Getting arrested on a sunny, but brisk, Monday afternoon on December 26th in 1983, the day after Christians celebrated the birth of the sweet baby Jesus, was not the kind of attention that I was looking for.
I was charged with tagging. That's street for defacing property with spray paint. When I was 17 years old, my friend Laura and I sat in her bedroom, in her parent's house, suffering from an acute case of suburban boredom. We didn't have idevices or 300 television channels to occupy ourselves. Laura didn't even have cable, so MTV wasn't an option. We had to get creative. We had to think outside of the mall. After an hour of drinking Tab and potato chips, I blurted out, "Let's graffiti something."
I didn't know that graffiti was illegal. I saw it on buildings and on street signs in Manhattan and thought it was normal. I never heard of anyone getting arrested for it. Of course at that age, I wasn't watching much news or reading the paper, either.
We decided on an overpass that was far enough away from the middle of town but close enough to be seen when people exited or entered the parkway. It provided us with a large blank canvas to express our 17-year-old selves.
I was in love with my boyfriend (hello handcuffs) and I thought, What better way to show my love than to paint our initials on a concrete wall? As I was putting the finishing touches on the enormous red heart around the D.A. + P.S., I heard the dulcet tones of a police siren.
I looked around, expecting to see a pack of spoiled, drunk, preppy hooligans that had just been caught vandalizing someone's front yard with toilet paper. That happened a lot. Instead, the black and white pulled up alongside of us. I was oblivious to what was happening, until I wasn't.
Laura and I threw our cans into a snowbank. We had paint droppings all over our pants and hands. I wanted to scream, Run! Run like the wind! An officer, who looked like he had just gotten out of the boy scouts, approached. "Get in, we're going downtown."
"You're taking us to Manhattan?"
"You're going to the police station in town, funny girl." Even then I couldn't hide the funny. I never knew that my town had a police station. I wasn't trying to be funny. My family always called New York City downtown. It's what I knew.
Laura started blabbering. "She made me do it. I begged her to go to Chess King and shop for our boyfriends." I wanted to backhand her across her Bonne Bell-glossed smacker. We slid into the back seat of the police car. I tried to roll down my window, but I couldn't find a handle. Something else that I didn't know. Police cars don't have any way for perps to escape. Now how would I have known that adorable fact?
It was probably around this time when I started to feel that this whole scared straight charade might not be a charade after all.
The police station was also the library and deli. No wonder I didn't know that there was a jail in the back. When Laura and I were escorted into the building, the smell of pastrami and tongue almost knocked me over. Baretta took us into a back room and fingerprinted us. I was still in disbelief that this was all because I sprayed some cruddy underpass. Weren't there shoplifters to bust?
My stained fingers were like my scarlet letter. Baretta thought he was so cool. I'd bet my freedom that Laura and I were his first arrests.
He handed me a piece of wood with numbers on it. I was instructed to hang it around my neck. How archaic. Doesn't the criminal hold the wood below the chin for mug shots? Bat balls! I was getting a mug shot?!
I asked Baretta if I should smile. As a budding performer, I was always thinking, "Hmm, headshot?" I talk stupid when I'm nervous. He shot me a look that sent a heat missile to my sphincter. How could I, my town's designated driver, have gotten pinched, especially when my motivation for tagging came from passion and innocent love?
An hour later, my attorney, otherwise known as Dad, bailed me out. When I got home, my brother and his friends were sitting around our kitchen table. They smiled at me as if I were the coolest or dumbest (it was hard to tell) kid on the planet. I followed my father into the living room.
The details of the conversation are foggy at best, but I do remember his panic over the fact that I was applying to colleges and he didn't want this incident to go on my permanent record and hinder my chances of getting into school. I had a record? I was learning so much.
Perhaps I needed to pay more attention and perform a little less Marcus Welby, M.D reenactments in my bed at night.
A week later, my father and I trekked back to the courthouse/library/deli, where he pleaded with the judge, or rather, asked how much it was going to cost him to get my records expunged. Wouldn't you know that this was the same day that a Constitutional Law class from my high school was on a field trip and sitting in the courtroom? As I faced the audience of my peers, the entire class looked at me as if I were the coolest or dumbest (again, hard to tell) kid on the planet.
Laura and I got off with thousands of hours of community service. It felt like that many, anyway. The envelope licking and the paper cuts were child's play compared to removing our artwork from the cement wall. It was clear that nothing short of sand blasting was going to get it off.
A decade later, while I was visiting my parents, I decided to revisit the scene of the crime. There was a medium-sized part of me that felt proud when I saw the outline of the enormous red heart. It had faded almost beyond recognition. Almost. A symbol of lost innocence and profound ignorance remain.