You can get anything you want
At Alice’s Restaurant.
Walk right in, it’s around the back
Just a half a mile from the railroad track.
You can get anything you want
At Alice’s Restaurant.
– Arlo Guthrie
If you know the song, you’ll eventually understand.
This is a first and only draft. I will not revise nor proofread it. I just want it over and done with. There are no pictures. None are necessary because they can’t possibly tell this story. I hope you make it through the whole thing, all 4,000 words. All true. Names have been changed with something like character names, not to protect the innocent but because I just have no idea what anyone’s name might be.
For those who don’t know, I have a horrible divorce/child support arrangement, which has baffled (no exaggeration) at least one Penn State professor who makes more than twice my salary and pays less than half my child support. So either he’s got a great tax shelter, lawyer, or both. I clearly have neither. Because of my amazingly high ($900 a month) child support obligation, I don’t always keep up with the payments. It literally is like having a second mortgage, which I wouldn’t mind having instead because I get more love from a 2×4 than one of my kids.
I was not fully aware of how much child support I had currently owed because, as the county insists, the money is deducted from income sources before it gets to me. The double-edged sword there is that while I don’t have to worry about sending any money to my ex-wife for my kids, I do have to worry about what happens if the money is not being sent. That’s where this all begins.
I drive a great deal, averaging over 100 miles a day on my car in the six years I’ve had it, now nearly 240,000 miles and still going strong – except for one feature of the car – the headlights. It never fails that once a year, if not more, I have to replace the bulbs inside the headlights. Damn things burn out constantly, and it seems it’s always during winter. Every year, never fails, but this year it cost me more than just $15 at the auto parts store.
Dates are important in this story, and it was late on the night of Monday, November 25, that I was driving through several New Jersey shore towns, such as Ocean City, Sea Isle City, Wildwood, and Cape May. It’s for a part-time job, but that’s not important. What’s important is that I have a headlight out. A few months ago, same light was out, and I was pulled over in Wildwood, NJ, where a baby-faced officer issued me a verbal warning and bid me farewell. Nice guy. Monday was different.
I was traveling north on Route 47, heading from Cape May up towards Route 55 and the Vineland area (Eggplant capital of the world). Route 47 forks to the left, and County Road 347 continues straight. An on-coming car caused me to wait as I tried to turn left, but I saw two things when the car passed by: 1. It was a state trooper, 2. Brake lights. I had a strong clue what was about to happen, but I kept driving. When I saw headlights coming up fast, I knew how to add 2 + 2, and I began to pull over before the lights flashed because, in my estimation, cops like that.
I put down both the driver’s and passenger side windows because I’ve seen how they surround you lately, and I had my paperwork ready. When Officer Shavedhead asked where I was going and why, I had an excellent answer that was not only true but prompted Officer Mustache to ask further questions about how he could get in on the deal. Anyway, Officer Shavedhead asked if I had any violations on my license, and I honestly said “no.” He said he would run a check, then probably just issue a warning to fix my headlight and send me home. Uh huh. Shortly after, both officers returned but with a question:
“Did you know you’re driving on a suspended license?”
“No, sir, I can’t imagine why.”
“Is there any trouble you got going on ?”
“Nothing I know of. No.”
“Step out of the car please, and turn the engine off.”
“The engine is off. What about the headlights?”
“Just step out of the car please.” (In a rather testy voice)
Before I go any further – handcuffs hurt. Although I tried to ask questions about what has happening, they didn’t seem to care very much. Officer Shavedhead was making very sure I wasn’t about to run anywhere while Officer Mustache began perusing my glove compartment, storage console, and anything else that looked interesting. It was nice of him to bring along my cell phone and wallet, but the force with which is separated the phone charger from the power source was far from necessary.
For those who don’t know, I’m annoying. Like Felix Unger annoying, and I proceeded to prove it.
“Officer, my driver’s side window has trouble going up. I find that if I pull up on both the driver and passenger window buttons at the same time, maybe even jiggle them a little, it will usually go up. Also, I have two sandwiches on the front seat. Could you grab them for me? Oh, I have a stick shift. So if you have to move my car, please don’t leave it in gear. Just pull the emergency brake. That’s good enough. Also, if this is likely going to end up with me calling someone to come get me, can I just make that call now? Anyone I know lives at least an hour away and…” It’s important to note that when Officer Mustache brought my wallet to the squad car (not to me, to the car) he was careful to confirm that there was roughly $50 in cash in my wallet. I liked Officer Mustache.
Not only to handcuffs hurt, but there is so much technology and weaponry in the front seat that the bench front seat is pushed way back, so there isn’t much room back there, and you have to kind of lean sideways so the cuffs don’t dig into your wrists when you fall against the back seat as they speed away doing 70 in a 45 mph zone.
The town of Woodbine is known for only two things. One is a state police barracks, but the other I have no clue. We arrived at the state police barracks where I was locked in a room after surrendering my jacket, scarf, shoes, wallet, cell phone, necklace, and sandwiches. There was little to do other than sweat and wonder about the purpose of the drainage grate in the middle of the 10 by 12 foot holding area, so I began to count the cinder blocks in order to properly arrive at the size of the 10 by 12 foot holding area. I thought about asking for a ruler or tape measure, but I didn’t think anyone would likely hear me or care.
After roughly five minutes, Officer Shavedhead returned. I was about to ask him why he didn’t take my glasses along with everything else except my clothing, but I was too fascinated by the size of his forehead, something I hadn’t noticed while being handcuffed in the dark on a county road at about 11pm while my baggy pants were slowly revealing more than they should have as cuffs were clicking around my fragile wrists.
There were two, count ‘em two, bad signs when he asked if there was anyone who could come and pick up my car. The first was because, if it stayed on the side of Route 47, it would likely be towed and then incur storage and other charges. The only friend who could do that would have to drive down IN a car, and then could not possibly drive two cars back, so that was a no. The second bad sign was that if he was asking if someone else could drive my car, that meant that I would not be driving my car any time soon. Then Officer Shavedhead informed me that he would be driving me to the Cape May County Jail.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “Jail? Do I get to know why?”
“Driving on a suspended license.”
“But I don’t know why my license was suspended.”
“Child support?” I asked.
“You owe too much child support, so your license is suspended. Driving on a suspended license, so we have to keep you until a sheriff can drive down from Gloucester County and transfer you up there and put you in front of a judge.”
“When will that happen?” I asked.
“Probably tomorrow. Anyone you want to call?”
In case it comes up in the future, at midnight, when the rest of the world is hopefully sleeping peacefully, there really is not anyone you “want” to call, but I did call someone and explained all the details. I won’t say who because that person would kill me if I did, so I’ll just say it’s my best friend in the world and leave it at that. A few of you know who it is, but there’s no need to say anything.
I was driven, handcuffed again, to the Cape May County Jail. When an officer handed me one of those orange jumpsuits, that’s when it hit me – hard. When I was told to take a shower in what seemed like a place where a custodian might clean his mop bucket, it hit me harder. When the shampoo I was given smelled more like something that kills ants and roaches, it hit me even harderer. And when I carried a cheap, vinyl mattress into a cell with ten bunks, seven of them occupied with sleeping, snoring inmates, and the door clanked behind me, then I was floored.
Two of the unoccupied bunks were up top, five sets of double bunks. Although the two uppers were not filled with people, they were filled with people’s stuff. Seconds felt like minutes, and I contemplated several things. First, could I supplant the stuff of a jail inmate and risk getting my face kicked in, or I could just drop my mattress on the floor and go to sleep. Then I thought about mice or roaches in jails, and I thought about things crawling on me during the night, and I wasn’t sure what to do. That’s when Pagan Leader got up and moved his stuff so I could avoid sleeping on the floor. He had thick-frame glasses, a red beard that didn’t match his hair, and a pentagram tattooed on his head. A voice from beneath a blanket asked, “Got any drugs?”
“Know what time it is?”
I threw the mattress on the top bunk, crawled up, bunched a blanket into a pillow, wondered where the hell my life was going, and surprisingly fell asleep more easily than I should have.
When I say “asleep,” I can’t really be sure. I likely woke up every half hour, fifteen minutes. I know I popped up when another guy was brought in and told a story about punching his girlfriend in the face. I wasn’t sure if I should or I shouldn’t sleep with my glasses on.
I don’t know how or when I woke up, but I do remember my right hip in pain because I had my back up against the wall and was too afraid to turn to my left hip all night and thus not have my back literally against the wall. Keep in mind, I’m a wuss. Also, it was my first time in a county lock up. Any lock up.
Now, I’m readily adaptable to almost any situation. I once me Vice President Joe Biden, back when he was Senator Biden, in the Wilmington Opera House. While sipping champagne from flute glasses, we talked about toilets and changing flat tires on a highway. I liked how “real” he seemed, and it proved what I already knew – that I could talk to anyone anywhere anytime. But this was not an opera house and the men in the other bunks were not politicians. Dammit.
One of the most difficult parts at this time was having no clue what time it was. No windows, no clocks, nothing but an old guy, I’ll call him Gray. When someone asked, he would take what seemed like a good guess. When one of the guards might stroll by, someone would ask, and Gray would be pretty close. I guess he had been in there a long time. Speaking of “long time,” it didn’t take a long time for me to lose my fear of the other guys in there. Pagan Leader, despite being arrested for the four semi-automatic handguns in his car, was rather friendly. The tall Hispanic guy, despite running from the Immigration guys at the Atlantic City airport, was also nice. And the Islamic guy who knelt and chanted his prayers at what might have been sunrise, well, not sure about him.
While waiting for breakfast, assuming there was breakfast, the guys started a conversation, asking each other what they did to get in there. Apparently I wasn’t the only new guy. Of the eight of us, it seemed that five had arrived during the night. However, throughout the conversation, I could tell that all of them had been locked up before. It was amazing how they knew the different judges in different counties, who was more or less lenient, which days a van drove the inmates over for court, and how many days it took officers from different counties to show up for transfer. Yeah, that part.
“Hey,” said Gray, “you’re kind of quiet. Why are you here?”
When I had been handcuffed the previous night, the officer doing so informed me that I was on a suspended license. When I was later fingerprinted, I learned from that officer that the state can suspend your license once you get too far behind on child support. “I didn’t know that,” I said. “Me neither, until just now,” the officer said, and that’s what I told Gray.
“You got Judge Russell?” he asked.
“I don’t know who that is.”
“Ocean City court.”
“No,” I said, “I’m waiting for a transfer up to Gloucester County.”
“Well, relax,” Gray said. “They can take up to 72 hours, and they’re not usually in any hurry. Most times, they’ll wait the full three days, just in case another transfer shows up because they don’t want to drive down today and then have to drive down again tomorrow. Plan on being here a few days.”
Now that really hurt. Three days? I had arrived midnight that morning, Tuesday morning, meaning I could very well be there until the midnight between Thursday and Friday, spending Thanksgiving in jail. That was probably the worst moment of the whole experience.
Breakfast showed up on a cart. There were eight stacks of trays, each with cornbread, oatmeal, two hard-boiled eggs, and fried (or at least warm) potatoes. The trays were passed through a slot in the barred door. There was also tea, which wasn’t bad, but there was no sugar or anything. I ate the cornbread and eggs, nothing else. I was going to give back the container of milk that was on the tray, but I seriously thought I might trade it to someone later for one of their eggs. Hey, I saw The Shawshank Redemption, so I was thinking ahead. Never know.
After breakfast, it seemed like anywhere between fifteen minutes and an hour that we did nothing but sit and listen to each other sleep, cough, or use the bathroom. I literally just sat on the top bunk and stared at walls, ceilings, floors, and wondered what horrible thing I did in my life to deserve where I was. Still, nothing comes to mind.
An officer appeared and asked, “Anyone want to go to the yard?” He meant outside for exercise, basketball, jogging, working out.
Gray asked, “What’s the temperature?”
Nobody moved, so the officer left. Another ten or twenty minutes of nothing passed until again an officer appeared and told us to line up for “medical.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I climbed down from my bunk and followed everyone else into a hallway. We were brought to a room in which we were again locked while waiting our turn to answer questions from a doctor. General stuff, allergies, medications currently taking, injuries, drug use, etc. After all the questions, they checked temperature and blood pressure. Then the doctor, believing he was funny, said, “Okay then. You can take the rest of the day off.”
It wasn’t funny. I know funny. I know funny even when inappropriate, either sexually or emotionally, but still funny. This wasn’t funny.
On the way out of the medical area, I asked a guard what time it was, and he said, “Nine thirty.” Holy crap. All that time sitting up, listening to stories, wondering what the hell I was in for next, how long, how many days I might be there, and it was only 9:30 in the morning. That must be the worst part of jail, just the waiting all day for nothing. Going for that medical check up was, I guess, a highlight of the day for these guys. For me too, at that point.
Back to the cell, we were searched before entering. Once inside, I saw the Islamic guy up on my bed. I wasn’t sure what to do. Ask him to get down so I could get up? Was it really “my” bunk? Luckily, it was only a second or two before he hopped down and I climbed back up again.
The Pagan Leader arrived last, walking rather gingerly on a bad leg. He explained that he had a lawsuit pending against a hospital that messed him up while taking a bullet out of his leg. “Should be four, maybe five million,” he said. Jailhouse talk, I assumed. He explained that he didn’t really do anything. The police were just making an example of him because of who he was. I so wanted to ask, “I’m sorry if this seems rude, but who are you that they want to make an example of you?” Luckily, someone else asked, so I didn’t have to. Of all the things going on, including his messed up leg, his wife also being arrested, and him having to sell his Mustang to pay his lawyer, he was most worried about his cat being alone and without food in his apartment. He tried to explain to the police that he had an animal in there, but they didn’t seem to care.
Another guy started telling his story. Seems he has a wealthy father who would soon be there to bail him out, and he was taking down names of other inmates, promising to help them out when they were released. He claimed to be the manager of a restaurant and needed to hire almost every position, so he was very willing to give everyone a job who might need one. That was nice, but I suspected it was also just jailhouse talk.
Being a writer, I did what I always do – “What good story could take place here?” I started thinking about a play set in a jail cell. Maybe everyone claimed to be innocent, and slowly we learn that everyone is guilty, but nobody is guilty of what they claimed to be innocent of. I don’t know. I had to think of something. I wanted to get hold of paper and a pen, but I knew that was not likely.
After a spell of silence, Gray said, “I hear we’re getting soup for lunch.” Someone else said, “I hope it’s hot this time.”
One of the Hispanic guys got up to brush his teeth, which caused me to remember a mesh bag I was given upon arrival. Inside I found a small toothbrush, toothpaste, two blankets, a towel, and an inmate handbook. I flipped through it and learned that, just like in The Shawshank Redemption, there was a library cart that came around once a week, but it was on weekends, and it was Tuesday. Dammit.
I noticed that Gray had a book, The Memory of Running, and while sitting outside the medical office, I had asked him if it was any good. “Eh,” he said. “It kills time. You can have it if you want.” At this point, while waiting and hoping for hot soup, killing time was everything.
As in the holding cell, I started counting the cinderblock walls to calculate the square footage of the cell and then determine the number of square feet per person. I hadn’t gotten very far when an officer showed up and called my name.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Get your stuff,” he barked.
I stood for what seemed like a minute, as confused as I was when I was brought in, until I heard Gray behind me.
“You’re leaving, Dude,” he said. “You’re out.”
I very awkwardly grabbed the mesh bag, the blankets, the mattress, and followed the officer. We got to the room where I was fingerprinted, and I was told to sign some papers. One was a release that said I agreed that all of my personal property was returned. I blinked for a second, but then I signed because I was still unsure what was happening.
I was handed a bag with my clothes and directed to a room to get out of the jumpsuit and dress again as when I came in, which I did as quickly as ever. Then I went back out and was handed a plastic bag with my wallet, cell phone, and car keys.
“Don’t open that until you get outside,” the officer said through thick glass.
“Outside?” I said.
“You’re out. Time to go.”
“But I don’t know where I am,” I said.
“I know that, but I don’t know where. Can someone take me back to my car?”
“I can give you a bus ticket, that’s about it.”
He picked up a phone and asked someone about arranging a bus ticket for me, but then he hung up.
“Someone’s here for you,” he said. “You don’t need a ticket. When you hear the buzzer, go out that door. Then there’s another door, just wait for it to open and then go out and around to the left.”
I went outside, still unsure of what was happening, but I followed around to the left and saw a familiar car, the friend I had called at about eleven the previous night. Before I even reached the car, I felt tears coming, and I wondered why. It was a combination really. Partly from what I had just experienced. Partly the happiness of getting out after what seemed like days but was only about eleven hours total. Partly knowing that I wasn’t going to have to worry about my kids trying to call me, getting no answer, and someone having to explain where I was.
Once I got in the car, the tears became sobs, and I just lost it. I knew why I was crying. Because I was lucky enough to know someone smart enough, who cared enough, and who knew enough to find out what happened, what to do about it, pay what I owed, and get me out. Not everyone knows someone like that. I don’t know if I am someone like that, but I hope I am.
We drove to where I had been stopped, and amazingly my car was still there. Legally, my license was still suspended, but I didn’t care. I had to drive it home.
Hours later I was in a convenience store about to buy a sandwich and coffee. I opened my wallet. My $50 was gone. That’s when I knew why the cop told me not to open that plastic bag until I was outside. Because then it would be too late for me to do anything about it.
Son of a bitch.