But Seriously . . .

A cop who’s seen it all reaches teens by lowering their guard.

By Zak Mucha

“When a drunk gets stopped by a cop, what does he try to convince the cop?” Mike McNamara pauses, eyeing the driver’s ed class at Bremen High School that will be his audience for the next hour. The students are silent, thinking the commonsense answer can’t be correct. “Yeah–that he’s not drunk.”

McNamara might not tell you he’s a cop unless you’re under arrest, but he shouldn’t have to–an 18-year veteran and Park Forest detective sergeant, he may as well have C-O-P tattooed across his forehead. He might not tell you that he has a master’s degree in criminal justice, that he graduated from the FBI National Academy in 1994, or that he’s a four-time gold medalist in the World Police and Fire Games. But he will tell you more than you want to know about drunk drivers. One man poked himself in the eye while trying to pass the street sobriety test and immediately threatened to sue. Another vomited on McNamara’s new shoes and then asked, “Is there a problem, officer?” Yet another man crashed into his neighbor’s car and hid inside his own house; when McNamara and his partner came to the door, the man’s wife answered while her husband stood naked in the living room. “It couldn’t have been me, officer,” the man protested. “I couldn’t have been outside like this.”

For 12 years McNamara has been teaching DUI prevention at his local high school, and in 1997 he helped found Licensed for Life, a nonprofit organization that teaches kids the implications of drunk driving, be they legal, physical, or moral. The program is funded by individual and corporate donations; McNamara and 12 other officers from the Park Forest, Chicago, and state police departments draw salaries for their work, but the program is offered to schools free of charge. So far it’s sent speakers to over 250 Illinois schools, as well as to basketball camps, prisons, Rotary clubs, and teaching seminars. The organizers hope to make the program available across the state.

“Make them laugh and leave them sober” is McNamara’s motto, and it works. For most of the hour at Bremen he has the class laughing. Suppose he saw Direese, a girl in the front row, at parties on two consecutive weekends, and both times she was obviously drunk. Now on the following weekend he sees her driving. “Say I’m doing radar,” McNamara suggests, “looking for burglars, fighting crime. My squad’s parked in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot…”

Someone giggles at this, and McNamara’s voice tightens. “What are you laughing at?” He polls the class, asking whether they think cops hang out at doughnut shops all day. After most of them raise their hands he begins a lecture on police stereotypes, pulling out a Dunkin’ Donuts napkin to clean his glasses.

Then it’s back to Direese’s probable cause. “If she was drunk last Friday and she was drunk two Fridays ago and it’s Friday again, she’s obviously gotta be drunk tonight, right? I should stop her, right?” The class agrees, but McNamara explains that even if he’d pulled her over and she were drunk, he’d have lost in court because he hadn’t had probable cause to stop her. What constitutes probable cause? “Say I walk up to her and ask her for her driver’s license and she gives me her Visa card.”

“Maybe she couldn’t see,” someone suggests. McNamara reluctantly agrees. But suppose she smells like beer? “Maybe someone spilled it on her,” several people yell. Suppose her eyes are bloodshot?

“She’s got allergies!” the students shout. “She’s tired!”

“She’s high,” a boy in the corner blurts out.

“Oh, that’s real good, counselor,” says McNamara. “‘My client wasn’t drunk; she was high.'”

Suppose her speech is slurred? “She’s got a speech problem!” The students find an excuse for every sign of intoxication McNamara can list.

“Here’s what a woman did to me one time,” he says. “Handed me her license and dropped it. Picked it up and dropped it. Picked it up, dropped it. Picked it up, dropped it. Finally she said, ‘Hell, you get it. I can’t.'”

“She got arthritis!” a girl yells.

“OK,” says McNamara. “You see why every reason I have why she might be drunk, you can legitimately come up with a reason why she’s not?” While all these clues can indicate that Direese is driving drunk, a cop can’t arrest her unless she fails the street sobriety test. “I have to prove not only that she’s drunk but that she’s physically impaired to drive a car. So step out of your car, please.” McNamara motions to Direese. She looks at the hand he’s politely holding out for her. “Get out of your car, please, ma’am.” She doesn’t get it. “Girlfriend!” McNamara yelps. “Get out of your car.” She giggles and gets up from her desk.

The street sobriety test is the most popular part of McNamara’s presentation. He runs Direese through the test, and she passes easily. Then he hands her a set of “Fatal Vision” goggles. They resemble a scuba mask, but the plastic lens is tinted and pebbled; it compromises the wearer’s sight and coordination as much as a blood alcohol content of .12 percent. Feet and hands aren’t where they appear to be, and the edges of the room are blurred, making it difficult to aim a handshake. The test not only shows the students how silly drunks look but demonstrates the extreme conditions under which some people will drive.

The students howl as the wearer fails the most basic tasks–standing on one foot, walking a straight line, touching his nose. McNamara asks the wearer to give him a high five, to catch a tennis ball. Finally the goggles are put away and the class calms down. “Is it funny to watch people do this?” asks McNamara. “Absolutely. It’s hilarious. But the scary thing is that this is exactly how drunks walk, talk, and drive cars.”

McNamara knows better than just to lecture kids. Preventing them from drinking may be nearly impossible, and teenagers often ignore talk of “bad life decisions.” Alcohol-related accidents are the leading cause of death nationwide for people between the ages of 16 and 24, and in the past year more than $12 million was spent treating youth for alcohol-related injuries at Illinois trauma centers. But those statistics may seem too abstract. Teenagers generally consider themselves invincible.

“Here’s a little-known rule,” says McNamara. “If you are 21, I cannot ask you to take a Breathalyzer test unless I’ve already charged you with DUI. If you are under 21, it’s the exact opposite. Say I stop Dave while he’s on his way home, taking a shortcut through the football field. During a game.” McNamara runs through several different scenarios, covering Breathalyzer tests, bond hearings, legal sobriety, zero tolerance, license revocation, drug tests, blood tests, and Miranda rights. He explains that someone can get arrested for DUI even while sitting in the backseat with his date, because the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that a person has “physical control of a car” if he’s anywhere inside it with the keys in his possession. The class groans.

Once he encountered a driver with a staggering .395 blood alcohol level. The man was sitting in his car, which was parked in the parking lot of a tavern with the engine running, and he was swooning in his seat. When McNamara knocked on the driver’s window he got no response. “I open the door and the guy falls out. He had his seat belt on. So his butt was touching the seat and his head was on the ground. And I hear, ‘What’s the problem, officer?'”

To get a fair blood-alcohol reading a policeman has to wait 20 minutes so that any alcohol in the driver’s mouth can dissipate. “So I sat there, wrote up the tickets and the report while this guy is babbling on and on. He looks at me and goes, ‘You know, your honor, I got this store in Chicago, you know, and last year these two guys came in and shot and killed me.'” The driver’s score was “a half drink short of being legally drunk for five people.” But one woman topped even that, registering .40. She was in a minivan with her two toddlers.

None of the students really notices until it’s too late, but McNamara has gotten serious. The stories of silly drunks have given way to autopsy reports. He holds up a photo of tangled metal that was once a Pontiac Grand Am and points out the passenger seat. “The guy who owned this car I knew for ten years, because he lived around the corner from my house. I watched this kid grow up.” The young man got hammered with a friend, and knowing better than to drive drunk, he gave the keys to his friend–who was even drunker. “Those of you who did the goggles, he was drunker than that.”

Only a few blocks from home, the driver nodded off. His foot depressed the accelerator, and the car hit a tree going 65 miles an hour. “The kid that was in the passenger seat got thrown headfirst into the tree, catapulted out of the car because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt.” He died, and the driver woke up in the hospital. “A few months after that he came over to the Park Forest police station on crutches, his leg broken in three places, wired together, pins, his left arm broken, his collarbone broken, cuts all over his face from the glass. Turned himself in to me. He was the driver and he was drunk and somebody died. He was charged with reckless homicide. He pled guilty last year, he was found guilty. And his lawyer did a good job and got him probation. So here’s a young guy with a conviction on his record for homicide. The kid told his lawyer, ‘I don’t want that. Go back to the judge and tell him I want to go to jail.’ He killed his best friend, but he still got probation.”

McNamara points out that if they do decide to drink, they have a responsibility to not drink and drive. It isn’t a public service announcement, but by now his voice is lower. “When it’s somebody I know, it becomes personal. My daughter almost got killed by a drunk driver. I saw a woman in a drunk-driving crash burst into flames. Out of 400 DUI’s, I’ve been shot at three times, stabbed once, hit with a pipe once, hit with clubs, punched, kicked, slapped, and spit on so many times I don’t even count them anymore.”

McNamara asks the students to think about their friends, to think of a person they might see every day and then call on the phone at night. “‘Whattaya doing?’ ‘Nothing.’ In spite of the fact that nothing is new and nothing is going on, in spite of the fact that you saw them all day, you still find enough to talk about for another hour or two. Now think about your mother waking you up that night and telling you that person just got killed by a drunk. Can you imagine what it’s going to be like now because that person is gone? That mental image you have is all you got left. What are you going to want to do? Do you want to forgive this person? What do you want to do?”

“Kill him,” the students reply.

“Absolutely,” McNamara agrees and pauses. “Change the scenario one little way: as you wake up, your mom is standing there crying and your dad is standing next to your mom and he looks upset. It’s one of those deep sleeps where you don’t know what day it is, you don’t know where you are. You wake up a little more and you realize that you’re not in your bedroom, but you’re in a hospital bed, and then you look up and there’s a cop standing next to you and he’s saying, ‘Hey, can I talk to you? Are you awake?’ ‘Sure, what’s the problem?’ you say. And he tells you the stupid, ignorant drunk that didn’t know when to stop drinking because they were having too good a time, that person that killed your loved one, was you.”

McNamara asks his students to be careful and think about what they’re doing. The students are silent for a moment and then applaud politely. “The response is usually one of two things,” McNamara says after they’ve all filed out. “Either there’s applause or dead silence. I like the silence better.”


Are the fights on Jerry Springer staged? Let me tell you about mine.

By Salem

My first glimpse of Chicago was through the smoked windows of a black stretch limousine. It’s one of the many that zigzag between O’Hare and the NBC Tower, depositing guests such as myself at the nexus of talk show controversy. I’d never seen the Jerry Springer Show prior to that wintry February day, and my first glimpse of the man himself was under the bright lights of his stage when action rolled and Jerry asked me, “So, Salem, what’s going on?”

What was really going on was that the love triangle I’d shown up as part of was actually a cohort from Seattle who’d brazened our way onto the show. But that’s not what I said.

I answered, “Well, Jerry, about six months ago I met a fine redhead.”

That was a true statement as long as one’s definition of “fine” dwells in the nebulous realm of opinion. Nothing else I said or did had concrete value either.

Jerry turned to a redhead in the audience and asked, “Aren’t you nervous?”

The audience was whooping with sadistic joy. I was a superfreak, exactly what they’d come to see. My hair was bleached Andy Warhol white, to contrast with my 29-year-old face, plastered down, and combed man style by the show’s makeup artist. I looked P.T. Barnum prime time. Clad in an outfit provided by the show that was reminiscent of postman gear, I was a two-dimensional drag king. I did my best to be supremely faux, splattering my speech and actions with profanity and chauvinism. Jerry loved it.

“Don’t let Jerry get a word in edgewise,” a producer had coached me. “You do the talking. You provide the action.”

This was no talk show. This was a freak show.

The redhead I’d joined up with for a video project six months before was Katy, a Seattleite in her 40s with a flair for the zany, a respectable job as a community grant writer, and a late-night Springer habit. She’d been dialing talk show guest-search numbers for a long time, to no avail. On February 16, 1-800-96-JERRY answered. From a menu that included categories such as “Are you having sex with an animal? Press one,” and “Are you in love with an object? Press two,” Katy chose the simplest formula, the love triangle. She pressed three and was given 60 seconds to tell her story.

She scrambled one together, throwing out my name as her lesbian friend and Fernando as her red-hot Latino lover. She was confused. She needed to make a decision. “It’s kind of an emergency!” she squealed, leaving her number, hanging up.

A producer called the very next morning. “Katy, we want you.”

I came home sick from work to a bevy of messages from the notorious redhead. A self-employed general contractor, I enjoy a somewhat schizophrenic lifestyle as blue-collar rogue-meets-writer. The weekend prior I’d shared the stage of our new world-class symphony hall with Seattle mayor Paul Schell and various city council members, and delivered a poem to a captive audience of 500. The poem was about one of our skyscrapers known as the black box. It was in the black box, working swing shift with a foreman, that I’d first heard about Jerry Springer. Night after night my foreman informed me with glee about the absurd and outrageous people he witnessed on the TV show. Little did I know I myself was primo freak-show fodder.

I called the toll-free number Katy gave me. A Springer producer answered right away. She wanted the nitty-gritty lowdown. Thirteen years in construction’s made me a natural at hicktalk. I swerved and soloed–“When she’s drunk enough, she’d fuck a rock!” The questions I was asked were few, their direction clear-cut.

“Never mind about his job. Tell me about the sex.”

Well, there was no sex to speak of. But there were rumors. I improvised. The essential formula for love geometry Springer-style became clear to me. State your name, whose ass you want to kick, then start kicking. If you can’t be that clear, that’s OK too. Just curse and kick.

A few hours later another producer called to hone my basic statement. Again I rambled out of context, again the producer karate-chopped my persona down to a simple leg of a triangle. I complied, dumbing down, speaking in monosyllables when not cursing. The producer was thrilled. She crowed, as if she were Ed McMahon standing at my doorstep, “Salem, pack your bags!”

Reduced to an outline of my former self I replied, “I can’t afford to fly out!”

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of everything. And bring sexy clothes.”

“All I got is jeans and T-shirts,” I said. A true statement.

“You can’t wear jeans and T-shirts. Don’t worry, we’ll dress you.”

Cool. I surrendered. Just what would they turn me into?

Our pal Fernando is a walking Jerry Springer Show. But he wasn’t available. I knew a chap nicknamed Doc who’d worked with me on several construction projects. At home nursing a sprained ankle, he claimed Merry Prankster ties from his hippie days and was game for a performance art adventure. How would we explain he wasn’t even remotely Latin, but in fact a middle-aged Swede named Stephen?

Katy brainstormed, recalling the Abba song, “He’s the Swedish Fernando!” With disco rescuing the improbable threesome, we headed for the airport. Katy had had a root canal the day before and was already flying at high altitude on Vicodin. Doc had shut down his neighborhood bar. I had the flu.

Our disbelief diminished to zero as a United employee handed us our tickets. Groggy, grungy, intemperate, we drank Bloody Marys. Katy prattled with a cellular phone rep seated next to her. Soon the entire plane knew we were headed for our 15 minutes of fame. Even the flight attendants got in on the story-angling. Laughter abounded.

No one chided us or derided us. It was pop culture, for crying out loud. Nothing more. Nothing less.

We never nailed down our story.

The limo hailed us at the gate.


In Santa Barbara, in Atlanta, and in a town in Tennessee, three other triangles won the Springer lottery too. Within 36 hours our freaky dozen collided in Chicago.

Interns met us curbside at the NBC Tower and corralled us in greenrooms. Nondisclosure forms were presented and a nameless Springer spokeswoman waited impatiently for us to sign them. By doing so we would pledge that our stories were true. Well, I hadn’t actually said anything untrue. I glanced furtively over the form, stalling my signature with comments like, “You need a college degree to make it through this thing!” and “What’s this about owning my image? If I want to use it, do I have to buy it back?”

The woman said it was about reruns.

They were threatening to come after us for production costs if our stories weren’t true, a grand total of $80,000. Sitting in the windowless greenroom, my first thought was, “If we bail how do we get home?”

The young woman sitting next to me–she was tramped up with heavy makeup and tight black clothes–nervously floated out her loopy signature. There seemed no turning back.

One by one we signed.

I asked for a copy of the form. I was not given one.

My companions were whisked away. A producer tamed me like a circus lion.

“Jerry’s going to say, ‘What’s going on, Salem?’ And you’re going to say–?”

I smiled.

“Don’t smile. Try not to use the words fuck and shit too much.”

“Why the fuck not?”

“If too much gets bleeped, the home viewing audience won’t understand what you’re talking about.”

“Can I use the word cocksucker?”

“That’s a good one,” she nodded in approval.

“Can I throw a chair?”

“That might not be the best idea,” she responded. But she didn’t say no.

The young woman in black was the only one left with me. She nervously chain-smoked and finally told me she was from Tennessee, that she and her girlfriend had been playing truth or dare a night or so before, and she’d been dared to call the show. She disappeared for a while then was returned.

“They told my girlfriend and her best friend to get into a fight,” she informed me.

Having been transformed by the makeup artist by this point, I sat placidly on my couch, flu-faint but doing my best to maintain. My only response was, “Wow.”

“You seem calm,” she said.

“I ain’t nervous,” I answered. “Ain’t you afraid you’ll go back home and your town will have seen you on the show?” I asked.

“No, it’s not like that. We’re all out.”

We stared at a Ren and Stimpy cartoon showing on a TV with the sound turned down. There was no way to turn to another channel. In our behind-the-scenes sanctuary we were as good as deaf, dumb, and blind.

An intern appeared. “We’re ready for you.”

I followed him across acres of linoleum and past a huge white partition. Across it was emblazoned in red, “The Jenny Jones Show.” Past it was Jerry’s studio. I was squeezed into a dark backstage chamber. Someone fitted me with a microphone. I could hear the audience roaring.

My producer slipped in. “Salem, when Fernando comes onstage, get out of your chair and chase him. And if you catch him, knock him over.”

Holy smokes! A request for violence.

Thinking about my friend’s bad ankle, I responded, “If I hurt him he’ll sue you!”

“Don’t worry,” she placated me, “the whole stage is padded. And he knows you’re going to chase him.”


She never asked why Fernando wasn’t Latin.

Her only real concern was that I might get cold feet. “You won’t freeze up, right? You’re going to put on a show, right?”

“I’ll kick his ass!” I shouted with glee, wondering how I’d fake my way through a rumble if it came down to it.

A door opened and I was coaxed into big, bright Jerryland. Lights, camera, action!

And there he was. “So, Salem, what’s going on?”

I rollercoasted my way through a pseudostory, leaving Jerry only enough room to make fun of me. I bit my cheeks in an attempt not to guffaw.

When Fernando appeared I leaped out of my chair and raced for him. Zooming deep into the audience he yelled down at me, “Crazy bitch!”

I showered him with profanity. There was no way to catch him. Security closed the gap and pushed me back.

I gesticulated and huffed, bouncing across the puffy stage. I was returned to my seat, but I repeated the scenario, chasing Fernando backstage. A security man grabbed me. Round and round we went until another security man, pretending to handle me, leaned into my ear and whispered, “Let Fernando tell his story now.”

Even the bouncers were producers!

I complied. We traded insults and Katy was shoved onstage. Brain-fogged by Vicodin she headed toward me for a gaping root-canal French kiss.

Yikes! No way, nohow was I going to tongue this woman. Apparently she had no interest in tonguing me either. Her mouth hit my cheek and her wild maze of red hair gave me just enough cover to fake my way through this most unexpected smooch. She slithered into her chair and I put my arm around her like I was showing off the greatest piece of ass in the world. The audience was beside itself, exhilarated, for we were an absolutely gruesome threesome.

Incoherent Katy was classic. Jerry whined and mimicked her. We were perfectly outrageous, ridiculous, absurd.

The circus ride jammed to a halt and we were flushed out into our hotel. When we discovered we’d all been crammed into the same hotel room, Doc-Fernando called our producer and complained about having to share the same room with the woman that stole his woman. The producer replied it was the show’s way of helping us to heal our differences. What? Did they think we were faking or something?

The Tennessee three, the two butch girls now bruised and scratched, were content. They informed me their story was true, but it had been a year since it happened and they’d already patched things up. One bragged about her domestic violence charges.

I dined with the Santa Barbara threesome, two gay men and a straight woman. They wanted to know how long I’d been with Katy.

I gave up my ruse. “She’s not my girlfriend. I hardly know her.” Each of the others confessed they were fakes.

“By the time they got done with us our story hardly resembled the one we gave them,” one of the men told me.

Doc-Fernando told me they’d told him what to say verbatim. Katy said the producers ordered her to choose me over Fernando. Pushing her onstage they begged, “Go give her a big French kiss!”


Reviewing the episode after its premiere April 16, I realized that the production technique protects both the show and the participants. Better to pump up the fakery, scissor-snip the guests into sideshow stereotypes, and provide us with a skit than to risk real violence.

If the fights seem real to Jerry Springer, as he just testified before the Chicago City Council, the emphasis is on “seem.” A practiced politician, he knows how to choose his words carefully.

His production crew knows how to help the guests choose words too.

At the tail end of our show, Jerry soapboxed his “final thought” from a TelePrompTer. He said, “The sexuality of each of us lies somewhere along a continuum.” Just so the subtle continuum between fake and real.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.