I gave it a few days. I didn’t want to sound dumb. But there may be no undumb way to write about a Skittle crime spree. Yes, I was guilty.
But not of winging a Skittle at a short, fat cop. Actually, the Skittle wasn’t winged out the car window, but more like dribbled by a somewhat fearful perpetrator. It wasn’t even a chewed Skittle. Specifically, it was a sour Skittle, meaning it was dusted with stuff to make you pucker—vitamin C and toxins.
I am, admittedly, reluctant to name the projectile, because when we were pulled over, the policeman asked if we had thrown a piece of gum, to which I was able to honestly reply, "I don’t know anything about a piece of gum." The summons is still sitting on my desk, and I’ve been tempted to talk about an M&M, or an almond, or a gummy bear, because then I could still go to court and swear that I know nothing about it.
The fact is, I didn’t see it happen, and was hoping to rely on that, should I decide to plead not guilty.
"I didn’t see anything, Judge."
Before I begin, I want to make a few prefatory remarks. First, I’m no recurring litterer/Skittle thrower. I’m more like the type who, when he goes to the beach, collects so much garbage that the outing becomes sort of disgusting. Second, I don’t mind policemen. I’ve worked out with policemen, in the context of athletics, for thirteen years, and in my experience cops are no worse than anyone else. I can also name occasions when police officers came in and saved the day. And these were officers from the Fifth Precinct, which happens to be the precinct in question.
So, my wife and I and her two cousins were returning from Virginia—where we had attended their grandfather’s memorial service. Sad, because he was the family patriarch, and not so sad, because he was 90, and had Alzheimer’s. But it was a nine-hour drive, and there were emotions, and by the time we hit the standstill of Holland Tunnel traffic, the four of us were pretty hysterical. The radio was cranked up, and we were singing along with Polish dance songs, shaking the car with our bouncing, and shouting "Babushka!" and "Arriba!" as the spirit moved us.
I’ll own up to having been the first of us to throw a Skittle. Mainly, it occurred to me to do so because I preferred the idea of throwing them to eating them. I’d already had quite a few, and they were there, and I had to do something with them. I hit a white van squarely. (All unmoving vehicles: targetee and targetor.) My technique was sound—just a thumb flick—and unperceivable. But my comrades in arms, quick to join in the air attack, were more like throwers. And, as they were women, and girls, they threw like women, and girls. Too much wind-up. All too apparent. Still, they were only Skittles. Who could possibly care?
Exactly who said what, I don’t know. But I remember something like—
"Who’s gonna throw a Skittle at that cop?"
Officer Tusino was standing by his car on Canal Street—a puffy Napoleon. A better mind than me might make an entrapment argument, the way he was mooning there, just begging to be Skittled.
Personally, I would not be the one to propel a Skittle at a cop. Why? Because once, when I was about ten years old, jaywalking across West Broadway, I coolly flipped a patrol car the bird, and the look of deflation on the part of the policeman at the wheel was so heartrending that I feel guilty about it to this day.
Simone Pepper (not her name, I ain’t no rat), however, was not so skittish—or, more Skittlish—and in a moment of ejaculatory glee, let him have it. Still, as was formerly noted, it was more of a dribble than a slam-dunk, so we just drove away, laughing.
That was a key point. Evidently, laughter is tantamount to guilt—especially when the ego of a short policeman weighs in the balance.
But I was blasé. Did I cruise through the yellow light onto the Manhattan Bridge? (We were to drop off my wife’s cousins in Prospect Heights.) No, I did not—which was probably a good thing, since I would have hated to have had a speeding police car drive against traffic and swerve to a halt in front of us while we were crossing the bridge.
Officer Tusino and his partner, officer Polanscin, hurdled out of their car, hands on their guns, ready to draw, to shoot.
It’s funny about watching that show "Law & Order." I’ve always been amazed by the attitude of the New Yorkers questioned by the NYPD. Could we really be so bluntly annoyed in the face of the law? It seemed possible, and yet I’d never had a way to confirm the accuracy of the characterization.
I do now. At least in the case of this New Yorker, I really couldn’t care less. What, you’re going to shoot me for littering? Just aim for the head, please.
Officer Polanscin, very much like officer Tusino, but female, blurted out, "You think it’s funny?"
They asked for our ID’s, which we provided. Officer Polanscin noted the address on my license as Lafayette Street, which was two blocks away, and commented, "Yeah, right."
Here, I pause to comment upon the general New York prejudice against tourists. The car I was driving was a rental—which can be distinguished by the license plate—so perhaps the officers assumed we were tourists, and therefore a good target for a ticket. Also, who wants to have a piece of gum thrown at them by a tourist? Understandable.
But there are levels to this prejudice—levels of justification. The more one is a Manhattanite, the more justified one is to intolerance of outsiders. And, just for the record, I was born at New York hospital, on Thirty-First Street, and grew up in Tribeca, a few blocks from the crime scene. Aside from educational purposes, I have lived in the city my whole life. And I can guarantee, from the thick accents of Polanscin and Tusino, that they did not grow up in Manhattan, or even that close to it—New Jersey, more like, or Long Island—and that wherever they grew up, they probably still lived there.
Inside the car, we were all sober and wearing our seatbelts, so there was nothing they could do there. They checked us for outstanding warrants, and had no luck.
I’m not sure if that process really takes twenty minutes, or if Polanscin and Tusino just did things real slow, but, anyway, twenty minutes later, our IDs were returned to us. All except mine, that is.
"I know it wasn’t you," Tusino said to me, "because you were driving."
Then he looked over the other passengers. My wife, sitting next to me, didn’t look like the Skittle chucking type (and, indeed, she hadn’t tossed a one). My wife’s sixteen-year old cousin, sitting behind me, looked like a child mortified by her elders—and my wife’s cousin, Simone, a 37-year-old children’s book editor, looked, well, guilty. And, she was sitting at the window implicated in the crime.
"What about you?" asked Tusino.
"I, uh, um…"
And then Simone launched into a long speech about her grandfather’s funeral, and the sixteen-year-old in the car, and the nine-hour drive, and I thought she was going to confess. Don’t do it, I thought. Only a few minutes before, I had advised everyone to keep their mouths shut. If we were going to get a summons, we were going to get a summons.
Finally, Simone wound down her soliloquy. And despite the officer’s entreaties of "It’s no big deal, I just want to know what happened," to everyone’s surprise, Simone finished up with a pretty startling denial—
" I didn’t throw a piece of gum," which, I must reiterate, was true. She had not thrown a piece of gum.
Then Tusino lumbered away. He and Polanscin spent another twenty minutes in their car, writing up the summons for littering.
Even though the projectile did come from our car, it might well have come from somewhere else. It could have come from anywhere—and just bounced off our car. Any New Yorker will appreciate the number of people on Canal Street, not to mention cars, and what a high percentage of the Canal Street population is likely to be throwing or spitting gum—in all directions.
And, the summons was written to me, and I didn’t throw that "piece of gum," as officer Tusino well knew.
Granted, I had thrown a Skittle several minutes before, but if police officers could hand out tickets for past infractions that they didn’t witness or have evidence of, they could hand out tickets for littering to everyone they saw. Ever dropped a gum wrapper?
I had written down Tusino’s badge number: 23992. But Polanscin turned her back to me when I asked for her badge number. Tusino said I didn’t need it. I had repeatedly asked for it, and as they walked away, I continued to do so. Tusino warned me not to get out of the car.
Officer Polanscin’s badge number is 13221.
I had to call the Fifth Precinct and talk to Sergeant Brady to get Polanscin’s badge number. To me, that is the most upsetting element of the whole ordeal—that an American police officer would attempt to act in anonymity. In all this silliness, it is the one principle I am not sure that I can comfortably back away from.
As for the summons concerning, "Trash onto highway," maybe the best thing is to just tell it to the judge. I suppose I’m too lazy to bother prevaricating, after all. The truth is easier.
And, by the way, is it funny?
John Reed's novels include A Still Small Voice (Delacorte 2000) and Snowball's Chance, which will be published by Roof Books this September. He lives in Manhattan.