Guess where this column has been. Regular readers will have a pretty good idea, and others won't much care. While in an inpatient therapy group after surgery during which new chest hardware was installed over my left breast, I met a guy named Robert. He was in the bed next to me, and it turned out we had some things in common, like drinking too much for too long. We were both friends of Bill W. but kept falling out with him about once a year.
Robert told me a true Friday-night story, and he told it to me on a Friday night as well. It went more or less like this:
Robert worked in the shipyards for years, a place called Western Ordnance and Hydraulics, I believe. Every Friday night about 20 of the guys at Western would go to the same bar in South Bay. The idea was that everybody threw a fiver on the table and the barkeep would bring several iced-down cases of long-necked Budweiser. It was always a hail-fellow-well-met kind of drunk and not a damned thing wrong with it. Only one thing. One guy was missing, a real nice guy I'll call Don. Just wouldn't go with 'em. Week after week he refused.
One Friday night years ago, they kind of shanghaied Don to the bar: stole his keys and drove his car to, say, McGlade's Bar & Grill. They told him if he wanted his wheels he would have to join them.
Don had no choice, of course; but it turned out he started to have a pretty good time, and the beer didn't taste as bad as it did when he last touched the stuff at the age of six, nipping off of one of Dad's. No one was counting, but Don got on the outside of quite a few of them. Too many to drive (nowadays, one is really too many).
Two a.m. rolled around with surprising alacrity, and Don was as incapacitated as everybody else, but pretty much everybody drove themselves home. That's how it was, and if you couldn't do it, watch your beers.
Driving north on route 5, Don was seeing at least two white lines and was driving with one hand over his right eye. He crossed over that line more than a few times and also crunched along the hardscrabble shoulder into ice plants more than once. Somewhere around north National City, a festive display of primary colors winked and strobed in Don's rearview mirror. A cop. Whether Highway Patrol, National City, or SDPD, he didn't know, and that wouldn't clear up until later. Don was a good guy, and if he had done something wrong he was willing to cooperate. So, Don pulled over to the right.
The cop approached the car, no ticket pad in his hand but clearly unhappy about something and cautious. He stood at the driver's side window, which was open, and inhaled. He told Don to get out of the car. Don did that -- slowly and not well. Officer Warren, we'll call him, gave Don the first bit of the field sobriety test: having Don extend his arms and then touch his nose with his right hand. Don nearly put out his eye. Warren was about to cuff him right there, when across the lanes two other drunk drivers had pretty much a head-on collision. Someone was hurt or killed, Don later figured, because paramedics arrived at some point and seemed fairly busy.
In the meantime, Warren told Don, "You. Sit down right here and don't you f----n' move!" Don, rapidly sobering but not enough, did so, not immediately, but lowering himself by inches. To this day, Don probably doesn't recall how long he sat there before his impaired judgment circuits told him, "To hell with this." Under no immediate supervision by the arresting Warren, Don slowly stood, walked over to the vehicle, got in, and drove away. He was not pursued and his driving was somewhat better, he supposed, than it was before. He arrived home, opened the garage door, and pulled her in, then closed the sucker. It must have been close to 3 a.m., and Don's wife was awake and worried.
"Muriel, for god sakes, if anybody asks, I've been here, home all day sick. All right?"
"Don, what's the matter with you? You smell like a brewery."
"Made a mistake, Muriel. Made a mistake." And Don passed out in their bed, fully clothed.
It might have been 9 a.m. when Muriel, not Don, was awakened by the doorbell and insistent knocks at the door. Muriel got up, threw on a bathrobe, and answered. It was four cops -- SDPD in two squad cars. These were soon followed by two more squad cars and four more cops. "Is Donald K. Smith at this residence?"
"Yes, that's my husband. He's sleeping. He has been in bed with the flu for the past 24 hours. Why?"
The second cop asked, "Mind if we look in the garage?" He was casual, like a guy from SDG&E who wanted to read the meter, and it was just behind some overgrown bougainvillea.
"Of course. What is it you're looking for?"
"A car, ma'am. A particular car."
"Well, ours is a Dodge, a 1972."
"Uh-huh. The garage door, ma'am? You have a remote control or something?"
"No, just lift it by the handle. Shall I do it?"
"Don't trouble yourself. We'll get it if you don't mind."
"Yes. All right." The policeman lifted the door just as the other squad cars pulled up. Warren got out of one of them, looking sleepless, pissed, and
Inside the garage it was quiet. Don hadn't let the car sit in there running or anything. He wasn't stupid. Still, the garage was a riot of primary colors reflecting off the paint and turpentine cans on shelves and the mirror Don had installed to look at himself when he lifted weights.
It was Warren's squad car, all right. Don later said he never clocked the subtle differences on his dashboard -- like the sawed-off shotgun. He did, however, wonder what was up with his usual radio station that he always left on tuned to KOGO. Last night, he remembered, they had the most boring and incomprehensible damned talk show on the damned thing he had ever heard.