Danny, Jimmy, and Casey have driven down to San Diego to persuade their buddy, Greg to join their band. They’ve payed a visit to two female friends and the six of them have gone down to Black’s Beach at night for a swim. Now the cops have shone up, shining their flashlights as Greg, Danny and an older man are stuck out in the water. Greg tells Danny that whatever happens, he’s going to join the band…
As soon as I saw Paul’s nude and slightly flabby body silhouetted in the flashlight’s glow, I knew it was a mistake. After what appeared to be a brief conversation, the lights suddenly swung in our direction, dancing over the charcoal water until they found their mark. We were in the spotlight. The jig was up.
“Get out and approach slowly.” A stern voice commanded.
Any definition of vulnerability should include having to stand stark naked before a policeman with one’s hands on head. A tall officer stood waiting for us. His cap was low over his eyes. His partner remained in back with our friends. The cop shined his flash light point blank into my eyes. “What’s your name?”
I told him.
“Let me see some I.D.”
Suddenly Emily piped in. “Obviously, he’s not carrying any I.D at the moment.”
“Stay out of it!” the cop snarled.
Shut up Emily! I wanted to say. I’d learned from experience with cops that it’s best to melt into a state of obedience, to become egoless, and speak only when spoken to. Above all, never, ever use sarcasm. One did not want to get on a cop’s bad side. I got the feeling that Emily and Betsy had already succeeded in doing so. This cop obviously had a short fuse. He was biting his lip.
“Go get your clothes on.” he said with disgust.
“People have been swimming nude at this beach for decades.” Betsy felt compelled to point out.
“If I want your opinion I’ll ask for it?” Short Fuse said.
He stood over us we got dressed. I quickly pulled up my jeans, and struggled to put socks and boots over my wet, sandy feet. After being frisked, we showed our I.D.s. I could feel sand rubbing against my toes, and in my crotch.
Short Fuse grabbed and jerked me around by my right arm, and clamped a handcuff to my wrist.
“You’re under arrest.”
“Are you doing this for show, or is this just part of your routine?” Betsy asked.
I felt the cuffs tighten, digging in to the skin.
“Why are you arresting them?” Emily asked.
“You’re charged with ‘Indecent Exposure’, and ‘Lewd and Dissolute Conduct’.
I detected a smirk.
“Two felony counts.”
After all three of us were handcuffed, we were led down the beach.
Our friends shouted to us. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you out!” “Keep the faith!” “You’ll see us soon!” The voices grew fainter until they faded out completely.
A quarter mile down we made a left, and began ascending the bluff by a different pathway, one that was paved , and wider. The black and white sat a hundred yards up the road. We were packed into the back seat. The car took off, climbing up and away from the beach area, and accelerating as it hit the surface streets. I vainly attempted to find a comfortable position, feeling numb as I watched the street lights flip by. It all seemed surreal.
Upon arrival at the police substation we were marched into a small room, and told to sit on a bench as an officer with sleepy lidded eyes began quietly filling out the paper work . A german shepherd lay curled at his feet. I had the urge to pet the dog. The cop was just doing his job, and I felt no animosity toward the man. The half hour or so of quiet time gave me a chance to take a deep breath, compose myself, and summon an ounce of strength.
All the while, in an adjoining room, Short Fuse frantically turned pages in some kind of code book. He slapped the book against his thigh and called to his partner, “Damnit, Mike! We could have arrested the girls. Accessories to a felony! Shit!”
Sleepy Lids drove us to the county jail, with Rin-tin-tin riding shotgun. As the San Diego skyline drew near, I thought about Emily and Betsy. They were blissfully unaware that they’d dodged the bullet. Guys are a little more prepared for the possibility of something like this happening to them. I was happy that they’d lucked out.
Sleepy Lids escorted us into the San Diego County Jail, to be booked and processed. After our pockets were emptied, and the contents placed in little cardboard boxes, we were told to ‘Follow the yellow line.’
Being fingerprinted was the first step. The officer behind the desk said, “Just relax and let me do the work.”
I pretended I was getting my first manicure.
The yellow line led us further on to a bench outside the mug shot room. To my right sat two guys about my age with dirty overgrown hair – rebels without causes. I picked up bits of their story. It included a stash of drugs, and a car chase.
“I shouldn’t ‘a tried to ditch ’em.” One of them said. “I freaked out.” he admitted with a shaky laugh.
His buddy nodded.
No, you shouldn’t have. I thought to myself, Bad choice.
He continued, “I got a feelin’ we’re gonna be in here for a long, long time. Huh, huh, huh.”
I’d heard laughs like this before. It was the laugh of a loser.
The mug shot moment was an odd experience. How does one pose for such a photo? Having my picture taken had always been about presenting a happy image, about looking good, and my vanity always kicked in before a snap shot. At this moment I was feeling sad, humiliated, and without the slightest desire to say ‘cheese’. I just stared open eyed into the lens, not caring to put on a mask, but trying to muster a little human dignity as the camera clicked.
We moved further down the yellow line to a room where we exchanged our street clothes for orange jumpsuits. There was a toilet and a small urinal against a wall. I had to pee, and realized that this might be a last chance to relieve myself. To avoid leaving a mess, I chose to use the urinal. Afterwards, upon zipping up and turning around, I found myself staring into the eyes of one the guards, his face six inches from mine.
“You just pissed in the sink, dummy!” He said incredulously.
A chubby, round faced guard burst into laughter as he swung open the far door.
“Where to now?” Greg asked.
“You’re going to the fish tank.” he said with a chuckle…. “You’re fish!”
So here we found ourselves – in the fish tank.
The first thing I noticed was the odor – that distinct jail smell – a mixture of sweat, breath, excrement, cigarette smoke, and bad food, with a strong dash of Lysol for the upper tones. It is an odor that permeates everything over the decades. It smelled of confinement. It was nauseating.
We were in a large cell which was divided in half lengthwise. The back portion was split further into several sub cells which served as the sleeping area. The toilets sat in these sub cells. These “bedroom quarters” were already full and locked down when we arrived, so we were each given a mattress and a blanket, and told to bed down in the large communal section in the front. Then came the ‘Lights out!’ call.
Going over the events of the last two days had exhausted me. Was it really only last night that we’d laughed at Joe Pyne? I grew drowsy. An image of Sleep Lids, and his napping dog came into my head and I was soon asleep.
At what must have been 6:00 a.m. I was awakened by music. An orchestra hit a chord on the downbeat… bom, followed by a choir answering with… “Born free”, then another chord … bom and answer…”Born free”.
Born free, as free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
Born free to follow your heart…
I couldn’t believe it. We, who had just spent the night in a cage, were being awakened by the song, ‘Born Free‘. Was it just a coincidence, or did someone have a keen sense of irony? Or were the gods mocking us?
I heard keys ringing, irons doors sliding, and feet shuffling. Someone called out in a flat Midwestern drawl –
“Get up! Roll up your mattresses and bedding and stack them near the front on the left”.
I rose, complied with the order, and turned to see the speaker. He was sitting on a cot in the far right inner cell. The puke green bars cast shadows that ran down his face, and over his blue uniform. He had broad features with straight black hair, and dark, sad eyes that didn’t seem to focus on anything in particular. He looked like he might be part Indian. Cherokee, I thought. Who is this guy? I wondered. Someone next to me seemed to have read my mind, and said in low muffled tone,” He’s a trustee.”
I looked over at Greg.
“Well , here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us in!” he said.
I laughed, and answered his Oliver Hardy with a Fats Waller line…
“One never knows, do one?”
Timothy Leary Poster
The two of us were close. I flashed back to an incident in January, when the son of an old family friend, a guy I’d known since kindergarten, was visiting. When we were alone, he revealed to me that he was a disciple of Timothy Leary, and persuaded me to drop L.S.D. right there in the family home. As the acid began to kick in, I did not experience the calm oneness with ‘the way’ I’d been promised. Rather, I became aware of a latent existential rage which threatened to boil to the surface. Close to a real freak out, I called Greg, who dropped whatever he was doing, and rushed over. He got me out of my folks’ house and over to my older brother Johnny’s place. His calming presence helped me to ride out the rest of the trip. Greg had my back. I was lucky to have a such a good friend with me in this place.
We greeted Paul good morning and the three of us hunched down to chat for a few minutes. Paul’s speaking voice was bright and nasal. To my uninitiated ear the dialect sounded Northern England, perhaps Liverpool or Manchester. Back home he’d been a school master, teaching English literature, and had an upcoming interview for a position at a private school in Glendale. He seemed to be intrigued by the band thing, and told us that he, too, was a musician… a church organist.
Uncannily, “A Whiter Shade of Blue” started playing on the intercom. The B3 organ part seemed to soar majestically over the cell.
“This is an interesting pop record.” Paul said. ” The organ line is quite similar to several Bach pieces I’ve played.”.
He raised his right hand and fingered the air as if he were playing. The Procal Harum tune was the first decent music I’d heard. Alas, it was to be the rare exception. The previous song had been a Nancy Sinatra record, and the next one up was the Royal Guardsmen’s Snoopy vs. the Red Barron. After that I tuned out the sound.
Smell the Coffee
“Get ready to line up at the bars to receive breakfast!”
Carts pushed by trustees came around loaded with greasy scrambled eggs, watery cream of wheat, and powdered milk. I suddenly realized how famished I was. When had I last eaten? I eagerly got a tray and requested all of the above, as did Greg, and Paul. Next came a cart with a huge vat of hot coffee. I loved coffee. My mouth watered and my head rushed as I anticipated the dark brew.
“I’ll have some of that coffee.” I said to the guy.
“Where’s your cup?” he asked.
“My cup? I don’t have a cup!”
The stocky Latino looked at me like I was the biggest dumb fuck he’d ever met.
“No cup, no coffee.”
“Well, can’t you give me a cup?”
“What’ve you got?
“I don’t have anything.”
“Sorry.” he said.
I wondered – How do you get to first? If you can’t bring in any possessions, then how do you acquire anything with which to barter? It must start with a favor. I didn’t want to contemplate the nature of what a first favor might look like.
We gobbled down breakfast and settled in for the day.
Two older men, one thin and gray-haired, the other overweight and balding, were sitting at one of the tables in front, playing checkers. They were discussing their experiences in different county jails. Suddenly a six foot- three, geeky looking guy with glasses, dark kinky hair, and a wild look in his eye approached and insinuated himself into their conversation. Leaning his torso forward, and stretching his neck, he got in their faces, saying,
“I’ve seen the inside of a lot of jails, and this is nothing. It’s a luxury hotel compared to some I been in.” he thumbed his chest.
The two men just looked at each other.
His proclaiming it as if it were a badge of honor struck me as really bizarre. This stork man looked more like a mad scientist than a criminal, but apparently wanted to be seen as a bad ass. I made a mental note that he was volatile and unpredictable, someone to avoid.
Cherokee gave everyone a rag, and instructed us to start polishing the bars. I worked on my little section with vigor, glad to be busy, but with the knowledge that no matter how diligently I rubbed, the bars would always retain their sick green hue.
I began to take notice of a certain energy coming from the cell on the far left. The center of this buzz was another blue trustee. Handsome, probably in his early thirties with a dark, well groomed pompadour, the man was instructing two younger trustees.
Unlike Cherokee, who kept to himself, this guy was constantly engaged in muted conversation with various people, both prisoner and guard. He appeared to be number one trustee.
A little later a guard walked quickly by, making eye contact with Number One, and extending all five fingers on his right hand.
“Inspection in five!”
At this, the trustee and his two aids jumped into action. Out from under the cot came dozens of items: candy bars, gum, peanuts, crackers, plugs of chewing tobacco, packs of cigarettes, cards, cups, dirty pictures, and a bit of cash. They spread out a white towel and wrapped the contraband inside. A minute later, a trustee came lazily by, pushing a laundry cart filled with towels. Number One and his men reached through the bars, placed the wrapped items under several layers of towels, and off rolled the cart. This all happened in less than two minutes.
As if on cue, a few minutes later, a team of guards unlocked the doors and came in to inspect. They entered Number One’s cell and looked under the cot. “Clean here!”
No sooner had the team left, when the laundry cart reappeared. The goods were removed and tucked back under Number One’s cot.
I turned to Greg and Paul, “I bet they do this dance every single day.”
Greg laughed, “Yea, it’s insane!”
“So precisely played.” Paul added.
Wiggling his index finger in the air, Greg paused in contemplation. “This guy seems to know everything that goes on here. I wonder if he could find out something about our situation.”
“It’s certainly worth inquiring.” Paul replied.
Greg was comfortable engaging strangers in conversation. I trusted his instincts, and followed him into Number One’s cell. Paul stayed outside.
One of the aids looked at us, not sure if it was cool for us to be there. He turned to Number One, who gave him a nod, and we approached. From his cot, the trustee looked up at us with light green eyes and said simply,
My ear picked up an urban accent. Philadelphia? His speech was soft but intense.
Greg spoke up, “Uh, we were wondering if you might know something about our case, like when we’re going to be arraigned.”
“So what are you charged with?”
“Indecent exposure and lewd and dissolute conduct.”
“What did you do, unzip and pull your dongs out at the mall?”
“No, we were caught skinny dipping at Black’s Beach.”
He laughed, “Man, somebody rubbed somebody the wrong way. You mouth off?”
I piped in, “No, but I think maybe the girls we were with made the officers feel inferior.
“Pussy, my friend, will do you in every time. You poor bastards! Write down your names, and I’ll see what I can find out.”
His body language told us our time was up. We thanked him, and stepped out of the cell.
Three empty stools at the front were suddenly unoccupied, so the three of us sat down to claim them. Paul, sitting in the middle, started drumming his fingers on the table.
“I’m climbing the walls for a bloody fag.” He abruptly said.
Greg and I made eye contact. I knew at that instant that he, too, thought Paul might be gay. It wasn’t that we misunderstood the British slang for cigarette; it was the mere act of looking at each other at the sound of the word. I’d never really had a friendship with someone homosexual; at least that I was aware of at the time. I suddenly felt shame for any past lack of sensitivity. I liked Paul. The man was a stand- up kind of guy. I don’t care what anybody thinks, I silently declared. We’re mates! I vowed never again to laugh at a ‘fag joke’.
“You want a smoke?” Greg asked.
“Yes, I need me pack-a-day.”
Tobacco, like coffee, was provided, but cigarette papers were not. Thus papers, like coffee cups were a form of currency. It was crazy! It encouraged a jailbird black market system.
Paul picked up a hardback book that had sat neglected on the table, and began thumbing through the pages. It was the only book in the place.
“What is it?” I asked.
It’s a novel by Daphne du Maurier.”
I wasn’t familiar with the author. “What’s the writing like?”
“Oh, quite suspenseful, in a Gothic kind of way. Stories about tragic love affairs that take place in dark mansions on stormy nights, with crazy wives hidden in the attic.” He laughed.
It sounded a bit claustrophobic for my current state of mind, but I was intrigued by the title, “Jamaica Inn”. It hinted at adventure (Perhaps smugglers outwitting Red Coats?) and, oh, how I wanted to be carried away. I began reading. I’d gotten to page twelve when Greg nudged me.
Number One was waving us into his cell.
“I’ve got good news for you gentlemen. You’ll be on a bus to your arraignment within the hour.”
We both thanked him. Greg hesitated, but then asked, “Do you think you could spare a few Zig Zags for our friend over there?”
He pulled out a partially used pack. “Here” he said, “Keep it.”
Then Greg surprised me by saying, in that easy, ingratiating manner of his, “You really seem to make the best of your situation here.”
Number One responded, “I’ve been in and out since I was seventeen. Most everything I know, I learned in the joint. I smoked my first pot, and tried my first smack behind bars. Yea, I know my way around.”
Nodding uncomfortably, and rocking on our feet we muttered, “Oh, really?” … “Wow!”
Again we thanked him, and left.
Number One had done us a favor. Perhaps he’d felt sorry for us, acting out of compassion. More likely, he did it out of self interest. Extending a favor to a fresh fish was like money in the bank. We would owe him, and he could always call on the favor to be returned. Multiply that by twenty of thirty, and it’s a lot of favors. He had nothing to lose, and something to gain.
Paul was grateful at getting the Zig Zags. He pinched out some tobacco from the communal can and began rolling a fag, as he would say. With his wire rimmed glasses, and cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth he looked like John Lennon in How I Won the War. It was an image that made me feel good. Paul’s unrattled maturity was reassuring. I resumed reading the novel.
I’d read another dozen or so pages of the book, when I heard our names being called. We rolled out of the cell just as the food carts were rolling in, so we would miss lunch. I didn’t care. It was a sweet sensation to be leaving the cage, even if just temporarily, and I followed the yellow pathway feeling as perky as Dorothy setting off for the Land of Oz.
The story continues on Part 3…
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