No water. None. No place to sleep. Well, steel benches. Fifty degrees with blowing ceiling fans in a 20-by-30-foot cinderblock room. Open, rusted, putrid, reeking toilet. Cold, wet cheese sandwiches and tepid pink milk every six hours. None of which I eat or drink. No answers. No assistance when needed. Twenty-plus men, of variant degrees of criminal activity and equal parts desperation — some understood, others duly ignored with a violent bravado borne of experience, social order and race. I start off standing in the corner, not making eye contact. Then I pace. For the first overnight stay, I paced. And pace. I do not sit. I do not talk, unless asked. “What are you in for?” Waiting.
My hands, I start to notice (not at first, because I choose to ignore it) begin to shake, ever so slightly, uncontrollably. Muscles begin to tighten. No one knows I’m here. That is what I think about — minute by minute with every slow-motion passing hour. My dear wife, Erin, my darling daughter, Scarlet. No one knows I’m here. And I will be here. Thirty-six hours. Cold. Hungry. Very tired. Or too wired and steely to be tired. Not frightened, but pensive, like being caught in a time warp. Time, like a suspended luxury concept for the free, stands still here, as my identity, which has left me for this enduring subsistence of a creature grappling with defense mechanisms I have not used since I was kid in a new neighborhood with the bullies lying in wait, as Dostoevsky wrote, “neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect,” I waver between defeat and defiance. Incarcerated; physically and emotionally.
At 11:20 p.m. or so on Tuesday evening, the ninth day of October 2018, I left the Sony Hall on W. 46th street, hugged my friend, Eric Hutchinson, who had just completed a triumphant show with his band The Believers, the members of which I’d interviewed three hours earlier. I had stopped by a bar at five and had a beer. Had one during the interview in the six o’clock hour and another during the show around 9:30. I did not eat. This would be key to what eventually would be my plea, but none of it matters now.
What ended up mattering more than anything during the crucial hours that landed me here was that I made a wrong turn by the Lincoln Tunnel and found myself in what was described to me by a very angry and stressed-out N.Y. police officer as a “temporary police barricade” while “a drug bust was in progress.” I had driven into a crime scene in the biggest city in America and passed the breath test for DWI but failed a lower demarcation by .02, (.072) just inching into what I would learn is a DUIA, a bunch of acronyms that only mean I was in handcuffs and soon sitting in a jammed van with very pissed off drug dealers and eventually a mid-town precinct.
The police who would eventually tend to me were professional and calming. It was chaos in that place. It was me, some guy in a candy apple red Camaro and a half-dozen to 10 drug dealers. Hardcore. But kids. Just kids, man. “This guy isn’t fucked up,” opined one of the officers when I easily passed every physical test for sobriety. “Let’s work something out.” What we worked out is the charges for driving through the “barricade” — a mere hundred or so yards from the tunnel’s entrance — would be dropped for a plea deal on the DUIA. It would amount to an “infraction” with no bail, instead of a misdemeanor that would require trial; something akin to a speeding ticket with some additional penalties. But other than that, I felt that once I saw the judge and paid my fine, I would be home in time to not scare the shit out of my wife.
This was not to be.
“Your car is parked on 41st and 11th!” was the last thing the chubby, blonde, kind-faced officer said to me after we talked Yankees, our daughters, our favorite beer and weird songs from the 1960s. Before I passed through the metal detector he assured me that night court would take me in a few hours.
This was not to be.
I do not write the rest of this piece as some kind diatribe against the system or as a “wronged citizen.” I was guilty. Guilty and despondent and angry at myself and wondering what would have happened had I left two minutes later or two minutes earlier or if I had seen the officer in the corner of my vision waving wildly on the avenue or if I had seen the flashing lights coming from the other side of my peripheral vision or if I had just gunned the engine and blew through the damn thing and gotten into the tunnel or if I had two beers instead of three or that I was “lucky” to drink them because it gave the cops an out to drop misdemeanor charges and all those things you think about during the long hours of sleepless hunger in a freezing tank, but this is not why I write. I write because there is a voice in this place where we find ourselves, and that voice is there now and tomorrow and the day after that with no water and a refusal of medical care and an ignoring of violent retribution and an overcrowding that tumbles into cruel and unusual punishment.
And I do not write to bear witness or cry for cushy environs for lifers and drug dealers and women batterers and drug addicts and erratic drunks and damaged souls that saw fit to beat someone senseless with a bat to protect street cred or whether you hail from the top of the Sugar Hill steps in Harlem or if “I had just dumped the bags when I finished that fifth” and have “two bitches waiting to bail me out of this fucker.” I do not write for face tattoos or gang colors or borough rules or failing to respond to a warrant and spitting on the floor or throwing up on one’s self or whatever happened to the white kid who had caked blood all over his head and shirt and pants and some make-shift plastic bag in place of clothing.
I write because none of us are convicted. We await a “fair and speedy” trial as promised by the U.S Constitution and because this is the U.S.A. and the living conditions of this place is “worse than Guantanamo Bay!” or is filled with people in limbo with less rights than Rikers Island. “At least in Rikers you get three hot meals and a pillow, man!” I write because they cannot or will not and I have to. For them.
The “tombs” as they were once called, in the bowels of the Centre Street courthouse in Lower Manhattan have no laws. That’s for people on either side of this. We are in the in-between. We are not in jail nor are we free to go. The bars are the same. The smell. The despair. All the same. Everything is the same. No one cares here that I’m published, or come from a sound, middle-class background and make a good living and own a beautiful home in the mountains and have a podcast and will be co-hosting a music festival by the weekend. The 18-year-old kid with three kids and four drug busts for selling meth and me. All the same now.
The Correction’s Officers are also in some kind of legal and moral vacuum. They have no affiliation with police or any political station. Many of them are ex-gang-bangers and some have done this job for far too long. They go beyond dismissive and actually verbally challenge and torture those who have legitimate concerns about why it’s 50 degrees here. “Roaches, body odor and disease, the cold takes care of all of that,” one says. When I implore several abut contacting my wife through texts, they make a veiled reference to the upstairs, in the court, where there is heat and water and workable phones and how one in my predicament shouldn’t have so many “concerns.” The phones in this holding pen, two of them, do not have receivers — ripped out of their sockets. “You maniacs did this, now deal with it,” comes another answer. And when I look into the eyes of the kid they brought in after me — Hispanic, handsome, dangerously troubled, maybe 18, perhaps 19 — he is shivering and scared and starving and we do not know why we’re not seeing a judge after a long night of pacing and then another day and another night.
I regret not making a phone call at 12:30 in the first minutes of Wednesday morning from the police station. The officers told my lawyer they offered it to me. They did not. I remember that clearly. I debated asking. But I’ll pay my fine and go my way, I thought. Stupidly. By mid-afternoon that day, a dozen hours since I was pulled from my car amidst the swirling lights and shouting and commands from everywhere, my wife and friends and lawyers and police tried to find out where I ended up. They did, eventually. It was all hands on deck for the Editor-in-Chief of the Desk. I was in the hole and the troops rallied. And I thank them for that — Johnny M, Vegas, Elizabeth esq, even Eric, and the rest.
Later Wednesday it dawned on many who had been there — some for four or five days (one poor soul was told he was “re-arrested”, whatever the hell that means) — that the city could hold you here for up to 72 hours for anything from felony to infraction. And we would never drink any water and refused the cold, wet cheese sandwiches because needing to defecate in this dungeon on that toilet was never going to be an option, even for those who had served real time. “Let this man contact his family!” someone shouts. “I’ll pay off the guard,” a fairly well-dressed drug dealer intones to me. When the guard refused the $500 he flashes, he punches his chest and points to me. Then he turns his attention to the lunatic screaming in Spanish and kicking the phones until they have to take him away with a broken foot.
After one long day and two nights in this nightmare, they call my name. Each time they had called names with docket numbers, I stood like a dog awaiting a stick to be thrown. All of my humanity tucked inside — nothing resembling what I left in that car at 11:20 would make it here, not for this long, and not with these people; demons and miscreants and tender, misguided discarded street survivors. The ones who called my wife once they got outside and the others who tried to explain that for me there would be no long days and nights in real jail, “You’ll be all right, brother.” They understood my fear about the people who worry about me. I could not be worried about. Not in here. Just stay alive and do not get caught in the middle of the next fight, the next threat, the next desperate move.
And I go upstairs, finally, there is no phone. Of course. Just a public defender and a bemused judge and then my papers and my release into the pouring rain in Chinatown trying to flag down a cab in rush hour. I look up through the sheets to see 4:48 p.m. Thursday. I’m free. And the cab takes me to my car, just as the cop said, 41st and 11th. No tickets. No impounding. A sign: “Do not move, by order of the NYPD.” Some weird perk of having to nearly rot in legal purgatory.
I was arrested in NYC on Tuesday, October 9.
I emerged with a story to write on Thursday, October 11.
“There’s a place…” began one of the last men I spoke to, his eyes watery with tears, his future without family, without hope, without precious freedom in front of him. “…where they should know about what goes on down here.” He was ringing his hands and running them over his scalp like I did. He was…me. “It’s bullshit, man. This ain’t right. We should have heat and water and we should get care if we’re injured. We’re not convicted. We await our right to trial in this horrible place? How does this happen here? How does this happen?”
I write that now, as I lived it then.
How does this happen? Here? In America? In the greatest city in the world?
And it is happening now. I can feel it as if it is still happening… to me.
James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. “Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”
And coming in June, 2018; “Accidentally Like a Martyr – The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon”