Notice to new (or returning) readers: Welcome!
This week’s post will make a lot more sense…
Excuse moiself ? I am not saying it will make *total* sense, so I see no need for the sarcastic intrusion….
I’ll begin again.
I was in the fifth grade. One day my classmate Kelly told me her said she could invite me to her house after school to go swimming. I usually wriggled out of invitations which involved spending time inside Kelly’s house, which was…disheartening. It was dark, even in the summer, even with the lights on, and it was – I cringe today to think it, just as I did back then, but there’s no way around it – just filthy. It reeked of old trash and cat urine; the one time I’d had a sleepover there I spotted cockroaches in the kitchen when Kelly’s older sister showed Kelly and I how to make fudge from scratch.
Kelly’s widowed mother, whom I liked (she was kind to me and told funny jokes, and knew all the words to my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs), worked long hours as a hospital nurse. She apparently had neither the time nor inclination to clean house, and was unable to convince or command her three children to do so, either. But Kelly’s backyard consisted of a swimming pool! She was the only friend I knew who had one, and I eagerly accepted her invitation. I’ll need to go home, check with my mom, and get my swimsuit and a towel, I told her. Kelly suggested she ride on the back of my bike with me to my house to get my stuff, then we’d go to her place.
I peddled us toward my house, with Kelly perched on the bookrack attached to my bike’s rear axle. As we reached the main part of Martha Lane (ML) I updated Kelly about the ML kids’ war with the neighborhood cranks.
“That’s them,” I said, pointing to the Wagners’ house, when we were about 100 feet away. “The brown house up there on the left.”
“Can we sing it – let’s sing The Song!” Kelly begged me. But without my ML crew to back me up, I was too chicken hesitant. Then when we were about forty feet from the Wagners’ house, I noticed that their ever-present Cadillac was not in their driveway. I figured they were not home, and it was safe.
I slowed down, and told Kelly we could sing The Song, but not loudly. Kelly teased me for my lack of vocal enthusiasm (“That’s not singing, that’s practically whispering“) as I peddled us past the Wagner house.
♫ We hate you Wagners/
oh yes we do….♫
When we got to my house my older sister, already home from her school and engrossed in homework, informed me that our mother had gone to the grocery store. I decided not to tell her what Kelly and I had done. I wanted her approval, but thought Kelly would rat me out for being chickenshit and only singing The Song when I thought the Wagners weren’t home. I told my sister to tell Mom that I was going to Kelly’s house. I put my swimsuit on under my clothes, Kelly hopped onto the back of my bike, and we headed off.
As I steered my bicycle out of our driveway a brownish-gold sedan crossed Pacific Ave into our cul-de-sac. It caught my attention because it was not any of the neighbor’s cars (that I recognized) and was driving very slowly. The sedan circled the end of the cul-de-sac, then drove right up alongside my bicycle as I stopped to check for cross traffic at Pacific Ave.
The driver was clad in a suit and hat which matched the color of his car. He rolled down his window and signaled with his hand for me to come closer. I stood stock still, my feet planted on either side of my bike’s frame. He’s probably one of those perverts who tries to kidnap kids, I thought. I began to calculate how long it would take Kelly and I to hop off of my bike and run back to my house.
“Are you the girls who rode a bicycle down this street a few minutes ago?” Sedan Man pointed up Martha Lane, in the direction of the Wagner house.
Kelly mumbled something to me. “Don’t talk to him,” I shushed Kelly. I looked the man squarely in the eyes, trying to appear as savvy and tough as possible. “He’s a stranger; we don’t know who he is.”
Sedan Man repeated his question. I could feel my bicycle frame shaking, and reached my hand back to reassure Kelly, who was trembling. “Go away,” I said to him, “or we’ll call the police.”
“I *am* the police.” Sedan Man pulled a wallet from his suit breast pocket and held out an ID card which had his picture on it and a Santa Ana Police Department shield.
“That’s not a police car,” I said to Kelly.
“I’m a detective.” Sedan Man waved his ID card. He said was investigating harassment charges brought by the Wagners, and needed to speak with my parents. I should return home *now* he insisted, pointing toward my house.
“He saw where we came from,” Kelly whispered. She pleaded with me to return home. We both got off my bicycle and walked back to back to my driveway as the man parked his sedan in front of my house. I was determined *not* to let him inside; I leaned my bicycle against the massive Japanese elm in our front yard and led Kelly up the front yard walkway to sit beside me n the concrete steps of our front porch – the entry no one in the family (and no one who knew us) used.  Sedan Detective Man followed us to the porch. He stood over us, with one foot on the walkway and the other on the porch’s bottom step, and began to question us.
He wanted to speak with my parents; where were they? Would I go get them, or should he knock on the door? I told him my father was at work and would be home after 7 pm, my mother was at the store and would be back any minute, and my older siblings were inside watching TV (I only had one older sibling but I wanted him to think there were a lot of people in my house). He asked the same questions of Kelly, who said nothing. She sat beside me, silently staring down at her shoes.
The Wagners were being harassed by the ML kids, Sedan Detective Man said. The police knew all about it, he added, and Kelly and I were “in serious trouble.” He demanded to speak to my parents; I replied as before: “My dad’s at work; he’ll be back after 7. My mom’s at the store; she’ll be back soon.”
Sedan Detective Man turned his gaze to Kelly and asked about her parents. I began to explain that Kelly didn’t live in this neighborhood; he jabbed his long, bony index finger in my direction, silenced me with a glare, and repeated his question to Kelly. She was obviously frightened as he pressed her for information. She managed to squeak out that her mother at work. She was a nurse, and wouldn’t be back until her shift was over, around 11:30 pm…. her voice trailed off.
“What about your father? Hey, look at me when I’m talking to you. Tell me how I can contact your father – I need to speak with him.”
Kelly briefly raised her head. “My dad…” she lowered her eyes. I could see her chin begin to quiver.
“‘My dad…'” The detective mocked Kelly’s high-pitched, quavering voice. “Your dad, what? You have a dad, right? I need to speak to him.”
Kelly hugged her knees to her chest and shook her head, almost imperceptibly, as if she had a nervous tic.
“What does that mean – I can’t speak with your dad? Why? Is he out of town? Did he leave you and your mom – are your parents divorced?”
A tear dribbled down Kelly’s cheek and dropped onto her knee. I thought I might explode with suppressed rage, and just for a moment wondered how much time I would get “in juvie” for head-butting a detective’s nutsack.
“Stop it,” I muttered to Sedan Man, through clenched teeth.
Like a school bully or a shark smelling blood, the detective homed in on the perceived weaker target. He kept pressing Kelly, who was visibly shaking at this point.
What about your father – when is he available? I can’t wait until midnight to talk with your mother. Tell me where your father is – why won’t you look up, are you ashamed of him….
Kelly let out a low moan, and began pinching the skin of her forearm with her thumb and index finger.
I interrupted the detective with all of the, *none-of-your-fucking business,* fifth-grade gravitas I could muster.
“You can’t talk to her father. He’s dead.”
Several years earlier Kelly’s parents had separated, and her father moved out of the family house to an apartment. The day after Kelly’s mother went to his apartment and confronted him with proof of his infidelity, Kelly’s father shot himself in the head.
The detective, of course, had no way of knowing this. Even so, Kelly’s distress was evident, and he continued to badger an anguished child.
Well, why didn’t you say your dad had died? Why didn’t you just….
At that propitious moment, our station wagon pulled into our driveway. My mother left a sack of groceries in the passenger’s seat and walked toward us, a look of polite confusion on her face as she beheld a strange man standing over her daughter and her daughter’s friend – all three of them on the front porch, where *nobody* went.
The detective’s entire demeanor changed with an adult present, which made me despise him all the more. His malevolent mien morphed into one of professional solicitude, and he introduced himself to my mother with a smile and a doff of his hat.
I inched closer to Kelly, wanting to comfort her without embarrassing her – I could tell she did not want my mother to know that she’d been crying. Meanwhile, the two adults talked, at first as if Kelly and I were not present. The detective informed my mother of the situation; she listened, then asked me if Kelly and I had sung The Song. I looked her in the eye and said that we had, but we thought the Wagners weren’t home, and…. She put up her hand, motioning for me to stop talking. She told the detective that yes, the neighborhood children had perhaps taken their pranks too far, but did the detective know what the Wagners had done to egg them on? And Kelly did not live on Martha Lane, and had nothing to do with….
I was amazed to hear my mother speak to the detective. She was a shy person, introverted with strangers, particularly male authority figures – and back then all males were authority figures (or acted as if they were) to all women. My mother had heretofore never displayed anything I would have mistaken for a spine; it must have taken a lot for her to stand her ground with that man. He asked more questions of her, all of which she politely but firmly deflected. She told him that he needed to speak with her husband about the matter, and if he’d give her his business card she would have her husband call him.
The detective left his card with my mother and left our street with me throwing silent curses at his butt-ugly, doggy-doo-colored sedan. My mother asked me to take the groceries inside and set the table for dinner, and said she’d give Kelly a ride home. I never found out what, if anything, she and Kelly talked about on the ride; the next day at school both Kelly and I pretended that the previous day had never happened.
That evening, mere minutes after my father got home from work  and had spoken with my mother, I stood with my back to the living room wall, listening to my father as he spoke on the kitchen telephone  with the detective.
My father prided himself on his diplomacy, which was in full force that evening. He was firm and reasonable, considerate but not quite conciliatory. What follows is his end of the conversation, from memory, as paraphrased by moiself . He started with introductions and personal chitchat, deftly and swiftly gleaning that the detective also had teen and preteen children. He told the detective that
“the neighborhood teenagers”  had taken things a bit too far, but the police likely did not know all the facts. I will declare the Wagners and their house off-limits to our family and will spread the word among the other Martha Lane parents, but I also need you to realize something: the children’s behavior is immature to say the least, but these are *kids.* What is Mr. and Mrs. Wagner’s excuse – who are the “adults” in this situation? It is unlikely the Wagners have admitted to you their *years* of harassment of the neighborhood (both children, and their parents). The Wagners played an equal part in this vendetta – in fact, it began with them. If you would interview other families in the neighborhood you would find out about that. And both you and I, as parents, know that when adults hassle kids past a certain point, even good kids will fight back.”
After speaking with the detective, my father telephoned Mr. Wagner. He told Mr. Wagner that the kids were in the wrong; Mr. Wagner told my father that Mrs. Wagner was suffering health effects from being harassed by the neighborhood children, and agreed that things had gotten out of hand. It was interesting to listen to my father saying something that, if you didn’t know the context, would sound nonsensical: the children should “stop their singing their songs” and that perhaps everyone, the children of Martha Lane and the Wagners, could just steer clear of one another?
After an unusually silent dinner time my parents excused my younger sister from the table and asked her to take our toddler brother to the living room to watch TV. My parents remained at the kitchen table, and spoke privately with my older sister and I. My father did most of the talking. In a serious but not angry manner, he told us what had transpired with his phone calls (I said nothing about my eavesdropping). We were to stop all contact with the Wagners, and inform our friends that the Wagner house was a demilitarized zone – off limits to all; no exceptions. The Wagners agreed to drop their harassment charges, but were prepared to reinstate them if there were any more “incidents” (the detective told my father that the case would remain open for a couple of weeks to “see how things go.”).
Later that evening my father phoned several of the neighborhood children’s parents and explained the situation to them. He asked them to spread the word to other parents: the children of Martha Lane are to act as if the Wagners do not exist. And, that was that, my parents said. It’s over.
Except that for me, it wasn’t. Unbeknownst to my parents or siblings, I cried myself to sleep that night, and for weeks afterward.
It’s funny to me, in retrospect, how adults neglect to explain How Things Work ® to children, because their adult minds don’t go down all the paths that a child’s mind will take. I thought I had a criminal record! And that it would follow me the rest of my life! That made me feel frightened, anxious, hopeless…and fence-kicking, hornet-spitting, furious.
I feared my parents were disappointed in me, and me alone. And I was steaming angry about the fact that the majority of the “harassment” tactics had come from the older kids – teens, like my sister, The Consummate Good Girl/Model Child ®. My sister and her friend made up that damn stupid song, had sung it with their friends “at” the Wagners, then taught it to me and my friends and urged us to sing it whenever we could….and guess who got caught?
In my family’s script my older sister was The Good Child ® – polite and obedient and respectful of authority, while I was the imp/rabble rouser/mischief-maker. But family roles and labels (“this is the smart one, and this is the clever one, and this is the sweet one…”) are always far more complicated than surface perceptions. *I* knew, from personal experience, that my sister was not the goody-two-shoes her teachers and parents thought she was. But the fact that she and her friends could “get away” with what had happened while I was implicated – that was typical.
There is nothing like the righteous indignation of a wrong adolescent. I avoided fully considering my own culpability in the Wagner harassment by focusing on (what I thought was) the colossal injustice done to me – and poor Kelly, by association.
But, I digress.
I didn’t sleep well for weeks after the visit from Undercover Detective Asshat. My throat would tighten and my fists would clench whenever I saw a sedan that reminded me of that detective’s car – and every such vehicle was, to me, potentially an unmarked police car… and, BTW, unmarked cars for police? How unfair?!?! Detectives must be a slimy bunch, to sneak around like that….
My reaction was only slightly less volatile when I saw a regular, black and white police car cruiser; I held a silent but deadly  grudge against cops.
How that plainclothes detective had treated Kelly – those memories and feelings stayed with me for years. However, time eventually did what time eventually does, and by high school I had gotten over my indignation.
But here (yes, after all this) is what prompted my telling of this My Encounter With The Police ® story: judging from the reactions of many (white) people to the Black Lives Matter movement, some folks just don’t seem to understand the simple yet profound idea that people’s experiences color and inform their perceptions.
I got over what had happened with that vile, abusive, unprofessional detective – I was able to navigate through the world and let go of my anger – in part because during the ensuing years I had few if any encounters with “law enforcement officers.” I was able to see the incident as just that – an incident; an aberration.
I was a white girl.
All the “players” in the My Encounter With The Police ® story were white.
What if I had been Black, or Latina? Would the detective have shown as much deference to my mother if she were Mexican-American? Would he have been as respectful and agreeable to my father, who argued for considering the perspective of the “harassing” children, if my father had been a Black man? What if all of the neighborhood children had been a different “shade” than the Wagners – would the detective have agreed to drop the investigation? What if the Wagners had been Black – would their complaints have been investigated, or even given serious consideration?
Knowing what I now know now, the answers to all of those questions would be a regrettable but accurate, Are you fucking kidding me? No.
As I passed from grade school  through junior and then high school, I slowly came to realize that my darker-skinned peers had many more negative experiences with the police, and for matters far more trivial than “singing that song” and with far different outcomes than my family had experienced (“It’s a crime, you know, to drive while Mexican,” my “cruiser car” buddy GS, a Chicano, once joked to me).
Your experiences shape your perceptions. Too few white people are beginning to consider that idea, vis-à-vis Black and Brown people and the police and other governmental forces; fewer still are able to summon the introspection necessary to examine their visceral reaction to the complex ideas and realities behind concepts like, Defund the police.
And for those of us in this better-late-than-never category, I’ll apply my dinner party analogy. Specifically, how I feel about guests whom I looked forward to seeing (that’s why I invited them: I don’t ask people to dinner if I don’t like them), and they showed up…eventually:
Welcome to the party y’all!
You’re hours late; you missed the appetizers and first courses
and the entrée and we’re halfway through dessert…
but it’s great to see you and we’re happy
you showed up in time to help with the dishes.
* * *
May you be a helpful voice in the Defund the Police conversation;
May you discern when to use your voice and when it’s better to listen to other’s voices; 
May you always arrive in time to help with the dishes;
…and may the hijinks ensue.
Thanks for stopping by. Au Vendredi!
* * *
 If you don’t know or remember the significance behind the phrase “the ML kids’ war with the neighborhood cranks” then there’s no point in reading further without reading the previous post.
 Friends and family used the side entrance to our house, which led to the kitchen. If someone knocked on our front door that was a giveaway that it was a stranger, or a solicitor.
 About 5:20p and not after 6p, like I’d told the detective. Yep, I lied to the creep.
 Which was, at the time, our only telephone.
 my dad’s words. Although Kelly and I were preteens, it was the older kids who had instigated the anti-Wagner campaign,
 You knew I had to get a fart reference in the story, somewhere…somehow.
 A story like this should have more footnotes. Or, less.
 As in, the voices of other people, not the voice you may hear in your head that sounds like your demon uncle ordering you to vote for anything wearing a MAGA hat and then strangle a baby hamster.