Seven Caucasian Males
On a hot July 4th in an airless Chicago summer, I was in my mid-20s, at the lakefront with six guys I knew, only one of them very well. The park was crowded with people and grills. Bottle rockets and firecrackers had been going off all day, just as they’d been doing for weeks. Those small pops were hardly noticeable anymore, but every year as the 4th gets nearer, you hear dynamite-like blasts more often, the kind that sound like weapons, the scary, illegal kind that blow people’s fingers off. On this day they’d been going off every couple of minutes near a group of teenagers, and the explosions were giving me a nervous tick. I was grateful when the police showed up.
But they must not have found any, because after a few minutes they started toward us, seven Caucasian males in their mid 20s.
At that point I had already been trying to say my good-byes for nearly an hour, so I absent-mindedly decided that I’d had enough for the day and that this was a good time to leave. I picked up the food I’d brought and started off.
One of the cops shouted “Halt!” and I immediately knew he was yelling at me. By picking up a brown paper bag and trying to walk away from an interrogation, I had incriminated myself beyond question. So much for a quick exit.
When I was a kid, cookouts just happened. What was inside was brought outside, and dinner just seemed to be conjured up, with tablecloths, side dishes, and grills big enough to fit everything. It wasn’t until I was living on my own that I figured out how difficult logistics like that could be.
Even though none of us could do them well, my friends in those years were always trying. Nearly every weekend, somebody would be cooking out somewhere, lighting briquettes and flopping on packaged meat, fresh from styrofoam platters. The custom was to bring your own, maybe enough to share.
But even though most of us were broke, there was always way too much cheap meat. The food didn’t matter. Since we didn’t know what we were doing, it usually ended up black, pink, and thrown out, or maybe stuffed down between the beers we’d really come for. The mood was always a little giddy because we were surprised to find out we could get by on our own. We were independent, making rent, excited but not yet terrified by the freedom.
I hardly ever ate the meat, and back then I liked to bring corn. I could afford it and it was easy to grill, but depending on the crowd, it would hit or miss.
On this July 4th it missed. This one was the worst kind of cookouts, even by our standards. The beer was cheap and warm, and as space on the grill opened up it was immediately taken by new meat. These weren’t guys who would allow space for corn.
Everyone was looking forward to later. My friend had brought big fireworks from out of state, and he was planning on setting them off after dark. They were tall, and they were noticeably sticking out of a brown paper bag, leaning up against a tree.
Soon after getting there, I started feeling bored. My corn stayed in its bag and I decided that I would leave before my friend’s show. It was hot, and I was already mentally on my way home. I had another beer.
Looking back, I realize that by my 20s I was out of practice in dealing with the police. I’d forgotten how as teenagers we kept a lookout while drinking beer or smoking weed in Midwestern parking lots. When I started off, I was just thinking myself all grown up and somehow above the issue of a cop looking for contraband.
Afterwards, we had a good long laugh. What were you thinking? You never walk away from a cop. Did he really yell ‘Halt’?
But we also knew it was a lucky mistake. Because of my move, he hadn’t spotted the rockets sitting nearby. The show would go on.
“What’s in the bag?” he asked — or more stated — with that presumption-of-guilt tone that reminded me of those parking lots from just a few years earlier.
“Corn,” I said. Just like past encounters with cops, I was a little nervous. But this time, I knew I wouldn’t have my bag taken from me, that I wouldn’t be threatened with arrest or having my parents called. This time, I wouldn’t have to thank him.
“Yeah, right.” He took the bag without asking.
We were all standing around him now in a circle. Seven Caucasian males in their mid 20s who knew the routine. We’d all been searched before, and we knew that he would soon go back to treating us like criminals. So for now, we stood in silence, remembering past meetings, our humiliations at the hands of men in blue, some of them serious and all of them degrading, savoring this all too brief moment when an officer of the law, bent over a bag and up to his wrists in corn, had for the sweetest split second, nothing to say.