Sally Rae and I run The Waterin’ Hole Café, the finest (and only) eatery in Heartbreak, Texas. Heartbreak is 50 or 500 miles west of Houston’s depraved sushi bars. We don’t serve raw fish! We DO serve the finest chicken-fried steak to be found in all of Texas, and we’re proud of it! She does mornings and noon, I sort of fill in, and I do the precarious job of running the bar at night. I don’t much like being a publican, but it’s as necessary as our obnoxious gaming machines, and I do it because it’s necessary.
A young oak of a man came in about closing. He was big, well-kept, in a rugged Marlboro Man sort of way, but he also looked troubled.
“Gimme a whiskey, a double, straight-up,” he said, sort of curtly.
Well, I know my job. This could be trouble. My antennae went up.
Hardly five minutes later he said, “Bring me another!”
We aren’t really a drinking establishment, trade was slow, so I went into Plan A. I fixed two, and I walked over and said, “This one’s on the house, if I can join you. Lordy, I’ve had a bad week!”
The rule is, get him talking, establish empathy, steer him outside if there looks like trouble. Take him down to Heartbreak Hotel if he gets too soused.
“Yeah, well, me too.”
“In a word, I got in-law trouble. You?”
“Speeding tickets,” he said.
“Well stranger, maybe you came to the right place. I’ve been a speeder for years. I been getting away with it for more than 30, despite a lot of driving. Interested in a little advice from an old man?”
“Sure,” he said, looking up.
“Well, did you grow up in the country, have a bunch of dogs?”
“Well, yeah,” he allowed.
“Then you know that the real purpose of dogs is to protect their humans. So, if a dog shows up, his face all swollen, you got a poisonous snake hanging around your house. You keep your eyes open, keep a gun strapped on, and sooner or later, you meet him on your terms, not the snake’s. Bang! Problem solved.”
“So what does that have to do with speeding?”
“Highway patrolmen are sort of like poisonous snakes. Speeding tickets are like the snake’s venom. Whenever I go on a trip, I pick out my ‘sucker.’ The sucker is usually a teenager in a Mustang, or some other hot car. You know, a kid with more horsepower than IQ. I pull up beside him and I watch the lights. As soon as they change, I burn off and leave him in the dust. “
I took a sip.
“For the next 40 miles, he’ll do anything he can to pass me, and stay way out in front of me. All I do is set my cruise control about 15 miles per hour above the speed limit, and he’ll still keep ahead. If I’m late, I’ll go 20 or 25 miles mph over the speed limit. He’ll kill himself to stay out there, way in front, driving like a mad bat out of hell. Then I watch his tail lights. The first thing everyone does when they see a speed trap is brake, but it’s too late. Too late for him, that is -- but not for me.”
I could tell by now that I had him. Handling this guy would be easy.
“Any other tricks?” the big stranger asked.
“Well, yeah. Partly, it’s my car. Nowadays I drive a 10- or 15-year-old Camry, sort of a neutral color, usually dark. I also wear this white beard, kinda an old man’s signature look. Cops see that and it just doesn’t add up to being a speed demon. If I get stopped, which is really rare, I already have my insurance and driver’s license out, really nice.
“The cop’s first question is always something like, ‘What’s your rush, old-timer?’ That’s when I tremble and act senile. ‘I just got a call. My wife had a fall and I’m going to her sister’s place to check on her. I guess I just got in too much of a hurry.’
“A confession right up front, a family emergency, along with me acting all aquiver will most always get me on the good side of all but the hardest of cops. I haven’t used that one but three or four times, but it’s a good one.”
I guess my own drink was making me wax eloquent a little — that plus this guy’s obvious interest, so I kept on.
“I keep most laws just fine, but speeding tickets are the exception. Why, I think they are mostly just theft, not any theft, but government theft. By that I mean, stupid theft. The municipality gets my $150, the state takes its part, and the insurance company outfoxes them all. They raise my rates by about $500 a year for years and years to come! Now, who could respect a system like that?
“Also, there’s all those little speed-trap towns! I recently drove from Denton through Tioga. In one 10-mile stretch the speed limit went from 30 to 45 to 70 to 45 to 30 to 50, up to 55 and suddenly down to 30 again. My GPS never did agree with the posted speed limit. I smelt pork and I smelt it strong!
“When I got to my sister-in-law’s house, I asked her about cops. Sure enough, she said they were awful around there. She said the cops there had all sorts of signs they hid behind, that they set up on curves in the road ’cause it’s too flat to hide behind a hill, that they’d ding you for a mile or two over. There isn’t anything fair about it!”
I rolled on in this vein for what, looking back on it, was entirely too long.
“When I was a kid, I kept a radar detector pointed forward, and another one pointed to the back. I had a red TR 7 back then, and I made it from Houston to Dallas in two hours and 47 minutes. The problem was, I couldn’t hide Fuzz-busters in time. If a cop got after me, there was no way I could hide them, and I usually got written up for an extra 10 miles over whatever I was doing. Of course, there ain’t no fighting the law.”
“Anything else I should know?” the big stranger asked mildly.
“Well, you’re a might too young to play ‘Old and Panicked,’” I said. You might try the parakeet trick.”
“Huh?” he asked, his eyebrows raising up.
“Well, I admit I was sort of young and dumb then, sort of pushing the edges. I had an odor in my car that was, well, let’s say, illegal then and now. I kept a pet parakeet in my car, named Crackers. Old Crackers liked to jump around and entertain himself. He was company on the long trips I had to take to Houston back at that time.
“Anyways, I messed up, and got stopped around Marlin for doing 85 in a 55 zone. Sure, I got a ticket, but I just barely cracked my window and handed out my driver’s license and insurance card. The state trooper was bored and kinda human. When I asked if I could stay in the car so my pet bird wouldn’t get away, he understood. Sounds stupid, but it kept me from getting busted.
“Another time, well, this don’t reflect well on me, but I was young and dumb, no offense,” I said, glancing at the young man across from me.
“None taken,” he replied.
“Anyway, I was really soused. I was driving a girl out to a steak house. We had already had a few, well, quite a few, and I got the double red lights of doom behind me. It was a cold and windy night, a light rain coming down.”
“I got right out with my license in my hand, polite as I could be. I got called back to the Highway Patrol car. There were two big troopers there. I admit, I figured my goose was cooked. Times like that, a man has to just improvise. I pulled out my wallet again on some excuse. I was thinking desperately to myself, about the only people the Texas Highway Patrol are afraid of is someone like the federal government. So I ‘accidentally’ dumped a whole bunch of old, worthless receipts out onto the ground. Naturally, the wind caught them, and I started acting all panicked! ‘Oh Lordy, the IRS is gonna put me under the jail,’ I wailed.”
Why, those troopers got all nice. Like I figured, they had a bit of guilt and dislike for the tax boys, just I did, and they started running around and picking them up for me! True story. They made me stay by their patrol car, but they did a pretty good job. After that, we were sort of friends, and they let me go with a warning.”
My customer responded: “Well mister, I reckon I’m going to pay for that second drink, nothing on the house for me. You have been a real help. You see, when I said I had a problem with speeding tickets, I meant that I haven’t been making my quota, and my major has really been riding my tail.”
With that, he slapped his Texas Department of Public Safety badge onto the table.
“Really, you have helped out public safety quite a bit tonight. When I get back home, I’ll write up a statewide memo on what and WHO to watch for.”