It’s another hot Tuesday so I stop at a bar after work. It’s only a few miles from where I grew up but I haven’t been in the place in at least twenty-five years. A George Jones classic blares from the jukebox and I order a Mexican beer and two tacos. The guy sitting to my right is about fifty and checks his phone nervously. Before my first bite the bad news arrives and he shares it with his friend and the bartender. His wife has failed a drug test for alcohol and violated her DUI settlement terms. He says she rang up 5k on a credit card to pay the initial fine and now may have to fork over more money to stay out of jail.
Soon it turns out everyone in the bar – the husband, his friend, the bartender, the black cook who comes out of the kitchen to smoke, have all had DUIs and they begin discussing the racket. How any traffic violation, and in particular the alcohol/drug offenses, begin a vortex into which cash must be thrown. Lose your license, can’t drive to work, then can’t make car payment, then lose job. Then drive to Wal-Mart and get pulled over – driving without license, invalid insurance, the vehicle is impounded and the mark is sent back to jail. Where in many small Oklahoma towns the incarcerated are charged a daily fee. When the person is finally released they get a bill from the county, and have to come up with that as well as vehicle impound fees. Usually while unemployed. A painful series of events even for someone making ‘decent money,’ everyone agrees. And for those less fortunate – often devastating.
Like any industry, ‘Criminal Justice,’ creates its own consumers. How can a joint in the ashtray or a few drinks too many result in chronic homelessness, and/or long-term incarceration? The process starts many times anew every day from coast to coast. The era of mass incarceration certainly did not leave working-class whites behind. There’s a million ways to fuck up and someone standing in line to make money off each of them. Kids, and oldsters too, who in the past would have been ‘slapped on the wrist’ by the cops now get hammered.
I eat my first taco and the bartender’s friend comes in. She’s in her late 30s/early 40s, an aging party girl in my estimation with a few bucks coming in from somewhere. She is very concerned. Her mom’s riding out the Florida storm by herself and she’s afraid to drive to her rescue since ‘The tag on the Mercedes is expired,’ and she has a warrant out in Arkansas. They discuss the best route which misses both Arkansas and Texas and realize that would be very roundabout and add many hours on to the drive. “Well now it’s turning north,’ they decide. Maybe it won’t be that bad.
The bartender has to leave at 5:30 to pick up her daughter from cheerleading practice and then go get her husband at the paper mill. Her car is broken down so they are making do with one vehicle although that means ‘less hours’ working at the bar. That’s a problem though since she just got her license back from a DUI charge and her car is fitted with (at her expense) a breathanalyzer. If she gets caught driving hubby’s truck it’s another jail trip, impound etc..
The dynamics explored in Alice Goffman’s ‘On The Run – Fugitive Life in an American City,’ can be writ large across america in 2019. For tens of millions, ‘sneaking around,’ avoiding the police, taking the backroads, are a part of daily life. Along with the constant stress of fearing a trip to cheerleading practice or Dollar Store could lead to arrest and further punitive measures. It’s a very mild terror state.
Are your papers in order?