Matt Potter 7:27 a.m., May 22
Vomiting near a loading dock on a rainy night in a Pacific Beach alley isn’t the best feeling in the world. In fact, just the thought of it brings back the acidic, post-puke taste in the back of my throat. With a healthy beard and a dark hooded sweatshirt on, I probably looked like a homeless man. My phone was dead; my eyes bloodshot. I happened to be car-less that day too, which solidified my temporary appearance as a desperate, drunk vagrant.
Nauseous and dizzy, I went to the only place I felt I could sit down and recover: Starbucks-- Starbucks of all places, where I found myself listening to the acoustic pop flavor of the month, just waiting to get kicked out by the over-attentive manager who was clearly prejudging me as a non-potential customer. True—I was far from presentable at the moment. I was disheveled and un-groomed. My car was in the shop. My co-worker had been kind enough to give me a ride after work. But who knew a stomach bug would be hitting me at such an inopportune time? And that’s the thing: I wasn’t even drunk. No drinking at all, in fact. I had just been dropped off in PB, only blocks away from where I was to meet my girlfriend for dinner—a date. I was a little early, and now violently ill.
Coffee? That’s the last thing I’d put in my stomach. Water? Might be a good idea, but asking for a free cup would probably confirm my apparent bum status. Paying three bucks for a bottle of water might make me a damn fool, but I was ready to make that admission in order to buy time to pull myself together on a dry, comfy chair. I decided to hit the bathroom first to rinse out my mouth. As I walked I felt three pairs of Starbucks employee eyes following me, their fluffy conversations turned silent. I suddenly felt as if I was the Unabomber. They’d never believe I was a professor of history—not in this condition.
The Starbucks bathroom: a refuge of sorts-- fairly new, clean, and a free place to clean up a bit. I had never seen it as such. Now I thanked the corporate Gods that these coffee shops graced almost every block, offering free napkins, cushiony chairs, and restrooms. I wiped some of the remnants from my beard and sweatshirt, splashed water on my face, and looked in the mirror. It wasn’t good. I was a wreck.
I soon left my private refuge and was greeted by unwelcome stares from the staff. ‘Don’t worry,’ I thought, ‘I’ll buy something from you petty bastards.’ I plopped myself down on a chair right next to the window. I couldn’t help but look outside every few moments in anticipation of my girlfriend driving by, spotting me, picking me up, and taking me out of this godforsaken place. Do I even deserve to have a girlfriend at this point? Will I still have a girlfriend when she sees me in this state? My Southern California superficiality had gotten to me again. Everything would be fine, but I was beginning to feel weak. I needed to drink water and eat something or I might pass out.
“Excuse me, sir,” said a man in a green apron, black polo shirt and Starbucks hat.
I’m guessing he felt obliged to call me “sir” in order to protect himself from any future harassment or discrimination lawsuit. I looked up at his fake smile and deep crow’s feet. The economy must be really horrible, I thought, if this old guy’s working at Starbucks. His next words indicated that he hadn’t the least bit of compassion or respect for a guy like me.
“I’m gonna’ have to ask you to leave now,” he said.
“Oh-- I was just about to buy something.” I said with assurance.
“Nope, you’re outta’ here buddy. Get up,” he said.
Really? He went from “Sir” to “buddy”, then a direct command. He actually thought I was a bum. The insult was more shocking and ridiculous than painful. At first I wanted to correct his perspective, but I opted to embrace the role instead.
“I didn’t know this place was so Fascist.” I said.
“Please just leave, buddy,” he said.
“We’re obviously not buddies,” I said, “Plus, I would never be friends with a Corporate Fascist anyways! Who owns this place, Mussolini?”
All Mr. Frappaccino did was stare. A hint of fear swam in his eyes. He wasn’t the only one. Every person inside Starbucks was gawking at me. I had instantly become the crazy homeless man-- the loony speaking jibberish to himself on the sidewalk. I couldn’t believe it. I almost muttered about not wanting to spend three dollars on a bottle of water anyway, but I realized that might just prompt them to bring out the straight-jacket.
I exited quietly.
Luckily the rain had stopped. I decided to walk down the alley toward my date meeting point when I started gagging again. It hurt. My stomach was cramping. What kind of evil bacteria was destroying my digestive system? Was it a new viral epidemic that had yet to sweep the national news? My insides grumbled ominously. I would have called my girlfriend from a pay phone, but I had never memorized her number. Dead cell phones aren’t very useful.
Still hunched over in my vomit-ready stance, I heard tiny gravel rocks grinding under the tires of a car coming to an abrupt stop. I remained bent over in pain with my hands on my knees; eyes on the unstable ground. I recognized the reflection of flashing red and blue lights. The police? This was completely uncalled for! Sure, I might not have looked like the most upstanding citizen at the moment, but I was no criminal. Had I broken a law? Maybe Frappaccino called the cops? Even though I had done absolutely nothing wrong, I began to feel like an outlaw. I heard the police car door shut and the heavy footsteps of boots.
"You okay there, partner?" said the officer.
‘Was he talking to me? Partner? Was this a bad spaghetti Western? Was I about to be arrested by a sorry excuse for Clint Eastwood or John Wayne?’ "Hey there, are you okay?" he asked. I decided to play it cool, as to not escalate the situation. "Sure, Johnny," I said. I still hadn't looked in his direction. "So what's the Gestapo want with a sick guy like me?"
"Put your hands on your head and turn around right now," he ordered.
This was not a movie. It was really happening. So I followed his directions, but at a much slower rate than I would normally. I was a criminal now, so I began to act the part. Plus, my stomach pain increased with any movement. I saw his pale, young face for the first time—a rookie cop. His black uniform almost shined.
"Why the Gestapo tactics?" I asked. “What are you talking about, man?” he replied.
Shouldn’t he have deduced by now that I was not very threatening? Then again, I had to remember that this was Pacific Beach, he was a rookie cop, and “Gestapo” was probably a historical reference far outside his range of knowledge.
“Have you ever heard of a guy named Heinrich Himmler?-- a Nazi,” I hinted.
John Wayne swiftly grabbed my hands and violently hand-cuffed my wrists behind my back. Actually, they weren’t even real handcuffs, but plastic ties that made me feel like a newly tagged animal. “Son of a bitch,” he called me, as he crammed my non-resistant body into the back of his squad car. How dare he insult my mother, I thought, especially so close to Mother’s Day. This rookie cop obviously had no sense of respect or human decency. And for whatever reason, normal powers of speech had abandoned me. Perhaps I was still in disbelief from the surreal. Soon the car was moving, which wasn’t good for my stomach or his upholstery. The scratchy radio noises and code numbers I was hearing from the dashboard sounded like two dudes playing with walkie-talkies, pretending they were cops. I took a deep breath and decided to put an end to this ridiculous situation.
“Am I being arrested for calling you ‘Gestapo’?” “Gah-what?” He asked. “Nevermind,” I said. I adjusted my approach to fit the absurdity. “May I ask why you’ve arrested me, sir?” “May I?” he repeated. “What are you, an English teacher or somethin’?” “Close,” I said. “I teach history.” “Oh, yeah,” he doubted. I might as well have told him I was the mayor of San Diego. “A drunk and disorderly teacher, huh?” “Yes, a professor,” I said. “In fact, we were just discussing the significance of the 1966 Miranda Supreme Court decision in class the other day. You know-- the reason why the police have to read citizens their rights before they arrest them.”
He didn’t say a word. The car slowed down. Officer Wayne must have realized that he had skipped a few steps in his over zealous attempt to throw this bum in the drunk tank. He pulled over, came to a complete stop, and turned to me. “You have a California ID?” he asked. “In my pocket,” I said. "Let's see it," he replied. "That's kinda' hard with these plastic handcuffs on," I answered. “Have you been drinking?” “Nope,” I said, “I told you, I’m sick—that’s why I was throwing up.”
I told him my full name, about the school that I worked at, my sudden stomach ailment, and my plans to meet my girlfriend in Pacific Beach for dinner. Three minutes later, Officer John Wayne was dropping me off on the corner in front of the restaurant where my girlfriend was already waiting at the bar.
He didn’t really apologize. In fact, during those three minutes, he didn’t say much at all.