Up the Valley: Cop Talk

September 26, 2013

The local police department finally cracks down on criminals (me). Today’s column in the Star…

Do not read this column on your cellphone while driving. And while we’re at it: Remove the plastic wrapper from the fish sticks before placing them in the oven, don’t place the shower cap over your nose and mouth, and for heaven’s sake refrain from knocking back NyQuil while operating a chain saw.

These are all solid safety tips, but the first one — the bit about driving while cellphoning — also constitutes my well-researched legal advice (no charge). Because I have it on good authority that the local Police Department has undertaken a zero-tolerance crackdown on prohibited activities that are simultaneously vehicular and cellular — and the authority in question is the cop who recently found me foolishly engaging in both.

As I explained to the officer, I am not a serial cellphoner on wheels; phoning while driving is something I rarely do. The echo chamber of my car’s interior represents the ideal sanctuary where I can calmly reflect upon the events of the day without the interruption of ringtones and message alerts. It’s also the place where I sing badly but loudly to Broadway musical soundtracks, CDs by female vocalists who are loud enough to drown out my caterwauling (bless you, Ann Wilson of Heart), and where I mentally choreograph elaborate dance numbers that I would almost certainly perform if only I were younger, thinner and talented — or Miley Cyrus.

When you live in a small town, you get to know the public officials, and as a former Main Street business owner and lawyer, I have had varied interactions with local police. Some individual officers are consistently reasonable and helpful; a few can seem bad-tempered or arrogant. But on balance I will admit that there was a time — now emphatically consigned to the past — when I didn’t think much of their overall performance.

I vividly recall the time when I summoned police to my store to rescue two children who had been abandoned there by irresponsible parents. Giving the local dispatcher my address — spelling my store name three times — I wondered why they couldn’t identify downtown shops, when New York City officers can learn the names, addresses and even the owners of the public businesses on their beats. And I’ll never forget the sight of the responding officer walking up and down the street — on the opposite side — apparently unaware that the odd numbers were on one side and the evens were on another.

I also remember the time — several years ago — when a drunken driver plowed into the front yard of a friend’s house, demolishing several trees, his car floor littered with empty beer cans. When the police arrived, they took a firm position — pro-perpetrator — urging my friend to refrain from pressing charges because the offender was “a nice guy” who would make full restitution (he didn’t).

But my favorite cop moment was when I called to report an open window in a closed real estate office next door to the store, which was entered by multiple officers swarming SWAT-like with guns drawn. I feared that if the fax machine suddenly beeped it would be cut down in a hail of bullets. Oh, and there was that prolonged period when they seemed incapable of solving major crimes, leading a prominent local resident to dub our town “Cold Case USA.”

But that’s all in the past, because the local police now impress me as diligent, respectful and competent. Where they once might have refused to release a serial suspect’s description for fear of “compromising the investigation,” they now release detailed information about both appearance and modus operandi. Last summer, this enabled my sharp-eyed neighbor to help them bust a notorious neighborhood burglary ring, and has led many locals to feel an increased sense of confidence and security.

My conversations with the police chief — a no-nonsense female of considerable experience — have always been positive, and I am grateful that these dedicated public servants put their lives on the line for our citizens and businesses. Which leads me back to the recently stepped-up enforcement of our vehicular safety laws. Of course this is right — distracted driving, whether due to cellphoning or texting, or fumbling in the glove compartment for that Miley Cyrus CD, is ill-advised on all counts.

I do, however, think that cellphone conversations conducted at a standstill, while caught in Caltrans construction, should be an exception to the rule under a new theory of defense to be called: “distracted driving due to having been driven to distraction by daily delays.” But that’s just one citizen’s cry for common sense, and categorically does not represent well-researched legal advice.

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Do we all really need more than one car? Today’s column in the Star…

If you are seeking evidence that I never stray from the Napa Valley, look no further than my odometer. My 10-year-old SUV only recently reached the 44,444 mark — and most of those miles were logged during the first two years while commuting from St. Helena to Palo Alto twice a week.

To be honest, suggesting that I traverse the entire Napa Valley is stretching it — I rarely venture past Yountville. It’s as if I’m running up against one of those invisible electric fences, set to keep me well at heel in my Upvalley backyard.

Nonetheless, I retain my road-hugging, gas-guzzling, broken-windowed Mercedes ML320, a vestige of my distant past as a commuter of means. And I curse the Saudi gods — as the rest of you must do daily — on those infrequent occasions when I am required to fill ’er up.

So now that we’ve established that I have no real need for an automobile, may I mention my current obsession with owning a convertible? I regularly fantasize about warm evening commutes from the theater in Yountville to my home in St. Helena — 10 miles at most — with the wind in my hair, the scent of ripening grapes up my nose, and the radio blasting classic jazz from a favorite SF station.

The reality is that I can’t roll down the windows on my SUV due to the noise and fumes from highway construction. The prevailing scent on warm nights is often eau de dead bugs hitting the windshield, and the only blastable radio station would likely be in Spanish. Convertibles carry other complications, too: the hat, the hair, the hat hair, and the risk of the dog diving out to pursue the first passing squirrel.

But reality has nothing whatsoever to do with automotive purchases. How else to explain the multiple, mismatched cars owned by my neighbors, except perhaps some new strain of vehicular schizophrenia?

Everyone needs basic wheels — I get that. For many, it’s a family conveyance: spacious enough to schlep kids to school, dogs to the vet and groceries home from Sunshine Foods. Maybe there’s a second car for the spouse, plus a tricked-out truck — a shiny new big-wheeler that you can hear rumbling around the corner two streets away. Trucks are often white, sometimes red, but never dirty — I wonder whether their owners secretly maintain a second, grubbier truck, the way my grandmother always kept a second set of “nice” towels and tablecloths reserved exclusively for public display.

Other neighbors own clunker trucks — old, low-slung, with balding tires — that you can hear wheezing around the corner two streets away. They arrive laden with tons of gravel and dirt, or piled high Clampett-style with personal possessions; they depart leaving an oil slick behind. Some are rarely used but serve as comforting reminders of a rural wine country lifestyle that no longer exists. I’ve noticed that there are weekend outfits to match these trucks: the scrunched hat, a broken-in pair of boots and something in a torn but clean plaid flannel. Whatever the getup, it seems to be a joyful trip; “Taking the Truck to the Dump” has replaced “Cruising Main Street in a Dragster” as America’s foremost four-wheeled entertainment.

On nearby streets, well-heeled neighbors display the glamorous, high-performance compact convertibles they never drive. Less an automotive purchase than a cry for help, these midlife-crises-on-wheels represent the adventurous unfettered youth the purchaser plans to reclaim 20 years hence — when the kids graduate from college. Of course, by the time those kids actually move out — and take the grandkids with them — the owner will be too old to twist his body behind the wheel, much less operate a stick shift; indeed, the gas-powered engine may be obsolete. But still the roadster sits in the garage, meticulously maintained — a promise for the future, along with Medicare supplements and Roth IRA accounts.

Back on my street, multiple cars are creeping up along the curb — where once there were two or three, there are now 10. The only no-parking zone is the garage or driveway. Sometimes neighbors park in front of my house, leaving their own street front empty — which seemed slightly impolite until I discovered they were just clearing room for the many cars owned by their regularly visiting friends and relatives. By the way, neighboring convertible owners are welcome to park in front of my house any time. Leave the keys — and don’t worry — I’ve probably just taken it for a short spin to Yountville.

A local affordable-housing project recently proposed limiting parking to one car per unit, and for some objectors this was akin to the Chinese capping the number of children at one, or a bartender cutting them off after the second bottle of Cab. But I’m content with my single, sensible car, dreaming of the day when I can look out my front window and see my very own impractical convertible sitting there, ready to carry me and my dog to faraway lands like Healdsburg or Berkeley or even — dare I say it? — Carmel. Oh, the places we’ll go.