It’s just past 3 a.m. on a Saturday night. Edward sits handcuffed in the back of an El Cajon police holding van. He watches through a smeared window while his black Ford Focus is hitched to a tow truck, the result of his failed sobriety test. The cop says he was driving erratically and straddling lanes. He doesn’t feel drunk at all, despite blowing a 0.11.
At this moment, he chooses to blame his predicament solely on the fact that Santana Mexican Grill makes the very best carne asada burritos in all of San Diego. Edward was on his way home from a bachelor party when an overwhelming need for a burrito overtook him. It was during his indecision as to whether he should stop and get one that the swerving began. He decided that yes, he would stop for a burrito. He turned his right blinker on and moved into the far lane of the 8 to take the Magnolia/67 exit ramp.
On second thought, his wife Kate (all names have been changed) was probably worried that he had yet to come home. She was waiting up. He was sure of it. She wouldn’t be happy. So he put his left blinker on and changed lanes again. But he was so hungry — right blinker back on.
But if he didn’t get home soon, his wife would hold it against him the next morning. Back into the left lane. Screw it, he thought, it was past 3:00 a.m. She was already going to be upset. What difference would 15 minutes make? He veered right and then saw the red flashing lights in his rearview mirror.
It’s been more than an hour since Edward gulped down his last drink at the bachelor party. He cut himself off shortly after two of his friends were ejected from Miramar Speed Circuit. They were being belligerent and operating go-carts while under the influence. The irony is not lost on him.
No big deal, he thinks, when he sees the cop getting out of his squad car.
He reaches into his glove box for a small bottle of Listerine, which he swooshes in his mouth and swallows. He forgets that Listerine has alcohol in it.
“Do you realize you were swerving back there?” the cop asks him.
“I was pondering whether or not to stop for a burrito.”
When San Diegans try to beat a DUI, they’ll say anything. Edward’s brother-in-law told an officer who found him passed out in his car on the side of the 52 freeway in Santee that he was napping after an especially difficult night. A former neighbor of mine told a cop that it was “that time of the month. The terrible cramps make it difficult to drive.” A coworker of Edward’s told an officer that the reason he had been driving in the turn lane on Adams Avenue in Normal Heights was that he was “unfamiliar with the neighborhood, not drunk.”
Of these four excuses, only the last one worked.
In San Diego it seems if you don’t have a DUI, chances are your neighbor does. According to insurance.com, America’s Finest City topped the list for having “the largest percentage of drivers with alcohol-related driving convictions” in mid-2010. (The list was based on information provided by people who’d asked for a car-insurance quote from insurance.com.) Over the Labor Day weekend, San Diego cops arrested 957 drunks. There were two DUI-related fatalities during that four-day stretch.
Edward’s initial thought upon failing his field sobriety test is that he may lose his job, followed by the thought of having to explain the DUI to Kate. Their alarm clock is set for about five hours from now, in time to wake him for church. Will he have to tell his pastor about this?
Ten minutes later, he is sitting in the brightly lit El Cajon police station, located on Fletcher Parkway, across the street from the Parkway Plaza mall. Edward is sharing a bench with a girl in handcuffs. She is wearing smeared pink lipstick and platform heels. The officers speak to her in gruff tones. Edward gets the impression he has established a much better rapport with them. The police have decided to remove Edward’s cuffs, thanks to his complacent behavior, which is due to the out-of-body surrealism that has overtaken him.
It’s cold and Edward is shivering. Across from him is a desk where a police officer casually fills out his DUI paperwork as if it were a routine procedure. But Edward can feel that a massive shift is about to occur in his life.
He consoles himself with the thought that it could be worse. He tries to envision something far more terrible happening to him, like the loss of a limb, the death of a loved one, his wife leaving him for an elderly millionaire. He decides to put an end to his pity party. He screwed up big-time, but he accepts his predicament with a Zen-like calm. He could’ve hurt someone or hurt himself. He is an idiot. He realizes that he deserves the consequences of his actions. He forgives Santana for making those tempting burritos.
The first phone call is to his wife. She is groggy, and it takes her several minutes to realize her husband has been arrested.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asks, turning hostile. “I have two sleeping kids here. I’m not waking them up and taking them to a police station. I am not picking you up! Figure it out!”
She wants to tell him that he is a moron, but she realizes from the tone of his voice that he is well aware of that fact already. She pulls herself together and advises him to call someone else.
Edward calls his brother-in-law. Nate is the easy choice since he has received a DUI himself. At least there will be zero judgment.
Edward imagines that an upcoming family dinner at his in-laws’ house is going to be awkward.
He can’t help thinking that this could have been avoided if he had exercised greater self-control. If he had not been sloshed, if he had not so badly craved a carne asada burrito, he would be at home right now.
Twenty minutes later Nate arrives. He is driving a friend’s Jeep that has no doors or windows. You can hear the engine from inside the station. Edward is mortified. He thinks that his brother-in-law’s choice of vehicle reflects badly on him. Now not only will he look like a drunk but also a loser who hangs out with questionable people.
“Thanks for picking me up in this piece of shit,” he tells Nate.
“You just got a DUI. I’d say that’s way more embarrassing than the car.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“At this moment, I’d say you’re the idiot,” Nate responds.
On the ride home, they compare DUI stories.
“At least I’m not the only screwup in the family anymore.” Nate hurls his final insult before dropping Edward off. “I hope you’re ready to fork over a ton of cash. DUIs are expensive.”
Before Edward walks through his front door, he pauses, bracing himself for the numerous consequences that will result from this night.
Edward’s DUI will cost him $10,572, not including the cost of losing his company car. The impound fee will be $270. The court fine, $1972. Department of Motor Vehicle fees, $195. DUI classes, $125, plus a $20 donation for the Mothers Against Drunk Driving impact panel. He also will spend $7990 on a lawyer who will discuss his recent vacation far more than Edward’s case.
The day after his arrest, Edward phones his boss. His boss is surprisingly calm when Edward tells him about the DUI. In confidence, Edward’s boss says that Edward is not the only one at work with a DUI. They both agree to keep it quiet.
Edward’s office is downtown — a 35-minute car ride from home. He depends on the trolley and bikes the rest of the way to work. Instead of leaving for work at 7:30 a.m., it’s now 5:30 a.m. One morning he wakes up late, and his wife and kids have to drop him off at the Fletcher Parkway stop.
“Why is Dad taking the trolley to work?” asks Edward’s eight-year-old son, who is in the Gifted and Talented Education program. He knows something is up.
“It’s Take the Trolley to Work Day,” Kate lies, while shooting Edward a dirty look. She’d rather not have to deal with smarty-pants announcing to his teacher that they had to drop Daddy off at the trolley station because he drank too much beer and really wanted a burrito.
For 30 days, Edward locks his bike up two blocks away from work so as not to invite suspicion from coworkers. He is forced to ride his bike to visit other company offices throughout the city. He arrives in his business suit, saturated in sweat and panting. He offers no excuse for his sudden problem with perspiration and heavy breathing. After a while, he stops hiding the fact that his bicycle has become his method of transportation. He pretends that he has suddenly become a cycling fanatic. He wonders if he should fully embrace his pretend hobby by donning spandex and sweat-resistant shirts. It’s hard to believe that any of his coworkers buy his lies. Edward wonders if they go along with it out of politeness, all the while suspecting he has a DUI.
When Edward gets back his license, it is restricted. For three months he is only allowed to drive to work and to mandatory DUI courses. He starts shopping for an affordable car. He ends up with a modest sedan. When his new license plate arrives, it has a number and letter followed by NO67 and another number. Edward marvels at the oddity, considering he was pulled over just off the 67 freeway. It seems like a divine message or a cosmic joke to remind him that he is a screwup.
Weeks after his arrest, Edward attends a mandatory Mothers Against Drunk Driving impact panel. The auditorium is filled with DUI offenders. There appear to be hundreds of them. Edward takes a seat in a middle row. One after another, men and women who have been affected by DUIs stream onto the stage to give testimonies about how drunk drivers have affected their lives. Many have lost loved ones. It’s obvious that some have been giving testimonies for years. Many have long made peace with their heavy loss. Toward the end, a man in his late 40s or early 50s mounts the stage. His hair is salt-and-pepper. He is wearing a crisp button-down shirt and khakis. He looks as though he could be Edward’s uncle or family friend. There is a common familiarity about his face. His hands are shaking a little bit. Edward can feel how fresh his anger is as he stares out at all of them, a roomful of morons. Edward finds it difficult to look at him. He wants to stare down at his feet or at the bald head of the man seated in front of him, but he forces himself, out of respect, to keep his eyes on the man.
He has never in his life felt such a terrible sense of shame. He is the selfish person who recklessly drove drunk. He may not have killed anyone, but he knows he is no better than the people who have. It’s in this moment that he is thankful for the DUI. All of a sudden he no longer views it as a financial burden, a time drain, or a factor of contention between himself and his wife. He realizes that it was a blessing to be pulled over that night because if he hadn’t been caught, he would’ve done it again. He wouldn’t be the example of what not to do. He wouldn’t have a testimony like this to share with his boys when they begin driving.
Months later, Edward is in a convenience store with a coworker. In line in front of him is the officer who pulled him over that night. Edward wants to say something. He wants to explain that he isn’t that person anymore. He has changed. He wants to invite the officer over for dinner or, at the very least, obtain his address so he can send him a Christmas card that displays the smiling faces of his children. Most of all, Edward wants to thank him. The cashier hands the officer his change. Edward lets him walk out the door.