Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A Very Special Thanksgiving Tradition

This Thanksgiving marks the 384th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving, held in 1621 by the surviving 50 colonists, who shared turkey and Libby’s canned cranberry sauce with Massasoit and a smattering of Wampanoag men. But have you heard the story of the lesser-recognized but equally celebrated anniversary of The Night Ken Craig Was Jailed and Freed From Jail? No? Well, grab a drumstick, loosen your belt, sit back, belch, and enjoy this Thanksgiving yarn seven years in the making.

It all began on a cold, windy night in Tonopah, Nevada. It’s not in the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from there. This is one of those forsaken towns that live on highway 95, stretching from Las Vegas to Reno. (Highway 95 Motto: If you think the land is ugly, you should see our brothel employees!)

Driving back to Las Vegas from a Thanksgiving weekend in Lake Tahoe, I was approaching Tonopah around midnight. I had driven this road before and was already quite familiar with the way this highway posted its speed limits. As you near any of the mini-mining towns along 95, it drops from 70 to 25 faster than the IQ points of an Arkansas native sucking helium out of a balloon. The speed limit in Tonopah is so low it actually requires you to turn your car off and push it through town. So when I was on the outskirts of Tonopah, and suddenly realized I would need to fill the gas tank in order to make it to the next town, I didn’t exactly accelerate after flipping a u-turn to head back to the Texaco.

Apparently I was having Katie push the car too fast, because a cop pulled me over, directly.

“You were going 60 miles per hour!”

“That’s impossible! I just barely turned the car around – I wouldn’t have even had enough time to pick up speed!”

The cop disappeared for about five minutes, then came back…

“Well…how fast do you think you were going?” Translation: I have no idea if you were speeding or not, but I’m bored, there are no doughnut shops in Tonopah, and I resent you for it.

I looked through the windshield and saw a 45 mph sign a few yards in front of us.

“40 mph.”

“I see.” He disappeared again. This time he sat in his car. And sat. And sat. And sat. And then a second patrol car pulled up. Now I was surrounded by both Tonopah patrol cars. Because I looked so dangerous, this officer had actually called for back up.

Sgt. Backup walked up to the window and asked to see Katie’s license. I asked him why he needed her license, since she wasn’t the one driving.

“Because your license is suspended – and if she can’t drive this car, we are going to impound it.”

“My license is not suspended. There’s an error somewhere.” The kind public official didn’t bother to make eye contact with me, he just snatched Katie’s license out of her hand.

Katie asked, “Are you sure it’s suspended, officer?” To which he wittily retorted, “Ma’am…I went to college!” Touché. I had my doubts about that, as well as if Tonopah Community College actually qualifies as any kind of center of higher learning.

“You guys heading into Vegas for a hot weekend?!”

“Uhm…we live there. We have a 15-month old, so our weekends aren’t that hot for the time being. And it’s Sunday night…the ‘weekend’ is over.”

“Watch it, smart guy.”

My mind was racing. I could not for the life of me figure out how they had such incorrect information as my license being suspended. One thing was for sure; I wasn’t going to be driving anywhere myself. I got out of the car to switch seats with Katie. This was evidently the wrong thing to do. The officers freaked out that I had stepped out of the car. I couldn’t see them well, so it would be unfair to say they had pulled their guns on me, but they did order me back into the car. Which is fine, since that is where I was going. I walked over to the passenger side and got back in the car. And I sat there trying to figure out how this could have happened.

Finally, a light bulb came on. Oh, not immediately, but these guys were giving me all the time in the world while they huddled and tried to remember what you do when somebody has a suspended license and doesn’t bribe you to just let them go. I’m thinking that neither of them had The Book on them, so they called Pervis, back at the station, and were having him read it to them over the CB. But I digress.

A light bulb had come on. I began to recall a speeding ticket I had received in Wendover last March or so. I remembered it so well because shortly after I had sent in the money for the ticket, I received notice in the mail that if the Wendover court didn’t receive my payment soon, my license would be suspended. And I remember how I promptly called the Wendover court to encourage them to stay on top of their paper work, because I had already sent in the money. “That’s right,” the clerk had said, “we have received it, and we’ve entered it into our computer. You can just throw that notice away.” And that’s exactly what I did. Because I was still under the misconception that Nevada law enforcement certainly cared about my well being. I mean, that is, after all, why they pull you over for J-walking or not signaling to turn – because they just couldn’t sleep that night thinking about how you just might have injured yourself if they hadn’t given you that $265 citation.

I was missing a step, but somewhere between the Wendover court telling me they had received my money and processed the cancellation of the license suspension – and the actual cancellation of the suspension – their was a big, fat, hairy failure to communicate. Suddenly, I was Cool Hand Ken.

Happy to have tracked down the cause, and equally furious that bureaucracy had stepped on my face, I was full of a certain unmentionable liquid, plus vinegar. It didn’t bode well for the officer who came up to my window.

“Mr. Craig (they called me Mister, no doubt because of the great deal of respect they held for me)… Mr. Craig, we’re going to have to take you in and it’s going to be $400 for bail.”

Something in my brain snapped. “Well…hmm…see, I don’t have $400. And I’m supporting a single-income family on an entry-level job – so I don’t happen to have that on me, nor is it in my budget right now. I don’t know what kind of show you’re running here – but I’m not going to leave my wife and baby out here in the cold while you book me and put me in jail because some chain-smoking alcoholic at the DMV couldn’t push buttons fast enough on her computer to clear my name from something that should have been taken care of over six months ago and is completely out of my hands.”

Well, now that I had won him over with my charm, he disappeared back to his car again. I don’t know, maybe I made him cry. Then he came back with the second officer and asked me to step out of the car. They bullied me over to the patrol car, shoved my face down on the hood, searched me for weapons, actually handcuffed me, and pushed me into the back of the patrol car.

I looked through the windshield and saw my sweet wife hanging out the window, mouth wide open. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I’m glad Abbie was too young to understand any of it. I don’t think she was singing, and I don’t think she was asking for a hug. She had her fist clenched and was bawling them out, demanding to talk to me so she could find out where to get $400 that we didn’t have. They told her that she seemed upset, and they’ve only seen situations like this escalate, so they weren’t going to let her talk to me. Maybe I could give her a call from jail. After Katie explained that we don’t own any car phones and don’t currently have a summer home in Tonopah where she could be reached, they told her to follow us to the station.

Meanwhile, Officer I-Have-No-Idea-If-You-Were-Speeding is driving me to the station, and decides to put on his Good Guy Cop Hat. “I’m only doing my job, you know.” If I could have reached his crotch, I would have kicked it. When I finally decided to speak up, all I said was, “When the court realizes they’ve made a mistake…will I get my money back?” He said I would.

We pulled into the station and I was marched into what I think is officially called The Booking Room. The handcuffs came off and some woman with a mustache took my mug shots and fingerprinted me. I think she may have tried to hold my hand. I didn’t want to take one of those unflattering mug shots, so I put on a goofy smile for mine. I wish I could get a copy of that.

The station didn’t take personal checks or credit cards, so Katie had to venture out into the night to find cash. I asked the officer to tell Katie there was a credit cards check in my planner she could use, if she could find a place to cash it.

I then emptied my pockets and was placed in a cell, where there were no bars, per se, but a big, blue steel door, with a tiny window in it. I couldn’t believe I was in jail. I tried to act like a real inmate. I carved my name in the bench with a piece of my watch wristband. I used the urinal. (Mental Note: I should never go to prison. I just don’t like going potty in front of other people.)

I’d like to say that I used this time to ponder deep truths and maybe even think about Joseph Smith and how he was wrongfully imprisoned for much longer than me, and with much more responsibility…but mostly, I was annoyed that this entire thing was happening. And I sat there annoyed for almost two hours.

Why so long? Well, because that’s what happens when your poor wife drives across town to the only casino in Tonopah, and by no coincidence, the only place that is a) open, and b) able to advance cash from credit cards. But then she gets there, and is told that they can’t cash a credit card check, only advance cash from an actual credit card. So Katie had to come back to the station and get my credit card, then go back to the casino to get the cash. Then, and this is a real treat, Katie came back to the station to pay the $400 and was told by the “cashier” that it was $435, not $400. Katie raised her voice one last time, and left to get another $35.

I sat in that cell, marking minutes on the wall, not having any idea what was going on. I was worried about Katie and Abbie, I was furious at the DMV and the Eastline Justice Court for this entire mix-up, and I was angry with these policemen for the way they had treated us. And I felt frustrated at being locked in this tiny cell where I couldn’t do anything but fidget.

I was released and walked out to find Katie near breakdown and Abbie as perky as a June bride. Katie drove us to the edge of the county, and I switched places with her to drive us the rest of the way home. We reached home around 5:30 a.m. and tried to nap. I got up for work, called the Eastline Justice Court in Wendover, Nevada around 8:00 a.m., and had my first conversation with Marla, the clerk.

“Do I have any outstanding citations?”

“No. We have record of only one citation, but it’s been paid for.”

“Then I’d like to know why I spent the night in jail for something that I personally took care of months ago. I don’t know what kind of show you’re running (this was my favorite line to drop through this ordeal, as, to me, it says that whatever you’re doing is nothing but a show to me, and not just a show, but it’s not even a good show), but I better get some answers, my dear Marla.”

Marla said that the best she could figure, the Nevada DMV is incredibly far behind in entering information sent to them by the courthouses. In other words, a notice was sent from the Eastline Justice Court last June, stating that I had paid my ticket and there should be no suspension on my license, but the DMV hadn’t cleared it. I was livid. I told Marla to fax me the document they had sent to the DMV – one to me at work, and one to the Las Vegas DMV on Flamingo.

I had to get to work, so I had Katie drop me off and run over to the DMV to fix this mess. The fax was there, but so were some DMV folks that told Katie she would need to pay $40 to get my license reinstated. Katie told them “No I won’t – because it doesn’t need to be reinstated – because it was never supposed to be suspended.” They talked to their superiors, who agreed to see it our way. But they could go no further without me there in person. Katie picked me up from work and we went back over to the DMV. I signed some paperwork and picked up some more paperwork.

In particular, I had the fax from the Eastline Justice Court that stated they had sent the proper paperwork to the DMV in a timely manner, so this was all a big mistake and everyone better prepare to kiss my toe. Only…it didn’t look like a letter. It was written in some kind of code, and some random asterisk was supposed to mean that the suspension was a “clerical error.” I ran with it.

I faxed the “letter” to the Tonopah courthouse, and followed up with a phone call. This was my first conversation with Jennifer. I explained that the fax was coming, that this whole thing needed to be reversed, my money sent back to me, the misdemeanor taken off my record, and my date with the lady who fingerprinted me canceled.

This was all on Monday.

Tuesday morning I get a call from Jennifer at the Tonopah courthouse. She said the semi-honorable Judge Maslach had declared that whether or not the suspension was an error, the license had been suspended and I would have to pay the bail money. I could not fathom on any level how this was anything but completely ridiculous.

I called Eastline Justice Court and said “I don’t want a coded letter, I want a handwritten letter to the Tonopah courthouse relaying the date they received my payment and the date it was sent to the DMV.” I then asked where it was they sent the notice, originally – to which DMV. She didn’t have the phone number, because that would have been too convenient for me – but said it was the state building in Carson City.

I called Carson City and asked for the DMV department, where I had my first conversation with Debra. Debra took my social security number and suddenly had access to my entire life. She began looking over it and then began to express her own wonderment at how any of this could have happened. Debra said she would write a letter to Tonopah wherein she would point out that full blame fell on the Nevada DMV and that none of this should have ever happened. She pointed out that the date in which my license should have gone into suspension was July 23, and my check had been received and processed on June 1. So there was never, at any time, a reason that my license should have been suspended. And that everyone there could just kiss my toe.

That was Tuesday.

I let Wednesday and Thursday pass by so the Tonopah courthouse would have a chance to look over the material sent to them. Friday morning Jennifer calls from the Tonopah courthouse and tells me that I have a “very unique case.” Not that they were wrong. Not that somebody owed me an apology. Just that I have a “unique case.”

So she announces to me, as if she is doing me some huge favor, “We’re going to send you the $300 back, but we are keeping the $135 for the speeding ticket.”

“No,” I said. “I never got a ticket for speeding. I was shown nothing, I signed nothing, there is no citation.”

“Well, let me talk to the judge.” And she covers up the phone, and starts talking to the guy, who can’t be sitting more than five feet away. She gets back on, “Okay, we’ll send you the full $435.”

Triumph. But not really. The thing that frightens me is this entire abuse of power. I was a pawn in an incident where I was completely right. What if I didn’t push things? What if I didn’t speak English well? How often has something like that happened, and the person in my position didn’t do anything but pay the money? I still drive through Tonopah once or twice a year, on my way to Tahoe. I don’t buy gas there; I don’t drive over 15 mph there; however, I do think about my night in jail, and I smile as I look around this little town that the world has forgotten, and think about how that officer has to live there.