My Last Cop Story and the Takeaways

My final cop story happened a few years ago in my neighborhood when I approached a stop sign at a 3-way intersection, one of which marked an alley where you hardly ever saw a car. Most drivers would just pause briefly and never come to a complete stop. I was typical and slowed down almost to a stop, but not quite, when to my horror I saw a police car in the ally. I slammed on the breaks. After I had come to an abrupt halt, the front of my car extended into the intersection about a foot. I motioned for the cop to go first. He motioned for me to go first. When I motioned again for him to go first, he rolled down his window and ordered me to leave first. I thanked him and waved back as I departed, thinking how lucky I was to have seen him.  His car then screeched out of the alley, with lights flashing, and he pulled me over.

“What have I done, officer?” I asked in my usual contrite tone reserved for cop encounters. 

“You ran the stop sign!” He replied.

“But I couldn’t have, officer. I stopped. You saw me. I even motioned for you to go first. You directed me to go first.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but if I hadn’t been there, you would have run the stop sign!”


I thought for a moment and realized that he was right. Had he not been there, yes, like most drivers, I would have eased through the intersection without coming to a full stop. Guilty as charged. But would this hold up in court? Did the law apply to situations where the illegal action never happened? Would potential bank robbers go to jail because there were two cops standing in front of the bank causing them to decide robbing the bank was not a good idea because it was too risky? I could see myself arguing before a judge that, yes, I would have run the stop sign, but no, I didn’t. Surely, I would have won my case, but fortunately I did not have to go to court because a call came in on his phone announcing an emergency that required his immediate attention. He paused in the middle of writing the ticket, sighed, and commented, “Dodged a bullet this time, but never run this stop sign again!” Off he screeched to the emergency.

I now make a complete stop at that intersection.

So, what to make of my five encounters with the police? Are there any lessons to be learned?

These questions come at a time when the behavior of some cops has been alarming and received considerable media attention. Many unarmed Black men have been murdered following a routine incident. Most of these incidents have involved White officers killing Black drivers, but not all. There are questions about the culture of policing, police training, over reacting, and outright racism. A national outcry has focused on police reform and there have been demands to “defund the police.” And, of course, this is nothing new. During the era of Jim Crow in the South, police were complicit in outrageous acts of racism to a far greater degree than now.

My stories by comparison, of course, are trivial though I think may provide some hints. Here are my takeaways:

  1. Policing is a very hard job, and the vast majority of cops are good people, trying to do the best they can. While it seems that the reporting about bad cops and bad cop behavior is on the increase, these incidents are tiny given the size of the U.S. population. There are almost 18, 000 police stations in the U.S. and just under 800,000 police officers. For the past several years arrests have averaged about 4.5 million each year, one every few seconds. Of course, there will be incidents where bad things happen, and there will be bad cops. These issues are important and police reform needs to continue; but in the big picture, the number of bad actors and bad cop actions is small. We need cops, and most do their jobs well. “Defunding the police” makes no sense.
  2. The mistakes that are made often are caused by ignorance, misinformation, ineptitude, or misunderstanding. In the “Dragons” story, because of the Dragons license tag, the cops assumed I was part of a real gang that was tormenting Nashville. I do not know if such a gang existed—and tend to think not—but at least one of the cops seemed to think so, and made the initial decision to arrest me. But they backed off when they realized who we were—preppy kids from one of Nashville’s upper class neighborhoods. As noted below, this issue has its problems.  In the “Fascist Police State” story, it is understandable why the cops assumed that Don was a no good hippie harassing them and understandable why poor Mrs. Finkelstein assumed that police no longer care about helping old folks. The misunderstanding, of course, was due to someone’s mistake by providing to the police the wrong apartment number. In the story about the wedding day incident, the officer was just a kid who probably had not paid attention in his high school civics classes if he even had taken such classes. You would have thought that he would have heard of Washington DC, and that shortcoming will remain a mystery. These were all honest mistakes and could have happened anywhere. 
  3. The speed trap was outrageous–placing a small, speed limit sign of 15 MPH sign only yards from a 55 MPH in a deserted area–and should be illegal. I suspect the judge would agree with me and that was the reason he reduced my guilty plea from speeding at 60 MPH above the speed limit to nine miles over the speed limit. 
  4. There are still race and class issues in policing just as there are race and class issues in our society. In the Dragons story, the cops were all White. Had I been an African American I probably would have been taken in for questioning; and if I had been wearing jeans and a tee-shirt and had slicked down hair with duck tails—the sure sign of a white hoodlum—I also doubt that the cops would not have let me go so fast. A lot depends on biases and preconceptions. Justice is often trumped by prejudice and misconception. In the last story, my encounter was with an African American cop though I do not believe that his behavior had anything to do with race. He was just annoyed that people often do not obey stop signs as they are supposed to. But if I had been African American and stopped by a White cop in a Southern town, I would probably have interpreted this as just another example of White harassment, and I would probably have been right. I would say the same thing about my encounter in Niles IL in “The Slammer” story, if I had been a person of color arrested by a White cop under false pretenses, I would conclude that this was just another example of racist harassment. I suppose that it could be considered an improvement that the Niles cop was an equal opportunity abuser.
  5. There are bad cops, just as there are bad people in most professions. “The Slammer” story is the most enigmatic of the five. I still do not know what was going on with the cop but based on the comments from my friend in Chicago, it seemed that he was looking for a bribe. I still wonder what would have happened if he had brought me to the Cook County Jail.

Thanks for reading the Cop Stories and as always I welcome comments, objections, and insights.




Cop Story Four: “Buddy, You Are in Real Trouble Now!”

This cop story happened  in 2006 on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend—the day of the wedding of our son, Andrew, and his bride-to-be, Karen. At eight in  morning I was cruising along in a rental SUV in Letchworth State Park in western New York State.  The Park is about 12 miles long and two miles wide, situated along a  canyon rising above the Genesee River, and hailed as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” I was headed to a small town at the southern end of the park to purchase food and supplies for a wedding event later that morning. The road was like a two-lane interstate highway in the wilderness–wide shoulders, flat, and few signs of civilization anywhere. I had been driving about 15 minutes, had not seen a single vehicle, and admittedly had not been paying attention to the speed limit when suddenly I realized the flashing lights of a police car were flashing behind me. I immediately pulled over on the shoulder.

You know the routine. A young officer got out the car, asked for my driver’s license, and informed me that I was going 75 miles an hour in a 15 miles per hour zone, which would result in maximum points and a $500 fine and probably the loss of my license.

“Where was the 15 MPH speed limit sign?” I respectfully asked. “There are no houses anywhere and no side roads.”

He replied that if I had been paying attention I would have seen it since it was only about 25 yards past the 55 MPH speed limit sign. Okay, I got it, speed trap, but for the life of me I could not figure out where the cop car had been hiding. There were no intersections or side roads. Not a good start to the day. He took my driver’s  license and went back to his car where he remained for at least 15 minutes. I remained grimly in the car, bracing for the worst but not for what happened next.

When the cop approached the car, I realized how young he was. He could not have been more than a year or two out of high school, clean cut, and serious.

“Well, buddy, you are in real trouble now! You are driving without a license, and that is a felony in the state of New York. You will do time for this.”

“Wait a minute!” I responded, trying to be as respectful as possible. “I just gave you my driver’s license.”

“Yeah, but it is not valid. It is for a city, not a state, and we require a state license. I looked up the list of states myself, and The District of Columbia is not listed.”

I could not help smiling, held back a chuckle, and with some effort managed to maintain my contrite composure.

“You are exactly right officer, it is not a state, but it is like a state.”

“That is not enough,” he replied, “Being like a state is not the same as being a state. I am going to have to arrest you.”

“Look,” I answered, coming dangerously close to losing my composure, “Washington DC is a city, but it is also the capital of the United States of America. That is where I live, and the closest thing we have to a state driver’s license is one from the District of Columbia. That is just the way it works.”

“Well, it should be a state; and it isn’t, and there is nothing I can do about that.”

“You and I agree on that, officer. But before you haul me off to the jail, could I plead with you to talk to your supervisor and see what he has to say about my license?”

He thought about it for a while, shrugged his shoulders, and headed back to his car, with a final comment that he would try,  but it would not make any difference. Fifteen minutes later he returned with a defeated look on his face. He said I got off this  time but still would pay big time for going 60 miles per hour over the speed limit. He handed me the ticket and stated I would have a chance to argue my case in court in a week or two.

The wedding happened that afternoon. I officiated at the event, which was a huge success despite the fact that for this outdoor wedding which was supposed to happen next to a huge waterfall, Tropical Storm Ernesto dropped over a foot of rain starting before noon and not ending until after midnight. (Fortunately, two tents were set up for the reception, and that is where the wedding took place, to the delight of small children running back and forth through the waterfall that was happening where the two tents were attached.)

However, I was still stuck with a big bill and points that would go on my record. I was guilty as charged, going 75 MPH in a 15 MPH zone.

The next week the letter came from the county courthouse, setting a court date for the following week. I surely was not going to go back to New York to argue a case that I had no chance of winning, so I responded with a letter that went something like this:

“Your Honor, I plead guilty as charged. I was speeding well above the speed limit. I deserve whatever fines you give me. I am very sorry for this and can only throw myself at your feet and beg for mercy. I do not have an excuse except that I was distracted and preoccupied because my son was to be married that afternoon and I had been asked by him to officiate at the wedding. This, of course, is no excuse, and all I can to is respectfully ask you to consider the circumstances associated with the case.”

In the letter I enclosed the write-up of the event in the Buffalo newspaper and circled my name where I was mentioned as officiating the ceremony.

Two weeks later I opened a thin envelope from the courthouse stating that the judge had rejected my guilty plea of going 75 miles an hour in a 15 MPH zone but instead would accept a guilty plea of going 39 miles per hour in a 30 MPH zone, no points and a fine of $100. I mailed the check that afternoon along with my revised guilty plea.

Justice served.




Cop Story Three: The Slammer

In the late 1980s and 1990s, one of Howell Associates’ most important clients was a large, faith-based, seniors housing company based in Evanston IL.  On one trip up there in 1990 a young associate and I were headed back to O’Hare in a rental car to catch the 7:30 PM flight back to Washington and were patiently waiting for a red light to change. I was driving when we were passing through Niles, a white, working class community adjacent to the more affluent Evanston.  It was in the winter on a Friday evening, a little after five, and the sun was close to setting.


A car rammed into the rear end of our car throwing me into the steering wheel and my associate into the dashboard. Fortunately, we both had on seat belts, or we could have been injured. We were dazed and shaken, and it took several minutes to regain our bearings. Stunned, I did not try to restart the car or know what to do next. Our car and the one behind us, which had plowed into us probably going 10 miles an hour, were blocking the intersection. Horns from the cars behind us were blasting, and soon we heard a police siren. The cop who arrived, a thin guy, in his 30s and balding, ordered us to move both cars to the shoulder, which relieved my concern that our car might not start. He came to my window, ordered me to stay put, and then ordered the driver of the other car to get out and follow him to his police car.  I could see from my rear-view mirror that the car was packed with a lady in the front seat and several children in the back seat. The driver who emerged from the car wore a large brim, black hat, had on a long black coat and had a full, reddish-brown beard and  pigtails on both sides of his head reaching down almost to his shoulders.

I commented to my associate, “Well, this guy is in deep trouble. He is obviously a Hassidic Jew tying to beat the sunset on a Friday evening, which starts the Sabbath, plus he is surely guilty of reckless driving. The cop is probably going to really let him have it.”

In less than five minutes, the driver emerged from the police car running, jumped into his car and roared off. I noticed that the front of his car was smashed and was surprised that the motor even started.

“Well, that was interesting,” I commented.

I was next. The cop rolled down his window and motioned for me to come to his car. As I left the car I glanced at the rear end. It was mangled so badly I figured the trunk  would  not open. Fortunately, we had thrown our bags into the back seat.

The cop scowled at me and in an annoyed tone, asked for my driver’s license and proof of car insurance. I handed him my license but told him I did not have my proof of insurance on me.

“What? No proof of car insurance?”

“No one has ever asked me about that before.”

“Well, buddy boy, you are not in DC, you are in Illinois where everyone is required to have proof of car insurance on their person. Everyone. No exceptions.  Not to have it is a felony.”

“So what should I do?”

“It is the slammer for you, kiddo. I am going to take you to the Cook County Jail where you will stay until you produce the insurance information!”

I was speechless. Then, I burst out, “Look I was stopped at a red light, minding my own business, and obeying the law, and some guy plows into me. We could have been injured. And you let him go in five minutes and you are threating to put me in the Cook County Jail? Why did you let him off? I can’t believe this. This is outrageous!”

“Letting him off is my business, not yours, and I’m not threatening to throw you in jail. I’m doing it! Watch me.”

He then paused for a minute and looked me in the eye. “Do you have anything else to say to me?”

“Well, I want to call my lawyer.”

Another pause and then he shook his head.

“Well, your lawyer better have a license to practice in Illinois or he is worthless. I will give you 10 minutes to make the call. You can go back to your car, and when you return, you better have  a plan for providing proof of your car insurance. Tell someone to Xerox it and then fax it to police headquarters.” He then scribbled down a phone number and handed it to me.

Of course, I did not have a lawyer and certainly not one licensed to practice in Illinois.

I raced back to the car, explained to my associate that we had a problem, which I would describe to him later,  and frantically called Embry on my cell phone. No answer. She was probably on her way home from work. I then fumbled through my address book, hands shaking, found my insurance agent’s contact information and called him. No answer. I realized that it was an hour later on the East Coast, and on a Friday no one would be working at 6:30. I noted that the sun had just set. I wondered if the  guy who plowed into us made it home before sunset. I then made a desperation call to my client in Evanston and got him just as he was leaving work. He said he would look into getting a criminal lawyer for me, but it might be Monday before he would have one. He volunteered that he was unaware that not having proof of car insurance on your person was a felony and confessed that his proof of insurance was in a drawer at his home. But that was little consolation. I was about to be taken to the Cook County Jail.

I felt my stomach churning. The Cook County Jail! I would be toast for my fellow inmates whom I imagined to be murderers, rapists, armed robbers, violent gang leaders, drug addicts and spouse abusers. I considered bolting, turned to my young associate, and told him that he would have to drive the car back to the airport if I did not return in a few minutes or if the police car drove off with me in it. He looked at me in disbelief. I stumbled back to the police car with one minute to spare, got into the front seat on the passenger’s side and sadly reported that I had been unsuccessful in getting someone to fax the policy, explaining that my insurance agent had left the office. I would not have a lawyer until Monday. I gritted my teeth, preparing for the worst.

The cop looked at me and paused, showing a faint touch of sympathy. “Okay,” he said, “I will give you another 20 minutes, but if by six o’clock if the folks at headquarters haven’t gotten the fax, I am taking you to the jail and that is a promise, and that is where you will stay until the proof of insurance is received. One second late and to the slammer you will go. Do you understand? No exceptions. Zero. None!”

As I was getting out of the car, he pulled on my coat. “You are not going back to your car. You are an escape risk. Make your calls here.”

By this time I had only 18 minutes and no one to call other than Embry. I was pretty sure I knew where the proof of insurance was—in the glove compartment of our car. But what if she was still en route home? On the third or fourth feverish attempt to reach her, miraculously she answered the phone. She had just walked in the door. I explained that I was sitting next to a cop who in eight  minutes and 11 seconds was going to take me to the Cook County Jail where I would be locked up indefinitely, told her where she could find the insurance certificate, and that she should copy it on our home copying machine and then fax it to the number I gave her. I held my breath. She had less than eight minutes to get all this done.

The cop then commented, “I don’t know what your wife will be able to do, but frankly, I do not give a damn. The only thing that counts in my book is a call from headquarters saying they have received the fax. Otherwise, it is the slammer.”

He concluded his comments with a smirk, “Good luck, buddy boy.”

He then looked at his watch and commented, “Seven minutes and counting.”

If you are wondering how the conversation went with Embry, here is my recollection. Note that the cop heard only what is noted in black:

Me: Hey, Embry, great to reach you! I am in a bit of a pickle.

Her: What’s happening and where are you?

Me: Well, I am sitting in a police car in Niles, Illinois, besides a policeman, who will have to put me in jail if you can’t come up with a fax of our car insurance certificate. You have about six minutes to fax a copy of it to the police headquarters in Niles.

Her: Are you ok? What is going on?

Me: I am fine except I need you to fax the car insurance right now to police headquarters in Niles. Right now!

Her: What have you done? Are you sure you are ok?

Me: Well, not exactly, but I will fill you in later. I am sure the police officer  wants to do the right thing. Some guy  rammed into our car, but because I do not have proof of insurance, he has to put me in  the Cook County Jail where I will remain until the Niles police receive proof of my car insurance. 

Her:  Are you serious? Are you sure you are ok? What is going on? You are going to jail? This makes no sense.

Me: I am sitting next to him as we speak and do not have time to go into detail…. You have to go now, NOW, we only have five minutes. Get the policy out of the glove compartment of our car, copy it, and fax the copy to….

Her: Oh, good heavens! 

The phone went dead. I looked at the cop and tried to manage a confident smile. He had a smirk on his face and was looking at his watch. “It will never happen. Impossible. You have only four minutes…”

The next four minutes were like a countdown for a blastoff at the Kennedy Space Center. I was petrified.  At every minute, the cop’s grin grew wider and with 30 seconds to go, he announced. “Your goose is cooked. It’s over.” He started up his engine.

With 15 seconds to go his cell phone rang. The call was from headquarters. They received the fax!

The cop looked at me and frowned. He snarled, “Well, this time you got off, you lucky bastard.”


Post Script: I learned from the criminal lawyer who   called  me on the following Monday that not having proof of car insurance in Illinois only applied to Illinois residents and that  it was not a felony. We managed to get to the airport with a few minutes to spare and turning the car into Avis with its mangled rear end did not raise any eyebrows. “Hey, “ the agent said, “we lease more cars at O’Hare than anywhere in the world. We get wrecks like this all the time. No problem.”

Several months later I was telling this story to a friend who lived in Chicago. His reply was this: “You did not realize what was going on?  Everyone in the Chicago metro area knows the Niles Police Force is corrupt. Cops there  get paid so little they depend on bribes to put food on the table and pay the rent. Why do you think in only a few minutes he let off   the guy who rammed into you?  The driver of the other car had to have paid him off , and the cop  gave you the opportunity too, but you missed his signals. Being from out of town, you did not understand the way things work in Niles. Good heavens! It probably would not have cost you more than $100 and would have saved you a world of worry.










Cop Story Two: Fascist Police State

I posted this cop story a few years ago, so you might have already read it. It remains, however, one of my favorite stories and is worth a second read.

In 1967 we lived in New York City where I was a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary, and Embry was a senior at Barnard College. We had been married about a year.

The country in 1967 was going through some challenging times—similar in some respects to the times we are in today. The main difference was that the crazies then were on the Left. Today they are on the Right. The Civil Rights Movement had split into many groups, some of which, like the Black Panthers, were advocating violence. Cities were burning from violent protests— Los Angles, Newark and Detroit had all experienced what was called by some “civil disturbances” and by others “race riots.” The Vietnam War was heating up, and all young men had to sign up for the draft. At Union, many of my fellow students were burning their draft cards, not to avoid the draft but to protest the war and the fact that it was being fought mainly by the white working class and African Americans. Anti-war protests were happening all over the country, and far Left groups like the Weathermen were talking about overthrowing the government. Police brutality was an issue then as it is now though the issue of brutality against African Americans did not gain the attention that it has now. And it was just the beginning of the long hair fad for men and the hippie movement.

It was a heady time.

We lived off campus in an old, five-story apartment house, showing its age. Though it had a Riverside Drive address, it was only about a block from 125th Street in a neighborhood very near Harlem that at the time could be called seedy. Almost everyone we knew had been robbed at least once, and being robbed was a usual topic at get-togethers and cocktail parties. We lived in a rent-controlled, studio apartment probably around 400 square feet with two windows opening up to an airshaft. The only way to know what the weather was like was to call the weather lady. Our rent was $75/month including utilities.

One evening around five o’clock  I thought I smelled smoke and walked out into the hallway where there was smoke coming out of the trash chute. About the same time our next door neighbor, Don, opened his door and came out to figure out what was happening. Don was a late 20-something, skinny guy, who only wore tee shirts and jeans and had really long, curly blond hair. He had invited me into his apartment once, and the only furniture he had was a mattress on the floor next to an amplifier, loudspeaker, and a guitar. We knew he had a guitar because his favorite time to play—and which we could hear through the thin wall separating the apartments—was between two and three in the morning. Almost every morning.

“So,” I turned to Don. “Do you think the building is burning down? Maybe we should call the super.”

“I don’t know,” he said, “but I am sure not going to call Poitras. The guy hates me. If it turns out to be a false alarm, I know he will throw me out.”Joe Poitras was the super for the building. He was probably around 50, bald, and had a huge pot belly, always had a two- or three-day beard and could not get out a sentence with fewer than a half dozen profanities. He wore grease-stained undershirts and dirty work pants. Most people we knew in the building were terrified of the man—both because he was known for chewing people out if they ever asked for help or filed a work order and also because almost every night you could hear him and his wife having violent arguments, shouting at each other from their basement apartment. We could hear them all the way up on the 5th floor. The arguments would usually end with bangs that we figured were from pots thrown at each other.

“You are right,” I said, “We better not call Poitras. The smoke seems to be diminishing anyway.”

Don then shrugged his shoulders and in a matter-of-fact way, said, “You know, we live in a goddamn, fascist police state.”


“What I said was that we live in a goddamn, fascist police state.”


“Yeah, take last night for example. I was not bothering anyone, just playing my guitar, and at three in the morning, I hear these loud knocks on my door, and these three cops come bursting in and go straight to my bathroom. Then they start flushing the toilet over and over and after a few minutes come over to me. I know the routine. Up against the wall, motherfucker. So when I see them coming at me, I go up against the wall, spread eagle, arms out wide. They didn’t have to search me because all I had on was my jockey shorts. But I knew they were going to hit me. I know what cops are like.

“But no, they didn’t hit me. They just looked at me. Then one of them said, ‘Ok, you goddamn hippie, you try this trick again and we are hauling you in.’ Then they slammed the door shut and left.”

“Oh my goodness.”

“Yeah, this is deliberate intimidation. And it is psychological warfare. I am not sure I am going to be able to sleep tonight. And it’s just because of my long hair, and they think I am a hippie. I tell you it is fascism. We live in a goddamn, fascist police state.”

While Don and I were having our conversation, Embry was in the basement doing the laundry. When the smoke petered out, Don went into his apartment. When Embry returned, I immediately told her the story. “I am telling you,” I said, “we live in a goddamn, fascist police state. What else could explain this intimidation? And just because the guy has long hair!”

Embry immediately burst out laughing.

“What is so funny about that?”

“Well,” she said, “let me tell you my story. When you were talking with Don, I was talking with Mrs. Finkelstein in the laundry room.

Mrs. Finkelstein was a shy, tiny woman in her mid 80s, who used a cane and had lived in her two-bedroom, rent controlled apartment for as long as anyone could remember. Her husband had died several years before, and she rarely left her apartment—mainly to go to the grocery store or drug store. Her apartment was directly across the hall from Don’s apartment. He was in apartment 502. She was in 501.

“Well, I heard the saddest story from Mrs. Finkelstein in the laundry room. She told me about this awful experience she had last night. In the middle of the night her toilet started running. She was afraid to call Joe Poitras because the last time she called him and woke him up he screamed at her. So she called the police instead. But you know what? This time the police never came. She had to stay up all night flushing the toilet until mid-morning when she could safely call Joe Poitras.”

“’You know,’ she told me, ‘The police just don’t care anymore. They used to, but nowadays they won’t help an old lady like me. What has the world come to?'”

We never got to tell this story to either person. Don mysteriously left the building permanently the next week leaving behind his only possession other than his guitar,loudspeaker and amplifier—a mattress on the floor. And Mrs. Finkelstein never ventured out of her apartment again at the same time we did. We tried knocking a time or two, but she never answered, probably fearful it might be the police or worse, Joe Poitras.


The Cop Posts: Cop Story One–The Dragons

There is much in the news today about police culture and police violence. The deaths of so many unarmed black people by police  has gotten public attention as indeed  it should. It ranks up there with other issues related to inequality and class and racial divisions that our country needs to address and reform. These stories, however, are real life experiences that I have encountered, which I think in their own way reflect on policing and the relationship between police and ordinary people, and they are all true–at least as true as all my stories are, which benefit from occasional embellishment.

Note that while these stories are not intended to be  moralistic or political, as one reads them it is not hard to ask the question if I had been a person of  color or a poor  person or an  immigrant or, or….would my encounters with law enforcement have had different outcomes. My last post in the series will deal with that question.

Cop Story One: The Dragons

In 1958 when I got my driver’s license, my parents purchased for me a car for my 16th birthday from my uncle, who owned a used car business. The car was a souped up 1952 Chevy painted bright blue, with a blue interior, blue seats and a blue nob on a blue steering wheel that allowed the driver to make a sharp turn using only one arm, presumably with his other arm around his babe sitting next to him. The car had whitewall tires. The hub caps were “spinners,” sort of what all cars have today but a rarity in 1958.The rear axial had been lowered a few inches so that it would look cool, sort of like a motorboat planing on the water. If the car even had a muffler, it must have been small because when you hit the gas, the car roared like a rocket ship. The car’s pickup was superfast, and my friends encouraged me to head for the drag race track as soon as I could.

I loved the car! All my friends were envious. Several complained that life was not fair and that a wussie like me did not deserve such a hot car, now christened  “the Blue Beast.” For the first time—probably the only time– in my life, I was a cool dude.

 On the second or third day of owning the vehicle, when I was feeling a little more secure driving, I invited two of my high school friends to join me for a “spin,” as we called it in those days. My best friend, Allen, presented me with a black metal plate, the size and shape of a regular license tag with a small metal chain to tie the plate onto the rear bumper just below where the rear tag was. On the black plate was the word “Dragons” in silver letters. We secured  it to the rear bumper. Hey, neat, I thought, how cool was this!

The spin took us through downtown Nashville, on a very busy weekday morning at the tail end of rush hour during our spring break. I had been driving for about a half hour when the  Blue Beast came to an abrupt halt right in the middle of one of the city’s most congested intersections. I desperately hit the starter button. Nothing. Again, no luck.  We were blocking traffic in all four directions.  Some rolled down their windows and shook their fists. Others shouted obscenities. I am sure my face was turning bright red. My hands were shaking. Allen and my other friend, Mike, looked at each other with sheepish grins and then bolted out of the car to watch the drama from the sidelines. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed them pointing at me and laughing.

The police arrived pretty soon, which was fortunate, because I could see a mob beginning to form. One cop, a big burley guy, arrived first and then another, a smaller guy with a thick mustache, who began directing traffic around the car.  The burley cop asked to see my driver’s license, called a tow service, and assured me that they had everything under control, which I interpreted to mean keeping me from being attacked. Then, the second cop looked at the rear tag. “Hey, Mickey,” he said, “We’ve got a Dragon. This guy is a Dragon! Check the car for weapons!”

“What?” I exclaimed.

“I know the Dragons,” he snarled. “They are mean sonsofbitches and dangerous.” His reassuring smile moments earlier turned into a skeptical scowl. I could swear I saw him placing his hand on the handle of his revolver. It was like a scene from one of those horror movies where in moments everything turns into a nightmare. I glanced at my friends still observing the action with amusement but not knowing what was happening with me and the cops.

He made a call on his VHF or “walkie talkie” as we called them in those days, and the reply came back in loud static, “Cuff him and bring him in.”

In horror, I realized what was happening. I was being arrested.

 I waved to my friends to come back fast and blurted out to the cops that I was innocent, “Look, I am not a Dragon. I don’t even know what a Dragon is.”

“Well,” said the burley cop sarcastically, “then how come you got a Dragons license tag on your bumper?”

“It was a birthday gift, sir.” I blurted out, “My friend gave it to me. He is coming over right now. He will explain.”

The two cops gave each other skeptical looks as Mike and Allen arrived on the scene, initially chuckling but when they realized what was going on, showed looks of alarmed surprise.

The interrogation of my two friends took only about five minutes. With serious expressions and repeating “sir” after every sentence, they confirmed the facts: that yes, the Dragons license plate was a gift, that no, they had no idea there was a gang called the Dragons, that we all were students at Montgomery Bell Academy, and that I attended church and Sunday School every week and as far as they knew had never committed a sin. They did not say “and besides, he is a wussie,” for which I was grateful.

The two cops conferred in low tones, checked back with headquarters, and then said with their skeptical frowns still on their face, “Ok, we are letting you off this time,” and drove off. By then the Blue Beast had been towed and the traffic backup had dissipated. The three of us looked at each other and burst out laughing. Someone called a parent to pick us up, and a week later I picked up the car from the mechanic, who had replaced the broken universal joint with a new one. Life returned to normal. But with no Dragon’s tag on the Blue Beast.



Getting Up There In Years: Squeezing The Last Drops Out of the Lemon

As promised, here comes some good news about aging. For the most part we old folks are doing pretty well—at least those of us that are in reasonably good health for our age and have enough income to get by. There are more housing and health care options available for us seniors now than ever. Medical care continues to improve, and there is income support from Social Security and SSI, health care support from Medicare and Medicaid, and nutrition support from food stamps. Before the 1930s there was nothing, and before the 1960s only Social Security. (These are the targets, by the way, that the Freedom Caucus plans to hold hostage to the debt ceiling vote.)

We humans tend to keep going as long as we can, given our health and abilities. It is part of our nature. Many of us go on cruises and travel. We join clubs. We volunteer. We go to concerts and plays. We remain active in our neighborhoods and cherish friends and families. We continue to exercise. We serve on nonprofit boards.  We stay politically engaged. Some work part time in jobs they love.

The big differences in quality of life for us septuagenarians and octogenarians have to do with our health, our financial resources, and our personal relationships, especially with friends and family. Some of us have been dealt better hands than others.

The existential question we old folks face as we age is this: what happens next? We know that we will not all die peacefully in our sleep after living fulfilling lives and with just enough time to say goodbye to loved ones and make peace with the Divine. If only this were so. Sometimes, however, it does happen or comes close. The retired Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, Jane Dixon, who was a good friend, an inspiration, and much loved by Episcopalians throughout the diocese, died in her sleep (from a heart attack) in 2016 after tucking in her grandchildren on Christmas Eve. Still, she was much too young (age 75), and no one was prepared for her sudden death.

Now I happen to be an expert in housing options for seniors. My career was mostly devoted to assisting nonprofit housing providers build seniors housing, mainly “continuing care retirement communities (“CCRCs”), now also called “Life Plan” communities. The idea behind these communities is that they tackle the “what’s next” question directly as people get older and need more services to maintain their independence. They do this by providing three levels of care—independent living (with meals and housekeeping included), assisted living and long-term nursing care—all in one building or on one campus. Many communities now also provide memory care. These communities—most are not-for-profit– require a front-end entrance fee and a monthly payment. I have been a big fan of these communities and have many friends who smartly have moved into a CCRC. One would expect we would be the first to sign up. But no, not Embry and me. “The cobbler’s children have no shoes.”

There are also rental, market rate supportive housing options, known as “congregate housing,” which provide meals, housekeeping, activities and supportive services and often include assisted living. There are   group homes typically accommodating 3-10 people and providing similar services, and often more affordable than other market rate options. And there have been a whole bunch of assisted living communities built during the last 25 to 30 years, some including memory care. There are many more options now than were available 50 years ago when my generation was entering the work force and our parents were getting old.

Why haven’t we moved to a Life Plan community or one of the market rate, senior housing options? Well, we are happy where we live now. This is the usual excuse. In 2015 Embry dragged me kicking and screaming out of the house we had happily lived in for over 40 years. Why move, I asked?  Because Embry could see the “what’s next,” problem then, and she was right.  Climbing stairs for me now is a killer with my bad knees. We moved all of a few hundred yards away to a 450-unit apartment building, which is a quintessential “NORC” (naturally occurring retirement community) where there are a lot of people our age (but also younger people and young families), a strong residents’ association, spacious apartments with fireplaces and balconies, a fitness center and indoor lap pool, and lots of activities. It was the perfect solution, thanks to Embry. We love it and have made many new friends. It is a short walk to our old neighborhood and our church and shopping, restaurants, and Metro. Why move again?

Enter the nagging “what’s next” question. We are now eight years older than when we moved in. I will soon  be 81. Embry is 76. There are no supportive services offered in the apartment building where we now live. We have witnessed friends and neighbors deal with losing spouses and how hard it is to find suitable supportive housing options or homecare support. Some have had to separate from a spouse who had to move to assisted living or memory care off site. While there are now even more options than ever that try to address this question– senior “villages” where seniors volunteer to help each other, care managers that help people get in home care or find other solutions, and “life care at home,” —  there are no solutions that solve all the challenges of aging, no silver bullet. And making the decision to move to a CCRC is difficult for us since we are city people and have so many friends here. We are probably typical in putting this off to the last minute and are just starting to struggle with that question.

A bigger challenge is for people with limited financial resources. The majority of seniors are not able to afford to live in the NORC where we live or any kind of “market rate” seniors housing with supportive services, especially the CCRCs, which are limited to people with substantial assets and solid retirement incomes. My guess is that at best  only about a third of the over-75 population can afford these options. What about the other two-thirds?

The news is not all bad there either. There has been a lot of subsidized housing for seniors built over the years starting in the 1960s. I worked on a number of these properties as well and currently serve on the board of three such properties. The HUD 202 Program was the best and produced many thousands of apartments affordable by seniors with incomes up to 50% of area median. Rents are pegged at 30% of income. The most active housing production program today is called the “Tax Credit Program” which pegs rents affordable to residents at 30-60% of the area median income. Some of the HUD 202 properties provide meals and also have service coordinators. Accessing services for residents usually involves utilizing independent home and community-based service providers. If long term nursing home care is required, Medicaid is available in most states to make the care affordable (requiring residents, however, to spend down all their assets and is available only to those who have extremely low incomes.)  The housing options for poor people are not perfect, and we need more affordable housing with services—especially for those in-between seniors who do not qualify for subsidized housing but can’t afford market rate senior living; but overall, I give the options for people with more limited financial resources pretty high marks.

So, we old folks have lot to be thankful for.  The senior population is healthier and better off today on the whole than we have ever been, but that does not mean that more does not need to be done. So, the picture is mixed. But you can’t help admiring folks older than me who are still going strong and making the best of their lives . The challenge we all face is  how to grow old gracefully and how to squeeze those last drops out of the lemon.








Checking Out Is Hard To Do

Warning: This post is not for sissies.

In two months I will turn 81. Despite a few health issues here and there (Does anyone recall my “Too Long Covid” or my “BVS” blogs?), I am in good health for someone my age. My “new” knee is bothering me a bit, but I still get in my 15-20 miles of urban walks every week, albeit at a lot slower pace than they were ten years ago, and I am facing no death sentences that I know of. I have already outlived my life expectancy by several years and counting. Embry is in better shape than I am, and our children, their spouses, and grandchildren are doing fine. As the saying goes, I have been blessed.

 But like practically everyone in their 80s, I have lost my parents. I also have lost good friends, and a younger brother, and I know people who are struggling with very serious health issues. Many of our friends in the apartment house where we now live are widows.  We octogenarians are aware we are mortal. I confess I now read more obituaries than I used to and make a mental note of the age of people when they died. There are a whole bunch of 80 something-year-olds in the obituaries/death notices every day.

So, two questions face us old folks. The first is how we get the most out of the limited time we have left on this wonderful but fragile planet. I will save that for a later post (“Squeezing the Last Drops Out of the Lemon.”) The second is what the checking out process is going to look like for us. This post is about the second question.

I recall my first “death awareness” experience. In 1966 Embry and I were attending a weekend retreat at Wake Forest Seminary in North Carolina. I was a student at Union Seminary in New York City, and we were preparing for a summer-long experience  working in the Civil Rights Movement in southwest Georgia. The conference was conducted by a “radical” Christian organization called the Ecumenical Institute, which described its mission as using the principles of Marxism–and particularly those of Mao Tsung–to convert the entire world to Christianity. Bizarre to say the least, but there Embry and I were, along with a dozen or so apprehensive Union Seminary students, preparing to go to the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. There were probably over 100 others from other seminaries all over the country attending, who I presumed were preparing for similar adventures. I supposed the idea of sending us to this conference was to harden us up.

One of the exercises of the conference was to put groups of 25 or 30 people together in a room, lock the door, and forbid them to leave until they had answered “profound religious questions.” The event I attended happened around seven in the morning before anyone had had any breakfast. The subject of my first (and only) closed-door, locked session was death. (Embry was assigned to another room with another subject.) A thin guy in his 30s—”the Inquisitor” — with a crew cut and wearing a gray suit and thin tie, walked around the room and would stop behind someone arbitrarily, jerk the cowering person out of a chair and ask a profound question dealing with death—the person’s own death. The method worked. Some people broke down in tears, trying unsuccessfully to say something profound and avoid humiliation. Others were scolded by the Inquisitor for remaining silent. Everyone there was a seminary student someplace, so there were occasional praises of Jesus, and asking forgiveness to avoid going to hell, but most people just wept, begged for mercy, or kept their mouths shut.

I was terrified. I had no idea what I would say. I was something of a skeptic even during my seminary days (or perhaps because of them); but more important, I was an Episcopalian. Episcopalians do not do or say such things. Ever.

I noticed that he seemed to be picking on every third person. As he got nearer to me as the moaning and weeping continued, I did the arithmetic and figured out that within a minute or two I was in line to be jerked up out of my seat. I could feel my heart pounding. I glanced at the door. I could bolt, but the door was supposed to be locked. Besides I would look like a fool and a wimp.

I looked up and there he was standing over me and frowning with an evil look in his eye. I clinched my fists and held my breath as his hands headed toward my shoulders. But instead of landing on my shoulders, they landed on the guy sitting next to me. The Inquisitor screamed in his ear, “What do you want on your tombstone? What do you want on your tombstone? Tell me now. Now!”

The poor guy, who was about my age, turned his head to the Inquisitor and with a smirk replied in a calm voice but in a stage whisper loud enough for everyone to hear, “You want to know what I want on my tombstone? You want to know that? This is what I want on my tombstone: ‘Bury me upside down so you can kiss my ass, you sonofabitch!’’”

The room exploded with laughter. Everyone got up and headed to the door, which it turned out was not locked afterall, and that was pretty much it for the conference.

“What do I want on my tombstone?” Gosh, I still can’t answer that question, and besides I plan to be cremated anyway.

But the question that I—and I suspect many others my age—do ask is whether I will have to suffer and for how long, and what will my checking out process be like. The experience of the million or so Americans who died from covid, most alone, has meant that almost all these people died without their families or loved ones present. How terrible was this? Nobody would want this! Will this continue as covid persists? Please, no. Not that for me!

And what about people who spend months and even years in nursing homes and who suffer from dementia? This week I visited several such facilities in trying to find a spot for a dear relative. Please, no. Not that for me. Anything but that!

Or people who suffer great pain? Hospice has made a huge difference here, and modern drugs can ease the suffering, but still….

Yet the checking out process is not our call—at least not our call most of the time. California and Oregon and a handful of other states (including the District of Columbia) have what I call “death with dignity” laws—not “physician-assisted suicide”! — but the criteria for using these laws is pretty strict as indeed it should be. For one thing you have to be of sound mind and have a life-threatening disease. However, that leaves out dementia patients and those with severe mental illness and profound depression. These are often the ones who suffer the most.

Several decades ago we had a college student staying with us who had summer jobs working part time in the National Zoo and part time in a neighborhood nursing home. She told us no one would allow an animal in the zoo to suffer the way we allow people to suffer in nursing homes. When I took our aging cat to the vet a couple of years ago, the vet’s comments were very clear: please, please, do not let your cat suffer needlessly. I felt like responding, “You mean, the way we let human beings do?”

There is no easy answer to the death and dying question. To ease the pain and suffering by broadening death with dignity regulations could help but also they could be abused. But there has to be a better way. I do not know what the answer is though certainly hospice has made a huge contribution in easing the checking out process for many. Death is as much a part of the human condition as birth. One could argue that without a beginning and an end life itself would have no meaning.

A number of years ago, Embry’s aunt, who was one day short of her 99th birthday, and had been a widow for decades (married to a Methodist minister and professor of religion), laid out the ground rules for her children regarding her own checking out process. She had been nearly blind for several years, recently diagnosed with a particularly painful type of cancer and was very sharp mentally. She had been living for many years in the independent living section of a very good retirement community in the Bay Area. Following her explicit instructions, all three of her children and their spouses gathered around her bed. She was by no means a serious drinker but had instructed someone to make a pitcher of martinis and to sing a robust version of “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain When She Comes,” make appropriate toasts, and hold hands as she consumed what appeared to be a peanut butter cracker. Smiling, she dozed off to sleep and never woke up.

Does the checking out process get any better than this?