The Life Lesson I Learned from Being Arrested

It was the second night of orientation week at the University of Pittsburgh. The awkward stages of figuring out who was “cool,” and who you wanted to hang out with was in full effect. I had requested to live in the athlete dorm, Sutherland Hall East. My wish had come true and I was surrounded by basketball players, football stars, track runners, and a myriad of other soon to be pro’s in their respective fields. To say I was determined to make a good impression on these people was an understatement.

I weighed 150 pounds, stood five feet (maybe) 10 inches tall, and had a fake i.d. Standing next to Mike, Jamel, or Dez was a physically demeaning experience, but my redeeming quality, the thing that I had that these division one athletes didn’t was that piece of plastic. I was 21 in the state of California. Kind of. The i.d in its infinite glory was “certified authentic,”, at least that was what my friend Nathan had said when he handed mine to me just a few weeks before school. “It’s authentic, it scans, it’s even got holograms and black lights.” I remember sitting in Nathan’s basement, his savvy and seemingly endless knowledge about i.d’s was comforting, and gave me the confidence to show it off to all of my soon to be athlete friends.

Everyone, even these superstar athletes were engaged in this feeling out process. No one was in their dorm room, everyone was in the hall. Everyone was talking, meeting, learning, gauging. Mike and Jamel stood at one side of the hall, Dez and Brylan at another, Izzy and Frederique in the middle. I wanted to make an impression. I had to make an impression. I stood on the periphery with John and Ray, two other non athletes. We listened, talked to ourselves about how cool it was that we were living with all of these people, and mainly watched.

Izzy brought up alcohol. I walked over to her, showed her my i.d and as smoothly and suavely as I could blurted out “What do you want from the store, I’ll get you whatever.” She grabbed the i.d, ran to Frederique, Mike – everyone and showed it off.

Mistake #1

I had $43 in my pocket. None of it was mine. Mike put in $10, Izzy and Fred combined for $15, and John and Ray threw in another $18. I was off. Walking out of Sutherland hall on a Saturday night at 11 pm with a backpack is suspicious. I told myself I was going to night class, a typical 11 pm Saturday night class. No one would bother me. It was cool but warm, with no breeze, and no clouds.

I made my way into the Peterson Events Center. I noticed a girl stuck outside trying to get in. I calmly mouthed through the glass door, “I’ll only open it if you give me a kiss on the cheek.” She laughed. I opened the door, “Nice try, but not tonight,” she said. “Where are you going this late at night with a backpack?” Were the next words out of her mouth. My night class cover had already been blown, “I’m running to the liquor store, do you know of any that are open?” She gave me a dumb look. A ‘is this kid serious, he must be a freshman’ type look. “My names Carly, and I’m going to give you a little tour.”

Carly and I walked through the Peterson, down past Fifth and Forbes Avenue and into South Oakland. She was a junior, 20 years old, a proverbial veteran of the Pitt party scene. We crossed through an empty parking lot. South Oakland was depressing. The houses were old. The beer cans that lay in the street were old. The smell was old. Carly led the way as we approached Semple street. She turned to me and said, “You can thank me later, the beer distributor is right there.” I was lost, but my target was in sight. Carly warned me not to buy from anywhere else. “The cops won’t bother you here, but anywhere north of here they might give you trouble,” she preached. She liked me; she was looking out for me. She had dealt with a freshman in my situation before, you could tell.

Carly turned left, towards her house, I turned right toward Mellinger’s Beer Distributor. It was now midnight. I approached the rust covered door, confidence at a peak, i.d firmly planted in my driver’s license slot of my wallet. I grabbed the iron door handle. Nothing moved. I looked above, the neon ‘OPEN’ sign wasn’t shining. I had come an hour late. I turned, expecting to see Carly there watching over my shoulder to make sure everything went smoothly, but she was gone. Lost, disappointed, and now suddenly nervous I walked back towards were I came, zigzagging my way through the streets.

In the distance I could see the clash of neon lights and the dark black sky. ‘THE ORIGINAL HOT DOG SHOP’ burst into my view. Carly had warned me not to venture into stores on Forbes Avenue, but my desire to impress my new “friends” back in the dorm was immeasurable. I strutted to the store, backpack firmly across my shoulder, confidence mildly restored. I approached the counter. “How much for a 24 pack of Miller High Life, and a twelve pack of Bud Light Strawberitas?” The women behind the counter calculated the total, “$36.24, I will need to see some i.d. please.” ‘Zachary Leonard Shefska, 6002 Sweetwater Avenue, Sacramento, California. Birth date 1/22/1991’ I handed the women the i.d. I knew all of its information by heart in case she questioned me. “I’m going to need you to sign this receipt,” she pointed to a piece of paper that appeared after she scanned the i.d. My name, fake address, and fake birth date appeared on the paper. I signed. She handed me my beer and I placed it in my backpack. One small issue, not all of it could fit. I walked out of the store with a 12 pack of Strawberita’s in hand.

Mistake #2

“Excuse me sir, I need to see your i.d.”

The officer had a small smirk, and I knew that in this moment my life was going to change.

“Officer, are you talking to me?”

I tried to play dumb, maybe he was talking to the man walking in front of me. His smirk grew larger, a sense of pleasure hidden behind his uniform.

“Kid, get over here and show me some i.d.”

I had talked to police officers before. I went to parties in high school. I didn’t drink very often, but I watched. And every Saturday night like clockwork police officers would arrive at these houses, and each time I would react the same way. I would walk to my car, talk to an officer or two on my way out and chuckle with them over the hilarity that ensues when police officers arrive. I had never gotten in trouble, I had never had a reason to get in trouble.

“Here you are officer.”

I opened my wallet without hesitation. I could get out of his situation I told myself, I had never gotten in trouble, I had never done anything wrong. My teenage cockiness had always prevailed. Sure I had that backpack full of beer, sure I was 18 years old, sure there was a police officer looking over my “certified authentic”, but actually fake California i.d, but none of this could stop me.

“Are you sure this is the real i.d. you want to give me?”

I’ve been scared before. I went to the principal’s office in middle school once. That was scary. This was different, this was the white knuckle, hard to breathe, verge of tears kind of scary. The ‘I don’t want my parents to find out’, ‘wow, how did I end up here’ kind of scary. The best kind of scary.

Reality had set in. I went back to my wallet, produced my Maryland drivers license and crumpled to the wall. It was only my second night of college and I had already gotten arrested.

Lesson learned

I didn’t get “arrested” arrested, I got quasi arrested, which in the grand scheme of things probably was for the better. Officer Cetra opened my bag, took out the 24 pack of Miller High Life and placed it next to me. He chuckled as he put the 12 pack of Strawberitas on top.

I sat against a wall in between Oakland Ave and Fifth and Forbes, head in my hands, feet firmly planted in place. 10 officers arrived, some young, some old, some somewhere in between. Officer Druskin, a 2010 graduate from Pitt offered some comfort.

“Kid, you messed up. You a freshman?” Without giving me the time to answer he went on, “Yeah that’s where you messed up. Why didn’t you go to Semple street? We don’t bother you guys down there.”

Carly had been right. Semple street, Mellinger’s, south Oakland, that’s where I should have been. It hit me, I realized there really was an area where the police would look past some 18 year old kids walking around with booze. I had so much to learn. Officer Cetra returned, his grin still firmly in place. He explained that he was letting me off easy, “I should take you downtown kid, showing a fake i.d. to a police officer is a felony.”

Upon further research I learned Officer Cetra was lying, attempting to scare me even more than I already was. Presenting a fake i.d. to a police officer was a misdemeanor in fact, yet it was the three month process of getting fingerprinted, mugshotted, getting a lawyer, and going to court that was more overwhelming and intimidating.

“Look for something in the mail, make sure you sign it and send it back to the court or else there will be a warrant for your arrest.”

I stood up from the cool cement sidewalk, grabbed my now empty backpack, apologized to the dozen or so police officers surrounding me, attempted to shake Officer Cetra’s hand and left. I had never wanted to be back home quite like I did that night.

Home was far away. Home, was the real address, on the real i.d that Officer Cetra eventually looked over. My new home, 3725 Sutherland Drive would suffice for the night. It would turn out that Sutherland Hall East would do more than suffice. Although the address on my driver’s license is in Maryland, my home both mentally and physically between the months of August and April was in Pittsburgh. I may not have been able to buy beer on August 22nd 2013, and I sure as hell didn’t look like the “cool” kid that I had intended, but eventually I fell into place.

It’s pretty amazing what can happen over the course of 8 months. Over the course of my freshman year at Pitt Dez and Brylan both ran new personal bests, with Desmond qualifying for the ACC Championship. Izzy decided to red shirt a year at her coaches discretion, and Frederique posted a career high 16 points in a game against Mount St. Mary’s. John and Ray became my good friends, and I managed to feel secure and content even without my fake i.d.

I may not run as fast, score as many points, or have that little piece of plastic, but that’s not the point. If college taught me anything it is this; get arrested, do it only once, and make sure it counts. It’s an eye opening experience, and if you are anything like me, it may just help you find your place.

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Zach Shefska

Entrepreneur, developer, blogger from Washington, DC.

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