I was riding my bicycle home the other night. Some friends had a party at a bar up in Lakeview and it was a few days before Christmas and I still had a few things I needed to pick up for my nieces and nephews. So I headed back toward downtown. A friend of mine told me she was working until midnight at Macy’s and I thought I would stop by to see if I could find something there.
Apparently, we miscommunicated and she was at the Water Tower store while I was trying to get into the State Street store which was only open until 9 and was now closed. So I headed the last mile home on my bike.
It was almost 10pm as I rode west on Randolph, over the Kennedy expressway bridge and was nearly home when all of a sudden I heard a police car roar up beside me with it’s lights and siren on. “You on the bike. Pull over and stop!”
I slowed down and stopped, more than a little confused, which only intensified when I saw that it was an Illinois State Police car. Now I was two blocks away from the expressway at this point, nowhere near anything that the state police would have jurisdiction over. If it had been a Chicago cop I guess I would have been wondering if I ran a red light or something, but the state police? Weird.
So I stood there astride my bike for a few moments and on the cop’s PA again came, “Don’t move. Stay right there.”
The trooper got out of his car and came toward me. I should mention, it was late December, cold and raining, and I had my hands in my pockets to keep warm. “Get your hands out of your pockets where I can see them!”
Oh yeah, I forgot. Never have your hands in your pockets in a situation like that. It makes cops really nervous. So I took hand hands out of my pockets and raised them in the usual medium hands-up position.
“Do you have any weapons on you?” His hand was on his gun as he got closer.
“No sir,” I said, trying to figure out what was going on. It was very scary and surreal all at the same time. It appeared that this was something more than a bicyclist running a stop sign or something like that. I was racking my brain trying to figure out what might be going on.
“Take off your bag,” he said as he stood before me. I had my usual riding gear on. A backpack, my bike helmet, bike gloves. I took off my backpack and put it on the ground.
Then came the words that no one ever wants to hear, “Put your hands behind your back and lock your fingers.”
As he moved behind me I was waiting for the cold steel of handcuffs on my wrist. But he simply started to go through all my pockets.
“My keys. My wallet. My phone.”
Suddenly another Illinois State Police car pulled up, lights going.
And then a few seconds later, another. So there I am, straddling my bike, being frisked with three state cops cars around me with their lights on.
Quite a scene. I’m sure the diners at Vivo and Marché were wondering what was going on, but not as much as I was.
“Where are you coming from?”
“Um. Macy’s? I’m coming from Macy’s,” thinking it sounded weird but it was the truth.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m on my way home. I live two blocks that way,” motioning with my right elbow since I still had my hands behind my back.
All this time I was wondering what was going on. Could this be mistaken identity. My worst nightmare. Clearly they were looking for someone for something serious and I knew I wasn’t the guy they were looking for, but since I didn’t know what they thought I did, I couldn’t figure out what to tell them to prove I wasn’t the guy.
They were very serious. Not exactly angry, but not happy that they couldn’t figure me out either. I was all, “Yes sir, no sir,” because I knew they were just looking for me to give them a reason to throw me in the back of their squad car.
Just don’t give them a reason, I kept telling myself. Stay cool.
The second cop came over to me. Same questions.
“Where are you coming from?”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m just riding home, sir.”
But now a new question.
“Where you on the bridge back there?” He pointed to the bridge over the expressway.
“Well, yes. I just rode over the bridge. I was riding home from Macy’s on State Street.”
“Did you stop on the bridge?”
Okay, so now at least I knew they were looking for someone who had been on the bridge right before I rode over it. I didn’t remember seeing anyone on it, although, it was dark and raining and I was concentrating on not getting hit by a car.
The three of them conferred together far enough away that I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were keeping a close eye on me the whole time. Ten minutes had gone by and although the situation seemed to not be escalating, the tension still seemed pretty high.
The second cop came back to me.
“Have you been drinking?”
“I had two beers over an hour ago.” It was true. The free beer was from 7 to 8 and since I knew I was going to be riding home, it seemed silly to pay for another after 8pm.
He looked at my bag on the street near my feet.
“What’s in it?”
Now I knew that he really didn’t have probable cause to search my bag. Clearly they could find nothing about me that would warrant that. I hadn’t given them a reason. But I was cold and getting wetter by the minute and I just wanted to figure out some way to get them to realize there was nothing unusual about me.
“I have my dinner in there. A salad. Some soup.”
I paused. He just kept looking at the bag.
And I gave it one more thought before surrendering my fourth amendment rights.
“You can look in the bag if you want to,” I told him.
That’s what he wanted and I thought if I let him do it, it would help my chances of staying out of the back of a police car that night.
He pulled out a while plastic bag and help it up.
“That’s my dinner. Salad and soup leftover from this afternoon.”
He reached in again and pulled out my camera. It’s a big pro camera, not a little point and shoot. He got suspicious again.
“Oh, my camera. I’m a photographer.” I actually forgot I had it with me that day.
“Where you taking pictures on the bridge?”
Wow. The bridge again. What had happened on the bridge?
“No, I never stopped on the bridge. I just rode over it.”
“You weren’t hanging over the side of the bridge?”
“No, sir. It’s raining. I just rode over. I wasn’t even on the sidewalk. I was on the street and I just rode over it.”
He stopped and looked at me for a minute trying to size me up. I could tell he was running out of options with me. It looked like he was starting to believe me.
“Well, we got a call that someone matching your description in a black leather coat was hanging over the side of the bridge.”
I resisted the urge to tell him that pretty much everyone in the restaurant a few feet away had a black leather coat. Stay out of the back of his car, I told myself.
“Sir. I just think this is a case of mistaken identity. I’m not who you’re looking for.”
“Well you know it’s the holidays and some people get a little depressed…”
I mean yes, the holidays are usually a little rough on me, but since I knew I was not the guy they were looking for, I decided to just stick to “yes” and “no.”
He looked back at the other two cops still standing near the three cars, their lights still flashing. The three of them as serious as a heart attack, but it seemed like they had gone as far as they could with me.
“Well, you haven’t really done anything illegal…”
Really done anything illegal, I thought to myself?
“… so I guess you’re alright.”
He started to walk back to the cars. I still had my hands behind my back and I was so close, so before I made a move, I wanted to make sure they were telling me I could go.
“So… we’re okay? We’re cool? I can go?”
“Yeah, you can go.”