“Somebody has to go to jail, tonight. Who is it going to be?”
The question echoes in my thoughts as my choice will echo across the length and breadth of my life, revealing past and future as immaterial shadows of the present.
They came as I was leaving, flashlights bobbing in the darkness. Past them and to the side, seemingly floating in the blackness, silver stun guns. Three officers; two men, one woman. She is the Officer in Charge (OIC) and conducts the interviews and later processing.
I sit in the grass, next to my car. An officer stands above me. The cuffs chaff my wrists. I squirm to find a more comfortable position. There isn’t one. I sit straight, breathing deeply, eyes closed, shock setting in.
A short while later, I find that the backseat of a patrol car is built for discomfort. Hot, sweaty and folded uncomfortably, I await transport. It’s late. The neighbors are asleep. No one witnesses my arrest. I am thankful for that, at least.
Hall and Oates, “Ooooh, here she comes…watch out boy, she’ll chew you up, oooooh, here she comes, she’s a Man-eater…” plays on an oldies station. I laugh thickly through tears.
Transport through the city is blurred but clarity returns upon entering the processing center and county jail. Before opening the car door, an automatic gate swings down behind us and two officers wearing latex gloves exit a steel door eyeing me, sizing me up. I’m helped up and out, then felt up and down, arms wide, hands and feet splayed. More tears of rage and anger – and shame – betray me.
Processing is quick. The cuffs are removed, as are my shoes, and, sockless, I spend the rest of the night. My shorts have a draw string, so I am, thankfully, given the blue pants that I see other Convicts, perhaps Trustees, wearing. They’re too short, but better than the shorts I had been wearing. Minutes later, I am given an Army surplus blanket and deposited in a Holding Cell, with the other Convicts, to spend the night.
Graffiti-covered yellow walls mimic cheeriness. Mildewed air chills drunken slumber, fluorescent lights accuse; unblinking, crackling, humming. Echoing conversation, radio-calls and distant laughter parse the snores of shivering, green cocoons huddle on cold steel benches and an even colder, blue floor. The stench of alcohol and chili farts waft high beneath the sunless ceiling, above the chill draft.
A door-less stall barely conceals a stainless steel toilet-sink combination, and the only space left to sit or lay is next to it. So I take it, dispassionately noting the vomit stains and patterns of dried urine only inches from my face.
Being tall, the blanket proves problematic. And so the rest of my night is spent between navigating the dimensions of the blanket in the attempt to keep my bare feet and face from freezing at the same time, sheltering myself from the air-conditioned air emanating from above and the freezer-like chill issuing from the floor, and sitting up, staring at my surroundings, attempting to burn the impression of this night into my memory.
Bulletproof glass separates the Convicted from the Arbiters of Conviction, who are overweight and uniformed, although there are no donuts in sight, all night long.
I’m getting off easier than many others, the arresting officer had said. Her brows were drawn sympathetically. Instead of a class B conviction, she apparently chose a class C misdemeanor to charge me with. Somebody has to go to jail tonight, she had said. And so I sacrificed myself. Her sympathy was unexpected and I continue to wonder why I have been spared, yet again.
Three times during the night I am removed from the holding cell for processing. A tall, male, only slightly overweight officer makes certain I realize how lucky I am.
“You know that she gave you a class C misdemeanor, right?”
“Yes, I know.”
“She could have given you a class B, and then your career would have been over.”
“Man, what happened? You can’t let anybody ruin your career. You look like a really smart guy.”
Twice for fingerprinting and mug shots, once to try my credit card. If I’d had money to pay the ticket, I could’ve left right then. But, of course, my account was short. Poetic justice, I think. If I hadn’t stayed the night, I wouldn’t have met my fellow Convicts:
Another brother, indigent, Spanish-speaking and maybe half-Mexican himself; older, sticking to – and continuously repeating – the story that he called the cops on himself, because he was hungry and wanted to dry out.
A Hispanic male who spoke very little English – translated between guffaws for the rest of us by the other brother – arrested for defecating on an apartment lawn.
Another Hispanic male, cousin to the Spanish-speaking brother, arrested for public intoxication. The two had been drinking together earlier in the evening, apparently, with some women of their shared acquaintance. The drunk brother kept blaming his cousin for his plight, contradicting his own story of self-imposed imprisonment.
He lay down near me and I nodded a greeting. He asked me, “Do I know you? I seen you around, right?”
I said, “Maybe.” He did look familiar.
“Yeah, I seen you around the park.”
“Yeah. Probably.” It didn’t matter. I didn’t remember him, but also didn’t doubt his word. I would probably see him around again.
There was an African from Sierra Leone, arrested for driving without a license, and changing lanes
An old Redneck, arrested for carrying an unlicensed weapon in his truck when attempting to extract his grandson from the middle of a domestic dispute. None of us could believe he had been arrested for that in Tejas. He couldn’t either.
Nathan and Billy Ray, two good old boys arrested for going on a drunken beer run, with no money. In effect, they robbed a convenience store. It turns out that ten cop cars and a little police abuse equal thirty hours in a freezing Holding Cell with only each other and a lonely army blanket for company until the rest of us, the Convicted, begin to fill the cell for the night.
A few others, Hispanic and White, quiet the night through, mostly sleeping, or trying to, shifting, snoring and moaning, heads and bodies obscured by the blankets, anonymous in drunken slumber. Or shame.
And then there I was, replaying the night’s events over and over, wondering how I got to this place in my life and how I was going to move forward in positivity. Without anger. Without rage.
Vivid moments rewind and replay as night turns to dawn. A tasteless breakfast at 4:30 AM consists of hockey-puck sausages and what I think are powdered eggs – the other brother insists they’re real, and he should know, because he’s a regular and has worked in the kitchen – some watery grits and milk. He collects plates from those who can’t stomach the meal, drunkenly repeating his story that he called the cops on himself, cause he needed to eat and quit drinking for a while.
I come to understand the meaning of jailhouse camaraderie as the Convicted shared their tales, complaining about the cold and laughing at the fat guards as the old redneck yells and insults them through the glass, unbowed, swearing lawsuits and vengeance against a wayward son-in-law and over-eager Officers of the Law.
His anger has been a searing silence through the night, evident in his eyes staring up at the ceiling between bouts of restless slumber. His daughter walks past us later that morning, headed to another cell and further processing. He tells us his grandson was home with his good for nothing son-in-law who had called the cops on his daughter for busting him in the eye. The Redneck said that he could get some Wetbacks that worked construction for him to bust his son-in-law up and, damn it, that was exactly what he was going to do when he got out.
I feel sorry for his son-in-law.
At some point, one of the Mexicans – the other brother’s so-called cousin – tells me that he spent 8 months in prison the year before with the African, who had been incarcerated for beating his 7 year old brother badly. He also said the African had money. I look at him differently, then.
Someone finally asks me what I’m in for. I tell them. There are nods of understanding. Here, no one is better than anyone else. We are all Convicted.
Finally, the Judge comes. We are marched out, read our crimes, made to sign to them and then marched back in. We are told we are to be released, soon. Excitement and conversation fill the air. There are more fat officers around, and they bear the brunt of our unruliness. Even I contribute, feeling mean.
A little while later, a young brother is brought in, and he tells us he was arrested by his PO. He had thought he was coming in for a drug test. He reveals nothing else.
A white boy comes in, his voice cultured, educated. He says an officer from the Sheriff’s office was waiting for him outside his door this morning, and he’s doing time for a $16 bounced check that he’s paid over $800 for so far. We think he’s stupid, but nobody says anything, because, really, we’re all stupid. We’re Convicted.
My name is called. Nathan and the other brother’s Mexican cousin are called too. I don’t say goodbye to anyone and walk out of the holding cell without looking back. One of the fat officers gives me back my wallet and jewelry in a plastic bag. Everything has been removed from my wallet. I don’t bother putting it all back in. We sign some more paperwork and then we’re told we’re free to go.
The heat assails us as we exit the same door we came in. The temperature is in the mid-90s, and the cold of the Holding Cell is instantly relegated to memory. We walk around the side of the building to the front. The Mexican heads out from there. He says he’s going to follow the river home. We don’t question him.
Nathan has some cigarettes that he got from Billy Ray who had, somehow, been able to keep his pack (Marlboro Reds, my favorite) in his pocket through the body search. He offers me one. I haven’t smoked in over a year, but I accept it. It’s a special occasion.
We finish our cigs and then enter the station, looking, I’m sure, like what we are. Convicts.
From that vantage point, the facility is immaculate. A woman sits there with her two children. She looks at us curiously. I head immediately for the bathroom, and the toilet. It’s clean and I feel like I am releasing years of repression as I sit there. By the time I exit the stall, the night has taken on a sanitized quality.
I find that the pay phone won’t make collect calls, but I don’t really care. I feel numb, yet free.
A doorway seems to have opened, into someplace I hadn’t been in many years. A space of potentiality, a space of possibility, a space of unrefined chaos, from which all avenues extended, spoke-like and shining. Strangely unattached to anything, I wonder idly what the future holds. I realize that I can do whatever I want to do, from this moment on. That the past no longer has any hold upon me. That my choices are my choices and that I must live my life for me, at some point. That I’ve given enough. That I’ve sacrificed enough and that I don’t deserve this. That I can’t let anybody ruin my life. My career. For anything.
Billy Ray comes out next with the non-English-speaking Mexican. Nathan and I ask to borrow his cell-phone. There’s no answer for me. Nathan’s girlfriend is right around the corner and she says she’ll be there in a few minutes. I dap the non-English-speaking Mexican and he leaves us, walking toward the bus stop across the street.
Nathan’s girlfriend pulls up. She’s a young, cute blonde, and I can tell how much they love each other. There’s another girl in the car and Billy Ray hops in the back seat. Nathan offers me a ride somewhere, but I see he’s full up and I want to walk anyway. I tell him peace, I don’t want to see him here again, and they’re gone.
As I watch them drive away, I start walking.