The floor was harder than any I had previously lain upon. Having spent many a night passed out on friends' floors of varying texture and comfort, I wasn't entirely unequipped for such sleeping arrangements. But this was different, confining, with the ground itself implying a permanent stay.
Yet it affected the dozen other men sharing this 15x15 box little. Each of us remained quiet, outwardly calm, taking on the hardness of the floor itself. Occasionally, the lock on the heavy steel door turned and another man entered looking for a place to lie down.
Some of the men knew each other and exchanged cautious greetings upon one's arrival. One fellow, who entered shortly after me, received heartfelt hellos from a couple of the guys. Unlike the rest of us, he was already in orange jail attire. When asked about this, he put simply:
"I tried to get the officer to let me use the bathroom, but he wouldn't have it." The prisoner switched to a nasal, constipated voice for the cop's reply. "'I've got to finish your paperwork first. You're just going to have to hold it.'"
"So I said to myself, 'Shit, I'm not holding nothing' and I just let it go. Piss went everywhere: my pants, my shirt, my shoes, everything."
"Please," I caught myself blurting, finding humor in our situation for the first time, "tell me you did this while you were in his car?"
"Hell yeah," he hollered back. "If I could have made it to the station, I would have held it 'till I got in here," he finished, pointing to the shiny, stainless sink-toilet combo in the corner.
We all chuckled at the thought of our captors mopping this man's piss up, and then we settled back down, knowing in reality it was probably a fellow inmate doing the dirty work.
The room again grew silent, so I leaned back and attempted to shield my eyes from the dim but persistent fluorescence. My mind slipped into that half-awake, half-asleep limbo of unbelieving regret.
Just a couple of hours before, I had been having some celebratory pints with friends. I had recently returned to my hometown a hero of sorts after a stint on the West Coast. I had picked up roots a few years earlier and moved to Portland for a challenging and rewarding (re: high-paying) job and a chance to prove myself among some of the best minds in my field. And to the delight of friends and family, I succeeded.
People don't tend to move away where I'm from. It isn't a bad life by any stretch, with beaches and bars that would make most more than happy. And there is genuine affection for being near family. This was my first visit home after having established myself, and everything was going well. So well that during the conversation, I let it slip I had some of the Northwest's finest herb. One buddy expressed interest, so we exchanged the smile that says all will be well.
We all finished our drinks and walked out to the parking lot. The two of us parted ways with the rest of the crew, including my co-conspirator's former ride home, and then jumped into my mom's car to seal the deal. He suggested waiting until a park on the way to his house where he really wanted to light up. Being invincible, I agreed.
Do I need to tell you the rest? It's starting to sound like an after-school special anyway, so you know the story. My buddy, the good guy who doesn't smoke often at all, wigs out on my heady nuggets and starts tripping (literally) all over the place. I try to walk him through it, as my paranoia-indicator starts going off something fierce. I get him back into the car only for him to jump out before I can even get the thing cranked.
<GANGSTA BRAVADO>Then, for the first time, I think about leaving his ass. Not to brag, but I'm good about taking care of those who I've taken care of. Meaning, I don't leave people hanging when I'm on watch. If they're high on my shit, I feel obligated to see them through the experience.</GANGSTA BRAVADO> In other words, I'm a decent guide.
So, I'm back out of the sedan and pleading with my friend to get inside. I tell him everything's going to be good and that we can hang out outside of his place. Then, I ask: "Is this park even open to the public now anyway?"
The words trailed off as I turned to see two sets of headlights coming toward us. "It's them. It's the cops," I said to my friend. "This is about to get... uncomfortable."
The officers got out, one from each car, the female cop first. She politely but firmly requested our licenses and asked us why we were at the park. "It closes at 8 p.m." A couple of hours prior. Long gone.
I explained truthfully on our behalf that we had been out having drinks with friends. The usual answers followed: "three beers" "four hours" "perfectly sober" "an innocent mistake."
I explained relatively eloquently that I was visiting family - not far from here - and had been out for a rare moment with old friends who live in the neighborhood.
She was sold or at least appeared to be stepping up to the counter. Her reluctant smile indicated pleasure with my answers thus far. Then she inquired about the car. She took steps toward it and I began to shudder. "Can I look in here?"
I didn't hesitate because to do so would have been to demand the full treatment: judges, dogs, and eventual arrest. I'd seen it before here, so I hoped her look would just be that and said, "yes." I had hidden the stash deep and we had smoked outside. "We may walk away from this yet," I hope.
But it was not to be. Her look consisted of rifling through the compartments until she found what she was looking for. And then everthing changed. Her cool sternness became self-righteous indignation, outright anger aimed at both of us, no doubt. But she made it clear she was upset by having been charmed by a common drug addict.
"Spread them now. Hands behind your back. Where is the rest?"
They split us up into separate squad cars. I'm questioned by the male officer. He read me my rights and then wanted to make sure they'd gotten everything worthwhile. I assured him they did. To my surprise, he then cut off his onboard recorder and explained that he didn't necessarily agree with this law, but he was bound to enforce it. I was astonished.
"I know that doesn't help any," he finished. But I told him it did. I moved away because I felt my chemical habits made me a bit of a freak. Even ardent users there don't critique the system. We're taught using is indeed wrong, and we should hide it. "So thanks a lot," I said. "It gives me hope (for you guys)."
I made a heartfelt but useless plea for my friend's release. It's more than obvious I'm up shit's creek. No use in us both paddling elbow deep. No dice. He's an accomplice and we're both going to jail.
I got transferred to the female officer's car, and we were off to the local station. She booked us there, one at a time, allowing the other some solitude in fresh-built municipal cells. This kind of comfort would not last long.
Within the hour, we were back on the road toward the county lockup, a true shithole reputed to be full of derelicts and hepatitis. But I was in good spirits. The unflinching reality of our plight had set in, and I felt light-headed, giddy even. An apparent pop fan, the officer had the radio on, and it was playing my tune.
Although I wouldn't consider myself a Phantom Planet follower, the band's song "California" had really grown on me then. It's catchy. If you don't recall, it goes like this:
On the stereo
Listen as we go
Nothing's gonna stop me now
California here we come
Right back where we started from
OK, so I'm not from California. But the West Coast reference at this particular moment lifted my spirits and called me to sing along. Loudly. But before I could get to the chorus, the officer - sensing my pleasure - changed the station. Quite frustrating, really, so if you don't mind, I'll finish it now:
Pedal to the floor
Thinkin' of the roar
Gotta get us to the show
California here we come
Right back where we started from
Here we come!
Whew! That's better. Thanks. But you'll never believe what was on the station my friendly driver switched to next: "We are the Champions." Swear to God. Stick a needle in my eye and all that. Now I'm more of a "Bohemian Rhapsody" guy, but you wouldn't have known it that night. Yes I did, with all my freaking tone-deaf heart:
I've paid my dues -
Time after time -
I've done my sentence
But committed no crime -
And bad mistakes
I've made a few
I've had my share of sand kicked in my face -
But I've come through
Fitting, yeah? And the officer, she'd pretty much given up on finding anything on the radio I didn't like, so she let the band play on.
We arrived at the county detention center and were processed with little drama. The rest of the officers treated us with some dignity, or at least ignored us outright. It's funny how men who would nod to you on the street in any other situation can look right through you when you've been deemed unworthy. Like a magical veil has been placed over you. Like a switch has been flipped.
But as we were being taken to the holding cell, a skinny redneck-looking fellow was brought in kicking and screaming. He laid into any object within striking distance of his feet and verbally assaulted every officer in the room. I fully expected to see him get the living shit beat out of him at any moment. But to my surprise, they treat him fairly and continued to process him while he insulted their mothers and other kin.
This guy may have dodged a thrashing by the cops, but I steeled myself for what might occur when he reached the lockup. As I said, the room was thick with guys sleeping tight on the floor. After the entertaining bedtime story of cop-car pissing told by our cellmate, we had all settled down for an evening of supposed rest.
And then in came the drunken hillbilly, full of piss and smelling like vinegar. He immediately started stomping about and kicking at any loose items on the ground. Anyone in his path shifted to avoid confrontation, but it became unavoidable. This fellow wasn't big and certainly didn't look bad, not nearly bad enough to back up the amount of shit he was flinging.
So a few of the guys who were in there when I arrived bowed up and made it clear no more room would be given. This rapscallion could either settle down immediately or face dire consequences. By this time, I was kinda rooting for a smackdown. (It's 5 o'fucking clock in the morning, mate. Gimme a break!)
But settle he did and with him the room. Once again we struggled with the restlessness that comes with incarceration. And somewhere along the way, I drifted into real sleep.
I was awakened by the rustling of bodies everywhere. A guard had swung open the door and said the judge would be starting bond hearings immediately. I joined the rush to the toilet, feeling like I hadn't taken a leak in days and knowing it might be hours more.
As you might imagine, jail is not for the shy of bladder or bowel. Every movement you make is within feet of another captive. Every piss is witnessed by the world. But we go because we have to, absolutely have to. Everyone will have to eventually.
Of all the things I knew I'd lose in jail, the ability to use the bathroom was not one I'd given much consideration. Sure, pissing and shitting in front of others isn't pleasant, but nothing about the experience is. What I never grasped, however, was the way this simple need for relief could be held over you, kept from you, used against you.
As I contemplated this truth, we were escorted to our new temporary home: a cell about seven feet long and five feet wide. I reached across the room as we walked in and brushed both palms against opposite walls easily. Two more men joined the dozen or so of us from the main cell. If the lockup was cramped, this was suffocating.
Then, we heard the voice of another man arguing just outside. "No, I can't get in there now! You said I could piss first. There's no way I can hold it anymore!"
But in he came with a shove. Then, as if to pointedly illustrate my current line of thinking:
"Sorry fellas, but there's nothing I can do. I'll die if I don't go now."
He shuffled to the back of the room where I had taken up refuge and began to deluge the corner. It doesn't take much urine to cover a floor this small, and before long we're all shuffling ourselves to find high ground among the tiles. And I scream inside my head, "They're making us into fucking animals!"
One by one, we were called before the judge. I wasn't first nor anywhere close, but the other prisoners lightened my mood by telling me that my charges would justify nothing more than a PR (personal recognizance) bond, a mere promise to the judge, really. A piece of cake.
But when my name was finally called and I got my moment out of the pit, I was told I would have to raise real bond money because of my out-of-state status. I was a flight risk.
I started to panic. I was beginning to think I'd spend another night in this stinking hole, and I didn't think I could take it. I was doing everything I could already to maintain composure when I thought I was on my way out. I was now on the verge of flipping the fuck out.
I was taken back to the original holding cell and told to try and make arrangements using the lone phone and the list of bail bondsmen on the wall. They don't tell you that every call outside is collect and half the agencies won't accept them. Nor do they dictate who gets to use the phone and when.
So there I sat for the better part of two hours just waiting to get in touch with my family. I had called them the night before, shortly after being processed. I had debated it then but realized its inevitability when I thought of mom's car at the impound yard. When I reached them again, I heard that my father was already on the case and apparently at the courthouse trying to get me released.
It's at this point I discovered another valuable lesson about incarceration: Just because you ask a question, doesn't mean it'll be answered. This is another one of those things us free folks take for granted. Even at the rudest restaurant, even at the most arrogant council meeting, if you scream for assistance, someone will respond. It might not be the response you desire, but they will at least acknowledge you.
Not so in jail. I found that someone could be getting shredded to pieces in there and it could be hours before the guards again open the door. I and others pounded on the thing mercilessly and not once got a response. It terrifies me more everytime I think of it and think of those being locked up everyday.
Later that day, my father, my savior, got me out of that godforsaken place. A simple man, he didn't and doesn't understand my attraction to pot. He was happy enough with beer in his drinking days and is even happier without it now that those days have passed. My mother was never a fan of intoxicants of any sort, the least of which illicit ones.
Still, they'd suspected my habits for sometime but never questioned them because I'd been otherwise responsible. This, obviously, had changed. So I was forced to have the conversation I should have had with them years ago.
'Yes, I smoke marijuana and I smoke it regularly. It doesn't consume me but it is a part of me. And I never plan to give it up."
I wish I could say they were thrilled. They weren't. But they were accepting and they're still supportive. My mother even accompanied me to court when it came time to enter a plea.
I couldn't ask for more.