Yeah, even the best of us go to jail. When I used to drink a lot I’d get arrested and then forget that I had to go to court. One time I went to my mailbox and found a summons. So the next week I went to court. I was so hungover that I couldn’t hear what the judge was saying but I was pretty sure he was slapping me on the wrist. I just wanted to get the fuck out of there. Hair of the dog, you know? The next thing I knew there were two bailiffs surrounding me. One of them handcuffed me. I was so fucking pissed, but totally intrigued. They led me through a series of tunnels to a flight of stairs. They checked my ass for drugs, gave me an orange jumpsuit and took me to a cell where a shirtless dude was sitting. I was pretty sure I was going to experience anal rape that day.
Here’s part of the story:
Antoine, my cellmate, was a three-fingered carjacker. Alleged carjacker, that is (because we were all innocent.)
“If you see a fine-ass curly-headed black woman downstairs, give her this,” he said, as he handed me a folded piece of paper. “It’s for my girl. Don’t read it.”
“Don’t a lot of black women have curly hair?”
The pause meant he was angry. Two weeks with me and this is what pushes him over the edge? Thankfully, after a brief contemplation period, Antoine laughed. I wasn’t joking, but he thought I was, and that’s all that mattered. “You can’t at once laugh and sodomize” became my motto very early on in my stay. He might have only had three fingers, but each one of them was extremely large and scary.
“Just give her the note, little man,” he said, and pushed me toward the door where the officer waited to take me downstairs. “And don’t read it, asshole,” he said. “Peace.”
As I walked through the lobby, Antoine’s note was crumpled in my sweaty hand. I quickly scanned the fluorescent, depressing room: nine black women with curly hair and four without, and a bunch of white people and Mexicans. I left.
It was 7:30 a.m. and already hot outside. The guy next to me was packing his cigarettes with a big grin. The joy you feel after being released from jail is superficial at best, and temporary. I had nowhere to go, no cab money and exactly $13.49 in my baggie, along with my laces, belt and probably what was left of my dignity.
Despite his penchant for physical violence, I learned that Antoine was a pretty smart person. In an extremely broad sense, he was like a guru or a kung fu master. One of the things he taught me was how to have a lot of fun with very little money.
“You a punk rocker?” he asked on my first day, as he was sizing me up.
“No,” I responded. “But I do cut my own hair.”
He liked that, he said, because of the fact that I didn’t spend money on barbers. It indicated that I was thrifty, like him.
“You go to Cesar Chavez Park on Fridays?”
“That’s good. That music is good because it’s free. And if you take off your shirt, them girls be buyin’ beer like you’re a Chippendales dancer.”
“I used to watch the chess games in the park and smoke weed with them crazy muthafuckas for fun.”
“All of ’em. Except McKinley. They call the cops there.”
Antoine told me about the cheap blues at the Torch Club; he schooled me on the ways of party-crashing in Midtown (“They got kegs!” Who does? “White people!”) and how he used to sit in the Greyhound bus station on L Street and sketch passengers for fun.
There’s plenty to do in this town, even for poor losers like us, was his basic lesson.
And, fortunately, it was a lesson I’ve used in every aspect of my life thereafter—from my penny-pinching days as a barista to my current bottom-of-the-barrel days as a journalist.
I think back to that day, when I sat on the I Street jail-side ledge, just minutes after being released from lockup. I knew then that I would never go back to jail, which made it that much easier to betray Antoine’s trust. I took the crumpled piece of paper from my pocket and unfolded it. It was the back of the welcome-to-jail procedural rule book you get when you first arrive in your cell. In Antione’s nearly illegible handwriting, the note read, “Ha ha. I knew it. Asshole. Peace.”