From his top bunk I could feel him trying to climb in and out of his non-existent sheets. They don’t give you sheets in jail, the only real acceptable place where an adult can call a bunk-bed home.
This was my last piece of wreckage to clean up from my days of disintegrating into drug addiction, and walking into jail to turn myself in at two-years clean was surprisingly easy. I was just ready to be done with the dark cloud of courtrooms and lawyers that had occupied my mind and its thoughts for the previous few years.
One week. In and out. No problem.
I got a job as soon as I arrived to make the days pass quicker. I sliced bread. A shit-ton of bread. We made all of the bread for our facility, the RCCC, and the downtown high-rise jail. A few thousand loaves a day, each one passing through my hands, through the slicer, bagged, placed in groups of five, stacked fourteen high.
His name was Tyler and he was a heroin addict. He wasn’t in for heroin, but his body didn’t really give a shit what he was in for. All it knew was it wanted heroin, he wasn’t providing it, and it was going to make him pay. The brain can be a motherfucker when it wants to be. I know. Believe me, this I know.
And now I got to participate in his misery by being on the bunk beneath his while he went through withdrawal, feeling the frame shake every time his legs twitched. I could picture him above me, sweating, yawning, sneezing, aching, the only thing keeping him from screaming being the guys to our right who’d probably give him one warning, a “quit being a bitch,” before whipping his ass for keeping them awake.
God, I don’t miss those days.
Morning finally came.
“How you feeling?” I asked, already knowing the answer but choosing to empathize.
“Like shit, man. This fucking sucks,” he argued, as if I had any control in the situation.
“Come on man, walk with me,” I said. “You need to sweat that shit out.”
He hopped off of the top bunk and followed me. It was our dorm’s time for “yard,” which was comprised of a baseball field, basketball court, handball court, and a spot for people to exercise. We got an hour every few days.
Our facility, the RCCC, was a small prison. There were no bars or what you’d typically picture a jail to be. We were in dorms of about 150 people, and everything you did was with your particular dorm. Ours was Dormitory C. It’s laid out like a military base, a tower hovering above us with armed guards just waiting for someone to do some dumb shit.
The dorms are segregated inside by race. Whites, blacks, Mexicans (two groups: nortenos and sorenos), and the “others.” That’s really what they call themselves — they’re made up Asians, Islanders, and sometimes Russians (Russians can choose whether they’re part of the whites or The Others. The Russians in our dorm associated with The Others).
Races are essentially unions in jail. It’s not so much racism as it is protection. Each race has a leader, similar to a union rep, in the dorm. If you want to fight someone from another race, your leader goes to the leader of the race you want to fight, and they work out the details. It’s all very orderly, in a chaotic sense. 99% of the time it keeps the peace. But when that 1% pops off, there’s a race riot.
Tyler followed me out to the yard, hunched over as his spirit fought to return to normalcy after years of saturation in black-tar heroin.
“Dude, I don’t belong here. This is bullshit, I need to get out. I didn’t do anything wrong. I…”
I cut him off.
“Aye, I’m telling you right now you need to cool it with that ‘I’m innocent’ bullshit. Nobody here wants to hear that.”
“Stop, man. I’m only telling you because I don’t want to see you get your ass beat in the shower. You can’t be whining about anything here. People will give you a pass because they see you kicking, and most people had to kick when they got here. But you start with that ‘I’m innocent’ shit, they’re not going to cut you any slack.”
He looked down, finally realizing that he was in here until they decided to let him out.
“How long did it take you?” he asked me.
That’s the funny thing about drug addicts. We can always tell a fellow-addict, right down to the drug of choice.
“I had my final kick about two years ago,” I said.
“Two years ago? Then why are you in here?” he asked, confused.
“Because two years and one week ago, I did something stupid. And now I’m paying for it,” I explained.
“Heroin?” he asked.
“Naw. Fentanyl. Lots and lots of Fentanyl, with Xanax-bars sprinkled in for the occasional blackout.”
“It took me about two weeks to kick, but that’s Fentanyl. It takes longer. You should be good in about three days,” I said to him, lying, knowing it’d really take him about seven days. But like Forrest Gump said, a little white lie never hurt no one.
We walked around the entire Yard, stretching our legs, chatting. He explained how he was in for violating a restraining order placed against him by his ex.
“I just wanted to see my kid,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “apparently your ex doesn’t think your kid needs to see you.”
“Yeah,” he pleaded, “it’s fucked up.”
“A judge seemed to agree with her…” That sentence hung in the air as we walked.
Drug addicts, you see, are great at bullshit. We are to victimization what a Kardashian is to undeserved fame. We can wrap ourselves in that shit, turning any situation into one in which we got screwed over. The only reason I’m sitting here today, typing this story in an office without my arms or legs shackled, is because at some point somebody called me out on my bullshit and forced me to take accountability for my actions.
“Let’s be real,” I said, breaking the silence. “Your kid deserves a dad who’s not shooting shit up his veins. It’s probably best he doesn’t see you right now.”
He just walked, looking down, as we passed the basketball courts, went around the handball courts, and started on our second lap.
“I mean,” I continued, “I’m not trying to be a dick, but it isn’t easy to get a judge to issue a restraining order when a child is involved. So there’s some shit you’re not telling me, and that’s fine. I don’t wanna know. But you need to get your shit together before you can even think about being a real father.”
Suddenly, over the loudspeaker, “Workers — report to the kitchen.”
That was my cue.
“Come on, man, you’re going to learn how to slice bread today,” I told Tyler.
“No man,” he begged, “I can’t. I feel like shit.”
“If you go back to the dorm and just lay in bed, this will be the longest day of your life,” I said. “I need you to trust me.”
He stopped, dead in his tracks, looked at the ground and started to cry.
Honest to God.
“Shit man, this isn’t the place,” I said to him, under my breath. “Come on.”
One of the guys on the basketball court saw him crying and started giving him shit.
“Hey, check out the white boy crying! You know where you’re at homeboy?”
Whether I liked it or not, I was going to have to defend Tyler until he was healthy enough to defend himself.
“Shit man, like you can talk. I heard you on the phone last night begging your girl to tell you who the guy in the background was,” I yelled out, while everyone on the basketball court started laughing, clowning the guy who I’m guessing wished he had kept his mouth shut. “This dude is kicking — at least he has an excuse! What’s yours?”
By now everyone was laughing at the guy, who shut his mouth and went back to playing basketball while the guards took a temporary interest in our conversation.
“Let’s go,” I snapped, getting frustrated. “We’re going to the kitchen.”
And we did. We worked in the kitchen for eight hours, slicing bread. It was mundane and monotonous, but it passed the time.
Tyler was actually a really good dude. As the days passed, he worked with me slicing bread. He was a hard worker, and I got to see the real him emerge from the shell left behind by the heroin. Each day he got a little more healthy, a little more human.
He was funny. Really, really funny. One day, while we waited in our bunks for the guards to come do their count, we joked about how funny it’d be to bring our jail habits home. Take showers in flip-flops, sneak peanut butter sandwiches in our pant legs from the kitchen to the bedroom. Shit that’s only funny if you’ve been to jail, I suppose. I laughed so hard and so did Tyler.
Tyler was going to be getting out two days after me. On my last night we talked about life, recovery, addiction. He said that he’d never met someone who was clean and not miserable until he met me, and that he felt like he could do it. Like, really do it. Stay clean. Put down the syringe. Maintain the person he was clean, be a dad. All of it.
“I’m gonna do this, man. I really am,” he said, quite convincingly. “Thank you.”
“Don’t say it,” I told him. “Just do it.”
He acknowledged it with silence.
Tyler, like most addicts, had burned every bridge to any other human being in his life. When he got out, nobody would be picking him up. He’d get on the bus to downtown, where he’d be dropped off and left to fend for himself. I gave him my phone number and told him to call me if he wanted to hit up a meeting together.
The following morning: “Jason Smith — Roll It Up.”
I was out. When they gave me back my personal belongings, I had a ten-dollar bill in my pocket. “What the hell am I going to do with ten dollars?” I wondered.
Reaching across the desk, I asked to put the ten dollars in Tyler’s possessions for when he got out. I knew he didn’t have a penny to his name when he got picked up, so I figured he could have lunch on me after he got dropped downtown.
It was a Monday morning and I’d been home for exactly three days. You don’t really appreciate the ability to be lazy, drink coffee, smoke a cigarette, and read the paper until that’s taken away from you. I was soaking in the freedom.
Reading the paper online, I saw a headline that read “Man Overdoses in Bathroom.” I knew it was Tyler before I even clicked the link.
A Sacramento man was found dead in the bathroom of the Subway restaurant at 428 J Street early Sunday morning. Police believe it was an overdose due to paraphernalia found on the person, Tyler xxxxxxx, a recent-release from the RCCC facility.
I can’t help but wonder if you used my ten dollars.