(Originally published August 4, 2011; edited and republished August 27, 2020)
It all started because the highfalutin Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Clayton, Missouri, a well-heeled inner-ring suburb of St. Louis, didn’t have any Diet Coke in the house.
Hard to believe, I know, but true. All they had was Pepsi. I’m a Southern man, and I don’t cotton well to Yankee pop (HQ in NY), its North Carolina roots notwithstanding. I blame my mama. She filled my baby bottle with original Coke so she could get some precious sleep (pretty sure she didn’t read Dr. Spock).
It worked. She caught some Zs, and I caught an addiction and a mouthful of cavities. But my dentist’s children all went to college with nary a student loan. Win-win for everyone except me?
To this day, I can’t pass pass one of those silver and red endcaps in a grocery store without getting all infantile and sticking my thumb in my mouth. It was getting close to midnight, and I was having some psychedelic flashbacks.
The Ritz had been the site of Eyegal’s 30th high school reunion the previous night, and we had received a killer rate and decided to stay an extra day. We were returning from the Cards-Cubs game Sunday night when the cravings hit me hard. It had been one of those infamous midsummer saunas at Busch Stadium, and I was short a few quarts of body fluid. I had downed a single Bud Lite at the game but neglected to purchase a Diet Coke in one of the souvenir cups, per my usual practice. Now I was paying the price.
“Surely some convenience store will be open on the way back to the hotel and I can bop in and get one,” I thought out loud as we cruised past Washington University on Forest Park Parkway after the game.
“Mmm, maybe,” Eyegal responded. She was distracted, her face painted with a rotating kaleidoscope of bright colors as she stared dreamily out the window at what will always be “her city.” I kept my eyes peeled, but unlike the outer-ring burbs, there wasn’t a convenience store in sight.
By the time we got back to the room, I was starting to get the shakes. Paradoxically, the syrupy concoction of NutraSweet and caffeine late at night calms me down. I’m not quite as dependent on it after giving it up for Lent this year, but I still have my moments.
While an occasional 4-star hotel experience is good for the soul, be warned: so-called “ritzy” hotels often don’t have vending machines.
“Aw, it’s your last night,” Eyegal said. “Live a little and just go down to the bar and order one.”
Attagirl, I thought, just one more among a million reasons I married you.
I descended to the Lobby Lounge and sidled up to the old school, mahogany bar. Josh greeted me. He had been the hardworking waiter who worked the reunion corner of the room the previous night, trying to keep track of the cascading stream of tabs that flowed from the very thirsty and so-happy-to-see-each-other Parkway North High Class of 1981.
He was doing a great job, but at one point I saw him standing back, scanning our crowd like he had lost track of a few orders. He was rubbing his fingers together and looked a little stressed. As perhaps the most sober and responsible person in the room, I decided to help him clear up a particularly complex tab at our table to ease his load a little and proceeded to tip him well. He caught my eye a little later that night, smiled, and said, “Thank you, Mr. Brown.”
His eyes lit up in recognition as I sat down, but he looked crestfallen after I ordered my Diet Coke with lemon.
“Would a Pepsi be okay?” he asked.
“No, not really,” I replied. “I’m not that desperate.”
He laughed and said, “Let me look around a bit and see if we have any.” He gave it the ol’ college try, but eventually he returned empty-handed and apologized.
I called up to the room and explained to Eyegal my lack of satisfaction and that I was headed to the car to continue my quest for my personal form of liquid crack.
This time, she sounded a bit more hesitant. “Please be careful,” she said. “It’s awfully late, and you don’t know your way around very well.”
But I wasn’t worried. If Huntsville, Alabama had stores open this late, surely St. Louis would too. I was driving a reliable new car with a GPS. What could possibly go wrong?
I punched in “Convenience Store” under “Points of Interest” and the display lit up like the cockpit of an F-16, a target-rich environment just waiting to be harvested. There was a BP station a mere 0.3 miles away. A walk in the park Kazansky, I thought, one of the many lines I memorized from Top Gun.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t opened. Neither was the other BP 0.5 miles away, nor the Amoco just 0.7 miles to the west. Apparently, Clayton, Missouri is a place where people bed themselves down with a tumbler of scotch or a snifter of brandy, not the kind of town where Diet Coke addicts make desperate midnight runs.
I cruised down South Brentwood, under the I-170 overpass, past the Galleria, under the I-64/40 overpass and over by the Target store in the Promenade at Brentwood. Soon I was on South Hanley seeking out a 7-Eleven on Big Bend.
In a big city, the landscape and neighborhoods can change very quickly. I was sensing that I was moving into more “blue collar” environs when I spied a familiar neon yellow and red mollusk and whipped a hard left into a Shell convenience store parking lot.
But despite the lit sign, there didn’t appear to be any action. The windows seemed heavily tinted and I couldn’t tell if the lights were on inside or not.
Looks closed, I thought. So I decided to play it safe and stay in the car. I made a tight u-turn in the parking lot and another hard left back onto South Hanley and continued toward the 7-Eleven (just 1.2 miles away!) which I figured for sure would be open.
I didn’t see the Richmond Heights Police officer parked in the shadows of the Shell parking lot, but he sure saw me. He was all over me, like Albert Pujols on a fat, hanging curveball. I was immediately bathed in the cruiser’s pulsating blue and white strobe lights which popped in my rear view mirror like paparazzi flashes.
I sighed and pulled over. I reached for my wallet, retrieved my license and held it out for the strapping, 40ish African American officer before he even asked.
“I’ll also need to see your registration and insurance card, please,” he instructed.
“Officer,” I said, “I need to reach into my glove compartment to get them. May I do that?” I asked.
“Yes, you may,” he replied.
I did so, sensing with my peripheral vision he had taken a step back from my vehicle.
When I turned—very slowly—to give them to him, I saw him releasing his hand from the grip of his service revolver.
I wasn’t the least offended. I knew he didn’t know me from Adam, and he was just following his training and doing his job.
“Sir,” he started, “the reason I pulled you over is that you made an illegal left turn into that parking lot.”
“Sorry,” I said.
He wasn’t finished. “And then you ignored the No Left Turn sign on your way out.”
“Sorry,” I repeated, this time with my head hung a little lower, more crestfallen for effect.
I didn’t understand why my left turn into the parking lot had been illegal; there was a middle “dummy lane” and I had merged into it with signal prior to turning. I hadn’t seen a No Left Turn sign on my way out either. But it was very dark and I may have just missed it.
But it was no time to argue. I have instructed my three sons to always be polite, apologetic and non-argumentative when pulled over by an officer of the law. Good thing too, since each of them has had the chance to put that advice into practice on numerous occasions.
Now it was my turn, and I knew my chances of getting off with a mere warning were much higher if I didn’t question or “cop a ‘tude.'” Still, I thought I owed him an explanation.
“I’m looking for a Diet Coke. The Ritz Carlton in Clayton didn’t have any. Can you believe it? My GPS says that there’s a 7-Eleven just ahead, and I was on my way there to get some.”
“They sell Diet Coke right back there,” he said sternly, pointing back toward the Shell sign. “Why didn’t you just buy one there?”
I shrugged. “I thought it was closed, I said.” As the words left my mouth, I realized it must have struck him as a lame excuse.
“Well it isn’t. I’ll be back in a minute,” he said. Then, scanning my license, registration and proof of insurance, he walked toward his cruiser to “call me in” and disappeared into the flashing blue and white haze.
Getting pulled over by a cop wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I’m a writer, after all, and I knew this would be rich, moist grist for the literary mill.
That, and I’ve always complained about how boring I am. But there I was, getting pulled over like a drug dealer or some other ne’er do well in the middle of the night–in St. Louis! That was most certainly not boring!
When you’re pushing fifty, you wonder if you still have any tricks left in your “bad boy bag.” You’re looking for a little edge in your life.
And now people were slowing down to take a look at me: a balding, middle age man with a scruffy beard, approximately 5’9” and 175 lbs, wearing a Cardinals baseball cap, red Columbia tech shirt, khaki cargo shorts, dark brown Birkenstocks and driving a gray, totally tricked-out Hyundai Tucson with Alabama plates.
“Bad ass” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
I leaned out the window a little more so the rubberneckers could see me better. That’s right, I thought, take a good, long look people! “One Adam-12, see The Man!” It’s the quiet, unassuming ones you’ve really got to watch! Copy that?
But he was gone a really long time. Then I remembered the last two times I’ve tried to reenter the country and how Customs and Border Patrol has pulled me aside for “extra screening” (I”m apparently on some kind of “common name” watch list). I’ve appealed to Homeland Security to have my name removed, but the thought occurred to me that perhaps the officer had stumbled onto this information and was now calling for backup.
Maybe even S.W.A.T.!
Now I had visions of being made to stand spread-eagle–“Up against the car!”–and then cuffs and a face full of asphalt. I remembered Eyegal back in the hotel room, probably wondering by now what had become of me and what was taking so long, and if something had happened to me, how in the world she was she ever going to get home?
Then I wondered if she would be mad at me when I used my “one phone call” to summon her to come down to the station and bail me out.
Mmm, probably. I started to call her to give her a heads up, but I was afraid that using a cell phone during a pullover might be against the law too and viewed as an act of aggression, so I refrained.
Now I was starting to sweat. “Edge” was getting a little scary. “Boring” didn’t seem so bad after all.
He finally returned, holding two tickets in his hand.
“Sir,” he started, “I’ve written you two tickets, one for each offense. But they’re just warnings–for two reasons. One, you’re from Alabama . . .”
Oh great, I thought, he thinks I’m an imbecile.
But upon further reflection–about a split second’s worth–I decided I could live with that. I was okay with embracing my inner Forrest Gump which I knew would be far better than spending the night in the same holding cell as the burly, bald-headed, tattooed sociopath who won’t stop banging his head against the cinder block wall and keeps eyeing you like you’re his midnight snack.
He continued: “. . .and I’m from Alabama, too. And two, we have the same first and middle names.”
Well, how about that! What are the odds?
The tension now defused, I thanked him for his consideration and asked him where he was from in Alabama.
“I grew up in Montgomery, but I’ve been here a lot of years now,” he replied.
“Alabama or Auburn?” I asked, knowing that if he really was a native of The Yellowhammer State I wouldn’t have to explain myself any further.
“All my family pull for Auburn, but I kinda went against the grain. I’m a Bama man.”
Well, lo and behold! Tie me to a fishing line and throw me in the Black Warrior River! Three coincidences for the price of one!
“In that case,” I smiled, “thank you, and Roll Tide!”
He grinned, cocked his head to the side, and eyed me suspiciously. “You’re an Auburn fan, aren’t you?” he asked. He thought I was putting him on to get on his good side.
The words “Hell no, sir!” were already forming on my lips, but I thought cussing might be against the law too, so I bit my tongue. I had a good thing going here, and I didn’t want to ruin it.
“No, really, I’m a Bama man, too! In fact, my son graduated from there this year–2011, ‘Class of the Tornado.'”
He nodded at that, apparently convinced at last of my Bama bona fides. He looked off in the distance, and I thought for a moment he might be imagining that long, awful scar that now runs through the heart of Tuscaloosa, slowed a few beats per minute perhaps, but recovering and destined to pound strong once again.
“I’m glad your son is okay. Your 7-Eleven is up ahead. Take a left on Manchester and then another left on Big Ben. Be careful. Good night . . . and Roll Tide.”
“Roll Tide,” I replied, just like the ESPN commercial, only this was for real!
I eased out–very carefully, with signal–into the road and continued on my way. I found the 7-Eleven and bought the Diet Coke. The young, Middle Eastern clerk perfunctorily handed over my change without eye contact or a single word.
I called Eyegal and told her that it had taken a little longer than I thought, but that I had claimed my prize and was on my way back. I didn’t tell her about getting stopped by a cop.
By the time I was back in our hotel room, she was almost asleep. “What an adventure!” I whispered softly. She smiled and grunted something unintelligible in return. Better to wait till later to tell her what happened.
And then it occurred to me that there was no hard and fast rule that said I had to tell her at all. I decided right then and there that a little bit of mystery in a marriage can be a good thing.
As it turned out, I only took a few sips of my Diet Coke. I placed it in the ice bucket to save for the next day. I was still pretty amped up, and I figured I didn’t need the caffeine.
Later that morning, I was rummaging through one of our bags and found an unopened Coke Zero that I had brought into the hotel when we checked in but had long since forgotten.
I then pulled the two tickets from my wallet and looked for the officer’s first and middle names. To my disappointment, the tickets only read, “P.O. Sanders.”
As we started toward home, we had occasion to drive near the spot where I was stopped. I looked hard for a No Left Turn sign visible from the Shell parking lot, but I still didn’t see one, even in broad daylight.
That made me wonder if Officer “Michael Dwayne” Sanders had stopped me under pretense because I looked suspicious–my sudden movements in and out of the parking lot must have seemed a little shady. Maybe he thought I had spotted him, and being up to no good, I had made a hasty exit. In short, maybe he was just doing his job.
Or, perhaps he spotted my Alabama tags, and feeling a bit nostalgic and homesick and wanting to hear that “down home accent,” decided to just pull me over for a little chat.
Then again, maybe he figured any white male with Alabama plates driving around after midnight searching for a little relief and satisfaction on a hot St. Louis summer night was just begging to be pulled over and an interloper like that got exactly what he deserved.
I was, after all, an alien in those parts. I was treading on his home turf, which he was sworn “to protect and serve.”
But as it turned out, we both spoke the same language.