Here’s the problem: too many people don’t know the difference between right and wrong and legal and illegal. And here’s the difference: you can pretty much work out right and wrong all by yourself, standing naked in the shower asking yourself the tough questions. Whether or not you’ve broken the law may take a whole chain gang of expensive law-talkin’ dudes working a cliff face of local, state and federal statutes.
See, we call our elected officials “law makers” because that’s what they do: make laws. All day long. Churn them out like butter cookies. Some of the laws are important and necessary. Some are unimportant and unnecessary. And some laws are on the books for the sake of the lovely money we have to give the state to comply with them, or atone for breaking them. Local taxes would buck like a pony without the cash provided by law-scoffing weasels such as yours truly. You’re welcome.
Still, it’s not that I didn’t know driving an unregistered car was illegal. It’s that I wasn’t convinced it was wrong. And, anyhow, I had a very good reason to let the registration lapse: I’m pretty sure the renewal notice fell behind my desk. Sure, you know, after a while you do think, “say, I haven’t seen a registration renewal notice in a while…” or “the little date sticker on my license plate represents a whole millenium gone by.” But after that first few years, what are you supposed to do? Call up the Department of Motor Vehicles and say, “boy, is my face red!”…?
After a while, this worry blended invisibly into the general atmosphere of dread; one more ounce of heft in the supernal Clownhammer of Righteousness suspended over my head. There are too many other, more interesting things to think about day to day.
And the hammer fell.
I squirted onto Route 1 from a little sidestreet under the nose of a cop. Why was there a cop there? Because it’s a lousy, dangerous place for a Stop sign. People blow through it more often than not. Good sense says “so take it down”; bureaucratic sense says “revenue opportunity!”
And why is a traffic cop’s first question usually, “do you know why I pulled you over?” Is this a test? What happens if I answer wrong? If I say “speeding” and it’s really “rolling stop,” do you get to charge me with both? If I say, “I have no idea,” have I violated some Driving While Moron statute?
Doesn’t matter. I was in a whole ‘nother universe of hurt. License and registration? Oh, dear. I pulled a wad of crumpled paper out of the glove box and pawed through it. My best shot was to take an old yellow garage invoice and twist it into a charming origami swan in hope he would clap his hands with delight and go away. Dammit, I knew I should’ve learned origami. I gave him the newest registration I had. It was seven years old.
“This is seven years old,” he said.
“Yes, well, it’s the newest I could find. It really is expired, I’m afraid.”
He went back to his car.
What happens to people who drive around on an expired registration? I wasn’t sure, but I had an idea it didn’t usually involve several more cop cars, including a paddy wagon, pulling up on the shoulder pinning me in. My little patch of Route 1 was all lit up and sparkly, like the Ice Capades. I sent my brain to the Blank Place and waited. A long, long time.
Finally, one of them breaks away from the huddle and walks up to me. I wasn’t sure if it was the same one. They were all dressed alike, like some kind of uniform.
“Right. Now you’re going to have to start telling us the truth,” he said sternly.
“I am telling you the truth,” I said. “My car registration is expired.”
“This plate is registered to a brown Ford Torino,” he said.
“Yes, well…my registration has been expired for a long time.”
He took three steps away, froze, turned on his heel and quickly walked back to my window. “Are you telling me this car has been unregistered for so long they’ve re-cycled your plate number?”
Yeah. Ha. Suprised me too. And a Torino! They stopped making those in the Seventies, didn’t they? God knows what fascinating criminal mastermind he thought he had on his hands. Poor guy. He looked visibly deflated. I’d embarrassed him in front of his cop friends.
His buddies turned their lights off and drove away. He said, “okay, we’re going to have to tow your car. You can’t drive it until you get the paperwork straightened out. Is there anything in the car I should know about?”
I thought for a second and said, “my trunk is full of ammunition.”
Then it got interesting
It has to be said, I get away with a lot of this because I live in one state and drive mostly in another. Processing cop-type paperwork for an out-of-stater can be an unrewarding pain in the ass, I gather. But this one time, it worked against me. Massachusetts has some of the most anal-retentive gun laws in the country. You have to have a license to buy BB’s. I shit you not. I had all the right paperwork to drive around Rhode Island with a thousand rounds of .38 caliber wadcutter ammunition in the trunk, but who knew where I was at, where I was at?
He was pretty tense and irritable by now. He walked me around back and made me open the trunk. Slowly. Like he was afraid I was going to whip them out and start flinging deadly projectiles at him with my hands. Real hard.
He took away the Big Box o’ Bullets and called for someone else to tow my car and take me away. Sadly, they didn’t handcuff me or frogmarch me or anything exciting like that, but I got to ride in the back of the police car. It was stripped down to the bare metal and there was something like a huge gummy hairball on the floor.
I said to the lady, “it looks like somebody hocked up something interesting back here.”
“You have no idea!” she said cheerily. I got the impression she was the cop taxi a lot. Maybe that’s what they do with girl police.
Pretty anticlimactic from there. I did some paperwork. I called a car rental place and had a car delivered. Next morning, I took the old plates down to the Registry (“woo! I haven’t seen plates this style in years,” “Yeah, it’s been in garaged for a while”) got new plates, put them on my car, paid everybody off and away I went. When I compared the cost of the tickets, tow and rental against the cost of keeping my car in registration for seven years, I was either five dollars to the good or five dollars worse off. I forget. Learn my lesson? What lesson?
Here’s the fun part: he had to give me my ammunition back. Turns out my Rhode Island credentials covered me. A box of a thousand rounds isn’t all that large, but it’s heavy for its size. This one had been in my trunk for a while, sharing space with an opened quart of oil. So — get this — it’s heavy and very greasy. Yeah, and that thing had been set down all over that police station. Everywhere it went, I saw a big, square, dark, greasy, permanent stain.
In remembrance of me.