I am a working musician. I have spent countless hours traversing interstates from coast to coast, in vehicles crammed with fellow band members, crew, road cases and instruments. Road maps are burned into my brain like aging memories of family.
Touring once in a while is hard enough, but surviving months of engagements, booked by geographically impaired agents, is a special kind of torture that only truckers understand.
So a few weekends ago, when I got an opportunity to perform by myself for a decent paycheck at a place one hour west of the city, I figured: Piece of cake . I’d be home by 3 a.m.– tea time for musicians.
I set off for Warren, N.J., early that Saturday evening with two acoustic guitars and a mandolin. After a quick drive, I arrived at a small Irish tavern like many I had seen in my travels. Loud rock ‘n’ roll was blaring from the jukebox, boisterous billiard games were in progress, and I thought: Another crowd that couldn’t care less .
I was wrong. As soon as the jukebox was turned off and I began to play, an enthusiastic audience cheered me on. Many knew the words to my songs and sang along. Music had once again made friends of perfect strangers. It felt good.
When I was young, the lure of women and fast living were part of the musical life. But having drunk enough to drown 10 men and slept with more women than I care to remember, my wild days are long behind me. A happy marriage, wonderful children and, always, music are now at the center of my life, and the rare moments when the barriers break down between myself and the listener keep me inspired.
After two sets, the owner put a pint of ale in front of me, and I talked about the good old days with several knowledgeable fans and visiting musicians. Knowing I would soon be in the car, I barely drank the ale and began to pack my gear. It was only 1 a.m.-early for a gig. I could be home and parked in no time. I thanked the owner and my new friends and off I went.
A half-hour later, I was alone on a small country road that led to the interstate. I was replaying in my head the last songs of my set when flashing red lights in the rearview mirror put a sudden end to my late-night reverie. Knowing the ritual, I pulled my Ford over, reached for my wallet and placed both my hands near the window.
The patrolman who approached was not visibly appreciative. “License and registration,” he said crisply. He looked about two years older than my 22-year-old son. He asked me if I had been drinking. “No,” I said. He said he smelled alcohol. I explained that I had just finished working at a bar. Then I had a change of heart. I told him that I had had less than one beer. It was the truth, and I wasn’t drunk.
Big mistake. The officer, who reminded me of Thumper, the rabbit from Bambi , asked me to recite the alphabet. Let me tell you something: You can recite the alphabet 100 times in your sleep, but when a policeman asks you to do it, your mind reels, even if you are stone sober. I know this because this was the second time a cop had asked me to recite the alphabet. The last time occurred several years before in Massachusetts, when an overly zealous state trooper insisted I was drunk. I was sober then, too. I walked the straight line, but the alphabet just sat in my mouth like jumbled Legos.
“Step out of the car,” Thumper said. I obeyed, and we were joined by his partner. Thumper instructed me to walk, toe to heel, for 30 paces, then turn around and walk back. I did and felt a sense of relief.
“Is there anything in the car that I should know about?” Thumper asked.
“Nothing I’m aware of.” As I said that, I recalled a not-too-distant evening when a fan insisted on giving me a joint as I was packing up in the parking lot. Not wanting to be rude, I accepted it and stuck it in a cigar container I carry in my bag.
Then I heard Thumper say, “What’s this?” He had opened my cigar case.
“It looks like a roach to me,” I replied.
I felt like I was standing on the deck of the Titanic . I was pushed against my car, cuffed and stuck into the back seat of the police cruiser. As I was whisked away into the New Jersey night, I looked back at my Ford and wondered if my guitars would still be there when I returned.
At the police station, I was locked in a room for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, an officer entered and introduced himself as Sergeant Cicada. When he learned that I was a musician, he wanted to talk about Steely Dan. He told me he played drums. His tone was friendly. He asked me where I work and how much I usually earn. It wasn’t for the police report. It was just one music lover talking to another.
Sergeant Cicada told me that I was a refreshing change from the usual hysterical Saturday night arrests. Then he began to confide in me. He told me that when he first started with the police department, he believed he was making a difference. Now, he said, the cops were merely keeping order. He said that he only planned on working until he could get active retirement pay. He said he wanted to teach at the local college. I was beginning to really like this man. Why couldn’t he have pulled me over instead of Thumper? I thought.
But the wheels of justice were already turning. Sergeant Cicada removed my cuffs and took my fingerprints. Then he asked me to hold a set of numbers in front of me for the mug shot. With the click of a shutter, I officially became a common criminal. I asked him if I could use the picture on my next album cover. He said yes.
After another hour of processing, I was free to go. Sergeant Cicada told me that probably not much would come of my arrest if I wasn’t picked up again. This didn’t bring me much consolation. Thumper put me in the back seat of his cruiser, but then couldn’t get the car to start. After numerous tries, he gave up and radioed for help.
Sergeant Cicada reappeared. “I’ll take you,” he said, and told me to get in the front seat with him. I was beginning to feel like I should ask him over for dinner.
The amount of electronic hardware in the cruiser was staggering: computers, radar detectors, sideband radios and gadgets that even a technophile like me had never seen. “It’s all a waste,” he said. “I never even turn half this stuff on.” He told me that the electronic gear is such a drain on the cruisers’ batteries that they never turn off the engines for fear they won’t restart. His cruiser had been running since 5:30 p.m. It was now 4 a.m. “Don’t ever buy a used police car,” he said with a smile.
Within minutes, we were back at the scene of the crime. Sergeant Cicada shook my hand. “Good luck, Jon,” he said. I wished him the same. He waited while I checked on my guitars and fired up the Ford. Then Sergeant Cicada gave a little wave and was gone.
I cautiously pulled the car back onto the quiet country road. The entrance to I-78 was barely 100 feet away. I merged with the highway traffic and watched Warren disappear from my rearview mirror, but the night’s events stayed with me, an unwelcome passenger.