It’s my sophomore year of college and I am sitting on Abraham Lincoln’s lap. Me and Abe, Abe and me, looking out at the lights of the Washington Monument and the Capitol building as they sparkle in the Reflecting Pool.
“Get down!” my friend whispers. “Get down! A cop’s coming.”
His voice snaps me out of my hazy, 15 beer view to see a police car parked to the side. The cop takes to the steps two at a time.
In a panic, I squirm down from Abe’s bony knees to the pedestal, which now seems a mile higher than when my friends had lifted me up. Even drunk, I know that jumping down is a bad idea. But the cop is getting closer, fast.
So I jump.
My ankles explode out from under me upon impact, sending me backwards, falling as pain rockets up my legs. My ankles are broken, my ankles are broken—that’s all I can think of as I roll around, wincing and grabbing my legs. Somehow though, feeling the cop closing in, I get to my feet and hobble towards the steps.
“Evening, sir!” I say to him, as if he hadn’t just seen my drunk gymnastics.
He grabs me by my shoulder and rips me back up to my friends. Back to Abe.
“Give me your ID,” he says, catching his breath. He is a few inches shorter than me but seems 8 feet tall as he shines his flashlight in my face. I reach into my back pocket and my mind races. See, even though I can’t see straight, I know quite clearly what’s about to happen: I give the cop my ID, he sees that I am underage, and I go to jail. That’s it. To make matters worse, this isn’t just any night of sophomore year; it’s the last night of sophomore year. My parents are picking me up in the morning.
I wonder, what the hell can I do to get out of this? The guy saw everything. I can’t bullshit him. I think, maybe, maybe if I am up front and honest (like my good friend Abe), maybe he’ll be lenient. It’s my only hope.
So I hand over my ID and say, “I’m underage, sir. And, sir…I’ve been drinking.”
He doesn't seem moved by my candor. “Do you know what you just did? Do you know what you just climbed on?”
To everyone’s surprise, I respond as if he is sincerely asking. “Yes,” I say. “It’s Abraham Lincoln. He is like the first or second greatest president ever…Gettysburg Address.”
My friends burst out laughing until the cop shoots them a look.
He looks at me and when he does I really think he looks into me, seeing the guy who crosses the street at crosswalks, who cheats on tests but goes to confession afterwards. He exhales and says, “Look, you seem like a nice kid. Probably go to a good school here, right? Friends dared you to do this?”
I nod. “Uh huh.”
“Alright, look,” he says, adjusting his belt. “I’m going to give you three options.”
I brace for impact.
“First, I can book you and fine you $750 for underage drinking and public drunkenness. Or, second, I can fine you for defacing a federal monument.”
He points to where I landed. For the first time I see that mud from my shoes streaked the marble. I think of my parents, who will soon pick their son up from jail instead of his dorm. Their son, a monument defacer.
“Third," he says, "I can get you a rag.”
Still thinking of the fine and jail, I look at my friends, worried, wondering. What’s he going to do to me with a rag? Whatever it means, I figure it will be less painful than the wrath of my parents.
“I’ll take the rag,” I say. With that, the cop tells me to stay put. He goes to his car, brings back a blue cloth rag and hands it to me. He points to the spot where I marked the marble.
“Now clean that up.”
At this point, I’m still not sure what’s happening. Am I still busted? Is he letting me off?
I cautiously walk over to Abe, get on my hands and knees, and start to wipe up the dirt. And I wipe up everything, smiling back at the cop as I do, showing him with each swipe just how deeply I care about keeping our nation's monuments clean.
When the marble gleams once again, I throw out the rag. I’m face to face with the officer when he says, “Look. I’m going to let you go. But just so you don’t think you’re some sort of tough guy—”
I shake my head. “No. No I don’t think that at all.”
“You’re not the first person to do this, OK? I’ve fined and booked plenty of guys for doing what you did. Drunks, 2, 3, 4 in the morning when the bars let out.”
He looks at his watch.
“It’s 10:15, son. This is the stupidest fucking time I’ve ever seen anyone do this. Now go back to your dorm and I never want to see you here again.”
We leave. And the next morning when my parents pick me up I am still awake, dejected, my nerves shot to shit. They ask me about the semester and school and friends. I respond with the usual vagaries. “It was good. They’re good.” All I want to do is go home and forget that the night before ever happened. But I'm not off that easy. We drive down 23rd Street to the Memorial Bridge and the George Washington Parkway. On the way, the Lincoln Memorial looms out my window. I slink down in my seat, reliving my night with Honest Abe, the first or second greatest president ever.