Throughout life, we have to deal with other people’s perceptions, stereotypes, and snap judgments based on our own appearances. If you had known me during the rougher moments of my life and heard that I’d been imprisoned or arrested, you wouldn’t even bother to feign surprise. I have not been arrested. I have not been imprisoned. Sometimes perception is not reality.
By no means do I think myself a specimen of saintly behavior. I am a woman of loose morals and questionable ethics. My personal judgments and life decisions are deemed suspect by those with slightly narrower world views than my own. I have tested the elasticity of laws, as youth are wont to do. But my inner Jiminy Cricket always turns up and shows me right from wrong via his magic chalkboard. He’s a nag, but he’s kept me out of the clink.
I have two perceptions of the criminal life. One is full of romanticized notions of law-breaking and flouting authority, mobsters living the high life and attractive people pulling off complicated heists. The other is populated with unfortunate looking people who feel beaten down by The Man and have developed no discernible life skills, like the thug who rips people off just to be able to put food on his own table. Neither lifestyle holds much appeal to me.
When you straddle the poverty line, it takes very little to turn someone else’s perception into your own reality. People who live in brick houses tend to not fraternize with people who live in tin boxes. I admit that living in a trailer park on the side of a major highway does seem unsavory. It reeks of cheap beer and stale cigarette smoke and rotting human dignity. You get the sense that these trailer dwellers have been on the wrong side of the law, though not entirely by their own doings. Shunned by the normals, I tried desperately to channel the cool “wrong side of the tracks” aura but my giant thick-lensed glasses betrayed me every time. And the Billy Joel songs blaring from my cheap knock-off Walkman.
These days no one mistakes me for a nogoodnik. I’ve long given up the wrong-side-of-the-tracks-tough-girl persona. It’s difficult to be tough without coming off as borderline trashy. The dangerous denim-clad delinquent is one of those things that only men can pull off effectively. Similar to the “sexy professor” and “cranky curmudgeon,” the “lawless stranger” is a persona that doesn’t translate well across genders. Maybe it’s the testosterone. Maybe it’s the bushy eyebrows.
Even in my wayward awkward pre-teen years I never raised the suspicion of law enforcement officials. I haven’t been accused of wrong-doing or taken downtown for questioning. Surprisingly enough, socially-awkward Caucasian girls aren’t subject to much profiling. My ability to abide by laws does not prohibit me from feeling awkward when cops are in the vicinity. I never know how to behave, aside from avoiding the obvious rude behaviors. I’m not going to spit in one’s face or make veiled bacon references behind their backs. But…what can I do? Is it okay to make eye contact and nod politely? Or is it proper protocol to keep your head down and avert your gaze? Am I confusing police officers with gorillas? (Note: I am not suggesting that officers and gorillas are the same. Gorillas are much scarier and more likely to go on a murderous rampage if you wink at them.) Does everybody go out of their way to avoid police interaction because they’re all doing something just a little bit wrong? How is this impacting the collective self-esteems of uniformed police officers? These are questions.
I have had exactly one experience with the police. Six years ago, my boyfriend and I were trying to return home from our first Great Canadian Adventure. Hurricane Jeanne had different plans. Rather than stay holed up in a cheap Montreal motel until it was safe to fly back to Florida, we took a little side trip to New York City, where we stayed with one of his best friends. I was tired. I was bloated from all the vacation eating. There was some residual giddiness from seeing Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney at a posh Toronto eatery. I was hungover from all the fun and was ready to crawl into bed with my cats for three weeks. Instead, we went on a whirlwind sightseeing tour ’round NYC. The city didn’t sleep and neither did we. While we were taking a roundtrip on the Staten Island Ferry, the cosmic forces decided to have a bit of a giggle. By sending over the NYPD to interrogate me for unspecified purposes. Two uniformed officers approached me while my boyfriend was on a snack hunt. What did they ask me? My brain was sounding alarms and running through all the worst-case scenarios while they were looking at my ID and asking me about the guy I was with. They escorted me over to my boyfriend, who was having a chat with two other officers, and determined neither of us were allegedly involved in criminal activity, leaving us to puzzle over the event.
Even though I have no immediate plans to flout authority and go on a crime spree, I don’t believe the law is always correct. Some laws should be defied. Some should be overturned. Some just need to be gently massaged. Red buttons are meant to be pushed, boundaries redrawn, perceptions altered. But those are tasks for people who don’t mind spending a night or two without internet access. If you need me, I’ll be writing a letter about police etiquette to Miss Manners.