|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Spring/Summer 2003|
You know, in some ways Im having far too interesting a year.
In May 1993 - close to the time when I founded Challenger - I received a speeding ticket in Gretna, Louisiana. I dont remember it. I remember being stopped by a female cop because of an expired license plate, in Gretna; I worked there at the time as a public defender and that might have been 1993. I also remember going to a window inside the Gretna City Hall for something at about the same time - but it could have been 1992, or 1994, or anytime. I dont remember what it was all about.
I do remember having my license renewed, many times, in the decade since 5-11-93; I remember buying cars, getting license plates, even being grilled by hostile cops outside of a clients house - they thought I was buying drugs. On each occasion my name and number were run through police computers. On each occasion they came back clean.
So why didnt they come back clean on May 14, 2003?
May 14th is a pivotal date to my family: my brother was married on it in 1982; my father died on it in 1988. I had neither of these anniversaries in mind as I turned onto the street where Rosy and I live at a few minutes past 5 on May 14, 2003.
The car I was driving was a wine-red 1986 Nissan ZX, and it was no prize in fact, it was barely moving. My last auto had been smashed in the car wreck described last issue. Its value had been so puny that the insurance check could only cover such as this, purchased from a somewhat seedy lot. The mechanic boyfriend of a friend of a friend had given it a positive bill of health, but it had overheated and popped belts and by May 14th had cost me almost as much in repairs as it had cost to drive home. More to the point, while we were in Oz the temporary tag had expired, and being dissatisfied with the thing, I was in no hurry to purchase a license plate. This irritation caused me to do a very stupid thing.
When Rose-Marie and I inspected the smashed remnants of my old Ford Festiva, I brought home its license plate. Rather than be ticketed for an expired temporary tag, I stuck this plate in the rear window, and for one or two days, drove it like that. I confess: I knew this was illegal. But I was so sick of the car and so pooped from Australia that frankly, I didnt give a rats patootie. Until May 14th, 2003, just after 5PM, when I learned the error of my ways.
That evening, as I came home, I noticed no police, only a panel truck in front of my house, blocking most of the street. I parked across from it and it was only as I was hefting my briefcase and dry cleaning that I noticed the black & white squeezing between us. It made it through; I got out of the car; I was halfway across the street when the officers call stopped me in my tracks. Uh-oh.
If youve ever been in such a position you know the feeling: embarrassed doom. Okay, I sighed to myself. Take the ticket. Indeed the young cop - close-cropped blond hair - seemed the slightest bit apologetic as he asked for my license, insurance card and registration. I had everything but without a good plate there is no good registration. Ticket time.
The police car pulled up, facing the wrong way on our one-way street. The second cop got out. The role of this burly lout in our little drama became quickly evident; he was the bad cop providing the impetus for me to tell all. Sheepishly - and rather foolishly - I admitted to substituting the old plate for the expired tag. This was the one thing I did all day that I now regret. When dealing with the law, a citizen should keep his mouth shut and let the facts speak for themselves. But like 99% of the rest of humanity in confrontation with authority, I was moved to babble - to try to explain. I pled lack of time and going to Australia and and and ... and the big cop strode redfaced back to his car. I saw him clicking keys on their computer.
The smaller guy leaned in the window and conferred. In a moment he returned to me. Sir, Im afraid you have a warrant.
My heart fell away. A warrant? For my arrest? The cop looked the slightest bit sheepish. Yes sir. A traffic warrant from 1993, in Gretna, he said, naming the small city across the river where Id worked in 1993. Have you ever been arrested before?
I got on the cell phone to Rosy. I need you out here now! She was by my side in moments. I gave the cool but concerned lady my laundry, my briefcase, my wedding ring and watch, my wallet and my figa. I kept only my drivers license. I called my boss in St. John, David Richter, and Dennis Dolbear, who practices in Orleans, and yelped for help. Both promised quick assistance. Say nothing! Richter ordered - always the best idea in gulp custody. That said, I gave Rosy my cell phone, and all my change. No vending machines in ... did I dare even think the word? Jail.
How did I feel in these doomed moments? Im not certain. Neither frightened nor angry - just calm. Maybe Im giving myself too much credit. But maybe I saw there was no way out of the situation. What could I do? Make a mad dash for City Park? Hide behind Rosy? What I could do was lean on the hood of that damned Nissan, in the sight of God and gawping neighbors, and submit to a quick frisk. I asked the cops for two favors. First, not to be handcuffed. Second, to use the bathroom. Sure, said the shorter cop. Sorry, said the big one. Bladder full but hands free, I took my seat in the back seat of the patrol car.
It was crowded, no leg room, and hot. There was a plastic shield between the front seat and the back and after we roared off, the air conditioner took a while to work around it. We swooped through city streets towards Central Lock-up. Big Cop wondered why I said it was a familiar place, then reminded himself oh yeah, I was a lawyer. The car pulled into the CLU driveway and I was escorted in. I entered a huge, noisy room, and the universe of process.
I was stood by the metal door with another miscreant. Some guy wondered why I was smiling. Not exactly a smile, officer, I would have said. First, I wanted it known that Id make no trouble. Second, seeing Booking from this side of things was something of a hoot. The huge central area was filled with high desks and ersatz easy chairs, pliant plastic jobs I recognized; they used to be in the waiting room outside, where Id met many a client. Windowed rooms - cells - lined one wall of white cinderblock, desks another. It was noisy, and busy, and it would get noisier, and busier. Face the glass, I was told, and spreadem.
faced the glass and spreadedem. A large white cop wearing
rubber gloves patted me down and went through my pockets, confiscating
the one item besides my drivers license Id brought
with me, a cheap pen.
The no-nonsense officer gave me back my license. Could I use the bathroom? Not yet. He sent me into an adjacent area, very like a hospital waiting room, to be photographed and get my white sheet. I sat on a bench built into the wall, while the personnel bantered. Working folks, going about their day.
bald cop called me to stand in front of a board lined with height
markings. I flashed on Lineup. He had me doff my glasses and
took a polaroid photo. Ill bet my expression was telling.
He snapped a band of orange elastic around my wrist and I sat
again. I wanted this part to be over. I had two lawyers pulling
strings to get me free. But none of their string-pulling could
get me released until all the paperwork was finished.
It was a small concrete room with another built-in bench. It had a drain in the floor. The metal door swung heavily on its hinges, and closed. The bald cop locked it; I could not leave. Although the door had a big window and the room was cool, claustrophobia grew. When Ive interviewed prisoners in such rooms, Ive hated being locked in. I fought the feeling. I told myself, Relax- its all you can do.
Strangely, the panic faded when three black kids, also wearing orange wristbands, were led in. Their life gave the room size, and their predicaments gave me identity - again, I could be a lawyer, talk to these frightened (two) and angry (one) boys, and try to calm them down. Their attitudes differed in a way that became familiar - one kid quiet, resigned, another mildly disgusted, the last depressed, angry, shouting like a fool to the unresponsive glass.
Soon the door was opened. Take your sheets down to medical, we were told. We walked to the appropriate desk and, one by one, were ushered to the medical staff. Was I on any meds? High blood pressure, thyroid, an antibiotic for a bug bite I picked up a billion millennia ago, in Australia. The doctor, or tech, or whatever he was, was on such distracted autopilot that he asked me if I had sickle-cell anemia. Underscoring the most obvious fact about Booking - the room, its cops, its workers, its processees, were ninety percent black.
Medical was adjacent to a bank of phones, and I grabbed the chance. Collect calls only. To my dismay, there was a block on my home line. When did that happen? I tried other numbers, and finally called Justin and Annie Winston - and praise him, Justin took the call. I asked him to pass along my relative well-being to Rose-Marie and to get a progress report out of Dolbear.
I sat with my cellies in the easy chairs until gestured against a wall. Other orange-banded males joined us. Then we were sent, en masse, into a large cell - the tank.
We were about thirty, all black but three: me, a bearded guy in worn work clothes, and a teenager in a bandanna and loose, low-slung jeans. I dubbed him Eminem. I was the oldest there, except maybe for the beard and a neatly-dressed black gent, who sat calmly against the wall, his arms folded. Why was he here? I wondered ... but didnt ask. Dont approach, dont ask, say nothing, be - as my poor mother used to say when afraid wed embarrass her - quiet and inconspicuous. No one was threatening - they ignored me - but some of those guys were indeed stupid. One angry goof kept banging his fist against the glass and shouting until he was hauled out and away. Another kid begged a guard for a roll of toilet paper - then showed off the second roll he had under his shirt. What would he do with it?
And then there was Eminem, who not only took the cake for sheer moronic nerve, but the whole bakery. Id found a seat near the door, or more truthfully, the crack beneath it. I didnt feel claustrophobic or scared, but a terrible concept had flashed on my mind and I wanted to be near open air. Fire. For Eminem and a black kid had cloistered themselves above the toilet in the corner and were smoking a joint.
The twerp had smuggled a bag of grass and a lighter into jail, stuffed up his ass. Is there any limit to the stupidity of druggies? The sharp reek of burning hemp filled the room. Other guys raised a howl, and even I joined in. Watch yourself, son! I shouted. Thats a felony! (It is, too: La. R.S. 14:402 (A): No person shall introduce contraband into or upon the grounds of any state correctional institution. Possible sentence: five years.)
laughed. Dont be scared! He showed me a photo
he had crumpled up in his pocket. Cute little black girl. Want
to see her sooner or later? I asked - and then the
door whupped open and guards poured in. I knew that smell carried.
They trundled Eminem and the other smoker out.
Some of the cops at Booking were surly and thuggish - understandable, considering their clientele. Thank God, this guy was not. He saw that my crime against humanity was a ten-year-old traffic ticket, and although Id left my Bar card in my wallet - home with Rosy, a galaxy or two away - I was obviously who and what I said I was. This hero, a black guy named Penn, asked why I hadnt gotten a judge to parole me. I told him it was in the works. Hearing that, he allowed me to stay outside.
I took the time to use the toilet again (because you never know) and collect-called the Winstons again. Annie answered.
My dear redheaded buddy was obviously flustered by the situation and as we talked, I had to keep calling her back on track. But she got across that Rosy was reporting progress on the Richter side of things - the Gretna ticket - but Dolbear was now nowhere to be found. I asked her to tell Rosy that I continued okay, but was getting antsy, and had a seat.
Soon my name was called and I followed the call to be fingerprinted - for the first time in my life. I pressed my fingers onto an inky pad and pushed their mark onto the appropriate card. The ink felt gritty and didnt wipe off completely. I felt a touch of fear. Inmates were being taken upstairs to the dorms after being fingerprinted, and I didnt want to go to the dorms. Horrors I could only guess at waited there. Penn signaled to the nasty cop in charge to let me stay where I was, but still, whenever he led a group out of the room, I hurried to Penns desk.
I sat in the pliant plastic chair and watched the sad parade of petty criminality pass by. They came and went in noisy waves, quick tidal flows of beaten humanity, into the tanks, into the chairs, up the stairs and away. I saw only one face I sort of recognized, a scrawny redhead, perhaps a client from my drug court days. I didnt speak to her, nor to the hooker who seemed to have jelly in her pants, nor to any of the poor sick slobs who were, for the moment, my peers on this planet. I sat and I watched and I waited, calling Annie every interminable hour or so for progress reports. Every so often a shout would bellow from the front - FEMALE SEARCH! Every so often an angry kid would blow up, and there would be a flurry of trouble, and then relative quiet.
Penn was helpful. He called me Guy. He told me the Orleans parole had come through - bless Dennis - and they were just waiting on Jefferson. This was a confusion: Annie had reported that Rosy had reported that Richter had reported that Gretna had given me a new court date, and dropped the attachment that had caused my arrest. There was no reason left for me to be there. But I had to sit and wait and sit and wait and sit and wait for the paperwork to go through. Sit. Call. Wait.
While I sat and waited another white guy sat and waited - and suffered - in a nearby chair. About 35, in shorts and a tee, he too had been nailed on an ancient traffic ticket - while applying for a liquor license - but he was in far worse straits than me. A diabetic, he had missed his shot, had told medical about it, but was ignored ... and none of us had been fed. He was beginning to get sick.
I tackled Penn when he walked past and told him about it. A medicine for my increasing anxiety: someone else to worry about.
Wait, and wait. I called Annie for the umpteenth time. It was after 11 by now. Rosy, she said, had been on the phone again to David, and felt so confident in my imminent release that she had asked John Guidry to drive her to the jail to pick me up. I wished I felt so confident. Wait. Wait.
And then, suddenly, Penn called me to the wall to stand in a short line. Good news? He nodded. I was glad to see the diabetic guy brought over to join me. From behind the window to the female tank a dusty ho smiled and winked. I smiled back. It was time to smile.
Or almost. We had two more rooms to pass through, to sign papers and recover our property - if Id wanted to, I could have recovered my pen. The guy with diabetes was having a hellacious time by now, slumping to the floor, barely able to perambulate or talk. They told us to keep quiet but I had to speak up at the last stage, when a bitchy clerk went off at him for not responding when she barked a question. That took nerve; if I pissed her off, she might hold up my release. (An angry black kid - quite a few of them in Booking - sneered that Id never help a black man who had diabetes. I asked him to show me one, and see.) But Penn intervened, and got the guy out of there - down a last long highway past one last guard out one last door. After signing papers for the harridan clerk, and having the orange band snipped off my wrist, I followed.
One last corridor, one last guard to glance at the release paper, and then the last door was before us. I held up at it - by now I was used to waiting for permission to move. But the angry black punk pushed past and burst through, and before the door could close I saw Rosy and John looking up at me from the waiting room pews, and I was through it and once again a free man.
From Rosys embrace I looked
around for the diabetic, but Penn, behind the counter, told me
hed been met by a lady with an insulin shot, and was already
on his way to the hospital. Outside, we saw them hurrying away.
I gave the girl my name, as a witness, just in case, but since
then weve heard nothing, so he must have been all right.
But it no longer ruled me. John drove us home and Rosy fed me a slice of re-heated pizza, the most delicious meal Id ever had. Her radiant face was the most beautiful sight in life. In its light I contemplated the lessons of the day.
Id learned that chaos can erupt anytime, anywhere, on anyone. Id deserved my traffic tickets; getting nailed for the license plate was only just. The ten-year-old attachment was nonsense, but it only proved that forgotten sins, perhaps long taken care of, can still surface and capsize you. Nothing you can do but take care of your business, and when bad stuff happens, handle it. (I handled my problem by whining my way out of three of the four Orleans charges: professional courtesy from the D.A. The Gretna ticket is still pending.)
Also, with chagrin, I noted how easily I had accepted being controlled. The feeling of helplessness in custody was gone by the time we were out of the jailhouse door - but it was real: the idea that obedience to authority, even unto imprisonment, was the natural state of man. It took being free to return to me the fundamental American faith, that authority is an aberration, to be applied and accepted only with caution, for the natural state of man is freedom. That thought was a conscious decision - a choice - a faith. Its the only choice a defense lawyer and an American can allow himself to make. The authority of the state must be applied only when it is backed up by proof. All of us - us, now - who have been under its heel deserve no less.
Lastly, a very personal lesson. Before this night Id taken love and friendship too much for granted. Rosy, my belle Rose-Marie, never stopped fighting for me. My boss, David Richter, and his wife never stopped fighting for me. Dennis Dolbear fought for me. Annie and Justin Winston served as a lifeline for me. John Guidry brought my beloved lady to me. I can never adequately thank these people; I can only try to emulate them, and be as good a friend to them as they were to me.
And Id also taken freedom and sanity too much for granted. Chaos is. But it is not the only thing that is. Friendship is. Freedom is. Friendship is nice. Freedom is nice.