Craig Jones Columnist
He pulled me over thinking I was a DUI, no question. It was late, I was tired, there were sudden lane changes from three down to one, I had just finished eight hours working customer service phones at L.L.Bean, I didn’t probably negotiate the sudden lane change very well, I must have looked suspicious. He asked me if I’d been drinking.
No sir, I said, just got out of work.
He took my license and registration and came back demanding I get out of the car. I was under arrest for a couple of things, he said.
There’s a bench warrant for your arrest. An FTA.
It was an old speeding violation, for which I did fail to appear and also never paid. Just kind of forgot about it, because, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, like so many decisions that have bitten me in the ass later. Those things we “kinda forget about.” Things that seem like a good idea at the time can all add up to one whole hell of a big detour of unintended consequences. Or can the tales be retold? Our narratives reborn?
When I had this good idea of not showing up in court that ended me up in handcuffs and my head being pushed down into the back seat of a cruiser, I was living on a farm, going through a miserable-ass divorce.
I was no farmer, but a guy I knew thought I could help with minor fence repairs, sheep shearing, haying, watching the place, shit like that. I could live in the farmhand house on the property and get paid $181 a week. That’s a palindrome, same number whether you read it forwards or back. And it doesn’t grow to a larger number either way. I remember the figure, because it seemed like a good idea at the time, even though it wasn’t even a living wage. It was romantic. I was getting to call myself a farmer.
My three kids liked the place, when they came to see me. We had a cat and the cornfield behind the house was fun to hide in and run barefoot in, and we told round-robin stories at night and ate ice cream. Round robins, you know, where someone starts “there once was this scary guy who lived alone in a farmhouse, and he decided to open the door he was told never to open. And then…” and a new storyteller has to take it from there, and so on.
I was an ersatz farmer, driving a big mofo tractor, making bales, letting the cows out to pasture and listening to the tin tattoo of the rain on the barn roof. I liked the silage smell and learned that if you put hay away even a little wet, fires can ignite and burn a loft down.
Like a lot of the choices I was making at the time, deciding to switch the plates from my old shitbox that had just died to a newer shitbox that wasn’t yet registered also seemed like a good idea at the time.
I mentioned the cop said I was under arrest for a couple of things. This was the second arrestable offense.
I’ve known a lot of guys who’ve done time inside, time as short as one month in a county lockup all the way to ten years at Folsom and everything in between.
Hell, my own son did time once. And I’d be willing to bet that in most of those cases the man thought something seemed like a good idea at the time, or I don’t have a better idea, so, wtf.
I only spent a few hours, essentially overnight, in the county. Kind of like the night Thoreau spent in jail because he wouldn’t pay his poll tax. I like it that I share a night in jail with him. But it wasn’t for anything as noble as not paying a poll tax, to take a stand as an abolitionist or to not support the Mexican-American War. It was a fuckup pure and simple. Two arrestable offenses completely avoidable stemming from thinking something was – yes – a good idea at the time.
However short or long a man’s time turns out to be inside, it’s always too long. It made me think of how in the Shawshank Redemption Morgan Freeman (AKA “Red”) says when those bars slam home that’s when you know it’s for real. The bar slammed home, and I knew it was for real, no shit real. I walked in, and there were maybe eighteen or twenty other guys, different ages. I tried warming up the crowd with a few jokes, no laughs, tough audience. I kind of walked around and heard stories. When asked why I was in here, man, I told my dumb story. One guy had been extradited from Alaska for attempted murder. Lots of car thefts and B&E’s and drug-related, and man was it loud. The lights were on, inmates shouting, no one sleeping, the predictable toilet without a cover made of stainless steel, nothing anyone could use to escape with or hurt someone.
At some point this guy came up to me, the one who had been convicted of attempted murder, and said hey man have you ever done a Chinese sit-up?
No, I said, what’s that?
He said let me show you.
So he lay down on the floor, the cold cement floor, and said someone has to hold your ankles and someone else has to kneel down behind your head and hold it down with a towel that’s draped over your eyes. And then he said you just have to do a sit-up while the guy behind you is trying to hold your head down. That’s a Chinese sit-up, if you make it. He said let me show you, so he grunted and groaned and the guy pulled the towel down behind him and he eventually got up about to a 45 degree angle, and the towel was pulled away and voilà a Chinese sit up (no one said voilà that night).
So, he said, do you want to try one?
I got it that “no I don’t” was not an option.
So I lay down on the cement floor with my jail grays on, and I was a little leery, I can tell you, about having my eyes blocked, surrounded by a circle of uptight and restless inmates, but I acceded and lay down and he said, “go.” So I grunted and groaned and I tried to sit up and eventually I got up a little way and then I sat straight up when the towel was pulled away. Right then my nose smacked flat into a guy’s naked asshole who was straddling me. Everyone laughed their asses off. Congratulations you’ve done a Chinese sit-up, they said. It was kind of a rites of passage. One 18-yea-old kid in the back of the holding cell had it done to him earlier and was still pissed off. Get over it, they said, it happens to everyone.
So I got bailed out eventually, went back to my girlfriend’s place (now my wife, who saw me at my worst and still married me). I said “don’t ask“ when she came to the door. It all seemed like a good idea at the time. And there’s that tangled web we weave, which is not Shakespeare, by the way, it’s Sir Walter Scott.
Just like Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke thought sawing the heads off parking meters to settle old scores seemed like a good idea at the time too.
The warden says to him, “Maliciously destroying municipal property while under the influence. What was that?”
Cuttin’ the heads off parking meters, captain.
Oh. We ain’t never had one of them before. What’d you think that was going to get you?
I guess you could say I wasn’t thinking cap’n.
Ah, yes, those good ideas at the time, even Hamlet deciding to be decisive at last and saying screw it and stabbing the curtain hoping it’s his uncle and it’s really old Polonius. Good ideas at the time that men seem to have in abundance.
I married her because she had a great ass. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Didn’t file any taxes for eight years. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Had two more beers before driving home. Seemed OK at the time. Hit my girlfriend, shot my 9mm at a car because I was pissed, committed US troops to Iraq because there were WMDs there. I doubt there’s a man alive who hasn’t done something he thought was a good idea at the time that turned into a nightmare.
In his poem Last Night As I Was Sleeping, Antonio Machado speaks to all of us and our good ideas at the time, with these lines:
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt–marvelous error!–
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey from
my old failures
It’s not over until we’re taking the long dirt nap, that’s what he’s telling us. Harry Truman said, “Whenever I make a bum decision, I go out and make another one.”
In the end, can’t let fear of those dumb calls keep us from sticking our dicks out and living.