Andy Seremetis likes to meditate. You might even say he needs to meditate. Too many days without meditating and his mood sours and days he would typically sail through become a slog.
"It creates a feeling of being present," he says. "I notice things around me more. I’m not thinking about what happened yesterday or what’s going to happen tomorrow."
He prefers to have 45 minutes of uninterrupted contemplation, which he times with a meditation app on his phone that emits an unobtrusive chime every five minutes. But Seremetis works full time as a software engineer and has a life, so he doesn't always have 45 minutes to spare. Lately, he's taken to squeezing weekday meditation into his lunch break. There are plenty of peaceful nooks along Commerce Street downtown that are both close to his favorite lunch spot, Spice in the City, and suitable for 20 to 25 minutes of focused solitude.
"I just go and sit," Seremetis says. "Sometimes I sit cross-legged on a stone or something." On Monday, he settled into a leafy plaza next to AT&T's towering white stone headquarters. "This time I chose to sit on the bench because I think my pants were too tight."
Seremetis opened his meditation app, sat up straight, and closed his eyes. "About seven minutes in, one security guard came up to me and asked if I was sleeping," Seremetis recalls. "I said I wasn’t."
The security guard walked away. Seremetis closed his eyes. His phone chimed a second time. It hadn't made it to a third when Seremetis was interrupted by another security guard, this one accompanied by a man Seremetis took to be a Dallas PD bike cop on account of the uniform with the official-looking patch on the sleeve and his authoritative manner.
"Are you meditating?" Seremetis remembers the cop figure asking.
"Yeah. Yeah, I am," Seremetis replied.
"Well, can you do it with your eyes open, because [otherwise] they'll think you're sleeping and they'll give you a $300 ticket."
The tone of his voice told Seremetis that by "they," the cop figure meant "I."
It's worth pausing here to unpack a few things. One is to acknowledge that Seremetis was on private property. While the plaza next to AT&T's headquarters is open to the public and has the appearance of a small park, Seremetis was there at the pleasure of AT&T.
It's also not clear whether the cop figure was actually a cop. Dallas PD patrols downtown but so does the Downtown Safety Patrol, whose uniforms look awfully cop-like but who are actually security guards who can't write tickets or make arrests. When asked, Seremetis couldn't say, just that he was under the impression that he was talking to a cop.
If the officer was DPD, he would presumably have known that a sleeping-in-public ticket sets one back $146, not $300, and that Seremetis could almost certainly beat the fine by convincing a municipal judge that closing ones eyes to meditate does not qualify as "sleep[ing] or doz[ing]," which is what the city's sleeping-in-public ordinance explicitly bans.
None of which does much to lessen the absurdity of the situation.
If the cop figure was an actual cop, he should have had something better to do. If, as seems more likely, he represented the Downtown Safety Patrol, he was still operating under color of officialdom. They have their official-looking uniforms and are funded by the Downtown Improvement District, which was created when City Hall agreed to let downtown property owners tax themselves and use the revenue to improve and provide extra security for their small corner of the city. Though technically employed by a nonprofit, Downtown Dallas Inc., the safety patrol is both a product and enforcer of city policy, as Downtown Dallas Inc. spokeswoman Shalissa Perry emphasized in response to a question about the organization's meditation policy.
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"We don't have a meditation policy per se. DSP just helps enforce the 'no sleeping in public' city ordinance when necessary," she wrote in an email.
One such policy is the city's aforementioned ban on sleeping in public, which was created and has been used aggressively as a tool to keep the homeless from cluttering up downtown. Seremetis, with his thick beard and wavy mane of hair, can appear scruffy, but he's not homeless. "I wear [my hair] in a bun at work," he says. "I don’t look like a businessperson or anything, but I don’t look like a vagrant either. I wear nice shirts. ... That day I had a really nice shirt."
Even if he was homeless, so what? There's a case to be made — not terribly convincing but at least coherent — that economic development and neighborhood-building in the city's core justifies the thousands of sleeping-in-public tickets DPD writes every year; businesses and residents won't want to come downtown if everyone has to step over sleeping homeless people. But does Dallas really want to be a place where people get harassed by cops and/or security guards for meditating? (If the answer is "yes," then the City Council should probably write "go to Austin, hippy" into the city code.)
Seremetis certainly thinks downtown's de facto meditation ban is absurd. Not that he plans to stop. "I really had no response," Seremetis says of Monday's encounter. "I was still really calm from my meditation. I just kind of looked at him and smiled."