The flashing lights of a State Trooper’s car appeared in my side mirror last week, as I drove down I-235, towards downtown.
I did what most of us do: I glanced down to make sure I was driving the speed limit (I was), checked to make sure I was wearing my seat belt (I wasn’t) and waited for him to drive around me (he did).
It hasn’t always gone down like that.
I’ve always enjoyed driving – from listening to the hypnotic sound of tires rolling over pavement, to watching the beautiful countryside fall by the wayside, to feeling the warm breeze blow against my face through an open window.
For me, driving has always represented freedom.
I lost the latter because of the former, in the Summer of 1991.
I began racking up traffic tickets three years before that, while working as a 24 year-old morning show radio host in Carroll. The offenses were mainly mechanical at the beginning: headlight out, tail light out, no rearview mirror. I was driving a beater: a POS 1980 Pontiac Sunbird. I was making $1,000 a month, so there wasn’t much money for repairs. It wouldn’t have mattered. I was also arrogant and irresponsible, and drove that way, which led to more tickets – from running stop signs, to speeding.
FYI – I don’t drink, have never been drunk and have never driven drunk, let alone been arrested for it.
I didn’t need booze. I was as dumb about paying the tickets as I was about getting them.
Eventually a warrant was issued. The Carroll cops (who listened to my show every morning and knew where to find me) came to the radio station, put me in handcuffs and took me to the police station, where they fingerprinted me, then kept me for a few hours.
That humiliation would have been enough to straighten most people out.
I had other ideas.
Speed ahead to 1991. By this time, my license had been suspended. I had no insurance. And I was driving my brand new Chrysler LeBaron convertible on a Sunday morning in Boone.
The guy in front of me stopped at the stop sign. I was reading the Des Moines Sunday Register, and kept moving. The collision deployed my airbag. The cops came. I was arrested, fingerprinted and placed in a cell. A friend bailed me out six hours later.
A month later, I stood in front of a judge.
I’d racked up 33 tickets in three years. I’d paid thousands of dollars in fines. I figured I’d be hit with a large one, and that would be it. I was still arrogant, still stupid.
I was about to get a little smarter.
“Mr Wright,” said the judge, looking over the top of his glasses at the two pages of offenses, and then at me. “It is clear to this court that you have not learned how to drive. I sentence you to ten days in jail.”
I wish I had a picture to show you now, the look on my face back then.
A few weeks later, I checked in to the Story County Jail, inside the Story County Courthouse in Nevada.
The booking personnel didn’t care that I was a radio personality. The jail staff didn’t laugh when I made a joke about the situation. Without expression, they printed me, checked in my personal items, explained the rules, told me to strip, did a cavity search, handed me an orange jumper and slip-on shoes, blanket and pillow and took me to my home for the next ten days.
It was also home for 18 other inmates, who looked up at me as I approached the commons area, accompanied by a jailer.
“There’s the toilet,” he pointed, opening the cell door. “There’s the shower. There’s your bed. Don’t cause me any problems.” He shut the cell door behind me, and disappeared.
My heart sunk.
I turned around.
Some inmates played games. Some read. Some laid in their beds. Some watched TV.
Each had committed a crime(s). All of them were strangers to me. I started shaking uncontrollably; I was trying to hold it together, and was failing.
The arrogance was leaving my body. It would get help from other parts of prison life.
There was no privacy; you used the toilet and shower in full view of everyone. Men would defecate, and the smell would waft throughout the cell. You slept in a sub-cell area with eight other men. Your “bed” was a thin pad on a slab of concrete, bolted to a wall. Lights went out at 10pm, back on at 5:30am, when breakfast was served. It was warm and bland, as was lunch and dinner, served at Noon and 5pm.
The worst part was passing the time.
I played mind games – imagining myself at a football game, or watching a movie, or taking a trip across the country by plane, train and automobile. I’d play the entire event out, moment by moment, scene by scene, then rewind it and play it again, and again and again – then look up at the clock…
Five minutes would have passed.
I read the first 10 pages of Catcher In The Rye, then gave up. I poured my loneliness out into letters I wrote to my girlfriend at the time. I slept as much as possible.
Another five minutes passed.
I eventually struck up conversations with a few inmates. Half of the men were in for DUI. One guy had 17 arrests for drunk driving and was serving a two-year sentence. One had committed armed robbery and was waiting to be transferred to Fort Madison. He was the biggest and baddest badass in the cell. When I told him why I was in, he laughed so hard, he choked.
If he was happy, I was happy.
The second night, an inmate kept making weird sounds in an adjacent cell where nine more inmates slept. Suddenly, there was a dull thud sound; an inmate had slammed the guy’s head into the wall.
Day five brought some more excitement: an outbreak of crabs.
We were instructed to strip off our orange jumpers, and toss them into the middle of the cell. We were then paraded single-file out of our cell and into a shower area, where we were sprayed with a powder that made your skin tingle. We were then given new jumpers, and led back into our cell.
God had my full attention.
I got sick on day seven. I followed procedure, filling out a written request for aspirin. I would get them on the morning of Day 10, the day I left.
By then I’d struck up a semi-friendship with several inmates. I promised to come back and see them, and meant it at the time. They wished me well, and meant it, too.
Several of the jail staff joked with me as they took me through exit processing. These men and women had difficult jobs, and did them with a great sense of professionalism. I’d been polite and respectful to them during my brief stay, and I could tell they appreciated it.
As the final security door was unlocked for me, a staff member yelled out, “I hope I don’t see you again.”
I stepped outside. It seemed impossibly bright. I looked up into the sky, closed my eyes and felt the sun shine on my face. I took a huge breath of fresh air. I bent down and felt the grass, grabbed a handful and brought it up to my nose. I smiled, then laughed. It had been just ten days – but everything in that moment, seemed brand new to me.
The moment didn’t last, of course.
My arrogance and stupidity would eventually return, in coming years. None of it ever landed me back in prison. It did plenty of damage without having to.
I’ve slowed down a bit since those reckless days. I drive the speed limit. I (sometimes) use my seatbelt. And I pull over – WAY over – when a police officer comes up behind me with his/her lights flashing and siren blaring.
And I have the dream.
I’m driving a convertible with the top down, down an empty highway. It’s nighttime. The car’s lights are off. The only illumination comes from the car’s dash, and the stars overhead. I set the cruise control, then move up in the seat until I’m sitting against the head rest. I put my feet on the steering wheel, then slowly move my hands off of it. The wind buffets my face. I lean back, close my eyes and hold my arms towards the heavens.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.
Click to email Jonnie (firstname.lastname@example.org)