The pivot of this story is not the state of generic poverty that I found myself in upon entering New York. You don’t have to be poor to be thrown in jail, but it helps.
I had broken some sort of levee on the China Town bus between Philadelphia and New York. That morning I had woken up next to a beautiful Korean girl who played the tuba. I read comic books about the life of Buddha while she slept through her alarm and was late for work. She rolled me out of bed and laughed as she called me a scum fuck. When she left for Savannah, I got on a northbound bus.
It was the only appropriate way for me to come to the city. There are many ways to cross the river, ocean, or sky into New York City. But there are invisible unspoken rules that we all must obey. I did not know this, but my hands must have, as they gave my last ten dollars to another hand over a counter in exchange for cigarettes. It was not until I had left the store that I looked at the $3.25 I held and realized that it was all I had. I suppose I should thank those hands. Our body has many operations that we are unconcious of, and I had come to New York like the space between footfalls, exactly as I should.
This was more or less my first time in New York. See, I had been here 3 years earlier with my girlfriend, but do not recall it, as at 21 I was too young to remember. I’m not sure that my tired obliviousness was the best way to confront the brutality and beauty that the city is famous for. I was not suprised at the hunger of New York. But I was suprised to find that it had eaten my friends whole, not even bothering to chew them up first. We sat in their apartment in Brooklyn, drank tall cans and smoked rollies, while we were digested on my first night in the city.
I woke up early and headed to Union Square with crime on my mind. I was going grocery shopping for the household. See, I had made some sort of deal with the devils in me. As long as they kept my face innocent, I could live freely, and the rest of me was theirs. It had been going quite well.
I’m from California, and am quite aware of my health and the ethics of consumption, so I went to the health food chain store. She’s an old friend of mine, or at least I thought she was. We have had many casual relations, and were very mature about the whole thing. I got what I wanted, and didn’t care what she did with anyone else. I guess eventually she figured that I took alittle too much, and sent a plain-clouthed pimp to collect.
I was taken into his office. It’s a small room, close to the till. The pimp sits in there behind the video eyes of the store, fighting someone else’s idea of crime, like a mercenary vulture, surviving off roadside casualties. I sat in the nest. He ruffled his feathers. He screamed. Bobbed his head up and down, and poked me with his claw. I told him to get the manager as I did not speak vulture pimp.
The manager came in. He heard my story, then the vulture’s. He knew we were both assholes. He had better things to worry about and left. I assumed I would be sent home and waited patiently while the vulture whistled along with the radio. It was a 16 year old pop star who sang, “Why did you have to make everything so complicated?”
Any criminal who is worth his bones can recognize certain things. Cars approaching from miles off. The bobbing of a flashlight in the dark. The difference between the footsteps of a passerby and of someone who is searching. My sense of right and wrong might be in retrograde, but when I heard a radio chirping, leather belts creaking, and boots shuffling on the other side of the door, I knew immediately that the situation had escalated. This was confirmed by the vultures smug look of contentment. It said Justice was about to be served, and he had earned his pay. Petty crooks and petty cops. Predators and scavengers.
California is a big state, and geographically I grew up in the far North. But no part of the world is far enough away from Hollywood. If you have any doubts about this, the proof hangs in a vulture’s nest down on Union Square. Its a polaroid of a young man in handcuffs, showing his best screen smile. His teeth are straight and white. We all do what we can, right? For about 5 minutes I was the star of the grocery store as I was marched past women pushing strollers and business men on cell phones. For a few seconds their eyes were not upon each others designer jeans, but transfixed upon my glorious walk of shame. If attention can be bought and sold, it can be stolen. And for a country boy from out West, it’s quite flattering to have someone from New York to look away in embarrasment, even if it is second hand. Petty theft never felt so grand.
They serve frosted flakes in the catacombs below New York City. I opened my milk, poured the cereal and ate it, wondering if it was really 5 am. I had no way of telling, as there were no clocks or windows. I was wondering if I was really 24, or if I was 16. I had no way to tell, as it felt just like high school, and there were no mirrors to see if I had grown younger. I suppose I could have asked someone else in the cell–there were over twenty other souls occupying the stainless steel benches and cement floor. But I felt as if I had slipped into a void where the only real question was if those crooked goons on the other side of the bars would ever let us out.
50 people to a cell while the one next door is empty. Some are down there for 30 minutes, some for 3 days, sweating out alcohol and medication onto the floor. It’s real slippery down there. Some blood on clothes and the floor is new and still red. Some on the wall is dried and black. All the corners are filled with the visible filth of the invisible. Every surface is covered in filth waiting in vain, hoping not to be forgotten.
We slept with the intimacy of the homeless. Strong men curled upon the floor with their hands tucked between their legs or down their pants for warmth, using their shoes for pillows. I more or less had slept in bedrooms like this one before, and was disturbed by it. Once again, my face changing demons had proved themselves to be ineffective, as I was excepted into the brotherhood of the incarcerated all to easily. At this point I am tempted to draw some redundant parallels between the faceless throngs on Wall St. and those in the tombs, but I’ll restrain myself for everyone’s benefit. New York eh?
My name was on a peice of sacred paper that, when held in the bestial hand of a primitive animal god, and called out aloud, meant a slight change in altitude that was in no way relative to the emotion it created. Six feet means below or above the ground can mean alot.
Fresh light shone into my new cell. Fresh cellmates slept on its floor. A fat white man with a limp who had been incarcerated for self-medicating with crack cocaine after a motorcycle accident. He asked me so many questions I thought he might be a cop. When I told him I had an associates degree in art, and he told me he would kill to have one, I knew he was living in a dream world.
People in New York make the same deals with their demons as everyone else in the States. My cellmates had stolen their girlfriends’ credit cards, beaten their children’s mothers, robbed their sisters, hammered their wives’ lovers with sticks, and held up donut shops for $60. Of course, we were all innocent. Well, all of us except those who had been there before. Which was most of us.
I stared at my attorney’s tie. It was possibly the most ugly thing in the whole building.
“Im a lawyer. I’m going to help you.”
We went on lying to each other like that for awhile, then finally came clean and were truthful when he left and I fell asleep on the floor.
A few hours later I took off my hat and entered the courtroom. My attorney bargained alright I guess, and I ended up with 2 days of community service and a bus voucher for the rest of the day.
My first day I swept up seed pods in Tompkin’s Square and was fed cigarettes by its locals. I watched palm sized toy dogs chase one other around their enclosure and swept up the wood chips they kicked out.
The second day I weeded the gardens below the Brooklyn Bridge. Unrepentantly I thought that there were worse ways to spend the first days of Spring in New York than with my face in a rose bush. I only got a few thorns in my hand and a little sick from the chinese food.