We’re driving in downtown Mesa. It’s 8 p.m. Tuesday, the day after Christmas. We’re navigating the barricades in a construction zone when the flashing lights come on behind us.
I keep going, thinking maybe it’s not for me. Then he sounds a fog horn. OK, so maybe this IS for me. I drive over a curb, a move sure to impress him, but I don’t stop because I’m trying to get to a nearby parking lot.
He hits the siren and honks again. I’m in trouble. I pull into the parking lot. And wait.
The police car pulls in behind us, blocking us in. An officer gets out and comes walking toward the driver’s door. He’s in a major-league bulletproof vest and heavily armed. A second officer stays behind the car. I’m a dead man.
He leans in toward the the window and asks the six words you never want to hear:
“Do you have Rudolph in there?”
It started out innocently enough. Several years ago, our pal CeCe mailed us a Rudolph costume she had liberated when our old newspaper folded. In the years since, we take him out to see the sights during the holiday season.
This year’s outing was to the Superstition Mountains. We shot one of him in front of the mountains and another next to a saguaro, and that was that.
Driving home along Main, we were admiring all the old neon signs. Mesa used to be famous for its neon. Wouldn’t it be cool to come back after dark and shoot Rudolph next to some signs? Sure! What could go wrong?
And so here we are, driving along on Main in the dark. “What would we say if someone asks what we’re doing?” Mo asks. I say we’d just tell them the truth. It might work.
We mostly want to shoot the Buckhorn Baths sign. It’s an old iconic Mesa masterpiece, left over from a day when the motel was semi-famous. Sadly, we arrive to find that the sign no longer lights up. Undaunted, we get out and try for a photo anyhow. The lighting’s not great, but that adds to the mood. Mo says we’re just a red balloon away from creepy clown shots. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
Mesa’s Main Street being Mesa’s Main Street, it feels scary getting out of the car. A cat behind a chain link fence eyes us warily. A spooky guy in a motorized wheelchair drives back and forth. Three people appear to be making a drug transaction just across the street. I’m guessing the fact that a vision of Rudolph just appeared makes a compelling argument for whatever drugs he’s selling.
We snap a few shots and take off. Mo has removed Rudolph’s head but is still wearing the furry body. We drive down to our one other target, a motel with a famous diver neon sign. The diver starts at the top, then goes down and down some more and splashes. This was likely fabulous in the 1830s. Somehow they’re still doing decent business, which worries me a little given that Mo is wearing a Rudolph costume and dancing in the dark in front of the sign in clear view of the lobby.
We shoot a video, then try it again, and then one more time, none of them working quite right. A car pulls up too close to us, so I pull the plug and we make our getaway. Mission accomplished.
Mo had seen a sign earlier, an old neon Dairy Queen ice cream cone. She had shot a photo of it for staging purposes. We would buy a cone. Rudolph would stand under the neon holding the cone, the reward for a night of directing Santa, a task that seems unnecessary in the era of GPS, unless you’ve ever used Google Maps to get to a little Texas farm town. One photo, then we’ll be gone.
And then the flashing lights come on behind us.
“Do you have Rudolph in there?” the officer asks. He’s deadly serious.
Yes, I reply. I try not to indicate that I’m peeing my pants.
“What are you doing?” he asks sternly.
If Officer Obie was Arlo Guthrie’s holiday memory, this will be mine. I explain the story of Rudolph and the Tribune and Cece and the photo tradition and the mountains and the neon and the 27 8-by-10 color glossy pictures and it’s all Mo’s fault so by all means haul her away and I’ll come visit every Christmas and CeCe always seemed a bit suspicious as well and a few days in the slammer might do her good thank you i’ll be going now.
He asks for my license and insurance. He wants Mo’s license too, but she explains there’s not a good place to keep a wallet in a reindeer costume. He walks back to his car.
My life flashes before my eyes. It’s a bad version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” since I’ve never actually seen “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But I love the Sparklehorse song “It’s a Wonderful Life,” so I substitute that. I’m the dog that ate your birthday cake? I decide not to mention the lyrics to the officer.
He comes walking back. I offer up my phone and show him the afternoon photos of Rudolph in the daylight when he looked less like Freddie Krueger. He laughs. His gun isn’t drawn, which I take to be a sign things are going better.
He tells me we were going a little too fast through the construction zone and that’s why he pulled me over. This doesn’t explain why his first question was about Rudolph, but it seems the wrong time for hard-hitting investigative journalism. Just slow down a little and be careful, OK? No ticket, no warning, just a friendly admonishment.
Mesa police officers have gotten some bad press lately, but this guy couldn’t have been nicer. And in his defense, I’d have pulled us over too. I’m guessing the motel clerk ratted us out. But again, if I looked out and saw a reindeer doing a bad version of The Hustle in front of my place, I’d likely have the same reaction.
We drive off. Mo looks at me and says:
“So should we still take the Dairy Queen shot?” Mo is funny.
We drive home, stash Rudolph in the spare bedroom and go into hiding for another year. I make a mental note to get CeCe’s cell number in case we need to be bailed out next year. This is all her fault, after all.
Life is funny …