I began this post intending to write about my first (and only) ride in a police car, but that's not where I ended up. Long before I began writing mysteries, I found myself one dark evening in the back of a police car in Pennsylvania.
When I first began graduate school, my husband and I lived near the Pennsylvania border in a small town served by a single bus once a day and a train station almost an hour away by car. I took the bus into Philadelphia in the morning, returning in the evening usually by train, where my husband met me. This was a long commute, and one night it got even longer.
On a warm evening in the fall, I left 30th Street Station at the usual time, just after five o'clock, and settled in for the ride to West Chester. We reached the last stop, and the remaining commuters jumped off and found the cars that had come to pick them up, or their own parked in the tiny lot. The red-brick station was small, grimy, and surrounded by old buildings abandoned or sparsely used. I stood on the edge of the platform waiting for my husband. And waited. The parking lot emptied out and I waited. The lights flickered and died, leaving only one barely illuminating the platform. And I waited.
Yes, this was long before cell phones, and no, the station platform didn't have a pay phone. I waited. It grew darker, so dark that I began to get worried. Eventually a police car with two officers drove into the lot and pulled up in front of me. I prepared my explanation--I was waiting for my husband, etc.
The officer on the passenger side lowered his window and asked me if I was Susan Oleksiw. He then explained that my husband had four flat tires, had called AAA, and would arrange a ride for me from the local bus station. They would take me there, since it wasn't nearby and probably not the best route to walk at this hour.
The officer opened the back door for me, and I started to climb in but kicked the screen sitting in the well that was used to separate those in the back from those in the front.
"I'm afraid I'll kick a hole in the screen," I told him.
"Don't worry. You can't do it any harm."
I took his word for it and climbed in.
So began my ride. We took the tourist route--side street, back roads, little alleys--the officers were working after all.
When we came to a parked car at the end of an alley, the driving officer slowed, the other shined a flashlight into the car, startling the two sitting together in the front. The officers discussed what they saw, decided the two were benign, and we drove on. For the next half hour, forty minutes or so, we circled through the small city, keeping an eye out for anything. I tried to see what they saw, but all I saw were dark corners and shadows. I don't recall much at all from that evening except that we seemed to be mostly on streets and lanes without streetlights. When we finally arrived at the bus station, I thanked them and climbed out.
I was standing in front of the bus station but I had no idea where it was located in the city. I probably said as much when I climbed out of the car. Throughout the evening ride, the police said almost nothing to me, going about their work as though I weren't there. Or perhaps, they just didn't want to talk in front of a civilian. Either way, it was a dull ride, and not the way I'd like to spend an entire eight hours.
The bus station garage was another story. I stood in the open front of the garage, once again waiting, until a man approached me and asked if I was Susan. Apparently my husband was on the phone (and I have no idea how he found the phone number for the bus company's garage). A man directed me to an office--a closet, really--with a telephone, and my husband told me to look out for a friend of his from work. Half an hour later, an older woman he knew from the University arrived to loan me enough money for a bus ticket. I hung around in the garage, listening to the mechanics tell each other jokes and make suggestions and talk about the upcoming game. More than an hour later a bus left for my town, and I was home before midnight.
This was supposed to be about my first and only ride in a police car, what I learned and how useful it's been to me since then as a mystery writer. Over the years I've chatted with state police when I was gathering information, exchanged a few friendly words with an officer taking notes about a car accident (with no injuries), and met policemen at some of my readings, every one of whom offered to help with details should I need it. Every encounter only underscored how normal police men and women are. I wish I could report some excitement, but I can't. The first and only ride in a police car was dull. What can I say? My real life is dull. Maybe that's why I write fiction.
What this piece is really about is what many of us have forgotten: what life was like before cell phones, Uber, and ATMs.
Today, if I landed at the local train station with no cell phone and no way to get anywhere, the police would still transport me if I asked. According to the information officer of my town, the decision to transport would be up to the discretion of the officer on duty, but the police still helped people get where they needed to go when things went awry. It happens less and less now, but it still happens. I'm glad I asked because I'm still not used to carrying a cell with me everywhere, I have no taxi app on my phone, and there's no pay phone at the train station. For some of us, life hasn't changed that much at all.
Susan Oleksiw @susanoleksiw