I would like to believe that when most people think of me, they don’t imagine a man who runs into problems with the law. (Right?) Well, for the most part, that's true. Except for this one thing...
It was a cold Sunday evening in February and I was on my way to a Christmas party. You see, for those of us in the restaurant industry, we don’t celebrate Christmas—we work it. And when it comes to any type of work function to celebrate the season, it’s not for weeks until after holidays are over that we actually get together to kick back our feet and drink a few too many beers.
So once arriving at my destination, a bar in the Arena District, I reached for my ID and realized I left my wallet at my house. Silly me! I fortunately only lived a few streetlights away, so I hopped back into my car and drove back to find it.
As I was dialing my best friend Tonia to let her know I was going to be late, I suddenly saw lights flashing in my rear view mirror. I hadn’t been speeding, I certainly hadn’t been drinking, and I could think of no reason I was being pulled over—well, except that I didn’t have a license on me.
“Tonia, shit, I’m getting pulled over.” And I hung up.
The police officer, a tall, younger man with short shaved hair, strolled up to my car and lightly tapped on my window. “License, registration and proof of insurance, please.” He spoke nonchalantly, chomping on some gum and not even looking me in the eye. He had that slight twang in his voice; not a southern dipthong, but more along the lines of a boy who grew up in Grove City, Ohio.
“Sure, officer, but may I ask why I am being pulled over?”, meanwhile trying to figure out how I was going to explain to him why I didn’t have my license.
“Your tags. They’re expired.”
“But that’s impossible, I got them just over a year ago!”
“Yeah, exactly. They’re only good for one year.”
My eyes stared dumbfounded back at him. I had only been in Ohio for a year, and back home in Maryland you only had to register your tags every two years. In all sincerity I had no idea.
I explained to him the situation, which he understood. “Still, I need to see your license, registration and proof of insurance.”
“Ok, well, officer, that’s the thing—I’m on my way now to get my license. I left my entire wallet at home. But I only live up the street!”
“Sir, it’s no big deal. What about your insurance?”
“Officer, honestly, my Geico ID card is in my wallet.”
“God, it’s not your day, is it?” The officer said, smirking and finally looking me in the eye. “Let me just see your registration and I’ll let you be on your way.”
I reached into the glove compartment and found the registration, which I handed to him. He walked back to his car and sat for a few minutes. I rested there relatively smoothly, knowing that when he returned to my car I’d be allowed to get back on the road, grab my wallet and return to the party.
Distinctly, I remember the way he walked back to my car: the frivolity was gone; the smirk he wore had disappeared. Now, he walked stern, fast, angered. Instead of a light tap on my window, it was a pound.
“Sir, state to me your name and social security number.” The officer yelled, Grove City drawl gone.
“Chris Hooker! Nine-two-nine-seven…”
“Sir, step out of the car.”
“IT WILL BE IN YOUR BEST INTEREST TO DO AS I SAY.”
I jumped out of the car, only to be thrown against the door I had just shut. “Sir, you are under arrest.”
“Officer, what did I do?”
“Operation of a stolen vehicle, false identity…”
“Stolen? What? I own this car!”
The officer said nothing further as he clamped the cuffs around my wrists. He had them so tight I felt a sharp sting against my skin. The blood was losing circulation to my hands. It was not just merely uncomfortable; it hurt enough to shut me up.
He roughly dragged me back to his cop car and threw me into the back seat. “Officer, what is going on?”
“Sir, this vehicle you are driving is not registered to a Chris Hooker, nor to the social security number you provided. You have expired tags, you do not have a license, nor do you have proof of insurance. And, though this is not as important, you’re missing a front headlight.”
I had no idea what to say, because everything he said was true—except that I owned the car. This was just a terrible misunderstanding, one that even I had not understood.
“Officer, what is the social security number?”
I recognized the number, but I had no idea why. My parents had not co-signed my car, but for some reason I thought it could have been their social. I sat their in silence, maybe uttering a “umm” or two. “Officer, I think that is, umm, my step-father’s…”
“Huh? You think?”
“Well, it just sounds like it.”
“So what do you want me to do about it?”
“Call him. Ask him his social.”
The officer adjusted his mirror to look at me in the reflection. He let out a deep breathe and said, “Fine, kid, you get one call. If he doesn’t pick up, I’m driving off.”
Those few seconds were probably the most stressful moments of my life. I have never had so much staking on my step-father picking up his phone. And, considering my step-father is the kind that frequently turns off his cell-phone for no reason at all, I was thoroughly terrified.
He picked up.
“This is Stan.”
“Hi there Stan, this is Officer McBride. I have your son.”
“Oh Lord, what has he done?”
“Before I answer that, tell me your social.”
If I hadn’t been cuffed, I would have been biting my nails. The agony was culminating to this very second. If I was wrong, and that was not his social security number, it was off to jail for me.
“Well, I’ll be damned…” The officer said. It was exactly my step-father’s social.
After a few more minutes of talk, we discovered what had happened. When I registered the tags, I presented my military ID, since my step-father was retired navy. That ID card presents two social security numbers—my step-father’s, since he was the actual retiree, and me, the dependent. When they registered my vehicle, they must have accidently misread the ID card and typed in the wrong social security number.
The officer got off the phone with my step-father and then turned around to speak to me, “So, son, you’re kind of lucky today. Except for one major problem—how can you prove any of this?”
Fuck. I wanted to scream it.
“I mean, kid, you have no proof of anything and then you give me some number to call in which some guy magically knows the right numbers…and you expect me to believe it?”
Fuck. I almost screamed it.
“On top of that, your license isn’t even coming up in Ohio. I found a 19-year-old Chris Hooker in Maryland, but that license was registered years ago. If that’s you, and you’ve been living here in Ohio for at least a year, that is another punishable offense. You are required by law to change IDs within three months of moving. In a court of law they can fine you $3000 and make you spend up to 3 months in prison.”
I didn’t know what to say. Everything he was saying was true—but it came from sheer ignorance, not from flippant indolence. I truthfully had insurance, a valid license (in my mind), valid tags (in my mind) and I certainly owned the car. From his perspective, though, things looked far worse.
“Kid, let me ask you something—where were you going?”
“A work Christmas party.”
He arched his neck back around and gave me a bewildering and confused look. “A Christmas party in February? You’ve got to be making this shit up.”
“No, no, really! It’s a restaurant thing.” I said, hoping that maybe if he got to know even a little about me he’d realize I wasn’t the type to steal a car—much less one that had invalid tags!
“So, where do you work then?”
“The Ocean Club at Easton. I also work at Cheesecake Factory.”
That’s when he slouched a bit and that smirk popped back onto his face.
“Oh, boy. I bet that’s a fun job.” He said, chuckling all the while. “Do a lot of those coloreds come in?”
If it were possible, I think my eyes would have fallen out of my head. I could not believe that a cop just asked me if “coloreds” ate at my restaurant.
“Yeah, you know, I’ve been there. Cheesecake Factory. They’re always there. They just love it. So loud and yelling and shit. Do they always ask for extra shit?”
I was at a loss for words. I had the most racist man I had seen in years just burping out some nonsense to me—yet at the same time, I had an opportunity. One that I knew I had to take. If it was $3000 in fines and 3 months in jail, or the loss of my dignity…well, my dignity was far easier to restore! Like they say, ‘it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission’.
My dignity was taken and sold at a low-low price, and that’s when I burped out the same drivel right back at him. “Oh, god, you know they love them some extra shit! Extra hot wings with extra blue cheese, extra ranch on their salad with extra bacon, extra bread with extra butter! And, do I get an extra tip for any of this extra shit? Hell no! I'm excited if I even get a tip!"
The cop could not stop snickering. I, on the other hand, could not have felt worse--but I continued on. "They always roll up into Cheesecake and they’ll be like, “Man…I want me a boof’!”
The officer just busted out laughing, even clapping his hand. “’Boof’…ha ha ha, is that for ‘booth’? That’s classic! Did no one teach them grammar when they went to school?”
“School?”, I interjected, “School? You know they never went to school!”
Oh I had him with that one. He just let out a howl as if I was the funniest person he had spoken to in years. “Oh, my…that’s…I can’t even breathe!”
I immediately piped in and told him the true story of when I waited on Lebron James and the fiasco that ensued. ‘The King’ and some other Cleveland Cavaliers went to Easton picking up random girls and decided the best way to woo them over was buying them a free dinner at Cheesecake Factory. There were 16 of them total and they ran me around for Strawberry Lemonade as if I were a homeless man at the last call of an all-you-can-eat buffet. The Cavs who were of drinking age opted out of ordering a bottle of wine—but instead ordered a bottle of Hennessey. No joke. And, I swear to God, they asked for Kool Aid with it.
The cop could not get enough of it. He thought I was the funniest thing since Harold and Kumar. After finishing my story, he looked at me in his mirror, directly in my eye, and said, “You know, kid, you’ve got a lot against you. You have no ID, no real registration, no proof of insurance, you don’t have an Ohio license, your tags are expired and even your front headlight is out. On top of that, the registration you provided me has very conflicting information. Everything I know is saying your stole this car. However, for some odd reason…I believe you. Maybe it’s cause you’re funny as hell, I don’t know, but kid…I’m letting you go this time. You have one week to come to the station and prove to me everything that you are saying is true. If you don’t, I’ll come for you and put you away for a year.”
And just like that he hopped out the car, uncuffed me and let me go on my way. With my dignity diminished, my spirits low, and my mind disillusioned, I pulled myself back into my car. I drove home, shaking, and eventually found my ID. Then, not surprisingly, I took a deep breathe, put my jacket back on...and headed straight back to the bar. Because after a night like that, I think anyone would need a drink, and of course, an audience to listen to the tale.