By Galya Gerstman. The other day my friend Mark and I were discussing his theory of how you can judge the level of a country’s “civilization” by how trustworthy you perceive their police force to be.
We were lamenting that we no longer felt that way about the police in the United States, and I had told him about a documentary I had seen on the criminal justice system, from which I had learned that many prisons in the U.S. were privately owned and held contracts with the state and local government which had to fulfill quotas of prisoners.
Therefore their police departments were made to understand that they had to make a certain amount of arrests in order to fulfill these quotas, and would pull people over for just about anything.
I also told Mark that I felt that being a foreigner came into play regarding whether one felt “relaxed” around law enforcement. As a foreigner, you don’t often know all the laws, you don’t express yourself well, and you don’t know the real lay of the land. As an illustration, I told him of an episode that had happened to me a few years ago here in Costa Rica.
My children were still small, the three of them strapped into the back seat in their sundry car and booster seats. I was bringing them home from school, and was coming down a hill at a speed likely above the limit. Lo and behold, a policeman flags me down to pull over, which I do.
“Señora (lady), you know you were going above the speed limit?” he asks, in Spanish, obviously.
“I’m sorry, sir. I wasn’t paying attention,” I answer, in what I hoped was a reasonable approximation of Spanish.
“Well, the speed limit here is 40 kph.”
“40?!” My voice betrayed my surprise. “Wow, I did not know that. Again, I’m sorry.”
“You know, it’s pretty hot out here.”
I hesitated at the non-sequitur. Where was he going with this? “Uh, yes it is.”
“I sure am thirsty.”
Wait. Was he asking for a bribe? I knew that Costa Ricans have been known to offer bribes to get out of a ticket, but I was from the States where offering a bribe is a serious offense. I started sweating. In the meantime, I had my three ADHD offspring starting their chorus of whines, the eldest of whom was starting to worry.
“Mommy, are we going to jail?”
“It’s fine. Everything’s going to be fine.”
“With all these kids, for sure you’ve got some juice boxes in the car.”
“You must have some juice for them, don’t you? Couldn’t you spare one?”
Jesus, was the guy really just thirsty?
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t have any juice.”
“No juice??” He seemed flabbergasted. “What kind of a mother doesn’t have juice for her kids when she picks them up from school?” I wasn’t going to go into the fact that I was one of those fascist moms who never let sugar cross my children’s virgin lips. My precious spawn drank only water and milk.
So of course: “Juice! We want juice!”
“I’m going to give them something to drink when we get home,” I explained.
“Are you kidding me?” he prodded. “You really don’t have any juice?”
“No, I really don’t.”
“Ma, I need to pee!”
“OK, OK, we’re going soon.” I turned back to the cop. “Please, sir, I’m sorry I was speeding. I really had no idea the limit changed. Can you please let me go this one time, seeing as I have to get these three home?”
He hesitated, as if he were debating it. “Well, I’ll let you go today, but tomorrow you’d better have a juice box for me!”
“Ha ha! For sure!” I laughed. “Thank you so much!” And with that I crawled away, to drain and then refill my little ones.
The next day, as I was cresting the hill on my way home once again, I leaned on my brakes and slowed down to 40. The least that can be said of me is that I learn from my mistakes. Once again, the cop was positioned at the bottom. And once again, he motioned for me to pull over!
“Hello, officer. Don’t you remember me? You pulled me over for speeding yesterday, so today I was going the speed limit.”
“Yes, I saw.”
“You saw? So why did you stop me?” Meanwhile my kids began their kvetching routine again.
“Today I stopped you to make sure your papers were in order.” I reached over to the glove compartment with my heart in my throat, hoping they were indeed in order. What was going on with this guy?
He looked them over, handed them back to me. “It looks like everything’s okay.”
“Now, about that juice box…”
“Juice! Juice!” The natives in the back were revolting.
“Mommy, are you going to jail?” I noticed my son had decided to distance himself from my putative crime, the little back-stabber.
“Uh, like I told you yesterday, I don’t carry juice in the car. I give them something to drink when we get home.”
“You mean to tell me that with three little kids, you don’t have even one juice box?” Oh my god, was he going to search the car? For a juice box??
“No, señor (no sir). No juice boxes.”
“But you said you’d have a juice box for me today.”
“I thought you were joking.”
“But I wasn’t speeding. So I didn’t expect to be pulled over.”
The whining in the back seat was growing louder. But I was too afraid to put my foot down. Like I said, I was a foreigner. Maybe he would think I was mouthing off to him. Maybe there was a law about providing toddlers with refreshment during short car rides. Maybe he really was asking for a bribe and “juice box” meant cash, and I was the only foreign idiot in Costa Rica who didn’t capisce.
“You know how hot it is out here? All I’m asking for is a little juice box.”
God, this wasn’t really happening. “I’m really so sorry, but I simply don’t have one.”
“You wouldn’t be lying to me, would you?”
“Of course not!” And if I were, the three wise guys in the back wouldn’t have let me get away with it. They’d throw me under a bus for a juice box now.
“Is your mommy hiding the juice boxes somewhere in the car?” he leaned in and asked. This was really beyond the pale. Isn’t it illegal for a family member to testify against another? In the United States, maybe.
“No, she never gives us juice!”
“And milk! Ugh!”
“No juice boxes?”
“I already told you,” I said through clenched teeth, “no juice boxes.”
“Well, that’s too bad. Maybe tomorrow you’ll have a juice box for me.”
“OK, have a good day. And don’t forget the juice box.”
So the next day, I’m cresting the hill at 40 kph, when whom do I spy but my favorite neighborhood police clown. And you guessed it: he pulls me over. Again.
“Hello, Galya.” Yes, he addressed me by name. We were getting that close.
“Hello. So what did you pull me over this time for?”
“Just a quick check. To make sure everything is OK.”
“Everything is OK.”
“And I don’t suppose you have any juice boxes?”
Like I said, I may be a dumb foreigner, but at least I learn from my mistakes. With even a bit of panache, I whipped out the juice box I had secreted in my handbag.
He beamed. “A juice box! Just what I wanted!” No shit.
“Juice!” the back seat screamed in unison. “We want juice too!”
“You’ll get yours at home,” I lied.
“So, are we settled here?” I asked the cop.
“Yep,” he replied between slurps. Jesus, was that it? He really was just thirsty?
The next day, believe it or not, I had another juice box waiting for him. But he had obviously been reassigned. Finally! Nevertheless, I still go 40 kph down the hill. And I kept that damned juice box in my glove compartment for two weeks till it baked in the heat and turned into wine. Just in case.