I bought my first car from an Iranian girl called Sherine for $350. This was in Syracuse, NY of the late eighties. By the act of buying, the car became mine, of course; but I still used to call it Sherine’s car for a couple of months after I bought it. And I got my first traffic ticket in Sherine’s car. I was on Comstock Avenue, going past Euclid when I went through what I thought was a bright yellow light. But the cop on Euclid Avenue begged to differ. He figured it must have been red for me because it had turned green for him. So he came after me, with his red and blue lights flashing.
I had been in the US only for a couple of months, and I wasn’t sure what the flashing lights meant. They meant “pull over,” of course, but I didn’t pull over. So the cop turned on his siren and then I decided to stop, more out of curiosity, but only after turning into University Place in a vain attempt to shake him off. I switched off the ignition and stepped out — another dangerous move that could’ve gotten me killed, I was later told.
The cop looked a little displeased, understandably. He came over and uttered those four dreaded words, “License and registration please.” After a lot of fishing, I produced the documents and the cop proceeded to write up something long and yellow. It was a ticket, but I had no clue what was going on, so I studied him with unabashed curiosity. The cop, who expected passionate entreaties or even an argument about my guiltlessness, was slightly surprised, I suppose.
He then handed me the yellow slip and told me that the light had turned green for him. “So here is your ticket,” he said. I had two competing thoughts on my mind — I had to proclaim and establish my innocence, and figure out what this ticket was for. From where I came, tickets were a good thing; they portended entertainment or bus/train rides in the immediate future. I decided to give in to my curiosity and asked the cop. “Ticket? What do I do with it?”
“Don’t worry; I’m going to explain it to you. There is a date and time here. You go to the court downtown then, and pay the fine for this offense.” So this particular ticket portended no fun. Worse, I remembered Sherine warning me that moving violations meant higher insurance premiums forever. So I decided to clarify the issue with the officer right away. “Do you think my insurance premiums will go up because of this?” I asked him. For some reason, the cop looked a bit annoyed. He said, “Listen pal, I’m just a cop; I’m not your insurance agent.”
I must’ve looked hurt, for the cop soon turned friendly. Glancing at my buttoned up shirt with brown stripes at odd angles and judging accurately that my accent came from a land far away from upstate New York, he counseled, “Here’s what you do. You go to the court and tell the judge that you didn’t do it. Then they will call me, and it is going to be your word against mine. You may get away with it.”
So next Tuesday 10 AM, I went to the court downtown Syracuse. I wisely showed up a bit earlier than my appointed hour to survey the scene and learn how these things were done. My docket came up and the honorable judge, an imposing figure that looked like a female version of Morgan Freeman, started reading out with impressive dignity, “State of New York vs. Mr. Th.. Thu… Th…” The tongue-twister of a surname had her floored. She looked helplessly around trying to maintain her composure. I decided to step up and help her out. “Not guilty, your honor,” I said emphatically.
For some reason, Judge Freeman didn’t look happy. She turned to someone to her right, who later proved to be the assistant DA, and asked him to handle the situation. I stuck to my guns. “Not guilty,” I proclaimed to the DA as well. He looked amused. “All right kid, I hear you. Come with me.” He took me to a room and we embarked on a plea bargain of sorts. He offered “Driving while visibility impaired,” which horrified me. “Ability impaired” I knew meant possible jail term, and with my limited exposure to Americanese, I wasn’t sure if they were locking me up for good. But the DA assured me that it was only $25 and that they took checks. Upon further astute inquiries from my side, he revealed that my insurance premiums would stay intact as well.
All in all, it was a pleasant introduction to the American legal system, which looks formidable and scary from the outside (from John Grisham’s books, for instance). Americans are a strange bunch that way. Taken individually (granting that I have known them personally only in a university setting or as a co-passenger-in-a-flight kind of setting), they always turn out to be nice and generous souls. But embedded in a system, or as group, or even as a nation, they often come across as hard-hearted and less than generous. I wonder why…