To undergo the process by which you find yourself in jail for the first time is to be assaulted on every level, guaranteed to knock you headlong off any platform from which you ordinarily perceive the world. An overwhelming shock in every sense to every sense, the virgin incarceration is one of those life-altering events for which it is likely true that there can be no real appreciation without the benefit of first-hand experience. That is not to say that it is not possible to affect a reasonable facsimile of the extreme emotional discomfort associated with such an occasion for any among you who might not believe me or who, for whatever arcane reasons of your own, want simply to be in the know. A guided tour is entirely possible. It won’t provide the full effect of having been there, but it will conjure its essence, all the same, certainly to the extent required to understand why being thrown in jail is (or should be) a boldface, capital letter item on everyone’s big life list of events fervently to avoid.
For this phantom experience, you need only imagine large quantities of the two separate but related emotions that are at the core of the real thing: helplessness and anxiety. With anxiety your first goal, generate a high-octane recollection, a memory of a personal experience so stressful and so dire, so stuffed with the potential for painful, scarring consequences that, despite how shameful or shallow it made you feel, or how contrary it ran to the tenor of your spiritual center, your only hope for escape from that experience was to attempt a bargain with God. Then, imagine the anxiety generated by the sum total of all of the bargains you have attempted to make with God. Consider the disappointing failure of all of those bargains. Hold that anxious thought.
Inject helplessness into anxiety by setting your scenario against the backdrop of the classic happy dream that morphs, uncontrollably, into a nightmare. As an example, here is one of mine made generic for ease of transition in turning it into one of yours. True to form, it begins in soft focus and slow motion, and is accompanied by a breezy, hopeful, major key kind of soundtrack consistent with the fact that its hero is six years old, innocent and wide-eyed. Why? Because it is the first day of the first grade. Mom and our hero in the wood-paneled, family station wagon, pull up to a busy suburban intersection where Jim (according to the tag pinned above the badge of his safety patroller’s belt), a mature sixth-grader you heartily aspire to be, guides happy groups of new and returning students across a sunny street toward the redbrick schoolhouse in which first graders will experience the myriad joys of learning.
You move to get out of the car, but when you turn back to say good-bye to Mom, you notice that she looks worried, stricken, in fact. It is as if she is fearful that letting you out of the car is as good as exposing you to the school’s meanest teacher or the playground’s biggest bully. But it’s your first day of school. You imagine that she must be imagining things. Nothing can go wrong. You flash her a reassuring smile, grab your sweater and your pale blue lunchbox illustrated with thin line drawings of trains and boats, cars and trucks, individually housed in thin lined squares, and, guided across the busy intersection by safety patroller Jim, you head toward the redbrick schoolhouse. It is very close now, just beyond the pair of parked school buses at the curb, then up three big steps and a little ways down the sidewalk past the flagpole where a crush of students has gathered to pledge allegiance.
You break into an exuberant run, but safety patroller Jim barks at you to stop. You obey, startled, and look back to see Jim glaring at you. He barks at you again to stop running. Then he calls you stupid, which is extra painful because it is exactly how you feel. It’s not that you’re going to cry, no, not on the first day of school. But in case the act of crying makes a surprise, if unwelcome appearance on the already crowded emotional agenda of this special day, you turn away so Jim won’t know.
Now at a fast walk and with stinging eyes, you start to cross once more, but things have changed. The street, normal just a moment before, is now about a mile wide. The two buses, once so close, are way, far away. There are still three steps, but they are so huge, and the sidewalk beyond is so long, you can barely see the redbrick schoolhouse, now in the distance. All of the students are still crowded around the flagpole, and they continue to look upward, but their focus is no longer on the flag. It is on the ominous sky. They all peer into it with faces aged prematurely by ends not met, relationships refusing to solidify, careers launching in an absence of brilliance.
A flash of lightning and a clap of thunder inspire the rapid patter of panicky feet, and you become but one individual in a terrified pack of stampeding grade-schoolers, one high-pitched voice in a shrieking chorus. But wait a minute. You stop and turn back, certain that Mom will be waiting in the wood-paneled, family station wagon, happy to convey you back home for grilled cheese sandwiches, happy to grant you the next day as a do-over. But Mom, along with he wood-paneled, family station wagon and, therefore, your hopes for both the grilled cheese and a do-over day, has vanished.
Looking back in what was once the direction of the now completely invisible redbrick schoolhouse, you see the crowd of children disappearing into the distance. Breaking into a run is impossible because, as is the case in so many nightmares, any attempt to move is hampered by the invisible sea of chilled molasses into which you obviously have been dropped. Determined to be counted, if only among the last stragglers, you strain toward what you now perceive as nothing, and you pray fervently that you will reach some goal, any goal before being hopelessly drenched by the big, gulping drops of ice cold rain that threaten you from the ever-darkening storm clouds raging above.
Helpless, anxious, running blindly, you find that you are back at the intersection, and there, where just a moment earlier, the family station wagon idled, you see someone you instantly recognize as your grown-up self. You are riding shotgun in an exhaust-spewing, gear-grinding, rusted-out Honda, and in the driver’s seat is your scruffy, chain-smoking, fast-talking new best friend, Bernie. He pulls up at the intersection in front of the two-unit house in which the adult you has an apartment. There, a newly installed crossing guard catches your eye. His name, according the tag pinned above the badge on the blue shirtfront covering his massively expansive pectorals, is Jim. And the fact that he is also a thirty-something, steroid-enhanced police officer you heartily aspire to meet at some future sex party completely obliterates any realization you might otherwise have had that he is the grown-up incarnation of the crossing guard from your childhood. Jim indicates that you are free to proceed at a walk, across the street toward the house and into your apartment, where he seems, somehow, to know you will unpack your newly acquired stash of crystal meth before making some dinner for yourself and your dog.
You move to get out of the car, but when you turn back to say good-bye to the twitching Bernie, you can’t help noticing that, in spite of having told him yes, yes, you’ll be fine, he retains a worried, stricken look. It could be a look that warns of the close proximity of a neighborhood thug. Or a rat. Or the local criminal justice system’s most ruthless district attorney. But that would be seriously ridiculous, so you shrug off the concern, flash Bernie a reassuring smile, grab your leather jacket and gym bag. Under the watchful eye of the grown up version of Crossing Guard Jim, you head toward the two-unit house which is very close now, just across the street beyond the shiny, black SUV parked on the tree lawn.
You break into an exuberant run. Jim barks at you to stop, and you would stop if it were not for the fact that across the street, beckoning wildly in your direction stands a rain-drenched little boy wearing a sodden sweater and carrying a pale blue lunch box that looks familiar enough to trigger another memory, one about a crossing guard from your childhood. You glance back at the officer, then again at the little boy; then, for some reason, you flash back to the image of Bernie’s worried, possibly guilty face.
You opt to move toward the little boy, but the street has become enormously wide, and now, with the sun having gone down and dense fog rolling in, it all looks very far away. By the time you finally get to the other side, the little boy has disappeared. A deep voice from out of nowhere calls your name. You think of grown-up Crossing Guard Jim, but you can’t see him, you can’t see the little boy; you can’t see much of anything. The deep voice calls your name again, so you know that you are not as alone as you feel. You try to peer through the fog, and, just where you thought he (Jim, that is) would be, somehow, it’s the little boy looking up at you. It makes you gasp, the act of his grabbing your hand, but it’s not from the suddenness and not because it scares you. It is the sureness of the knowledge that a six-year old hand holds your grown-up one, the grown-up version of its younger, six-year old self. That is what makes you gasp. Then, like the cliché that it is, time stops, and you come to the startling conclusion that in approximately one, hopefully interminable second, you are going to be arrested.
In a panic, instantly desperate for everything in the range of your perception to remain frozen, you conjure brakes to slam on, emergency cords to yank downward, the strength of a thousand superheroes to brace against while you beg a higher power for clemency or death or a cloak of invisibility. But mockingly, or perhaps simply to overcompensate for having stood, if only briefly still, time resumes its onward rush. You achieve a tiny, bitter jab of pleasure at having accurately seen your immediate future, and as the prediction crystallizes, imprinting itself as a memory onto the immediate, recent past, you hear, no, feel the first click of the handcuffs. Another blip in the progress of time, this one to a lesser degree, and then, there it is again, you hear (no, feel) handcuff click number two.
I’m sorry. Did you think you were still dreaming?
Denial, ever your friend, races in to attempt a rescue. The air turns thick and warm, and you wonder if someone has turned the dial on the gravitational pull of the planet up from medium to high. Your face is hot, your heartbeat leaden. Sounds trying to make it into your ear compete at the gate as those in your head struggle unsuccessfully to break through to the outside. A stranger in a hooded sweatshirt holds up a badge and a picture ID. He peppers you with questions to which you do not respond, not because you are unwilling or uncooperative, and not because you do not know the answers, but because you have forgotten how to think.
Reality, seizing the moment in a brilliant ambush of denial, snatches control, jolting you back into hyper-alertness. Someone (maybe another hooded sweatshirt) is guiding you gently into the back of a squad car. Cold air stings your face, while your hands, locked behind you and pressed uncomfortably against the hard, unupholstered surface of the back seat, grow numb. You are left alone; your thoughts and a police radio crackle in tandem while inquisitive neighbors stare and gossip from porches and windows.
Meanwhile you get a sense of just how much trouble you have been. In addition to the hooded sweatshirt and his partner, the swarm on the grass and driveway includes six or eight gentlemen in black jump suits and caps while another half-dozen uniformed police officers stand randomly by doorways or on the sidewalk. In addition to the squad car you occupy, there are three others on the grass and four across the street on the tree lawn. Uniformed figures stare out of some. Red and blue lights flash from every one. It is not a moment of which you feel any pride in being the central character.
You are out of the car again, this time managing to answer questions put to you by the man in the hooded sweatshirt with the badge and picture ID and (now you see it) a shoulder harness and pistol. He smiles politely, thanks you for your cooperation, and, directing your attention to two uniformed police officers, informs you that now, having been arrested, the next step will be a ride downtown. Your downstairs neighbor sticks a scrap of paper scrawled with his phone number into your shirt pocket and promises to look after things for as long as it takes.
The two officers, one at each elbow, return you to the squad car, and gently guide you back onto the unupholstered seat. Despite your above-average height, no law enforcer’s protective hand is placed on your head as you fold yourself into the car. You successfully avoid bumping your noggin, and are grateful that you still have some mastery over your physical self, but you can’t help feeling slightly disappointed that you have not been afforded a real-life enactment of the most ubiquitous cliché in the annals of cop drama. On the other hand, and in spite of the fact that you have gone into the car with your head officially unprotected, you cannot help thinking what a pleasant surprise it has been, so far, that everyone who has come together to put you behind bars has been so nice.
The officer at the wheel backs the car into the street, and several of the remaining squad cars follow suit. They all move off in the direction of downtown, and you think, wow, a motorcade. But, car by car, as flashing lights are switched off and individual cruisers disappear down dark side streets, you realize that what you, in some film noir sector of your addled imagination, had pictured as a police escort for Public Enemy No. 1 has evaporated instead into the unheralded, routine trip of a single police vehicle bearing one, insignificant thug to jail.
In the few moments that it has taken you to discover the mutual exclusivity of occupying the back seat of a police squad car (handcuffed or not) and being comfortable, it has also occurred to you that you have no idea how far you are from your house, no idea of your destination and no idea of the route by which you are getting there. Hoping to catch a glimpse of a landmark, you slide to the very back of the seat, but that limits your field of vision. You slide forward to the edge of the seat, only to find the same result from a different perspective. You try sitting back while leaning forward, which is helpful because you can see more, but disappointing because there is so little to see. Your bearings now hopelessly scrambled, all you know is that you, newly arrested, barely cognizant of what has just happened and totally clueless as to what is about to happen, are being transported through dark, unfamiliar neighborhoods to the modern equivalent of a medieval dungeon. Denial, like a slightly inept but, nevertheless, well-meaning friend, steps in again, but its attempt to cause a distraction from reality by disguising the passing cityscape as an urban wasteland on a deserted, far-flung planet is, at best, redundant because in spite of the truth, that is exactly what your eyes are showing you.
Eventually, or, to be more accurate, very much too soon, you and the pair of still- friendly, even amiable escorts arrive at a basement parking garage which, except for the abundance of squad cars, looks in its monochrome dullness like any other basement parking garage. The escorts help you out of the car, and still, one to an elbow, they lead you past a grim sea of beige center block toward what you now register as a distinguishing feature of this particular garage: a wall of heavy, vertical bars separating you from the also heavily barred entrance to the building.
Desperate to lighten the mood (like that’s going to change anything), you are just about to remark to an imagined Toto that you have a feeling you’re not in Kansas anymore when, through the wall of bars, you note the signs forbidding the possession or use of weapons, cell phones and other electronic devices, the wearing of hoods or boots, the consumption of alcohol, food or beverages, the presence of pets, friends or family. You wonder if, instead of looking for Toto, you should seek the input of Virgil, as maybe he knows whether or not the sign encouraging the abandonment of hope to all incoming has perhaps been sent out to the painter for a touch-up. Hilarious if ineffective, that fantasy (which won’t delay the inevitable and certainly will not save you) is shattered by an unexpectedly unnerving buzz and loud metallic clack. The big, heavy door opens. You are escorted through, and though there is no perceptible change or demarcation, it is very clear that the amiable portion of the evening is over.
Welcome to Intake, a dusty, drab room sharing many of the physical characteristics (and, no doubt, the same interior decorator) as the parking garage except that it features rows of lockers and several fixed wooden benches. The room has a high ceiling, a pronounced echo, numerous dark corners. It is a little, well, . . . more than a little scary. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that such a room would be designed for the ease and comfort of the arrested and/or accused. The standards and practices of any criminal justice system would, naturally, want to make sure that such a room is practical and, like any other part of the process of incarceration, effective as a psychological deterrent to the act of repeating the occasion.
On the one hand, the place seems inspired by an old locker room, 1930’s vintage, Berlin. From behind the small, square windows beyond the crude, wire fencing on the room’s far side, you can practically picture uniformed men in jackboots peering in to see if anyone unfortunate enough to have been stripped naked might sport, even more unfortunate, a circumcision. On the other, other hand, the features of the room are so random, so lazy in their arrangement and so make-shift in their execution that it is difficult to imagine any thought, psychologically-inspired or not, ever entering into the matter of its design.
How and why the room was designed or arranged is, of course, moot, and you put speculation aside to answer a series of questions posed in a monotone by a middle-aged, overweight police officer who does not look you in the eyes once, and who does not give a shit whether or not you care. In answer to his questions, you describe your physical appearance, after which a couple of other, slightly livelier officers engage you (just to make sure your answers to Officer Monotone have been accurate) in a strip search. The purpose of the strip search is to ascertain the complete divestiture of personal stuff. The manner in which it is performed (you cannot help noticing) is almost ceremonial in nature. It is during the strip search that you say good-bye (obviously) to your clothing; also identification, cell phone, cash, keys, jewelry (finger, neck, ear, body and otherwise) and any item (excluding those which Nature herself might have placed there) located in any body cavity for which accessibility does not require a surgeon. Except for socks, underwear and eyeglasses, which are returned to you, everything taken from you disappears into sealed plastic bags of several varieties. The removal of these items from your view happens at a great speed, and it is at about this time, when you are sure that you have entered a world in which the next face you see will belong to Rod Serling, that you are presented with what, from a fashion or, frankly, any standpoint, is the barest improvement to your near-naked situation: a very much too large, beige jumpsuit and a pair of rubber-soled, navy blue canvas shoes only three or four sizes too large. You put them on, wondering as you look around at your all-beige surroundings if, from neck to ankle, you are invisible.
The next item on the agenda is to experience the unsettling realization that the flash accompanying an unseen request to face front then turn profile is the act of your mug shot being taken. Following that comes the almost whimsical discovery that the ink used for registering fingerprints comes off really easily with the moist towelette thoughtfully provided by your fingerprint taker.
Ah, to be under the spell of denial, so natural, perhaps even blissful (if idiotic) a response to panic, but, in the short term and under the circumstances, it is, perhaps, maybe even a helpful one. But your practical side, the one bent on survival, rejects denial as an option. Not without a tinge of regret, you make the very short hop back to the healthier if considerably less pleasant reality of the present, where now and throughout the duration of whatever it is that you have gotten yourself into, it is of vital importance that you remember that you are in a very serious situation in a completely humorless environment among people with no sympathy whatsoever for your cause. If you don’t believe it, try answering, as I did, “You mean, before now?” when the officer finishing your Intake interview asks if you have ever been suicidal.