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Handcuffs that never come off

As the light turns from red to green, I lurch forward. A block away a white Ford Crown Victoria slips into the traffic behind me, sitting in my lane. The blue lights on the roof of the cab are unmistakable. They are coming for me.

I drive slowly, using my rearview mirror mostly. What's behind me is more fearsome than what's ahead.

That wasn't always the case.

Not until you get four traffic tickets in one month. Two stops, three tickets in less than one week and you're spooked. You think of what you'll say when the officer comes to your car door, how you'll phrase the apology:

"I didn't know the speed limit, officer."

"Is there a problem, officer? How fast was I driving?"

Each flashing blue light drags me backward to the Thursday night in February 1999. Every one remembers the first time: the sharp edge of the silver steel bracelet; the powerlessness, the shame, the out-of-body sensation, as if this were a dream.

I'm respected. I'm innocent. This is supposed to be pizza Thursday night.

I'm driving home from work; my son sits in the back seat reading with the light on. Pepperoni and mushroom pizza rests on the floor. As we turn around the bend, heading for home, a patrol car speeds in the opposite direction. Soon after it passes me, it makes a U-turn and falls in behind me. Unperturbed, I keep going. As I slow down and turn the corner, lights flash. I pull over, sit and wait.

License and registration, please. I wait some more. My son wants to know why we have been stopped. I ask the question. A white station wagon was reported overtaking and driving recklessly with no lights on, the officer replies. She walks back to her squad car to double-check my paperwork.

Minutes later she returns with a terse statement. You have no insurance. We will have to take you in, she says. Do you have anyone to take care of your son, she asks. I stall, unbelieving. I paid insurance the week before, I protest mildly. Even though the officer said my coverage with one company had lapsed when I moved from North Carolina to South Carolina, I had my valid insurance card from another carrier to prove I had insurance.

Plus, my wife wouldn't let our insurance lapse. I stalled further, knowing that my wife would drive up any minute and show the officer proof that we have insurance.

Passers-by slow down and stare. Another black man being stopped by police. Soon my wife arrives. Unbelieving, she transfers the pizza and my son to her car. My car will be towed at my expense.

The officer reaches for her handcuffs. Is that necessary, I ask. I must follow regulations, she says. I'll handcuff you in front, not behind your back, she promises.

A major concession. I feel better already.

She cuffs me with the practiced indifference of a crime-weary big-city cop. I'm her anonymous thug unconventionally dressed in jacket and tie.

One gains a peculiar perspective of the world from the back seat of a police cruiser. The world seems less safe, smaller, less colorful. It is mostly gray, black and white. But this was my movie, I could choose the colors. This is all a mistake.

But the black dye under my fingernails when I awake the next morning is real. So is the slow, unbuckling of my belt at the police station. I loosen my tie, remove my wristwatch, wedding band and gold chain. Thank goodness, my shoes have no laces.

I pose for a mug shot. I am quiet, cooperative, even though I seethe inside. They'll know who I am and release me on my own recognizance, I think. I own a house in a new development in town. I'm a newspaper columnist. My face appears in the newspaper three times a week; my mind races.

I'll have to lock you up in the cell until the magistrate arrives around 9:30, the officer on duty says. He then leads me on a slow, short walk to a communal cell that is empty except for my cellmate, who has made up his bed for the night and sleeps fitfully.

I sit on a concrete slab, my back against the cell's metal bars. Their cold indifference knifes through my shirt. I show off a calm exterior, but inside I want to yell and scream. So I sit in silence and wait. Bereft of my watch, I can only guess the time by the sound of voices drifting down the hallway. Cruel and usual punishment: doing time without being able to count the seconds, minutes and hours.

As the night drags on, I want to cry but instead I laugh. I'm innocent, I insist to myself in silence. The irony isn't wholly lost on me, though. How many others had been brought to that cell loudly proclaiming their innocence only to spend the rest of their lives behind bars?

The worst I could do was a fine, suspension of my driver's license and or short stay in the county jail. But I refuse to contemplate that eventuality. I have insurance. I have the card to prove it. I am innocent. Later, my insurance company faxed the police proof, and the charges were dropped.

As I sit and wait, I count the bars in the cell. I read the hate mail my predecessors left behind for jail guards. I try to close my eyes and relax. I can't sleep. The police officer brings me a blanket. Does he expect me to spend the night?

I replay my entire day in my mind. I retrace my steps, the decisions I made which led to my arrest. What if I had used another route home instead of driving through town? What if I hadn't stopped for pizza? The answers astound me. In order for me to have been stopped required a series of coincidences too random to fathom.

In the end, I reason that my arrest is no accident. Someone wants to teach me a lesson. I need to remember who I am, my fragile place in the world.

Secretly, I hope one of the officers in the police headquarters will recognize me.

"You're the fella from the newspaper, the columnist. I like your stories," I wait to hear them say. But no one ever does. Their eyes remain hard, steely, suspicious. I'm tempted to drop the name of the town councilwoman who sits across the aisle from me in church. But I don't.

In the South, being known is, even more than race, everything. If the officer who pulls you over knows you or your dad, your chances of driving away with an admonition to ease up on the gas pedal rather than a speeding ticket increase dramatically. But if he doesn't know you or your kin, you'll help him make his monthly quota.

But to live in the South is also to be acutely aware of what it means to be a black man. Even if you aren't native to the region, you quickly learn the history of black life in the South through scores of spoken and unspoken transactions each day.

And so, as I sat in jail, the question hit me. How could I claim to be a black man and never been arrested? The only moments I had spent behind bars were on guided tours of county jails and state prisons.

My temporary confinement lent me clarity. Every black man has to be arrested at least once, I reasoned. It is a rite of passage. Mine had been delayed. There is no postponing it.

Later that night, after the magistrate arrives at the station house, he recognizes me. "You're Mr. Skerritt from the newspaper," he says, then demands $350 bail. I could call a bail bondsman if I need help, he says. I call my anxious wife.

Later, as we drive home, my son wrapped in a blanket in the back seat, she taps my knee. Are you doing okay, she asks. Yes, I reply, I'll be fine.

I wear my innocence like a new suit. It salves my sense of being wronged. But it also bolsters my awareness that, on that singular February night, when I walked into that jail cell I became one with millions of other black men in America. But unlike so many others, I walked out unsullied and uncowed.

At the same time, I drove home that night knowing that for the rest of my life, each time a police patrol car pulls in behind me, I would always see those blinking blue lights tinged with chrome, feel the handcuffs binding my wrists, humiliating me in public, reducing me to being just another, anonymous thug dressed in a jacket and tie.

Andrew Skerritt is an assistant editor with the St. Petersburg Times.