I do a lot of dumb things when I’m drunk. I call people I shouldn’t talk to. I kiss strangers. I kiss non-strangers. I eat anything and everything and put whatever I feel like in my purse regardless of who it actually belongs to. Under the cape of alcohol, I am an oversized toddler with no sense of propriety.
I thought I’d hit the nadir of my drinking career on the miserable night I was pulled over, breathalyzed, and taken off to jail. The resulting DUI cost me some $7,000, but I’d realized how idiotically fortunate I’d been to be arrested. It could have been so much worse — if I’d hit someone, if my BAC hadn’t been so barely over the limit, if I hadn’t had a network of miraculously sober classmates to bail me out. When it came to misbehaving while intoxicated, I thought I’d learned my lesson.
I had not.
After a night of bar-hopping that saw me taking shots by myself to assuage my social unease, my friends and I stopped in for some late-night pizza. I don’t know why I didn’t just ask for a slice, or see if my boyfriend would split one with me. Instead, I set my sights on an Otis Spunkmeyer muffin shining among the other snacks, beckoning me from its glistening plastic wrapper. Whatever chunk of my brain that controlled rational thinking had long since drowned and primal instinct took over. Look! it said. A muffin!
Take it, said my dumb, drunk brain. No one will notice. And you’re so hungry! It’s just a muffin. How much fuss could be made about a muffin? Go on. Steal the muffin. Steal it!
I stole the muffin.
Soon enough, the cops arrived and I was out on the sidewalk, sobering up very, very quickly. I’d had a flash of criminal insight and threw the muffin in a nearby trashcan, so when I was searched, the contraband was long gone. After the officer wrote me a citation and drove away, we all went home. We ate pizza. We annihilated ourselves a little further and eventually we all passed out.
In the morning, I was hungover and embarrassed. I took a closer look at my ticket. It was barely legible, but I could make out the charge and the officer’s note. Item value appx $0.99.
I told my boyfriend to never speak of the Night of The Muffin to anyone, and when my court date approached, I went. Surely they’d see the absurdity of the charge and drop the whole thing. Surely the American justice system had larger concerns than one very drunk girl who tried to pocket a mass-marketed muffin.
If you haven’t been to court before, here’s what happens: You sit. You wait. You stand in a line. You sit down again. You stand in a different line. Officers bark at the assembled offenders to turn off their phones, lawyers hold up envelopes and call out names, doors open and shut, clients and attorneys confer over clipboards. No matter how versed you are in "Law & Order," the scene is equal parts foreign and intimidating.
I don’t remember going before a judge, but maybe I did. Even if I had, I knew from previous experience that my nerves and shame created a mental ostrich pillow that made anything the judge said unintelligible. (I’d had no idea, for instance, after I was convicted of my DUI — a full two years after the night I’d been arrested — that my license was suspended for a year following the conviction, making the full timeline of the whole debacle nearly four years.)
I do remember handing my pink form to an official-looking woman in a heather-gray jersey blazer. She scowled at it before telling me to sit in yet another area. Mostly I remember admiring her blazer; it looked sharp, yet comfortable.
At noon, court dismissed. For lunch? For a judges’ deliberation? For a bathroom break? I don’t know for what, but everyone was leaving, so I left, too. Surely they’d tell me if I needed to stay. Surely I’d know if I was due in court again. I assumed I was free to go, so off I went.
A year went by.
I still drank, but, barring a single high-tab tequila night, I maintained a working relationship with alcohol. My boyfriend and I had wine with dinner and home-brewed beer on tap in the kegerator that dominated our living room. I was busy finishing my master’s thesis, five years in the making, and arranging travel plans for the three weddings we’d been invited to, including a destination getaway in Mexico. Overall, I was doing well.
I was on my way to campus to deliver a direct deposit slip to the University Payroll Department. Due to a ridiculous knot of circumstances involving my nearly expired North Carolina license plate, the state’s vehicle inspection requirement and my cranky Toyota’s perpetual CHECK ENGINE light, I was driving my boyfriend’s mother’s car. I’d brought along a mix CD and was definitely rapping along to Kanye when I saw the campus police car behind me.
The officer who pulled me over was nice enough. He informed me, politely, that my tag was almost a year out of date. I laughed, explaining this was my boyfriend’s mother’s car, that I wasn’t driving my own car due to an almost-expired tag, that we were house-sitting while they were on vacation. We all had a good laugh — what a soup! — and then he took my license. I sighed, texted my boyfriend, telling him I’d been pulled over, FML, etc.
Then things got much, much worse.
The officer returned, looking at me in a new light. “Miss Richardson,” he said. “Are you aware that there’s a warrant out for your arrest?”
My internal organs collapsed. Externally, I said “No? What?” Internally, I said, Oh my god, it’s the muffin. It has to be the muffin.
“For larceny,” he said. “That means you took something that didn’t belong to you. Did you take something that didn’t belong to you?”
I shook my head. Yes! shouted my brain. I did! I was drunk! I was hungry!
He tried to jog my memory. “Maybe some sunglasses or some jewelry...”
Or a muffin!
At this point, he asked me to get out of the car. Another campus policeman had shown up for backup — I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the headline of their next staff meeting, considering they mostly broke up frat parties and issued parking tickets, whereas here I was, a live, wanted criminal — and the original policeman slipped the cuffs on me. I sniveled as the latches clicked around my wrists and sobbed as we drove downtown.
To pile on the irony and maybe in hopes I’d stop crying, the policeman informed me there was a grace period for expired tags. I could’ve been driving my own car all along.
“That’s good to know,” I said. Realizing I’d be booked no matter what, I confessed as we pulled into the station. “I remember what I stole,” I said. “I stole a muffin.”
The officer did not believe me. “I drove you all the way down here for a muffin?” He told me he’d heard it all — someone stole a 600 pound boat propeller once, a statue from someone’s front yard, but a muffin? That was a first.
In the station, after they’d taken my information, my tears had ceded to a kind of numb disbelief. I asked the officer if these charges would affect my ability to travel internationally. “I’m going to a wedding in Mexico,” I said.
“They might search you,” he said, “for muffins.”
Somebody, at least, was enjoying his afternoon.
My bail was posted at $100, which the gals I talked with in holding — one in for domestic violence and the other with several outstanding drug charges — were impressed with and more than a little envious of. My boyfriend picked me up, afraid I’d been charged with stealing the car since there was no way to prove it was his mother’s. I made him swear, again, to tell no one, and he bought me some pancakes at Cracker Barrel.
I felt unremittingly terrible about the whole ordeal for a solid week. How much of a disaster was I, to be arrested for a muffin? How out-of-control was my drinking if this had happened to me? Was I not doomed? Was it not just a matter of time before I got busted for real?
I called my lawyer, a man I’d picked from the random DUI attorney mailings solely because his name amused me. He remembered me and asked point-blank what I’d stolen. When I told him what, he was incredulous, but he agreed to take my case.
As it turned out, when I’d left court thinking the charges had magically vanished into the ether, I’d been given a new court date which I promptly missed, hence the warrant for my arrest. For $300 — which seemed a steal after the $7K DUI — my attorney accompanied me to court when my new date was determined, spoke to the judge, and beckoned me to follow him. He shook his head and sighed.
“It’s not looking good,” he said. “I don’t know how to tell you — they dropped the charges.” Amused by my panic, he chided me. “No more muffins, Rachel.”
Again, at least somebody was enjoying his afternoon.
In May, I was not detained at the airport for attempting to flee the country while a warrant was out for my arrest, which probably would’ve happened had I not been stopped by campus police. Grand Theft Muffin was pretty bad, but it would’ve been substantially worse had the TSA been involved.
In all seriousness, I have since been able to see how drinking is, for me, akin to lighting matches while pumping gas. For now, I’m staying away from booze entirely. It’s not easy; at my age, alcohol is omnipresent. I recently won an award and the congratulatory email said, “Can’t wait to meet up and buy you a drink — first round’s on me!”
Without booze to bolster me, I’m awkward at get-togethers, but my real friends haven’t pressured me to lighten up or just have one. I get called lame, but I’d rather be lame and at home than not-lame and back in the pokey. Whether I can drink safely and socially remains to be seen. To be honest, I’m not in any hurry to find out.
After the muffin charges were dropped, I took myself out to a celebratory brunch. I had a panini and started keeping a calendar: X MANY DAYS WITHOUT ARREST. I’ve almost made it a full year — so far, so good.