A couple of years ago, during my stint working for a clean energy non-profit in Washington, D.C., I went out for happy hour after work at a local bar on M Street called the 1831 Bar & Lounge. It was a familiar spot on my way home from work that I often would grab wings from because their happy hour special on wings was almost criminally low.
On this particular occasion, I had a couple of glasses of wine, said below-market-price wings, and as far as I can remember, a solid conversation with my friend who also worked as a bartender at the lounge. After perhaps an hour of checking Politico on my phone and chatting with my friend, I decided to head home.
Now per usual, I would have summoned an Uber or a Lyft, but when I pulled out my phone, I immediately regretted having just spent the last hour obliviously and pointlessly using it – the phone was so dangerously low on power, I didn’t think it would last long enough for me to collect my belongings, let alone to open the app, make the request, and the time it would take for the car to arrive. So, even as notoriously cheap as I am and how tremendously more expensive a cab was compared to a ride share, I decided to hail a cab instead. Quickly, a male driver – maybe in his early 30’s and of Middle Eastern descent – in a cab van spots me and I hop in.
At the time, I was living in an overpriced, underwhelming basement bedroom in the Georgetown neighborhood. It was perhaps a 5-10 minute drive from the 1831 Bar & Lounge, having made the trek via ride share plenty of times before. So it didn’t take us long to get to my destination and about 2 or three minutes before we were due to arrive, I started to prepare to pay for the ride – in this particular vane, the headrests in the cab have the credit card processing slider, so it’s pretty intuitive and self-serve. However, when I pull out wallet, my debit card is gone. I immediately panic because I rarely carry cash and, upon checking to confirm, knew I had none on me at the time either. I start patting down my pockets in desperation, to no avail. Nothing. The card’s not there. I’m convinced I must have left it at the bar.
So, I sheepishly tell the driver that I think I may have left my card at the previous location and as humbly as I can, ask if he wouldn’t mind taking me back so I can grab my debit card. I swore to him that I’d pay him for the full trip – the superfluous return trip included – and repeatedly apologized profusely. I was embarrassed. As is often the case, my awareness of certain stereotypes only makes me more sensitive to falling into them. I didn’t want this driver – who, admittedly, I didn’t know and probably would never see again – thinking I was simply another broke brotha full of crap trying to get out of paying my cab fare. But as important as it clearly was to me to right this wrong and prove my solidness, when I made the request, the driver simply rolled his eyes, sighed, and turned the car around. I settle back into my seat, pissed that I’m about to spend likely $40 on what should have been a 2 mile, $5 or $6 dollar ride share had I simply charged my phone at work or not needed to know what kind of crisis Donald Trump had plunged us into that day. But at this point, I’m completely convinced that the cab driver is driving us back to the bar, albeit understandably annoyed.
When we got to Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown – maybe three blocks from the house I lived at – we approached a CVS (or maybe a Rite Aid, I can’t remember such details) on our left. There, parked in front of the store, is a DC Metro Police van with two officers leaning against the vehicle. To my surprise and utter horror, the taxi driver pulls the van over, rolls down the window and tells the officers that there’s a “black kid in my car who won’t pay me and I think he’s trying to rob me.”
And oh sh** indeed. The two officers immediately slide the back door of the taxi van open, ordered me out of the car, and instructed me to sit down while they assessed the situation. They never asked me what was going on, but whatever – such is life. After a couple of minutes of the officers chatting with the driver and getting his side of the story, something told me to check my front shirt pocket. Maybe it was divine, maybe my nipple itched, I don’t know. But while I was sitting on that curb on Wisconsin Ave, watching the police only listen to the cab driver’s side of the story, I felt compelled to check the only pocket I hadn’t checked yet and lo and behold, there it was – my previously elusive debit card.
So now, equipped with what I believe to be my tool of absolution and despite how pissed I am about what the cab driver was clearly trying to pull, I feel like I have an out that should make this weird, unnecessary situation go away. Figuring the cab driver ultimately just wants his money and doesn’t want to drive me home, I stand up and go to the ATM on the outside side of the pharmacy. In hindsight, it was odd that no one stopped me and I’m not even entirely sure if anyone noticed that I’d moved. Nevertheless, I withdrew $40 dollars and made my way back over to the cab and the attending officers. Because I’m not stupid, I approached with both hands in the air and with only the cash from the recent ATM withdrawal poking out of one of them. I remember saying to both the officers and the driver, “Look, if he just wants his money, tell him to take it. I don’t care. I just want to go home.”
I should have chosen Door No. 2.
As soon as they noticed me approaching, the officers immediately bumrushed me. They pushed me up against the police van, ordered me to shut my mouth, proceed to handcuff me (while I’m desperately asking “Why are you arresting me?”), and then toss me in the back of their police van. “Don’t you fucking move. I don’t care what you thought you were doing. I don’t care what you thought.”
Into the van I go. Mind you, this was only a few years after (and a mere hop, skip, and a jump down the highway from where) Freddie Gray died in a similar police van in Baltimore, so as you might imagine, I’m scared shitless. True to my nightmares, there was no seatbelt back there – it was just me in a big ole open, metal van, hands handcuffed, and hoping I could simply hold on for dear life until we arrived wherever they were taking me. By the way, in case you’re wondering, as I was being loaded into the police van, that $40 I’d withdrawn? Fell out of my hands when they began arresting me and in the midst of everything that was happening to me, I vividly remember the cab driver managing to grab the money before the van doors closed. Indeed, as I was being loaded into the police van for an uncertain immediate future, the driver still got his.
When I arrived at the Georgetown precinct (whose jail, I must note, isn’t the worse jail I’ve ever seen – EBR Parish Prison still takes the cake), they booked me on public intoxication (an odd charge for a person who was taking a cab home) and resisting arrest (an activity I couldn’t recall engaging in, especially considering my current predicament meant I had clearly been unsuccessful). While I never had to change into a prison jumpsuit, having spent probably 3 or 4 hours in the jail, as someone with particular ambitions and knowing that being Black in America is a perpetual balancing act on thin ice, all I was thinking the whole time I sat in that empty cell was that my professional future was done over something I didn’t even have real control over. Over someone else’s rush to judgment. Over a system that would rather believe that I was trying to rob a cab driver than I had simply misplaced my debit card. I got increasingly depressed as I thought of all the things I thought were going to be stripped of me, most notably being convinced I was never going to vote again, I was wondering how I would break all of it to my mom. Those hours in that jail cell were devastating. I thought I’d done everything right up until then and now, in one evening, my whole future was done.
I was released that evening and despite my angst about how I would tackle this seemingly overwhelming and unfair turn of events, it turned out that the officers never even followed through on the arresting charges. While I’d been given a court date when I was released from the jail, when I finally arrived at court about a month after my arrest, they informed me that charges had been dropped almost as fast as they’d been filed. After having prepared for my potential case like it was the OJ trial, I was being informed that had I called ahead earlier, I wouldn’t have even needed to appear.
Recent national and local events have inspired me to be more open about some of my experiences that in many ways are reminders that the Black experience in America is both a difficult one and one that Black people simply survive. While I hated what was happening to me when it happened, perhaps the greatest tragedy is that it wasn’t the most unbelievable thing that could happen to me. It sucked, but as soon as that cab driver opened his mouth, I never even considered that the cops would think this was a ridiculous story or that they would then solicit my side to help them adjudicate the situation better – as soon as the driver rolled the window down, I knew I was going to get the business end of that ordeal. That’s unbelievable sad that it’s not a particularly unconscionable circumstance. I’m supposedly the *Carlton Banks* brotha and it still happened to me. I was in a salmon dress shirt and blue slacks. I had a really good job at the time. And I sound more like I narrate nature videos than a hardened criminal scouring the streets for vulnerable cabbies . And yet, all that mattered in that one incident with the cab driver and the cops was that I was Black.
For the driver, me being Black completely discounted the idea that my payment issues were anything other than an intentional attempt to skip out on the bill. For the officers, my mere movement was proof positive that I was capable of being like all the other dangerous, unpredictable, “He’s reaching for a gun!” Black men that they felt they’d seen a million times before. There was no nuance. No dialogue. No benefit of the doubt. No attempt to find a restorative resolution. Just the usual order when it’s a Black man involved – dominate, incarcerate, and ask questions later. Being Black in America means it doesn’t matter what else you are because the only thing everyone else sees first and last is your Blackness. It colors everything else about you. I had never and have never stiffed a bill in my life before that moment – not at a restaurant, and certainly not relative to cab fare. (Besides, I’m definitely not stupid enough to stiff a cab driver who has my home address!) None of that mattered. There were presumptions that preceded me based only on the color of my skin and it resulted in me sitting in a jail cell unnecessarily for 4 hours. It could have been worse.
This isn’t a post with anything more than my reflections. For whatever that’s worth.