THR Web Features   /   February 20, 2024

Something Happened to Me the Other Day

In which the author is caught in the gears of our disciplinary order

Mark Edmundson

( THR illustration/Shutterstock.)

Not much happens to me, and I like that. I read books, write a few, and teach students what I can. When asked what my life is like, I quote a fellow teacher: It’s boring unless you happen to be me.

Not long ago, something did happen. It started small, but it grew.

I was pulling in to park near the building where I teach my first class of the day. The spot was tight, and I’m not an adept parker. My spatial sense is meager. When I nail a parallel parking job on the first try, my heart swells.

For this particular parking job, I would give myself a ninety. Ten points off because I nicked—and I mean barely nicked—the rubber bumper of a white panel truck. The truck, I should add, was a University of Virginia service truck and therefore property of the state.

I got out, looked at the truck’s bumper. No damage. None at all. Phew. I didn’t look at my own bumper. My car has 170,000 miles on it and too many dents to count. 

Looking up from the truck’s undamaged bumper, I saw a man staring at me. He was a beefy guy probably in his forties, with a bushy, reddish beard. He was wearing work clothes. His look indicated that he might wish to kill me. I’m over seventy. I would have been easy prey.

He strode over, never ceasing to stare. “Are you going to report it?”

 “Huh?” I said. 

“Are you going to report it?” Homicide was still in his eyes. 

“You do see that there is no damage at all,” I said. 

“You need to report it.” (All quotes are approximations.) He began taking pictures of my license plate. I was starting to think of this guy as my Bad Samaritan.

“I’ll think about it,” I said, and hustled off to the gym across the street, where I planned to lift some weights and eat my lunch of a raw carrot and hummus. (January diet. Also, dry January for me. Horrible.)

On the way over to the gym, I couldn’t help asking myself what the guy who pounced on me was up to. Did he look as though he might be hard-core MAGA? He did. Maybe he made me for a pampered professor (accurate enough) and decided to visit some working man’s justice on me. Yet one often draws conclusions too quickly. When I’m not wearing my professorial togs, I can also look MAGA enough. (Beard, hair, working guy’s shoulders, albeit acquired without work.) All I know for sure, is that something was burning inside my Bad Samaritan, and I was not foolish to get quickly out of his way.

After hoisting weights and taking a few bites from my carrot, I began to have second thoughts about the whole business. What the heck, I decided, I’ll go back across the street and put a note under the windshield wiper of the van. Name and email and all that. (There was, I repeat, no damage.)

When I got there a young woman was sitting in the driver’s seat of the van. She was on the phone. I tapped at the window, and as she opened the door, I heard her say “Hit and run incident. Looks like we have him right here.” I talked to the young woman’s boss on the phone who let me know that the police were on their way. I should wait right where I was. Don’t move! Well, OK. (Not a bit of damage, mind you.)

The policeman arrived, a genial and rather handsome young man. He assessed both vehicles and admitted that there was no damage. (Not a bit.) Still, he began taking my information. License, registration, that sort of thing. Now I became, you might say, mildly annoyed. Still, I remembered what I’ve told my sons about dealing with the police: Don’t yell, don’t curse, don’t touch them. I followed the rules. Still, I was growing more agitated. Report? Hit and run? What?

I pointed out that this was an absurd (no damage) situation. The cop, still genial, said that in his job he was compelled to do many things that might be counted as absurd. I asked if he thought this was one of them. He admitted that it was. Still, when someone so much as touches a state vehicle, the wheels of justice begin to turn, and that’s that.

My class was about to meet. My agitation grew. I said to the van driver and the cop, “Have you ever heard of a man named Franz Kafka?” No, they both said. The cop seemed eager to learn. “Could you kind of boil down what he says?” I could see this was not going to be productive. I mumbled a few lines about irrational bureaucratic harassment and left off.

I’d just published an essay—inspired by Michel Foucault's musings on the subject—about the pervasive nature of the contemporary disciplinary system. I said that this system, aided by the Internet, and defined by orders and dicta, is staffed by people who feel no sense of wrong, even slight wrong in what they are doing. They are just following the rules. I referred to them, with a dose of English department irony, as “good people.” All the people I met that late morning were, I think, good people. Except maybe for my Bad Samaritan, and he was surely performing what was to him a “good” deed by turning me in, protecting university property and all that.

This situation seemed radically unfair. On some level, I felt that if you write about such events, and analyze them, using “critical thinking,” they will not happen to you. 

There then appeared a man who identified himself as the boss of the van driver. Not just her boss only, but her boss’s boss. I thought, Someone around here has to be reasonable, right? "So," I asked him, "if you nicked a car in a parking lot downtown and there was no perceptible damage, would you call the police and report it?" (No damage at all.) He looked at me with deep sincerity, “Yes sir, I would,” he said. “And you would stand there in the parking lot waiting for as long as it took for the police to show up?” “Yes sir, I would,” I looked around his rather ample form, to see if his pants might be on fire. 

The genial officer told me that, since I had returned to the (undamaged) vehicle voluntarily, I was probably safe from the hit and run indictment. He said, as cops are prone to do, when they want to get away from a scene, that everything would probably be fine. Probably. (Damage there was none. Could you tell the difference between the condition of one state-owned vehicle’s rear bumper and the other? That you could not.) The whole minuet took about an hour. 

I got caught in the gears: small gears, not a big deal. (Probably.) But lots of people, poor people, black people, brown people, get caught in bigger gears. This license is suspended! Your property tax isn’t paid! Where did you say your registration was? And the grind begins in earnest. They end up in jail for the day. They end up with their cars impounded and can’t go to work. Then they can’t pay the fines they’ve accrued after being pulled over. Maybe they’ve had enough that day, and blow up at the cop, take a swing, and then the carceral circus begins in earnest. 

And the cop knows it’s absurd, and his chief knows it’s absurd, even without an assist from Kafka. But everyone is following orders, and you must follow orders, even if no real damage has been done by the citizen now in custody. The gears mesh and turn and mesh and turn and the damage, whether there was any to begin with or not, can in time become quite real.