A police car flashed lights in my mirror and I pulled to the curb. The cop approached -- young, Asian. I lowered my window as he wished me good morning. “I’m officer Tsai from the LAPD. Do you have your license and registration with you today?”
I gave him the documents. Looking them over, he mentioned that my plate tag was expired. I explained that I simply hadn’t had the money – almost two hundred dollars -- for the renewal.
The policeman was very understanding. However, he said the renewal had to be done in the next six weeks or my car would be impounded. “Go to the DMV to get the tag, then go to a sheriff’s station with the receipt, and then go down to the court on Hill Street to pay the ticket. It’s a hassle but you’ve got to do it.”
I assured him I would somehow make it happen.
“Great. Drive carefully.”
In the mirror I saw him walking back to his car. What a nice policeman, so different from the Chicago police where I grew up. Shouldn’t I get the license tags right away, so as not to disappoint him? As it turned out, I delayed until the last day on the ticket.
That day began with a long wait at the DMV, and then trying to locate a sheriff’s station. It was mid-afternoon when I arrived at the big court building on Hill Street. I had never been there before, but I suspected it would be a madhouse, and it was. I had no idea where to go to pay my ticket. Fortunately, there were police officers wandering around and I asked one of them for help. He directed me to a large room where hundreds of people, maybe a thousand, were waiting in a switchback line to pay their tickets. Their objective was five or six windows where clerks sat behind Plexiglas barriers.
As I recalled a description of an overcrowded railroad station -- or was it a steamship line? -- from Kafka's America, one window at the far end of the room caught my attention. It seemed to have no traffic. Why was the crowd overlooking this window? But when I approached, the woman behind the transparent barrier explained that her window was only for people who had some special status with the court. I couldn’t really understand what she meant, but it didn’t matter. My payment could not be made at the empty window.
At that moment a policeman walked up. With the same good-natured familiarity I’d noticed in Officer Tsai, he asked if he could help.
“I wanted to pay my fine at this window,” I said, “but it seems that won’t be possible. Can you tell me what to do now?”
“You’ll have to go though the line.”
I glanced toward the milling crowd of traffic violators. The line seemed to have moved not at all. At that rate, paying my ticket was going to take hours. The court building might even close before I reached the front of the line. Since the ticket had to be paid today, even greater complications might develop.
I turned back to the policeman. “Isn’t there any other way?”
“Well, you could put the payment in the drop box.”
“The drop box?”
“That’s right. I’ll show you.”
I followed him down a hall toward the main entrance of the court building. There, in the even more congested lobby area, he pointed toward a wooden box in a corner of the room. The box could not possibly have been less conspicuous. Somehow, it was almost invisible.
“That’s the drop box,” said the policeman.
I was puzzled. “But what about all those people waiting in line?”
He shrugged. “They don’t know about the drop box.”
Taken aback by the utter simplicity of this, I just stood there. I saw how this phrase -- “They don’t know about the drop box” – was going to echo throughout the rest of my life. It was startling, humbling...
Then the voice of the policeman brought me out of my meditative state. “Is there anything else?”
I glanced at his well-polished badge and, on the other side of his black shirt, his nameplate: “Bean.” We were about the same height, though Bean was of course much younger. With his willingness -- if not eagerness -- to please, he might have been a waiter in some casually chic restaurant near the ocean.
“Yes, there is one other thing...”
“I’d like to be irresistible to women. Is there a way to do that?”
Bean didn’t flinch. He seemed relieved. Was this another simple matter, like the drop box? “Do you have a cell phone?” he asked.
“Save this number on your phone.”
He took his own phone from his belt and looked up a number. As he recited the number to me, I thanked Officer Bean. I began to feel at home with the realization of how simple life could be. “They don’t know about the drop box!”
“Just call that number," Bean said in parting. Have a good day.”
Then he was gone. I started toward the drop box.