copyright © 2001 Todd Ristau

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down....

(or "It’s Not Who You Are Or What You Are

It’s just being able to accept the challenge....)

a memoir piece by Todd Ristau

You know, its not always about the girl, sometimes its about the clothes. For years I kind of kept the timeline of my life by the girl I was with, obsessed with, or without. You know, "oh, that was when I was dating Sara" or "That was after Sara dumped me." That was when I was in love with Katie Smith, that was Tina Howard, that was when I was with Lisa, that was when I was with Jill, that was when I was married, that was when I wasn’t married anymore, that was....

You get the idea. But sometimes, it was the clothes that were important. The shirt I am wearing belonged to my grandfather, my dad’s dad, and he worked at the Skelly station in my home town for a million years. I’ll tell you some stories about my Grandfather sometime, but like I said, this story is about the clothes. The Skelly station was bought out and the Co-op, or the Coop as my dad and Grandpa called it. Regardless, the gas station (Bollen Smith) had a Chrystler dealership attached to it, and my dad worked there too. Pumping gas and fixing cars. I used to go down there a lot when I was a kid and my Grandpa would give me a 50 cent piece and my dad would buy me a coke and let me eat hot cashews out of the machine, and then let me watch him fix cars.

I really loved that gas station, and everything about it. I loved that my dad got a kick out of being able to fix stuff or stop the pump right on the money. I also loved that my grandpa worked there too and neither one of them was the boss. I liked to drink pop and listen to them complain about old man Smith.

I’m losing track of the clothes. This was one of my Grandpa’s work shirts. When he died I found a closet full of his work clothes down in my Grandma’s basement and she let me have them. This is the only shirt of his I have left. I used to wear this shirt all the time.

One time I was wearing it home to visit my Mom, and we’d gone out drinking in the Quad Cities. This was shortly after my mom had started dating women, which is a whole lot of other stories. Any way, this bar on this thursday was selling $5 pitchers of any mixed drink, so I had a few pitchers of Jack and Coke and Mom had a few pitchers of Bloody Mary and then I drove her back to her house--stopping to get gas on the way. This is about a 40 minute drive. No problems.

Then I get back on the highway to go back to Iowa City from the Quads, which is an hour drive.

Now, on the way I’m thinking of this girl that I loved. She was getting married to someone else. I am very sad so I pop in the tape that always reminded me of her, The Dream Academy. I start to cry. This is not a good way to drive, so I try to take the tape out of the machine, but its stuck, so I’m trying to get the tape out when I hear a siren.

Appearently while trying to get the tape out of the machine I was weaving a little bit.

The police man asked very nicely if I could walk a straight line, which I did. I compounded matters by freely offering to try to touch my nose with one finger, and he said that wasn’t necessary. He asked me to recite the alphabet backwards and I told him I got stuck at L going the normal way and he gave me a breathalizer to just save time.

He apologized to me and said that if I’d just waited another half hour I’d have blown clean, but as it was he had to run me in.

I said I understood. Afterall, I’d worked in prisons myself, and knew the score.

When I got to the Scott County Jail they fingerprinted me and this very nice woman told me she would have to take my picture. I said ok, and was starting to get nervous. Something about seeing a man with a badge put all your worldly belongings in a yellow envelope and seal it will do that to a person.

I said, "what happens now."

She said, "well, that depends on the judge."

I said, "what do you mean?"

She said, "if he finds you guilty or not."

I said, "well, I am guilty, of course I’m guilty or I wouldn’t even be here."

She said, "Lord child, don’t tell the judge that." At which point I let out a guffaw and she snapped my mug shot. All the cops came around to point and laugh at it. It would have convicted me all by itself.

That night was hell. In the cell next to me was a crazed viet nam vet who screamed all night long like he was still in combat. Officers kept coming in to look at me through the meal slit. Just their eyes. The light was on constantly so I fought to stay away because if I fell asleep I’d have no idea what time it was.

In the morning I was led to the judge with some boys who’d killed a guy in a bar fight the night before, some foreign nationals who didn’t seem to realize that ignorance of the law was no defence, and a few others.

I don’t really remember much except that after I got out I went to this diner and somebody bought me a free cup of coffee cause I’d just got out of jail and somebody else asked me if I could fix their car.

I said, "What are you talking about?"

"You’re a mechanic, aint you?"

Then I realized I had on my Grandpa’s shirt. I didn’t feel like I’d disgraced it. I felt really at home in it. I mean--that morning in the diner, drinking my get out of jail free coffee, looking like hell but no worse than anyone else in that place...I felt more acceptance than I ever did when I was at college....and by God, maybe I could have fixed that guy's car if I'd had the moxie just to say yes....

I don’t even know what this story is about, but it happened, it didn’t ruin my life. I never got arrested again, and I still got the shirt on my back. Now that has to count for something, right?


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