What Happened in Phoenix

     Despite the things I’d heard, I hadn’t really formed much of an opinion of Phoenix, Arizona before I went there for the first time. For sure I’d never heard anything good about it, though. That’s what I thought as I kneeled on the backseat of a police cruiser, steel handcuffs pinching my wrists together behind my back, the chill of the night air on my naked skin. I had just been woken up to the sound of three police officers violently knocking at my door. When I opened the door, I was further awakened by the barrel of a shotgun, of which I had a great view, despite the flashlight beam blasting me in the face like the sun rising abruptly into the black night.

     I’d found myself with an interesting view of the world that morning, one I had never seen before, looking out the back windshield of a police cruiser. I knew I’d done nothing wrong, at least nothing that bad. The only thing that worried me was the flight I had to catch to Guadalajara—taking off in just a few hours. If my imprisonment continued much longer, my taxi driver, who I’d hired by phone the day before, would get a good show, but there’s no way I’d catch my flight.

     When the cops finished trashing the luggage in my motel room and undoing my perfect, meticulous packing job, they came out into the parking lot and pulled me from the cruiser. We stood there in a circle, the three young cops in cumbersome uniforms, me wearing just boxer shorts. My bare feet stuck to the cold parking lot pavement. My skin retracted into goosebumps. I let the cops start the conversation.

     “You got a driver’s license?”

     “Yes,” I said. I knew they’d just found not only my license, but also my passport. I was going to Mexico in a few hours, after all.

     “What state is it from?”

     “Um, Colorado?” The questioning intonation gave them something to go on, for a minute.

     “Are you sure?” the taller cop asked me. We were about the same height, a few inches shy of six feet.

     “Ya. I’m pretty sure.” Seemingly they could have just called in my info, found out who I was the official way. They could have just read the word “Colorado” on the top of the license. They didn’t have to take my word for it. Isn’t that what cops usually do?

     Of the two shorter cops, it was the redhead that spoke up first. “What’s with all the wet marijuana in the trashcan?”

     Wet marijuana in the trashcan. I rolled that image through my mind a few times before it made any sense. Did I miss a pile of wet marijuana? Maybe. All I’d done was show up late and go right to sleep, realizing I’d only get a few hours of rest before my alarm went off. I was anxious to start dreaming of tropical Mexico. Maybe I overlooked the trashcan, which is too bad because a pile of marijuana would have been a nice house warming gift, more than I would have expected from the cheapest motel I could find that happened to be close to the airport. Then it hit me. I’d been drinking loose leaf green tea that day as I drove from the Grand Canyon to Phoenix, across four hours of straight roads. “Could it be tea?” I asked. “Is it a wet pile of spent tea?” 

     The shorter, dark haired cop, the one who’d handcuffed me, looked over at the redheaded cop doing the questioning as if to say, I told you that wasn’t pot. Realizing I was no threat, one of the cops unlocked those abrasive handcuffs. For the first time since I’d met my new police friends, I was standing on level ground with them. They weren’t attacking me and I wasn’t in handcuffs. At thirty years old, I figure I was probably a few years older than the oldest of the three. Those men were like me; they were my peers. And they could have taken me off the earth that night.

     “We’re looking for an armed robbery suspect.” the redhead said to me. “He robbed a bank in Tempe yesterday. And you match his description perfectly.”

     I thought that was a great quote. You match his description perfectly. That sounded like a perfect line for the cops throw out in a situation like that one. I had nothing to say. Clearly I was just a kid headed for a care free trip to Guadalajara and I was obviously much more interested in the ice cream bars made with fresh fruit than I was in robbing banks.

     “Well,” the taller cop fired back without delay, “what’s with the syringe and all the pills?” By this point I knew they were drawing at straws, trying to convict me of something to make their effort seem warranted.

     “Pills,” I said. I thought about Benadryl and Aspirin. “Were they in a blue zip-up pouch labeled something like Wilderness First Aid?” I asked. “Was the syringe needleless and part of a deep wound flush kit?” By now the cops looked deflated. The adrenaline rush had subsided. There was practically nothing to arrest me for.

     “You better get inside,” the red-headed cop said to me. “It’s cold out here.” The four of us looked down at my boxer shorts, my goosebumps, and my bare feet sticking to the cold pavement. “You shouldn’t stay in this part of town,” the taller one said, and I thought to myself, Why? Because the cops might come knocking at five am, hold a shotgun to my chest, handcuff me, and throw me in custody for no reason? Did this happen a lot here? 

     But all I said was, “Ya.” and I walked back into my room. My things had been thrown all over the floor and the bed and the nightstand. My meticulous pack job was ruined, but at least I’d survived. The cops stood around where I’d left them in the parking lot, chatting and laughing and telling stories (probably they were wondering how scared I’d been with that gun and that flashlight pointed in my direction at quarter to five in the morning.) 

     As I was putting everything back together, my alarm went off, but I was already wide awake.

Delivered May 2013 at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky