Not My Finest Hour

Read at the Tamale Hut Cafe Reading Series, September, 2016.

One Saturday night, the four of us (me and my buddies Bill, Jeff, and Don) had no particular plans, so we piled into my car, picked up a couple of six-packs (import, of course) from a local establishment that was known to look kindly on underage customers, and set out to find us some girls.

That should have been the first indication the evening wouldn't end well. We were underage, so we couldn't get into any bars. We knew of no co-workers throwing any parents-are-out-of-town parties, which was our usual go-to. We were just four guys with some beer, looking for a place to go.

Then someone said, "Hey, let's go to Marquette Park."

On the southwest side of Chicago is a stretch of green known as Marquette Park. Wikipedia says it was named after Fr. Jacques Marquette, a 17th century explorer who became one of the first Europeans to winter in what would eventually become the city of Chicago. The park was designed in the early years of the 20th century to provide "educational and social services to the city's congested immigrant neighborhoods."

But in 1981, there was no Wikipedia so we didn't know that. To us, it was a park in the neighborhood. There's a road that winds through the western half of the park, and on the weekends after dark, neighborhood kids would sit by their cars, listening to music and just hanging out, until the cops chased everyone out when the park closed at 11pm.

Some people I knew had the impression that it was a good place to meet girls. I had a problem with that for several reasons, beyond past lack of success. One, unless you get there early, there's no place to park so you wind up just cruising through, burning gas and wasting time.

Secondly, if you think about it, if you're not parked, and you can't stop, you can't expect to talk to anyone. And if you can't talk to anyone, how can you meet girls? And finally, alcohol was not allowed in the park. So even if we found a place to stop, we'd have to leave the beer in the car and it would get warm.

For those reasons, I didn't want to go, and although I was driving, I was outvoted. Besides, no one else had a better plan.

We got to the park just as the sun was setting. We drove in and joined the procession of losers cruising past people seemingly having a good time. We looked for a place to pull over, or for anyone we recognized, or ideally for a car full of single girls. Before we knew it, we completed the circuit and were at the exit of the park.

Normally, the cruisers would turn left and head in the direction of the park entrance, to start the sad circuit all over again. But this time, there was a problem.

"Hey, drive through that alley," Bill said. "I gotta pee."

"We didn't even start on the beer yet," I said.

"I know, but I gotta go."

Cursing under my breath, I turned right instead of left, and crossing 71st Street, I drove into the alley behind the gas station on the corner. Why I didn't simply stop in the gas station is a question I don’t have an answer for. As we entered the alley, I saw that a car had pulled in behind me.

"Wait," I said as Bill started to open the door to get out. "There's someone behind us. I don't want to block his way, so I'll drive through and we'll go to the next block." I drove straight through, and before I could turn onto the street, the flashers on the roof of the car behind me lit up and a spotlight was on the back of my head. I hadn't noticed in the dark, but the car was a squad car.

I pulled over and the police car parked behind me. I cursed Bill's weak bladder as I saw the uniformed officer get out and walk over to my car. He shined his flashlight on me as I took my license out of my wallet.

"That was a no-thru-traffic alley," he stated matter-of-factly. "Can I see your drivers license?"

"I'm sorry," I said, handing him the laminated card. "I didn't see any signs."

"M-hm," he said as he looked at my license. He shined his flashlight first on Bill in the passenger seat, then he looked at the two guys in the back seat, and as he did, the light flashed on the floor, and at the beer between Don's feet. "What's that?" he asked. "Are you guys all 21?" He looked again at my license.

He ordered me out of the car, and once out, he told me to give him the beer. I hung my head as Don handed the beer up to me, and I handed it to the policeman. As I did, I noticed that the cap was missing from one of the bottles.

"Okay, get back in the car and wait," he said, and he walked back to the squad car. I got back behind the wheel and closed the door.

"I still gotta pee," Bill said, seemingly unaware of the trouble we were in.

I shot him a dirty look, then turned around to Don. "When did you crack that beer?"

"When we were in the park and I thought we were gonna to get out of the car. I didn't drink any of it, though. Honest."

"It doesn't matter. It's open alcohol in the car. I'm screwed." I turned to face front and no one said anything more to me until the policeman came back to the window.

"Okay, I assume you guys know that you're in a lot of trouble," he said and I nodded silently. "I want you to follow me to the station and we'll get this sorted out."

I agreed and he walked back to his car. He shut off the flashing lights and pulled around me, and I followed.

"Hey, we can just take off," Jeff said. "They'd never know."

"He's got my license, you idiot."

"Oh, yeah," Jeff's replied. We drove the rest of the way in silence, not even playing the radio. I was thinking the worst. Ticket, fine, suspended license, insurance rates through the roof. Not to mention having to tell my Mom and Dad about this.

We pulled into the lot next to the police station. When we got out of the car, the cop was waiting for us, our beer under his arm. We followed him into the station and he sat us down on a long wooden bench along the wall in one of the side rooms. There was a table across from us, and after he collected the rest of our IDs, he sat there and started to fill out paperwork.

Bill leaned over and whispered, "I still gotta pee."

I felt like hitting him, but I just said, "Don't tell me, tell the nice policeman over there."

"'Scuse me," Bill said, raising his hand like he was in school. "Can I use the restroom?"

The cop looked up at him and frowned. "Does anyone else have to go?"

"Yeah, I could go," Don said. The cop took Bill and Don out of the room. Jeff and I just sat there quietly. They returned quickly, Bill with a satisfied grin on his face, and the cop went back to filling out the paperwork. Occasionally another guy would come into the room, glance at the paperwork, look at us and shake his head. My mood got blacker and blacker.

"So what's going to happen to us?" I asked after a little while.

"When I'm done here, we're going to call your parents and have them come and post bail."

"My folks don't have a phone," Jeff said.

"This is my problem?" the cop asked, then went back to his paperwork. After he finished, they marched us out of the room and into a holding cell with several other guys. There didn't seem to be any hardened criminals in there with us. Just a bunch of dopes run afoul of the law.

We decided that since I had enough money in my wallet, I would bail myself out, then go get someone to spring Jeff. We asked if that were possible, and the cop on guard said "Yeah," then he promptly left us without any explanation of how we’d accomplish that.

isn't Matt and this is no joke. Your son really is at the police station. You need to come here and pick him up."

We sat there for what seemed like an eternity, but soon, one of the officers unlocked the door and told me and Bill that our rides were here. As he locked the door behind us, I looked at Don and Jeff, nodded to them, then followed the cop.

My dad was waiting in front of the Sergeant's desk while Bill's mom was paying Bill's bail. As we walked by him, Dad gave Bill a little kick in the behind. Bill turned around and gave my dad a weak smile, which he unfortunately kept as he turned back to his mom. "What are you laughing at?" she snapped at him, as she grabbed him by the arm and dragged him out of the police station.

While we were waiting for my paperwork to be processed, I told my dad about Jeff's situation. We decided that we could bail him out using my money.

They brought Jeff out of the back. While Jeff’s paperwork was processed, we noticed our beer sitting on a cabinet in the corner behind the counter. Jeff leaned close and whispered, "Hey, you think they’ll give your dad our beer back?" I just scowled at him.

Before long, Jeff and I were sprung and we walked out of the police station. Fresh air never smelled so good. Dad drove home alone, and I took Jeff home in my car, then went home to face the music.

The house was dark when I got home. My brothers were asleep and Mom and Dad were sitting in the kitchen. To their credit, they didn't yell and scream. There was no hitting. What they did was worse. They played the disappointment card. We talked about what I did, and how I was going to take responsibility for my actions. They weren't even going to punish me because they had the state to do that for them.

During the conversation, they asked me about the other guys. We told Mom about Bill, and that we bailed Jeff out. They asked about Don, and I said that we were told that his parents were called. For some reason, Dad thought to call the station and was told that yeah, Don was still there, and if Dad brought bail money, he could have him. After a little parental huddle, Dad went back to the station and I was sent to bed. I later found out that when my dad got there, he was told that Don's dad had just picked him up. Apparently there was some confusion on the initial call, and Don's dad was waiting for them to call him back when Don was ready to be released.

Fortunately for me, the cop took pity on us and didn't include in his report the fact that one of the beer bottles was open, so it was a simple case of minors with beer. A few weeks later we went to court, and after chewing us out, the judge gave us six months probation, after which the incident would be wiped from our records. This story may be the only record of the incident.

I think it took longer than six months to get back on Bill's Mom's good side, though. She somehow blamed me for the while incident, while I blamed it on her son's puny bladder. When Don and I got to the courtroom on the day of our hearing, we sat in the same row as Bill and his mom, and when I looked down at them to say hello, she gave me the most withering glare that I think I've ever received in my life. It makes my toes curl just to think about it.

© Matthew Bieniek, 2016