It’s about ten on a Saturday night and my friend and I are headed north on Utica Avenue, thinking about what we can get into within the next hour. He only has the car until eleven and just wanted to get out of the house and out of his neighborhood for awhile. He picked me up and we hit the local Wendy’s for some fries, burgers, and of course, a frosty. Still getting used to the rental, he spent a few minutes testing out the sensitivity of the pedal. Too much and we’d either die or surely get pulled over. Too little and we barely crawled. By the time we got to Utica Ave, a major thoroughfare in Brooklyn, he’d gotten the hang of it.
“I’ve never driven this car before,” he said in between sips. “This shit is sensitive.”
“I can tell. I like it though.”
We joked about moments like this, even that night. Riding through our hoods, doing absolutely nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary and nothing special, and then it happens.
“Oh shit, are those lights for us? Should I pull over?”
“Yeah, pull up right here.”
If you’ve never been pulled over before, I assure you, that shit can be terrifying, especially when you’re not even sure why it’s happening.
The first and only time, I’ve been pulled over, while driving, was on a quiet street in upstate New York. It was around two in the morning, and we were trying to get to our Airbnb after a long day of work and long commute. My partner was in the passenger’s seat and my best friends from grad school were half asleep in the backseat. The lights hit the rear-view mirror and I froze. I pulled over, slipped my hands to ten and two, and kept my eyes on the mirror waiting for movement.
“What’s taking so long?” It felt like an eternity and my anxiety was getting the best of me.
“He’s running the plates,” said one of my friends from the backseat.
For context, my best friends are also social workers and they’re women. One’s white and the other is biracial. My partner is black, as am I. We were about to spend the weekend in a lake house; a quick summer reprieve to get out of the city and into nature. Heading to Ithaca was my idea. As a Cornell graduate, I look for any and every chance to head back to campus. I not only fell in love with the school but I fell in love with the city. I couldn’t wait to get there but we also a needed to get out of the surrounding area.
Twenty minutes prior, we stopped at a McDonald’s. The place was packed and with good reason. It was the only place open for miles and it looked like it was the local hangout. There were more white folks in that place than a MAGA rally. I’m talking wall to wall, or maybe that’s how it seemed. But it wasn’t intimidating until we tried to order. The cashier was short and dismissive to my partner and I. We were taken aback, but we’ve lived upstate; it’s pretty routine. My white friend was met with a smiling face and bubbly cheer; a little too much cheer for that time of night. But my biracial friend — we couldn’t wait to see what reaction she would get. She confirmed that she felt it too. It was palpable. There are many ways to say that you’re not welcome in a place, and they used every single one, except for the actual words.
We couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
So, there we were. Making great time down a dark street about seven or eight miles from our spot, when those flashing lights came on, and my hands clutched the wheel at ten and two.
My window was already down, while I attempted to be as still as possible. The officer finally walked over to the driver’s side and ran through the script, as if it were a movie.
‘License and registration…”
“Where you folks headed?”
We answered all of his questions, engaged in polite small talk, sprinkled in a yes, officer here and there, and we got off with a warning. The speed limit went down to 30 miles per hour within city limits, a fact that I would have been cognizant of had I seen any signage; a fact that I would have known, had it not been pitchblack and two in the morning.
He did make it a point to take a look into the backseat a few times. My friends, as nice as ever, exchanged pleasantries, smiled, and answered all of his questions. I often joke that one and half white women saved us that night. Had they not been in the backseat, who knows what would have happened?
I thought that I was going to die.
It sounds dramatic; I know. But, it’s real. You’ve seen it before. Black man gets pulled over and___________.
A) gets the shit beaten out of him
B) gets shot
C) See A or B
I thought that I’d be part of a sick multiple choice test that I never had any intention of being a part of and in those situations, I used to think “This isn’t supposed to happen to me.”
“What the hell do they want?” We’re back in 2019 and my friend and I are pulled over. It’s happened to me several times, as a passenger and it was his first time as a driver. In fact, he’s a new driver. He got his license earlier in the year, a gesture for a native New Yorker that isn’t all that uncommon at 29 years old. We really don’t need cars, but he’s got two young kids, making his reasoning for joining a car-share program, all the more salient.
Here goes the script.
“License and registration…”
“Where you boys headed?”
I wasn’t the driver but my reaction was the same. Eyes straight ahead, no sudden movements, hands up, and fingers spread as if palming two basketballs.
“Got anything good?”
I had forgotten that we got Wendy’s, forgotten every detail about the moment except for the fact that a man with a gun was asking me questions and that the price of my life is about the price of a bag of skittles.
You’ve seen this movie before.
“Roll down the window so my partner can see inside.”
Partner? Cue the Kevin Hart clip where his dad thinks he’s getting jumped. That’s what it felt like. There’s two of y’all now?! Ya’ll jumping me?!
“Okay, sit tight.”
My arms were starting to hurt. With no wheel to hold onto, it felt like I was praising Jesus and to be honest, I ain’t even religious like that. But, I said at least half a dozen Hail Mary’s by the time he came back.
“All checks out, boys. I pulled you over because those tail lights aren’t on. You know that right?”
We didn’t. I’m sure what’s more embarrassing: thinking that you’re going to die and thinking damn I didn’t even get through my fries, or having to ask the cop how to turn on the lights. To be fair, I couldn’t see the button from the passenger’s side, my friend was a new driver, and it wasn’t in the usual spot.
So, once again, I’m in a car, we’re pulled over, nothing happened, and I’m still petrified. We cooled off real quick, but the feeling remained. We joke about this shit but that’s a coping mechanism too. We make light of reality.
This goes without saying, but this isn’t about all cops. This isn’t even about those cops. This is about the feeling that I get around cops and why.
It’s about systemic injustices that are and continue to be documented, yet go unresolved. It’s about how we cope with these injustices and how we react, moving forward. I’m thirty years old, and I’m still getting used to being pulled over.
And, like I said, I used to think, “This isn’t supposed to happen to me.”
I grew up in Brooklyn — the son of a single immigrant mom. I have no arrests and I’ve never been in trouble. I went to college, got a graduate degree, and then got a good job. I don’t sag my pants, I code-switch with the best of them, and I can easily transition back and forth between a range of topics from the conflicts in the Middle East to the mumble rap movement and degradation of Hip Hop music. I pay my taxes, I give back to the community, and heavily contribute to my retirement plan. Shit, I have a retirement plan.
I did everything “the right way.”
And, yet when I’m pulled over, whether I’m the driver or not, my life flashes before my eyes. I hold my breath, and I pray for the best. My hands are on ten and two, and they’re burning for me to put them down.
I probably never will.