Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Sing a Song of Sing-Sing
by Bernadette Noll

What are you in for? "Uh... my husband went through a red light on his bicycle and I wouldn't tell the cop who he was."

"You mean where he was."

"No. I didn't know where he was, I wouldn't tell them who he was."

This was my first time in jail, and I was in shock. Jail was the stuff of movies, not of my life. But here I was in the slammer, the Big House, the Cage with no way out.  I had made my allotted phone call and was told, both by those on the inside and the outside, that there was nothing I could do but sit out the night and hope to get out in the morning. I was "unhobby-able," which meant no amount of money, power, celebrity or lawyer connection was going to get me my freedom.

After this reality sunk in, I became resigned to the situation and went along with the rules as best I could determine what the rules were. They seemed to change from officer to officer. One officer wanted silence, one wanted answers and wanted them fast. This one joked a bit, that one was more serious than chateaubriand. When first brought in, I had tried to make my own rules. I let my Taurus, New Jersey, one-of-nine-children/speak-out-or-lose-out attitude take over. This did not make me any friends, but hell, they weren't going to let me out -- no matter what I kissed.

When I asked about my rights, I was told, "You have the right to remain silent." This got quite a chuckle from several nearby officers. I didn't know that Texas law says that they have 24 hours to read you your rights. The one cop that I did know, from serving him free breakfast for the last four years at a local cafe, denied ever having seen me before. This beat all but they couldn't take my dreams! And I dreamed of hot coffee spilling all over certain parts of this man's anatomy.

"This way, ladies!" A very large, tightly-panted female cop led us into the changing room. (My advice to the women cops is that they request a new tailor. Those pants do nothing for the female physique.) She barked at us in a monotonous, memorized manner.

"Take one of these outfits, small, medium or large. Take off all your clothes, including your underwear and put them in a brown bag. Do not look around. Do not talk. Just strip and dress. Come on. Come on. Move it." All six or seven of us did exactly as she said with nary a word to her or each other. We, all sizes and ages and all walks of life, shed our street clothes and donned the lovely gray polyester pajamas and non-matching sandals. And I don't mean the shoes didn't match the outfit, I mean they didn't match each other. I slipped one foot into a size 9 and one into a size 7. Immediately, my feet began pouring sweat inside the much-used plastic scuffs and my thoughts turned to dark and dank fungus among us.

The next order of business was our bed supplies. We were marched single-file through the linen room where we were told to grab a blanket from the hundreds stacked on the shelves. No 250 thread count here. I picked out a lovely gray poly/wool blend number. They all looked the same to me. I felt its warmth and pulled it close to my body. "Ah," I thought, "fresh from the dryer." Upon pulling it close to my face and inhaling what I thought would be its freshly washed scent I realized that it was actually fresh off the last body to use it. It reeked of someone's sweaty bed and caused visions of parasites to dance in my head. We were then issued our thin, blue mats and led off to our cells.

I was led next to my jail cell built for two in which there were already three sleeping bodies. Not a one of these girls was too happy to make room for me. But after some unkind words and a not-so-gentle prod from the boot of the jail maven, enough room was made for me so that my head would lie just inches from the stainless steel toilet. In the ensuing scuffle and shuffle of mats and blankets, our possessions apparently got mixed up. "You've got my blanket."

"How do you know?" I asked. "They're all the same."

"No. I picked a soft one and this one is nubby and scratchy. I picked that one out special." Obviously, she had done this before. I didn't argue. I took my blanket back and realized she was right. My blanket was rough. This was something I needed to know and I didn't remember being taught in kindergarten. I lay down, kicked off my slippers, and prayed for sleep.

Sleep would not come. It was hot and dirty and the foul smell crusted inside my mouth and nose. I couldn't toss and turn, for any movement would put me flush against the toilet. I thought of ways I had seen them pass the time in prison movies but I didn't think my cellmates were in the mood for a good ol' gospel tune. I lay stone-still and alternately stared at the ceiling and under the bunk, rehashing the evening's events. A sharp piece of metal protruded from under the steel bunk and for just a fleeting moment, I considered cutting myself. Not to kill myself, it wasn't that bad, just to bleed enough so they would have to take me out of here. Maybe a nice clean bed at Brackenridge. Oh, sweet and precious sleep! Where were you when I needed you most?

I thought to myself that I would pay anything for something to read. Even the phone book would have been welcomed at this point. Apparently, I hadn't just thought it, I had said it out loud. "For what?" grunted my floor mate, evidently unfamiliar with the concept of an entertainment device that didn't require a remote control.

"For something to do. To pass the time. To make me forget where I am."

"Oh. You like to read?"

I forced my eyes to close but my mind would not. The sounds coming from in, out, and around the jail were not exactly conducive to sleep. Somewhere, a man sniffled and snorted and cried like a baby. And I do mean like a real baby. He gasped for breath and sounded like he was going to swallow his own tongue. At one point, he even yelled that he wanted his mama. Finally, sleep came amidst the scattered shouting, crying and moaning. I was awakened at what I thought was the next day. So happy was I that sleep had finally come, the night was over.

The night was not over. It was breakfast time, yes, but according to sources it was still only five in the morning. I was up now and eating was something to do, so I ate and then tried to sleep some more. Every 15 or 20 minutes they called out names, opened doors, or yelled out orders. A girl in the next cell started crying frantically because she missed the bus to County. I later found out from many of the girls that County is much preferred to City. County is freer. County has a yard. County has television. County has a magazine rack and book cart and candy wagon! I fell back asleep and dreamed of County.

After what seemed another eternity my name was called. This was music to my ears. I was getting out. I was free! Freedom wasn't just another word for nothing left to lose. I vowed to never again take my freedom for granted. From now on, I would use my time wisely. I would be kind to strangers. I would do good deeds. I was filled with the same feelings I remembered feeling upon walking out of the dark confessionals of my childhood; full of hope and goodness and light.

But wait! If I am free, why the handcuffs?

"You ain't getting out. You're just going for prints and a photo. Ever been to Glamour Shots?" So my prints and photo were put in my permanent record. Like the "F" I got in 10th-grade gym class for smoking in the locker room, these things would forever follow me through life.

It was now about 10am and I wondered when the end would come. I could only wonder, for none of the guards was willing to share any details. When I was led back in to the locked hallway, off which sit the cells, it was chaos. The individual cell doors were open. Everyone was milling about, chatting with each other and talking on the phone. I overheard a woman actually making a drug deal with somebody on the outside. Well, ain't this the convict's striped pajamas! We could make as many phone calls as we wanted, to whomever we pleased.

My first call was to my own house. I still didn't know for sure if my husband had been arrested. No response. What I learned from this call was that each transaction was opened with "This Is A Collect Call From A Correctional Institution." This surely limited who I would call. My parents, for example, were definitely ruled out. I repeatedly called a friend, who accepted all my calls. My conclusive evidence on my husband's arrest came from her, as she was also accepting calls from him. We couldn't have planned it any better.

Back in the cellblock I happily joined in the boisterous conversations. The ice was instantly broken by our common abhorrence for the system and by the fact that most of us seemed to believe we had been duped. We shared our arrest stories and some bits and pieces of our lives. Together, we figured out a way to use the sandwich bag from breakfast as a hair tie. With my short hair I didn't need hair accessories, but I helped others assemble and apply their bows. We laughed and shared as only women can do. I later learned from my husband that the atmosphere in the men's block in no way resembled the women's. They stayed in their cells, did not converse and were forced to give their cookies to a large felon named Rock coming down off heroin.

The same girl whose blanket I had erroneously swiped showed us all how to peg our pajama bottoms and roll up our shirts into a nice little cap sleeve. We looked good! If someone had walked in they would have thought they were at a bridal shower. We were certainly not what anyone would call hardened.

Some of the multi-timers gave advice to us first-timers. They calmed us and explained to us the system. One girl, who had spent some time in the real Big House, for various crimes usually relating to checks and other items which did not belong to her, assigned nicknames to a few of us. I was christened Bicycle. I blushed at her blessing. I may have been locked up but I was in! In my junior high days these were the girls I longed to be like and longed to be liked by. Even now, at age 30, I felt the joy of their acceptance.

As the day passed, we were called in groups to appear before the judge. Here is where we were finally read our rights. Actually, we were not read our rights, we were video'd our rights both in English and in Spanish. Here is also where we were finally told our actual crime and how much it would cost to get out.

I was charged with a Class A misdemeanor for impeding apprehension, and let out on personal bond. This, I found out from one of my cellies, was just one step below a felony. My cellies were beside themselves with laughter and surprise. For theft, hot checks, prostitution, and drugs they received lesser sentences than I, a woman on a bike whose husband, also on a bike, had run a red light. My husband, I found out from our friend on the outside, received a Class B misdemeanor. Also less than mine. Hmmm.

After receiving all of this info we were again led back to the cells. The end did not seem to be in sight or, if it was, nobody was telling me. If there was a true method to this madness, it eluded me. Now, night came again and I was beginning to fantasize my escape. We were still allowed to lounge about the hallway however, the new guard incessantly threatened us with our cells if we didn't calm down. She feared our festivities and so forbade them.

All day, and now evening, I had been bidding farewell to my cellies one at a time. As each got out, a cheer erupted. The good-byes were hearty but hasty. No time to linger. You go on, girl. Be good. Good luck on the outside. Don't let ‘em get you.

Finally, it was my turn. I waved and ran out of the cellblock. I slithered my greasy self to the checkout desk where my clothes and my belongings were re-issued to me. In a dark closet, I shed my prison PJs and put on my overalls. I stank like I had never stunk before. Three or four bologna sandwiches, mixed with the smells of the cells, the rankness of the blankets, and the odor of a person hermetically sealed in a cement cage had given me a toxic stench and an odd iridescent sheen. It was a smell I had never experienced before and I hope to never again.

When I was handed my green knapsack I smelled the pound of French Roast coffee I had purchased just before being brought in. Up until the handcuffs, it had all been so normal, so routine. I was on my bike running the errands of Jane Q. Citizen: bank, post office, grocery store, stop off for a cold pint of beer. Already it was all like a bad dream. I was glad for the coffee and I buried my face in it in hopes of eradicating the aroma which completely assaulted my olfactory.

Twenty-three hours after my first encounter of the cop-kind, I exited to freedom and found my husband awaiting me with his tail between his legs. We walked to the closest pint. It tasted of the freedom of which I dreamed. After this quick, sweet beer we walked back towards the station to retrieve our bicycles. We would ride off into the moon and get far away from this hole I could only call Hell. This was the type of place the nuns spoke of so often during my 12-year stay in the parochial school system. They never told us it existed on earth.

We approached the claims desk and requested our bikes. After a bit of paper-shuffling and a couple of brief phone calls by the officer, he informed us that there was absolutely no way we could get our bikes out until Monday. "And besides that, we might just hold them as evidence." We walked out dejected, dirty, disillusioned, defeated, disbelieving. We prepared ourselves for the long walk home when there appeared, like a beautiful angel of mercy, the colossal Chevy truck which belonged to our dear friend. We jumped in, not even asking how she knew we would be here and now. Silently, we three drove across the river. It wasn't funny, yet.

Eventually, we received our bikes back from the police. Mine was returned the following Monday morning but not without great hoops set before me at each department desk. Nobody seemed quite sure what steps to take to get my bicycle out of lock-up. I thought it odd that they hadn't yet established a system after so many years of policing. My husband's bike, however, was not released for two weeks. Repeatedly, we were told to come back tomorrow. Fourteen tomorrows I returned. I talked to countless faces and desks. The final desk I encountered was manned by two kind, funny, human men. They joked and talked with me as if we were all in this together. Through all the mess, they actually made me laugh.

Four months later, we finally made it to court accompanied by our amazingly adept attorney. My husband was going to be let off with a traffic ticket. His fine was paid by his time in jail. I received the same, although the officer who arrested me (I'm still not sure which one of the nine who surrounded me was the actual arresting officer) wanted probation, a large fine, community service, and for me to take stress management classes. He didn't like my attitude.

I guess he's never been to New Jersey.
Bernadette Noll is a writer in Austin and a regular contributor to AustinMama.com.