On Saturday, March 10 I walked westward along State Street for a mile or two, then sat down on a concrete block in the driveway of a convenience store to rest up a bit. This location was 4144 State St. and the time was in the 8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. range.

Very soon thereafter I was approached by policemen (two to three I think) and forced to take an alcohol breath test and perform various circus tricks for them. I passed a few of them successfully, so they decided to make things more difficult. Before making me perform a particular trick, one of them said something extremely close to, “You’re a professor. You’re so smart. Do you know what 30 seconds is?” The point was that for the next circus trick they weren’t going to tell me when the time was up.

I’d come up zero on their alcohol test (to their visible disappointment), but one budding Sherlock Holmes accused me of somehow causing my breath to go out sideways from the tube in a dastardly attempt to fool them.

Soon another police car arrived and then there were, I’d say, five to six officers surrounding me, badgering me to agree to a body search. I declined and one the officers intervened. He testily warned me that if I didn’t cooperate they’d have to take me in.

In response to their questions, I said that I was a UCSB professor of astronomy in the physics department. I guess that didn’t seem credible to them (even after I showed my UCSB Health Insurance card). One officer, who evidently models himself after the Barney Fife character on the old “Andy Griffith Show,” decided to check out my story by testing my astronomical knowledge. He asked what the new discovery was regarding Venus. I could have told him a lot about the recent missions to Venus, but I didn’t think that was what he had in mind, so I basically told them they’d stumped me. Then with a flourish of pride the questioner said, “They are thinking maybe it’s not a planet after all!” The use of the word “they” was endearingly childlike. Soon I realized he’d seen a headline about Pluto, so I tried to explain that he was referring to a different planet, that there are several planets actually – each with its own name. “Venus” doesn’t cover them all automatically.

Since that test was inconclusive, the next Einstein came up with this plan: They’d see if I could give them the room number of my class. I said Broida 1610, at which this questioner triumphantly declared that there is no such room!

I could see things weren’t going well for me. One of the officers said that they were doing it for my own good. I said I thought that at this point they were just doing it for fun. So one particularly ugly one stuck his face in mine, asking “Am I smiling?” The only reason I put this particular exchange in this letter is that it reminded me of a bit of a Jefferson Airplane song:

“Hide Witch Hide! The good folks come to burn thee- Their keen enjoyment hid behind a Gothic mask of duty.”

Another officer mentioned that some of the others present were new, and the others were training them in the techniques of modern police work. I got a bit irate, which was a mistake. One of the officers told me I’d been acting like only someone who was drunk or on illegal drugs would act. It wasn’t true – for the record I wasn’t on anything – but I took this as the point: They could say anything they wanted at the station or in court, each affirming the honesty of the others’ testimony. I think this method was used many times in the Ramparts case; I believe it is a staple, for the safety and efficacy of police work.

They badgered me for a half an hour or so, trying to taunt me into doing something really worthy of arrest. They eventually finished playing with me, or I wriggled off the hook. The reason I got off was that I was ultimately able to prove even to those idiots that I’m an “upstanding member of the community.”

All I’d done was soberly sit on a curb. Even if someone in my position had had something to drink, we’re not talking about mixing drinking and driving. It would have been a case of drinking and sitting, or at worst drinking and walking.

Here’s what I got out of all this: I believe that anyone who couldn’t have shown that he or she is an “upstanding member of the community,” or who otherwise seemed powerless, would have fared a lot worse than I did.

In closing, I will say I do fear reprisals for this letter. They can say anything, and back each other up. Or they can track me down and put some marijuana in my pocket. I hope they don’t send a death squad! If I do suddenly disappear one day, you know what to do. Call the police.

Robert Antonucci is a UCSB professor of astronomy in the physics department.