Last Wednesday, I got pulled over for making an illegal U-turn. As I drove away after, ticketless, I laughed at myself.
I also reminded myself that I have the privilege of laughing after a traffic stop, because I’m a white woman.
It was after dark, I was driving from Bothell back to Seattle taking the 26.7-mile route because it’s without tolls, and I was nearly out of gas but some contrary feeling of fullness and sufficiency let me drive past the Kirkland exits, the Bellevue exits, and onto I90 heading towards Mercer Island with one eye on the idiot light next to the gas gauge that turned off when I went uphill and turned back on again when I went downhill.
Being more familiar with Mercer Island than with Kirkland or Bellevue I got off the interstate and drove towards “downtown” for lack of a better word. Mercer Island hides its conveniences well so I didn’t see the Chevron station down one block to the right until I was in the intersection too far to make a right-hand turn. An assumption that I could continue to a subsequent right turn and around the block led me several blocks along a street that curved with false promise to the right but had no cross streets. Affronted and wasting gas driving around the confusing northern end of Mercer Island I seemed headed through a stop sign towards an entrance-only back onto the interstate.
So at the stop sign I made a U-turn of dubious legality which I actually knew to be of no legality, and before I’d even finished this dubious U-turn I saw the multiple bright twinkles of blue and red lights. The vehicle was SUV huge and brand new and dark and gleaming in the lights of the light bar that are made up of double rows of smaller lights that are all as bright as any one of them should be.
A white, male police officer about my age with white-gray hair that would have been blond in his younger years wished me a good evening “ma’am” and told me gravely and courteously that “this stop is being video- and audio recorded” and he pulled me over for my turn and could I tell him about it?
“Yeah,” I replied, “I was trying to get to the – I’m not familiar with this area, but as I was driving along back there I saw and I was trying to get to the gas station over there but I couldn’t find a cross street and I didn’t see the… or that there wasn’t… and I didn’t know what else to do.”
This is the kind of broken phrasing and fluttering shit that as a white woman I can do very well and get away with while covering for the fact that I didn’t notice whether there was a sign at the stop sign saying “no U-turn from this lane you stupid low-class Seattleite with the dirty 26-year-old Camry.”
Gravely and courteously the officer asked for my driver’s license and registration and held my drivers’ license while waiting through my dismay that maybe my current registration had gotten stolen after all when my car was broken into before pointing to a different date from the one I was looking at and saying “this is the current registration, ma’am.” Feeling silly but not diminished I handed him the two-thirds sheet of green-tinted paper with official seals and owner name and date of expiration that indeed was in the future.
“And your proof of insurance?” he said as though reminding me of something he’d asked for before except he hadn’t, sending me leafing through the papers from my glovebox again to realize I don’t have one of those little cards that’s proof of insurance but just a printout from my insurance company’s website that I thought would suffice but I wasn’t sure because as I told Officer Grave and Courteous “I don’t have my reading glasses.”
He looked over the printout and said “This is a receipt showing you paid a bill.” Oh shit. “I believe you.” Oh thank God. “But this doesn’t show an expiration date.” I was getting a ticket for sure.
All the while I was observing: him, me, my actions, his actions, my state of mind, what I was saying, and my inner observer not minding the idiocy in front of an officer, who probably had a good laugh with his buddies back at the precinct at the end of the shift, or else he winked at the officer in a second car that came by but continued, this white, middle-aged, woman too harmless to require backup for Officer Grave and Courteous, who was probably my age and would be handsome and sexy under other circumstances.
He went back to his patrol car and was there long enough for me to realize how thirsty I was and gingerly get my water bottle out of my gym bag and take a drink.
He returned to tell me gravely and courteously that “next time – that is, if you ever find yourself here again – you can go up to that intersection, turn right, and that street will take you back to the Chevron station” thereby showing me I was wrong in thinking it was a freeway-entrance only. But since my U-turn had pointed me the wrong way for that he ended by saying that if I followed the road back around the false-promising curve to the first stop light and turn left I’d find the gas station and wished me “good evening.” I drove away from Officer Grave and Courteous and Handsome and Sexy and after following the curve back at under the speed limit and waiting correctly for the red light I did indeed find the gas station and filled my gas tank and cleaned my windows and head- and tail-lights and thought of whether he might drive by the gas station to see did I really need gas for my car or was I making it all up.
This is the kind of event I can write about lyrically and with long run-on sentences and be able to laugh at myself about because I am white and a woman and if I take my lostness and bewilderment and magnify it I can drive away from a traffic stop without a ticket for an illegal U-turn and no acceptable proof of insurance.
This is the kind of event that a person of color would have to handle much differently were they to drive away as free and unscathed if I did.
This is the kind of event that I don’t need to fear and have never had to fear so that I could think that nobody needs to fear if I hadn’t attracted to myself ample evidence to the contrary.
Without impugning on the honorability of the handsome and sexy-under-other circumstances Officer Grave and Courteous, I can say that he might have been Officer Suspicious and Disbelieving were I my mother-in-law or my sister-in-law or any other woman in my husband’s family or any one of the women of color I know.
They wouldn’t write so lyrically about such a traffic stop. They wouldn’t have the luxury of driving away laughing, even if only at themselves.