CAMBRIDGE, Mass. A Friday morning in July found Sergeant Jim Hampy playing possum at the Storrow Drive entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike. “We shouldn’t have long to wait,” he tells this reporter as he sips on a Dunkin’ Donuts large regular coffee and munches on a French cruller donut. “They’ll be thick as flies heading out to the Berkshires soon.”
Hampy is part of a statewide crackdown on graduate student drivers; not 16-year-olds working on their learners’ permits, but people with advanced degrees in the humanities, social and physical sciences who because of their over-stimulated grey matter are too often guilty of distracted driving. “They used to call it ‘woolgathering,'” Hampy says, citing a term that has fallen into disuse that referred to idle picking of tufts of wool from thorns and hedges, a species of daydreaming while appearing to be actively engaged in a task at hand. “The only wool these kids have is in their Patagonia long-sleeve recycled wool shirts, but that don’t matter, they’re still guilty of it.”
Fulfilling the State Policeman’s prediction, a battered Subaru hatchback takes the exit and heads towards the turnpike, easing into the left-most lane where faster-moving cars are soon bunched up behind it. “Code 15 westbound at Allston tolls,” Hampy barks into his two-way radio, “in pursuit.”
“Roger that,” comes a voice over his unmarked car’s speaker, and as he accelerates into the jammed-up traffic he turns on his siren and blue flashing lights to make his presence known.
“PULL OVER TO THE SHOULDER,” Hampy says once, then twice, then a third time through his car’s bullhorn. Cars clear space for the law enforcement officer, and he begins to ride the right rear bumper of the Subaru like a running back following his blockers. “I SAID PULL OVER!” he snaps more loudly than before, and finally the absent-minded driver, Evan Paulsen, begins to move cautiously, one lane at a time, until he reaches the right-hand break-down lane and stops.
“Was I doing something wrong, officer?” Paulsen asks with an innocent tone when Hampy approaches from behind.
“I’m gonna let you off with a warning, okay, but don’t go readin’ no Marcuse or Foucault–understand?”
“I’m gonna need your license, registration, and your academic transcript,” Hampy snaps and, when the driver hands over the required papers, he takes them back to his vehicle and runs them through a national database. “Geez, this is terrible, this guy’s a three-time offender,” he muses aloud as he scans the results. When asked the nature of the perp’s offenses, Hampy responds “He’s got a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Stony Brook, an undergrad degree in the History of Consciousness from UCal-Santa Barbara, and he’s in an inter-disciplinary program at Harvard and MIT in Hermeneutical Teleology, whatever that is.”
After taking a deep breath and preparing himself for an encounter fraught with risk, Hampy returns to the vehicle. “Do you know why I stopped you?” he asks.
“You have a monthly quota to fulfill?”
“Your solipsistic, jingoistic view of driving regulations causes you to overlook the many nations–including those of the United Kingdom–who drive on the left-hand side of the road?”
“You deduced from my somewhat-shabby vehicle that I was a potential threat to the ruling-class hegemony that oppresses the poor but provides you with a gilt-edged pension and benefits at public expense?”
“No. You was . . .”
” . . . were.”
” . . . traveling in the passing land below the minimum speed.”
“There’s a minimum speed limit?”
“Yep. You gotta go at least forty miles per or pull over where you ain’t blockin’ traffic.”
“Sorry, I wasn’t aware. I was thinking about Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption as all the luxury vehicles whooshed past me. How people spent so much on brand-names that added nothing of value or workmanship to the massive, gas-guzzling hunks of steel and rubber . . .”
Veblen: “Droll. Verry droll.”
“Don’t fergit glass, professor.”
“Right–and glass that probably cost them $60,000, almost enough to pay my tuition for a year.”
Hampy hears the man out patiently, then begins to write him up for various traffic violations and excessive use of academic jargon. “I’m going to give you a warning and affix this to your rear end.”
“Isn’t that cruel and unusual punishment?”
“I meant your car’s rear end,” Hampy says, holding out a bright orange and black bumper sticker that reads “CAUTION: GRADUATE STUDENT DRIVER.”