Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched, and Roughhouse. All three books were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award, and Haywire won the Members’ Choice award. He teaches at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and at the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. He received a 2012 fellowship in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Festival of Language Events: 2013 AWP Boston, 2014 AWP Seattle
When I was learning to drive, the last thing I wanted to see in my mirror was a police truck. I knew police officers sometimes used unmarked vehicles—why not a pickup truck, even one with mud and scratches on it? Sometimes, I would look into my rearview mirror and see, close behind, a pickup with a male driver. This person might have been a a teenager, like myself, learning to drive, or he might have been a Smokey with his hat off. I knew state troopers took their hats off to look like one of us, to lull us into a false sense of security. As soon as we stepped over the line—bam!—we would be stopped, arrested, photographed, fingerprinted, probably beaten and certainly maimed.
And what of the object on that pickup truck’s dashboard? It could have been a plastic Jesus, or it could have been a radar gun. The truck driver might have been a Smokey Bear with a speed detector. He might have been using radio waves to “take my picture.” He might have been a Kodiak with a Kodak!
My fear of state troopers echoed my father’s paranoia. Earlier, he’d been investigated for planning to assassinate Richard Nixon. This was when I was a small child, kindergarten age. I didn’t know if my father was a real threat to the incipient president, but the FBI thought he was. He’d apparently shot his mouth off in a bar about taking out Milhouse, and word had got back to the feds. He was required to stay at least 50 miles away from the vice president whenever he came through town. That didn’t happen often, because my father moved his family far from any large town shortly after the investigation. Still, he thought our phone was tapped and we should limit what we said. “If you hear a clicking on the line,” he warned, “that means the call is being recorded. Don’t give out any information; don’t say who you are or where you’re calling from.”
Whenever my grandmother called to say hello, I didn’t initiate conversations. I didn’t say whether my father was in a murderous mood. I answered questions as briefly as I could. “This is me,” I would say. “Yeah, me. It’s me. Fine. What? It’s me. Fine. Goodbye.”
My father was also suspicious of strangers who came to our door, people like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He was convinced they were government agents. When they tried to give him a copy of The Watchtower magazine, he would say, “That’s what you do. You sit in your tower and you watch. Who are you looking for? You’re looking for me. But I don’t have anything against Richard Nixon. I don’t even have anything against John Birch. I have a wooden toilet seat. I’m a member of the Birch John Society.”
So when I was a teenager learning to drive, I was often aware of being followed. I wasn’t a political activist; I was more of a frustrated geek, or an apprentice freak. I was looking for trouble, and the road was where to find it. If a friend was riding with me, I would look into my rearview mirror, and if I saw a vehicle on my tail, I would know something was up. “Is that a police vehicle?” I would ask my friend.
My friend would turn around and look through the back windshield. “That’s no police vehicle,” he would say. “It’s a red pickup truck, from a farm. I know the guy.”
“It’s a police truck,” I would say, convinced I was right.
Later in the day, when I was home and safely off the road, I would remember the vehicle behind me. The driver might have been a farm boy, or he might have been a Smokey Bear with his hat off. He might have had a radar gun. He might have been a Kodiak with a Kodak. He might have put my picture on the wall of State Police headquarters, just so he and his pals could remember what I looked like. The next time they encountered me on the highway, they would know who I was.