Reflections of a Weary Traveler

As I look back on my 81 years of life on this wonderous planet, I can’t help putting my travel experiences near the top of the list of what I am most thankful for. The last three experiences which happened over the past two years —bad case of covid on a cruise to Iceland and Norway in 2022, cancelled flights to the BVIs over the Christmas holidays this year, and barely making it to Costa Rica last week– suggest that perhaps these adventures may be nearing an end, but still—how fortunate I have been! I have to give Embry a lot of credit. She has been the driver behind the quest to travel. By last count, together we have visited some 70 countries, several multiple times, and Embry on her own has added another ten to her list (mainly African countries and recently the “Stans.”). I have taken the lead on bareboat, sailing adventures (Tahiti, the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, the San Juan Islands, and over 20 bareboat cruises in the Caribbean), but almost all the others have been Embry’s doing. Let’s hear it for the Iron Lady!

Which ones stand out the most? The answer to that question for me is easy. In first place is our 2015 adventure around the world without flying. You may have followed my blog posts on this. Second would be our 1992 adventure in Russia organized by our son, Andrew, who was living there at the time, when with both our children and about dozen of our good friends, we took the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to a tiny village on Lake Baikal and explored the wild and lonely Taiga Forest. The third would be for me (Embry still gives me a hard time about not being invited.), when I was part of a three-week US delegation to China in 1986 to confer with local officials in about a half dozen cities about the Chinese housing crisis. And every trip Embry and I have had has been a learning experience. Not a single one has been a loser, even though I have had to deal with physical “meltdowns” on several of them.

But here is what I do not understand: Why is it that countries are friends one day and mortal enemies the next and then in many cases friends again? What is this all about?

There are many examples. Take Japan. In 1962 my college roommate and I drove across the country to Seattle where we boarded a Pan Am flight to Tokyo to join a group of American and Japanese college students working that summer on a farm at the base of Mount Yatsu, Japan’s second tallest mountain. This was only 16 years after World War II! Yet the Japanese students could not have been nicer or more welcoming. At the end of the summer, I spent a week with a Japanese friend, who invited me to stay at his family’s apartment in Tokyo. As I entered the vestibule to his family’s apartment, there was a painting of his father in uniform, sword drawn, walking in front of several British generals all carrying white flags. He had been a general in the Japanese Army during the war and the first commanding officer of the Japanese post war, “Peace Army.” His whole family welcomed me as part of their family. I still have a large, framed photo in our apartment of Mt Fuji, which his father had taken and autographed and given to me as a “goodwill gift.”

Embry and I have visited Russia twice–once in 1992 on the trip to Siberia and again in 2015 on our trip around the world. Both times we were greeted warmly everywhere we went. Andrew made many Russian friends when he lived there. On our first visit, Gorbachev had just been forced out, but the United States was still viewed as a friend and ally, and there was so much hope for the country and for democracy and so much good will toward Americans. And now?

China is another example. In 1986 the housing delegation I was on was wined and dined by local officials everywhere we went. They viewed the U.S. as a model for housing policy and treated us like royalty. In that year, the country was just starting to open up, having gone through the Cultural Revolution without constructing much new housing. When asked what they should do, we told them to build more housing. When Embry and I returned in 2015 for a month of travel there on our trip around the world, new apartment houses were everywhere. They had constructed several million new units and very proud of their accomplishments—as indeed they should be. In that year Americans were treated as friends. And now?

And Cambodia and Vietnam. Enemies in the 1970s and friends today. We were welcomed everywhere we went when we visited both countries in the early 2000s with no mention of the “unpleasantries” that had happened just twenty-five plus years before.

The answer, of course, is that this is just the way it is. Get over it: bad leaders, and we humans are herd animals. Accept human nature for what it is.

Yeah, but…

China and Russia have nuclear weapons. So do a lot of other hostile countries. Iran will soon have them. What are the chances that these weapons will never be used, ever? What are the chances that a mistake or miscalculation will never occur, ever? What are the chances that none of these countries will ever have an irresponsible, nutcase dictator, who is willing to take unthinkable actions because he thinks he can get away with it?

And on top of all this, we have climate change threatening to transform the planet.

One takeaway from our world travels is that we live on a beautiful planet. What is scary is that it is far from certain that we will be able to keep it that way.






Costa Rica: The Experience, Part Two

So why were we headed to Guanacaste anyway? It was a long way from San Jose, about 120 miles, not considered a tourist destination, and very remote. When I asked Embry this question, she answered, “That is exactly why we are going. That is what I was looking for.”

Good enough answer for me. The initial part of the ride out of San Jose was surprisingly stress free. The road was six lanes most of the way and built to interstate standards with the dreaded ditches safely placed on the far side of the shoulder. There was lots of traffic, but the motorcycles, cars and trucks zoomed along with only a few backups. We were headed  toward the Pan American Highway, called CR 1 in Costa Rica. This highway—or, more accurately, a network of connected roads—connects the northernmost part of Alaska with the southernmost part of South America. It is the longest continuous road network in the world covering 19,000 miles with only one small stretch of about 70 miles (the infamous “Darien Gap” between Columbia and Panama) where there is a break.

As we passed over one mountain range and then another and headed down toward the Pacific Ocean, the road narrowed, and we passed, of all things, a container storage area used by containerships, though standing alone on the side of a mountain and not apparently close to the ocean. Moments later the Pacific came into view, and we saw signs directing us to CR-1. We had made it through the first leg and would be headed north to Guanacaste for another 50 or 60 miles before we reached our destination.

What I did not expect, however, is that the mighty Pan-American Highway in this part of Costa Rica would turn out to be a two-lane road with dreaded drainage ditches replacing the shoulders—or worse, steep drop offs, or being dangerously close to unprotected construction sites where road rebuilding was starting to happen. It was a nightmare. When we managed to squeeze our way onto what was more like a parking lot than a road, we realized it was going to be a long slog to our hotel in Guanacaste. The initial GPS estimate was three hours from our hotel in San Jose. The actual time ended up being closer to five hours.

The benefit of slogging it out on a decrepit, jammed two-lane highway was that as we crept along, we were able to pass through village after village and get a feel for Costa Rican life in the countryside. When the new freeway is completed years from now, all these villages will be gone or relocated. Had we been on a new freeway, we would have missed all of this. For the most part the homes were quite modest, some constructed out of tin, cardboard, and discarded building materials, and a reminder that poverty still prevails in this “most progressive” of all the Central American countries. It also occurred to me that if some alien happened to land in Costa Rica instead of Washington DC, it would be a more accurate representation of how human beings live on the planet Earth. There are about eight billion of us humans now living on this small and obscure planet but at most no more than a couple of billion live in so called “advanced” or “developed” countries, even fewer in nice homes and neighborhoods. Within Washington, neighborhoods vary enormously, and we have our own nagging problems of poverty and inequality. My guess is that if the alien traveler stayed for very long, he or she would report back that the troubled planet had better get its act together pretty soon or it might not be worth a visit.

Embry had wanted to come to an area where you would not find many tourists. Guanacaste did not disappoint. We did not hear anyone speaking English among themselves and only saw a handful of others who appeared to be tourists. The resort that Embry had chosen was about five miles from the nearest village. The “Hacienda de la Pacifica” was a gated community and former ranch of several hundred acres on which were constructed about 25 cottages situated at the edge of a lush, ancient forest surrounding a meticulously groomed open area with a beautiful lap pool.  A small lodge and dining area were only a few minutes’ walk from our front porch. Our one-bedroom cottage had a living and dining area and full kitchen and must have been almost 1,000 square feet. You could rock on the front porch and watch the sun rise and set and enjoy watching extraordinary wildlife only yards away—exotic birds, cute little creatures that looked a little like large, fat squirrels without tails, deer everywhere, and occasional visits from families of monkeys. It was just what the doctor ordered. At best the resort was only about a third full with only a few tables occupied at dinner or breakfast besides ours. It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.

We took two all-day excursions. On the first day we drove on a two-lane highway about 50 miles up the mountain toward the east where I read in the guidebook that you could have views of the most famous volcano in the country, Arenal Volcano, and the largest lake, Arenal Lake. On the second day we drove about 40 miles west to a national park bordering the Pacific, Santa Rosa National Park. Both excursions were spectacular but very different. The drive up the mountains took us through arid foothills, an area similar to the California coastal area; and then as we approached the summit, we found ourselves in a tropical rain forest before the narrow road started down again. The views of the volcano and the lake were spectacular and worth the nail biting and at times terrifying experience of trying to dodge a bus or truck on a hairpin switchback without going off a cliff or into a drainage ditch. When we got too close to a ditch, Embry would warn, “Ditch, ditch!” and I would grit my teeth and try to edge the car a few inches more toward the middle.

The second excursion took us to an isolated “dry forest” where it heavily rains most days from late May through September and then no rain at all from October through early May. Since we were visiting toward the end of the dry season, few trees had any leaves, and the creek beds were bone try. We were told that by  July, the forest would resemble a tropical jungle with the bone-dry creeks raging and flooding the narrow walking paths. When we arrived at the national park, there was only one car parked in the parking area, which could accommodate no more than about a dozen cars, and that belonged to the forest ranger. Only one other car showed up while we were there. If Embry did not want to go where we would find a bunch of gawking U.S. tourists (like us), she surely found it.

So that was about it—a short and sweet visit but not nearly long enough to see the extraordinary diversity and natural beauty of this tiny country. You really need at least two weeks for that. Two weeks of driving, however, would have been more than I could have handled. But what we did see and experience gave us a taste and enabled us to understand why there is so much enthusiasm about the beauty and diversity of Costa Rica.

I wish I could say the drive back to San Jose was uneventful, but, alas, we witnessed four crashes on the northbound lanes on our way driving south on the Pan American Highway with traffic backed up for miles and ambulances hemmed in and not able to get to the those injured. While traffic was moving fairly quickly on our side going south, the “Waze lady” on our GPS came on and directed us about halfway into the drive to get off the Pan-American and take a small, two-lane road over the two mountain ranges. This proved to be yet another harrowing experience with numerous steep switch backs but thankfully not a lot of traffic—and, of course, spectacular views. It also took us almost six hours to reach the hotel near the airport where we would depart the next morning. When we dropped off our car at the Avis agency, I raised my arms again and exclaimed, “Victory, we did it!” The ordeal getting here turned out to be worth the effort. My intuition tells me that this trip probably marks the end of my “adventure travel,” (Embry is taking our two granddaughters to Europe for three weeks this summer with Jessica helping.), but what a ride this has been! Stay tuned for some final reflections on our travel experience in the next blog post.






Costa Rica: The Experience, Part One

On the long flight to San Jose from Orlando, I started to thumb through a Costa Rican guidebook, which a friend had let us borrow. I realized that we were headed to an extraordinary country. Why had it taken this long to begin the research? Why wasn’t I paying attention? A country only the size of West Virginia with a  population of around 5 million and one of the world’s natural wonders: 11 volcanoes , several still active, two mountain ranges with many peaks towering above 11,000 feet, rain forests, desert-like “dry forests,” coffee and banana plantations, exotic birds and wildlife, waterfalls, raging streams with kayaking and rafting, the windsurfing capital of the planet, the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean on the other….The list was long. Tourism attracts over three million visitors a year, and resorts are plentiful. Costa Rica is the most stable Central American country and its only functioning democracy, one of the few countries in the world without a standing army, and the center for eco-tourism. Good heavens! Why hadn’t this country been at the top of our bucket list?

I did also note that in the section giving advice to tourists that there was a soft heads-up on renting a car, suggesting that it might be advisable to get your hotel or resort to pick you up or to hire a driver due to the poor condition of the roads and the high accident rate. I did not think much about that at the time since I like to drive and consider myself a good driver. Embry had casually mentioned that she had left her driver’s license at home, but I was usually the driver anyway, so no problem. I was finally getting charged up and ready to go.

As we deplaned in San Jose, the nation’s capital, we entered a large room, teeming with humanity. We got in the short line reserved for families and seniors to clear passport control. Embry breezed through. I was stopped because of my “invalid passport.” Oh, my goodness, I thought, here we go again! The agent excused herself and returned a few minutes later and stamped the passport without commenting, and out we went as I raised my arms in a victory salute. We spotted our bags immediately and headed to the Avis pickup spot, picked up our car and were on our way.

First stop, our hotel in San Jose, a small hotel in downtown San Jose with a quaint French name.

As we made a right turn into a very congested, narrow two-lane road, Embry suddenly warned, “Watch out, Joe, there is a deep ditch on the right and you almost went into it!”

“Yes,” I answered, “But the bus passing in the other lane missed us by inches and I had to get out of its way. Why is there no shoulder!”

Welcome to Costa Rica—and the ubiquitous ditches, which would become over the next five days the bane of my existence!

Not every road in Costa Rica has these two-to-four-foot, paved ditches, in the shape of a “V,” but a whole bunch do; and they are terrifying if the road is narrow and two-lane and has no shoulder. One false move and you end up stuck in the ditch or worse—your car flips over. The reason for the ditches somebody told me was to allow water to drain easily from roads during the rainy season, which is basically from May through September.  I announced to Embry that if we both got home in one piece, I would call the trip a huge success regardless of what else happened on the trip.

We soon came to an intersection with a major six lane, interstate-like artery that went into the central part of the city. The traffic of cars, buses, and 18-wheelers leading into the city was bumper-to-bumper inching along. We wriggled our way into the third lane as a motorcyclist whizzed between our car and the car in the adjacent lane, passing us on the driver’s side with less than six inches to spare. Then another on the passenger’s side, and another and another. These motorcycles were everywhere darting between cars, going in and out and dodging in front of cars and massive trucks and busses when there was an opening. I had never seen anything quite like it, but had to admit, compared to the cars and trucks, they were making good time.

San Jose is situated in a valley almost a mile high and surrounded by peaks almost twice as high. During the dry season the high temperatures are in the high 70s in what could be described as a delightful climate. Just under 400,000 people live in the country’s largest city though it seems larger given the traffic and congestion. Except for a colonial church or two, a few squares and older government buildings, there is not a lot in the way of tourist attractions.

After a little over an hour, we finally had made the 20-mile trip to the city center and got off the “freeway” to a main street, following the instructions on the GPS. The main street was even more crowded, not just with cars, trucks, and buses, horns blasting, and motorbikes dodging in and out but also with pedestrians, shoulder to shoulder on jammed sidewalks and jay walking between stalled cars waiting for traffic to clear. The other thing that stood out were all the security iron bars, fences and barbed wire around the stores, houses, and apartments.  In our travels and Embry’s work, we have been in tough neighborhoods all over the world—the notorious barrios outside of Lima, “informal settlements” in several African countries, the famous favellas in Rio. This was nothing new to us, but the initial impression of this extraordinary country was a far cry from the “Garden of Eden” described in the guidebooks. It felt like a “Third World,” developing nation to us.

The chaos, jammed streets and pollution in San Jose, is why most tourists skip it if they can and are whisked away in limousines provided by fancy hotels and resorts in the mountains or on the coasts. Yet to miss this frantic city would be missing something very important about the country and about how a whole lot of people in the world live. Over the years this part of our travels has been what I have valued the most—not so much seeing the tourist attractions but the way that ordinary people live.

The challenge, of course, was finding the hotel, which we did in another half hour thanks to the GPS. Since few streets in San Jose are even marked with street signs, you have to wonder how any tourist could have found an obscure hotel before we had the mapping technology. By this time, however, I was a wreck. It was now getting toward five in the afternoon Costa Rican time.  We had been up since four in the morning their time, had endured enough stress at National Airport to trigger a psychological melt down, and now had been on the road for almost two hours dodging motorcycles and pedestrians, 18-wheelers, trying to avoid ditches and wind our way through packed streets to find a place to sleep.

The hotel was located on a quiet side street about half a block from the bustling main drag. I found a temporary parking spot and waited for Embry to check us in. The hotel had two levels, seemed quite small to me, and was protected by two huge iron gates, which I noticed were padlocked. No one seemed to be present, and it appeared impossible for us to get in. In about 10 minutes Embry appeared smiling.

“Well, all the doors are padlocked, but I finally found a young guy working on the grounds who did not speak a word of English. We communicated via Google Translate on our smart phones. I do not know how Google translated into Spanish my question of where someone might be who could let us into the hotel, but his answer to my question came back to me as “He is in a corner and we don’t know where he is.”

In a few minutes, however, an older guy did emerge from the locked gate, opened a second padlocked gate where he motioned for me to park my car, and proceeded to check us in. It appeared we were the hotel’s only customers. We were set and at last could catch our breath. The hotel was charming in an old world, tarnished sort of way and just fine for us. We wandered up to the main drag looking for a restaurant but could not find one, so we ordered tacos from a tiny takeout with two small wooden tables, went across the street to a liquor store and bought two bottles of beer, and returned to sit at the vacant table, eat our tacos and watch the hustle and bustle of San Jose and the “Ticos” (what Costa Ricans call themselves) passing by. When we returned to our hotel, a small bus was unloading a dozen or so serious hikers with huge backpacks, all appearing to be in their twenties. We crashed around nine, ready for the adventure the next day, which would take us over two mountain ranges to the wild and lonely Guanacaste Region in the upper northwest corner of the country about 120 miles from San Jose.

Stay tuned. Challenges awaited us.



Adventure Travels With “The Iron Lady”: Getting to Costa Rica (Barely)

“Iron Lady” is a term of endearment used to describe Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979-1990, who was known for her toughness and perseverance, often against great odds, not losing her cool, and a person admired both by friend and foe. While Embry is very different from Thatcher in many ways, the following story will allow you to understand why she too is an “Iron Lady.”

This post and the one which follows is about our recent trip to Costa Rica. The only reason we were going to Costa Rico was because we cancelled a flight on Jet Blue last summer, as a result of our cruise line cancelling the cruise due to Covid.  Jet Blue gave us a credit for the tickets. The tickets had to be to a foreign country and had to be used within a short time period, which was about to expire. There were only three foreign countries that Jet Blue flew to that we were interested in—Bermuda, Cuba and Costa Rica. We chose Bermuda only to be informed that Jet Blue no longer flies to that country. Then we chose Cuba, which the Jet Blue agent strongly advised against for reasons she did not fully explain, and happily ended up with Costa Rica. We knew very little about the country, and due to the short time frame for using the free ticket, Embry had not done her usual research ahead of time—arbitrarily choosing two hotels, one for the first evening in San Jose, the capital of the country, and for the rest of the week, a “resort hotel” in the northwestern Pacific coastal area called “Guanacaste,” the most remote region in the country. The final ahead-of-time piece was to reserve a rental a car. That was about it. We were looking forward to being surprised.

How important was this trip? Well, very. I will turn 81 on April Fool’s Day and am starting to feel my age. Embry is four years behind, but we both know that our traveling days are nearing an end, at least our adventure traveling days—heading off to a new and mysterious destination without the benefit of being on a guided tour. This could be our last shot. In fact, this was the reason I had set the alarm clock to ring just after five in the morning so that we could be certain to make the flight, which was scheduled to depart from National Airport at 7:38 A.M. I did not want to miss this one.

There was no problem getting to the airport by cab. We arrived at 6:15 giving us almost an hour and a half before the gate would close. I was relaxed and confident as we approached the international desk of Jet Blue where there was no line. A smiling, uniformed gentleman in his forties with a funny name and what sounded to me like an Eastern European accent welcomed us. I could almost taste the coffee and fresh croissant that I planned to have at the coffee shop area near the gate where we would be waiting to board the plane.

He looked at Embry’s passport and smiled and then took mine and paused.
“I am sorry,” he replied, “but you will not be able to board the plane. Your passport is invalid.”

Neither of us said a word and looked at each other in stunned disbelief.

“What do you mean it is invalid?” I demanded, “It was fine to get us into the BVIs two months ago.”

“You are not going to the BVIs. You are going to Costa Rica. This is their rule. Your passport expires on March 25. Today is March 6. That is not enough time. You must have at least 90 days on your passport past the time you enter the country, or you are not allowed in. You have less than three weeks left on your passport. That is not enough.”

When situations like this happen, I automatically morph into my outrage act. I did not shout but came close to it, frantically gesturing with my arms, and asked what the point is of an expiration date if the passport becomes invalid three months before the official expiration date. I went on to add that the policy was wrong, stupid, ridiculous, made no sense, outrageous, and dumb and that he must not understand the regulations and should call his supervisor.

(I have since learned that many countries have such policies, and some require as much as a six month cushion.)

The poor guy looked embarrassed and said that he was sorry, but there was nothing he could do about it. It was the policy of the U.S. State Department. If he did not follow the proper procedures, he could lose his job.  Embry commented calmly that what counted was the policy of the Costa Rican government and that we had heard nothing from the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica about the 90-day requirement. He excused himself for a few minutes and returned with a printout of what appeared to an official notice from the U.S. State Department showing that the 90-day rule applied to Costa Rica. The only option would be for me to get a new passport and then apply the credit to  the next flight, but since that needed to happen within a few weeks before the free ticket expired, it was unlikely to work out. He then proceeded to go over all the other options, including  rebooking to Costa Rica several months from now, the cheapest flight being about $1,500 person and involving overnight layovers. He then tried to come up with flying to U.S. locations like Houston or Orlando or New York or Chicago, or Puerto Rico– some “fun place” that we could have an enjoyable location.  

The time that it took for what I will call “the  encounter” was over 45 minutes. He suggested one option, then another, then another. All would cost us several thousand dollars, and none made any sense. He was empathetic and obviously trying to do the best he could, but the situation was hopeless. When customers behind us complained, they were reassigned to other lines. During the middle part of the encounter, Embry said few words and then mysteriously disappeared. I was left staring at the befuddled agent, who was desperately trying to find some way to satisfy us and get me out of his way so he could assist other customers.

I reverted from my outrage mode to my despair mode. I realized that our chances of getting to Costa Rica, possibly our last opportunity for adventure travel, were close to nil. I glumly stared at the floor.

At 7:00 A.M. Embry reappeared and gently thrust her cell phone toward the weary agent.

“Look at this,” she said softly but firmly.  “This is from the Costa Rican Embassy website in Washington, D.C.  It says that you have to have at least one day remaining on your passport before your scheduled departure, not 90 days. Please confer with your supervisor.”

“Well,” he replied, “What you have says one thing, and the instructions I am following say something else. I must follow my instructions, or I will lose my job.”

“I understand,” she said, “but could you please consult your supervisor?” Her tone was polite but firm, and she had a slight smile and seemed more relaxed. He gave her a puzzled look, reread what was on her cellphone and the official policy on his printout, shrugged his shoulders, started looking at his computer screen again, and picked up a phone. I presumed he was calling his supervisor.

We glanced at each other with hopeful looks.

I then noticed the time. It was now 7:15. We had exactly 23 minutes to make it to the gate for a 7:38 departure. Still no decision.

Embry placed her bag on the scale and motioned for him to tag it, warning that we were going to miss our flight if he did not act immediately. He put down the phone, had a concerned look on his face, and began to fumble with the with tags. He motioned for help from an assistant and the bags went onto the belt. I do not recall that he said one word to us.

Yes!  We were   going to Costa Rica after all. Victory!

We thanked him as we bolted toward the security check-in area. He managed a faint smile and waived back.  Then it occurred to me: What would be the chances of anyone getting through security in a very crowded airport in less than 20 minutes? Our bags would happily be on their way to Costa Rica. We wouldn’t. 

We charged toward the escalator, reached the bottom, turned the corner, and then stared at a line for security clearance that was so long it spilled out into the vast lobby area. In fact, I had never seen a line at National Airport this long. I remembered there was another security check-point area which was more remote but often had shorter lines, and we charged toward that with Embry leading the way with me hobbling along as best as I could with two bad knees. The clock was ticking. The second line was even longer, at least 150 people, probably more. The wait had to be at least 20 minutes, probably more like 30. I did not look at my watch, but I knew it had to be close to 7:30.

We looked at each other. “No choice,” I said, “Let’s go for it!”

Embry ducked under the first rope and barged in ahead of an astonished ticket holder, who had probably been waiting for several minutes.

 “Sorry, excuse us,” she said, “Old folks trying to make a flight.”

Before the person had a chance to object, Embry had ducked under the second rope, saying the same thing to another surprised passenger. I followed, ducking under the ropes, saying “elderly emergency, elderly emergency!” In all we ducked under five ropes in a minute or two, receiving puzzled looks and occasional smiles. There was not a single protest or a “what the hell do you think you are doing?” One guy cheered us on, “Go for it, guys, you can do it!” Another asked me how much time we had. I looked at my watch and said, “eight minutes before the doors close,” to which he answered, “No way.”

By the time we reached the head of the line, the word was out, and the people who were in the process of getting their IDs checked moved aside and let us get ahead of them. The officer quickly screened our passports, checked our boarding passes with a skeptical look, and sent us to the shortest line for the carryon check. The personal screening went quickly. When the bags came out on the conveyor belt, I checked my watch. It was 7:35—three minutes to make it.

Embry charged off. I hobbled behind her encouraging her to run as fast as possible and get them to keep the doors open for me, then yelled, “What number is the gate anyway? She hollered back, “Gate C-22.”

As I stumbled into the C gate area and scanned to see where Gate-22 was, all I could find were Gates 23 and higher. Gate C-22 must be in some other location. What do to? Doomed again.

Suddenly, Embry appeared panting, “I made it just before the doors closed, and they are holding the plane for us. By the way, there is no C-22. What I meant was C-24. Hurry, hurry!”

We stumbled into a fully packed plane with only two seats remaining. The doors closed behind me. We were off to our adventure in Costa Rica. The Iron Lady had come through again. The actual takeoff was delayed a few minutes to allow for late baggage to be loaded (our bags for sure) and we landed on time in San Jose around 3:00 P.M. after a three-hour layover in Orlando.

Now is there any doubt in anyone’s mind why this could well be our last adventure travel where we try to do it all on our own?  We are too old for this. But wait! You do not know what was awaiting us when we finally arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica. That will be the subject of the next blog post.














On Facing Deafness

Many who know me are aware that I have hearing issues. I have had a serious hearing problem since the mid 1990s. I got my first hearing aid in 1997 and am now on my fourth of fifth pair. Each pair seems to perform a little better. Let’s hear it for medical technology! I get by, but only with the help from these miraculous inventions. What would have been the situation 50 years ago?

 But this week I was confronted with not being able to hear very much—even with my hearing aids on. Over the past several weeks it seemed I was starting to lose the ability to figure out what people were saying, and for the last three of four days, understanding more than a word or two had become a real challenge. It was not just the weak sound level. The greater challenge was to understand the words. I could hear the sounds, but they were muddled so that it was hard to pick up a word.

What was happening?

In desperation, I tried to get an appointment with my audiologist at Kaiser Permanente, my health care provider. Kaiser has a lot of strengths but getting audiology appointments is not one of them. On one occasion a couple of years ago, I was told I would have to wait six months to see an audiologist to fix what I was sure was a routine problem of cleaning the hearing aid. Kaiser basically said, your problem, not ours. The next day I informed them on their website that I was filing a claim of Medicare fraud and abuse with the federal government, which led to an appointment at 8:00 am the next day with a pissed off audiologist at another Kaiser location. After she fixed the hearing aid in about three minutes, she warned me, please, never, never do this again! (The threat of a Medicare fraud claim  to the federal government  always seems to get a response, often on the same day.)

This time the problem with my hearing was different. For the past week or so I had had increasing difficulties understanding what people were saying. Countless zoom meetings with the nonprofit boards I serve on were the biggest challenge. I thought the problems might be due to my computer or my cell phone. I tried to make an appointment with my audiologist, who is very competent and very nice doctor, but who informed me that she was fully booked for the indefinite future, and I should try for another audiologist at another Kaiser location. She gave me a special number to call. I called the number and talked to an operator, who said that from what I told her I probably did not need an audiologist but should return to my assigned Kaiser office and get the audiology tech person to check the hearing aids, which I did. The audiology tech person said my hearing aids were working perfectly and that what I probably needed was a hearing exam, which of course would require one of the “unavailable audiologists” and take a long time to schedule. I replied that I suspected that my hearing difficulty might be caused by wax in my ears. I had already made an appointment with the ENT doctor, whom I visited the next day. When she removed a huge amount of wax in both ears, I thanked her, commenting that I believed that should fix it. I breathed a sigh of relief and was elated to be able to join the world of hearing again.

Problem solved.

Except it wasn’t. In fact, after the wax removal my hearing became worse, not better. At lunch with an old friend following the procedure, I had to struggle to understand what he was saying. Ditto for two zoom meetings and an in-person group meeting the next morning with a men’s group I belong to where I was the moderator. I tried to test several options—to see if I could hear any better on phone calls, to see if I could hear better listening to Pandora or the radio, and  to see if another zoom meeting worked better. I turned on the TV and tried to listen to the news. I could not understand a word. Nothing worked. My hearing aids had been determined to be fine, in “perfect condition” according to the audiology tech person. I had had the wax removed from my ears. There was only one conclusion: The problem was due to my failing hearing. I was becoming deaf, not hard of hearing, but deaf, really deaf.

This was an existential moment. Do you have any idea of what it is like not to understand what people are saying, not to be able to listen to music, or not to be able to go concerts or plays or movies without subtitles?

It is already embarrassing enough to have to ask people to repeat things all the time, but not being able to hear almost anything? A dire situation.

I attended a high school reunion last year where classmates and spouses chatted loudly in a crowded area resulting in enough ambient noise that made it extremely difficult to hear what people were saying.  I had to fake it that I understood the conversation and guess at what would be an appropriate response. After I received feedback from some puzzled classmates,  I surmised that a typical conversation with me probably went something like this:

“Hey, Bobby, great to see you! How is  your brother doing?

“Not good, Joe. He died a couple of weeks ago in an automobile accident.”

Pause to try to figure out what he said and then a guess, “Great news, Bobby, really glad to hear that.”

 I got a call after the event from a good friend who told me he had to assure several people that I was not suffering from severe dementia. Hearing loss is not for sissies. And now to have  hearing aids that are declared to be in perfect condition but which do not work?  Panic time!

I told Embry about my problem when I returned home from my lunch and asked her to say a few words. I struggled to understand what she was saying. I was becoming a deaf duck! And it happened so quickly. No wax in my ears, hearing aids fine. What else could cause this? How could I as a hopeless extravert, who thrives on conversation and give and take—how could I survive without being able to hear? And if you can’t hear, you can’t talk and make sense as evidenced at my high school reunion.

Then in my moment of despair, I had what I would call a brilliant, last ditch idea. I had a couple of old hearing aids about 10 years old. Why not try them and see what would happen?

I cannot overstate how important this moment was for me. If my inability to hear persisted, then I could only conclude that at my advanced age of (almost) 81, my hearing was gone. It would be hopeless. What kind of life would I have from this point on? How could I cope?

With my heart beating fast and my palms sweating, I unhooked the earpiece connections from the current devices and plugged them into the old hearing aids. Then I put the old hearing aids into my ears and held my breath.

All of a sudden I heard music coming from the radio, which I had not even been aware  was turned on. My goodness! They worked!

With the old hearing aids in place, hearing was back to what it used to be! Maybe even better. Eureka! So, despite the rosy diagnosis by the tech person, the hearing aids were the problem after all.  It is unclear what is a miracle or what is luck or what is just the way life is. But I will tell you this: It made me realize how important hearing is and the challenge that people face who are not able to hear. You do not hear many severely hearing-impaired persons complaining, but it is still a huge handicap. We humans do what we have to do to play the hand we have been dealt as best as we can. A lot of people have no choice but to tough it out. Many of us have handicaps that we plow through, but still…

My next task is to get a new pair of hearing aids that actually work. How hard could this be? At Kaiser the answer is harder than it should be. Fortunately, there are good audiologists in Washington that provide options.

 But most important, this experience underlines how fortunate we are who can hear (including those of us who require hearing aids) and how we take so much for granted.

Stressful moment but happy ending.




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.