Flashing lights bring dim bulb out of the dark


EVEN BEFORE I saw the flashing police lights in my rear view mirror, the day had been going downhill.

Not only had I just spent the last two hours suffering as my kid's baseball team got shellacked, but my kid had also been the losing pitcher.

Already the mood inside the car was sour. The kid sat in the front seat with a steady glower and an occasional grunt. I vainly tried to find some part of the game -- a good defensive play, a solid hit, a blown call by the umpire -- that we could talk about.

These attempts at conversation were quickly forgotten when a Baltimore County police cruiser pulled up behind me at a stoplight, its lights flashing, and an officer inside motioned me to pull over.

Did you ever notice that such unpleasant surprises never seem to appear after your kid has hit a home run, or after you have found a $50 bill under the front seat? Instead they strike on days when you are mad and defeated.

I wanted to rant and rage. But since my 15-year-old son would soon be old enough to drive, I decided to make this a "teaching opportunity." I was going to teach the kid, by my example, how to weasel out of a traffic ticket.

I straightened my tie, opened the car door and prepared to walk back to the officer and chat. According to the weaseling technique I learned some 30 years ago when I lived in Chicago, if you ambled back to the police car and pleaded your case, you had a chance of avoiding a ticket.

Strolling and cajoling might have worked back in the Windy City, but it was the wrong move to make in Baltimore County. Before I took more than two steps or uttered a single word of supplication, the officer told me to get back in the car. I quickly complied.

So much for my weaseling tutorial. Then I made another mistake, I confessed, sorta.

I asked, "What did I do wrong, officer?" The wording seemed to encourage the officer to pick from a long list of misbehaviors I had committed. That might have happened because as soon as I saw the police lights in my rear-view mirror, my mind began recalling all the borderline traffic moves -- such as that "creative" merge -- I had pulled off in the last few blocks of driving.

The officer informed me that the reason for our roadside rendezvous was that I had a dim bulb. The left rear brake light had not illuminated when our 1993 Taurus station wagon had stopped at the traffic light, right in front of his police cruiser.

While I am not a legal scholar, I had a feeling that driving with a bad brake light was not a capital crime. However, while perched on the side of the road in a battered station wagon sitting next to a kid dressed in a baseball uniform, it was difficult for me not to feel like a bank robber.

That is because this little drama was playing out near a busy intersection on North Charles Street just short of the Beltway. It was the evening rush hour, and traffic had backed up.

This meant folks inside the slow-moving cars had an excellent opportunity to stare at me, the scofflaw.

And stare they did. My favorite scene was the van full of kids who pressed their noses against the van windows and looked at me in wide-eyed terror. I imagined the conversation in that van going something like this.

Kids: "Mommy, what did that bad man do?"

Mother: "He looks like a bank robber to me. Lock the doors."

Even more attention was drawn to the scene when a second police cruiser, lights flashing, pulled up behind the first cruiser. I guess the second car arrived to keep the first car company. There were more lights flashing than on Saturday night at the disco. I waited as the officer from the first car took my driver's license and registration and radioed it in, checking, I presume, to see if I was on the Ten Most Wanted List.

Apparently I wasn't, because after 20 of the longest minutes of my life, the officers -- one positioned on my side of the car, the other on the passenger side, returned my driver's license and presented me with a Maryland Safety Equipment Repair Order.

The officer informed me I had 10 days to get the tail light fixed and 30 days to mail proof of the repair to the Maryland State Police. The good news was that a Maryland Safety Repair Order was not a ticket. If I got the light fixed and mailed the proof in on time, there was no fine.

It is difficult to pull away from two police cruisers with dignity, but I tried. As I eased the station wagon down the road, I looked straight ahead, deliberately avoiding eye contact with the hundreds of prying eyes in adjoining lanes looking at me.

On the way way home, I reviewed with the kid what I had taught him about weaseling.

Don't get out of the car. Don't confess to your many faults. And mainly, don't drive around with bad brake lights. You never know when you and your dim bulb might find yourselves on display at a busy intersection, feeling like bank robbers.

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