By Mark E. Smith
In the San Francisco Bay Area during the mid-1980s, it wasn’t hard to get harassed by the cops if you were a punk teen. Smoking in public, hanging out in front of a convenience store, being on the streets too late, having a house party, and so on would all but guarantee the appearance of cops. I witnessed many such scenes. Among my peers, there was teenage social credibility to it all. If you wanted to be the cool 11th-grader on Monday morning in homeroom, a run in with the cops on the previous Saturday night did the job.
For me, it was hard to be that cool kid Monday mornings. The cops simply didn’t hassle a kid using a wheelchair like me. I was once hanging out with a bunch of smoking, punk friends outside of an ice cream shop, and a cop threatened to haul everyone away, then turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, I don’t take people in wheelchairs to jail.”
I was instantly stung by his remarks. I wanted to be one of the guys, as teens do, but the cop clearly pointed out that I wasn’t, that I was different. In my mind, I was just as much a punk as my punk friends, right down to my black leather jacket. How dare the cop discount my punkness due to my disability. Worse yet, how dare he give me a pass in front of the punk peers I was part of – but suddenly differentiated from because of the cop’s attitude toward my disability.
My immediate emotions aside, I wondered if the cop spoke a universal truth, that people who use wheelchairs aren’t taken to jail? If it was a fact, should I skip college and take up robbing banks?
All of this – the cop’s condescending attitude and the potential of never going to jail – made me more mischievous than ever. One night, as my buddy and I prepared to cruise the avenue in his car, I got the brilliant idea to put a pillowcase over my head in the passenger seat and pretend like I was dead.
The avenue was heavily lit, so everyone saw in everyone’s car. When my buddy stopped at traffic lights, I relaxed my body, pillowcase over my head, and flopped against the dash like a dead body. It seemed like harmless fun and got lots of attention – until the cops pulled us over.
It turned out that I played such a convincing dead body with a pillowcase over my head that multiple people took our license plate number and description, and called the cops.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the cop asked, holding my passenger side door open, the scene illuminated by the cop car’s colored lights.
“Nothing,” I said, the pillowcase still on my head.
He yanked the pillowcase off of me, my grin appearing.
“This isn’t funny,” he said. “You’ve scared a lot of people.”
“It’s a joke,” I replied with no remorse.
He looked in the back seat and saw my manual wheelchair, then looked back at me.
“Let’s get your wheelchair out and get you to Juvenile Hall,” he said. “I bet your parents won’t find that funny.”
Obviously, not arresting people who used wheelchairs wasn’t a universal code among cops. I was in deep trouble, fast, and my disability wasn’t getting me out of it. So, I did what any punk teen would do: I apologized profusely and explained that I never intended to scare anyone, that it was a dumb prank gone wrong, that I’d never do it again.
Fortunately, the cop let me off of the hook – but kept my mom’s pillowcase.
At 16, I learned a lot that night. I learned that what I thought was funny scared a lot of people and that wasn’t right. I learned that there’s nothing cool about getting in trouble with the cops. And, I learned not to rob banks because they do put guys like me, who use wheelchairs, in jail.