Dad’s Garage latest scripted show, Black Nerd is based on a series of essays produced for the shows WriteClub and Song & Scene Missing. These essays are the true stories of Dad’s Garage improviser Jon Carr.
I fucking love the Renaissance Festival. It’s one of my favorite annual events. Full disclosure: I know almost nothing about the Renaissance — but Ren Fest isn’t about historical accuracy. It’s about food, beer, and physics-defying boobs.
A few years ago I enjoyed a day of rare dudeness with my friend Skyler at Ren Fest. We perused weapons shops and fantasized about dating women who would be cool with us spending $500 on swords, our hands filled with the instruments of gluttony. We were kings and it was a great day — almost perfect, until we got pulled over driving home.
Skyler and I sat in the car waiting for the officer and furiously arguing about the alcohol content of mead. Was it more or less than regular beer? Would mead show up on a breathalyzer? What the hell was mead? The officer tapped on the driver’s side window — my window.
Me: Hello officer.
Officer: Son, do you know why I pulled you over? I pulled you over because you were swerving back there.
Me: I’m sorry sir, I . . .
Officer: Son I’m gonna need you to step out of the vehicle.
I slowly got out of the vehicle, making no sudden moves. My hands were open and in plain sight. I stood, my face neutral. Not too happy, and not too mad. Just like I’d been trained.
In 1992 I lived in Englewood, California. I was the weird, nerdy homeschool kid with very few friends, but things were about to change for ol’ Jon Carr. I got my learners permit and I was going to learn to drive.
In my humble opinion, I’d fucking killed it on day one of my dad’s driving lessons. Acceleration, smooth stops, figure 8’s in the K-Mart parking lot. I still couldn’t parallel park, but I wasn’t a fucking wizard. Day two was all about how to get pulled over. It was a lot of “Don’t make sudden movements” and “Keep your hands visible at all times, no sticking them in your pocket” and “Keep your face neutral. If you look too happy, he’ll think you’re mocking him — if you look too mad, he’ll think you’re aggressive.”
My dad prepared me for this moment on the road outside the Renaissance Festival.
I stood outside my car and made eye contact with Skyler. The officer gave me more instructions. “Put your hands on the trunk of the car and spread your legs.” I complied. After a couple of quick pats the questions began: “Do you live around here?” “How did you get this car?” “How do you know each other?” The questions themselves didn’t surprise me… it was the lack of one specific question that did. He never asked, “Have you been drinking?” There was no breathalyzer, no walking a white line, nothing. The officer hadn’t pulled me over because he thought I was a drunk; he pulled me over because I was black. I stood on the side of that road, hands on the trunk of my car, legs spread, feeling like the criminal he thought I was. I turned to look at him, but he had moved on to questioning Skyler. Those questions were very different: “Are you alright?” “Do you need help?” “Has he forced you to ride with him?”
The thing people remember the most about 1992 was the Rodney King verdict and the violence that followed. The riots were so intense and widespread that by 3pm the Los Angeles sky was black from the soot of burning buildings and cars. The thing I really remember is my parents frantically gathering our things and rushing us into the car to escape the city. They never let me see the footage of the Rodney King beating that ran every hour on TV. In fact, I only watched the video this year. The image of a man on all fours slowly crawling to try to get away as four police officers took turns striking him with their batons was not the thing that surprised me. It was how they were doing it. There was no urgency, it was almost casual. They were in no rush. They beat him as if they knew no one would stop them.
I stood on the side of that highway, legs spread, hands on the trunk of my car. As I watched cars go by, all I could think about was how I stood as confirmation of what so many people already thought. I imagined people thinking, “If that black guy had been respectful to the officer he wouldn’t be in that position” or “That black guy probably had drugs in the car” or “If black people just obeyed the law they wouldn’t get arrested so much.” I stood there looking and feeling like a criminal but I couldn’t move, I couldn’t say something, I couldn’t defend myself. I had to stand there, quietly angry and showing nothing.
I was so caught up in my thoughts that I didn’t notice the officer had returned to me. He restated his question, “How do you know each other?” I told him we worked together at a theatre called Dad’s Garage. “I’ve heard of that place,” he said. I stood there exposed on the highway, legs spread, hands flat on the trunk of my car. Through gritted teeth I did the only thing I could think to do . . . I offered him comps to a show. He smiled. He smiled because he felt good about himself. He was about to give me a gift, the gift of not being arrested today. The gift was that my harassment would now end. My gift was that he would leave me alone because we both knew he could have done more and no one would have stopped him.
He never did get those comps.