“Young, Kenneth Young.”
My name cut through some random dreamscape and my body automatically jumped up, casting my sleep self to the side, crashing back into reality; a reality which I was soon to discover was as unavoidable and as unwanted as a blistering desert sun. Having no recollection of where, how, or why, it took me a few minutes to process what I was struck with upon opening my eyes. I was in a bull pen. Asking some of the men around me where we were I discovered I was in a North Hollywood police precinct holding cell. Only one clue as to what had gotten me there escaped the previous day into this one and that was a wrinkled piece of pink paper in my pocket that I happened upon. It read that I was charged with narcotics possession, having been arrested on a street that I was pretty sure was somewhere near my apartment.
Oh yeah, and I wasn’t wearing shoes, but never mind all that I thought to myself. All I wanted to do was claw my way through the throng and find my way to the corrections officer who had been calling out my name so I could get down to what I was truly facing.
Half awake, and light headed from the dense stench that was making its way though my system, my body was unsteady in its every movement and tried its best to obey each command I ordered from it. It was becoming clearer that this particular bull pen was the final cell that the accused would wind up before being shipping off to the courthouse in order to see the judge to make a plea on your particular case.
“Young, come on. I don’t give a shit, you can stay here till tomorrow if you for all I care.”
There must have been forty guys in this cell, which most likely held twenty comfortably, so it was dense and hard to navigate. Correction officers aren’t known for their patience and this one was especially short. I wasn’t coming to the gate quick enough and when I finally made it there I almost missed him, but luckily I made it just as he was turning his back and ready to call another. He was putting my sheet at the very end, and if I hadn’t have caught him I would have had to wait another whole day for my name to come up again.
“Hey, that’s me, Kenneth Young.”
He reluctantly turned back towards me and slipped the dated, almost fake looking key into the lock and pulled me out of the cell and motioned for me to stand against the wall facing front.
“Date of birth.” Going through the routine with coarsely robotic auto-motions, he confirmed my date of birth when I replied to him.
After he called all the names of the guys who were scheduled to see the judge he gathered us all and had us follow him, in single file, through a number of corridors and long faceless hallways until we eventually arrived at a large spacious room with about four small holding cells along each of the walls and a sort of control center in the middle of the room where officers would do whatever it is that they do. I stayed in one of these cells for about another three hours until I was finally called out for transport. I would soon be on my way to court and most likely would be released right form the courthouse and home within an hour from that. This was the first time I was caught with drugs in Los Angeles and all I had was two balloons of heroin, a mis- demeanor that didn’t carry time, especially as a first offense.
In this cell, the last of which before heading downtown to the courthouse. I had never been through this process in L.A. so this was all new to me. For the most part I was the only white guy in any of the cells. Their were two other white guys I had seen. One was an older man who must have bee in his sixties, and the other was a guy who looked to be about my age and who seemed truly shook from this ordeal. He kept to himself and stood out of the way of anyone else, usually in a corner or hugging a wall, never mixing it up in the middle or near the bars of the cell. One couldn’t help but feel his worry when looking at him, he wore it so blatantly, so pivotal it seemed in his every move, he must have been facing something horrible in terms of time. Tall and sickly looking, hair black matted with grease, and what seemed to be a since abandoned rock-a-billy look. Perhaps I thought to myself, he was at one time a rocker but due to drugs or some other tragedy he’s lost faith and adopted the look of the lost, a cross between a well traveled Carney and an aging juvenile delinquent.
Two hours in this small cell and names began to cut through the
constant monotonous murmuring. When names begin to be called one is literally on the edge of his seat waiting for his to be called. Although there are so many stages to pass through, at times feeling like an endless series of fire hoops, each time you get put in a new cell you feel that much closer to court, and thus freedom.
I was standing right at the gate and saw my face on the paper work he had in his hand before he began to say my name. I then heard the unmistakable rattling of chains and handcuffs in the distance meaning our transportation was here. A tremendous officer came over towards our group and was handed a pile of paperwork I assumed was our information, all of our individual files. These files follow each and every one of us as we travel through the system. I remembered this from when I had to go through the whole booking process in New York, at 100 Center Street and then being shipped off to Rikers Island for a little thirty day bid. The officer began to cuff us one by one and in pairs by the ankle and the wrist. This officer struck me as odd. Although he fit the stereotype, being a tall, well built man who you could picture quite easily playing football in his younger years, drowning in the glory of the game, he gave off a slight malcontent and it was apparent he was not happy at all. A veneer of self loathing glossed over his by the book actions.
When it was my turn to be cuffed to a partner I couldn’t believe who I was being matched with. I had seen this guy a few cells ago and was in awe of his size. He had to be the biggest Mexican I have ever seen. Still with all his size, which was simply goliath, he wore his worry on his sleeve, and when I looked closely the face of a frightened child broke through the intimidating facade exposing his vulnerability for anyone who took the time to really look. The officer had to fasten a special double handcuff to my partners wrists and because of his towering height it was ridiculously uncomfortable for me to hold my wrist in place. He was hanging his right arm down naturally, but I was forced to lift mine up to my stomach level in order to meet his hand parallel comfortably. If I would hang my arm loose I would be tugged up and stopped by his and the handcuff would dig into my wrist. He and I made short steps, almost hobbling ahead out the door. Once more there was a role call. We lined up along side the corrections bus and one of the two officers that were to take the trip with us called out our names before we got on the bus.
Again the whole name/birth date confirmation thing was used and with reluctant obedience, in cuffed pairs, we got on the bus and took to our hard plastic seats.
As the bus fired up and began to back out of the police precinct’s parking lot I realized that this was going to be one very uncomfortable ride. The sweltering heat made it all the more miserable and judging from the morning Los Angeles traffic I can make out ahead of us, we will be frying in this bus for quite a while, without any kind of relief whatsoever. We were in the bus for only a couple of minutes and the sweat was beginning to stream down my forehead and gathering at the tip of my nose creating a little collection that became tiny beads that dropped off and on to my lap. Looking around me I could see I was not alone. Great ovals of discoloration grew on the backs of almost all the other prisoners, the only exceptions being the ones that wore dark shirts, and the correction officers who hid their sweat beneath layers of t-shirts, uniforms, and bullet proof vests, and who in all probability sweat far more than the prisoners, but through years of routine learned how to deal with it. Misery filled the thick, putrid air, and with each man writhing in their individual circumstances, the feeling was as dense as lead. A few guys found the ability to make conversation, but most of us simply sat as helpless as lambs on the way to the slaughter house. Of the few conversations I managed to make out clearly, almost all were defense 101, ex-cons playing lawyer and telling younger guys what they were in for in terms of sentencing and whatnot. Bull pens are full of these guys, in fact I’ve never been in one without there being at least one guy, usually an old timer, looking at other guy’s paperwork and telling them, matter of fact, what was going to happen to them.
“That ain’t shit. It’s a bullshit case.”
“You out. You goin’ home.” Stated as gospel through toothless faces with scratchy vocal chords half destroyed by cigarettes and cheap alcohol. Catch phrases like these echo through the bus as they did through the bull pens. The heat demanded lethargy of all of us, and we complied with our tails between our legs. I was expecting some relief once we started moving but as if fate had it in for me, the heat only rose as the day pushed on.
Monotone murmurs and occasional coughs made the organic audio landscape, and the jangling of steel and rumbling engine sounds completed the abstract totality of it all. Surveying this tin box of societal cast offs I can’t help but feel the pangs of defeat vibrating throughout my entire body, and at one point it felt as if I were going to have a panic attack. Sliding slowly into dope sickness, my body was wide open to any sense deviation. Vertigo spun me round and round until I was at the very door of having to vomit, but taking one look at not only my three hundred plus pound cuff-partner, as well as the twenty some odd other maniacs, I held back all my urges to puke or do anything else that would bring any attention my way.
When driving up the ramp that led to the Hollywood Freeway I took a look out the window and because of the curve of the road and placement of my vantage point, was able to see the hellish abyss we were about to enter.
As far as the eye could see, without a single sign of relief, were cars, cars dead, cars stopped, in park, not moving. Drivers standing outside their vehicles, conversing with each other, and with a common enemy there seemed to be a solidarity rarely seen in this city. Unlike New York or cities similar in geography and transportation, citizens of Los Angeles are never really forced to interact with each other if they don’t want to. The wealthy drive by the bum with the spare change sign by the off ramp, and cruise by poor folk waiting at the bus stop. In a city like New York the citizens are confronted on a somewhat equal level when it comes to most commonalities. Rain, snow, subway delays, obnoxious cabbies, all are dealt with by the rich, poor, and middle class. A penniless drug addict sits right beside the wealthy stock broker on the downtown six train every single day, without even the bat of an eye. To see white, black, brown and all in between shouting out at a common foe was somewhat heart warming, although in the state I was in, I don’t think anything short of an angel reaching through the top of the bus and plucking me out from that seat and setting me free immediately, could put a real smile on my face. Thoughts racing through my head drove me bats. What if I get a hard ass of a judge? What is Stephanie doing right now? How long will it be before I get a shot of heroin into my veins? Sickness, sickness. All consuming dope sickness began to rattle me like it’s never done before. Downtown was finally in sight as I could see a few steel shards breaking into the blue sky and palm tree skyline occasionally catching little bits of sunshine which danced about the cracks in the windshield, peeking out above the dashboard that I could barely see through the bars that separated the front of the bus, where the officers were, from the bulk of the vehicle, where we all were. All was quiet and most of the guys were asleep at this time, except for me of course, what with my dope sick body cringing at every movement, every pothole, every sound, everything…basically everything and anything. It looked like the officer who wasn’t driving got bored reading his newspaper and suggested to the driver something that I couldn’t make out. I watched as he received an okay from the driver and reached over towards the dashboard. He twisted the radio dial and began searching through the stations for something listenable. I assumed he was going to put on some hip hop station, because from my experience any time a radio came into an jail type atmosphere, without fail it went directly to hip hop. I braced myself for the inevitable sonic barrage, fearing that this would most certainly make matters much worse and potentially send me into virtual delirium.
As the officer skipped past station by station I noticed he wasn’t stopping at any of the dance or hip hop songs I heard as he skimmed along. He stopped eventually and at first I couldn’t make out exactly what was playing, but then the undeniable melodies pierced the black heart of this grim space. It was The Eagles’ “Hotel California”, and as I looked around I didn’t really see any immediate responses, but a few seconds into the second verse I noticed an indefinable vibe coming alive and felt slight elation coming from the collective head that was the archetypical man. Then, as the chorus kicked in something truly amazing happened, something I wouldn’t have ever expected from such a varied group of rejects, something not so short of a miracle. In perfect time and on cue the entire collective of criminals joined in perfect pitch, timbre, and timing and sang the chorus with an uproar that shook the metal walls ferociously.
“Welcome to the Hotel California…”
It was beautiful.
“such a lovely place, such a lovely face…”
As if controlled by an invisible puppet master I sang as well, at the top of my lungs.
“plenty of room at the Hotel California…”
Voices of all types, and notes that ran the gamut were sung with a passion rarely witnessed, even in within the most prolific singer, and all grew as one into a triumphant crescendo that gave a sense of purpose to this miserable moment in all of our lives. Smiles widened, bodies moved left and right, feet stomped, and looks of gleeful confirmation were exchanged with any malice or ill intent.
We had our metaphorical fists held high our heads in the form of song. A fist that pointed straight towards the heavens. For those few moments I forgot about dope sickness, about my possession case I was facing, about my crazy girlfriend and the insanity I would return to once I got out, I forgot about all of it.
Free? Not quite, not in body at least. But as far as my spirit goes, a moment of complete abandon such as that one on that blistering hot day, with all the world caving in on me, is as close to the be here now as I have ever been. The instant dissection of the self. The expulsion of the ego. Letting go. All of us. Without even the vaguest notion of the Zen, the Tao. No Guru. No master.