Yes I was once in jail: The lock-up. The joint. The tank. The can.
This is my tale. I guess it is pretty typical: Freudian Psychoanalyst father. Over-educated mother who abusively corrected my grammar until it became unbearable. What possible future did I have to look forward to? Still, I somehow managed to stay on the right side of the law, until….THE DAY.
It was morning rush hour. I was driving to work when I saw a cop (that’s our outlaw word for “police officer”) flashing his lights behind me.
I pulled over and the officer approached my vehicle: “Do you know your inspection sticker is expired?”
“Oh My God!!! That sounds dangerous! Thank you so much for letting me know!”
He went back to his car and ran a check on me. I waited. He checked. I waited some more and he checked some more. I started thinking how I was going to be late for work. What was he doing in there? Finally, he came back.
“Please step out of the car.”
I stepped out, already in shock. And then, “Lean forward against the car. Legs apart. Hands behind your back.”
A brief, disturbingly homoerotic frisk and then I felt the handcuffs click. I remember managing to gasp out, “You’ve got the wrong guy!”
In the back of the cruiser, my “crime” was explained. My driver’s license had been suspended. Due to an unpaid speeding ticket.
“That’s it?” I said. “I’m in handcuffs because of an unpaid speeding ticket?”
“Ah, well then that makes it perfectly reasonable in that case.”
Nobody had alerted me that my license had been suspended. No warning, letter, phone call, notice, friendly reminder, “hey this must have slipped your mind,” nope, nada, just….a warrant had been issued for your arrest! What the hell!
There in the back of the squad car, I was read my Miranda rights.
“I’m confused. Anything I say can and will be used against me? You’d think ‘can’ would be enough. Why do you add, ‘and will’? So whatever I say, you’re obligated by law to use it against me?”
“You also have the right to an attorney.”
“My wife is an attorney, actually.”
“Figures. So that’s where you get it from.”
“I just think it’s odd. Like…how are you going to use this sentence against me?”
“If you cannot afford an attorney…”
“I’m thinking my wife will take this case pro bono. In fact, this is great. I’ll finally get something out of marrying a lawyer. Thank you.”
“Look I know you’re not a hardened criminal,” he said, a bit sheepishly. “It’s just procedure.”
“I’m not even a softened criminal. I’m a completely untouched, virginal criminal.”
I am making light of it all, but it is hard to overstate the horror of that surreal moment in the police station where the jail cell door is opened and your cuffs are removed and it locks behind you. Just like that! One minute you are driving to work, the next you feel like an animal that has been trapped in a cage.
I was not the only creature who had landed in this particular trap, as it turned out. I had two cell-mates. One of my new buddies was sleeping off a DUI, occasionally turning, moaning, waking, mumbling about what a mess he was in, and going back to sleep. I know how many tragedies result from drunk drivers, but he was a kid and I felt sorry for him. My other new best-friend had gotten into a shoving match with his mother-in-law. He had just lost his job. His life was falling apart.
We rapped about our crimes. Exchanged stories. Commiserated. Who hasn’t wanted to shove their mother-in-law, after all?
I spent a full two hours “on the inside.”
How did I pass the time?
I thought of writing an open letter from my jail cell. Something that would inspire my followers with my courage. Only I didn’t really have any followers. Or any courage.
I read poetry. Turned to religion. Started planning ways to tunnel out. I had this sudden urge to write a Country and Western song. In the second hour, I started a hunger strike to protest the conditions.
And then, just as suddenly, the keys jangled in the cell door, it swung open, they motioned to me that I was getting out.
“That’s it? I’ve paid my debt to society?”
“You need to sign a form promising to show up for your court date.”
“So I’m no longer a threat? It’s safe to have me out on the streets again?”
“It’s amazing how you guys knew the exact two hours that I was dangerous to society.”
I had to raise my right hand and attest to something. And that was it. I was free. I was at work by noon, the sores from the handcuffs still fresh on my wrists.
I called Mrs. Rotting Post. “You will not believe how I spent my morning.”
“You did the dishes?”
“Even more horrible.”
What did I take from my time in the joint?
1. I made life-long friendships, and hang with my inmate buddies all the time now.
2. I realized how wrong I was to have driven with an expired inspection sticker, and vowed to change for the better, and make something of myself during my remaining years.
3. I finally let go of the dream of shoving my mother-in-law.
Finally, I need to end this piece on a serious note.
I did learn this: It is extraordinary the degradation that one is made to feel during even the briefest and mildest experience of incarcerations (if that word even applies here). Just being led through the police station in handcuffs, and feeling the eyes on me, is something I have not forgotten.
I am fortunate in that I am not a minority, have a relatively comfortable life, and so on some level knew it would sort itself out. At the same time, it is hard not to think of those who have spent years in prison for non-violent drug offenses, or worse, for convictions that were later proven to be in error. Not to mention those who have never been convicted of anything, but still spent years in prison awaiting trial because they could not make their $1,000 bail. Every doctor is instructed to follow the well-known dictum, “first, do no harm.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone involved in criminal justice adopted the same motto?
At my hearing the judge said, “You drove with a suspended license for a year. We’ve been looking for you.”
I could not help replying to that. “Your Honor, I’m in the phone book. All anyone had to do was call. I had no idea.”
I paid a fine. The case was dropped. I’m still working on that Country and Western song.