Never Trust a White Man with a Clipboard

by Buzz Dixon

On Tuesdays, when the kids were in school and her husband at work, his daughter would take a yoga class to relieve stress.  Herb would tag along.

It proved a pleasant break in the weekly routine.  He’d take a book to read in the studio’s waiting room and would look after her purse while she bent and stretched with the rest of the class.

After his wife died and after he surrendered his driver’s license due to failing night vision, Herb’s daughter persuaded him to move in with her and her husband and the kids at their townhouse.  The two little boys took one bedroom, their parents the master bedroom, and Herb the third.

Herb, in gratitude, kept his profile as low as possible, helping with household chores, looking after the boys in the evenings, but otherwise staying behind his closed door, reading.

He liked tagging along to her yoga class; it got him out of the house.

Sometimes, when the weather felt pleasant, he’d take a walk through one of the nearby neighborhoods.

That’s what he did today:  He took her key out, locked her purse in the trunk, and started walking.

Herb wore his standard retiree outfit:  Sandals with black socks, a loose jogging suit, and big wraparound sunglasses over his regular prescription lenses.

Normally he’d walk south towards the park or east to the townhouse complexes, but today he felt adventurous and climbed the steep road going up the hill to the north.

The neighborhood featured a big brass sign:  Bridgewater.  Below it, a smaller sign warned trespassers and solicitors to stay out, but Herb walked on the sidewalk, and sidewalks were public property, no?

Unlike the townhouse complexes, Bridgewater sported individual homes, large two story dwellings with small but densely vegetated lawns and gardens and hedges.

A team of gardeners — true to form for southern California, all Mexican-American — worked vigorously, trimming the neighborhood’s trees, pruning the neighborhood’s bushes, mowing the neighborhood’s lawns.

He nodded in greeting at the gardeners and they nodded back without stopping their cutting and mowing and leaf blowing.  He followed the sidewalk into a cul-de-sac, turned around, and started out of the neighborhood.

A private security patrol car pulled up and stopped on the wrong side of the street so the tall, blond, muscular officer inside could get out and directly block his path.

“What are you doing here?” the officer asked.  Something about him seemed familiar, but Herb couldn’t quite place it.

“Walking,” said Herb.  He smiled, wanting to reassure the officer he was just a retiree enjoying his morning constitutional.

“Put your hands on the car,” the officer said.

Herb blinked, an expression lost behind his dark wraparound shades.  “I beg your pardon?”

“Hands on the hood!” the officer repeated.  Herb decided not to argue but put his hands on the hood as ordered.

The officer kicked his feet a shoulder’s width apart to put him in an awkward unbalanced position.  He went through Herb’s pockets and found nothing but his daughter’s car keys.

Herb grew angry, but said nothing.  There were times to resist and times to wait.  This was a waiting time.

“Whose keys are these?” the officer asked.

“My daughter’s,” Herb said.  “We’re parked in the shopping center.  I had to put something in her car.”

“So you put something in her car but you didn’t go back shopping, huh?”

“I didn’t say we were shopping,” Herb replied.  “I said we’re parked in the shopping center.

“She wouldn’t be finished for another hour and I felt like taking a walk.”

As he spoke, Herb finally remembered the officer:  Freddy Craig, one of the students in his last year as a high school teacher.  Always wanting the credit but never willing to do the work.

Herb remembered Craig wanting a career in either the military or law enforcement; instead he now wore a rent-a-cop’s uniform.

Typical, Herb thought.  Wanting the authority and perks but unwilling if not outright incapable of meeting the necessary criteria for same.

And enjoying his job a little too much.

“Am I under arrest, officer?  Or am I free to go?”

“Stay put,” the officer barked, needlessly grabbing Herb by the back on his neck and forcing his head lower into a more subservient position.

Herb said nothing but listened carefully.

He heard a familiar click-clack / click-clack of heels approaching.  “Did you catch him, Officer Craig?’

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Is that him?  He’s up to no good, I’m sure of it.”

The voice surprised him.  Herb looked under his armpit.  The dark glasses and the odd angle made it difficult to see, but he recognized the well-dressed and self-important woman:  Margaret Dinsmoore, the irritating principal he labored under for the last four years of his career, used to getting her way and expecting more of the same now.

Freddy Craig had been one of her pets.

Herb decided to re-introduce himself to them and end the farce.  He straightened up and began:  “Don’t you — “

“Get back down!” Craig bellowed, twisting one of his arms behind his back and slamming his face against the hot hood of the car.

Herb’s glasses came askew but did not fall off.

“Did he actually enter your property or peep through your windows, Mrs. Dinsmoore?”

“Not on mine, but maybe one of the neighbors.”

“If he didn’t actually step on anybody’s property, Mrs. Dinsmoore, all we can book him for is vagrancy.  And maybe resisting arrest.”

“Well, book him, then!  Look at him!  He’s a bum.  We don’t want his kind around here.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Make an example of him.  My husband and I are taking a cruise in two weeks.  I don’t want bums crawling through our neighborhood like raccoons while we’re gone.  What do we pay you for, anyway?”

“Yes, ma’am.  I’ll take care of him right now.”

“Good!”  Herb saw Mrs. Dinsmoore turn and click-clack / click-clack down the sidewalk to her driveway.  She never got close enough to see him clearly.

Officer Craig stepped up and said, “Put your hands behind your back.”

Herb complied, but as Officer Craig took his cuffs out, he said:  “If you arrest me, I will sue you, your employers, Mrs. Dinsmoore, and the Bridgewater home owners’ association.  You have not charged me with a crime.  You haven’t even asked me for my identity.”

Craig’s grin faltered.  “You’re trespassing.”

“I am on a public road.  This is not a gated community.”

“There’s a sign out front.”

“Immaterial.  If you arrest me without just cause, you will create undue problems for my daughter and her family.  They, like me, are legal residents of this city and pay taxes.  The police will be happy to shift the blame to you and your company, and you and your company are not protected from personal lawsuits by state law.”

Herb looked over his shoulder at Officer Craig.  He could see long dormant rusty gears slowly turning behind the officer’s stylish aviator sunglasses.  Craig’s expertise lay in dealing with snotty teens, pushy salesmen, and the occasional genuine vagrant who wandered into Bridgewater’s boundaries.

He was not prepared to deal with an adult male who understood his rights and appeared to be educated enough to know how to cause him trouble.

Craig looked at the keys in his hand that he’d taken from Herb.  “Where’s your identification?” he asked.

“At home.  I don’t drive so I didn’t need my wallet.  Those are my daughter’s keys.”

Craig decided to hide defeat behind a façade of bravado.  “Okay, mister,” he said, “I want you out of this neighborhood now.”  He dropped the keys back in Herb’s hand.  “You boogie on down this hill.  Don’t ever let me see you here again.”

Herb smiled wryly.  “Good day, officer,” he said, and walked down the hill to the shopping center.

He fished his daughter’s purse out of the car and returned to the yoga studio.  The receptionist, enraptured by social media, made no note of his return.

Herb sat and looked out the window towards Bridgewater.  Twenty minutes later the yoga class ended and his daughter came out.

“Are you okay, dad?” she asked as they walked back to her car.  “You seem preoccupied.”

“Just thinking.” Herb said.

“What do you want for lunch?”

“Something cold,” Herb said.

That night, while the boys completed their homework, Herb borrowed his daughter’s iPad and looked up Bridgewater, Mrs. Dinsmoore, and Officer Craig on the local newspaper website.

Mrs. Dinsmoore, president of the Bridgewater home owners’ association since her retirement, belonged to several local civic organizations, and won various gardening competitions.

Bridgewater frequently cropped up in real estate articles as one of the nicest, most desirable neighborhoods in the community.  It also appeared in a number of articles about the arrest of transients, panhandlers, and teens from other less prosperous neighborhoods who drifted into their domain.

Those articles frequently quoted Officer Craig on the importance of keeping undesirables out, thus making Bridgewater a better place to live.

Remembering the kind of person Mrs. Dinsmoore was (and her husband proved no prize, either; cold, dismissive, and aloof), Herb surmised she pulled some strings to get one of her favorite students the rent-a-cop job after he failed to make the grade with either the military or the police.

Herb said nothing about his encounter to his daughter or anyone else.  When they went shopping the next weekend, he tagged along.  He claimed fatigue and told them he’d take a bus back home so he could nap.

He did, but not before making some purchases at a low end department store.

Two weeks later, the date when Mrs. Dinsmoore said she’d be on a cruise with her husband, Herb went with his daughter to her yoga class.

The receptionist, as always, concentrated on her social media between the classes.  Once the other ladies joined his daughter in the studio, Herb sat down in his typical corner to read.

He waited five minutes, then got up and asked the receptionist, “Where’s the men’s room, please?”

“Down the hall,” she said, not shifting her eyes.

Herb knew where the men’s room was; his question wasn’t to gain information but to seed a memory in the receptionist’s mind.

Herb took his daughter’s purse to the car, got in, and drove home.  He’d surrendered his driver’s license but hadn’t forgotten how to drive.

Once home he quickly switched into the outfit he’d purchased and drove back to the shopping center.

Based on what he remembered about Officer Craig as a student, he wouldn’t be at Bridgewater this morning.  As a rent-a-cop he patrolled several complexes and knowing Craig he’d probably just drive slowly past the main entrance then go park somewhere to goof off.

Especially since Mrs. Dinsmoore wouldn’t be there to keep an eye on him or call his employers on some petty infraction.

He took his wrap around sunglasses and his regular prescription bifocals off and left them in the car.  Even with his glasses off he could make his way up the hill to Bridgeport.

He could certainly hear the gardeners at work.

“Stop!  What are you doing?” he demanded of the first gardener he encountered.  He couldn’t see the man’s face clearly, but he made sure the man could see him:  Patent leather white shoes with a matching belt, too tight lime green pants, an equally too tight red and white pinstriped shirt, and a big bright blue tie with little white stars on it.

He carried a clipboard with a lot of official looking forms he scooped up during his visit to his ophthalmologist the week before.

“This is all, all wrong!  Don’t you people even listen?  Where’s your boss, Jorge?”

Herb had no idea what “Jorge’s” real name was, but even without his glasses he could see the gardener stiffen with irritation.  The gardener gestured to another group of gardeners.  Herb marched right over to them.

“Don’t you people ever read a work order?  Why aren’t you trimming Mrs. Dinsmoore’s trees?  The home owners’ association wants the branches cut way back.  Way, way, way back.  Almost all the way to the trunk.

“And those hedges, they don’t belong there — I want you to dig them up right now and put them where they belong on Mrs. Dinsmoore’s lawn.  Tear out the rose bushes and plant them right next to her house.

“They’re putting in new sod and a new sprinkler system next week, so dig up all the grass and rip out the old sprinklers, too.  Don’t worry about replacing them, they’ve already hired professionals to do that.

“You might as well take out all the flowers in the garden, too.  She’s completely redoing that when she comes back.”

He couldn’t see their faces, but he sensed their simmering anger at his insulting manner and hesitation at following his orders.  He waved the clipboard at them like a royal scepter.  “It’s on the work order!  Do you think the president of the HOA doesn’t want this done by the time she gets back, Carlos or Pedro or whatever your names are?  Hurry!  Arriba arriba!  Andale andale!”

He marched off, pausing about ten steps away to turn and face them one last time.  “Oh, and we’re sending Officer Craig to check green cards, so you better get this done before he shows up.”

He continued down the hill, smiling as he heard them talking angrily among themselves in Spanish behind him.

He smiled even more broadly when he heard their chainsaws rev up.

Returning to his daughter’s car, he put his glasses on, drove home, changed, then drove to the local donation drop off bin for the Salvation Army.

He tossed his costume into the bin and drove off.  He tossed his clipboard into a public trash can then returned to the yoga studio at the shopping center, the receptionist resolutely focused on her social media.  He quietly sat in his regular chair and resumed reading his book.

He would miss his walks, but he couldn’t afford to be seen on the streets once the gardeners finished their work on Mrs. Dinsmoore’s lawn and garden.  After his rude behavior and insulting threats, most of the crew would tell the landscaping company they were sick of Bridgewater’s “boosht” and quit.

A week from now, when Mrs. Dinsmoore and her husband returned from their cruise, any gardeners that stayed on would tell Officer Craig and the Bridgewater home owners’ association the same tale:  Some bossy little man claiming to represent the HOA showed them valid work orders for the job they did on — or rather, to — Mrs. Dinsmoore’s property.

Nobody ever questions bossy little white men with clipboards.

Even if Officer Craig should wonder if the quiet old vagrant in the baggy grey jogging suit he detained a month earlier was the same person as the angry man in the outrageous outfit, even if Officer Craig managed to locate him, he’d find no physical evidence.

After all, the person who authorized the vandalizing of Mrs. Dinsmoore’s prize winning lawn and plants didn’t wear glasses, and Herb’s ophthalmologist told him very emphatically he should wear wraparound sunglasses whenever he went outside to shield his eyes from UV rays in order to slow down further deterioration of his night vision, and everybody who knew Herb would testify to that.

He covered all possible angles, tying off every loose thread leading back to him.

There remained only one last alibi to cement in place.

The class ended and his daughter came out, her mat rolled up under her arm.  “Hi, dad,” she said.  “Have a good wait?”

“Sure did,” Herb said.  “I sat here all hour reading my book.

“Isn’t that right?” he asked the receptionist.

“Yeah, sure.  All hour,” she said, checking her social media.