His fascination with the men in blue has been a consistent one. This past Halloween, when all his friends were donning Dracula capes and superhero leggings, Jamie chose to be a "polis" in his navy cap, gold badge and light blue button-down shirt. He insisted that I iron this shirt and that the top button be closed. I watched him tuck the shirt in as best he could and lightly touch the neck again to be sure it was turned down. He smoothed his pockets, tilted the cap back just so and smiled that shy, proud, heartwarming grin he gets when he feels things are just so, that he has reason to be confident. Did I imagine it, or was he standing a bit taller, a little straighter on that morning before I took him to school? The New York cynic in me suggested he carry a styrofoam coffee cup in one hand and a stale doughnut in the other. The specific joke was lost on him, but knowing me as well as he does, he rolled his eyes, sensing my sarcasm, and explained that he didn't like doughnuts and he needed his hands free. Now there's a thought.
The "Gendarmes" in Senegal took Jamie's admiration to another level and added to it a heightened awareness and understanding of their authority. They are formidable figures, with their very dark formal uniforms, shoulder sashes and berets cocked sideways on their head, a decidedly French influence. Resembling more military police than traffic cops, they are occasionally armed on the main roads, and, as we have discovered, almost all are on the take.
On a recent road trip, Jamie was on the alert, spotting them on the side of the road way before we could discern their forms. "Papa, I want to see more polis, show me more polis, is that a polis over there?!" This was his version of "are we there yet?" and it was an incessant, nerve-racking tick, one that drove me to actually say, "You don't want me to come back there, Mister! Just stop it. You'll know it when you see one." We'll get there when we get there. The return trip was no less emphatic except that he fell asleep for a period of time. As we were turning onto a main road, what had been, until now, merely that mythical figure on the side of the road, actually flagged us down. Had we been speeding? Was the car registered? Did we have all our papers, passports? My heart pounded that strange, guilty-for-no-reason adreneline through my system as Richard rolled down his window to speak to the man. I wasn't listening, I was trying to discreetly wake Jamie up, less he miss this grand opportunity. Before I knew it, this hulking policeman had crossed in front of the car and was standing at my window, silent, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, Ray Bans burning my already hot cheeks. What? Confused and suddenly terrified, I turned to Richard. Through clenched teeth and in English, Richard explained that we had done nothing wrong, he just wanted a ride. Oh, I sighed in relief. A ride. No big deal. I got out of the car and pulled the lever for the seat to move forward, giving access to the back seat and stood aside. "Voici," I said and swung my arm forward, ushering him into the rear. Richard shot me a look that managed to convey this to me: This is Senegal, stupid, a Muslim country. A woman doesn't ask a man, let alone a possibly armed authority, to sit in the back seat! My own wide-eyed return look said: But, but, but, I was only thinking of Jamie, how happy he'd be to have a real live policeman in the back seat with him! To add insult to injury, Sunny pointedly refused to move over beside Jamie, forcing this huge man to sit in the middle, on the hump, with his knees pulled into his chest, between two small children. One, who completely turned her back to him and braced her feet against the door in protest, obligating him to cross his arms to accomodate her extended presence. The other turning his entire body towards him, staring up adoringly in his face. "Hi" Jamie said to him. "Mama, there's a polis in the backseat" he whispered loudly in English, smiling at me as though this was our secret.
As we drove on, the significance of this man in our car began to sink in and I discovered I was outraged. After asking the man if he spoke English and hearing that no, he didn't, I gave myself license to commence my tirade in that now private language. How dare this man use his authority to pull us over and then demand a ride. How corrupt, how rude, how unacceptable. And then to sit in the back seat in smug silence was just, just . . . Richard stopped me and pointed out that he couldn't possibly be comfortable, probably hadn't seen the kids in the back seat when he pulled us over, and that, to Jamie, this was akin to having Elvis in the backseat. I knew he was right, but nonethless sat in huffed silence for many miles, resenting this man's presence in our car. As I was rehearsing what I would like to say to him, should I ever muster up the courage, the steering wheel began shaking violently and Richard no longer had use of the gears. The clutch was out. He pulled the car to the side of the road and we all looked at each other for a long moment. And then it hit me--karma was in play. Ok, now I get it. This is why the policeman flagged us down, so that he could help us when our car broke down! Wasn't karma wonderful! Wasn't fate structured so beautifully! Weren't we lucky to have the stars aligned in our favor! As relief flooded over me, the policeman leaned forward over the hump and told us in French that he would be leaving us now and catching another ride. The blood left my face as I realized he was abandoning us in the middle of nowhere and then it returned just as quickly as I realized HE'S ABANDONING US IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE! Coward, opportunist, ingrate! With nery a "merci", he climbed out and started waving down other cars. As I watched him climb into one of them and disappear from sight, I felt that life was just unfair, there was no such thing as karma and there were certainly no heroes. I was pouting like a child. But Jamie kept on smiling and said with total conviction that melted my heart, "Don't worry, Mama. He's a polis, he'll save us." I couldn't bare to explain the truth of this situation to Jamie, couldn't possibly derail his belief in the good within us all.
Through the grace of a cellphone and a saavy mechanic who walked Richard through a simple rig-up, we were back on the road within fifteen minutes and life had floated back to it's familiar equilibrium, a breeze blowing in through the window, the afternoon air cooling us. My heartbeat was just returning to steady and we were nearing another populated intersection, when we were pulled over a second time by another policeman. This time, Richard, the level-headed one in this relationship, had had enough for one day and began mumbling unpleasant expletives in French as the policeman approached. This one didn't want a ride, he wanted to know where the fire extinguisher was. We didn't know, but it certainly wasn't in the car and we knew full well that no car in Senegal was equipped with one. This was a ploy and a rather obvious one. After examining our papers, he explained to Richard that this was indeed a serious offense and that he would have to detain us . . . unless we were willing to part with the equivilent of $30.00, which we didn't have. As he was asking us to get out of the car, another policeman walked around the back and began talking to his commerade. Double trouble, I thought. Until I looked closely at this familiar face and realized it was our hitch-hiker! Through some cosmic twist of fate, his second ride had just dropped him off at this same crowded intersection, right in front of us, at this very spot, and he had recognized our car. He explained to our arresting officer that we had helped him by giving him a ride and that he was to leave us alone and let us go on our way. As I was explaining this to Jamie, our policeman reached in the window and shook Jamie's hand, held it for a moment. Perhaps he had felt Jamie's admiration in the car, had understood that his presence had meant something to this little boy. "See, Mama, I told you he would save us." As we pulled away, taking the road that would bring us home, I realized this experience had taught me two things. The first was to have faith in people, to allow for possibility without proof, to believe in the way my son believes, that people are inately good, or at least redeemable, but not always on our terms. The second thing was that karma, divine intervention, however we wish to call it or define it, does exist. People do cross our path for a reason, and If you are open to the idea, their cause will have an effect, however big or small, lasting or fleeting. My own little polis, with his pure intentions and naive belief in human goodness, was certainly sent to teach me, certainly sent to rescue me from all sorts of dangerous misgivings.