Friday, February 18, 2011
HAVE A GOOD DAY
Have A Good Day
It is two days after my thirtieth birthday when the Denver Broncos play in their first National Football League Championship Game. The first championship to be played in doors, Super Bowl XII is being played in the Super Dome in New Orleans.
And in doors is where most Denverites are on January 15, 1978. In doors: watching the Orange Crush on television. It seems a perfect opportunity, given the unseasonably warm winter weather, for me and my new girlfriend, Marcia, to go for an afternoon adventure: a long bike ride. The streets will be empty of traffic and, for a change, safe for cyclists on a joy ride.
After touring the Washington Park neighborhood where I live, twice around Smith and Gasmere Lakes, we head north on Downing Street and then towards Downtown along Speer Boulevard which parallels Cherry Creek, our destination Confluence Park, where the creek merges with the South Platte River. There’s a fine hillside that rises from the waters of both river and creek up to the boulevard bridge, just to the south and east of the confluence, a slant of grassy open space where we, young lovers that we are, enjoy hanging out: picnicking, napping, making out, smoking, toasting, reciting poetry, taking photos, and watching the clouds and weather systems pass over head. Marcia and I refer to the site as Our Hill, it being our western urban version of a Walden Pond. It’s not hard to appreciate what’s natural and inspiring when you study the progress of a storm front breaking west to east across the Front Range as it collides with a sudden chinook out of the South.
Today’s sky’s a rock solid cobalt blue. Given the absence of automobile traffic on the overpass to the Highlands, the song of the Platte can actually be heard, gurgling and burbling on its meander north towards the High Plains of Wyoming and Nebraska.
After lazing about for an hour - Marcia shoots a few thirty-five’s of the ducks that explore the shallows north of the water control gates and I work on memorizing my latest poem, “Water Running Down” - we decide to head thru Downtown Denver on our way back to South Pearl Street. Leaving Confluence Park we make something of a race of our cycling as we head east on Fifteenth Street under the viaduct.
Now, nothing reminds me of Philadelphia as much as this stretch of Denver. The architecture of the iron pillars that holds up the street overhead, their diminishing perspective, reminds me of the El, Philly’s elevated transit system. Cycling in the shadows, I imagine I’m in Fishtown. Is that the Delaware River I smell? You know, to quote Nicky Indellacato, boyhood pal and lead singer of Philly’s first homegrown Sixties rockers, The American Dream, - produced by West Philly’s own Todd Rundgren - I sing quite loudly, “You can’t get to heaven on the Frankford El, because the Frankford El goes straight to Frankford!” Still, I’m very aware that this ain’t Philly because there’s not nearly enough litter. Not enough centuries’ old grit and dirt.
Well, all this remembrance and nostalgia and romanticizing of my hometown, I realize, has distracted me from the competition at hand, that is, my race with Marcia to the State Capitol on Colfax; thus Marcia, at the zenith of her youth and physicality, at age twenty-two, by pedaling hard and steady, has put some distance between us. By the time I reach Larimer Street she is a good block and a half ahead of me. The incline from the Wazee Super Club on Wazee Street to Larimer has winded me. I’ll not catch her now, I realize, and I give up racing. I fall even further behind and lose sight of her when I stop to check out the movie lineup posted in the window box of The Flick, the movie house on Larimer Square. A screening of avant garde shorts, including a generous sampling of Stan Brakhage films, is scheduled. Finances permitting, I tell myself, we could make a date of it next weekend. When I get back on my bike and ride towards Lawrence Street and Capitol Hill, I spy Marcia some three blocks ahead as she crosses Curtis Street. I also notice a police car slowly exit the alley just east of Nora’s and prowl slowly behind Marcia. The squad car trails her for three blocks and then in a burst of acceleration and flashing lights jumps the curb to block her progress on the sidewalk. I bump up the pump of my legs and strain to catch up with Marcia and The Man.
A stereo-typically fat-assed cop approaches Marcia who straddles her ten-speed. An indecent swagger to his saunter colors his walk. He readjusts the seat of his pants, its pull on his crotch, as he draws near. He semi-circles his way behind her and eyes her top to bottom with more than a casual study of her figure. His cop-in-charge intent is to impress Marcia with his steady gaze, and because he now faces east, he does not notice my approach.
I arrive suddenly, out of nowhere, as far as the policeman is concerned, and he actually puts a nervous hand on the stock of his pistol when I burst on the scene, dropping my bike with a clatter and without regard for its alignment and paint-job, interrupting what he’s saying to Marcia, with a passive-aggressive “Could you tell me what’s going on here, Officer?” You’d think that at age thirty I’d know better, and I do, but we’re talking my girlfriend, here, at the mercy of this badge.
Even before he addresses me, I know something’s not right with this picture. I can’t imagine why he has stopped Marcia, other than for reasons personal and machismo. I sense his disappointment and annoyance that I’ve come upon his play. Stopping and talking, detaining and harassing a woman, one who’d never look twice your way, is one of the perks of patrol; just ask an honest cop.
He sarcastically responds, “Not that it’s any of your business, but she ran the red light at
California Street. And she’s riding on the sidewalk. That’s two offenses, right off.”
Now keep this in mind. Just about every human being in the city of Denver - with the exception of the three of us - is inside somewhere, eyes glued to the screens of tv’s, large and small, with burgers and nachos, whiskey and beer, the diet, - not fresh air and exercise. For the rest of the city, the day is about clashing titans, not riding for joy and the wealth of health. I’ve not seen a pedestrian for the last two hours and but a handful of cars. The city is an impromptu set for a post-apocalyptic film where all but a few survivors have disappeared. It is so quiet in downtown Denver, I can hear the Walk-Don’t Walk light of the traffic signals change against the white noise of roosting pigeons, seen and unseen, cooing. I know I can hear my own heart beating, as I’ve suffered the outrageous behavior of the police on more than one occasion, and as I’ve said, I’m not liking the read I get on this scene. Mr Cop is so cocky, he almost seems to have an erection, or is that a flashlight in his pocket? I know it’s a bully-club of a truncheon next to his revolver.
“Whatdya mean, she ran the red light?” I ask before asserting that “I have been following her and I know she ran no red light. If anybody ran a red light it was me, attempting to catch up to her. But regardless, why would you even care, seeing as how there’s not a car on the street or a person as far as the eye can see? You gotta be kidding, writing tickets for bicyclists on a day like today.”
“You watch and see if I’m kidding,” he says before commencing to write us a trio of driving infractions: Marcia for failing to stop at a red light and for riding on the sidewalk, and me for failing to stop at a red light. When he hands Marcia her paperwork, his body language violates the sanctity of her personal space as she can’t back away from his closing nearness, what with the bike between her legs. She almost falls sideways, he so crowds her, and I put my hand on his arm to dissuade him from getting any closer to her. When he turns to me, if looks could kill, I’d be dead. Obvious it is to me, this Officer Snider had visions of an outcome different than what has occurred. Intuition and my read of the circumstances inform me that he’d wanted to play Marcia, his little sidewalk detainee, a little longer. Maybe, offer her something other than a day in court. Maybe some tit for tat, some this for that. Leniency for loving. I can almost smell his testosterone. I know Marcia can smell his aftershave. Finally his stare down and his anger morph into a smirk; he warns me with mock concern, “Don’t be late for court.”
Now before court, I do a little research as I’m still pissed at Officer Snider’s over scrupulousness. It is pure overkill to hassle bicyclists in a city where there are days that the air is literally unfit to breathe, not to mention ugly. The brown cloud over Denver on days when there is a temperature inversion is so thick with the dust and monoxide of a million automobile commuters (one person per car seems to be the modus operandi of most Colorado drivers) that sight of the Rocky Mountains from Brooks Towers is more of a memory than a vision. Bicyclists, doing their part in the struggle with pollution, should be given medals _ not traffic citations! As I’ve said: I’m pissed and I’m doing my homework and I come up with a plan.
Because the maximum fine for my offense is fifteen dollars, I will plead nolo contendere to the charge as such a plea grants me the right to speak about the circumstances of my crime. I will give a speech that sums up my frustration, not only with the creepy and anal retentive Buster Snider who went out of his way to write bogus tickets, but also with the pollution of this car crazed metropolis and its lame old school, old boy, politicians who turn blind eyes towards the haze. Having grown up in Philly with its twenty-four hour busses, trolleys, subways and el, I had been saddened to discover the effete and ineffectual mass transit systems of the Cowtown that is Denver.
Marcia will plead innocent and ask for a hearing at which I intend to testify on her behalf. She ran no red light. I know it, and so does Buster Snider. I hope the judge will get to know it, too. It’ll be mine and Marcia’s word against Buster’s. It’ll take two afternoons out of my life, but what the hay, I’ve got to vent.
When we appear in the courtroom of Judge Robert Crew, we are not alone. There’s a couple dozen people on the afternoon docket. But because of the first letter of each of our last names - W and Z - Marcia and I turn out to be the last two to enter pleas, with me being the first. There’s hardly any one in the courtroom at this point, except for a few lawyers who are hanging out, hoping to have a few words with Judge Crew at session’s end, and a young guy I take to be a reporter. When I’m asked by the judge about my plea, he’s instantly annoyed when I follow my plan and tell him “Nolo Contendere.” His eyes roll and his eyebrows arch at the thought of someone with hair as long as mine giving a speech. It’s too late in the day for any shenanigans. To delay my elocution, he tells me to step aside, for the moment. Crew wants Marcia to plead before allowing me to speak, unaware than we are in fact a couple. I step aside and Marcia steps forward to enter her plea of “Innocent, ” a plea which maddens him even more. Court time is valuable and he’s not too happy to be spending any of it on crimes as petty as moving violations on a bicycle. Once he realizes that Marcia and I are together, Crew decides to call it a day, and to bust my chops, he tells me to come back in the morning to finalize the disposition of my case. “Save your speech for tomorrow,” he tells me; and to the prosecuting DA, he advises, “Have Officer Snider in court tomorrow.”
At home after court my phone rings twice. The first call is from a stranger, name of Steve Schweitzberger, who’s hoping to run for mayor. He tells me he’s heard from a reporter at Metro State who works the courts of Denver, that some bicyclists are protesting their treatment at the hands of one Buster Snider. Steve goes on to ask a favor. He tells me about tee shirts that he’s had screen printed that spoof the local Pollutant Standards Index that rates air quality as Good, Acceptable, Poor, Extremely Poor and Dangerous. Steve’s shirt reads across the top: HAVE A GOOD DAY. Steve goes on to ask I maybe we’d each wear his shirt to court in the morning, a move to call attention to his campaign to clean up Denver’s air. The second call is from an acquaintance of mine, a photographer of the student newspaper at Auraria, the Denver Daily, Ken Freed. I know Ken because he’s attended a few of the poetry salons I host at my friend’s bar in Englewood. One of Ken’s associates had been in court and had spoken with Marcia after our initial appearance and he’d spoken to Ken about our case. Ken, apparently, would love to document the story of our run-in with Buster Snider. Snider’s infamously legendary, he informs me, when it comes to writing tickets. Apparently, Buster really enjoys his reputation as the most ticket-writing cop in Denver, no matter that most of the tickets are for the heinous crime of jay-walking. Ken has spied Buster on campus, hassling and ticketing students, mostly female, who cross Lawrence Street in the middle of the block on their way to class. Ken tells me he’ll be at court in the morning along with a student journalist, if that’s all right with me.
Given that a friendly contingent of the press will be there, most likely snapping my picture, I decide to amp things up a bit by enhancing the tone of the HAVE A GOOD DAY tee shirt I’ll be wearing with a small addition: a surgical mask, the type I usually wear when I ride my bike in traffic. I also have a World War I gas mask, the strap on variety with canister and big fly-eye lenses that I intend to bring along as a prop for my histrionics.
On court day, the morning’s weather is seasonal and cold. Too cold to ride a bike. A front has swooped down from Canada and the Pearl Street bus has a hard time negotiating Capitol Hill due to ice and traffic. At one point the bus actually starts sliding backwards, downhill, at Ninth Avenue. Still, we make it to court on-time.
In the hallway outside the courtroom I spy Patrolman James Buster Snider. He’s drinking coffee and engaged in mostly one-sided repartee with a young female sheriff. I note he’s got her crowded against the marble wall with his body and bravado and gossip, and he’s leaning in hard towards her, much as he had leaned in close to Marcia that day on the sidewalk. I also notice that when Buster turns to check out the photographer who has joined Marcia and me, the young woman quickly exits Buster’s proximity and disappears around the corner of the corridor, seemingly glad to be gone from Buster’s company.
In court things go quickly, although not exactly as planned. First off, Judge Crew is annoyed at the presence of a photographer and he informs Ken Freed that he had better not use the camera in his courtroom. He glares at Greg Harris who stands with Ken and who obviously is writing things down. After all, this is Judge Crew’s courtroom, no matter it’s the public who pays for it. The surgical masks that Marcia and I are wearing don’t lighten his mood.
Next the judge informs everyone in court that prior to hearing pleas, he intends to hear Marcia’s case and asks her to step forward along with all interested parties. Me, Marcia, Buster and a young female DA step forward. He advises me and Marcia to remove our masks, which we do, although he never actually asks why we are wearing them. Had he asked, I’d have told him, “Something is rotten in Denver.” When asked why I’ve stepped forward, Marcia informs Judge Crew that I am a witness to the events surrounding the issuance of tickets by Officer Snider.
After a brief side-bar between the DA and the judge, Buster Snider is sworn in. He matter-of-fact-
ly details his version of what happened Super Bowl Sunday at Fifteenth and Tremont Streets, leaving
out any evidence of his ulterior motives, while all the while maintaining that he only enforces the law.
When he’s dismissed, Buster decides to stick around for the verdict. He asks to sit with the DA but she rebukes him sternly, “No, you may not sit next to me,” forcing Buster to take a seat among civilians in the back of the courtroom. When I steal a look, he’s gloating and smirking and being his haughty self all at once.
When asked what she has to say Marcia simply tells the Judge, “Yes, I was riding on the sidewalk, but no, I ran no red light. And my boyfriend, who was riding behind me can testify to that.”
Nonetheless, even after hearing what I have to say, Judge Crew does what most judges do much of the time: Crew sides with the cop. “Guilty,” he says as he pounds his gavel. In his defense, I must admit that Judge Crew, in an attempt to feign fairness, only fines Marcia fifteen dollars instead of the thirty he could have. Even he, I figure, must have a conscience, albeit, one void of compassion and the desire to uncover the truth.
And now it’s my turn at the podium. Before stepping forward, I don the World War I gasmask. I strap it on over the surgical mask that I’ve put back on. Believe me, I know Judge Crew’s not enjoying my antics, but what the hay, I’ve already pleaded guilty and the maximum fine is fifteen dollars for the offense of failing to stop at a traffic light while riding a bike. I’m gonna get my fifteen dollars worth of rebuttal and ten minutes of His Honor’s time.
Again, Judge Crew insists I take off my mask. When I do, and my second mask is revealed, the courtroom breaks into laughter before Judge Crew ends the mirth with three rapid raps of his gavel. He warns me not to mock or belittle the dignity of his court.
In my prepared speech, I start out by attacking the character of Snider, telling the judge that even from my vantage point I could see that Snider was attempting to either impress or intimidate my girlfriend. His cock-sure walk to circle behind her is not part of normal police procedure, I remind the judge. “In my heart of hearts,” I say, “I know, Officer Snider was coming on to my girlfriend. It was apparent in his eyes, in his mannerisms.”
And then I address the sorry state of air in Denver, as if that has anything to do with the mater at hand. I am railing against the sheepish apathy of the citizenry, the apparent collusion between the auto makers, the oil industry and government, and dirty air, all at the same time, when I feel a tap on my shoulder and hear in my ear a whispered suggestion: “Why don’t you let me advise and represent you. You’re gonna wind up being held in contempt of court if you continue haranguing the judge. Please, sit down and let me, free of charge, represent you,” the words of an elderly lawyer who has stepped forward to save me from myself.
“I don’t need anybody to represent me,” I say, before, in an ad-lib, I take on the judge himself, scolding him for taking the word of Buster, just because he’s a cop, over the word of me and Marcia.
“What,” I ask, “is it assumed those charged always lie?” I can almost see the steam rising out of his ears as I go on to scold everyone present who drove a car to court this morning, in spite of the daily air pollution index, which according to last night’s news, would be at the DANGER level today. I point to the DANGER level on Steve’s tee shirt with dramatic flair. “What’s even more dangerous, though,” I tell the court, “is a court that believes in the veracity of Buster Snider’s testimony. He’s a prick, plain and simple.”
Crew can hardly contain himself. He stands up and fumbles under his robe and out of his ass pocket he pulls a bus pass that he emphatically waves in my face. “I care,” he tells me. “I care about the air. I ride the bus. And for you, you impudent clown, I have this to say: “Mr Ward, with an attitude like yours, you’ll be dead in six months. You have no respect for the dignity of court and you have no respect for the enforcement of law and order. Someday you’ll need us and maybe we won’t be there for you.”
Before he levies my fine, I interrupt him with one last retort. “I needed you today, Your Honor, and you were here for neither my girlfriend nor me. And trust me, one day it’ll be the likes of Buster Snider that sully the dignity of this court.”
“Fifteen dollars,” are the last words I hear from Crew’s mouth.
Epilogue: And for the record, Judge Crew is still a Denver judge. The air in Denver is still dangerous. And Marcia and I are still lovers. And even after thirty years, we still refer to that slice of hill near Confluence Park as “Our Hill.”
And Buster Snider, well, he’s long gone from Denver. And good riddance. His hero is Henry Ford and if the internet’s correct, Buster works in Detroit for the Ford Motor Company, as he was fired from the Denver Police Force in 1982 for allegations of having sex in his patrol car and later sued in 1984 for Seventy-five thousand dollars - which the city paid out of its coffers - after allegations of sexual assault, specifically, the rape of a female bicyclist. Buster was also arrested in 1992 for soliciting a prostitute on Colfax Avenue. I wonder what the Honorable Judge Crew would have to say to me now and my allegation that Buster was interested in more than enforcing the law on Super Bowl Sunday, which, by the way, didn’t turn out so well for the Broncos, either.