When I was 19 years old my car was surrounded by three cop cars in a road block in Horseheads, NY, about 20 minutes outside of Ithaca, NY. I was thrown into the back of a police car, yelled at, interrogated, accused of having drugs, being high, being drunk, repeatedly screamed at until they confirmed I was speeding. They wanted more, much more. All my friends were split up into different cars and then accused of being part of a gang.
I did not drink, I was in college at the time at TC3, trying to get into HWS. I did not do drugs due to a seizure condition. I was speeding to get away from a violent alcoholic in Elmira who had started a confrontation with us while we were leaving the area to go back to Ithaca.
After 2 hours of questioning in the back of a police car I was given two tickets, told to appear in court that summer and to never drive through Horseheads again.
Unlike many days of my youth, that morning is clear. The moments where something traumatic happen everything crystallizes, you've heard that before . The times when whatever relative power you think you have is taken away--you remember that. And my first encounter with a sense of total vulnerability at the hands of police is something that I cannot ever forget.
We had taken a trip to Wegmans to get snacks before making the hour long trip back home. My friends in Elmira were ironically in the police academy there. I had stayed in their house the night before, played video games and talked for most of the night. We gathered snacks and left the city. It was hot that day, the sun was beaming down on my 87' Nissan Stanza, the most poetic car ever made. We all felt free and young and youthful. We were between lives and professions. We have never hung out the three of us again. Dave. Bryan and a kid that went by Alexis at the time.
Left was the Stanza in question. Yes, it had a spoiler on it. This photoshoot was for my senior year. I was never this cool in high school but some people did say I looked like Scott Baio.
I was driving and we were at a red light. The light turned green and I didn't realize it. There came loud honks behind us. I looked in my rear view mirror. Through my window tint I saw a man, shirtless, yelling at my car.
I should mention something, I used to love window tinting cars when I was young. Something about the look of a car with window tint has always been attractive to me and I did window tinting for all of my friends. There was something sleek and beautiful about transforming your windows into a shady version of themselves. I admit to some that a car with windows tinted could seem menacing. That day, I did something stupid. I sat there. A juvenile trick, if someone angers you, you stand up to them. The honks grew louder. The man behind us began to swear. He was sticking his head out of the window. My friends laughed. As the light turned yellow I hit the gas and left him with the red light.
We thought it was over. We stunted and the time was done. We had our lolz and it we were ready for the drive. Five minutes later the same guy came up next to us screaming. He spit at my car. I couldn't hear what he said. I wish I could say that it was racist but in truth, I have no idea. I had angered a local and I was not a local. I was a Cuban American kid in Elmira. I was not in my liberal enclave of Ithaca. I was in foreign territory. I was aware of the situation. We were stuck in bumper to bumper to bumper traffic. There was some sort of event going on and so we couldn't drive off.
As that hot summer day beat down on us we made our way to Ithaca. We began to hear honks coming from behind us. The same man who had honked before had returned. We kept calm and I kept driving. The trouble is we could not get anywhere. He managed to get into the lane next to us and continued to scream at us through his window. The closer he came the more agitated he became until he was screaming and spitting on my car. We could smell the alcohol coming off of him. Someone rolled down a window and began screaming back at him. Someone else grabbed a bat from the trunk and waved it at him.
We were young. We were scared. We were stupid.
This went on for what felt like an eternity. I kept my eye on the road but could feel the energy of my friends rising. We argued a bit between one another. We did not know what to do. We knew we were in the wrong town and had no support from the community. We had never encountered something like this and we didn't know the roads to escape. The man yelled more and more and we were stopped at one point and he opened his car door and got out. We raised the windows again and he began shouting more. He may have banged on a window. I know he banged on the side of the car.
Just then the traffic cleared and I drove off as cars behind all of us began to honk. A tractor trailer behind him had grown agitated too. I accelerated and the man stood his ground in my rear view mirror.
High on adrenaline, and scared for what would come next, we drove away towards our home town. I remember seeing a police car on a rural road and they were driving faster than we were going. I remember going above the speed limit but I did not believe I was going in the 100's as I was accused of. It was a beat up 8 year old Nissan. I would call the car "klunka" later when I was in college. My family was humble.
When we arrived in Horseheads there were three police cars in the middle of the road. They had blocked traffic and were waiving cars by. Until they got to us.
The first thing the police officer said was, "how drunk are you son?" Since I did not drink this was impossible. The questions came firing at me. I knew little about what to do. They told me they knew I was speeding. They told me I had tried to start a fight. They told me they saw drugs in my car. Before 99 Problems there was a car by the name of Midnight by Ice-T which rang in my head. I was pulled over by police, wrong town, wrong colors, wrong part of town.
Another officer went to the side of the car. Another to the passenger. Quickly we were surrounded. They asked us to get out of the car. They asked to search the car. I don't remember consenting. I don't remember getting in the back of a police car. I remember being yelled at, he got into the police car, I remember feeling trapped. I didn't think I was leaving. I thought about my mother. I remember looking at the car door locks. I wasn't read my rights. I was being detained. Eventually one of my friends broke--he admitted I was speeding. I said nothing. I stared. I don't remember what I said. I didn't do what they said. I didn't know if I was speeding, they had made it up. There was no proof that I had, no radar. No observation.
They took me to a parking lot with my car. I don't remember who drove my car. It wasn't me. They took off all the window tint in front of me. I remember the sound of their ripping it off. They issued me tickets. They told me never to come to Horseheads again.
I was free to go.
Lex Enrico Santí is a mental health therapist based in Ithaca, NY. He offers therapy sessions in a home practice and can work with clients using a secure telehealth (online) practice. Contact him today for more information.