Why I Quit Drinking (& Delco)

At 4:13 am on the morning of December 16, 2011, I was arrested in Media, Pennsylvania – charged with Public Drunkenness, Disorderly Conduct, Loitering, and not one, but two counts of Criminal Trespass.

The Public Drunkenness I do not dispute. I was drunk … in public, after all. I suppose you could even make the case that I was disorderly – that is, if you were making that case based solely on what was alleged in the police report. Hell, why not even throw some loitering in for good measure, while you’re at it?

But the two counts of Criminal Trespass, both of which have hung over my head like the Sword of Damocles, lo, these past 38 days … Well, those two charges were, are, and always will be absolute hogwash, which is precisely why, as of this past Monday, both counts were deemed unjustifiable by a District Magistrate, who recommended rolling them into the single count of Loitering I’d already been charged with.

So how much does it cost one to loiter in the County of Delaware, Borough of Media, Pennsylvania these days?

Well, now, that’s a bit of a loaded question, you see. 

The reality is, had Loitering been the only offense I was originally charged with, I’d be looking at a miniscule fine of maybe $300 or so, perhaps an additional $500 for the public drunkenness of it all. But at this point – having factored in my bail, legal fees, court costs, and other incidentals – the final tally for my wild night out in Media, PA has risen to well over 4Gs.

That’s right … $4,000 … for Loitering … in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Land of the free. Home of the brave. Everybody’s hometown!

The moral of the story is this: Do not go loitering in Delaware County … ever.

And I mean that quite literally.

*

See, I grew up in Delaware County … Swarthmore, to be exact – way back in the feel-good 80s, when Benetton was all the rage, and Pulsations was the totally happenin’ hot-spot for under-age dance parties and Chippendale drink specials.

Delaware County was a pretty boring place back in those days. And it still is, so far as I can tell. The residents were – and are – predominately upper-middle class, white, and Catholic. The strip malls are full of brand names and fast food. The neighborhood bars are all brimming with hometown heroes, 30 years beyond their prime.

Growing up, I had it pretty easy, relatively speaking. I was white, and Catholic, after all … and I came from an upper-middle class family with firmly-established ties to the community.

It wasn’t until after I turned 18 that things began to sour.

Eighteen was the year when I ran away from home; when I washed up on the shores of Wildwood, New Jersey, where I remained for nearly a decade, before heading south to Orlando for a year; then Philadelphia for four more; and, finally, New York City, where I have remained ever since.

Somewhere during that 20-year span, my feelings for the place where I grew up took a very significant – if not wholly justifiable – turn for the worse.

So far as I can tell, things really began to escalate right around the time I turned 23. By that point I was only returning to Delco for 1-2 day visits with close friends and family. I swept in and out of town as quickly as I possibly could.

I did not pass Go. I did not collect 200.

But, apparently, I did not sweep in and out quite quickly enough, and what transpired was a series of unfortunate events that consistently caused me to question whether it was really worth me coming back to Delaware County at all.

Here’s a chronological breakdown, constructed using actual police citations, municipal records, journal entries, and personal emails to substantiate every incident:

  • October 30, 1996: I returned to Delco for one night, to go on a date with a girl I’d met over the summer. Got pulled over in Morton, on the way back from the movies. The officer gave no reason for pulling me over, ran my license, checked to see if my papers were in order (so to speak), and – in the end – cited me for operating an uninspected vehicle, despite the fact my existing inspection still had 30 days remaining. Citation dismissed.
  • December 25, 1998: Drove to St. Peter & Paul Cemetery on Sproul Road in Springfield, as I traditionally did on Christmas night back in those days. Was followed through the front gates of the cemetery by a police cruiser, which continued to tail me all the way to the rear plot where my grandmother and uncle are buried. When I stepped out of the car, the officer cast a light on me, asked what I was doing. I told him I’d come to visit my grandmother’s grave, just as I do every Christmas. He considered this for a moment, then told me I shouldn’t be out there. I apologized. He said he’d be coming back that way in 10 minutes, and I needed to be gone. I told him I understood. I watched as he wound around the bend, where an elderly couple was emerging from their vehicle, wreath in-hand. He did not offer them a similar warning. End of Christmas tradition.
  • June 23rd, 2003: Returned to Delco for one night, to visit a close friend whose wife had just given birth. Was pulled over on Harding Avenue in Ridley Township. Minutes later, I was asked to step out of the car, and place my hands on the hood. I was frisked, and asked whether I had a switchblade and/or any drugs on my person. I did not. It was at this point that a civilian SUV pulled up alongside us. The driver – who was apparently acquainted with the officer – asked what he was up to. The officer’s response (which I jotted down immediately after): “I’m helping you guys out. This guy’s goin’ around town slashin’ people’s tires.” You read right. Apparently, at the ripe, old age of 29, I’d suddenly decided to drive back to my hometown, alone, at 11 o’clock at night, and slash the fuck out of innocent people’s tires. What can I say? I guess that’s just how I roll. Eventually, a senior officer arrived on the scene, and advised the other officer to let me go. The senior officer, who clearly empathized with my situation, offered the following apology: “What can I say? Wrong place. Wrong time. It happens.” The other officer remained on the scene until after the senior officer pulled away – at which point, he turned to me and said, “You’re still getting a ticket for making a rolling stop.” (For the record, I NEVER made a “rolling stop” of any kind. When you’re on a back road, and a cop’s been tailing you for well over a mile, you do not make “rolling stops.” Trust me on this.). The cost of my non-existent rolling stop … $110: $25 for the actual fine, $10 to the EMS, $30 to the Catastrophic Loss Benefits Continuation Fund, $29 simply labeled as “Costs I,” and $65 labeled as “Costs II,” as well as an additional $10 for the Judicial Computer Project, whatever the fuck that is.
  • October of 2003 (Actual citation date illegible): Drove from Center City Philadelphia to my parents’ house in Swarthmore, to do laundry, of all things. On the 10-block drive from their house back to 476, I was pulled over by a Ridley Township Police Officer. Officer refused to respond when I asked why I’d been pulled over. After running my license, looking through my paperwork, and running a flashlight through the back of my car (even asking me to move around some of the clothes in a laundry basket on the backseat), the officer issued me a citation for not having a valid insurance card in my binder. It turns out my existing card had expired three days prior. The new one was still in an envelope on my kitchen countertop. Provided I posted at the police station within 48 hours, new card in hand, the citation would be downgraded to a warning. I did this. Consider me warned.
  • November 20, 2003: Returned to Delco for one night to visit a friend. Got pulled over in Ridley Park. Officer refused to answer when I asked him why I’d been pulled over. Checked all my paperwork, asked if I’d been drinking (I had not), asked where I was going, whether I had a criminal record, etc. Ran my license. Returned. Slapped me with a Police Warning Notice for “cutting across lanes on a roadway laned for traffic.” I still have no earthly idea what that’s supposed to mean. Regardless, slap on the wrist. Moving on.
  • December 26, 2008. Returned to Delco for a weekend to visit my family for the holidays. On Friday night, I decided to take a walk – listen to some tunes, see how the old neighborhood had changed, y’know? It was during that walk, while crossing the back lot of the elementary school I attended, that I noticed a Ridley Township Police truck idling by a nearby field. Seconds later, the truck pulled up alongside me, and the officer asked where I was going. I told him I was taking a walk. He asked if I lived around there. I told him I had grown up down the street, and I was in town visiting my parents for the holidays. It was at this point, without providing any specific reason, that the officer told me this: “Wherever it is you’re going, get there. You shouldn’t be out here at this time of night.” This time of night was somewhere around 11 PM. More importantly, I was a 35-year old man who had just been told I had no right to walk the streets of my hometown by a 20-something police officer. Think about that for a second … In fact, think about it for more than a second. I know I did.

*

In the summer of 2006, I moved from Philadelphia to New York City, selling off my car in the process. Since then, I have only gone back to Delco for weddings, funerals, and holidays … and I NEVER drive within the county limits. I take a train, or a bus, or I walk from wherever it is I’m dropped off.

Simply put, I no longer feel comfortable spending time in Delaware County.

Delco brings out the worst in me, quite frankly.

Or perhaps I bring out the worst in it.

It’s difficult to tell sometimes. The tension runs so deep.

And before you jump to any rash conclusions, assuming I’m some sort of whacked-out conspiracy theorist (I am, but that’s completely beside the point), or dismissing me with the typical Delconian stance that I probably got exactly what was coming to me, consider what it is I’m saying from a scientific perspective.

Assuming Delco was the control, and all the other places I’ve lived were/are various test versions of that control, here’s my municipal run-sheet (by region):

  • Eight years spent living in Wildwood, NJ: One $36 fine for not producing the right documents during a routine traffic stop.
  • One year spent (on and off) in Orlando, FL: No problems whatsoever.
  • Four years spent living in Philadelphia, PA: One summons to appear in traffic court. Represented myself. All charges were dismissed.
  • Six years spent living in New York, NY: One open-container citation. $25 fine.
  • 3035 one-day visits to Delco from 1996 to 2011: Pulled over/questioned by cops on seven different occasions. Cited for various offenses. Accused of slashing tires, criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, and who-knows-what-else. In cases where the police had nothing to charge me with, I was given a warning, or some bullshit citation, which I can only assume makes me twice as likely to be pulled over the next time I’m in town.

Now, keep in mind, the only variable here is the jurisdiction (and perhaps the fact that I haven’t been operating a vehicle on a regular basis since the Summer of 2006). Otherwise, as the test subject, I have remained fairly consistent throughout.

Oh, wait a minute … strike that.

In all fairness, I should probably mention that from 1995 to 2001, I was a long-hair – like Rapunzel-type long … Crystal-Gayle type long … What I’m trying to say is that I had extremely long hair. And, oh yeah, for a lot of those years, I drove a rust-red Ford Escort with Hello Kitty stickers on the bumper. Oh, and I should also mention that once I did cut my hair, I generally wore a red or blue bandana on my head while driving about town … Either that or some type of semi-fashionable hat/cap that did not bear the insignia of any local sports team.

Anyway, I’m getting miles away from the point. And the point is this: In 20 years of living in large cities and small towns all along the east coast, I’ve had maybe 4-5 minor scrapes with the law, all of them either completely justified or subsequently dismissed.

Again, that’s 20 years. 240 months. 7,300 days.

Now, compare that to the 35 visits I’ve made to Delco over the past 15 years, and the seven run-ins I’ve had with local police during that time.

And, well, maybe I’m not so crazy, after all – y’know, scientifically speaking.

Who knows? Maybe I got pulled over all of those times because I looked like an undesirable, or a person of interest. Maybe it was because I was an incidental proponent of gang-related headwear. Maybe it was because I had an unfortunate smile, or I drove a rust-red Escort with the half-ass pick-up of a soapbox car. Maybe it really was nothing more than the fact that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time … again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again.

Maybe it was all these things. Maybe it was none of them.

But the fact still remains, one out of every five times I’ve so much as stepped foot on Delco soil over the past 15 years, I’ve been questioned by police, for one reason or another.

In most of those cases, I’d done absolutely nothing to warrant such behavior.

However, in the most recent case, I did everything to warrant it.

I got exactly what was coming to me, for lack of any better way of putting it.

All of which brings me back to that fateful night this past December.

I was in town that evening to attend a holiday party in the city – the Philebrity Awards at the Trocadero. I met up with a former colleague at McGlinchey’s around 7 PM, then we both wandered over to the Troc around 8:30. Somewhere in the midst of all that holiday cheer, I managed to get so completely soused (my official BAC at the time of my arrest was .21 … a full two hours after I’d stopped drinking), that I thoroughly embarrassed myself in the company of several writers whose work and opinions I greatly admire.

This is something I will always have to live with. So be it.

Regardless, I had promised the colleague who I originally met up with that I would get her back to Media when all the night’s festivities were over. And I did  … only by that point, stuck in a cab on the long road back to Delco, I was behaving like a compete rakehell, saying ridiculous things that were completely out of line at best, and flat-out assholish at worst.

What’s more? This particular colleague happens to be someone who I respect to an absurd degree … a trusted advocate who not only accepted, but encouraged me to take chances as a writer, at a time when every other editor I dealt with was forcing his/her style and opinions on my work at every turn. In fact, it would be completely accurate to say this colleague has done more for me professionally over the past five years than I could ever do for her.

And that, my friends, is the eternal rub of the whole thing.

*

I eventually wound up hopping out of the cab somewhere in downtown Media.

In my drunk and pruning state, I figured the first train to Swarthmore would arrive somewhere around 5 AM, and I could just hop that, rather than pay another $20 to have the cabbie take me back to my parents’ house.

En route to the train station, I came upon the Sterling Nursing Home.

From a distance I could see there were lights on in the front lobby, and there were at least two orderlies on duty at the front desk. So I made my way down to the entrance, where I stood, signaling with my arms for one of the orderlies to come out and talk.

She accepted, and a minute or so later, we were sitting on a bench out front, chewing the fat. Of course, I was in no condition to be chewing the fat with anyone, let alone a complete stranger, which is why – after asking her twice, or perhaps even three times, how her night had been – I just came right out and told her she was cute.

She seemed slightly amused by this, so I came charging forward with a pick-up line so crass and absurd, only Broadway Joe himself could appreciate it.

“I think I’d like to kiss you,” I said.

Yep, that’s right. I said this. To my eternal embarrassment, I said it. Worse yet, it actually appears in black and white, right there on the police report, confronting me time and again, like some ghastly drunken specter from my past.

Anyway, that pretty much ended the orderly’s smoke break.

After she went inside, I wandered around to the side of the building, where I noticed one of the other orderlies walk past a first-floor window. It was at this point that I moseyed over, like any sane person would, and tapped on the glass, rather loudly.

When the orderly came back to the doorway, arms crossed, I pointed at the window (smiling), then opened it, and said the following, “How was your night?”

I’m brilliant.

Two to three minutes into our conversation, I noticed headlights approaching from across the parking lot. I was so oblivious at this point, that I said the following: “Hey, guess what? The cops are here. I wonder what’s going on.”

It was about this time that the orderly disappeared from the doorway, and I very quickly realized that it was, in fact, me that was going on.

I’ll spare you the details of the next few minutes – suffice to say I was led away in cuffs, and spent the night on a deluxe metal slab beneath the grand confines of the Media Police Department. At some point around dawn, when I was officially apprised of the charges pending against me, I said this: “Criminal Trespass? You have got to be kidding me.”

Here is what one of the two arresting officers said in return: “You’re lucky we didn’t bring you up on Attempted Burglarly.”

Attempted Burglarly? I mean, honestly, don’t you have to be attempting to burgle something in order to merit such a charge?

Regardless, I knew I was in this predicament because I had put myself there, and – as such – I was in no position to argue.

This wasn’t New York City, after all. And it sure as hell wasn’t Philly. This was Delaware County – a place where wandering the streets at four o’clock in the morning for any reason is more than enough to throw the entire police department into a tizzy.

I was in their jurisdiction. I had behaved like an asshole, and I knew it.

End of story.

*

In the days and weeks that followed, I had quite a go at myself – as much for the douchebaggery that landed me in a concrete cell as the blatant disrespect I’d shown for a former colleague.

And regardless of what other conclusions I drew from the experience, I simply could not seem to shake the feeling that neither of those things would have occurred – could have occurred – had alcohol not been involved.

Worse yet, it wasn’t the first time I’d felt that way.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

*

On the morning of January 23rd, 2012, I was vindicated (to some degree) by a District Magistrate, who very astutely pointed out to the arresting officer in my case that nothing in the criminal complaint justified anything above or beyond a blanket charge of Loitering.

Or, as she put it, “In order to justify a charge of Trespassing, you need to demonstrate that there was either a posting prohibiting Trespassing on the premises, or that someone on the premises specifically told [him] to go away. Based on what I’m reading here, there was no such posting, and everyone at the nursing home simply ran the other way.”

But it was too late at that point. A deal had already been struck. And so, I waived my right to a hearing and agreed to apply for ARD – a program for non-violent, first-time offenders in the state of PA, the goal of which is to proactively ensure a similar incident will not occur in the future, while sparing taxpayers the cost and resources necessary for a trial.

Assuming all requirements of the program are met, the original charges are expunged from the defendant’s record within a year. In my case, those steps will more than likely include a $1,000 fine, several hours of community service, and one year’s probation.

I have got to be the most dangerous loiterer who ever walked the planet.

*

While I realize the verdict could’ve been much worse, had the judge not been so … just, and my lawyer – a good and honest man – continues to insist this is a favorable resolution, I cannot help but think if the arresting officer had originally slapped me with the appropriate charge, I most certainly would have paid a hefty fine and been done with the whole thing.

Instead, the episode was sensationalized, in typical Delco fashion, to the extent that I’m now staring down the barrel of a $4G settlement, including the loss of 30% of my original bail. On top of which, I’m on probation.

Probation! For Loitering!

All of which is why – with the exception of family emergencies and court-ordered community service – I’ve made a conscious decision to cut Delaware County out of my life entirely. The place feels like a gulag to me at this point, and – all things considered – I simply cannot afford to be wandering down the street one day, and have some Delco cop decide I’m a menace to society.

I mean, given the fact I’m now a court-certified probate, that’s really all it would take to have me qualify for the brig. Either that, or – at the very least – some type of legal clusterfuck that would cost me at least another 5Gs to sort out. Who knows? Before this whole thing is over, I could very well end up doing hard time in the very Delaware County Prison that bears my late uncle’s name … for Loitering, no less.

What a tribute!

*

The truth is, this is precisely the type of thing that allows Delaware County to remain Delaware County, for better or for worse. It’s a way of life I want nothing to do with, quite frankly, which is why I am officially divorcing myself from the place – citing irreconcilable differences as sufficient grounds.

It is highly unlikely that either of us will shed any tears over the situation.

For 15 years, Delaware County has gone out of its way to make me feel unwelcome, to the extent that I now hold it in the very same contempt it has long held me.

I mean, the whole thing runs so much deeper than that, really. And I could very easily defend my decision a thousand fold, if need be … I could bring up the fact that during my time growing up in Delco, while the official crime stats insisted all was well on paper, at least half a dozen boys, including myself, were victims of sexual abuse at the hands of a school administrator. I could bring up the fact that for more than a decade, we also suffered constant verbal abuse from an alcoholic pastor who no one saw fit to remove. I could bring up the fact that hundreds of people in the community – including myself – were completely aware of both of these things and elected to do nothing.

I could bring up the fact that there were countless other atrocities – stories that aren’t even mine to tell, really – that should’ve been addressed one hundred times or more, but simply went unchecked. Why? I’ll tell you why: Because if there’s one thing that scares the living hell out of people in Delaware County, it’s the threat of ANYTHING that might upset the natural order, or lend credence to the notion that Delco isn’t 100% the milk-white suburbanite community it makes itself out to be.

I could go on and on, but there’s no point in it, really.

So I’ll just make a clean break and go about my business.

And so long as I’m in the habit of dispensing with things, it bears mentioning that – as of 45 days ago (i.e., right about the time I was being lowered into the backseat of a squad car) – I also made a conscious decision to stop drinking.

It’s really not all that significant an adjustment, to be honest. The fact is, for the past half-decade, I’ve maybe gone out drinking once every two months or so, on average. I’ve never been the type of guy who enjoys a stiff drink after dinner. Nor am I the type of guy who fancies a belt of Brandy with his chamber music.

I’m strictly a beer-and-whiskey guy, I suppose … or at least I was, way back in the aughts.

At this point, the long-term costs of going out for a night of bingeing far outweigh the short-term benefits. I’m not in college, anymore. And more often than not, when I am out well past midnight, I begin to look and feel like exactly what I am – the old guy sitting down the end of the bar.

Who knows what I’ll do to compensate. Maybe I’ll train for the New York City Marathon, or compete in a Tough Mudder … Get in touch with my rough-n-tumble side, y’know? Maybe I’ll take on more freelance work, or write another book that nobody’ll read. Maybe I’ll run out and occupy something, just for the fuck of it.

Maybe.

The bottom line is, whatever it is I choose to do, I feel relatively confident it’ll be the right thing. Going forward, when I do fuck up, at least I’ll be in a position to take full responsibility for my actions. When you sift through all the extraneous bullshit I’ve included in this essay, you may or may not agree with the measure of personal accountability I’ve taken. And that’s OK. Either way, I respect your opinion.

But the real sticking point here – the underlying reason I’ve chosen to put aside Fun Bobby and get on with the business of being an adult – has very little to do with loitering outside a nursing home at 4 am, or having a series of minor run-ins with the law, or even waking up with an industrial-sized hangover, for that matter.

It has more to do with the fact that I feel as if I mistreated a friend – someone who took a leap of faith and decided to trust me. And no fine, no probation, no ongoing measure of decency will ever erase that perception.

As far as I’m concerned, if your actions have a negative impact on you, and you alone – assuming you’re OK with that – well, I suppose that’s your business. But when your actions start to have a negative impact on the people around you, well, when that happens, you can’t help but wonder whether the good time you thought you’d been having all along was really such a good time, after all.

I don’t really know what else there is to say.

Stay gold.

I look forward to seeing you at the church social.

All the Best Always.

Bob Hill