Jan 14, 2015, 05:33AM

Outlaw for a Day

Land of the free and it's just you, music and the highway.

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Imagine you are tooling around Texas one summer day in your automobile. You're on the open road, your music is blaring and you’re feeling good. Texas, in all its flat and dusty glory is spread out before you all the way to the distant horizon. There are no limitations on this day, you're thinking. Whatever my imagination is able to come up with I can do. Land of the free and it's just you, music and the highway.

Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere" is blasting out of your speakers: "Louisville, Nashville, Knoxville, Ombabika, Shefferville, Jacksonville, Waterville ... see what I mean, sir... "

The song makes you feel like taking off and going to these places, just like Johnny did. You let your mind run free and the dream seems almost within your grasp, if only for a fleeting moment.  You're behind the wheel and you're the boss today. The road will take you anywhere you want to go. You crank up the volume some more: "'cross the deserts bare, man, breathed the mountain air, man..."

You're singing along now and you feel the lightness that freedom brings. You tap the steering wheel in time with the song, moving your shoulders in rhythm too. Everything's converging today just at the right moment to produce a moment for you—a unique American moment. You want this feeling to last like the singer wants the applause to last.

Before you've had enough time to extract all the exhilaration you can out of this rare moment though, you see the signs instructing you to slow down so you can stop at the booth up ahead. Damn, forget about Jacksonville! You can't even get to El Campo to have some BBQ brisket at your favorite roadhouse without being stopped by the authorities. Your buzz slithers away like the rattlesnake did the other day when it encountered your guinea hen in the goat paddock.

You've been through a bunch of these checkpoints and have always cooperated in the past. A couple brief questions and you're on your way again. They’re legal up to a hundred miles of the border, so you have to stop. They’re supposed to be strictly about immigration control, though that appears to be doubtful. Another case of "mission creep" is what it's looking like. You consider yourself a law-abiding citizen, but on this particular day this incursion on your Constitutional liberties is not sitting right with you. This is neither the time nor the place to interrupt my meditations on the open road in America.

Security is what it's all about in the post 9-11 America, but sometimes it looks more like a power grab. Americans, despite what they’ll tell you, scare quite easily (a couple cases of Ebola and they freak out). When they get afraid, guys like Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani are right there, waiting to take over and clamp down. So on this particular Texas day, as you approach the checkpoint, "security fatigue" finally kicks in. Your mind flashes on the Howard Beale character in that classic 70s movie Network you watched recently, with its unforgettable line, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it any more!"

You're feeling positively bold now. Another Johnny Cash song, "Ring of Fire", is playing and those horns are firing you up even more. "And it burns burns burns...."

You're not going to go into that ring of fire today because that's what the other people do—the suburbanites, or whoever they are. You're not completely clear on this detail - on how to define them—but that's what you call them. Little boxes on the hillside made of ticky tacky. Little boxes on the hillside, all the same. Howard Beale and Johnny Cash are speaking to you now, encouraging you. Howard's in your back seat egging you on, and Johnny is singing about wild desire. These guys did it their way and so can I.

You've tried to go along with the "program" and conform, but you realize at this moment that it's made you slip into a complacency that's feeling like a burden you need to shake off to get back to your natural, untamed self. The movies you've been watching recently must have something to do with it —American Beauty in addition to Network. Your mind wanders as you wait in line for your interrogation, and Kevin Spacey's character from American Beauty—Lester Burnham—joins Howard Beale in the backseat. You remember Lester talking to his daughter at the dinner table and saying, "Janie, today I quit my job. And then I told my boss to go fuck himself, and then I blackmailed him for almost sixty thousand dollars. Pass the asparagus." Lester went from corporate drone to badass overnight and so can I! It's just a Department of Homeland Security checkpoint, but you have to start somewhere.

You brake in front of the law officer. He asks you to roll down your window, as it’s rolled down just a few inches. You tell him that's as far down as you're going to roll it and this feels good. You actually feel an adrenaline rush. The law officer looks taken aback and says he's having a hard time understanding you. You hold his gaze for a moment—just long enough to give him the message—and then you reach over to the volume button. Johnny's singing louder now, and the window is still no lower.

The Border Patrol officer has to almost yell now. He asks if you're an American citizen and you tell him you won't be answering any queries today. You throw that formal-sounding "queries" in just for the fun of it—as an extra dig. This could be fun. In the backseat, Lester Burnham tries to stifle a snicker. He likes the way this is going so far, and he squeezes your shoulder in support. Lester leans forward and whispers into your ear. "It's a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you've forgotten about."

The officer asks you to pull over up ahead on the right but you politely decline. You ask if you're being detained, and when he nods you ask him on what grounds. He cites the Constitution, which gives you a good laugh because you're pretty sure the Constitution doesn't allow what is happening here today. You laugh right in his face now. He puts what he calls a "stop strip" in front of your front tires and tells you if you pull forward your tires will be flattened. The officer's supervisor has come to your car now and the following scene ensues:

[Fade in]


OFFICER: I need you to pull over up ahead into "secondary" now.

DRIVER: No thank you. I'd prefer not to. Like Bartleby the Scrivener.

OFFICER: Bartleby?

DRIVER: Herman Melville.

OFFICER: Well, you're blocking traffic, Mr. Melville, so we need you to pull over up ahead.

DRIVER: I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!

OFFICER: We need to inspect your car further.

DRIVER: Do you suspect I have committed a crime?



OFFICER: Your car is dirty. Please pull over. You're blocking traffic.

DRIVER: Afraid dirty car won't hold up in court. And I'm not blocking traffic. You’re detaining me for no reason when I'm just trying to drive in my own country unmolested. I want to go on about my business now.

OFFICER: Where are you coming from?

DRIVER: I've been everywhere, man. Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo...

OFFICER: Is there anyone else in your vehicle today?

DRIVER: Just Lester and Howard.

LESTER AND HOWARD wave and smile at OFFICER.

LESTER: Smile! You're at Mr. Smiley's.

OFFICER: Lester and Howard? Are they American citizens?

DRIVER: I don't have my lawyer present today so I won't be answering any questions. You're familiar with the Fifth Amendment?

OFFICER: I need to inspect your trunk.

DRIVER: What's your probable cause?

Lester Burnham slaps you on both shoulders now. He's grinning like a mule-eating cactus.

OFFICER: I need to make sure there are no undocumented people in your vehicle.

DRIVER: Do you have a warrant? You know, the Fourth Amendment?

OFFICER: I need to determine the citizenship of all the people in your vehicle.

DRIVER: And I have the right to not answer any questions without my lawyer present. I saw it on Law and Order.

HOWARD and LESTER high five in the back seat.

OFFICER: Do you have any drugs in the vehicle?

DRIVER: That wouldn't be very wise for me to say now, would it?

LESTER and HOWARD look at each other and giggle.

OFFICER: Are you a U.S. citizen?

DRIVER: Good question. I'm beginning to wonder what country this is. You're asking me that as a pretext to get me to stop, be checked, tracked, recorded and sniffed by drug dogs. All violations of the Constitution. I don't appreciate that.

OFFICER: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 states that you must answer our questions, sir.

HOWARD scribbles furiously on a notepad, rips out the note and hands it to DRIVER. DRIVER reads it and slips it out of the car window. It drifts to the pavement.

DRIVER: It gives you the right to stop me and ask me the questions. However, it does not require that I answer them. You don't have any probable cause to detain me and my attorney is not present for me to be interrogated, so I'd like to continue on my journey now, unmolested.  This is not a border checkpoint where I automatically surrender my rights. And, most importantly, I've got to make it to El Campo by happy hour for beer and BBQ with my new buddies here.

OFFICER: Why do you have to make my job so hard? All you have to do is answer a couple of easy questions and you can be on your way.

DRIVER: Because your job apparently requires you to infringe on my rights as an American. See the connection?

OFFICER walks back into the booth and picks up the phone. He chats for several minutes. "Noncompliant" is the only audible word. OFFICER replaces phone, returns to DRIVER'S car and bends down so he can peer into the window.

OFFICER: You ready to pull over into secondary now?

DRIVER: Nah. You know what I call this vehicle I am driving today?


DRIVER: I call it "4500 pounds of going wherever the heck I want when I'm on the open road and minding my own business in the USA."

OFFICER: Okay, have a nice day.

DRIVER: What's that pardner?

OFFICER: You're free to go.

DRIVER turns around and gives a Jack Nicholson-style grin to HOWARD and LESTER. They give him the "thumbs up" sign.

DRIVER: You gonna remove the strip?

OFFICER walks to front of vehicle and removes the strip. DRIVER drives by him with a little wave and nod of the head, heading down the flat road towards El Campo.

[Fade out]

The mood in your car is festive now. Lester and Howard are whooping it up. You reach into your cooler and pull out three beers, passing two of them to your new friends in the backseat.

"Well done. You decided not to take it any more!" says Howard.

"That guy in the uniform tried to ruin my authentic American moment and I just couldn't let that stand," you say. "All he did was slow me down. I don't feel I can be stopped today."

"Man oh man. Man oh man, are you the man!" says Lester.

"Nope, I'm just an ordinary man with nothing much to lose," you say. "I feel like I've been in a coma for the past 20 years and I'm just now waking up.

"We don't know why we go through all this pointless pain, humiliation, and decay," says Howard. "So there better be someone somewhere who does know."

"Howard, it’s now time to lighten up," you say. "Y'all do that existential angst thing real good back there in New York City but this here's Texas and there's someone right here in this car who knows the answer to your question. We go through all that bad stuff—the decay and whatnot—so we can get in our cars on Friday night and go to the roadhouse and get some BBQ and beer. And if we're lucky we might even get in a fight if some cowboy takes umbrage when I smile at a purty young filly he's got his stupid drunken eyes on. It's an hour to El Campo and when we get there the beer is on me!"

You turn up the volume some more and step on the gas. There's wasted time to be made up for now. Beers to drink. Lies to tell. Mechanical bulls to be ridden. That Johnny Cash song is playing again, for the second time today. "I've been to Boston, Charleston, Dayton, Louisiana, Washington, Houston, Kingston, Texarkana, Monterey, Ferriday, Santa Fe, Tallahoosa, Glen Rock, Black Rock, Little Rock, Oskaloosa..."

—Follow Chris Beck on Twitter: @SubBeck


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