Fish Tales: Life in the Homeland
At 9 p.m. straight up, as if a signal is given, the cops get real busy. Low slung squad cars everywhere, waiting in ambush like bat rays.
I am salty, stinky, hungry (starving) and bone tired. I want to get home. The unit facing me at the stop lights up and comes after me.
Americans don’t really want to be free. They’d rather feel safe.
—R. L. Mencken
Life in the Homeland
By Steve Bird
The boat rocks against the north T-pier. Saturday evening, Labor Day weekend.
Been fishing hard all week and a lot of stink has accumulated. I’m cleaning the boat and getting the gear ready for another go-round. It’s 8:30 and I would’ve been out of there an hour ago except for the two Fish and Game enforcement officers waiting at the receivers when I unloaded my fish. Always there these days. More of them than there are fishermen, really. At sea as well as ashore–they got the Coast Guard in on it too–you hardly have time to fish you’re so busy being boarded and checked out. You feel like you’re in some kind of a war. And these aren’t your old-fashion, friendly-ranger outdoorsmen in green Smokey suits. Nossir. These guys are the new breed–stonefaced, uniformed in black and blue S.W.A.T. gear with pants tucked into their boots, guns, utility belts, bulletproof vests. All business. They held me up for an hour while they checked the fish, the boat, my paperwork; just like they did the day before….
A chill breeze pushes from the northwest. The Harbour Folly cruises by, its artificial stern wheel churning the oily bay; tourists sipping wine on the top deck, beginning to realize that this is no tropical cruise, pull sweaters over their Hawaiian shirts and wish they’d worn long pants.
The usual moderate crowd strolls the pier and Embarcadero. Mostly apple-shaped women from Fresno and Bakersfield, their laconic husbands in tow. The occasional local mermaid wriggles through the pokey couples, a different species entirely.
Just folks enjoying themselves, ordered and behaved. No rowdy holiday revelers.
You just don’t see people raising hell in this here town.
At 8:45 I’m almost finished with the boat when I notice the first patrol car slide down the Embarcadero.
An overweight kid sporting a black T-shirt advertising Megadeath throws French fries into a swarm of quarreling, roughhouse seagulls on the pier above me.
Another patrol car slips by.
Slightly before 9 p.m. I can’t help notice what looks like the town’s entire fleet of squad cars swarming the waterfront—spreading out, backing into nooks and crannies, chrome flashing shifting shapes.
Something must have happened, I think, they must be looking for somebody….
At 9 p.m. straight up, as if a signal is given, the cops get real busy. Low slung squad cars everywhere, waiting in ambush like bat rays while the gulls scream overhead waiting for scraps.
Now, the little coastal town I live in has the distinction of possessing the largest police department, per capita, of any city in the U.S.A. Yep. The whole country.
A distinction, no doubt, the source of great pride to some (funny though: when law-abiding Americans visit foreign countries and encounter a considerable presence of uniformed armed men in the streets, they feel uneasy, consider it an indicator of despotism. But there are no despots here. Right?) Thing is: when you have a lot of guys in uniform, they need something to do.
I have to drive through the dragnet to get home from the boat. I’m driving a legally operating but well-used and unavoidably rusty pickup–fishing junk in the back. I pull up to the one stop sign I have to get through on my way out of the kill zone. I stop, signaling a left turn.
A cop pulls up to the stop facing me. Another unit pulls up to the curb behind me and turns his headlights off.
The farthest thing from my mind is the idea of running that stop sign. I am proud of my nearly flawless driving record, and besides, only a complete moron would run that stop with the cops right there watching. I know that there is a three-second interval that one must be stopped for. I give it a five-count just to be sure…light a smoke…put the rig in gear…proceed through…around the corner and up the hill leading away from the bay. I am salty, stinky, hungry (starving) and bone tired. I want to get home.
The unit facing me at the stop lights up and comes after me. I notice two other units, lit up, and in pursuit of a couple other unhappy motorists while I’m pulling over.
I roll the window down.
“Had anything to drink tonight?” the young, dark haired officer asks, leaning in close while I hand him my license and insurance proof.
[Clarity dawns–I get it!–they’re fishing for drunks.] I tell him I don’t drink, and just got off my boat from fishing–and by the way…why did he stop me?
His jaw slacks. He looks up from the paperwork. I can tell he doesn’t like the question. “Well…you ran that stop back there,” he tells me, pinning me with his eyes making sure I’m firmly on the hook, then turns and struts off toward his car with my papers to check for warrants. While he’s back there, he writes me a ticket for running the stop.
I read the ticket when he hands it to me to sign. “Waitaminit. You and I both know I didn’t run that stop sign.” I’m struggling to remain pragmatic. “I know you’re looking for drunks and need a cause to make the stop, I’m cool with that. You can see I haven’t been drinking…so why do you have to write me a bogus ticket anyway?”
At this he completely disconnects, says, “I stopped a guy going 100 miles per hour last night. How would you like it if I hadn’t got him off the road?”
OK, now I know I’m in trouble—the guy’s a hero. But I’m boiling over with civil disobedience now and can’t stop myself. “What has that got to do with our situation? And you lying?” I hear myself saying.
That cracked it.
“You don’t like the police. Do you? I think you have a problem with the police…” he tells me, his hand in the window frame squeezing the top of my door. He is tight and wary and ready to spring into action.
“No,” I say, “I don’t have a problem with the police. But I do have a problem with you abusing your function as a civil servant.”
He’s got one hand clenching, unclenching, close to his gun.
I‘ve heard stories recently, about a cop in town who entertains a fondness for spraying his mace can in folk’s faces at the slightest provocation and I wonder if this is the guy. Regardless, I can tell that I am only one more word away from him calling in for backup and me getting yanked out of the truck, slammed, cuffed, maybe suffocated. In addition to hungry, dirty, tired, on a deeper level, I‘m feeling profiled, disenfranchised, disappointed , disrespected, desperate, mad, and about to go off like a fuck-you-machine-gun—and become a martyr.
Then I think about my family and friends and how they probably wouldn’t want me to martyr myself…I’m beat…hungry…too tired to fight…. I sign the ticket and hand it to him. “This is bullshit.”
“Tell it in court,” he brandishes the ticket, smirks at me. “Have a nice night,” he quips before marching away.
Have a nice night? Must be the sensitivity training.
Justice in court? His word against mine and guess what.
I could ill afford the stiff fine I had to pay. Not to mention the immediate jack in my insurance. Wasn’t much choice. Went ahead and paid it. What we do. That’s just life in The Homeland.
Steve Bird lives on a boat in Morro Bay.