(ed. Originally published August 25, 2012 – here!)
The drugs, as they so sadly do, finally wore off after a few hours of fitful sleep snuck in between seemingly arbitrary holding-cell changes and perfunctory, peanut butter and jelly sandwich lines. I wasn’t anxious, but I was no longer as calm as when I had first shuffled in hours earlier.
In my previous haze, I hadn’t even noticed being groped – my testicles squeezed, penis poked and prodded, and then sternly scolded when I didn’t hold my hand the right way at my first fingerprinting. I was so out of it, then, that I hadn’t even protested the absurdity of being reprimanded for my unfamiliarity with imprisonment procedures.
“How dare you not know how this works,” my jailer seemed to suggest as he then sadistically mashed my hand for a more punitive effect. “You must think you’re special!”
Unfortunately, all those sharp edges and blunt traumas that xanax had softened around me were quickly coming into focus. O, true apothecary, thy drugs fade quick! Luckily for me, processing had begun at night so there was little else to do but sleep or at least try to.
“Get up!” The Public Address speakers announced curtly. It didn’t sound very officious, so it was hard to take seriously. “Geeeeeetttttt up!” the voice then exaggerated. It was reminiscent of those rare times in high school when someone got on the PA who probably shouldn’t have.
We roused ourselves indignantly. I looked sheepishly amongst the strangers around me, momentarily bewildered.
That first morning, many others woke up forgetful, too. I saw the brief flash of freedom in a few eyes – something I may have overlooked among the workaday drudgery the day before. Possibility. Hope. Anticipation. Then that eager, early-morning sparkle dissipated and dulled with one quick recognition. That hopeful, morning glint dins quickly in the Twin Towers and a downcast shame lingers instead. Nobody wants to admit they were unprepared.
“Wake up! Wake up, guys, or we’ll call the cops!”
The guard on the PA was amusing himself now at our expense, mimicking the morning ritual most of the houseless hear daily on the streets by private BID patrols in their assorted, Skittle-flavor-spectrum-spanning shirts.
Were they trying to orient us – both the newly and the oldly dispossessed – to our new environment? I recalled the few nights I’d volunteered to sleep on Skid Row, only now – I wasn’t a volunteer with a distant apartment to retreat to if shit went South. As my friends would say: This is our life, Shelly!
“See! This isn’t so bad! It’s just like yesterday for most of you!” The voice seemed to intone. I heard a stifled snicker. The guards were having a good laugh. The familiar warmth of resentment welled within me. I wanted to smash their smug faces, but felt powerless and alone instead.
The hundred or so men I was corralled with during the intake process were still splayed out on any conceivable surface – soiled floors near shit-splattered toilets, too-narrow-for-human-body-sized-benches and comparably cozy cubbies beneath long-abandoned processing windows – each sleeping as best we could.
There were dozens of these windows, numbered ominously in black over the bleak concrete-block porticos, veiled by venetian blinds that appeared to have been unmolested for years. Each corresponding cubby had been quickly claimed by men as a semi-private bulwark against ever-encroaching humanity.
If they wanted to process us faster, it appeared our jail had the capacity. Twin Towers clearly had been built to far more efficiently and speedily catalogue and warehouse far larger numbers of humanity than it was currently being used for. There’s something tragic about that, I guess.
We looked at each other wild-eyed and confused, wiping what little sleep we had snuck in from our eyes, perhaps hopeful we would finally be getting beds of our own so we could get some proper sleep. Surely being inside the “Twin Towers” would at least be better than this insufferable purgatory of processing?
We finished rousing ourselves. We readied ourselves for the actual intake to begin. Then nothing happened. For hours. Interminable hours passed while we tried to sneak peaks at what seemed to be deliberately hidden clocks. It was like a banal and hopeless approximation of Las Vegas.
Every time someone reported back the time, having found a glimpse of a clock through a stray, bent blind in an abandoned window or a passing conversation with a trustee, those of us who still cared about time were incredulous. We’d been in less than 24 hours and time was already our enemy.
I situated myself with the other “surrenders,” a group of three strikingly dissimilar men with seemingly similar prospects. We all had less than 30 days to serve. We all had willingly and voluntarily entered Central Jail together the day before. We all had been forced to submit our surrender “documents,” then wait anxiously on the outside for eight more hours before the actual “intake” even began. Had I not been floating through the world in a rudderless, xanax balloon – I might’ve complained about this indignity as the others had.
“Does this count as our time,” the other surrenders repeatedly asked the desk deputy as I sat and watched the recently released collect their personal belongings. He reassured them each – each time – that it did. We were on the clock. We were in – but still outside. We couldn’t get comfortable but we likewise couldn’t leave. We were free prisoners. It had been an unsettling way to start a wholly unsettling process.
Ray stood out among us, the scion of surrender hope. His 17 days for off-roading his pickup truck in a park was the least of the sentences among us. He had a lot of professional ink on his sun-darkened, sturdy arms, and by that first morning, he was already openly hoping to be out in time to go to work that night.
In our little, fitful conspiracies – we all knew he’d be the first to go – so we tried to stay near him as a marker for our own, imminent liberation. We figured we were going to do 10%, and Ray was already nearing 1.7 days if we counted from when he submitted his paperwork the day before. To know his fate was to have a better sense of our own.
I was next in line. My 30 days had been reduced by the judge to 20 because she respected my choice to relent rather than continue the painful, monthly process of verifying my participation in “community service” over the course of the next year. I guess I was saving the city money. I can’t imagine any other way my decision made sense to the judge, except that it exculpated her from future, monotonous hearings about my “progress.” She lauded me for that courtesy – as if I was doing it for her or truly had much choice in the matter.
Next was Charlie, a beefy, cumbersome, and certifiably oafish white guy who exuded that certain sweetness so common in men of his comport. The big, cuddly beast. His hamhock hands could smother a horse to death, but you never suspected he’d ever do so.
He and Ray were both veterans, so that afforded them a certain dignity among the jailers – they weren’t regarded as contemptibly as the rest of us. Charlie had 21 days for drunk driving and was probably the one with the most maddeningly positive outlook about everything. He often had to catch himself when he presumed things would progress rationally.
Finally, there was Ortega. I forgot his first name. He didn’t spend much time mixing with us. Ortega had prison ink, shrugged off everything and kept his stocky, shiny head down without saying much to anyone about anything. I didn’t get the feeling serving his full 30 days or 30 hours made any difference to him, and despite seemingly being about the same age, I instinctively recognized him as an elder. I got the feeling he himself was surprised by his own surrender, but I never asked him about it.
At long last, we were finally moved again. This time – the move involved scanning our armbands into a bar-code-reading wand one would find more commonly on “the outside” at a Home Depot or CostCo. There they were used to scan cumbersome, bulk purchases – those unwieldy objects that just won’t fit on the scanner. Here, however, we were the bulk purchases too unwieldy but bound to be catalogued.
Yet even this dehumanization seemed a sort of progress! Surely this meant something! We were being catalogued! We were produce! Goods! I stifled a half-hearted “hooray!”
We shuffled slowly past a sentry point where jailers were watching an 80s movie on a shitty television set that droned on without sound. They were giggling amongst themselves, sharing and enjoying a break from the regimented tedium of warehousing other human beings over slices of pizza.
Occasionally they’d lob invective at an inmate – the one who stunk like shit and piss or the one who had the audacity to whimper in pain about some unseen injury – but it was almost just as an afterthought. Their barbs rang hollow. It was clear they just wanted to enjoy their break. It was a remarkably dispassionate dehumanization.
After eventually being scanned, we were told to follow three different lines on the ground. “Red” led the largest contingent straight into a long line further down the hall. “Yellow” led to yet another holding cell ahead on the left. And “green” led to a little bench down the way and across the corridor from the red line.
I was scanned and sent to the yellow tank, along with Charlie and Ortega. Ray went to the green bench with a couple of others. The vast majority with us that morning were red liners.
One-by-one, the yellows went to a window after being called. The venetian blinds at window 33 had clearly been well used. It seemed like the only window out of over 40 I’d passed that was.
The voice over the PA now sounded like a radio announcer instead of a high school prankster. His baritone was silky and smooth – he read your name like you were winning a prize on a call-in show.
“Toe-knee-ess, window 33,” the voice encouraged. I went. I didn’t correct the pronunciation of my surname the way I usually would. I think I wanted to keep that small parting gift for myself – as if his mispronunciation meant I was never really here to begin with.
I flashed my armband to the man behind the glass, as instructed. I reiterated the last three digits of my inmate number, “7-9-0,” into the phone with the too-short cord and was told I had yet to come up in the computer. “Wait for biometrics,” the radio-voice soothed.
“When I come up in there, it’s gonna say I’m getting out,” I hoped aloud.
“It might,” he shrugged. “Hard for me to know.”
“He could’ve been saying, “abandon all hope, ye who enter here” for all I knew. Or “arbeit macht frei.” Neither would have surprised me. In fact, if anything, those were the two things he could’ve said that might’ve made any sense.”
I still felt like a winner when I ambled back into the yellow pod where Charlie and Ortega waited. I hadn’t been red-lined – and in my estimation – that was starting to signify a sealed fate. The other yellows had shifted about, changed positions – clearly having paced a little – but they were otherwise exactly as I had left them.
“If we get to the red line, we’re spending the night,” Charlie sighed. “What a waste!”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They’re going to take all our clothes, make us shower, examine our assholes, process all our stuff, put us in the county blues and then we’ll have to wait for it all when we get released. Even if that’s tonight – which is just ridiculous. They wouldn’t do that!”
“They wouldn’t?” I wondered aloud.
“They would, but I mean – they shouldn’t,” he corrected himself. “Where’s Ray?”
We craned our necks to see what was going on with Ray. If he was being readied for released – we couldn’t tell. He was still sitting on the green bench down the corridor.
I felt jealous. I wanted to be closer to him and further from the upper end of the surrenders. I’d rather be next to him than next to Ortega, who had 30 full days. In my head, that was 1.7 days versus 3. We were far closer to the former than the latter. It seemed so significant at the time.
Of course, these rationalizations were based on seeing the whole institution in a rational framework. It’d make sense if the green line was those about to be released! It’d make sense if yellow was on the margins! It’d make sense if red was immediate incarceration!
We had to keep reminding ourselves against this – against trying to make sense of anything. Nobody knew anything and anyone who said something was quickly contradicted by someone else. The guards were the worst at this. They often contradicted themselves within a single sentence.
After a few more hours of this kind of rabbit-hole thinking, the radio voice announced my name again. I had been struggling to watch an orientation video featuring Sheriff Lee Baca that had neither sound nor subtitles.
I felt newly deaf watching it; something similar to the discombobulation one feels after being too close to a large blast. Something was being communicated, but not to me. I tried to read lips. I tried to figure out what Baca was saying. It was futile.
He could’ve been saying, “abandon all hope, ye who enter here” for all I knew. Or “arbeit macht frei.” Neither would have surprised me. In fact, if anything, those were the two things he could’ve said that might’ve made any sense.
I emerged from the pod on my way back to Window 33. The red liners were gone by then, their ranks had disappeared. Into an interminable series of unknown pods ahead? Into the towers? Released to freedom? Each was just as likely and it was impossible to speculate. The greens still sat restlessly on their bench, probably wondering the same thing.
“Toe-knee-ess, follow the green line to biometrics.” My heart might have sank if there was anywhere lower for it to go.
I skulked down the corridor, carefully toeing that green line. There weren’t any guards watching at all anymore, but I still followed that green tape on the ground as if the grey concrete around it were hot lava that would singe my feet should I stray from it. I was Kerri Strug walking a balance beam in the ‘96 Olympics, and Béla Károlyi was waiting in the wings to catch me if I fell. Except, of course, for the inconvenient fact that my Béla would’ve been a brutish LA Sheriff’s Deputy with a propensity to inflict pain.
I sat for only a moment or two, catching up briefly with Ray before he was called to give his biometrics. He didn’t know shit and was no closer to understanding our fate than the last time we spoke hours before. He still wanted to go to work, but his hope was fading.
I had told myself to prepare for the full 20 days so that anything less would be a pleasant surprise – but that concept had crumbled once the drugs wore off. Now I kept seeing everything around me as a sign of hope for my own, imminent release.
“Toe-knee-ess, come forward,” a new jailer announced. At least they were consistent in their mispronunciation. My cherished distance from this process remained intact.
I got up. I dutifully repeated the last three digits of my number, 7-9-0, as instructed.
“Put your hands over the trash can,” the jailer commanded. I did. He sprayed them with enough Windex to clean I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre. “Keep rubbing.” I did. He kept spraying.
He pulled me by the wrists, his hands cold and dead beneath blue rubber gloves, towards an antiquated computer system that looked like a relic from my childhood. A big, boxy computer straight off the set of Weird Science or War Games loomed over me. The deputy absently lolled my Windex-soaked hands over a giant rollerball. He tried to make small talk.
“What do you do, Toe-knee-ess?” He finally asked as he squinted at the screen, apparently disappointed in the first attempted scan. He fumbled with the clunky keyboard. He quickly re-calibrated the scanner.
“What did I do?” I asked, quizzically.
“No. What do you do? For work?” He clarified.
“Um, I guess I’m a writer,” I said uncertainly, the way I always do when asked.
He was holding both of my wrists expertly in one hand. He stared at little red dots marking the map of my flesh being charted on his monitor – cross-referencing this map with another, noting the significant landmarks the way one might an inlet or an isthmus in a geography class.
“Oh yeah,” his interest piqued.
I wasn’t really interested in having any kind of conversation with him. I was wary that he could be fishing for information. I was a political prisoner. No conversation here was casual.
“Who is your favorite writer?”
Chomsky. Bakunin. Gelderloos. Kropotkin. Graeber. Bukowski. Paul Auster. TC Boyle. AK Thompson. The Invisible Committee. Irvine Welsh. Thomas Wolfe, not Tom. Sartre. Camus. Hesse. Joan fucking Didion. Cat Marnell. Mumia Abu Jamal. Subcommandante Marcos. Hubert Selby. O Henry. Nabokov. Philip Roth. Doestoevsky. What would my answer mean? Should I just shut the fuck up? Hoping to avoid further inquiry, I went with a stock answer.
“Hemingway,” I lied sheepishly.
“Interesting,” he observed. It wasn’t. Every asshole says Hemingway. That’s why I said it. I said it because it was uninteresting. “Hemingway wrote my favorite short story. ‘A Clean, Well Lighted Place.’ Ever read it?”
I had. And there – in the middle of Men’s Central Jail – it made perfect sense to me that it would be his favorite story. It was one of the few things that made any sense at all.
He kept talking, but I wasn’t listening. He kept maneuvering my body to suit his purposes – the purposes of his biometric machines that tabulated, catalogued, cross-referenced, and categorized me. He was elsewhere, though. So was I.
“I wish he would go home. I never get to bed before three o’clock. What kind of hour is that to go to bed?”
He didn’t look at me. He was focused on the monitor.
“I don’t want to look at him. I wish he would go home. He has no regard for those who must work.”
He droned on about something. I heard what I wanted, distinct lines from ‘A Clean Well Lighted Place’ resounded in my head while he manipulated my hands anew, still talking at me or past me. I would’ve killed him for a cigarette if I had the chance.
“You should have killed yourself last week,” he said to the deaf man.
I wondered if he suspected I was the four year old from that old photograph, the kid whose sisters had wrapped him in bubble-wrap and goose-down to keep him safe from rollerskate scrapes? I wondered if he knew I’d only ever served three days in jail before, pre-trial, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when some thuggish, LAPD-tough guy with a crawfish-fed, Southern drawl and “countless hours of martial arts training” tackled me for the crime of being too near some “dirty hippies?”
I wondered if he knew that I knew who I.M. Pei was – had been to the Louvre, had run cackling through its halls, been bored by the line to see the even more boring Mona Lisa? Or if he knew I’d invoke that when writing about him? I wondered if he knew two beautiful women spent the previous morning with me, feting me with food and touch and sighs and smiles and eye contact and the oh-so-over-abundant-but-simple-fucking-humanity so lacking in this place?
I wondered if he gave a shit, but I was convinced he didn’t. It was just a job, afterall. He had a wife to get home to. I was keeping him from something else. Anything else. Just like everyone else. We were just the dumb, drunk patrons keeping him from his real life – for his entire life. And he despised us for it.
“Finished,” he said, speaking with that omission of syntax stupid people employ when talking to drunken people or foreigners. “No more tonight. Close now.”
He didn’t recite any of these passages, of course. He didn’t have to. It was obvious he’d have sooner seen me dead than see me at all.
I thought of Hannah Arendt then. I thought of the “banality of evil.” I thought of Hemingway – Papa Bear raging drunk with his wounded pride and fated desolation, lamenting his own impotence the only way he knew how, wildly swinging his balled fists against anything in arms’ reach until a shotgun blast finally soothed his savage torment forever. Then I stopped myself.
“That way be dragons,” I chided myself. I know that path too well.
I chose to think instead of a clean, well lighted place far, far away from Twin Towers – a place that would be unrecognizable to those who work in that prison of commodified existence. I chose to think of a place of resistance instead of resignation, hope instead of despair, humanity instead of duty, and abundant generosity instead of this unmitigated cruelty. I chose to remember that such a place is possible – maybe even inevitable.
I’m going to get there someday. I’m trying to bring as many with me as I can. We may not make it, we may be killed trying to get there, but I promise one thing: I’ll burn this whole fucking thing down trying before I ever surrender again.