"That cop's been following us for blocks," I said to my wife. We were driving west along Summer Avenue on a sunny Saturday a few weeks back, errands done, headed home. I wasn't speeding and hadn't run a light, but this didn't look good. Sure enough, moments later, the cruiser's lights came on, and I pulled over into a nearby parking lot.
We went through the familiar drill: license, registration, insurance. Check, check, check. Then the officer let me know what the problem was: My plates had always expired in October, but the previous August I'd bought a new (used) car and hadn't made the mental adjustment. I'd been driving around for two months with expired plates.
The officer was genial and sympathetic, but there was nothing he could do. It was a state law that I had to appear in court to show evidence I'd bought new plates.
So this week, two months after my bust, I walked through the metal detector at 201 Poplar and descended to the basement to face the music. The conga line stretched the length of one entire wall and around the corner to the entry steps. My fellow perps were a definitive cross-section of Memphis: Well-dressed matrons shoulder to shoulder with dust-covered laborers. Texting teenagers standing next to men in business suits making important calls. Guys in FUBU leaning against the wall next to hipster nerds in skinny jeans. We were all ages, creeds, and colors, brought together in common cause: We had to pay the Man.
Time drags when you're in the big house. So we compared tickets, shared the stories of our arrests, and wondered how much longer we'd be in stir. Several of us got prison tattoos. Not really.
We were entertained by "Miss Maurice," a tiny woman with a big voice and a Little Richard hairdo. She walked the line, asking if anyone needed a job, passing out county employment forms. She called us her "babies" and implored us to get up every day and thank Jesus for our blessings.
And babies we were, awaiting our fate, wishing we were anyplace else. But even though we were making light of the situation, I suspect all of us were secretly glad we weren't on an upper floor, where real crimes were being adjudicated and where lots of people wouldn't get to walk out into the sunshine after spending a couple hours in line.
Maybe Miss Maurice had the right idea.
It's deep in a November night in Memphis, and I'm awakened by rain. It's coming down hard, sounding like a million pebbles hitting the roof. The gutter I've been meaning to clean is overflowing outside the bedroom window. A flash of lightning illuminates the room, and I do what I've done since I was a boy: count the seconds 'til the thunder rolls. I get almost to 10 before I hear a distant rumble. Two miles or so. Someone else's lightning ...