I was arrested on April Fool’s Day, 2001, for OVWI, “operating a vehicle while intoxicated.” I crashed my jeep into a chain-link fence and a tree, narrowly missing a telephone pole, while coming home from downtown Indianapolis. It was cold and wet outside and the tires didn’t grip. For a long time after the crash, I put the blame on the weather. The reality is that I was drunk, I was driving too fast, missed a turn and blacked out, but the car kept going. I woke up to a face full of airbag. Opened the door. Fell out. Landed on the wet grass. My nose hurt from the impact, and the air stank of sulfur from the deflated airbag. I was twenty-two years old, drunk and depressed, sitting on the wet ground sometime after 3 a.m. I would’ve run away from the scene, but I could hardly walk.
I had been living life lucky. Every night drinking to excess. Trying to start the car, my foot slipping off the clutch like it was a wet bar of soap. Taking the “right” way home, the one that made me least likely to run into a cruiser out on patrol. I was in my early twenties and already my hands would start to shake if I went too long in between drinks.
Some days I had lunch with Nancy, a skinny little white woman in her late thirties. She was covered in tattoos, a recovering alcoholic who worked the steps to stay clean. Attended meetings at least twice a week, sometimes more. If she was having a bad day, she would order a double shot of Jack, lift the glass up to her nose and inhale deeply. Then she would slide the whiskey over to me. Nancy said she liked to watch me drink, that I drank the way she used to drink.
Nancy never told me that I might have a problem. She understood that I was in a place where it didn’t matter what anyone said. She knew that I would have to hit myself with a hammer over and over again until I finally cracked, broke into tiny pieces.
One day she asked if I wanted to come see her boyfriend’s band play. “Derek plays trumpet and bongos,” she said. “Tall, black, and bald. Beautiful, talented, and stupid.”
Derek was close to forty. He had been a stand-up comic, a chef, a struggling actor. He’d played in a number of bands and was trying to “make it work” with this latest one. The last group he’d played with had just begun to taste success, and then he’d gotten arrested. The band broke up; the other members, fed up.
After a few drinks, Derek and I were like old friends, telling jokes, slapping hands. And when Nancy left, Derek said that he had some blow in his pocket. He was going outside to toot-up before the show. Did I want to come along, do a couple bumps? Of course I did. Once I got to a certain point, with the booze flowing through my system, I’d do anything to keep myself in a constant state of oblivion.
Derek confided that he shouldn’t even be drinking. He’d been arrested for “moving some weight,” transporting a load of coke from one end of town to the other—doing a favor for a buddy, he said. He’d been cruising north on Meridian Street, coming from the South Side, headed past downtown. Going through the city would be safer, he thought. He’d be less likely to speed or forget where he was or what he was doing. Going this way would force him to pay attention. I understood this perfectly. I thought of how many times I had plotted my route home in much the same manner and then began thinking of the best way home for that night—the one with the fewest cops, the least amount of traffic.
Derek had been arrested just short of Washington Street. Everything had been going fine, music on the stereo, window down, and then this cop lit him up and ordered him to pull the fuck over. Inhale. In Derek’s addled mind it was just a routine traffic stop, maybe a case of racial profiling. “Sir,” the cop said, “step out of the car and let me see your hands the whole time.” The cop’s hand was on the butt of his gun, ready to draw. Derek didn’t see what was truly going on until he rose from the driver’s seat and lifted his head and focused and saw all the other squad cars and plain-clothed police officers standing there, hands-on-weapons, ready for whatever came next. “Sir, we’re going to have to search the vehicle.”
“I knew I was fucked,” Derek told me. “You don’t need that much firepower for no busted-out taillight.”
Set up, man—is what he said. The cat he was moving all that blow for had turned snitch. Gave him up to the police to save his own ass. It had all been planned from the beginning; the cops had been on him ever since he’d left the house. Never had a chance.
I didn’t know if any of what he was telling me was true. Maybe he was lying. Maybe not. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. Derek told me he had enough coke in the trunk for a maximum ten-year stint in prison, but the judge and prosecutor agreed to a seven-year sentence—one year served, six suspended. He’d cut a deal, rolled over on some friends—saved himself. After he got out he went to live in a halfway house. Nancy was trying to keep him sober, going with him to NA meetings, making sure he made it back and forth to his job as a line cook at P.F. Chang’s. He was looking at six years if he violated parole, if his urine tests came back positive.
Still, there we were, hiding in the shadows of a dumpster before Derek’s show started, snorting little piles of cocaine from the palms of our hands, filling up one nostril until it wouldn’t hold anymore, then switching to the other. We kept on sniffing until everything turned hard and bright and we kept on talking, talking, faster and faster.
“You can’t tell Nancy about this, dude,” Derek said. “She finds out, she’ll drop my ass.”
I wasn’t going to tell Nancy anything. I just wanted another line.
“You know what you call a musician without a girlfriend?” he asked. “Homeless.”
Back inside, I drank. I bought drinks, had drinks bought for me. I kept drinking because one more drink was not going to be enough. I was watching and listening to Derek’s band, an all-black quartet—a fusion of jazz, soul, funk, and blues. And my face was the only white face in the crowd that had now risen and moved closer to the stage, to the band, to the music. So close that we could feel the thump of the bongo drums hit us in the chest; the trumpet was a woman’s low whistle in our ears; and when the double bass was plucked it started a vibration in our ankles that ran straight up the insides of our thighs.
And we danced. All of us. Faces sweaty. And some of the women took turns in cupping their hands around my hips, No, baby, let me show you. Like this. I let them direct me, move me to the beat we heard and the beat that only they heard. Mmm hmm, that’s it. Just like that.
There came a point that night when I knew it couldn’t get any better, I couldn’t feel any better than I did right then. So I left. Waved a good-bye to Derek as his cheeks puffed out, hitting some shrill note on his trumpet. I waved to some of the women I had been dancing with, too. “Bye-bye, baby,” they said, and kept on moving, bodies rolling to the beat. Then I got in my car and started the drive home.
Memory disconnects itself. I don’t remember much of the trip. What I remember is this: being a block away from home, listening to the radio, and turning up the volume. The music is fast, makes me want to drive fast. I speed up, pop the clutch and shift from third to fourth, hit the gas and go; too fast and I can’t turn.
According to the probable cause affidavit, typed-out by one Deputy Kurt Koster, I immediately gave myself up. “Go ahead and arrest me,” I said. “Just do me a favor and take me to jail. I was speeding, and I’ve had too much to drive.” I corrected myself: “I’ve had too much to drink.”
In his report, the deputy swore and affirmed under the penalties of perjury that he observed “a strong odor of alcoholic beverage on [my] breath and person.” And that “[my] speech was slurred and [I] mixed [my] words up.”
While the deputy went to his cruiser, I staggered, fell, got back up and swayed on my feet. I refused to walk a straight line, to touch my nose with the tips of my fingers, to recite the alphabet backwards while standing on one foot. I knew I was going to jail and saw no reason to cooperate. A cop friend had once told me that if I ever got pulled over driving drunk I should refuse all tests. He told me that it would be easier at sentencing to bargain, to get a better deal. Maybe he saw this day coming, saw something in me that I couldn’t see myself.
The deputy informed me that I would be placed under arrest immediately, and that my driving privileges could be suspended for up to a year. I didn’t care.
He gave up and placed me under arrest. He called into the walkie-talkie attached to his lapel, said he needed a wagon to transport me to the Marion County lock-up. The inside of the paddy wagon was like a giant ventilation shaft—all slick, shiny metal—and smelling of piss and vomit.
It wasn’t long after the crash that I was back on a bar stool. After spending a couple of days in jail, I’d found myself in front of a judge pleading guilty to a drunk driving charge. I got a year of probation, was ordered to go through a rehab program—something like AA, a program with steps to follow, a program whose steps I ignored. I couldn’t stay off the booze. Or didn’t want to.
It was near-empty in the bar, the only sound coming from two men playing pool. The clack of the balls, the thud when they hit the faded green rails. The loser yelling “Fuck!” Quarters sliding into the tray and the balls, once released, rolling toward the end of the table at the start of another game.
I sat there and watched one man lose to another man over and over again. I watched how the loser wouldn’t give up, wouldn’t quit. He just kept trying, saying that this time, this time he wasn’t going to miss that shot, wasn’t going to leave an opening.
Shortly after the crash, Nancy had told me that Derek had had a “dirty drop”—one of his drug tests had come back positive. “There’s a good chance he’s going back to prison,” she said. All of that talent and apparent drive. The energy and pleasure he found in playing music. Maybe it wasn’t enough. Maybe it had never been enough. Maybe everything he’d told himself about his hopes and dreams had always been a lie. Didn’t really matter. He’d smashed it all underfoot and staggered away.
I thought about Derek and I thought about how I would have to be more careful now. After the OVWI I would have to pick a better route home. My arrest? It was just a blip, nothing more than a freak accident. This was what went through my head as I watched the loser of the pool games insist upon rematch after rematch. I wasn’t like Derek at all. I could continue doing what I was doing. I would simply do it smarter. I was better than that. I was telling myself whatever I thought I needed to hear so that I could order one more drink. And when I was convinced, I ordered one more after one more. After one more.
I would win.