THE COP STORY / THOUGHTS ON 'HAMLET'
by Lo Faber
THE COP STORY, PART ONE
First of all, this is a true story, and none of the names have been changed, which doesn't much matter because nobody's names really come into the story, and I don't know the names of two of the main characters. Much mileage have I gotten out of this story at parties, dinners, and so forth, and naturally the thought occurred to me of milking it even further by setting it down in writing. Have you ever noticed that everyone has a cop story or two? Some unfortunate people's cop stories are quite unpleasant, but mine, at least this one, is a slapstick comedy with a happy ending.
In the early years of God Street Wine there was a period (about 1991-92) when we all lived in a house together in Westchester County, and we played every show that we could, working five or six nights most weeks, all within a four or five hour radius of New York City. The reason for this was that we made so little money for our shows that we could barely afford to feed ourselves, let alone get motel rooms, so usually we had to drive all the way back to the house in Ossining after our show ended (usually about 2 am). Sometimes we would prevail upon friendly-seeming fans to let us crash on their floors, or generous relatives who happened to live in the area, or sometimes we would find a motel somewhere, get a room, and then all of us, five band members plus as likely as not two or three guys helping us carry our equipment that night, would sneak in through a back door and all sleep in the same room, tearing apart the beds, putting the mattresses on the floor, and sharing the bedclothes as democratically as possible. But on the particular night in question we were following the aforementioned procedure of simply driving home through the night.
Our show had been in the college town of Ithaca, New York, one of our frequent stopping places in those days. We played at a number of bars in Ithaca, including the Haunt, the Nines, Max's, and later when our celebrity increased, the State Theater. On this night, a wintry weeknight in February, we had played three sets at The Nines, from ten to two, for which we were compensated two hundred dollars in cash and one dinner and two free drinks per band member. This two hundred dollars in ones and fives from the doorman at the Nines was in my back pocket as I drove down Route 17, as I had been elected driver that night--there were no helpers with us, only the five band members, who were in various modes of slumber sprawled across the uncomfortable and untidy seats of the old Chevy Sport Van.
Route 17 is a state highway, not an interstate, that runs from Jamestown, New York, just northeast of Erie Pennsylvania, through Corning, Elmira, Binghamton, and Parksville, all the way down to where it meets the Thruway near Harriman and the Bear Mountain Bridge. It is a windy and hilly thoroughfare devoid of lighting and convenient rest areas, slithering through some of the remotest areas of upstate New York state, prone to wandering deer and continually under construction in many places. It is a tedious exercise to drive Route 17 in its entirety, one that I have undertaken more times than any one would ever want to. So naturally when there is no traffic, as is usually the case at 4 am on a wintry morning in the hinterlands of upstate New York, one's impulse is to drive quite rapidly, in order to make the tedium pass as quickly as possible, and in order to conduct one's bandmates to a safe and happy rest in their own beds as soon as one reasonably can.
So there I was, careening down Route 17 at a merry 90 mph, somewhere between Fish's Eddy and Middletown, when I saw the sirens flashing behind me that we all know and dread.
THOUGHTS ON HAMLET, I
Hamlet is a play about a guy named Hamlet, logically enough, whose father, also named Hamlet, has recently passed on. The late Hamlet, Sr. was no ordinary bloke, but rather King of Denmark--not neccesarily the Denmark that we associate with an advanced social democratic government and welfare state, but rather the Denmark of Shakespeare's imagination, an eerie and debauched place, involved in incomprehensible foreign intrigues and home to sinister plots by the bushelful, where more than one thing is definitely 'rottenÓ. Anyway, King Hamlet having given an obulus to Charon some two months ago, the young Hamlet our protagonist is now King--right? WRONG! This is the first mystery of 'HamletÓ--why is Hamlet not King? Somehow he has been preceded in the royal succession by his uncle, who has married his (Hamlet's) mother with indecorous haste quick on the heels of the ex-King's demise and proceeded to place the Crown on his own noggin. No wonder Hamlet seems gloomy! Not only has his beloved Pa passed away, and not only have his kingly ambitions been thwarted, but they have been thwarted by the same man who has had the impertinence to marry his mother--a near-unforgivable offense, as any son of a remarried mother can testify.
But where are Hamlet's supporters? Why has he not pressed his claim to the throne? He is thirty years old--no babe in the woods. What does he do with his time? He attends university at Whittenburg, which if it is the same Whittenburgh College, in Springfield Ohio, where I have played several concerts, seems an unfit place for the education of a highly placed young Prince. But never mind that. Hamlet, instead of finding himself King, presiding over Denmark and consoling his weeping mother, finds himself Not-King, presiding over nothing, and moping about while his mother lives it up with his uncle.
So what does he do? Commune with his father's ghost, of course, who matter-of-factly informs him that he was in fact poisoned by the pernicious uncle and that young 30-year old Hamlet must revenge him. The strangest thing about the whole thing is that the ghost tells Hamlet he was poisoned in his EAR, which ought to be the first clue that he is spinning a web of ludicrous lies. Nonetheless Hamlet, not doing the sensible thing of assuming he must be having a severe nervous breakdown on account of his father's ghost telling him he has been poisoned in the ear and checking himself in for treatment at the nearest psychiatric treatment center, believes the ghost word for word, as we the audience are meant to believe him. Well, fine. The ghost is real, just as those demons who tell serial killers to murder fat women are real. But never mind that. Where can one get some of this devilish ear poison? Has it gone out of fashion since the days when Denmark was eerie and rotten?
So Hamlet goes and slays his uncle, reveals his heinous crimes against humanity, and claims the Kingship for his handsome brooding self, right? WRONG! He dithers about. He is gloomy. He has lost his 'mirthÓ and makes many gloomy speeches saying so. Perhaps this is because he, like a sensible person, realizes that the word of a ghost would not necessarily stand up in court, and that the fact may be that he is losing his marbles--perhaps he even realizes that he is a character in a Shakespeare play, which characters are prone to losing their marbles at an alarming rate. At any rate, he does nothing decisive, which allows the play to go on for a good long time, many speeches to be made and future clichs of Western culture to be coined for the first time, and allowing people like myself and a thousand others before me to continue to analyze his mysterious and highly Freudian words and actions.
THE COP STORY, PART TWO
Like a good law-abiding citizen I rapidly pulled the van over as soon as I saw the flashers behind me. Of course I knew I'd been speeding, which was after all (isn't it always) a calculated risk, and wanted nothing more than to be expeditiously given my ticket and my lecture and be sent on my way at the creepingly slow speed of 55 mph. Alas, this was to be no routine cop story--but you already know that, or why would I be writing it down?
The cops, two state troopers, who presented themselves at my driver's window and demanded my license and registration could not have been older than me; in fact I'd say they were a few years younger, twenty-two at most. One was white and one was black. The impression was that they had recently graduated from Cop School, and simultaneously begun shaving for the first time. Of course I can make light of them now, especially in view of subsequent events. At the time they were quite intimidating, as I always find men armed with guns and speaking to me in a hostile manner somewhat intimidating.
I should mention now that the Chevy Sport Van we drove in those days was a begrimed and dilapidated vehicle, which always had at least two or three major things wrong with it at any given time, and was of questionable legality at best. Was it fit for highway travel? Well, we thought so, but the letter of the law might have argued otherwise. The front passenger door, for instance, simply did not open, which made it a hassle to sit in the shotgun seat, unless you wanted to climb in and out the window or climb in through the back seat. So I no doubt had a somewhat guiltier demeanor than I might otherwise have had, as I went through my dealings with the local representatives of law and order, on account of the disreputable condition of my conveyance.
And so it passed that they summoned me to come out of the van, and be searched by them. By this time the band members had reached varying states of wakefulness and were following the proceedings with bleary eyes, so they brought me behind the vehicle, out of their sight, to conduct the searching ritual. They duly discovered the wad of two hundred dollars from the Nines in my back pocket, which seemed to light a spark or gleam in their eyes.
'Is this the cash from your....gig?' said one of the troopers, as if he had never pronounced the word 'gig' before.
'Why, no officer,Ó I replied. 'That is the cash from our worldwide drug-dealing operation, the traveling headquarters of which are located right here in this van--or at least they were, until your vigilant efforts uncovered our dastardly scheme!' Actually, I did not say any of these things, but I think that they were hoping I would make some similar confession. No doubt they had drug bust on the brain, which tends to happen to officers if you are long of hair and you break any law whatsoever. But their bust-lust was to go unsatisfied this night, as drugs have never been one of my preferred vices. Instead I just affirmed that it was the cash from the gig that they held, and politely asked for its return.
They gave me back the money and told me to wait in the van while they went to their car and wrote up my speeding ticket.
THOUGHTS ON HAMLET, II
In attempting to find proof of a non-supernatural variety of his stepfather/uncle's dastardly crimes, Hamlet hits upon a bizarre plan: he will stage a play, the plot of which will bear an uncomfortable similarity to recent events in the high political circles of Denmark, most notably the alleged regicide by ear-poisoning. Certain friends of Hamlet's will closely monitor the usurper's reaction to the evening's entertainment, and if he displays a more than usual amount of discomfiture at the sight of seeing a King's ear inundated with nefarious ichors, he is naturally assumed to be guilty of murdering his late brother the King.
Now what I say is, couldn't he simply be uncomfortable because he is now King, and the play depicts a King being murdered? Couldn't he be uncomfortable because the sight of an auricular poisoning is a bizarre one even in the best of circumstances? Most reasonably, couldn't he be uncomfortable since the play is a fairly clumsy and transparent attempt by Hamlet to insinuate that he is guilty of fratricide, and wouldn't anyone become uncomfortable at the sight of their stepson and nephew behaving like a deranged maniac, as Hamlet does during the showing of the play?
Of course, none of these objections matter, since Shakespeare later has the murderous usurper confess his crimes in a monologue to the audience (Shakepeare was a highly intelligent man and, amazingly, foresaw the objections 390 years in advance of smart-alecks like myself). But since when does a person's reaction to a play determine their guilt or innocence of a crime? Is Hamlet such an infallible empath that he can read guilt into someone's reaction to a highly stylized stage drama? In fact Hamlet shows himself to be a very bad judge of human nature throughout the play, as he allows his girlfriend Ophelia to go insane after he has broken off their romance and killed her father, and then professes shock as to her temerity in being unsettled by these events. But never mind that. Hamlet was lucky to be able to stage a play to accomplish his weird plan. What would he do nowadays--browse the shelves at Blockbuster Video until he came up with the proper guilt-revealing movie? Plays should come back to everyday life. Where are the wandering troupes of minstrels, who traveled from town to town plying their arts, and serving the whims of weirdos like Hamlet? Oh, wait a minute, they're rock musicians, and I am one. But anyway, Hamlet continues to do nothing and rant a lot, until he accidentally stabs Polonius to death in the middle of a conversation with his mother. This wanton homicide does not trouble Hamlet overmuch, as he goes on haranguing his mother for a good page and a half, and then conducts another tete-a-tete with his father's ghost, before he even acknowledges the fact that he has just slain his girlfriend's dad. Polonius's death, however, does serve the admirable pupose of spurring the play on to some action and a conclusion. (Unfortunately it also deprives us of Polonius's dialogue for the rest of the show, and he has the funniest lines, especially when he says 'brevity is the soul of witÓ and then goes on to take about 20 minutes to say he thinks Hamlet has a thing for his daughter.)
Basically what happens is, Polonius's son Laertes (is that really a Danish name, by the way?) gets understandably upset about Hamlet's remorselessly snuffing his Pop--and unlike Hamlet, when HIS father is murdered, he does something about it. In this case this involves a harebrained plan to poison Hamlet; but, eschewing the ear as a point of ingress for his deadly fluids, he decides to do it in a duel, by applying fatal poison to the tip of his rapier in the hopes than he can off Hamlet and it will look as if the young Prince died from a minor flesh wound. Hmmm.... The King, meanwhile, helpfully volunteers to help Laertes by rather less subtly poisoning Hamlet's wine, which he will presumably be guzzling away in the midst of such a demanding athletic activity as a fencing match. It's a wonder nobody keeps a professional taster on the payroll in the court of Denmark.
Then while we are waiting on tenterhooks (whatever tenterhooks are) for the action-packed finale, Hamlet takes time out to have a long conversation with a skull, which a nearby gravedigger helpfully and improbably identifies as the skull of Hamlet's childhood tutor, the court jester Yorick. In other Shakepeare plays, the court jester gets to play a vital and often profound role, as the natural foil to the hubris and pretension of the lead characters. This one has no such luck; he just gets to be a skull, and listen with bony helplessness while Hamlet goes off on another long homily on man's mortality and the futility of existence. If this were 'Hamlet Meets Indiana JonesÓ, the skull's eyes would start to glow with an eerie otherworldly light, (which seems no more farfetched than a dead King's ghost claiming to have been poisoned in the ear), a strange vibration would shake the earth, the skull would send forth a death ray of highly concentrated crimson light that instantly vaporized Hamlet into a thousand tiny bits that would never soliloquize gloomily again, and the nearby gravedigger would merrily start digging a second plot.
But, perhaps due to the lack of special-effects technology in Shakespeare's time, that does not happen in 'HamletÓ, at least in the most traditional adaptations.
THE COP STORY, PART THREE
As I waited back in the driver's seat for the two young state troopers to write my ticket, and check my driver's license to make sure I was not a wanted felon, the rest of the band became fully awake, and I filled them in on what was going on, indulging in the usual sort of cursing one does when one is getting a ticket.
You know the long wait; why does it take the troopers so long to write a ticket? The waiting seems as much a punishment as the financial penalty, especially at 4 am on a freezing cold night in the middle of nowhere, when the band has played three sets much earlier that night and everyone is dying to get home. In the back of it, at least for a paranoid like me, is a strange relief that they aren't going to actually shoot me, or put me away in prison for some crime I never committed, that they are just going to give me a ticket and send me on my still-free way. Then it turns to annoyance at how long the ticket-writing is taking.
And this ticket-writing was taking an extremely long time, even for two inexperienced troopers at four in the morning. It was taking eternity, in fact. What made it all the more frustrating was the fact that because of all the band's instruments and equipment being piled in the back of the van, we could not perform the usual ritual of staring back at the cops to attempt (an attempt that is always futile, but it passes the time) to see what they hell they are doing back there for so long. So we talked, and joked, and talked some more, and tried to figure how much I'd have to pay on the speeding ticket (they had said 87 mph), which was a vital consideration for me since in those days the pay as a member of God Street Wine was worth about one jar of peanut butter and two boxes of Kraft Mac'n'Cheese a week. Finally when the wait simply got to colossal and unprecedented length, Tomo, our drummer, cleared a keyboard and a guitar off the pile of equipment in the back, and peered back to look at the cop car, whose headlight were still shining blindingly at us and whose colored lights continued to flash at us through the February mists, to see what the hell they were doing back there for so long.
And this time, the one time in a thousand, the answer was not 'sitting in the car, writing a ticket'.
'That's strange,' said Tomo, peering back. 'They're standing outside the car. It looks like they're arguing about something.'
THOUGHTS ON HAMLET, III
The really strange thing about 'Hamlet' is the fact that the eponymous star of the show is definitely not a traditional 'hero' in any sense of the word, yet nor is he a tragically flawed 'antihero' like Lear or Macbeth. He is really just a regular guy, who stands around, gets frustrated, spouts his gloomy views to anyone will listen (or to the audience when no one will), and basically gets caught up in the flow of events like a real person, rather than controlling them like a real dramatic character. Certainly, many of his speeches are quite linguistically beautiful, but that is no credit to Hamlet, since he has William Shakepeare writing them for him. Basically Hamlet is a 30-year old underachiever who hasn't got the gumption to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of Denmark. He is the classic lesser son of a great father, like Julian Lennon or Brick from 'Cat On A Hot Tin Roof' or that son of Marlon Brando's who got in all that trouble.
But lest you think I don't like 'Hamlet', I do; I love it in spite of, even because of, its limitless absurdity. The fact that such acute commentary on the human place in the universe can be made in a play in which poisoning via the ear runs rampant is astounding. So is the fact that Shakepeare wrote this play at all, and put it on in front of a probably rowdy crowd at the Globe Theater that was just hooting for the next scene in which somebody got gored by a rapier. Did Shakepeare have any clue that his collected works would become almost the cornerstone and blueprint for Western literature for three centuries thereafter? He couldn't have; the responsibility would have been overwhelming. He was just trying to provide good solid entertainment, and if the words withstood closer scrutiny than they usually received 'then the more merit was in his bounty'.
THE COP STORY, PART FOUR
Soon we all turned around, looked back, and saw that the black and the caucasian state troopers were indeed conducting a heated argument in front of the hood of their still-running patrol car. Naturally this aroused both our curiosity and our apprehension, as men arguing who are armed with firearms will tend to do. Both the troopers were in shirtsleeves, which seemed strange since the temperature outside was probably about one degree.
Finally our apprehension mounted as the troopers seemed to resolve their dispute, and started to approach our van.
Strangely, though, they did not come to my window but rather to the passenger or right hand side of the vehicle, and motioned for us to open the door. I had to shamefacedly explain to them that the door was broken and would not open, and suggest that they open the rear passenger side door, which they did.
What was going on? Did they want to search the van--which could take hours? Were they going to write me an additional ticket for the broken front door. The whole thing including the officers' demeanor was seeming very strange. Finally the caucasian officer poked his head into the door and spoke to the bedraggled rock musicians in the van.
'The good news is, you're not getting a ticket.' Enormous sigh of relief on my part. But what was the bad news?
'The bad news is, you have to drive us to the station, because we locked our keys in the patrol car.'
THOUGHTS ON HAMLET, IV
The final scene of 'HamletÓ begins with the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, and more or less what happens is this: everybody dies. What starts as an innocent fencing match (although this is really a pretext for Laertes to murder Hamlet) ends as a mass poison-ingesting orgy of Jonestown-like proportions. When pretty much every significant character has died, some guy named Fortinbras stumbles in with a completely unnecessary military escort and proclaims himself King Of Denmark in perhaps the easiest victory of one medieval King over another in history. Then in the absolute zenith of anticlimax, some old guy walks in to announce that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two unimportant characters who left the play an hour ago, are dead too for good measure. This actually provides, some three and a half centuries later, twentieth-century British playwright Tom Stoppard with the title of a play that, strangely enough, actually makes a lot more sense than this one.
Anyway, this final scene certainly goes a long way towards vindicating all of Hamlet's gloomy theories about the futility of existence, the meaninglessness of human actions, and so forth. The good guys are dead, and the bad guys are dead. It doesn't matter what you did the whole play, you are now dead--unless you are Fortinbras, in which case you are still alive and are in fact King Of Denmark, and had better go around wearing earmuffs if you know what's good for you. But never mind that.
The one thing we do learn from the climactic final scene is that Hamlet is a much better fencer than Laertes, which means in the value system of Elizabethan drama that he is in reality a much cooler guy. But I guess we knew that already; Hamlet was the King's son, after all, while Laertes (is that really a Danish name?) was just Polonius's son, and Polonius was about as 'cool' as Janet Reno. Oh wait--we also learn that if you are just as dumb and indecisive as evereyone else, but express yourself in more flowery and eloquent language, you will succeed in gaining the audience's sympathy, which is a lesson I take dear to heart, and one which I have tried most earnestly to put into practice in writing this essay.
THE COP STORY, PART FIVE
The amazing thing about what happened after the cops got in the car was how our relationship to them seemed to transform instantaneously. They were no longer authority figures; they were just two bumbling clods who had screwed up royally, and we were helping them out. They politely asked about the band, and we gave them a tape. They squeezed uncomfortably up against the band members and I drove off, leaving their still-running patrol car there in the cold morning on Route 17 with its flashers still on, all by itself. They explained that they wanted to sneak into the stationhouse and get a set of keys to another car, so their little snafu would never have to be explained.
I'm still not crazy about cops, but I look at them more like human beings now, who do the things they do more out of human laziness and incompetence than pure evil. I guess some are evil. But a lot are just like those two frat-boy troopers on Route 17 who locked their keys in their car. They probably went on to give a lot of other people tickets after that, though, and I bet they never locked their keys in their car again.
I drove about 75 on the way to the stationhouse, which was about ten minutes away, in the direction we were going anyway. Everybody was wide awake now; we dropped the troopers off, wished them good luck recovering the car, and shut the door after them.
As soon as we were on the road out of sight, the tension burst, and we laughed solidly for about twenty minutes.
THOUGHTS ON HAMLET, V
And who the hell was Fortinbras, anyway?
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