The Laughing Policemen of London

 banjo confiscated (disturbing the peace)

banjo confiscated (disturbing the peace)

Air travel is a blast, once you’re on the plane:

See……Our planet melting right below you at the Arctic Circle!

Hear……A dozen babies crying……out of unison!
Smell.………The curiously strong reek of recycled “air” (gaseous amalgam comprising oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, ozone, flatus, pretzel molecules, methane and countless unidentified vapors).

But most of all, GO!

Before it’s too late!!!

Savor that window-sitter’s view of all those patterns below: The vein-mountains resembling the ones on the back of your hand. The rivers like the wrinkles in your palm. The colorful irrigation circles like all the green eyes you have ever looked into.

Et cetera.

Getting ON the plane?

Emphatically less fun. Procedures… lots of separate crucial steps–best done in the Correct Order.

The following took place recently in a large international airport (name withheld; rhymes with “Free Throw“).

There I was, still perky after an hour’s ride from Brixton… marching up and down hallway after hallway carrying…re-directed contents of the Edinburgh land fill (reference to Mother Lode of Dumpsters). There was a fifty pound brown duffle for under the plane, a string bag with a couple kilos of organic pin-head oats, chocolate from Switzerland, Germany and Scotland the rest (banjo…backpack…messynger bag. ..drawstring laundry bag crammed with finery) would come on the plane. …

Ach, what a refugee.

I waited for my daypack and messynger bag to emerge from the xray machine.

A trio uniformed security staff talked in a huddle.

“Will you help us look through your luggage?” asked the smallest, an East Indian woman.

First the messynger bag: out came the battered journal, an old sketch book of Bruce Cunningham’s . Pages of sloppy script, sketches by me, buildings, statues, etc…oh, and a few outlines of knife blades I hadn’t the heart to discard. Bruce was a superb crafter of knives when he was in his prime..The security guard lingered over them a couple of seconds. Then the ‘suspicious cannister’: a carefully packed wool-lined metal clad ceramic tea pot. Too precious to put under the plane.

Then the rummaging through my green day pack (20 lbs) with its six over-taxed zipper pockets.

Chocolate, oatcakes, cheese, and silverware.

A bazaar’s worth of goods.

“Oh my!” The diminutive woman exclaimed, withdrawing her hand quickly from an outer pocket, “I almost cut myself with this!”

She delicately fingered a seven-inch blade  butcher’s knife concealed in the  flat outer pocket.

( Stage directions: cut to Edvard Munch’s The Scream)

Oh, shitshitshit.
“I FORGOT ABOUT THAT!!” I said stupidly. “I was emptying a dumpster, and gave almost all the kitchen knives away at the pub last night, but I forgot this was still in there….Musta packed it a week ago, what a flake, eh?”. Oh, dear.

The woman who discovered the blade ushered me aside. She carried the knife like it was poisonous, by the extreme tip of the blade. . We got a few stares. “We are going to keep this ‘item’ and must detain you as well” she said severely.

Headlines played through my head. “Village Idiot apprehended with kitchen blade.   Reprimands self sharply “.

Blade runner stumbles“.

Yada, yada, yada.

Henceforth my (former) kitchen tool was referred to as The Item.

One can’t just  say “knife” because…well…maybe widespread panic? Yah, that’s it.

“Wait here, please”.

I slid down the wall to allow the jello in my legs to harden up.

Finally, while plucking my banjo (to keep from chewing my nails) two black shoes appeared in front of me.

I stood up and looked into the kind face of a policeman who apologized for the inconvenience, that normally this would be taken care of with a stern warning, but in light of recent spate of knife violence, every detail of the protocol would have to be followed…Did I want the advice of a free solicitor?

“Uh, no. I am guilty of first-degree foolishness. I forgot that knife was in there, and now I’ll deal with the consequences.”

Did he just wince?

Another policemen arrived: young, chubby, with a tattooed star on his forearm. Together they inquired—gently—about my reasons for having this knife in my carrion (sorry ) luggage.

I thought: there is a huge difference between cop-speak in the States and here in the UK.

Either that, or I am a sucker for the accent.

“No reason, other than I’d failed to inspect my own carry-on, and verify everything was O.K. to have in the main cabin. Can we put down: ‘flakiness’?”

Speaking of which, constable A. muttered to constable B. that the Item had gone missing, and was not in the evidence drawer anymore. The rest of the day, its total disappearance served as a base note to all the activity going on in my ‘case’. There clearly is either no hard-and-fast knife protocol, or someone just really wanted that Wusthof chef-caliber blade.

Meanwhile, the conveyor belt of justice groaned forward.

They pronounced me under arrest, and walked me (uncuffed ) out to the curb and into the very battered police van (stashing my luggage up front, out of my control).

A sign above the hard metal seat: “Have you swallowed drugs? If you don’t want to tell the police, please just ask for a doctor to see you immediately. Your life might depend upon it”.

My flight was still two hours off. MAYBE this could be cleared up by then.

Off to the pleece station in a real ‘paddy wagon’.  Couldn’t see out the back, and a loud roar of forced-air cooling muted any identifying noises.

Inside the tired, gray, heavily armored building I heard moaning and weeping from downstairs.

I felt strong and healthy, and very out of place.

The desk sarge pulled up a new file on the computer. I recited all my information. “My” guys took me downstairs for a taped questioning session. Down we went, and I thought of the old Tom Swifty : “your cell is down these steps, Tom said condescendingly”.

Our session began with a thorough re-do of all my pertinent information, including my social security number, Charlie’s phone number, our home address. Then they taped my account of finding a ‘trove’ on Magdalena Crescent, and how I laid out all the fine kitchenwares and household goods on the street, so the passers-by could get a good look in case they needed any of it. Or like me, just wanted it. And then took loads by bike to the nearest op-shop (thrift store). One would leave, and talk to “Scotland Yard” for a few minutes, then come back in, and the other would leave. They were unfailingly kind. Visions of typical jail treatment of prisoners (or are they merely ‘detainees’ since they haven’t been sentenced yet?) in the USA continued to run in the crawl at the bottom of my mind. One hour went by. Then another. They explained there were absolutely no available spaces in the cells (this was clear; howling, yelling and moaning continued non stop from all around). They had to simply keep me in the interrogation room with a constable.

I hinted that I might swoon without food within two hours. A simple white bread and turkey slice sandwich appeared immediately.


“Right here, missus.” The stainless steel one-piece prison model!

I was a bit of a hot potato. Passed from one officer to the next for constant surveil…er, supervision.
Another hour went by, the papers were faxed into uh…Scotland Yard?  “Evidence?” I don’t know.

One of the officers told me Naomi Campbell stood right where I was standing, only she was hissing mad, behaving ubelievably poorly.

“That’s because she’s a poseur. I am a real queen.” I said flatly.

The lone woman cop giggled.


Throughout this ordeal, I overheard the easy banter and good humor of the guys in bulletproof vests. I watched them wrestle–Keystone clumsily–with stubborn ancient cabinet doors, adding a slapstick fumble for good measure…But I wasn’t included in the fun.

I had already reconciled myself to life imprisonment for incurable “flake-ritude” (Charlie word). With zen stoicness, was half-enjoying the vibe of this inefficient, crowded workplace. Plus, I was getting in lots of barely-perceptible-yoga practice.

It is not news that laughter is a terrific de-stressor.

Nor that police work can be stressful.

But I’d never seen cops laugh in uniform. Maybe they only laugh out of public view, around other cops.

As is my wont, I bonded.  My banjo teacher Jody Stecher put it this way: “your glue dries fast” which meant that I’d pick up a tune quickly but perhaps too soon because Stecher liked to tinker a bit as he instructed, and decide after several versions which would be best.

Bonding? With a police squad? A bit of a surprise for a chick with authority issues.

“No, seriously, one of my best friends is a cop.”

Just a by-product of watching the workings of a busy jail/police station. After all, this WAS was a “novel experience”. I crave novelty.

I have led a ..hmmmm…. un-punished life of crime.

OK, OK, I’m getting my karmic come-uppance….There were signs everywhere (“keep cabinet tidy”), inspirational posters proliferated on the dingy walls. One resembled a hand holding a beer aloft, but it was actually clutching an eraser…and the message went: ‘why not start over with a clean slate, and tell us any other things you ‘ve been up to in the past. It would greatly simplify our job and shorten your sentence”..

I wanted to confess to banjo misdemeanors … but….nah...

On the wall around the corner from the control desk, a Let’s Go Green poster pontificated: …”COPY on both sides of every sheet of paper. Use ONLY recycled scrap paper. Double up on vehicle trips”…on and on, in a sort of spiral design, with the very inner circle proclaiming “Drive Less“. In nine-point type.

I can’t help my reflexes. When the word ‘bicycle’ is NOWHERE TO BE SEEN on a eco-poster, my irritability chakra flashes like the roof lights on a squad car.
“May I borrow your biro?” I inquired casually. Biro (“Bye-ro”)is slang for ballpoint pen.

The nearest fellow to me reached in his pocket and handed over a Bic.

Without shifting my feet, I snaked my torso around the corner ( isolation exercises pay off!)  Reader, I “Banksy’d” a bicycle wheel, complete with two-cross spoke pattern and true-to-scale knobbies (slightly worn). And scribbled “RIDE YR BIKE!”.

Swiveling back into the room, I handed the pen back, he said “Thanks”

And then: “What did you do with that?”

“I just improved your poster”.

Sincerity cannot be faked.

He looked around the corner, and began to laugh. The others rushed to see.
My officers sternly marched me into another interror-gation room and told me now I’d re-e-ally done it, I just undermined my case, and would be held indefinitely…

I felt my face go red.
That’s strange… I’m not a blusher.

But maybe I had gone a bit far, defacing public property.

“But not mentioning bikes is criminal negligence!” I blurted.

“We are pulling your chain. But PLEASE don’t decorate our walls” cautioned the sweet-tempered-officer-whose-last-name-is-the-same-as-my-husband’s.

“We have just gotten word that No Further Action will be required” he continued, waving a sheet of paper with
N.F.A stamped across the middle.

And with that, they let me go.

~ by jacquiephelan on July 12, 2008.

8 Responses to “The Laughing Policemen of London”

  1. hahaha…. I feel like I just watched you performing in a classic episode of Monty Python.

  2. “Oh, shitshitshit” – that just said it all!

    But beautifully narrated all the same.

  3. Actually, what I love most about this post is the way you picked up on the way the men in uniform ALWAYS pronounce “police”. It really is “pleece”!

  4. Some of us get to have all of the fun. And those would be you. Thanks for letting the rest of us in on the party!

  5. When I tell my friends HERE about this blunder, they often interject, “I’m surprised you didn’t get sent to Guantanamo”
    or “Did they waterboard you?”.
    Well, no. They served me tea and were very kind.

  6. Gotta love N.F.A.s they’re like a slap on the wrist but you get a cup of tea as well.

  7. OMG Jacquie… I haven’t laughed out loud that much while reading in a long time. My son kept saying “daddy, laugh like that again!” as he though my laughing was as funny as your article. I love the drawing… too bad you didn’t get a photo of THAT! I will look for it if I’m ever in London at the police station. 🙂

  8. That´s a great post, and I nearly laughed my head off! When I carry my knife, however, I only use the legal variety or not accesible (peace-bound) at all, and certainly not at an airport! But a friend of mine forgot to remove his box cutter from his bagpack once when flying over, and nearly got nicked also. Mind you, a boxcutter!

    I really liked the part where you modified the poster, more people should act like this. It is a nice-temepered form of rebellion I really like. You got some nerves! Keep it up, it´s a better world because of people like you.

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