June 28th, 2008

Police Activity, Part 1

I have been meaning to write about a few unusual things that happened in recent months, but somehow I put it off (imagine that!). And now, it's not exactly current anymore. But for anybody reading this, you can just pretend it happened yesterday, because the exact date isn't important. Here's the story of the first of two strange experiences involving the police.

Usually, if you're spending some time with the police, it's not good. Maybe you're reporting a theft, or you've done something morally bereft like drive 10 miles per hour over the speed limit (*cough*).

Well, the day when I was pulling into a shopping center parking lot in Emeryville with Peter a few months ago, and I saw an officer flagging us down, I mostly was wondering what the heck the problem was. But things quickly took an unexpected turn. We pulled over near him and rolled down the window, and he looked in and asked the following out-of-the-blue question:

"Excuse me. By any chance, do you speak Chinese?"

As it turns out, Peter actually speaks three languages that are considered dialects of Chinese: Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghaiese. So he replied affirmatively, and the officer asked if we could possibly stop and help them. It seemed they had picked up an elderly Chinese woman wandering on the highway (!), and they were having an awfully difficult time communicating with her.

We had nothing particularly critical on our agenda, so of course we agreed to help. I parked the car while Peter ran over to evaluate the situation. The woman was quite old, and although she was physically in great condition for her age, one couldn't say the same for her cognitive health (which is no surprise considering where the police found her). And actually, Peter was a lucky find for the police, because the woman spoke to him not in Mandarin or Cantonese (which seem overwhelmingly to be the most common among Chinese dialects), but rather in Shanghaiese, which, to my understanding, is relatively rare.

Once they got talking, it was clear that the woman was perfectly capable of communicating in her language of choice, but the content of her communication was a bit less useful. Pertinent bits of information such as her name, her address, and the names and contact information for immediate kin remained a mystery. From what Peter could ascertain, she lived nearby in Emeryville and had been out walking, and somehow she ended up on the highway. The officers and I just stood around, watching attentively, eagerly awaiting the outcome of the conversation.

By the way, when I say "wandering around on the highway," I'm talking about the Macarthur Maze. She had been wandering on foot around one of the busiest, most convoluted sets of interchanges in the bay area. Apparently some motorists had called in the situation, and the cops had had to drive around the maze until they found her. With the amount of traffic constantly coursing through the maze, that alone must have been quite a challenge.

Anyway, after Peter talked to the woman for a while and gathered as much information as he could, the officers decided to put Peter and the woman in one of their cars, and see if she could guide them to wherever she lived, with Peter serving as translator. Amusingly, probably due to some procedural regulation, an officer had to give Peter a pat-down before letting him in the car.

For whatever reason, it was decided that I'd follow in my car, and the second police car would complete the sandwich behind me. This must have created an interesting spectacle for passers-by to whom the details of the situation were unbeknownst. It must have looked like I was getting some kind of police escort, and given the somewhat "racy" look of my car, that probably raised a few eyebrows. It definitely was interesting for me when the cop in front of me made an illegal u-turn while trying to follow the woman's directions, and I found myself wondering exactly how I might best handle the dilemma that created for me.

Ultimately, it became clear that the woman had no idea where she was, and that trying to get her home by car was probably overwhelming her addled mind with rapidly-evolving overstimulation. Besides, she seemed to believe her home was very close by, so they decided to have her walk there, with me and Peter at her side, while the police followed -- in their cars. So picture this if you will: we're walking along on the sidewalk at a snail's pace (given the woman's age), with two CHP cars creeping along the side of the road behind us, through the streets of Emeryville, while countless cars drive by, their drivers probably confused beyond their wildest dreams. Wouldn't you be, if you saw an elderly woman and two twenty-somethings walking along slowly, with two CHP cars in not-so-hot pursuit?

It was an incredibly surreal situation, especially whenever the car behind me drove over some leaves on the shoulder of the road. I'd hear this mysterious rustling, then look behind me to see the car barely moving, or not moving at all. It reminded me of all those old cartoons where some inanimate object would be surreptitiously following a character, but every time (s)he would stop and look back suspiciously, the object would stop moving and innocently "act" like it had been there all along.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear -- when the woman tried to guide us up onto an off-limits-to-pedestrians over-railroad bridge -- that she still didn't know where she was going. So we all stopped in a parking lot to regroup once again.

Things weren't looking so great. Peter had been able to determine that the woman had family (her children?) in Oakland, but who they were and how the police might contact them remained locked within the inaccessible recesses of her mind. And even if we could get her home, it was very clear that the woman was in no condition to be left alone. Soon, they would have to give up and take her back to the station. But first, we made one last attempt to drive her home and have her navigate, although this time I left my car and I got to ride with one of the cops (who, strangely, did not feel the need to pat me down as he had done to Peter ... hmm ... wonder if somebody might have had a "fan"...).

We then went off on quite a ride that led us clear out of Emeryville and all the way into downtown Berkeley, by which point it was becoming clear that the woman was either one hell of a walker, or not even aware of which city she lived in. Since it was just one officer and me in the second car, we got to enjoy a fun conversation along the way, ranging in topic from his attempt at recruiting me for CHP employment, to him venting about the disdain for the CHP harbored by Berkeleyites. And all the way, I was thinking "This is probably the first time I've ever ridden in the back seat of a police car, and I didn't even do anything wrong!"

Somewhere along University Avenue in Berkeley, the officers decided they had to give up and take the woman to the station, where they'd have the tools to make more thorough attempts at communicating with her (and/or hope some as-yet-unidentified family member might notice her absence and call inquiring as to her whereabouts). I think they felt bad for detaining us for so long, although we honestly didn't mind. (I think I had to pee and was getting pretty hungry by then, but otherwise it was all good.) So they drove us allll the way back to my car in Emeryville, sharing a nice chat along the way. Upon parting ways, they took down Peter's number and promised to let us know how things went.

Later that night, Peter got the call. We're not sure how, but the police had somehow gotten in touch with the woman's family, and the crisis had been resolved. I only hope that if the family didn't realize how far gone their mother was before, they now understand that some serious help and supervision are needed to prevent something like this from happening to her again.

We thought the story was over, but one amusing little postscript came a few weeks later. We were driving through Oakland, headed back to Jack London Square, when we passed somebody who had been pulled over by CHP. I glanced out the window, jokingly wondering if it was one of "our" CHP officers ... and it was! It was the guy I'd ridden with during our final attempt at finding the woman's home. Whatever he was doing that day, we gathered, was a lot more routine and less exciting than what had happened the day we all met. But sometimes that's a good thing.

We still wonder what events and plans had preceded them flagging us down in the first place. Had that officer been standing there, stopping every passing car, looking for somebody who spoke Chinese? Had he flagged down only those cars containing Asian passengers? How long had he been waiting to find somebody who could help? No matter how you look at it, Peter was definitely a lucky find for them; and even though I didn't do much more than stand around watching, I was glad to have been part of what was at least a noble attempt at helping.