Okay, I feel like work avoidance today, so here’s the tale of three artists, a car, a camera, and a pair of St. Paul’s finest.

It was somepoint in 2002. I can’t actually remember when, but the trees were red and hot pink and a lot of other improbable shades, so it must have been October or November. And we went to visit my parents, who lived in Western Pennsylvania.

Most of the towns in Western PA are relics of the oil days, and were maybe not named by the most imaginative of people, so they have names like “Oil City” and “Petrolia.” They’re also generally about five miles apart, which is evidentally how long you can drive the wagon before the horse needs a drink or something. Now that the oil is mostly gone, the economy has completely tanked out there, and you can get a 20 room mansion for $35K. My parents have a church. It’s a cool church. It was built at a date exactly halfway between my birth and the signing of the Declaration of Independance. The sanctuary is set up as their studio, and it’s friggin’ enormous, has the arched ceiling and giant tall windows and the lot. Very cool. Heating bills like you wouldn’t believe, of course, but very cool.

So one day, me, my husband, and my cousin, who’s also an artist (there was a strong genetic tendency in my family, I’m guessing) go out for a drive to see the sights. There aren’t all that many, but if you like crumbling concrete and rusted metal (and who doesn’t?) it’s a good thing. At the time, James (the husband) was working on a game that involved riding a stunt bike around inside a factory doing absurd tricks off steam pipes and whatnot. (This will be important later.)

At one point, we come over a rise, and there is this…THING. In the middle of Petrolia. It looked like a giant pipe spiderweb. It crawled across hillsides and made weird turns and had girders and boilers and generally would set the heart of an artist pinging with the sweet metallic sounds of Industrial Decay. Having no idea what it was, but thinking it looked cool, we took photos. James was seeing stunt bike levels and pipes you could grind on for minutes at a time. We took a LOT of photos.

And then we drove away, and had a pleasant vacation.

A month or so later, long since back in St. Paul, in the middle of the working day, there comes a knock ‘pon the door of our apartment. I open it, and gaze into the pectorals of two of St. Paul PD.

I said “Whoa.”

They said “Are you Ursula Vernon?”

“Yeeees…” I had nothing to hide, but like most people, worry on some level that I actually do and am not hiding it well enough because I don’t know what it is.

“Do you own a Honda Accord with license plate ******?”

“Yeeeees….” (thinking “Crap, the car’s been stolen…well, looks like they found it.”)

“And was it in Pennsylvania last month?”

“Yeeeesss…” (Now thinking, “This is a long way to come for a parking ticket, and if I hit somebody, they didn’t even make a thump.”)

“We got a call from the Pennsylvania state police.” (No thoughts whatsoever at this point, since my brain was completely out of ideas.) “They said someone in that car was taking photos of a kerosene plant out there, and they want to know why.”

And then, the lights went on.

“OHHH!” I said, and James said, behind the door, where he’d been quietly wondering if he should try to eat his entire bag of weed before they noticed. I continued: “Oh, god, right. That was a kerosene plant? Wild. Come on in, officer.”

They came in. Our living room was approximately three square feet, and the cops filled all of it. They explained that they’d been put on national security detail what with the whole terrorism threat thing. Even though I knew I was innocent, my brain twitched at the notion.

And then James turned in his chair and uttered the magic words, words that can bring a vast majority of red-blooded American males to their knees, words of such power that they got us off the hook immediately and in perpetuity:

“I make video games.”

“OHHH!” the cops said, and suddenly we were all good buddies. James explained the riding-a-bike-on-pipes thing, and in fact had the game in front of him on the computer, and after a few minutes of the police eyeing the inner workings of 3DStudio Max with fascination and asked lots of questions about whether he’d ever considered a game about being a cop, they wrote the shortest report in history–“What company do you work for? Creative Carnage? Okay!” thanked us for our time, apologized for having scared us, but y’know, people were all just edgy these days, gave us their business cards, and we parted on good terms.

And then James and I lay on the floor clutching one another and giggled hysterically for about a quarter of an hour, and off-and-on for the rest of the day.

And that, boys and girls, is the tale of how Ursula got investigated as a possible threat to national security. The moral of the story is that if you’re going to take photos of something cool looking, find somebody to ask for permission first.

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