Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Jerome Klapka Jerome and the PO-PO

by Drew Martin
I heard this joke when I was in Poland: A doctor delivering babies all day in a busy hospital, whacks every tenth newborn on the head with a wooden mallet. His perplexed nurse finally asks him why he does it and he explains, "We need more police officers."

The police are ridiculed in most parts of the world but, for some reason, are glamorized by the entertainment industry in the United States. I loved watching CHiPs as a kid so I was totally disappointed when I moved out to Santa Barbara for college and saw the California Highway Patrol in shorts hiding behind citrusy bushes on mountain bikes, waiting to give moving violation tickets to students who guilelessly pedaled by them on the concrete footpaths of my campus. The most outrageous example of this kind of shamelessness involved my roommate who rode his bicycle home from a party with one too many drinks in him. He slipped off his pedal, face-planted on his handlebars, lost three of his front teeth and had to go to the hospital to stop all the bleeding in his mouth. When the surgeon finished stitching him up, a couple of police officers entered the emergency room and slapped him with a ticket for "drunk driving" and even suspended his actual automobile drivers license for six months.

I had always defended the NYPD because I thought of them as real crime stoppers. Maybe the term hero got thrown around too much after 9/11 and devalued our expectations of them but they seem to have become quite petty recently. Just the other day a baby-faced "officer Kennedy" pulled me aside and gave me a summons on the subway. This young hall monitor and his pal ate it up and detained me for 20 minutes. The situation even got sillier when another doughy recruit pulled up on a Segway. During this time they also started harassing a poor young guy from Africa who didn't speak a word of English and was scared out his wits. He became very distraught and almost threw himself in front of a train because of how they treated him.

Let's say I have to pay the fine if they don't accept my mail-in statement. The encounter at least stirred up a memory of my grandfather and gave it new meaning. My mother's father was a real Virginian. The only thing I remember him saying about New York City was how much he hated it; particularly because of an encounter with an "Irish cop." This always confused me because he was part Irish. Actually that's an understatement; his maternal grandfather, Patrick, from Ireland was born on St. Patrick's Day and died on St. Patrick's Day. So this situation allowed me to switch from trying to understand what might have happened to my grandfather, to feeling his presence (in a sense) with PO Kennedy.

At this point I could have justified the value of the fine to share a lost, precious moment with my grandfather, but then it got better. Jerome Klapka Jerome flashed into my mind. This guy wrote with such modern wit and presence that it is hard to believe he penned his works more than 100 years ago. Jerome is most known for Three Men in a Boat but I liked better Three Men on the Bummel. A bummel is a journey with no specific destination, length or ending. He goes on a bummel by bicycle with two mates from England through the Black Forest in Germany. It is the 1900 equivalent of British guys who fly over on a few pounds to Prague for a weekend stag party, wearing only their underwear.

Jerome approaches unlawful conduct as a matter of recreation within a desired budget:

Now, in Germany, on the other hand, trouble is to be had for the asking. There are many things in Germany that you must not do that are quite easy to do. To any young Englishman yearning to get himself into a scrape, and finding himself hampered in his own country, I would advise a single ticket to Germany; a return, lasting as it does a month, might prove a waste...

In the Police Guide of the Fatherland he will find set forth a list of things the doing of which will bring to him interest and excitement. In Germany you must not hang your bed out of your window. He might begin with that. By waving his bed out of the window he could get into trouble before he had his breakfast. At home he might hang himself out a window, and nobody would mind much, provided he did not obstruct anybody's ancient lights or break away and injure any passer underneath....

This is the charm of the German law: misdemeanour in Germany has its fixed price. You are not kept awake all night, as in England, wondering whether you will get off with caution, be fined forty shillings, or, catching the magistrate in an unhappy moment for yourself, get seven days. You know exactly what your fun is going to cost you. You can spread out your money on the table, open your Police Guide, and plan out your holiday to a fifty pfennig piece. For a really cheap evening, I would recommend walking on the wrong side of the pavement after being cautioned not to do so. I calculate that by choosing your district and keeping to quiet side-streets you could walk for a whole evening on the wrong side of the pavement at a cost of little over three marks.

So if, for example, you piss on the street in New York, the cop whose attention you rouse is supposed to give you a summons with a hundred dollar fine. That's a really expensive nature break and you will probably be distraught if you get it unintentionally. On the other hand, if you want to make a film about urinating in public, you can get some cameras rolling, pee anywhere you like and soon enough one or two men will show up in police uniforms (maybe even on a Segway), accost you, give you a summons and then let you go. That's it. The acting and script is provided for you by the police. If you pay the fine by the court date, which will be a month away from your stunt, it does not appear on your record. You do not even need to appear in court if you pay by mail within 15 days.