Another Pacific Beach day was coming to an end on the scenic sidewalk that hugged the bay. People were walking their dogs. On my right was a five-story condo built in the 1970’s, worth less than the price of the lot it stood on. And I wondered if it was somebody in one of those condos who’d called the cops on us that night.
I’d completely forgotten about it until I found myself right there, at the scene of the crime. The spot brought back that police officer’s exaggerated voice: “Who tipped over the goddamn Cats!?”
It happened years ago, so many that I’m not sure I want to admit the exact date—but the cop’s voice rang clearly in my ears as if he’d said it yesterday. We’d been drinking beer around a bonfire on the bayside, back when you could do that kind of thing. It was me and a handful of my high school friends. When the police arrived, I remember being frightened by their presence. I felt intimidated and helpless while we were being interrogated by this over-the-top, authoritative cop:
"Who tipped over the Cats!?"
He repeated it with increased volume and frustration while he and his partner had us all lined up-- six high school kids who’d been drinking cheap beer by Mission Bay; six high school kids with nothing much to do and little concept of the value of other people’s property, who thought it might be fun to push some catamarans out into the water. And it was surprisingly easy to do. A few floated harmlessly into the bay, which gave us some intoxicated amusement and an idiotic sense of accomplishment. But one of the catamarans was tipped over in the process. And it remained there, half on the sand half in the water, on its side, defeated—and easily visible to nearby residents. The police officer-- who was questioning us minutes later with a flashlight pointed straight in our faces-- had to look at the tipped catamaran now and again just to verify the obvious, yet still unanswered question. He repeated it, louder each time:
“Who tipped over the Cats?!! I’m not gonna’ ask you again!”
But he lied to us. He asked us that same exact question several more times as he made his way up and down the line of suspect teenage faces. He took down our names in an attempt to scare us, one by one: O’Donnell, McClain, McMahon, Williams, Blake, Carrillo—
“Carrillo?” the officer said.
My name didn’t match the others. He looked me up and down. His partner shined the Maglite right in my eyes. Were they profiling me, I thought—even though I didn’t really know what ‘profiling’ meant at the time.
“Are you Mexican?” the officer asked.
“Yes,” I said. What the hell difference did it make to him?
Then he deliberately looked into my eyes for either dilation or an admission of guilt. It was as if he wanted to pin the prank on me alone, or assumed I had been the instigator. Maybe he guessed that—unlike my Caucasian friends-- my family had no money or influence, so he and his partner could pin it on me without any backlash. Or maybe he was simply surprised that I was the only one with a non-Irish or British surname and wondered why. Maybe he was bored and trying to amuse himself and his partner at my expense. Whatever it was, the officer took a particular interest in examining me a bit longer. Then he continued down the line, staring down all my friends, hoping for a confession. We gave him nothing but awkward silence. He never asked us about the beers. And when it seemed as if he’d given up his inquiry, he turned to the middle of the lineup and exploded one last time:
“Who tipped over the goddamn Cats!!!”
Then McMahon chimed in: “Sir, we were hanging out here, and there was a another party of people our age. Some guys in that group that we didn’t know tipped over the catamarans and then ran away. The rest of them left because they thought they’d get in trouble, sir. But we just stayed here because we knew we didn’t do anything wrong.”
I remembered thinking it was a fairly impressive and well-delivered Eddie Haskell-esque lie by McMahon—probably the most guilty of all of us. He was only a Junior in high school yet was confidently responding to two interrogation-happy cops with perfectly feigned innocence, as if they were uncles or family friends. He knew just how to “Sir” them too.
The other cop asked a few follow up questions, as if he was in training, but at that point it was clear McMahon’s fabrication would get us all off the hook. And it occurred to me, both then and now, that if I had been with a group of all Mexican or black teenagers, the outcome might not have been the same. I imagined our answers wouldn’t have been so readily believed—or even listened to in the first place. They might have had our hands on our heads—or in cuffs—as they questioned us. Who knows?
But as it went, I’d happened to be with a group of white private school kids from the suburbs who could articulate a lie quite confidently, and either consciously or subconsciously knew of their privilege. And I half fit in with them because I was half-white. So we all walked away without so much as a hand slapping. The officers told us to be safe and go home. After they left the scene, my friends mocked the cops, laughing out loud and repeating with their best Yosemite Sam accents: “Who tipped over the goddamn Cats!”
I wondered if they’d felt as threatened by the cops as I did. I wondered if they saw me any differently because of my last name too. But I didn't ask. I just remember doing my best to bury those thoughts and laugh along with them.