I’m at a party in Point Loma celebrating the successful conclusion of a literary event that took a great deal of time and effort to put together. Everyone involved is letting go after months of pre-planning, meeting deadlines, corresponding with finicky writers who demand this and that. We’re partying hearty, as they say in San Diego. I’m talking poetry and literature with several of the country’s best writers. The food is delicious; we’re standing outdoors on the terrace of a lovely Point Loma home with a magnificent view. Life is good. There’s just one problem. I’m drinking too much. The Chardonnay is going down like a soothing brain balm, making the night seem even more magical. I’ve got to be careful. Seven years ago I got a DUI, and that experience convinced me never again to drink and drive. But here I am at a party, drinking and having to drive home. The thought crosses my mind, I’ll call a cab, but it’s fleeting. I’m not that drunk, I tell myself.
The night continues like this, and it’s time to go. I say my good-byes and (write it!) stagger to my gold Honda Accord, enjoying the two moons that are circling above the Earth tonight. I’ll drive carefully, I think, and I repeat, I’m not that drunk. I climb behind the wheel, take a deep breath, and start the engine. The streets in this part of Point Loma are hilly and winding, and I don’t know the neighborhood at all. I’ll be especially cautious. I crawl out of the parking space, make a U-turn, and head down the winding hill toward Rosecrans. Once there, getting home will be a piece of cake. But the three sisters who weave the cloth of our fate have different things in store for me on this lovely April night. Somewhere between the party and Rosecrans, a lamppost intervenes. A lamppost — not on the sidewalk, but on a center divider in the middle of one of those winding Point Loma streets. The accident happens in slow motion. Or at least it feels that way. An air bag explodes, the Honda slowly, almost gently, tilts on its side, and I find myself looking straight up at the passenger door above me. Hmm, this is interesting, I think.
I undo my seat belt and climb up toward the door, manage to get it open, and climb onto the side of the car. The night sky is luminous. I jump down onto the pavement and am almost enjoying the dream I find myself in. It is 10:30 at night, and a crowd is already forming. I think of Karl Shapiro’s poem “Auto Wreck,” which describes the feeling of people in the crowds that immediately and inevitably appear, minutes, even seconds, after an accident. (See, I’m thinking rationally, I tell myself, I’m not that drunk.)
I look up and already the police are here, flashing red and yellow lights piercing the night’s serenity. I’m sitting on a curb trying to get my bearings. An officer approaches. He seems very young. This is one of the actualities of aging; cops look younger every year.
“Are you all right?” he asks.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I say, not even aware at the time that my knee is badly bruised, and the right answer would have been, “No, I’m hurt, I need to go to the hospital.” But who is thinking strategically under these circumstances?
“Can you stand up?” he asks me, and of course I do, intending to show him just how alert and sober I am. But the booze smell emanating from me clearly gives away the game, and he asks me, “How many drinks have you had tonight?”
“Just a couple,” I say, underestimating my total consumption by about four to five glasses of Chardonnay.
“Can I ask you to walk along this line?” he says, pointing to a crack in the sidewalk.
Since I’ve been through this before, I know the routine. This is the field sobriety test to determine whether the officer has probable cause to arrest me on suspicion of driving under the influence. I walk, placing one foot unsteadily in front of the other, feeling shaky and unbalanced. I manage to get about ten feet, swaying from side to side. Next, he stands in front of me, holds up a pencil, moves it left to right in front of my nose, and asks me to follow it with my eyes without moving my head. This seems extraordinarily hard to do. Finally, he asks me to count backwards from 100, subtracting seven each time. I think I’m doing this right, but when I later read the officer’s report, he said I began getting it wrong after 93.
Anyway, right after the field sobriety test, he asks me to clasp my hands behind my back, and I feel the cold, unmistakable chill of handcuffs locking closed around my wrists. The officer escorts me to the police car, lowers my head with his palm as they do on Law & Order, and nudges me into the back seat. He climbs behind the wheel and starts the car. He tells me we’re going downtown, where I will take a blood alcohol test; I have the choice of a Breathalyzer, a blood test, or a urine test. I vaguely recall from the first time that most lawyers recommend the Breathalyzer because it can be more easily challenged. But as I’m debating the alternatives in my mind, he punches my name into the computer built into the police car (Damn! Crooks don’t have a chance these days) and tells me, “I see this is your second arrest.”
“Yes,” I say, “but the other one was more than seven years ago. I thought you get a fresh start after seven years.”
“Let’s see,” he says, punching data into the computer. (I wonder what the accident rate is for people who operate computers while driving.) “Today’s date is April 2,” he says. “It looks like you’re 19 days short of seven years. Your last conviction will be seven years ago on April 21.”