A Police Chase a Night in Jail and a Vision for the Future

A Police Chase, a Night In Jail, and a Vision for the Future

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When I was 18 years old, to keep me out of her hair, my mom gave me $7,000 to buy my boyfriend Kendall’s car, and with the help of my friend Rob, I immediately lowered it, painted it pink, added rims, and switched out the back lights for red-and-white Euro lights, as opposed to the standard American orange. I also altered the engine and exhaust systems so I could use NOS gas, which makes your car go faster, and cut the stick shift, to make it easier to switch gears. The finishing touch: He mounted a screen that I bought with money saved from my part-time mall job at Club Monaco into the dashboard so I could watch movies while sitting in the parking lot of my high school or anywhere at all. 

My car became my getaway: I’d sneak out of the house in the middle of the night, not to go party but to drive an hour to Niagara Falls, where I liked to watch the water surge and feel the earth tremble as it absorbed that power. Every so often, a gigantic ice boulder would fly over the edge and free-fall, before crashing in the frothy pools below and smashing into a million pieces. It made me realize that things that took a long time to grow can quickly shape-shift. A reminder that everything continues to move forward and evolve, whether you like it or not. And sometimes things fall apart. 

When I thought of the most painful moments in my childhood—my dad walking away, living with my mother’s abusive boyfriend—I would press down on the pedal to stop my own tears. I was never afraid of dying. I was more afraid of the enduring pain of staying alive. 

But when I woke up one morning, 20 minutes before one of my college finals was supposed to start, I was just concerned about getting to school and taking my test. I did not care about selling advertising pages in magazines, but I certainly did not feel like flunking my exam. I had actually been working hard that semester, my grades were great, and I wanted to pass that class. I took my foot off the gas and noted that I was driving 82 miles per hour in a 40-miles-per-hour zone. 

A female cop’s face appeared at my window, lips pursed. I braced myself. My experience with female cops was always worse than with male cops. It seemed as if they had something to prove. 

“Honestly, whatever ticket you are going to give me, please do it quickly because I am late for my college exam,” I said flippantly. She looked at me with a mix of irritation and spite, pulled out her radio, and without breaking eye contact said, “I’m going to need some backup.” 

I knew this was not going to be a painless experience. 

She began to question me: “You have a TV in your car. Why?” “How low is your car? Why is it so low?” “Are these modified lights?” We were there for over two hours, and by the end, I had $2,000 worth of tickets. Worst of all, I had missed my exam. 

Exasperated, I called my mom. For all my issues with her and all her own struggles, she was brilliant at strategizing ways out of dilemmas like this one. After I explained the situation, she said, “Go to the courthouse and see if you can get the tickets reduced. This way, you also have court paperwork to give to your school to prove why you missed the exam.” 

I turned the car around to go back to the courthouse and was so angry that I started speeding again. The thrill of going fast usually made me feel better—so I shifted into fifth gear, desperate to be back in control. Within five minutes, I saw the same police car that had just pulled me over appear in my rearview mirror again—lights swirling and screaming. 

Fuck it, I thought as I pushed on the pedal, luring the engine into third gear with the flick of my wrist. In that moment, not pulling over felt liberating. I wasn’t just running from the cops, I was running from everything: Jamaica, Winston, my weight, my mom, the teachers who thought I would not amount to anything. I was slipping away into freedom, escaping from all the things that held a tight grip on me. But that feeling was short-lived. 

Just as I pulled into my driveway, the cop came screeching in behind me. The same woman who had written all those tickets jumped out of the driver’s seat with her pistol pulled and grabbed me just as I was walking up to my front door. She told me to put my hands behind my back, and I did not resist. 

My charges that day were dangerous driving and speeding. I was allowed one call, so I tried my roommate, Ashley. She didn’t answer. But I was too angry and defeated to even care. 

I was led to a small concrete room with a metal bench affixed to the wall and a stainless-steel toilet in plain view. I pulled the sleeves of my pilled gray woolen Club Monaco sweater down to cover my hands and took a seat. 

I was alone for hours, watching people occasionally walk up and down the corridor, ignoring me. But then a familiar-looking Black officer walked by and did a double take. 

“Why are you in here?” he asked. 

He had pulled me over several times. 

I said, “I was speeding and did not pull over.” 

“Oh,” he said, amused. “Are you hungry?” I was and grateful for this thoughtfulness. In some small way, I felt like he knew that for all my defiance, this cell was not the right place for me. He got me a small McDonald’s fries. 

The next morning I was transferred to a jail in downtown Toronto. I had turned 18 a few months earlier and was no longer a minor. I did not get to make another call, and no one explained anything to me. 

I was placed in a cell with two women who seemed more comfortable there than I was. Claire looked 45 but was likely in her 30s, with peroxide blond hair long past its prime. Her skin had open sores, and the smallness of her frame gave the appearance of someone who wanted to fade out of her own body. She had mischievous eyes that seemed to shield many sorrows. She was chatty and stood in stark contrast to my other cellmate, who was a large dark-skinned woman of very few words. Her clothing was oversized and baggy, hiding her shape entirely. She stared blankly at the wall for hours at a time, not uttering a sound. 

I had no idea who was to my right or left in the other cells. I could hear people but could not see anything beyond the thick gray cinder-block wall. The first night there, a woman sang “Puff the Magic Dragon” all night in a high-pitched voice that sounded like a little girl’s. The notes seemed to reverberate in the steel and concrete, slipping through the bars and bouncing off the walls. It was so eerie that I could not sleep. 

Claire spent most of the time talking. Mainly to herself but in theory to us as well. After 24 hours of observing me cry quietly in the corner, she focused squarely on me and asked pointedly, “Why are you here?” 

I had been sitting in the cell, lost in my own thoughts, wondering about my mother’s accusation that I was like my stepfather. The thought was repulsive to me, and yet here I was in jail. Was I becoming a criminal? How was this possible? I was running late for my school exam one morning and then imprisoned that same afternoon. 

When I didn’t respond, Claire asked again. 

Leave me alone, Claire, I thought. 

By then, even my silent cellmate seemed curious. 

“Why are you here?” she asked. 

I had nothing to lose, so I told them the whole story. 

“And then what?” Claire asked. 

“And then what?” the quiet one pressed. 

Both women were riveted and confused. 

Claire asked, “Was there a warrant out for your arrest?” 

“What is a warrant?” I asked. 

The women on either side of our cell were listening too. 

“Did anyone mention a lawyer to you?” someone shouted. 

“No,” I said. “They let me make a call, and my roommate did not pick up.” 

“So you never spoke to no one?” Claire said. 

I heard someone else down the corridor say, “This bitch is not supposed to be in here.” 

“Damn straight,” another voice shouted. 

Then I heard a clanging sound, like someone hitting a metal cup against the prison bars. The tinny sounds bounced off the cement walls and down the long hallway. It was joined by clapping, followed by more banging and stomping. Soon all the women in the prison were using whatever they had to strike the bars, the walls, the toilets and benches. They were shouting, “Excuse me! Officer! This girl is not supposed to be here! No one has come to talk to her!” The entire jail hall erupted into a chorus of protest, and they did not stop. I was crying again. This time, hopeful tears. 

An officer finally arrived, annoyed, and asked what was going on. A woman from another cell quickly spoke up and began to retell my story, slowly and clearly, pointing out all the moments where my rights had been violated. She sounded wise and spoke with a determination that reminded me of a female James Earl Jones. As she continued, other women in the corridor backed her up as she underscored her points. I never got to see her face. 

“We said she ain’t got no phone call,” another woman emphasized. 

“Uh-huh!” I heard echoing down the hall. 

“Not right,” someone shouted. 

I was sobbing by then, trying to take this all in. These women did not know me, were not related to me, had never met or even seen me, and yet they were sticking up for me. They were becoming a nuisance to the system, which had violated my rights. They were expecting nothing in return except some semblance of justice. They were hedging their bets on me. 

The cop said he would get someone to come talk to me. 

Fifteen minutes later, my newly appointed guardian angel arrived. She was five feet two with olive skin, brown eyes, and dark brown hair pulled into a tight bun. She wore her mall suit well, with big hoop earrings and a silk flower in her hair. She wanted to know everything but also seemed too hurried to really listen to anything I was saying. I told her what had happened, and she punctured my story with questions: Did I see pedestrians? Did I run red lights? How much was I speeding over the limit? Did my speeding put anyone in danger? 

Finally she said, “I need a phone number.” 

“What?” I said, confused. 

“Give me the number of someone who can come bail you out.” She explained that this person needed to be over 21 years old, have $15,000 in their bank account, and be able to make it to the jail by noon. 

“I need to know their phone number right now,” she said.

This was 2002, and I was flummoxed. I had a flip phone, so memorizing numbers was not something I ever had to do. But then I did remember one guy named Andre, a former NBA player with whom I had gone on a few dates. Miraculously I remembered his number but not his last name. She did not look amused by this but was relieved I had something to give her. 

She said, “I am not going to have time to come back and tell you whether I get ahold of him or not. I am just going to see you in the courtroom.” 

I watched as she briskly walked down the hallway, her low block heels tapping in a hurried, rhythmic beat that made me feel a glimmer of hope. 

The following day, an officer came into my cell with handcuffs. Once I entered the courtroom, the restraints were removed, and I sat in a chair behind a plastic partition. That was when I saw Andre. I got the sense from his body language and his refusal to look at me that I was not the first person to ask him to do this. Another person disappointed but not surprised. Still I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. 

Wildflower: A Memoir

I was released on my own recognizance, which meant Andre did not have to post bail. I called my mom as soon as I got home and told her what happened. She was upset for me and outraged at the system. 

“Please don’t tell Nanny,” I said. 

I did not need my grandmother to know I had been arrested. She was living in a retirement home in Fredericton, the town where she had grown up, and had a community of friends and family that kept her company. But I knew the “Speeding Teen Model Gets Arrested” headline that ran in our local paper, the Mississauga News, would break her heart. 

My mother hired a very intense defense lawyer. His first suggestion was that I go see a vocal coach. 

“There is something about your voice,” he said. “You sound high-pitched and ditsy. That might annoy the judge.” 

Ever since high school, people had commented on my voice. I was raised predominantly in Canada by a white mother and grandmother, so any of the stereotypical Black American Southern dialects popularized on TV did not apply to me. And despite my time in Jamaica, any hints of patois had melted with the first Canadian snowfall. I saw a vocal coach for two sessions—he told me that I spoke through my nose. 

I am not sure if my voice played a role in the judge’s decision, which was community service and anger-management classes. I do know how lucky I was to get out of jail. And to this day, I continue to speak the way I always have. The vocal-coach sessions did not work. 

My court-appointed job was to help unhoused women select outfits for job interviews through an organization called Dress for Success. I appreciated the concept: clothing as a means to imagine and facilitate new futures and possibilities. That was where I saw that the power of fashion, when harnessed correctly, could help women feel infinitely more confident, which could help them change their lives. This gave me so much hope. I finally found something I could focus my energy on—and maybe even a way to forge a future. 

From the book Wildflower: A Memoir by Aurora James. Copyright © 2023 by Aurora James and Bruised Fruit LLC. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.