Siddhartha of Central Booking

59 Chelsea Piers, New York, NY

Neighborhood: Chelsea

On the far Northern side of a vast concrete enclosure, we had been divided up into two parallel rows at either side of a narrow barricaded space and Jason, our Arresting Officer, stood between the two rows talking about sports, TV, and how he was looking forward to his retirement.

Jason was a 23 year old beat cop from Staten Island. 6,000 NYPD officers had received special training in crowd control and civil liberties. I doubted that Jason had ever worn riot gear prior to when he received the training, but the high of the costume seemed to have changed the way he thought about his body. Now that it was off it gave him an almost unnatural level of comfort and ease in the way that he carried himself. His bulgy stomach pumped up and down as he twirled amblingly between us, grinning. More than anything else, he acted like a rock star interacting with fans after a sweaty show.

He smiled and looked off into the distance. “We only want to get you outta here as soon as we can,” he said.

A charter bus loaded with more prisoners rolled into the cavernous box while applause thundered from far away. I wondered whether the sounds were coming from protestors gathered outside or holding cells inside, in which case I wondered just how huge this place was. When the bus stopped the prisoners inside stood up and walked to the front of the bus with their heads down and their hands behind their backs.

My then-girlfriend stood in the other parallel row, directly across from me. Jason turned his back to her and she stuck her tongue out at him while he listened with an inscrutable, sage-like expression into the rumbling noise of the space. She dropped back into an iridescent smile when he turned around. We wore cheap disposable handcuffs made out of white plastic strips which the police could be seen sporting on their belts in thick stacks throughout the Republican National Convention. This was an entirely different type of tourism than she and I had expected that evening, when we had idiotically decided to go tooling around Midtown together so that we could “see what happens.”

After they swept us up in a mass arrest, Jason and his crew brought us to PASS (Post-Arrest Screening Site), new to the City since Spring 2004. Pier 57 on the Hudson River, the site had originally found use launching cruise ships and, until 2003, for maintenance on City buses. Massive random arrests had been planned for the RNC, and New York’s already crowded corrections system begged the question of where they were all supposed to go. The NYPD assumed control of Pier 57 after the Department of Transportation had rejected an earlier proposal, in which the NYPD was to transform the Staten Island Ferry into a giant floating prison barge for RNC-related offenders.

I spent that night pacing around in a narrow chainlink fence enclosure full of my fellow men. There were white dress shirts, colorful T shirts, businessy polo shirts, and revealing wife beaters all covered with the same mysterious black stains. My shirt happened to be black itself, as a result of which my appearance was unusually dapper in a chainlink fence cage full of so many unsightly customers. Appearances can be deceiving, however, so I made sure to keep my hands away from my eyes at all times. I didn’t know what kinds of chemicals went into performing City bus maintenance, and it was clear that neither the NYPD, the City, the GOP, nor the Chelsea Piers Commission had given a lot of thought to tidying up before our arrival.

There was a large group of women in a chainlink fence enclosure immediately adjacent to ours, with a space between them just wide enough that we couldn’t reach across and link warm fingers for moral support. As the night went on and the mind’s ability to form complete sentences diminished, sleep became the only real pastime in our cell, and I craved it badly. On the concrete floor or sitting on the benches leaning deep into the sagging chainlink backboard that we all shared, the men’s sleeping faces were open-mouthed dead from sheer exhaustion. I watched my girlfriend sleeping in the other cell while I made my rounds. She sat on a bench right up against the fence, her back leaned against it, so that I could see the back of her head slumping peacefully to one side. Since the moment Jason had gathered us up and stashed us both in the paddy wagon, there had been a quality about her that I lacked the courage to imitate. Completely at peace with the entire misadventure, she showed no expectations of what would happen at any given time, how or when it would end.

By contrast, the thought that kept me awake was that the moment in time when I would be released would or at least could always be just one moment away. I believed Jason when he told us, staring off into the distance, that we would be out as fast as possible. They had been doing it ever since we showed up—coming out every once in a while with a list of names and then spiriting the group of chosen men around some murky corner. The men often seemed legitimately happy when the police did this; I remember there had been one man, who looked like he was in his fifties, who prior to coming to Pier 57 had been very well dressed in a mysterious black stain-free white dress shirt and elegant white slacks. Yet even with the stains he looked important, with a vaguely European air about him and gray hair swept back over his head like Donald Rumsfeld’s. When the police called his name he pumped his fists just a little bit and grinned like a boy who had been exempted from taking out the garbage. I wondered how important he really was, whether there was a towncar pulled up to the shoulder of the West Side Highway waiting for him.

When morning came all of the men were moved out of our cramped chainlink shoebox into a chainlink space about the size of a basketball court at the rear of the great bus-cleaning facility. Through the links you could see some kind of opening in the wall to the right, and the Hudson River looked so vivid. A big line of guys went through an open door in the fence and lined up in front of a port-a-potty, but a cop came by and told us to go back inside because we weren’t supposed to use that port-a-potty. Behind us he closed the door and the turning lock rang superlatively. I went over and filled up my cup with water, drank it, and then lay down in the sooty concrete and tried to sleep. But the big cell door up front was open and the police were calling names regularly so thoughts of being out by lunchtime preoccupied me.

More hours passed as the names rolled on and I had still not slept at all. I listened obsessively through each individual syllable of every name, unable to even try and make conversation with the others, until at last I became delirious. Two parallel lines of frowning cops wearing helmets and vests stretched like an equal sign from the opening of the cell to where the buses were parked and I approached them with all the speed in my step of any New Yorker on the street, walking to or from the subway and back to his job, his home, his life.

The armed parallaxis waited behind a cop holding the usual clipboard. He asked, “Where you goin’?”

I said, “Patrick Gallagher.”

He looked at me as though he were still waiting for my answer.

“I-I thought I heard my name called. My name is–”

The cop shook his head. “Your name wasn’t called.” He didn’t even have to look at the clipboard. He knew what he was doing.

Finally they did call my name and I thought, Fuck lunch, but at least I’ll be out in time for happy hour. Before going through the riot gear gauntlet a cop approached me removing another strip of ribbon-cuff from the big stack tied to his belt. With the movements of the cop’s hip the stack of ribbons bobbed up and down and every one of them, with their two huge loops sized for the widest common denominator, became blurry in my exhausted eyes and looked like fat white bats flying out of a primitive drawing. Then I was put on a bus to Central Booking.

I was in a holding cell facing some kind of reception desk. The cell had yellow cinderblocks like my dorm room freshman year of college. The people milling around outside the bars almost danced through the station house, whether in uniform or in plainclothes. They had more swagger in their hips, emotion in their smiles, or boom in their voices than any group of people I had ever seen outside of some raucous club. The NYPD were ecstatically theatrical. I imagined that their constant proximity to incarceration had changed the way that they think about freedom itself, rather than an abstract natural right it became a rare and precious condition of the body that one relished and did not take for granted. I watched an overweight officer sit down at a table, somewhere behind the main reception desk, and lower a piece of cheese pizza vertically into his mouth. That he could be mocking us, when Jason had gone to such trouble to show that we all would have been friends had circumstances been only a tiny bit different, was inconceivable to me.

Hours again passed, name after name was called and taken from the cell and, when I couldn’t convince myself that I would be “back on the street” momentarily, I thought about the police. A girthy young man in tie dye leaned back against the cinderblocks, hands clasping his knees, guffawing, his big chest pumping up and down. It was clear that everyone was beginning to get used to it and with that change came the physical signs. These were faces, haircuts, fancy-rimmed glasses that looked foreign to the stubble gathering around them. The grease accumulating in everyone’s hair reflected broad swaths of the harsh overhead light. I stewed in myself while a crew of such young and middle-aged men with electric eyes gathered around the fat young man as he guffawed. The men looked like they had just woken up from an indeterminate amount of sleep, only to discover that the new show on TV was in fact the Super Bowl.

In my crippled mind I nicknamed him Siddhartha, the corpulent guru. He was what you would call a natural leader. He made the time pass. I couldn’t so much as hear any of the other men’s names besides mine, but whatever Siddhartha’s name really was they called both of our names at the same time. They fastened me into a daisy chain behind him and three others, single metal cuffs all linked into a line as though they wanted us to help take care of some roadwork. Someone said, “I bet you could cut through this shit with a toenail clipper.” Arching his back, a tall police officer with a laminated-looking bronzed face upturned and gleaming of tobacco boomed, “This way, gentlemen.” We trudged at a uniform pace into a narrow cinderblocked hallway. The cop continued, “One day, when you’re older, you’ll all be in the system just like us and you’ll look back and say, ‘In 2004, when the shit went down, I was there.’ ”

The problem was that many of us already were older, besides which the system in all its neediness may have wanted us back even more badly than we wanted to be released. Our jobs had to be done by someone. Rather than a routine case of youthful rebellion, this was a case of the system itself rebelling against . . . Itself. The law had pre-empted the law, and the police, with all their hours of training and glorified babysitting, had essentially arrested themselves.

Four small holding cells, each with an aluminum-topped bench wrapped around its three walls, connected to a bright white room where a cop with bright red hair and a bright red moustache sat at a desk reading the New York Post. The cop looked like a cross between Thomas Friedman and Strawberry Shortcake, everyone in our cell made fun of him. A ring of men accrued around Siddhartha while he laughed and exclaimed that there was no possibility, no possibility that we would be released before the end of the Convention. The men had that same shocked but grateful look, like they were only one step away from learning to master their own anger. A thin bearded man in a purple T-shirt who called himself John Doe talked to me about the discipline of Comparative Literature, very problematic. Doe was a professor of Philosophy somewhere in Georgia.

The cop turned the page of his Post loudly. People mocked the blazing streak of red across his upper lip until an old man yelled at them. “He is our only link to the outside world!” exclaimed the old man, who had also identified himself as John Doe. “It’s not helping anything and it’s just plain stupid.”

Philosophy John Doe suggested that we have a meeting and Siddhartha intoned, “Yep, I think that’s a really good idea.” We all sat around, some of us on the aluminum bench and, since we had exceeded the bench’s capacity, some of us on the floor. We worked out a plan to sleep in shifts, since there wasn’t enough room for all of us to lie down.

It had been 36 hours since I had last slept but the formalized procedure made me feel more comfortable than I had in the previous cells, where conversing had been a simple matter of holding other people’s attention for the longest possible lengths of time. It re-energized me so I volunteered to sleep in the second shift.

The six of us gathered around in the front of the cell, while the others slept in the back, went silent for a second until I went up to the bars. I approached the bars and asked the mustachioed police officer if he could give us any of his New York Post to read, and he offered us the crossword puzzle. He tore it out of the paper and handed it to me through the bars and we huddled around it doing pretty well for twenty minutes or so, considering we didn’t have anything to write with and needed to memorize our answers if we were going to play. With each clue we had more and more to memorize, and I was sure that we could have pulled it off had half of my cellmates not been lying asleep on the floor. We all laughed, me as much as I had since it had started.

At some point someone asked the red cop when we were going to be released and he said, “Well, I don’t know. But if you want to know my opinion, they’re gonna keep you until it’s over. It makes sense, right?”

When I woke up the next morning on the floor of the cell I felt crisp and polished. There were only two other prisoners, Siddhartha, the Does, even Friedman was gone, replaced by a black woman cop, and the whole Post was now scattered around the cell in sections, not just the crossword puzzle. When new prisoners came in I learned that a group of lawyers that had formed solely to address the massive-scale civil liberties violations planned for the RNC had succeeded in getting a Federal court injunction on a writ of habeas corpus, which meant that we were getting out that day after all.

When they came for me I stood with a single raised finger, having embarked upon a tirade, while two very young men sat on the bench on opposite sides of the cell nodding slowly. This has been a lesson in corruption, I said. The degradation of our police force and the privatization of our streets have proven only one thing once and for all, which is the dedication of the Republican Party to creating an America in which the principle of class survives but without the principle of liberty. And we could never imagine a more thorough demonstration of what that kind of America would be like than the microcosm which we are experiencing now, I said. This version of jail, without violent criminals and without the poor, business class jail, hippie class jail. If we lose this election, the same description will apply to our own homes. Scared to go outside, scared to walk the streets because of who you might piss off, all the creature comforts in the world won’t be enough to disguise the fact that our whole lives are jail!

“Patrick Gallagher.”

“OK.” I gave the two boys a quick salute and hurried to the bars, lest the cops change their minds.

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