My Unfortunate Incarceration: A New York Jail Cell Odyssey

Once inside the cell, I am overcome with unfocused anxiety. My eyes feel squeezed and itchy; my vision blurs; temporal arteries pulsate like someone is garroting me.

For tangible reference to temporary insanity, to a complete and devastating loss of cognitive control, it is way too easy to invoke Kafka or even Dada when you are suddenly and for the first time arrested and imprisoned for a minor infraction and have ample time to think as you continually pace the crowded holding cell.

My “crime” had its roots in a party held at a local pub. Three friends and I met to have a few drinks together before one was to leave for a new job in California. I’d seen a police patrol car parked outside and down the street from the establishment when I’d first walked into Quinn’s about three hours before the arrest, but I’d paid them no heed.

When I left the dive, having played a couple games of pool with the remaining locals – ferry boat employees drunk on beer and free time – I was the last man out from our little group. I’d not noticed the police cruiser was still there, and even if I had, I probably would have ignored it anyway. Cognitively, I was in fine shape, I thought, and so I started my car for the two-mile trip back home.

At the intersection where I was to turn homeward, I’d dutifully turned my directional signal on – I’d consumed four martinis over three hours, but I was sober enough to navigate and to signal. Had I not been stopped, I would have arrived -- most likely without incident -- safely in my driveway within seven minutes.

But that was not to be: There commenced a din of sirens and the strobing red, blue, and white police lights flashing wildly directly behind me, viewed in horror through the rear-view mirror. There was the officious mock-stentorian voice of the undereducated civil servant shouting at me through the grill speaker, commanding me to pull over, now!

This was the beginning of my first existential adventure in criminal justice.

Ultimately, as the experience unraveled, I came to feel more like a character in one of those Warner Brothers’ innocent-guy-railroaded movies I’ve seen a hundred times, rather than as a suddenly sentient Kafkaroach – conjure the guileless and intense and ultimately doomed Paul Muni in 1931’s I Am A Prisoner From A Chain Gang.

Two cops, two utterly opposing sensibilities. One, a clichéd Teuton, tall, thin, pale and blond, mustachioed, wearing Ray Bans at night and those black leather storm trooper highway patrol up-to-the thigh motorcycle boots and leather cop jacket. The other, short, dark, a southern Italian surname (I, too, am from southern Italian stock and can usually recognize a countryman); the beta Italo to German Man’s alpha cop.

Within minutes after my arrest, I find myself twitching inside a jail cell, pacing compulsively, literally delirious with anxiety and disbelief.

Recalling now the first cell to which I am confined, at the local police precinct on Staten Island, it is all of six feet wide by eight feet high by eight feet long. One of the arresting officers – the Italian, not the Teutonic Buzzkill -- has led me to its threshold, where my handcuffs are finally removed. The jailer-cop, who assumes my custody, opens the cell door that’s been painted over a hundred times with garish yellow lead paint, with a key from an outsized ring, and my heart begins pounding arrhythmically.

It has finally sunk in: I will never be able to answer NO to the question, “Have you ever been arrested?” Maybe it was funny when Arlo Guthrie sang about the same subject in Alice’s Restaurant, but to me it was a line crossed, a bad decision accompli.

However, that’s just intellectual construct; the superego’s way of dealing with the sinking awareness that suddenly something is very wrong. Self-consciously passing that threshold into the jail cell for the first time is the beginning of a nightmare of self control and perceived identity that reaches down into the soupy swirl of chemical matrices that define the very word, self. In my case, as a putative manic-depressive, with a frequently questionable sense of self, those matrices may not be quite the same as your matrices, so read on with that in mind.

Once inside the cell, I am overcome with unfocused anxiety. My eyes feel squeezed and itchy; my vision blurs; temporal arteries pulsate like someone is garroting me. I can concentrate only on my inability to swallow or even to speak because my body refuses to manufacture any more saliva or tears. Even my bladder has locked its door.

I begin my all-night-long pacing beginning at 9:30 p.m. – approximately one hour after my arrest and quickly handcuffed dispatch inside the police patrol car -- and continue walking my cell all night long. I do not – cannot -- sleep. If you add this pacing to that which continued in several more holding cells over the next 36 hours, I estimate I walked 15 circular miles in the course of the two-day ordeal.

My late-arriving cellmate – blessedly, there is but one, for we are housed in what might be called a double-occupancy suite for the single night before each of us is to await morning transport to Brooklyn Criminal Court for arraignment – is in on a warrant of spousal nonsupport and appears equally dazed by his incarceration. Therefore, it appears I will not have to worry about possible depredations from him during my stay here. However, because there’s only one cot, which he has seized during my mad pacing, I am now forced to stand, and that’s making me crazy, too.

In the morning, tired and hypomanic from lack of sleep, I prepare for round two: transport to Brooklyn. One man to whom I was chained as we left the police station to be transported in a paddy wagon, I had read about just a week before in the local daily newspaper. Not more than twenty-two, he had shot it out with undercover narcotics officers who were about to arrest him on drug charges.

How he boasted in the back of that meat truck, during our ride on the way to Brooklyn Criminal Court, that he knew how fame must feel, since “even the cops that arrested me said I shoulda smoked the fucker. Somethin’ ‘bout how he thought he was real hot shit…the cameras, man, the cameras, though. Boy…I was on the damn six o’clock news, y’understand what I’m sayin?”

Here comes that Heidiggerian slap of the real again: What the hell am I doing here, chained to this man? Or to the twelve other men, being led out the front door of the police precinct and into my home community, on a Monday morning in bright and embarrassing daylight, an unseemly warm winter morning in November, when I should be at work?

Soon, I’ll have to face a day of psychic manipulation at the hands of the cops working in the jail cells of the Brooklyn Criminal Court as they move us from cell to cell, floor to floor, in some Dantean approximation of the lower rungs of Hell.

An absurd thought suddenly crosses my mind. I try to fight it, knowing it is going to come out wrong, but I can’t help myself: In the hope that I can at least amuse myself, and take nominal control of the situation, I repeat to my fellow prisoners the old Woody Allen chain-gang joke: “Hey, why don’t we just escape, disguised as a giant charm bracelet?”

My fellow chainees glance through me with vague disgust, as do the police sergeants in charge of this transport from the precinct jail in Staten Island to Central Booking in Brooklyn’s Criminal Court.

Each week now, long after I have experienced incarceration, I watch similar representations of men sitting in jail cells on any one of the police crime shows -- except that the holding cells and pens on repeats of NYPD Blue or Law and Order appear merely like rundown motel rooms compared to the vermin-infested, body-fluid-splattered, germ-ridden, paranoia-inducing places I was continually transferred through in the course of my arrest and ultimate arraignment.

Yes, it’s almost a cliché, this feeling that now holds me – What exactly is it? Indignation? Indignation mixed with a dollop of remorse? Or just garden variety self-pity? No doubt, if someone was telling me the story and I had to use the men’s room, I would excuse myself and just up and leave. It’s not the kind of tale that’s riveting: Just some poor middle-aged, middle class shmuck with no clue telling another tale of what amounts to self-inflicted woe.

(We all create our own destinies, Sister Marjorie used to tell us, back in Our Lady of Guadalupe grammar school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, at mid-century. If you fight and break a tooth, boys, it’s your own fault. Play with one another’s nethers, boys and girls, and you’ve damned yourself to the Eternal Fires of Satan World.)

Except, the person to which this is happening is me, and I find the subject engrossing: How darkness of circumstance and then of spirit overtakes us when we’re least aware. During my brief time in jail, which my wife and I later jokingly referred to at the time as “my unfortunate incarceration,” a riff on the Designing Women character Anthony’s self-referential allusions to his arrest, I learned a surprising amount about the penal system and the people “on the line.”

These civil servants run the jails and transfer prisoners from facility to facility in a dizzying concatenation of arrest, videotaping, interviews, arraignment and – something most disconcerting – the nearly choreographed and continual movement of prisoners from floor to floor and cell block to cell block within the same building, the same jail complex. This is a technique, I am well aware, that military police use to unsettle and weaken the resolve of political prisoners.

If you have never been inside the system that begins with two New York City cops pushing you face-down over the engine-hot hood of your car and grinding handcuffs into your wrists, wrists more used to computer data entry or banjo playing than to lock-ups, you have no idea of the terror hearing the “Miranda” speech for the first time can induce. (“Hearing it” in real life is, of course, the novelty, because every one of us who watches cop shows knows the spiel by heart: You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one…”)

If you are educated, middle class and white, with pretensions to civility -- trust me, losing your liberty to undereducated men you neither like nor trust nor respect, but rather fear for their feral ignorance and ever-present proclivity toward violence -- this, my friends, is the encyclopedia definition of culture shock.

You see, these cops are, at some paradoxical level, my “homies.” They’re white ethnics; I’m white ethnic. My father was a civil servant; their fathers were most likely civil servants – many were probably cops as well. I grew up in a racist milieu; they grew up in a racist milieu (in some cases, in the same neighborhood as I did: Bensonhurst). The differences between us are that I sought to distance myself early on from that uniformly white culture’s bad habits. I also started making friends and allegiances with kids of color when I was around 10.

I went to college, involved myself in liberal causes, and uniformly took the side of civil liberties versus “law and order.” I refused induction into the armed services and served two years of alternate service as a conscientious objector, teaching English as a second language in Chinatown.

Now -- as they have come to control my freedom, my time, my every movement, even how and when I defecate or pee – I become as one bedeviled, life unraveling in a paranoid spin, wondering not how those who know or love me will take the news but, only, will I really ever be arraigned? Will they let me out today, tomorrow, or next week? On the other hand, I know they can keep me here, fabricating new charges and other roadblocks to release as they go along, just as they did to Paul Muni in Chain Gang.

My jailers, the “inside guys” in the lockups, are more young white male ethnic cops, utterly devoid either of empathy or sympathy. Their dull eyes betray their cultural (genetic?) calling to servitude. They answer my questions about arraignment evasively, which only induces further panic. (“Either they don’t know and are telling me the truth, or they do know – and it’s bad news -- and they’re not telling me for fear I’ll start carrying on, me being the nominal drunk and all. I don’t want to be taken to Riker’s Island!” This is the sum and substance of my thinking all night long.)

I ask one cop, “Do you think I’ll see the judge tonight?” The tone in which I asked the question really meant: Will I get within farting distance of that robed imbecile with the beer belly and Louis Vuittons under the orbs I saw a moment ago? The bench bump who got his job by kissing ass in the Republican party and not for his jurisprudence so that I’ll finally get my fat ass arraigned before night court closes, meaning I can return home without having to get herded into a van for the ride to spend the night in the Brooklyn Men’s House of Detention (the dreaded “House of D”) until court opens for a morning arraignment?

Worse – much worse – if they don't arraign me tonight there is a good chance, one guard tells me, that I’ll find myself in the wagon on the way to Riker’s, an even worse fate that being sent to “D.”

At this point, I’m too tired to think and I’m starting to capitulate to my fate. I don’t care. I’m like one of the dogs in the “helplessness” experiments who knew that whatever they did they would receive an electrical shock nevertheless. All I want, finally, is to shower; I already detect perspiration and ass odor on myself and bad breath too; it’s been 20 hours since my last shower and I’m starting to rot from the outside.

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