It was a hurry-scurry morning when I was running late last December.
Flying from food co-op pickup to volunteer at my little boy’s school wasn’t a good time to discover the railroad tracks were being replaced at the single crossing I was familiar with there in the booming metropolis of “Podunkville”, Georgia.
Dismayed, I followed the road beside the tracks, hoping to find another crossing. I drove a couple of miles with nary a break in sight. So, I turned around to look for one in the other direction.
I know I shouldn’t have been speeding. But…my son is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and he does not do well when plans are changed. Or even when people are late. If you say you’re going to be at his school at 10:30, you can bet he is watching the clock, and at 10:31, he will be fighting back tears if you haven’t yet appeared.
So, yeah, I got a little antsy, and yeah, I was going 29 miles above the speed limit when I saw the cop.
I wasn’t able to slow down fast enough. A lump grew in my throat as I saw the blue lights flashing behind me.
“Great! Just great! Exactly what I don’t have time for this morning!”
Gravel crunched beneath my tired, old minivan as I pulled over into a bait shack parking lot.
In my rear-view mirror, I saw that the officer was a woman, close to my mother’s age. I thought, “Hey, cool. Probably a mother and grandmother. She will understand my plight.”
Nah. She didn’t care. She mentioned that she just had her radar calibrated and wondered if I knew I was speeding. I couldn’t lie. I admitted my guilt.
She handed me the ticket with little fanfare. “You can pay this online before February 3rd, or appear in court then. Have a nice day.”
Yeah, you, too, “Barnette Fife” I thought, as I drove off–slowly–with tears stinging my eyes.
I was going to just cough up the $129 (ouch) and pay the fine online, but friends told me that if I went to court, I could possibly get a reduced fine or even have it dismissed. So I decided it was worth the gamble. After all, I hadn’t had a ticket of any kind in almost 30 years, and I was going from one community outreach-type activity to serve in my autistic child’s classroom, blocked only by their city replacing railroad tracks. It was as good an excuse for speeding as I’d ever heard.
It should’ve been a sign of things to come when I woke up to torrential rain yesterday morning.
The drive to Podunkville usually takes 40 minutes or less. I left an hour early to allow for the weather, but I barely made it in time. With just three minutes to spare, I popped up my umbrella and splashed across that puddled parking lot as fast as my chunky legs would carry me.
I joined about 30 other “hardened criminals” inside, which was considerably more than I expected to see in such a tiny town. There were quite a few colorful characters in the mix and we all bore varying resemblance to drowned rats. We covered pretty much every demographic: white, black, Hispanic, young, old, middle-aged, rich and poor. We had to sit for a long time as the deputies and other court workers slowly trickled in and attended to various tasks.
I always amuse myself with people-watching in these situations. I like to imagine people’s stories, why they are there. A young guy limped up the aisle and fell into a chair a few rows ahead of me. His pale head glistened bald, elaborate tattoos encircled his neck, and he clutched his ribs, wincing in pain every time he moved. (Motorcycle accident? Bar fight? Wife met mistress, and they both beat him up?)
Three college-aged girls beside me kept me entertained with their whispered conversation about food, with one stating that she “Ain’t never seen no salt on the outside of a taco shell” and her friend confessing, “Well, them blue ones are good, but I really ain’t no tortilla chip expert.”
Finally, the clerk began calling roll. I was hoping there would be an Adams, an Aiken, an Allen, or an Anderson on the roster, so I wouldn’t have to go first. Alas, I was the only “A”. But there was a girl whose first name was–no joke–Ninja, and a man with the last name of Outlaw. Which sounded like a great beginning to a joke: A ninja and an outlaw walked into the courtroom…
Seriously, y’all. You really can’t make this stuff up.
We were finally asked to rise as the judge, a hunched-over man of at least 80, entered the courtroom with nary a smile. I wished again for that Allen or Aiken to magically appear, so I could watch how the judge interacted with the other defendants. But, no such luck. The curse of the “A” name meant I went first.
I approached the bench with a smile. The clerk read my offense, the judge asked for my plea. I said, “Guilty” and quickly rewound the tape in my mind so I could tell him the Reader’s Digest version of the circumstances that led me to speed that day. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a habitual offender.
But I never got a chance to say another word.
“I accept your plea. Your fine is $129. If you can’t pay it all today, you can have up to 120 days but doing so means accepting 12 months of probation and a monthly monitoring fee. Exit with the deputy who will escort you to the payment window.” And the clerk called another name as the deputy (ironically, the same woman who ticketed me) opened the door beside the desk and motioned me through.
And that was that.
I guess in retrospect, I should’ve at least asked to plead my case, but he didn’t give pause for that. He didn’t look like the kind of man who cared much about excuses anyway, probably because he’s heard them all before.
So, Barnette Fife and I opened our soggy umbrellas and sloshed across the street to pay my fine.
(Yes, in Podunkville, the court is too small to house the payment office, so it’s conveniently located in an entirely different building. On another street.)
I forked over my card, and the too-happy clerk behind the bulletproof glass added a $6 credit card “convenience fee” and cheerily thanked me for my contribution to the betterment of Podunkville.
You know, I’m usually really nice to cashiers and others in service positions, but as I wrestled to reopen my dripping umbrella, I just couldn’t bring myself to respond with my usual, “You’re welcome.”
“Have a good one,” I heavily sighed, as I marched across the foyer, my soaked shoes quacking like ducks against the slippery tile. It was a long swim–I mean, walk–back to my car. I swear rivers had grown across that lot while I was having my fun in court.
Driving home, with my damp blouse clinging to goosebumped skin, I could feel my wet toes shriveling up like raisins. And you better believe that I cursed myself thoroughly for not just paying the stupid ticket online.