LONDON, ONTARIO – Events have conspired these last few hunkered-down weeks to make me reflect on a considerably shorter term of quarantine which I endured at the age of twenty-two.
I have lightly tweaked this forty-six year-old essay about my stay in the old Middlesex County Jail in the last year of its operations.
A RED LIGHT ON THE ROAD TO RUIN
ABOUT ONE MONTH ago I was riding my bicycle home at four o’clock on a Saturday morning. I had a flashlight in my hand, not that it helped illuminate the road, but a lot of my male friends have received rather expensive summonses for riding bikes with no lights. All the girls I know just get warnings. I was coasting south down Richmond Street toward Oxford when the light turned red. My view of the intersection ahead was perfect, the traffic was nil, my laziness was immense and my momentum was too good to waste.
I won’t deny that we cyclists can be an arrogant lot. There’s nothing we won’t try to avoid ever having to come to an unnecessary stop. We are held in thrall to the thrill of speed and swim through lanes of stalled-up traffic, crying, “Get a horse!” “You’re so pedestrian!” and “Out the way – I’m God!” We think we’re above – we may be beneath – we’re certainly other than the law. If we have to pull over and wait for no vehicles whatsoever to move across an intersection before we may legally proceed, it does something awful to our self-esteem.
It makes us feel very stupid. You will notice that children are not taught the rules of the road by Elmer the Safety Fox. An animal that lived by its wits and displayed independence would give our children the wrong idea. It’s Elmer the Safety Elephant we hold up as their guide; a slow and cumbersome member of one of the most herd-oriented animals on Earth; a beast which would sooner run off a cliff to certain death in the company of a hundred other plummeting brothers and sisters, than break away from the pack for a single second in order to ask, “Why am I doing this?”
Needless to say, I ran the light and a long block and a half later (I told you I had good momentum) I became aware of a flashing red light reflected in the windows of shops. I turned to see what all the flashing was about and discovered it was me. I curbed my bike, dismounted and was amazed to feel my heart beating in my throat. While the policeman sat in his car talking on his radio microphone, I calmly reminded myself that it would be quite unlikely for this man to shoot or even hit me.
When he finally clambered out of his cruiser, he seemed to exhibit a nervous bluster, a pushiness that was calculated to subdue someone with far more criminal intent than me. “Know why I stopped you?” he asked, head cocked back in defiance.
“Saw the red light?”
“Okay, I’m going to have to give you a summons.”
I nodded that I understood and he seemed to let down his guard a little and became a much more likeable soul. He wasn’t a pill about it, spared me a lecture and didn’t try to pretend that I’d committed a particularly serious crime. It must be an awful job, infuriating people all day long with tickets and fines, always having to come on like a heavy and a pest, never knowing who might get ugly or pull a gun.
I gave him some information which he phoned in on his radio and when he returned he looked a little sheepish. “This seems a bit steep,” he said. “For a bicycle.”
I winced expectantly.
“Twenty-eight bucks,” he said and I was duly impressed. It was about four times worse than I expected and about three times as much as I earn in a single shift of dish washing.
“What would that come to in jail time?” I asked.
“Two, maybe three days.”
Two days I’d come out ahead. Three days I’d break about even. He watched me make these calculations.
“Be a new experience for you,” he said dubiously.
“Yeah, I’ve never been to jail before.”
He walked around to the far side of his cruiser and opened the door. “If you decide to pay it – and you should think about that because jail’s really not much fun – you can always ask the judge for an extension. It costs them a lot to put you in there and they’ll offer any kind of terms for paying the fine.”
For the next twelve blocks I marveled at the fact that I actually thanked the man who’d be responsible for putting me behind bars. I also stopped for two red lights.
Today is October 23rd, 1974. Tomorrow, I go to jail. I’ve spent hours in the last few weeks pumping people for information but they’re not much help because they all paid their fines. I guess I move in the wrong sort of circles. My employer promises to bring me a cake with an emery board baked inside and my girlfriend is going to tie a yellow ribbon around the telephone pole in front of her house if she still wants me after I’m sprung. “Let’s be realistic,” she told me. “We could be two entirely different people by then.”
As I get closer to D-Day, the prospect becomes less amusing and more weird. I’m obviously going to come out of it all in one piece but there are certain psychological threats this whole thing poses. The man who pays his fine feels annoyed and maybe a little impoverished but I don’t think he ever feels like a criminal. But I’m about to be locked into a cage for two or three days of strict isolation from society and, in just contemplating that experience, I start to feel like a criminal; not because of what I’ve done but because of what I’m about to let them do to me; not because of the crime but because of the punishment.
JUST DESSERTS FOR THE CRAZED CYCLIST
I PEARL DIVE ON the night shift, play until dawn and sleep all day. A 10 a.m. court appearance throws my whole way of life out of whack and I appear in Middlesex Traffic Court Number Four dull-eyed and ratty-tailed after one and a half hours of alarmingly low-grade sleep. Accompanying me are three so-called friends who’ve never seen a cohort dragged off to the clink before. The judge has yet to make his entrance and a lot of people are milling around a table set beneath his elevated bench where they hand in blue slips of paper to a taciturn gentleman who’s scribbling information into a ledger. The blue slips of paper must be summonses I decide and wander up to his table with mine. “Am I supposed to give you this?” I ask, handing it toward him.
“How should I know?” he snaps at me.
“I wouldn’t know how you’d know. Do you know?”
“What’s your offense?” he asks.
“I ran a red light on my bicycle.” This line’s been getting me laughs for weeks but not from this guy. He copies down some information from my blue slip, hands it back and I return to my seat just in time to see the entrance of another dour-looking soul – this one, vaguely feminine – and she bids us all rise for the grand entrance of His Lord High Poo-Bah. The judge is morbidly contemplating a gravy stain or something just as compelling on the front of his gown and doesn’t even look up for a quick scan of all the people he’s about to condemn.
First they dispense with all those lucky folks who’ll be dancing out of here because of the appalling level of illiteracy which afflicts the London Police Force. Three cases are dismissed out of hand because they all had incorrect spelling on the summonses. I give mine one last perusal just to make sure but everything seems to be cricket. Inside the square marked “make of vehicle,” the policeman wrote “C.C.M.” but neglected to notate either the year of its manufacture or its serial number. I wouldn’t know where to attain such information either so I doubt such oversights could be construed as grounds for throwing my case out of court.
Then four cases are heard, all of them involving “motor vehicles,” all of them with fines more expensive than mine, and all but one of them ask for and receive more time in which to scratch the money together. The lady calls my name and I stand before the judge as she reads out the charge. She doesn’t mention the word “bicycle” once. She always calls it a “vehicle” which strikes me as pretty vague – could be a skateboard, a Sherman tank or a Fred Flintstone push-pedal car. “How do you plead?” she finally asks. “Guilty or not guilty?”
“Guilty,” I tell her.
The judge who still hasn’t looked at anybody since he came into the room, asks me if I have anything to say for myself. I tell him I don’t and then that irritable little creep with the ledger pipes up that, “The defendant was unable to give the officer any reason for having disobeyed the traffic light, your honour.”
The judge continues to address his gravy stain and decrees that I must pay the court twenty-five dollars (on the summons, it was twenty-eight) or go to jail for three days. “Do you have the money with you today?” he asks, automatically assuming I choose to pay.
“No,” I tell him.
“Shall I make it a month then?”
“No . . . uh . . . how do I put this? . . . like . . . if I want to go to jail instead?”
He looks at me! “You want to go to jail for three days instead of paying the court twenty-five dollars?”
“We can give you more time than a month. We can give you however much time you need.”
“No thank you.”
“All right,” he says. “Have it your way.” And he orders some pageboy type to go and arrange the necessary papers for my imprisonment. I return to my pew and one of my friends nods in the direction of a row of policemen who aren’t being terribly discreet about pointing at me and laughing. It’s a rather chilling sight – malicious jollity in quasi-military uniform – and puts me to mind of old photographs of grinning S.S. goons relocating Jewish citizens. There, there, I tell myself. Let’s not get carried away. They probably just think I’m an asshole and don’t have very nice manners.
Halfway through the next case, another uniformed policeman suddenly moves to the front of the room and – appearing to be undergoing some sort of mental breakdown – starts directing traffic with vigorous gesticulations. First he points straight out at all the people in the pews, and then sweepingly points off to the left. Doesn’t he realize he’s in a courtroom and not standing in the middle of some downtown intersection where the traffic lights have conked out? Twice he goes through this and I’m getting really embarrassed for the man when it starts to dawn on me that I’m the one who’s lost in a psychological trance here and he’s actually pointing at me quite specifically and indicating the direction he wishes me to move.
Message duly received, I walk out of the courtroom and am met by the policeman who arrested me in the first place. It’s so good to see him again after all those dour-faced cranks that I can’t help laughing out loud.
“Decided to serve the time, eh?”
“Yeh, I guess I have.”
“Let’s see . . . this is Thursday and he gave you three days . . . so . . . you’ll be out of jail Saturday morning at eight.”
“That’s two days. Not even that.”
“Well, they aren’t allowed to release you on Sundays. And they can’t hold you over until Monday. So you timed it pretty well.”
We go for an elevator ride and get off on the wrong floor. We try it again and blow it again. For about ten minutes I follow my favourite policeman down halls, around corners and back into the elevator, obviously lost, and amuse myself by watching his trousers. He’s driving a motorcycle this week and is wearing those RCMP-style jodhpurs with the weird bulges at the hips like somebody stuffed rolled-up newspapers down his trouser legs. He finally breaks down and asks a janitor for directions to wherever it is we’re going. The new courthouse has been open for at least two months and it would seem that in all that time, I’m the first person my policeman has ever escorted to jail.
We finally come to a large locked door with a telephone beside it. My policeman dials the magic number and informs the person on the other side that he has a prisoner with him who’s waiting to be admitted. The door makes a sudden, loud clicking sound and opens. We walk down a hall and meet two uniformed guards; one chews the fat with my policeman while the other frisks me and takes away my shoulder bag lest I use it to hang myself.
The noise is incredible. A bunch of Portuguese men are being booked on some kind of fraud charge and are yammering and bellowing about Jesus Christ and lawyers, every sound magnified and echoed in this cavernous place of concrete and steel. My policeman wishes me a happy stay, shakes my hand goodbye and takes his leave; leaving me feeling as desolate as a kid on his first kindergarten morning watching his mother walk away.
A guard escorts me to a large cell with bars and unbreakable glass. Nothing is explained. He just locks the door and walks away. I turn around and see an old man sitting in the corner and I wonder how close I should sit to him on this metal bench that runs along three walls of the cell. I have the same problem whenever I use a public washroom and somebody else is using one of the urinals. I want to appear chummy but not nosy. I want to give him his space but not seem standoffish. In this instance, I’m also concerned that this fellow might be in jail for murdering his mother, in which case I’d just as soon stand. Finally, I sit down, tentatively, about eight feet away from him.
“What are you in for?” he asks.
I tell him and he leans back his head and howls at the ceiling. “And how long did they give you for that?” he asks.
“Three days . . . with one day off for good timing.”
“And they try and tell you that cops don’t have weekly quotas of arrests.”
I quickly deduce that he’s a nice enough fellow, in jail for what he figures must be his two hundredth drunk and disorderly charge. We sit together for about an hour and he fills me in on a lot of the things I’ll need to know. One of the first things I learn is that I’m not even in jail yet. This is only a holding cell; a place to put us until they have enough people to warrant a paddy-wagon drive to the old jail kitty-corner across the road.
He tells me to try to get put into the dormitory cell when we go over (though I really doubt I’ll have much say in the matter) because all the others are so awful. He describes the food as “edible”. The guards range from “nasty pricks” to “pretty regular guys” and the roster of recreational activities is nonexistent. “First couple times in, you almost go crazy,” he says. “You can sleep, you can read, you can eat, or you can go to the bathroom. And that’s about it. It can get to you. I’ve served a couple half-year sentences in my time and that’s when I learned to throw a sort of switch in my head. When I’m on the street, I’m all there, you know? I’m free to move, look around . . . I expect things to happen. I got to turn all that off when I come in here. I got to make myself stupid so I don’t notice all the things that aren’t happening anymore.”
For any sentence longer than a month, I learn that you won’t be kept in the London jail. They’ll just hold you until a bus or train can ship you out to Kingston or one of the larger penitentiaries. These larger jails all have some sort of work program for the men whereas the London jail has nothing save the occasional sweeping of halls, unloading of supply trucks, kitchen or laundry work. This man has developed such an aversion to life in the London slammer that he once pleaded with a judge to extend his sentence from just under to just over a month so he could serve it out of town. The judge was humane and granted his wish. This time, drat the luck, he was only in for a week.
Just before noon, a guard comes to our cell and leads us into a hallway where we meet up with the rest of the crew who’ll be sent across the road with us.
“Herman,” yells a voice and I look over and see this young kid I worked with two summers ago in a theatre project. He’s attached by handcuffs to some grim-looking geezer three times his age.
“What are you doing in here?” I ask.
“Well, let’s see,” he says, rubbing his chin for effect. “There’s auto theft, possession of narcotics ... breach of probation ... I think that’s all. What are you in for?”
I’m stunned by his list of crimes and the cocky attitude he’s wearing. He seems so hardened and smooth. I had no idea he was into that sort of stuff and probably look quite prudishly shocked by the revelation. Before I can answer his question, we’re shoved out a door and into the back of the wagon. There are eight of us in here altogether and me and the old man are the only ones who don’t rate handcuffs. As all the others start talking, I discover that I’m the only ‘freshman’ in the bunch. They all know each other from previous terms spent together and speak in excited tones like old friends back at school after summer vacation. But instead of “What’s your major?” and “Who’s your home room teacher?”, the questions of the day are “What are you in for?” and “How long are you serving?” Realizing their packs will soon be confiscated, everybody lights up cigarettes and once it becomes extremely difficult to see or breathe, the old man reports to the rest of the wagon that, “This poor sucker’s in for running red lights on his bicycle.”
Everybody finds this splendidly amusing except the biggest, ugliest guy in the truck who announced thirty seconds ago that he’d been booked for aggravated assault. “I don’t think that’s so god damned funny,” he says. “You’re just making a farce of the whole legal system.”
“The legal system’s making a farce of the legal system,” I try explaining in a way which I hope he’ll find instructive and not the least bit aggravating.
“How much was your fine?” he asks, incredulously. “Five bucks?”
He can’t help looking a little impressed but is determined to hang onto his strange principles. “You’re supposed to pay traffic fines. That’s not what jail’s for. Jail’s for drunks and serious stuff. Not fucking bikes.”
“Maybe somebody should tell that to my judge.”
His reasoning capacities exhausted, the man grunts and gives a brisk gesture of dismissal which I’m quite pleased to receive as it means our conversation is over. Like Popeye whose arms his resemble, he ‘can stanz no more’.
This simple drive across the corner seems to take forever and every time I look out the tiny barred window, the sky is spinning around us. (Perhaps my old policeman with the masterful sense of direction is at the wheel?) We finally arrive somewhere, are herded out of the wagon into a hallway and through to a longish reception room. A Salvation Army man leans against the wall as we file past, making ‘tsk, tsk’ noises and sadly shaking his head; obviously and obnoxiously concerned about the sorry state of our souls. I’d like to see him try to exude such an attitude in a room that wasn’t staffed with four guards and where three quarters of his congregation weren’t handcuffed one to another.
Induction ceremonies commence and one by one we’re led into another room where we’re stripped of personal items other than clothing – money, rings, necklaces, watches, cigarettes, wallets and the copy of Jane Eyre which I’d naively been hoping to read in jail. Then we’re frisked again and led into another room just in time for lunch. This room is a cell so the food gets passed to us through the bars – just like in Bonanza. The home fried potatoes are excellent and my compliments to Sheriff Coffee or Hop Sing or whoever is responsible. The applesauce is distressingly runny, the slices of tomato could’ve used another week in the hothouse and there’s a gruesome lump on each of our plates that isn’t very good. I have no idea what it is though it tastes vaguely starchy – perhaps some anemic distant cousin to a turnip. The coffee is simply appalling. I honest to God thought it was weak tea. “No, no,” says my friend from summer theatre. “That’s coffee all right. You’ll know the tea when you taste it.”
Midway through lunch I lose whatever appetite I’ve been able to muster when a man called Scratch is led into the cell directly across the hall from us. The guards and inmates who know which end is up start laughing because they know he was just released from here this morning. In the four hours between eight and noon he has hit the streets, gotten himself loaded on booze, behaved disgracefully in a public venue and been dragged back here again.
A special blind has been pulled down over one side of our cell so we can only see him from the waist down. He’s in a furious rage, kicking at the guards who are trying to change him into prison clothes, thrashing and screaming every obscenity in the book, sometimes breaking loose from their hold and throwing his body against the bars of his cell with an impact that’s sickening to hear. Trying to calm him down, the guards threaten him with ‘the hole’; a threat which only further enrages him.
The old man in the holding cell had told me about ‘the hole’. In olden days, he said, it was barely a crawl space where misbehaving prisoners were put. It was impossible to stand up, there was no mattress or pillow and you were fed only bread and butter. It was modified some years later by the authorities. The room is now bigger – how much bigger, I was never able to find out. You get whole meals there now but you’re still alone, there’s still no mattress and it’s still the smallest cell in the jail. They went through with their threat. Scratch was put in the hole in an insanely drunken condition and could be heard screaming and crying all day and into the night.
After lunch people are led from our cell one at a time at ten-minute intervals while I talk to a guard through the bars. He has my shoulder bag opened on his desk and is methodically extracting each of the items one by one and notating them on an official piece of stationery.
2 sealed packages Matinee cigarettes
5 books matches
3 ball point pens: 1 black, 2 clear plastic
1 change purse – empty
He pulls out a wad of Playtown Banker play money which I use for tipping in rotten restaurants.
“You can just throw that out if you want.”
“I’m not allowed to throw out anything,” he answers sadly.
“But I give you my permission. It’s too much trouble. Give it to me and I’ll throw it out.”
“No,” he says, and proceeds to leaf through the bills, adding up the make-believe tally.
84 dollars play money
1 card adhesive animal stickers
All my worldly possessions meticulously notated, it’s time for me to march into the hallway where I’m instructed to take off all of my clothes and hang them on a hook. Naked, I go into another cell where another guard – what a job! – has to inspect my person and makes me perform demeaning rituals of display. I have to hold my hands overhead and slowly twirl, show him the soles of my feet, open my mouth, spread my ass, and all the while he bobs about, craning his head to the left and right, peering real close and then drawing back, trying to find those weapons.
“Okay, put those on,” he says, pointing to a pile of blue clothing laid out on a bench. A pair of cheap denim jeans. A thick blue work shirt with “Province of Ontario” engraved on each of the metal buttons. A pair of baggy undies (but no polka dots) like Dagwood Bumstead wears. Thick grey socks with no elastic left in the fabric. A pair of heavy work boots. I put it all on and notice that the jeans only make it two thirds of the way down my calves, the sleeves miss my wrists by a good half foot and the socks immediately slide down my legs and lie in a dispirited heap just above my ankles. The boots pinch my toes and seem to weigh about five pounds each.
Feeling and moving like an utter twit, I’m led to yet another room where two ladies dressed in white sit at desks. These ladies are nurses but more importantly, they’re ladies; a rare and wondrous commodity in jail, subject to much speculation, projection and harassment from some of the inmates serving longer terms. Later, a mousy little guy would speak to me triumphantly about his visit to one of these nurses, how he complained that his dick hurt just so she’d take it in her hand, how he rammed it home once and blew a million spermatozoans all over the front of her crisp white dress. Whether he spoke the truth (doubtful) didn’t intrigue me half so much as his pride; his cretinous bravado in recalling this sad and dismal conquest. Certainly these ladies exude the legal minimum of feminine graces – hair pulled back in institutional buns, voices clipped and precise – no doubt leery of giving these inmates (or should that be primates?) any sort of encouragement at all.
One of these nurses has me take a chair beside her desk. “Any scars or distinguishing marks on your body?”
I give this some thought. “Up here,” I say, pulling the hair back over my forehead.
“Here. It isn’t much. I tripped over my dog when I was a kid and bashed into a steel beam.”
“Five or six.”
“I don’t see the mark.”
“Sorry, that’s the best I can do.”
“Do you drink?”
“Are you sure?”
“Is this the first time you’ve been in here?”
“To the best of my recollection.”
“I think I’ve seen you somewhere before.”
“Maybe. It wasn’t here.”
“How old are you?”
“And you don’t take drugs?’
“Not even weed or hash? Marijuana? Reefers?”
“Are you sure?”
“Really sure, thanks.”
Well, she doesn’t believe a word I’m saying but checks the box marked ‘no’ beside the drug question anyway. (Would anybody in jail ever answer ‘yes’?) Then she pokes my arm for a TB skin test and sends me behind a screen to pee into a stainless steel jug. And that concludes our business.
A guard is called in and leads me away down a hall, down some stairs, through another hall and into another room. “Take a shower,” he says and leaves me alone, closing the door behind him. For the first time all day I’m not being herded along like a cow, told what to do, questioned by bigots or watched. Some inner part of me that’s been in hiding all day can finally, tentatively come out of its cave and take a reading, honestly respond and reflect on the day’s experience. Still feeling raw from my one and half hours of sleep and violated by the never-ending process of induction, I want only to be left alone and forgotten, filed away in some quiet cell where I can tumble into the arms of oblivion and sleep.
I can’t make the taps work right so I have an excruciatingly cold shower like I used to have in high school phys. ed. class; cleanliness isn’t important – just look wet so you can pass inspection. Having been issued something not much larger or thicker than a tea towel, I’m still wet as I pull on my clothes, straining to yank the stiff, useless socks over the clammy contours of my feet.
Feeling at least partially restored by this brief time alone, I pull on the door of the shower room to go and find my guard but it’s locked; a discovery so unexpected and demeaning that I am utterly unmanned in an instant and stinging tears flood my eyes. Well, of course it's locked; I’m in jail. Why didn’t I expect this? I place my head against the bars of the door and hear Scratch’s drunken screams emanating from the hole, wherever that might happen to be, and wish I’d paid my twenty-eight dollars and am so galvanized by a sudden, swelling rage that I’m glad I didn’t give them a cent.
Fully aware that in some fraudulent, white-assed way, I have chosen to experience this ordeal and am not trapped here like most of the other inmates, I’m incredulous at the sudden depth of my hurt and anger. What must it be like to really be thrown in here again and again because this is where the system thinks you belong? Because you can’t stay sober long enough to chart a workable way out of this maze?
“Want a smoke?” comes a voice to my right.
He’s behind another locked cell door which leads to the laundry room where he voluntarily washes mountains of dirty linen because it helps pass the time of day.
“Please,” I say. “Yes, please.”
It’s a hand-rolled cigarette he gives me and holds a lit match through the bars. He has yanked me from the very valley of despair by his soothing ministrations. I doubt that I could love the man more if he started to bathe my feet in aromatic oils. In a world of few possessions, cigarettes become primary tokens of friendship and care. Upon admittance, each prisoner is issued a comb, a toothbrush, a rule booklet and two packets of cigarette papers and tobacco a week. Everybody could just roll and smoke their own but I must have given away and received ten cigarettes a day just for the sake of exchanging something; each hand-rolled bomber carrying the stamp of its creator – a generous fullness, a miserly thinness, the accomplished craftsmanship of a smooth and even seam, the jaunty signature of a tied-off end that gently arches just so.
We exchange crimes and lengths of sentences. He’s six months and waiting for the bus to Kingston for a whole string of incidents involving alcohol and motor vehicles. There’s no bravado in his voice, even a hint of shame, and the matter-of-fact courage with which he states his predicament makes me feel, in comparison, like I’ve achieved the emotional maturity of a two-year-old. I tell him my story and am reminded that everything I’m going through is just a big fat joke. I’ve got to remember that.
The guard eventually comes to release me from the shower room. He indicates a pile of bed linen waiting for me on a bench and I follow him up some stairs and down a hall to my cell. “MEN’S DORMITORY”, it says over the door. I got the cell the old man wanted; the best digs in the joint. I enter through the door and the guard locks it behind me. I look around the room at fifteen new faces, none of them belonging to the old man.
“What are you in for?” half a dozen faces ask at once and I begin to answer by laughing out loud.
HELP! I'M BEING HELD PRISONER IN THE MIDDLESEX COUNTY JAIL!
I HAVE JUST LOST my third game of cribbage in a row when it finally hits me who the man at the end of the bench is.
“Another game?” asks the mousy kid with the sore and explosive dick.
“No, no more. Please, no more,” and I slide down the bench until I’m sitting directly across from the mystery figure. “I remember you,” I tell him.
“Come again?” he asks, willing enough to play my game.
“You were panhandling in front of Harvey’s on Dundas Street real late at night about three weeks ago.”
“How was my line?”
“You were pretty good. I gave you all my change and about a half pack of cigarettes. I gave you two to start with but you kept telling these incredible stories and then you’d stop and pat your pocket and say, ‘Slip us a couple butts, son,’ and your stories were so good, I kept forking them over.”
“You had a girl with you,” he says. “I was looking mostly at her.”
“You hooked her for about a dollar.”
“What stories was I doing?”
“Well, the big one was about this castle in Scotland you used to live in. Your name was Highland Willie and you were a duke or an earl or something and you got banished from the castle. I think you knew something awful about your forebears and the rest of the family wanted you out of the way. You could never go back so you stole passage to the new world on a boat that was shipping shortbread biscuits. Ate your way through two whole crates by the time it docked in Montreal. Then you came into a lot of money but I don’t remember how.”
“Did I coach the Montreal Canadiens?”
“I don’t think so. But that fell apart too because I remember you talking about your ‘second banishment’ . . .”
“Did I play trombone with . . .?”
“Yes,” I shriek. “You played with Guy Lombardo and you taught Carmen everything he knew. Then Carmen got jealous and had Guy kick you out of the orchestra.”
“That’s because I was pulling more birds than him.”
“You got us collecting sticks and laying them on the sidewalk so you could do a sword dance. And then you wandered off for a pee and never did come back.”
“I wasn’t rude?”
“No. A perfect gentleman. You slipped your hand into my girlfriend’s purse a couple times but you didn’t take anything. Was any part of that true?”
“I come from Scotland and my name’s Willie.”
He turns away to light a cigarette he’d been rolling and I suddenly see how pale his face is, his cheeks only slightly ruddier than the snow white hair on his head. His hand shakes as the match draws near to his cigarette and it takes about ten seconds of concentrated effort to finally get it lit. He blows out the match just before it burns his fingers, releasing a sigh of exhaustion and frustration, revealing the pain he’s in.
This poor comical man; funny as a loon when he’s drunk and at large and even good-natured now, behind bars for the weekend and enduring the agony of drying out. There are times when I can look at Willie and he’s actually handsome; when he looks like he could slip into the president’s chair at Avco-Delta and nobody would be the wiser. Then I see the palpitations, the deathly pallor of his face, the ugly gash on the side of his head where his son-in-law belted him with a Coke bottle and I realize that he – like seven eighths of the people in this cell – is not so slowly dying of alcohol poisoning.
When they’re first brought in and they’ve resigned themselves to drying out, they can actually look forward to the meals. With no families that can bear them, no jobs that engage or challenge them, no habitations worthy of being called ‘home’, they pay scant attention to solid food and mightn’t get any at all if they weren’t thrown in here every other week or so. With some colour back in their faces and two days until their release, they begin to fantasize about their next bottle and concoct schemes for obtaining it within the first few hours of getting sprung.
“Anybody want to see me?” comes a voice from the other side of the cell door. I look up and see a Salvation Army man. Nobody wants to see him. Nobody answers or even looks.
“War Cry? Anybody want a copy of The War Cry?”
Nope. Not a soul.
“How about a calendar?”
I take pity on him and ask for a calendar. His look of surprise suggests that I just might be his first customer all year. Highland Willie hands me a pencil that the card players use to keep score. “Here you go, Herman. You can circle off the days ‘til your release.”
This second day is going to be the worst. Yesterday, everything was new; awful but interesting, or, at least, novel. Tomorrow morning I get out of here. Desperate for any kind of stimulation, I ask a guard if I can go to the library and he directs me to a book cart. There may be a library somewhere but this cart is all he’s offering. The books are old and battered library rejects, not a classic in the bunch, with pictures on their spines – skulls, hearts, cowboys – which indicate their genre. They only have the three kinds so I pluck a mystery and get bogged down in total apathy about thirty pages in.
A guard comes to the cell door and hollers out an interesting variation on my last name. “You’ve got company,” he says and leads me down the hall to the visitors’ room; one whole wall of which is comprised of little cubicles like voting booths. I slip into one of these closets and see my girlfriend on the other side of a bullet-proof window of space-age plastic decorated with a round metal grille at mouth level and about two dozen grimy fingerprints and strange puckered smudges which look suspiciously like lip-prints. Newly ashamed of my clothes, I do a bad imitation of a smile and sit down on a wooden stool.
“This place is so depressing,” she says and I try to remind her that hospital etiquette also applies in prison – think cheery, damn it. She doesn’t buy that for a second and goes on complaining, telling me that another friend came with her and they wouldn’t even let him in. One visitor a week, is the legal limit. As the rule-book says, visitors are good for the morale of the prisoner and let him know he still has a valued part to play in the greater community outside. One fifteen-minute conversation per week spoken through smeary plastic under a guard’s watch doesn’t make me feel like part of anything. Au contraire, it heightens my sense of isolation. My girlfriend is wearing a thick autumn sweater that drives me half-crazy because it looks so colourful and friendly. Her cheeks are their usual rosy selves and her hair looks like some real wind passed through it not long ago. It would really be sweet to touch her but this clearly wouldn’t be in the best interests of Middlesex County. I shudder to think what this kind of torturous non-encounter would do to anyone who was stuck in here for a month.
“I’ve got some money with me,” she says.
“I’ll pay your way out of here.”
My insides go gushing at the prospect. “Can you really do that?”
“Sure. I checked it out on the way in. This place is awful. You wanted to see what it was like.
You’ve done that. Haven’t you had enough?”
“I’ve had more than enough.”
“All right, then. Let’s do it. Let’s go.”
“If you don’t watch it, you’re going to be out twenty-eight bucks.”
“I want to be out twenty-eight bucks. Please. Let me pay.”
“Oh shit, I don’t know. I’d feel like a tool if I didn’t see it through. And I’ll be out in less than a day anyway. Would they give you a discount for time served?”
“No. You pay the whole shot or you don’t.”
“Okay. There’s my justification for staying. I refuse to countenance such shoddy business practices.”
“Yeh, I believe that a whole lot, Herman.”
A door behind me swings open and a guard announces, “Time’s up.”
“Ignore him,” she says. “We’ll stay and talk forever.”
“I’d better not try it. They might put me in the hole.”
“Well look, Herman, it’s been real,” she says and stands up to leave.
“You won’t forget the yellow ribbon?”
“Right. And Uncle Bruce sends his love and you know you’re in all of our prayers.”
“Okay then. I’ll see you tomorrow about 8:15.”
On the way back to my cell, a guard poses a rhetorical question as to whether I would be interested in performing a little work. He leads me downstairs to the linen department where I’m put to useful employ stacking sheets, blankets, pillows and pillow cases into separate piles. Then I’m instructed to take these piles into some cells that are about to be occupied.
My dormitory cell is one large open room with a table in the centre and eight bunk beds lined along two walls that sleep sixteen. When all inmates in the dormitory are present and accounted for, there isn’t a lot of room. The cell in which I’m distributing linen has a common area for daytime use that is perhaps one third as large as the dormitory. Along one wall there are eight individual sleeping cells separated by concrete walls. Cheap mattresses, some of them nothing more than a slab of foam, are thrown down onto the cement floor. There’s a heavy barred door on each of these cells which is locked for the full eight hours slated as sleeping time.
I step into one of these cells and take rough measurements with my arms. Lengthwise, they might be seven feet. The width can’t be more than four feet; is probably closer to three. I lie down in one of these cells and my skin crawls. I try to imagine the door locked and feel the beginnings of a very dangerous panic building in my chest. There is only one dormitory cell in the entire prison. The rest are more or less like this one except for the hole which is even smaller and has no mattress.
I guess I’m not considered very dangerous. After completing my duties with the linen, the guard leaves me alone to carry a bunch of garbage bags out the back door. I so enjoy the air and the view of the river below that I take the bags out one at a time and pause to breathe and drink it all in and chart my best route of escape. Would they come after me? What if I left their crummy clothes here in a heap and ran away naked? Would they bother to round me up with only fourteen hours left to serve? I’d love to know but I don’t think I’d care to find out. The last bag delivered, I bid the scene a fond farewell and head back in.
“Weren’t thinking of running, were you?” asks the guard.
Supper comes and I can’t eat. Halfway through today’s breakfast, I gave up on food; an aversion that is mine alone. The rest of the inmates gobble the stuff up with a voracious lust that is part of my problem. Don’t get me wrong, the food is still lousy but under the right conditions, I could probably put it away. And for someone who's been living under a railway bridge for a week drinking forty-eight bottles of Muscatel, I’ll bet it even hits the spot. But I just can’t handle the sight – and more particularly, the sound – of fifteen men simultaneously shoveling and slurping and snorting and coughing. I gave it my very best shot at breakfast until a poor old soak with chronically loosened bowels excused himself mid-meal to visit the openly exposed toilet situated ten feet away from the table. I was raised in a marginally Christian household and this was much too grim for me.
After supper they turn on the TV for two hours. Last night we saw Hold On starring Herman’s Hermits and most of the men just ignored it. I thought there was something rather sad about a room full of grown men having the insipid antics of an adorable seventeen year-old pop star beamed at them for two hours but compared to tonight’s offering, Hold On was fucking Hamlet; an ennobling and enriching experience. Tonight’s opus, another bloody musical, features a tubby Mario Lanza as a romantic operatic tenor and – are they really blaring this one or does it just seem like it? – the fellas aren’t able to shut this dreck out so effectively. The volume is just oppressive. Not one person in our cell is watching, let alone enjoying this stinker. Guards pass by our cell and we ask them to please change the station. They either don’t answer or say something sarcastic like, “Come on, boys – little culture will do you good.” Having no controls at our disposal we next ask them to turn the hideous thing off. They won’t even do that.
The movie concludes and the set is shut off. Half an hour later, the lights go out and I try to get to sleep with a Lanza-inflicted headache. I somehow manage to attain unconsciousness for all of ten minutes until a guard comes through for his hourly punching of the clock. I don’t get any more sleep all night. I haven’t expended enough energy all day to make sleep a possibility and am much too excited about getting out of here in the morning. The sweet knowledge that soon this will all be over lends only urgency to my restlessness; pushing sleep beyond my reach so that I have to devise sneaky ways to make time consent to pass.
The negligible glow of a dim and distant night light doesn’t allow me to make out the words in that crappy mystery nor the languid forms in the few pictures that are left in a tattered skin magazine. I try to write short stories in my head, imaginatively play favourite records for my inner ears, make some mental notes for details and impressions to work into this article. Most of the evening I spend staring at the ceiling or at the sleeping, snoring profiles of the men in the top bunks to either side of me; feeling grateful in a way to have had this glimpse into their harsh and thankless lives, and guilty in a way because I know I’m just a tourist here and in all likelihood will never have to pass this way again.
TRYING TO WIN BACK A RESPECTABLE PLACE IN SOCIETY
IN THE TWO WEEKS since my release, nightmares of being in prison permeate my dream world. Still, I must’ve run at least forty more red lights until my back tire went flat on Tuesday and I retired my cycle to the basement for the winter. So I didn’t learn my lesson. At least, not that lesson. Give me a red light at four a.m. at a vacant intersection and I simply have to run it. Another motive involved might be revenge. I want to get back at those idiots. I realize it’s immature of me to feel this way but whatever respect I ever had for the law has just been cut in half. Particularly traffic laws. I can hardly see them as laws at all. I see them more as big business.
The question most people ask is, when and if I get nabbed again, “Will I pay the fine or go to jail?” And I honestly don’t know. Maybe that’s why I keep running them. And sometimes I wonder if maybe it’s the cops who've learned a lesson here; if they haven’t seen me once or twice in these last weeks ploughing through red lights and checked themselves from calling me out, thinking, “No, let it go. That’s the goof who doesn’t pay his fines. He costs us.”
ILLUSTRATION – Roger Baker: Bike Behind Bars
My Life of Crime is collected in the 1987 essay collection, The Invisible Lone Ranger Suit
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :