The police car sharked onto Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway, strobing blue and red and white and wailing like a baby with a fever.
"I don't like it when they catch me," I said, slapping the dashboard. The same way President Trump slaps the dias at his rallies, glowering behind the decorous seal and the slanted glass teleprompters and the mayhem of a teenage nation.
This was outside Arcadia, Louisiana, about a potholed hour from Monroe, Louisiana, where we currently needed to be. Myself and fellow journalist Jade Byers, who needed a break from the story she'd just begun, an ethnography of Texas State Fair carneys.
Media check-in for the Keep America Great rally would end at 5:00 p.m and it was 4:00 p.m., and it wasn't the sort of occasion you could be late for, so in the afternoon pallor all I wanted was to keep driving, on and on and on past nowhere.
"Just slam the gas," said Jade, "ahead of that semi."
But life was no movie. Especially not in Louisiana, land of corruption and sky-high incarceration. And jail is awful. So we both shrugged, and I guided my white Subaru to the side of the bare grey highway.
We'd just been discussing the nature of justice. Was it a form of truth? Or an attempt to enforce it? I sensed that Louisiana was not just. Did you know that it has the highest murder rate in the nation? Later, Trump would bring this up, and, because Trump is a man of superlatives, it spun all the journalists into a fact-check scramble. Sure enough. Number One.
My mind had wandered, as usual. With a blink, I snapped back. This was no time for fanciful thoughts about justice.
The State Trooper pointed for me to get out of the car, then to the woody embankment 15 yards from the road. He pointed in that way that police could point but politicians are not supposed to because it sends the wrong message. Aggressive, capable of violence.
I loved it, every bit of it. Confrontation is lovely. So I strode to the cop in my white Birkenstocks and my stained white "Music for 18 Musicians" t-shirt and my white jeans, looking so much like a Millenial Big Lebowski.
The trooper had already started writing the ticket when he asked where we were going and why. His eyebrows sprouted when I told him I was a reporter for Blaze Media covering the Trump rally in Monroe, where, that very moment, Secret Service had begun letting the first round of rally-goers into the Monroe Civic Center.
"You work for Glenn Beck?" he asked. Then lowered his glasses and scoped me over again. "You're messin' with me."
At the sight of my press badge, he restrained a smile, as if fighting an eagerness to speak freely.
"I am not allowed to talk politics," he said, "being an guardian of the state and all."
Well I'd never heard anything like that and I suspected it was horseshit, so I smiled as he proceeded, unabashedly, to talk politics.
"Glennnnn-Beck," he said, ending with a "Hm." And, right on cue, "I listen to ole Glenn in the mornings, and Stu."
They're my bosses, I said. He liked that pretty well.
"You going to Shreveport too?" he asked. So I nodded and grinned and pretended to know what he was talking about. I smiled the way you smile when everyone around is speaking a language you've never heard and it's time to get going but nobody understands you.
Trump would mention Shreveport later. "I'm coming back here on Thursday, can you believe it?" he said. "I'm doing a double — I'm doing a double." Just six days after the Monroe rally, he would return to Louisiana, and so would I, this time with Jim Dale, an author and lifelong sailor.
Louisiana felt like a State Fair house-of-mirrors. Some kind of warp. Too much of yourself then none of you at all. A ghost following a helium-choked balloon. The homes seemed to rise from nothing, all shadows and grey shrub as if misshapen on purpose. And a wide shaggy green overtook the bare hills. Even the sky, the way it tilted, like a petri dish of glittery dark.
Much of America has untouched land and old-world buildings, but nowhere else I'd been left me feeling so indescribably odd. Not quite sad, but certainly not happy. Like when strangers in a dream know everything about you, and nobody acknowledges why or how.
The Trooper shifted in his tall shiny black boots. Was he still talking about Trump? Boy, I zoned out pretty hard. It was Wednesday and I could flip a coin for days.
"He sure has done a lot for the elections here," he concluded.
Then he gave me a rundown of the political situation in Louisiana. Explained how run-offs work, and why a Republican would be good for the roads and oceans or something, and how a majority was counted a little different in Louisiana. Something like that — I don't know. It was all so boring.
How long had we been standing there? Never in my life had I been so bored.
At the time, the big meme was "OK Boomer," which Generation Z used to disparage the Boomer Generation as part of a feud that popped up for no discernible reason, and which I hated because the joke was kind of mean and never funny yet all four generations kept repeating it and repeating it like big dumb squawking parrots. But in that moment, I understood it. And, may God forgive me, but I whispered that disrespectful phrase.
And I had to pretend to be interested, in case he got the urge to search my car. Whereupon he would find marijuana concentrate and sativa gummies. Paraphernalia. Not a ton. Not much, even. But enough. Some unopened beers, a flask. No guns, but a few knives. An ordinary amount of knives.
All of which would land me a night in the clink, no doubt.
And who had the time or the money for that. Not me, with a Trump rally to cover and a fiery career and a pregnant wife with our two dogs at home, waiting.
Then I felt rotten for getting bored while the guy was talking. The man risked his life every day just so he could protect the community. Never mind the exorbitant ticket. What was $300 when this guy risked everything every day?
You were supposed to listen to people when they trusted or admired you. To care. To give them a chance, no matter their rank or stature or political affiliation. Especially the police.
Before, in situations like these, I resorted to military-style salutes, gestures I had seen as a child in cartoons. However you were meant to signify honor. I was not a military type. But I felt a great reverence for them and their service and whatnot.
Turns out, that's not how they do it at all. The salute, the hard stomp down with the heel, the huge grunt, the serious face, the violent turns of the waist, the gibberish that sounded like military phrases.
So I didn't salute anymore, but that didn't make it any easier not to salute. Usually I boiled and boiled till all of a sudden I was shouting out a long-winded, hard-to-follow story. So I told him what it's like to work at Mercury Studios.
"We've got the Forrest Gump bench," I said. "For a while it was in the dining area and, one time, I saw an intern sitting on it, eating a burrito. We have the original Darth Vader mask, too. And Dorothy's shiny red shoes that were supposed to be silver."
His face spread in all four directions, like I was a child reciting Socrates.
"And the tree from Barney, you know, that dinosaur kids show? And JFK and Robocop and an Eric Clapton video and Guns 'N' Roses, all filmed there. And a few months ago Sean Spicer stopped by. Before all the Dancing with the Stars drama. Interesting people are constantly stopping by. Pat Boone told me that Elvis had stage fright. But, between you and me, I think Pat Boone has stage fright."
I don't care who you are, all of that is fascinating. So I yammered on about this election series and justice, ignoring the trooper's polite impatience. He'd stopped me so the least he could do was listen to my weird story.
Secretly, I wanted to rip the ticket from his gloved hand and wad it up and toss it into the grass below my feet. It was paper. I would litter. It would vanish and no harm done, anonymous among all the other garbage of Louisiana.
There are places where nothing is wasted. America is not one of them.
Jade slumped in the car, fidgeting. We'd never talked about it but I assumed she didn't like police all that much. I get it. Usually, when the police show up, someone's day is about to plummet. But I like them, personally. Which I made sure to tell the trooper again, as he blabbed about some recent mayoral election.
Then I laughed, because this situation had gotten pretty funny. There I was on the side of a highway named after former President Ronald Reagan, on my way to see current President Donald Trump, my hair dismantled by the violent wind of a passing semi-truck, as a Louisiana state trooper in a prim uniform gave me a civics lesson.
It was just barely November, and the cold had not descended. Not in the sunshine at least, all pale orange and soft still.
"Trump sure seems to be doing a lot of things right," said the state trooper. "Jobs, economy, all that. And as you know, he's a friend of the police."
Was that a wink? Best to wink back. WINK! A good one.
Oh great now my eye was twitching into rapidfire winks. Too many winks. Veering into sexual wink territory. Oh this will not end well. This will not end will. He will misread my winking and then what? Nothing good. But it stopped, thank God.
Then I spat out some crap about Trump and NATO, something that I'd heard someone at the studio say, something about the parameters of heroism and Milton What's-his-name.
Around us, the aroma of tree bark. Deciduous perfume. A piney landscape that rose out of mud. Forested swamp lined with rivers purging toward a fat, chubby delta. That was where freshwater meets the ocean. Or the other way around.
"Well anyway, here's your ticket, Mr. Ryan. You have a nice day." Then he, a real tough guy, smiled. That was pretty neat.
By habit, I was about to wink but stopped just in time.
Then, he paused, grabbed the ticket. Rip it, rip it, rip it. Be wild, my man. Rip. Rip.
But he just rewrote the station's telephone number, as if to say "Maybe things can change." Not justice. It could not change. Not for me, not in Louisiana. Not under God and all the angels that don't have a gender.
Plus, we all know I wasn't going to pay the ticket anyway. Better to just never return to Louisiana. Drive around it if need be. Fly over. And once the police car was out of view, I stomped on the gas pedal and we were lawless again. Like a comet, friend. A comet.
Welcome back to the election series. New installments are going to be Monday through Thursday leading up to the Iowa caucuses. Check out my Twitter. Email me at email@example.com