use a kicker who has never kicked before in college football. Bold move, now we had to see how it would pay off.

The ball is snapped, the placeholder gets the ball in position. The kicker crushes the pigskin with his foot and it heads towards the uprights. It’s got the direction, but not the power, and the ball falls to the back of the endzone, just five yards shy of the uprights, where it is caught by an Auburn player.  

I only wish I had a camera with me at Buffalo Wild Wings so I could replay what happens next. Two hundred jaws hit the floor at the same time as they watch the impossible unfold. This Auburn player takes the ball 109 yards down the field and scores a touchdown.

 Bama loses. The crowd is stunned, for the most part. However, oddly enough, a large group of Auburn fans emerge from the rest of the crowd, cheering loudly when once they were silent. Cowards.

“That is one of the craziest endings I have ever seen in a game.” My uncle says after a long, long period of silence.

I nod my head in agreement. Then I add: “And not too mention, a real authentic experience of Alabama.”