My friend Jack dislikes authority, especially the uniformed kind. He doesn’t like doormen and ushers and he cannot see why they should exist. He doesn’t like maître d’s and thinks of them as doorman who refuse to usher. He distrusts priests, doctors and bus drivers. He cannot abide security guards and customs officials. He has a recurring nightmare in which he is made to be one himself, sitting at a small desk, stamping documents.
Most of all, he dislikes the police. He admits that they are necessary, unlike the others, but they make him feel like a prisoner in an open-air jail. They can exist, but they must exist in the distance, over there, beyond the horizon.
Jack’s dislike of authority is the foundation of a bizarre attraction. Authorities in uniform find their way to him with seamless ease. Doormen step from the shadows to bar his way. Maître d’s usher him from restaurants. At airports he is delayed and probed. Most of all, he has frequent encounters with the police.
In recent years these encounters have been limited to administrative tussles. Once, when his house had been burgled, Jack got into an argument with a young officer at the station about the meaning of the phrase breaking and entering. The thieves had stolen things through a small window, but they’d never actually entered the house.
“It wasn’t breaking and entering,” Jack said. “It was breaking and taking.”
“There’s no such a thing,” the officer insisted. “Breaking and entering. They stuck their hands into the house.”
He looked over Jack’s statement and scratched out where Jack had written taking and wrote entering.
“Who’s statement is this?” Jack asked. “If I want to write taking, then I can.”
An older officer strutted over and demanded to know what was going on.
“Breaking,” Jack said as he corrected the correction, “and taking.”
The older officer rode up and down on the balls of his feet and frowned while he looked at Jack’s statement.
“This doesn’t make sense,” he said and reversed what Jack had done. “No one here will understand it. It’s breaking and entering. You have to write that.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” Jack said.
“You do,” the older officer said and flexed his jaw muscles. “This is a legal statement.”
“Tell me,” Jack said while he rewrote the whole sentence with the word taking in capitals, “what would you call it if someone smashed a store window and ran off without stealing anything?”
He carefully put the cap back onto the pen.
“Smash and grab?” he asked.
He pushed the statement across the desk at the officers.
“No—” the young officer started.
“You wouldn’t,” Jack cut him short, “because it’s smash and dash. Just like this was breaking and taking.”
And so they went on for another twenty minutes until the policemen got bored and gave up. When we were kids, Jack’s encounters with the law were more physical and interactive. The police never got bored and they never gave up. I remember one specific time very clearly. Jack had devised a plan to rid the neighbourhood of silly ornaments. His plan was simple—a group of us would go around one night and steal them. In particular, Jack wanted us to start with a gnome a few blocks away. We had recently cycled along a different route to school and Jack had spotted the offending gnome. The gnome was dressed like a little policeman and stood at an odd angle among the succulents in a rock garden. He was impaled on a spike and wore a pained expression. Jack hated the gnome. He also hated a large golf ball postbox on the same street, and a jaunty little windmill which stood in a garden a few blocks from there.
One Friday night we gathered after dark. There were five of us, including T-Tony, a friend of one of our friends. He wore thick glasses and stammered. We hid in the bushes outside the house with the gnome. The street lights cast long shadows across the lawn.
“Alright,” Jack said. “There’s the gnome. Let’s get it—”
“B-b—,” T-Tony said.
“The n-gnome b-b—”
T-Tony swallowed, waved his arms in frustration and tried again.
“It b-belongs t-t—”
“It belongs to me now,” Jack said and marched up the driveway.
He was busy levering the gnome to and fro when a police car swung past us and into the driveway. Jack was caught in the headlights, holding the gnome. They both looked surprised. The officer whose house it was got out of his car and advanced on them.
“You little shit!” he cried.
While the rest of us held our breath among the bushes, Jack heaved and pushed at the gnome in a last desperate effort to claim it.
“Hey!” the officer screamed and started running.
Jack let go of the gnome and made a break for it, but the officer headed him off before he got very far.
Later we listened outside Jack’s bedroom window as he tried to explain himself to his father.
“What the hell were you thinking?” his father shouted. “A cop’s gnome! Are you insane?”
“I didn’t know,” Jack mumbled.
“I was t-trying to t-tell him,” T-Tony whispered.
“What were you planning to do with it?” Jack’s father asked beyond the window. “Experiment?”
“I wasn’t planning to take it,” Jack lied. “I just wanted to break it.”