A Tale of the Accidental Outlaw

Racism, yes, in this town

Chris Davis
Human Parts

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There are two things about me that usually catch my coworkers off guard. First, I’m a comedian. You would never guess it from my demeanor at the office — I’m a textbook introvert; I keep things pretty low-key, and I never bring it up unless someone asks. And I prefer it that way; I don’t want to end up as the office jester.

Second, I’ve been arrested before. When I mention the comedy thing, they question and say, “Really?” But when the arrest comes up, they can’t help but be intrigued and say: “Tell me more.”

Well, OK.

The year was 2009, I was 23 years old, and I had just graduated from college. I was happy to have my degree but absolutely dreaded the fact that I had to move back in with my parents. My mom was cool with it, but my dad? He was a little nuts about me living at home again. He treated me like a tenant, charging rent for all the furniture in my room. And it wasn’t like a rent-to-own deal — he was just going to keep everything. He even put price tags on everything in the refrigerator. A glass of milk costs five bucks. After three months, I started thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’

I had considered grad school and getting a master’s in higher education. My original plan was to wait a few years before diving back into school. But with my slumlord dad treating the fridge like a convenience store, I knew I needed to start working sooner rather than later.

I applied and got accepted into the top graduate school for higher education. The only hurdle left was figuring out how to pay for it. Luckily, the school was hosting a job fair for graduate assistants in a few weeks. I just needed my parents to get on board with my plan.

So, I sat them down and told them everything. My mom cried; she didn’t want her baby to leave her again. My dad simply said, “Good luck with your future plans.” However, the look on his face told me he was probably already thinking about giving me a week’s notice and hanging a ‘for rent’ sign on my bedroom door.

Living in Bolingbrook, a suburb of Chicago, the drive down to Central Illinois felt like a journey to a completely different world. When entering the town for the career fair, a huge billboard proclaimed, “Racism, not in this town.” ‘What kind of town needs a sign like that?’ I thought to myself. “Just listen to the police officers if they tell you to do anything,” my dad remarked. Now, I might embellish parts of this story here and there for effect, but I can assure you this is not one of those times. Please don’t breeze through this part thinking, ‘Oh, silly Chris is just joking again.’ No. There really is a sign that says this as you enter the town. If you know, you know.

Now, I’ve often been the only Black person, or one of the very few, in a room. I have to admit, seeing a sign that explicitly warns about racism was quite jarring. But I couldn’t imagine the town being so bad that Black people would just… avoid it entirely. Besides, my plan was only to study there for a year or two, not to settle down and start a family. So, despite my parents’ advice, I decided to proceed with my plans.

Anyway, eventually I arrive in town for the career fair, and afterward, it turned out that nobody wanted me. It was like being a football player on draft day and never hearing your name called. In hindsight, I was kind of a bad interviewee. When interviewing for an R.A. position, and asked what I would do if a student got physical, I said, “Well… I do know jiu-jitsu,” and gave the interviewer a wink. You’d think that even with my mention of jiu-jitsu, someone would have at least hired me as a security guard. Guess I wasn’t big enough.

Having left the career fair with no prospects, I stayed hopeful. Then one day, a graduate assistantship suddenly opened up. I think a grad student had dropped out or something; all I knew was that they urgently needed someone to help run their tutoring center. I went in for the interview and got a call before I even made it home — I had gotten the job. They told me I would start the next day at 7 AM. On one hand, it was great news because I got the call; on the other hand, it was Friday night and Halloween. I had already made plans, and as a reminder, I was still in college.

So I was set to go out with my friends but planned to get home at a decent hour so I could make it to work the next morning. The homies and I stepped out, and I was the designated driver. I didn’t have a drop of liquor the whole night, but I still had a blast. Don’t judge me — I mean, I had to celebrate, right? Right? Looking back on it, I have no idea how I even got accepted into grad school thinking like this.

After I dropped off my friends at their apartment, I went in to use the bathroom. We noticed their neighbors were throwing a party, so we thought, why not check it out? We invited ourselves in and saw that they had this homemade pumpkin cider on tap, made right from the pumpkins in their garden. I knew better than to drink and drive, but that cider was too tempting to pass up, so I had a cup. I figured one cup wouldn’t hurt — I still felt totally fine. Confident I was good to drive, I hopped into my car, ready to head home since I had to be up early for work the next day.

The weather was turning nasty as I drove home — rain pouring down and wind howling, setting the stage like the beginning of every scary movie you’ve ever seen. And being a Black guy in a town that’s 99.999999 percent white, I couldn’t help but think this night wasn’t going to end well. Just as that thought crossed my mind, lightning cut across the sky, and a tree branch tumbled onto the road right in front of me. I tried to swerve out of the way, but it was too late — I hit it.

I stepped out of the car to check for damage. At first, everything seemed fine, but then I noticed the tire — it was flat. I’m no car expert, but I do know you shouldn’t drive on a flat tire because it can damage your rims. Since it was Halloween night in central Illinois, the chance of finding a taxi was practically nonexistent. Honestly, I would have had an easier time spotting an Amish horse and buggy in central Illinois.

So, I had to level with myself. I had to be at work in a couple of hours, and my apartment was less than a mile away. I figured I could drive the car home slowly and call a taxi to work. The flat tire was a problem for future Chris. Again, I have no idea how I even got accepted into grad school thinking like this.

I hopped back into my car and started driving. I just needed to make it one block, and I’d be literally home. I was creeping along at 15 mph in a 50 mph zone, so I definitely stood out. Even on a stormy night, I was hard to miss.

As I approached the stop sign, I told myself, ‘I’m going to blow this stop sign, but it’ll be OK because nobody is on the road.’ No sooner had I crossed to the other side of the road, I saw sirens blare behind me. My first thought was, ‘Oh great, policemen! Maybe they’ll call me a tow truck or help me get home.’ But then, the image of my dad’s stern face flashed through my mind, followed by the memory of that billboard proclaiming, “Racism, not in this town.” Anxiety crept in as the reality of the situation dawned on me.

As the officer approached, I couldn’t help but notice his small, beady little eyes that seemed out of place on his broad face. When I rolled down the window, his flashlight immediately flooded my car with overly intense light. “Hey, did you know you just blew that stop sign?” he asked, his voice rough. He looked nervous, fidgeting with something on his belt. Realizing this might be his first time dealing with a Black guy, I kept it simple and told the truth. “Yeah, I know, officer,” I replied. “I have a flat tire, and my apartment is right over there.” I pointed to my apartment complex. I scrummaged around towards the passenger seat got my wallet out of a bag, and took my driver's license out. “If you don’t believe me, here’s my I.D. You can clearly see that I do, in fact, live right there. And yeah, I blew the stop sign on purpose, but I was just trying to make it home.’”

The policeman took my I.D. but said nothing; he just sniffed, his nostrils flaring as if he were a bloodhound catching a scent. “You smell like liquor, have you been drinking?” he pressed. Again, I went with the truth. ‘I mean, I did nothing wrong, and it’s not like I can get in trouble for admitting to one cider, right? Right?’ I thought to myself. I know every Black person reading this is shaking their head right now.

Instantly, the officer responded, “Get out of the car.” Confused, I asked, “Wait, why?” His tone was firm, “You’ve admitted to drinking and driving. Get out of the car!” I got out of the car, dressed as Batman — it was Halloween, after all.

He wasn’t impressed by my outfit. Instead, he simply stated, “I’m going to have you do a few field sobriety tests.” So, I performed them — walking in a straight line, looking at a flashlight, and standing on one leg. When I finally looked up, a whole gang of police officers had shown up. After confirming that I passed all the tests, I looked at them hopefully and asked, “Can I go home now?”

“Well, you passed the field sobriety test,” one officer began, “but since you admitted to drinking and driving, we need you to blow into this breathalyzer.” I was still pretty naïve about most things, but a strong feeling inside urged me not to comply. It was as if my ancestors, who had seen enough of my foolishness for the night, were speaking directly to me, declaring, “Enough, child!” to smack some sense into me. “What happens if I don’t blow into this thing?” I asked cautiously.

“Refusing to blow into a breathalyzer after a police officer has asked you is an arrestable offense and a class D misdemeanor,” he explained. “So, you will be arrested.”

“Okay, well, what if I blow and pass? Will you let me go home?” I queried, still hoping for a way out.

“Well, you admitted to drinking and driving, so I would still take you down to the station and order a blood test. So, you will be arrested either way,” he replied matter-of-factly.

“Well, those options suck,” I said. It felt like I was just picking the reason I wanted to be arrested. The officer seemed to grasp the dilemma. “Yeah, I know,” he said flatly as he whipped out his handcuffs. “So, what’s it gonna be?” It was like being in the world’s worst choose-your-own-adventure book — no matter which page you turn to, you end up in trouble.

“I’m not blowing into that thing,” I decided firmly.

They arrested me on the spot. The cold handcuffs clicked around my wrists, and with a firm push, I was guided into the back of the police car. The ride to the station was a blur, and soon they had me sitting in a holding cell.

As I sat there, the reality of my situation sank in: I was supposed to be at work right now.

In the holding cell, they asked if I wanted to make a phone call, and I just nodded. They had already taken everything from me, including my cell phone. So, I asked them, “Hey, could I just take a quick look at my phone to grab a friend’s number?” They laughed so hard, y’all — it was like they were at a Chappelle special. After they finally got themselves together, they hit me with a solid “Absolutely not.” To this day, I still don’t understand why they laughed that hard. Was it really that funny, guys?

After scooping my ego up off the floor, I decided to take them up on their offer for a phone call. At that moment, one of the only numbers I could remember by heart was my new job. Imagine having to make that call on my first day: ‘Hello, I can’t make it today. I’m incarcerated.’

The only other number I knew by heart was Pizza Hut’s — and I’m not going to lie, the idea of ordering a pan pizza with a small order of buffalo wings and maybe asking the delivery guy to bail me out crossed my mind more times than I’m proud of. I was hungry, after all, so it would have killed two birds with one stone.

But then I remembered my parents’ landline. Normally, the thought of calling would have scared me, especially with that billboard and my dad’s strict ways on my mind. But then I thought about how he charged me five bucks for a glass of milk, almost like a tough bail bondsman. That made me think he might handle this situation okay as long as I gave him money. When I called home, my dad was actually pretty cool about it. He didn’t hesitate and immediately called one of my friends to come get me.

I waited two hours before my friend showed up to get me. As I collected my stuff and headed out, I was handed three tickets: one for driving under the influence, another for blowing the stop sign, and a third for, get this, driving with a flat tire. Rude.

My friend drove me to the tow yard to retrieve my car, and after shelling out $300 to get it released, I found it completely torn apart. Everything from my glove box was emptied out, and all the other compartments were ransacked — contents thrown onto the seats and floor. ‘What the hell were they looking for?’ I thought to myself. ‘Drugs, weapons, a mail-order bride? I’m just a college student — I can barely support myself, let alone afford anything illegal.’ It was obvious the police were convinced I was hiding something. I only wish I could have seen their faces when the most incriminating thing they found was a bat-a-rang.

After everything settled down, my dearest, loving, misunderstood father stepped in and hired a lawyer. Six months of relentless court dates and constant check-ins later, I received the call that changed everything. My lawyer had reviewed the body cam footage and discovered that one of the officers who arrested me had used a racial slur as he approached me that night.

When I found out, I just had to ask, ‘It doesn’t really matter, but I’m just curious, did he end the word with an ‘a’? Was he maybe singing along to a song?’ Not implying that this is any better. Young Chris’ brain just couldn’t fathom a police officer, of all people, using this sort of language on camera. My lawyer just laughed and replied, ‘No, I don’t think so young man. What he actually said was, “Here we go, another n***er,” and a few other choice words.” My first thought was, ‘Another? I’ve got to link up with this other Black guy.’ My second thought was, ‘Bruh, the hard er?! L.O.L. God don’t like ugly.’ In a strange, twisted way, I’ve never been more relieved to hear a white guy drop the N-bomb.

By that time, I felt like I was practically living in court. Luckily, my lawyer pulled off some serious magic and managed to get the last two tickets thrown out. The real battle, though, was over the D.U.I. charge. Why? Well, I had admitted to drinking and driving, that’s why, but only one glass of cider — which, to my lawyer's point, wouldn’t even put a 90 lb teenage girl over the legal limit. However, with the newly discovered racism — er, um, I mean, evidence— the police department was ready to drop all charges in exchange for my agreement not to sue them. If you’re familiar with legalese, I think they called it ‘Nolle prosequi.’

My lawyer was really hesitant about taking the deal. He was pretty confident we could beat the D.U.I. charge and clear my record, especially after discovering the officer had botched the field sobriety test. We were deep in discussion about potentially suing the police department when I cut in, “So if we go Noelle route, I wouldn’t have a D.U.I. on my record?” “No, no, you wouldn’t,” he assured me. “And you can expunge my arrest either way?” I added. My lawyer replied, “Technically, yes, a Nolle would still allow me to do that, but you wouldn’t be able to…” Before he could finish, I just blurted out, “*Yawn. This sounds like a ton of work. Let’s just take that Nolle thing or whatever, you expunge my record, and let’s wrap this thing up, coz!” So, that’s what we did. If you feel any tremors, that’s just the collective sound of almost every Black person also reading this right now, screaming “NOOOOOO!” at the top of their lungs at their computer screens. Again, looking back, I have no idea how I even got accepted into grad school thinking like this.

That’s it. That’s the story.

At this point, I usually try to swivel back to my desk, pretending I didn’t just drop a bombshell, or make a beeline for the copier before anyone can hit me with follow-up questions. But it never works. I’m seldom allowed to just get up, walk away, and go about my business after sharing such a captivating coming-of-age story, especially at work. Curse my knack for spinning suspenseful yarns! So, after I finish, my coworkers typically do two things.

First, they ask, ‘So, what ended up happening with your job?’ And I just say, “Exactly what you’re thinking — yeah, it happened.’”

The second thing they do, and by ‘they,’ I mean those of the Caucasian persuasion, is to say, “Well, the whole thing was kind of your fault for running that stop sign or admitting you’d been drinking and blah, blah, blah.” OK, Ken and Karen. Yeah, there’s some truth there. But what I keep to myself is how those kinds of comments come from such a privileged place in that they don’t even have to think about these things the same way I do. There are so many stories out there — especially now — about Black men dealing with cops. Whether we tell the truth or lie, comply or not, it usually ends the same way. I’m just thankful I got out of there alive. I mean, laughing but kind of serious here, I did have a bat-a-rang on me.

But what I usually tell them is something like, “It’s wild, right? That big old sign in town saying “Racism, not in this town” turned out to be pretty ironic that night because, in the end, it was actually the racism that kinda saved me.”

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Chris Davis
Human Parts

Narrative Craftsman | Weaving Humor and Humanity into Everyday Stories