“Where did you get this?” the officer asked me. “Bed Bath & Beyond,” I murmured. “I was going to give it to this girl I have a crush on today.” The officer turned in his seat, “That’s pretty sweet, I used to do the same thing,” he said. His partner kept quiet. I looked outside to see people freely walking about, their hands swinging as they crossed the street, running after their friends, under the dying Brooklyn sun. “Too bad you didn’t have ‘McLovin’ as your name on the ID,” the officer said. “I would’ve let you go.” I smiled weakly. It felt weird to joke around in the back of a police cruiser while you were in handcuffs. “Seriously,” he said, “that would’ve been funny.”
This happened five years ago. I remember getting out of the cruiser — I had Converses on, and they make you take your shoelaces off at the holding cell in the police station — and had difficulty getting out because I was afraid my shoes were going to fall off. (I haven’t worn Converses since then.) I remember waiting to get my mug shot taken. I remember making a joke: “Wow, I look really depressed in that picture, huh?” and the photographer merely nodded. I remember getting patted and an old man in uniform checking everyone’s junk to make sure we didn’t have anything strapped on our body. I remember going through metal detectors and walking down stairs, and down more stairs. I remember the police officer asking me if I wanted any water and that he was sorry that all they had was hot water. I remember him asking me if I had any family in the area. I remember him looking sad for me — maybe he wasn’t — and telling me, “Good luck,” and leaving me in a full cell.
I remember the inmates going around and telling stories of why they got arrested. There were repeat offenders. There were first-timers. There were the obnoxious, the quiet, the brooding, the anxious, the terrified. I remember one man telling us he was arrested for domestic disturbance. Apparently his wife had picked up a knife and threatened him with it in the street, and because he hit her, he was the one arrested. I remember another man telling a story that he was arrested for reckless endangerment, grand theft, and attempting to evade the police. A majority of people was arrested for possession. A man said he was in there for fighting with someone that tried to sleep with his wife. He didn’t say another word after that. There was an obnoxious teenager that kept asking the warden if he could have his inhaler and when he was going to get out. He asked me if I was arrested fro delivering Chinese food — they all got a kick out of that. I also remember every one of them asking each other — including me — for a quarter. One even offered to give me a dollar for a quarter. They needed a quarter to use the payphone in the cell.
The warden shouted at us that if we touched anybody, we would be immediately taken out of the cell and put into a van and taken to Riker’s Island. We all complained about how cold the cell was in the middle of summer. The temperature was set to just below comfortable room temperature so that it wasn’t freezing, but uncomfortable for sitting around for 24 hours or more. The benches were large enough that you could sit, but thin enough so that you couldn’t lie down on it. Repeat offenders advised us to not eat the food and instead use them as pillows. The warden said that none of us would see the Judge until Monday. It was Saturday, and so, that meant we would all have to sit in the cell for an extra day. We were miserable.
I remember striking up a conversation with two teenagers about when we would get out. “No idea man, I’m hoping the warden is just kidding,” one said. He had been arrested for theft. “Me too,” the other said. He had been arrested for possession. “Did you really get arrested for delivering Chinese food?” the thief asked me. I just smiled.
In the middle of the night on Saturday, the warden woke us up and had us move cells because the janitors were scheduled to clean the one we were in. We were split into two groups and placed in smaller, cramped cells. We were tired. People picked verbal fights with each other. A man coming down from crack kept falling asleep standing up. He accidentally hit another man, who angrily said, “If you keep touching me, I will fucking kill you,” and I think he meant it.
On Sunday, the warden gave us breakfast. It was the same stuff from Saturday. I had used the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a pillow. The rest of us did the same — except for the extremely hungry ones, who took a bite and threw the sandwiches out. One of them complained of severe stomach pains and used the open-air toilet in the corner of the cell. He was extremely loud, to which one of the men said, “Come on man, really?”
We all stood in silence. It seemed as if the warden was really truthful. I could see bits of daylight coming in through the windows — they were painted black so that no one could tell what time it was, and come to think of it, there were no clocks to be seen. We were surprised to see the warden come down with a clipboard and started to name people. I was one of them. I followed the warden with a guard behind me up to another holding cell. I was put in a room with one large bench, a large window with painted steel mesh over it and three men. One man was crying profusely, the other man was in a daze and the other was a teenager. He was arrested for possession. “It’s my first time, man,” he said. “They only got me locked up because of my skin.” He asked the man in a daze what he did, and he said he was going to Riker’s for murder. The teenager stopped talking after that.
We heard someone shouting through the door to stand against the wall opposite the door. It was a guard and a lawyer. They pointed at me and the teenager and asked us to come out into the hallway. The crying man asked when he was going to get a phone call. The warden ignored him and locked the door. “Keep your head down and put your hands behind your back as you walk into the courtroom,” the lawyer said. We did as he said and walked towards the exit. The teenager asked what was going on. “Your charges are dropped,” he said. The teenager jumped with glee. “The train is two blocks south of here,” the lawyer said and opened the door. The teenager and I walked outside into the bright afternoon sun. “I’m free! I’m free!” he shouted while smiling.
Brooklyn’s air never tasted more pure.