Sweet Black Angel
At one time, as you traveled the highways of north America, you may occasionally have come across one of the many traveling rock and roll bands who were making their way from town to town, club to club, hotel to hotel, or, more likely, from bar gig to convenient store to couch. At any one time, there could be several hundred of them out there. They tend to travel in either brand new passenger vans, or the more rustic conversion vans. Some will also tow trailers full of musical gear. I once traveled over 100,000 miles in a jet black 1988 GMC conversion van that was christened the Sweet Black Angel. I still have it.*
The van's interior is plush. A dark grey, velvety, velour softness surrounds you while reclining in captains chairs with cushy arm rests. An overabundance of wooden detailing on the doors and entire dashboard gives you the feeling that the interior may have been installed by the same folks who designed the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain—minus the various Americana knickknacks and tsotchkes. A cassette player with full stereo sound blasts the good stuff day and night. Centered on the van's ceiling there are five switches to turn on the various lighting combinations, approximating the notion of being a pilot while setting the appropriate mood for your passengers.
Some travelers would call this van "classic," but the Sweet Black Angel is not exactly the kind of vehicle you want to bring over to pick up a new date, nor cruise at a slow speed past any primary schools, casually asking for directions. In fact, it is hard to get anybody's attention while speaking out of the window- for the Sweet Black Angel has an effect on people, day and night, that makes them either totally ignore who is beckoning from the dark van next to them, or take a long and curious second look at who is behind the wheel. Nobody makes a menacing move in the direction of that van, and even after the power lock system broke down, I never worry about a random door being left unlocked unless there is valuable equipment inside. Most people are simply afraid to get too close to this vehicle.
The sales pitch for the man who sold me the van was "she's a cruiser." He repeated it four or five times during the inevitable sale, and it became a catch phrase for that first crew of traveling musicians. It wasn't me who gave femininity to this van. It was the original owner- a Vietnam veteran and family man from Parma, Ohio- just out side of Cleveland. My band mates had found this van on the internet and I flew from California to purchase it. As he pulled the tarp off of his "baby," he fastidiously explained that his kids were not permitted to enter the van with dripping ice cream cones. No sir. Not a chance. This van was his church, and I actually continued that tradition by not letting band mates smoke cigarettes nor eat an abundance of fast food inside the Sweet Black Angel. I also left the POW-MIA sticker in the rear window.
There are a ton of wonderful or, perhaps, juvenile side stories-depending on your personal views of human behavior and the many possible adventures in life-that go along with that van's many years on the road. All the "interesting" things that happened between the dozen or so crossings of the Mississippi River, down to the Florida Everglades, up to beautiful Maine, across Montana, over to soggy Vancouver Island in British Columbia for a show with The Cowboy Junkies, down the coast to the border of Mexico....but I won't delve into these adventures at this moment, for this particular chapter is all about one night in the High Desert village of Joshua Tree, California, where I found myself on my knees outside her driver seat door, silently praying that one of the many guns drawn on me would not be used.
Like I said before, the Sweet Black Angel made people nervous.
I have spoken with police officers at least twenty times while sitting in the driver's seat of that van. More often than not, conversations are had through the passenger seat window-for when a law officer approaches the Sweet Black Angel, they do so with caution, and often times with one hand on their gun. They tend to unbuckle the security strap on their side arm while creeping wide around the passenger side to get a good look at whoever is in the front. They can't see anything through the other windows, which, I forgot to mention, are all fully tinted.
On the particular night in question, I was on the way back to my desert home after picking up some carry out at Sam's Indian Food and Pizza restaurant located on the West side of town. The California "no talking on cell phones while driving" law had only that week come into effect and as I was heading east through "downtown," which is really a group of buildings that passes in four or five blinks, I received a call on my cell phone and answered it.
Often times there are police cruisers darting around the village so it wasn't that big of a surprise when I noticed mid-call that there was a cop behind me. I immediately dropped the cell phone to my knee and put it on speaker phone. I told the person on the other end of the line that "a Johny was on my tail" and that maybe I should end the call because of the new law. I was not worried. I simply hung up and pulled into the turning lane to take the next country road that leads to the dirt road that leads to my house. The cruiser turned with me and I assumed that I was going to get pulled over. Since the cell phone law was still brand new, and that was the only thing I was guilty of at that moment, I didn't panic but rather played it all out in my head how I was going to be polite and confess and hopefully get off with a warning. Either way, I wasn't nervous at all and just drove along, waiting for the officer to light me up.
Instead, he just kept following me down a two mile stretch of paved road. When it came time to turn down the dirt road, I put on the blinkers and casually made the turn. As I did this, I noticed that there was not only one cruiser on my tail, but two, and a third unmarked vehicle which all turned with me while simultaneously flipping on the flashing lights. The first officer must have called in some backup to take me down bandit style.
I was still in a calm spot, and thought to myself they might be taking this cell phone law a little too serious around these parts. Then I remembered that I was driving the most menacing looking vehicle in town. Along with the original owners POW-MIA sticker on the back, I had made my own additions over the years. There is an anti-death penalty sticker on there that says "Don't Kill For Me," along with one that said "RUSH, I WANT YOU TO FAIL" plus a simple one that just says "WILLIE," which is confusing to most, but is really just a promotional sticker for the musician Willie Nelson. Discerning folks could also take this to mean there is a good chance that a portion of marijuana is being transported on board. Fortunately, that was not the case on this particular evening.
Being no stranger to the nervous tics of the highway patrol, I immediately pulled over, rolled down both driver's side and passenger side windows, turned the engine off, and put both of my hands up high on the steering wheel so they could see I wasn't up to any funny business. Strangely, no officer was approached my car. Instead, I heard a voice booming out of a megaphone demanding me to "place both hands out the window." I did this, and he continued. "Open up the door and step out of the vehicle." I complied. The voice now commanded: "Keep your hands where we can see them. Lift up your shirt and slowly turn around in a complete circle." It was at this point that I concluded that maybe this little pull over party wasn't taking place because of a simple cell phone infraction. Since I didn't want cause any trouble, I did what he told me to do-presumably so that they could all see that I did not have a gun tucked into my pants. It was also at this moment that I was able to see that not just one but three guns were aimed directly at me.
The deputy commanded "drop to your knees and place both hands on your head." Again, I complied. As he approached me from behind with the handcuffs, a female plain clothed deputy swung around in front of me. She aimed her semi-automatic pistol at my face and shouted "I got him" in order to signal to her fellow officer that she had me covered so he could pull my arms down to cuff my hands behind my back.
I am not one who knows much about hand guns, but I can tell you that the moment one was aimed at my face was a moment I won't forget too easily. I felt like I had entered a scene in a vey serious movie. The scene was in slow motion, and I could hear my own heart beating. It did not register with me at that moment that I could have been killed. I somehow trusted the deputy, tried not to make any sudden moves, and kept my mouth shut.
After he stood me up, she kept her piece drawn in my face and sternly asked me who else was in the van. Since I had not made a single sound during this whole incident, I had not realized that all the saliva had gone out of my mouth and when I went to speak there was barely any sound or confidence to my voice.
I attempted to say "nobody" but it sounded more like a frog pleading for his life.
"Nobody?" she yelled back at me.
"There is nobody in there" I managed to say more clearly, but she didn't believe me and I didn't even believe myself anymore. We both looked over at the van I could see how she could assume how there could have been any number of dangerous items in there-or dangerous human cargo with their own guns. After the arresting officer put me in the back seat of his car, I watched my own personal version of "Law and Order, Joshua Tree Unit" through the window of the cruiser as the officers went around my van, opening all the doors at gunpoint and screaming for whoever was inside to surrender. Watching too many TV cop shows and movies simply had me on the edge of my seat, and I did not know what to think anymore. Just maybe, while I was in the Indian restaurant, a fugitive or some psycho killer had hopped in the back. I sat there, helpless and ready to duck down in case there actually was some lunatic hidden in my van who might suddenly leap out guns a blazin'. Fortunately for everyone involved, all they found, aside from my license and registration, was some warm Chicken Tikka Masala with a side of naan.
The radio was left on in the cruiser and I heard the dispatcher say my name, details, and license plate number. Since I was looking at my own plates as she read out the letters and numbers, I noticed that she got one number wrong. Where she said a "seven," there was actually a "nine" on my back plate. This further compounded my fear and imagination as I now figured somebody switched my plates after doing something very bad. My brain was reeling. The cops were done searching the interior, and were now walking back and forth from the front to the back, shining their flashlights on the plates.
Since I couldn't see what they were looking at in the front, my overactive imagination assumed there was a large patch of blood up there that was going to somehow link me to a murder. I was completely nervous and had to take several deep breaths in order not to have a melt down. I kept telling myself the simple truth that I was not guilty of a single thing except talking on a cell phone.
After ten minutes of nerve wracking anticipation, the arresting officer came back, opened the door, and asked me one question:
"Is your name Deshawn Williams?"
I was stunned into silence. Before I could really answer he asked another question.
"Do you own a Cadillac?"
I was again stunned into silence. After maybe five seconds, I carefully and slowly replied "I have no idea what you are talking about."
He shut the door and walked away again. Now my mind was absolutely exploding with scenes and sequences that made no sense and perfect sense at the same time. Deshawn Williams must have stolen the Sweet Black Angel during one of the many nights it sat abandoned in my car port, killed somebody, and proceeded to leave a mountain of evidence on the front of the van, thereby framing me for vehicular homicide. Or maybe these cops think my actual driver's license is a fake, and that my name is Deshawn Williams.
I was rocking back and forth in the cruiser, trying to remain somewhere between agitated and freaked out, while simultaneously stunned and just a little proud of the fact these cops thought I might actually be Deshawn Williams. I practiced calmly and carefully saying "Sir, what exactly is going on here?"
The officer came back to the car for a second time. He opened the door and told me he had to read me my rights.
"Sir, what the hell is going on here?" I said.
"Well, we're trying to figure that out." he replied.
"Am I under arrest?"
"Not exactly, but I have to ask you some questions so I need to read you the your rights.
"By all means," I said. "Let's do this."
Usually, the guy who is getting his rights read to him- on TV shows anyways, is guilty of something. The words are recited by an actor, and the perp gets a sneer on their face. In this case, the cop read me the lines from a handy card he kept in his breast pocket. They never show the fact that most people who get their rights read to them are actually not guilty and that it's a part of the system that is there to either save or incriminate you, depending on whether you are a bad guy or not.
His first question was "Why does your license plate come back registered to Cadillac owned by a Deshawn Williams?
"I have no earthly idea" I said.
"You don't know him?"
"No, and can you please loosen these hand cuffs?" I said.
He shut the door and walked away. I could already tell by his body language and speech that the storm had passed. I was no longer an outlaw, but for basic police protocol reasons I was still locked up.
Only a few more minutes passed before they pulled me out of the car and told me, in their best gumshoe detective assumption, what was possibly going on.
Deshawn Williams was in fact a convicted felon who currently resided in the part of Joshua Tree the cops call "Little Mexico."
Both Deshawn and I, so it seamed, went to the Division of Motor Vehicles in 29 Palms on the same day-just about two years prior to this very night, and had picked up our new plates and registrations. He for his Cadillac, and me for the Sweet Black Angel.
Before the plates are shipped to the various DMV buildings around the state, they are stamped and filed into individual envelopes by the hard working inmates of Folsom Prison. It was at the plate shop in Folsom where the mix up apparently occurred, most likely by the hand of a bored, hopeless soul that knew he couldn't get fired from his job and who also wasn't above playing a little joke on the system. Instead of putting matching plates together, the inmate switched it so they were one number off. Sevens and nines. Two odd numbers that might not get noticed. Or maybe it was an honest mistake that nobody noticed. At the DMV they pull those plates out of the envelope and inspect them just before you take them away, but neither the clerk or I realized that one plate was different from the other by only a single number. For two years I drove around with two different license plates and never once did I or any law officers ever take notice. Apparently, the same thing had happened to Deshawn Williams. Nobody had ever noticed.
Everybody just stood there looking at me until I asked if maybe we could take these cuffs off and get on with our lives. They agreed that it might be a good idea but would I mind sticking around a bit until they located Deshawn Williams.
As we waited, we all managed to laugh a bit regarding the whole situation, and I was able to get the first cop who was trailing me to admit that "yeah, I ran your plates because your van looks kinda suspicious." They all took turns apologizing and the Deputy Sheriff even gave me a cigar. It was a nice touch. Like, "Here's a little gift. Thanks for being so cooperative and sorry about the whole guns in the face thing."
I drove the rest of the way home, barely believing what had just happened. My Indian take out food was luke warm but satisfying after such an adventure. When I showed up at the DMV the next day, they had heard about the incident and apologized for any inconvenience they may have caused. I wasn't used to being treated so kindly by those folks, but after all I could have been killed by one of their trigger happy deputies.
As I write these words, the van is still parked in the carport that is attached to my house in Joshua Tree, waiting for her next adventure. A well traveled life of highways, bi-ways, back alleys, rest stops, parking garages, ferry boats, border crossings, canine units and county lock ups is winding down as she gets closer to inevitably failing the annual California emissions test, which will prevent registration renewal with the state until I feel like paying for the work that would have to be done in order to make her legal. My goal is to station her for good on my land there and perhaps have a small, personal museum based in my back yard that former traveling musicians visit when they feel the need to rehash old bits from tours long past. For now, the van makes for a great spare bedroom at my house. It's clean, quiet, and perhaps romantic.
Sometimes, I like to drive the Sweet Black Angel up into the Joshua Tree National Park and throw a futon on the roof to sleep under the milky way. Shooting stars have become a part of my everyday life, and I make a wish every time.
*As of 2023 the Sweet Black Angel is now parked in my driveway in Tennessee. I hope to giver her to my daughter some day.