Essays - Spring 2007

One Day in the Life of Melvin Jules Bukiet

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A Manhattan writer runs afoul of the local penal system and lives to tell the tale

By Melvin Jules Bukiet

March 1, 2007


 

 

The Mighty Echoes left the low-rise stage at Danny’s Skylight Room to the joyous applause of 50-some middle-aged fans. I was with a party of 14 people—all had seen better days; many had lost one or both parents; some were kept up at night by the uncertain futures of their difficult postadolescent sons and daughters; at least one was on chemotherapy. Yet the Echoes, a four-man a cappella group from California, were so deliriously cheerful in their renditions of doo-wop classics such as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” “The Duke of Earl,” and “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp bah Bomp bah Bomp)?” that all of us forgot our troubles for the evening.

We hailed a cab back to the Upper West Side and sat in our friend Charlie’s living room on Riverside Drive, a CD of the Echoes playing in the background, while conversation returned to the foreground of our lives: the angst of college admissions, the precariousness of the Mideast, and so forth. Get the demographic picture? Comfortable liberal New Yorkers at ease in the world.

Then it turns upside down. My wife, Jill, and I left the apartment on 110th Street and walked three blocks home to 113th Street. Our block has two large Columbia University dorms anchoring the corner and a slew of fraternity houses beyond. Indeed, our house, purchased 17 years ago for the present-day cost of a one-bedroom apartment, once belonged to Phi Kappa Psi. We live upstairs and rent the ground floor and half of the basement to four Columbia business students.

Did Saturday, January 28, have a full moon? It felt like it. The street was humming. A fire alarm had emptied one of the dorms, students milled about waiting for the all clear, and a police car was double-parked in front of our house. One of our tenants, Winston, a Texas boy who had made the next-to-last cut to become a Navy SEAL before deciding to attend Columbia, was standing beside a policeman, looking stunned.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

The policeman ignored me and demanded to know Winston’s name.

“You don’t have to tell him,” I offered. The cop asked who I was.

“If he doesn’t have to tell you, I sure don’t. We’ve done nothing wrong.”

Somehow in the motion from the singular to plural pronoun, my fate and Winston’s became intertwined.

I had the impression that Winston was being harassed for drinking in public. Well, the stoop is set back from the sidewalk and is private property—my private property upon which I enforce a strictly libertarian policy as long as the rent is paid. I was told to shut up.

Was it a matter of principle, or was it a matter of the Skylight Room’s two-drink minimum, or was it a matter of age? The Mighty Echoes had stirred recollections of my misspent youth, which culminated in the May Day demonstrations of 1971. Back then, a group very much like a younger version of the 14 friends in the Skylight Room slept in a park in Washington, D.C., and marched against American involvement in Vietnam under the slogan: “If the Government Won’t Stop the War, We’ll Stop the Government.” So blame the Echoes. In any case, the street dialogue escalated from measured dissent to colorful—okay, obscene—language. At last I dared the policeman: “What are you going to do? Arrest me?”

Three seconds later, the cuffs were on and I was in the back seat of a patrol car en route to the Morningside Heights precinct on West 126th Street.

Busy as 113th Street was, it must have been a slow Saturday night in Harlem because the precinct was empty. Winston, having been hauled in seconds before me, had already ignored my advice, given his name, and been placed in a cell. I, however, was still obstreperous, more so because of the ride. Like the late Saddam Hussein, I refused to acknowledge jurisdiction. Officer Jones, who escorted me, hoisted the cuffs a few inches up my back till they hurt. A month later I still had a scab where the metal rubbed some skin off my wrist, though worse things have happened in human history. Who knows, maybe Officer Jones was hinting at the easiest way for me to get out of this predicament. Maybe I deserved it. I did everything but sneer, “Badges . . . stinking badges.”

My wife had witnessed me riding off into the distance. Jill is not only a lawyer; she runs a state judicial committee. Confession here: in my arrogant sense of invincibility, I thought that she could wave an ID or call Judith Kaye, Chief Judge of the State of New York, at home at midnight to put the cops in their place, make them release me with an apology and a cup of coffee.

Winston and I were photographed by a zippy electronic camera that required two policemen to operate, one to press the button, another to hold the cord in precisely the right place, like a 1950s television antenna. Then we were fingerprinted on another machine—no more ugly ink stains—which probably zapped the configuration of my whorls into a federal database. We occupied our adjacent cells, and I took fervent notes until a policeman confiscated my pen—the second he left the area, I took out a pencil and continued.

Prison narratives by everyone from Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci to absurdly reviled contemporary temporary inmate James Frey are a staple of modern literature, but my favorite of the genre is The Count of Monte Cristo. Years ago, I toured the site of the fictional count’s incarceration, the Chateau d’If, located on an island in Marseilles harbor. The guides will gladly show you the cell that contained the island’s most famous prisoner, as well as the hole, a good yard wide, that he supposedly dug to escape. Of course, the place is entirely surreal since real human beings lived and suffered there while Dumas’s imaginary count gets all the attention.

But the 26th precinct is not the Chateau d’If. Nor is it the Lubyanka in Moscow or Abu Ghraib in Iraq. The fluorescent-lit cinder-block premises are clean. Bathroom facilities are available. There are illegible scratches on the walls, but they’re not counting off years.

Sitting there, I felt like a cross between Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, the former just wanting to get out of jail and the latter wanting to milk the experience for every drop of psychic and narrative juice. Unfortunately for the Tom in me, the only thing that’s extraordinary about one’s first hours in prison is the tedium. Winston and I chatted a bit about the situation, about his postgraduation prospects. He fretted while I occasionally summoned what I could from a diminishing reservoir of outrage through a dreamy haze exacerbated by the increasing lateness of the hour. Even my thoughts about the policeman who tweaked my handcuffs weren’t vindictive. Maybe he was tired, pissed off at the world, had a difficult home life. Whatever. Any interruption, no matter how minor, became an opportunity for perception in the civic sensory deprivation chamber. After several hours passed, a young blond policeman called to my mate as he inserted a large key into the cell lock. “You.”

“Winston,” I said as he was ushered out. “We’re in this together. No one leaves the premises until we both leave the premises.” Solitude was the one condition I dreaded.

Later I found out that Winston was given a desk citation, like a parking ticket, and released. He did stick around, expecting that I’d follow imminently, until it became apparent that that wasn’t going to happen. Then he called Jill and suggested that she ought to rescue me—or redeem him from his moral, fraternal imperative—while three new prisoners arrived. They were Arabs, and though I can’t remember the name of the first one, the others were, I swear on any chance I’ll ever have to appear on the Oprah show, Mohammed and Osama. Moham­med had a sleek Omar Sharif-y look and demeanor, and Osama was a chubby, disheveled man with a broken hand and a bushy mustache that reminded me of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s. No terrorists, they were used-car dealers from New Jersey.

Nonetheless, I thought of Guantanamo. But my Osama and my Mohammed were on 126th Street because they’d been in a fight with a guy with a baseball bat. The guy ran away, or so they said, and I believed them and so did the police. At least something in their attitude incurred the favor of the guard, who asked me if I’d mind if he gave them cigarettes. Not as long as he gave me one, I replied, and the next five or six minutes were as distinct as Philip Morris could wish.

Another man came to share my cell a little later. He was a truck driver, also from New Jersey, who had had some problem with his vehicle that I didn’t understand. “You’ve never been arrested?” the cop asked him skeptically as he took the man’s photos. The man turned left, right, as if he knew the routine. I jotted this down, and the policeman/photographer took the pencil from me, but I had still another pen in my breast pocket.

My wife finally entered, looking tired. Jill didn’t seem as energized by this adventure as I was. She was simultaneously worried and sad and furious at me for behaving so stupidly. Oh well, there’s always a mature half to any couple. She had asked the desk sergeant what they were charging me with. He didn’t know yet, but still had several hours to figure it out. Jill believed that I’d eventually be released “in contemplation of dismissal.” I contemplated incarceration.

She left and then, at last, it was time for me to go. Not home. Downtown. Precincts arrest people, but they don’t book them. That happens at “Central” in the Manhattan House of Detention, known by everyone as the Tombs. Originally built between 1835 and 1840 on the model of an Egyptian mausoleum, which gave the place its name, the Tombs was rebuilt after a fire and expanded several times until it took its present shape in 1941, complete with another exotic echo, the Bridge of Sighs, which connects the court building and the prison itself.

Over the years, the Tombs has housed innumerable bad people ranging from Harry K. Thaw, the killer of Stanford White, to Abe “Kid Twist” Reles—member of and stool pigeon against Murder, Inc.—to John C. Colt, the brother of the inventor of the revolver. Awaiting execution for the bludgeoning of a man who owed him some money, Colt managed to make the day scheduled for his hanging truly notable by getting married and then killing himself with a knife to the heart. Despite these colorful figures, however, the Tombs’s most famous resident was, like the Chateau d’If’s Count of Monte Cristo, fictional. Herman Melville’s Bartleby is incarcerated there when all reasonable attempts to dislodge him from his job as a scrivener fail. Bartleby refuses nourishment, curls up in a corner, and dies as simply as he lived.

The three used-car dealers and I were recuffed—Osama in front because of his broken hand—and shuffled to a waiting van in the sunlight. That was nice, but try riding down the West Side Highway with your hands behind your back, without a seat belt—a traffic violation, if anyone cared to complain.

Osama asked me, “What you in for?” Though I’d had eight hours to figure that out, all I could say was, “Being an asshole.”

They laughed and we were friends. In fact, everyone in the van was a friend, and the next thing I knew, Osama and the nerdy-looking cop riding shotgun were talking used cars.

“How much would a Buick Century go for? Maybe 2002, 2003 model. Maybe 30,000 miles.”

“Up to $12,000,” Osama replied, but he could get one for $6,000 or $7,000 at auction. There was a pretty good auction in Bordentown, New Jersey, exit three of the turnpike. They could go together. He’d know what to look for. The cop took down Osama’s number.

We cut off the West Side Highway and jolted east along Canal Street until, a block shy of our destination, we were blocked by a garbage truck. Immediately, my mind shifted back to romance. Maybe the garbage truck was operated by one of Osama’s colleagues; our van would be rammed, stormed—every Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford movie wrapped into one. But the garbage truck moved, the van parked, and we were walked across a public street into the courtyard of the Tombs.

A gate shut behind us, but before we entered the building itself, the police removed their weapons and set them into a metal box. Whoever made this rule must also have had images of daring escapes. “Prisoner Grabs Gun, Holds Cop Hostage!” The mind takes refuge in familiar imagery from police shows and detective novels. But these guys weren’t Briscoe and Green from Law and Order, and there were no wisecracks. Daylight disappeared.

Whether the Tombs was designed by M. C. Escher or not I’m not sure, but the place is a honeycomb of incomprehensibly intersecting corridors and ascending and descending stairways. Only occasionally did we get a glimpse of a vacant cell or hear the sound of other voices. Everything is painted a uniform pastel broken by various instructional and directional signs in English and Spanish. We were photographed again. I smiled to unnerve them. We were asked half-a-dozen medical questions. “Do you have tuberculosis?” “Do you have a drug or alcohol problem?”

Again my pockets were emptied and this time the authorities found and confiscated my last writing implement. But the search was cursory. I didn’t offer and the police didn’t insist on taking the papers in my breast pocket that I’d been illicitly scribbling on. At last, around 9:30, we arrived at Central Booking, or so said a sign taped to a large station surrounded by cells, called pens.

We were put into the pen directly opposite the station. It was about 12 feet deep, maybe 20 feet wide, with a pay telephone and a one-piece steel sink and toilet on a raised platform, surrounded as a token to modesty by a metal plate from knee to chest height. A row of steel benches, cantilevered out from the walls, were occupied by 15 or 20 men, mostly young, a few with an air of ancient dereliction. Some were sprawled on the benches, sleeping. Not insisting on my rights, I found a spot on the floor. Two men were conversing loudly over my head. One had a girlfriend in the police academy. The other worked in a restaurant. “A chef ain’t just a cook,” he explained.

As if waiting for us, two Tombs employees wheeled a cart into the open area outside our pen. Then a guard unlocked the pen, and the men automatically shuffled into line. I didn’t have a chance to rise until the first few returned, each holding a sandwich bag and a half-pint carton of milk. The same meal would be repeated about eight hours later. I wasn’t hungry, yet it seemed wise to eat, because already there was gossip about how long we’d be there. The fellow with the girlfriend said, “I hear three days.”

According to court order, a citizen detained by the police is supposed to be charged with a crime within 24 hours or released, but that 24 hours doesn’t begin on 113th Street or even on 126th Street. Once the clock does begin ticking—in the Tombs—it can be slow. My companions had also heard (how?) that the judge was a bitch, popping off 10- and 15-thousand-dollar bail fees that none of them had a chance of raising.

This didn’t worry me. I’d used the telephone in the cell and spoken to Jill, who sounded weary beyond belief. Since her world was one of legal policy rather than practice, she’d managed to contact my cousin Michael, a real-estate lawyer, who had a friend who was a medical-malpractice lawyer who had a friend who was a criminal lawyer. This man would represent me. I’d probably be released on my own recognizance before midnight because I had “roots in the community”—Oi, Brasil!—but even if the judge assigned bail, I’d have no trouble writing a check. Cash if need be. Jill could go to the bank and bring $10,000 in nickels. Count it, suckers.

But if my bile was rising, there was no particular sense of outrage anywhere else in the pen as the men unwrapped their sandwiches. Did Jill say by midnight? Thirteen more hours. I walked into the hall to get my own baggie, filled with two peanut butter sandwiches, no jelly. There was even less anger an hour later when our group was broken up and placed in other cells beyond the central station. Why? Why not? Nobody offers any explanation. Perhaps ours was a preliminary pen, or perhaps the police wanted to consolidate us in fewer spaces, or perhaps there was no reason. Without Mohammed and Osama or the chef and the guy with the girlfriend—jobs and relationships were signs of normality that gave me a sense of roots in this idiosyncratic community—my new pen felt distinctly less congenial than the first. It was smaller and more crowded, and—call me racist—I couldn’t help but realize that I was the only white person, the only middle-aged person, the only person wearing a camelhair Brooks Brothers outlet-store jacket. I was the only person in the cell with glasses. Surely, 20 random men, though young, didn’t all have perfect vision. Maybe their lives didn’t require certain minor skills, like reading.

This cell was also out of direct visual range of the station. Worst of all, the telephone didn’t work. A lot of conversations were going on. “My brother, may he rest in peace, got into some shit with the Russian mob in Queens.” There was sneaker talk and one interchange that sounded political, something about immigration law, until I realized that it referred to a scene from the movie Scarface. “Who’s on a misdemeanor?” someone asked. No hands rose.

A janitor entered the cell with a mop and a bucket of gray wash, which he swabbed around anyone lying on the floor. The conversations went on. “They caught him jumping a turnstile, but he had a gun and $85 in his pocket. Who’d do that with a gun? Guy was mad crazy.”

The humor in the cell could have turned on the one outsider in an instant, so I spread my jacket out on the floor and tried to sleep. In fact, I did, and so did most of the others. Everyone brought in on Saturday night had finally hit a wall around 11:00 Sunday morning. Conversation ebbed. A kid in a windbreaker lay back and closed his eyes. Our rest was interrupted every few minutes by a policewoman calling out names. When she called mine, I stepped to the bars and answered about a dozen questions: birth date, home address, workplace, nothing about the crime. She scribbled with a stylus on a handheld device. Only when I told her that I was a college professor did her eyes flutter with the understanding that she had an oddball here. She asked the first question that wasn’t on her list—at least she didn’t write down the answer. “What do you teach?” “Writing.”

She glanced at the folded papers poking up from my breast pocket and called another name. Throughout my time in the Tombs, I had a sense that nothing that occurred here really had any effect on anyone but me, upon whom it would, of course, have the least effect. Jail was my cellmates’ life, and they knew it the way college students know a classroom, the way working people know an office or a factory.

“What are you in for?” asked the young man in the dirty windbreaker when he woke from his nap. “D and D?”

In fact, I wasn’t sure what I was being charged with yet, but I knew that his guess—D and D means drunk and disorderly—pegged me for an amateur. Tempted to reply, “Death and Devastation,” I instead lifted my thumb and grinned sheepishly. Explaining that I had mouthed off simply because I could—or thought I could—implied a luxury that might baffle and offend people for whom this was serious business. At any moment, I might say the wrong thing, begin to incur suspicion and animosity. At this moment, self-preservation trumped self-expression.

Solitude was the condition I craved. Another hour passed. But then, from my vantage point on the floor, I noticed something unusual happening on the base of the raised toilet platform. Somebody with baggy black pants was inside, and his pants were not at the floor level. He was using the toilet enclosure, not the toilet.

The occupant’s hands were visible, together with a square of rolling paper. Carefully, the hands shredded and sprinkled some leaves into the paper. Then they took a cigarette butt, not more than half an inch long, unfiltered, and opened that to mix the charred leaves with the clean ones. The hands expertly rolled the paper, and then lifted it.

The person stood up. He was a Latino youth, 20 or 22 years old, with long black hair, wearing an oversized jacket like a cape—the most dashing person in the cell. He licked the cigarette tighter, but he had a problem: there were no matches in the cell. Inside my breast pocket, however, beneath my papers, was a cigarette lighter. I stood up and walked two steps to the boy with the cigarette, tapped him on the shoulder.

He spun with a feral swiftness as if to demand, “What do you want?” Without saying a word, I handed over the lighter. He grinned broadly and slapped me five. Anyone in the cell who didn’t know what had just transpired swiftly figured it out as he flicked the lighter to the cigarette, inhaled deeply, and slapped me five again. Suddenly, I had protectzia.

I also realized what was in the cigarette as I noticed the sweet smell of marijuana. Standing in the middle of the pen with half-a-dozen police a few feet to the left, he offered me the joint. I hadn’t smoked since those days stopping the government in D.C.—hadn’t liked it even then—and didn’t intend to reacquaint myself with old habits now, but to refuse hospitality might have been deemed an insult. I explained, “Gotta be sharp for the judge.”

“No, you can be loose.” He undulated to illustrate. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Stefan. You?” “Melvin.” “Thank you, Melvin.” He slapped me one more time, and started planning how to make money. There were other cigarettes in the pen adjacent to ours, but no lighter. At a dollar a flick, this could be a profitable enterprise. Imagine what Stefan could do with a hedge fund. So while my partner sidled up to the bars to investigate business opportunities, I heard more of my cellmates’ stories. Now I was in the inner circle.

One was arrested for assault even though he’d called 911 and his voice was on tape. Another said, “I just took the $700 from her and gave it to my brother and then I looked out the window and saw the battering ram swinging in and ran for the back. There was a window.” He pantomimed half a dive and then jerked back. “They caught my feet.” Marco, the boy in the windbreaker, was arrested for selling crack. I thought that stuff passed in the ’80s, but apparently not. “Lucky they didn’t catch me with the mother lode,” he said. “Then I’d be looking at eight minimum.” What was he facing? I didn’t realize that I had the nerve to ask until I heard my voice. He replied, “They start you high, then you plead down to a misdemeanor.” He knew the system. That’s how everyone refers to the criminal justice operation. It sounds digestive and explains the cloacal corridors we passed through from one station to another, waiting to be excreted at the opposite end. Police can use discretion to give a suspect a break until his entry into the system; post-registration, the rules take hold. Obviously, the rules of the pen take hold, too, and for the next few hours those rules were in my favor. From about noon till 3:00 p.m., one person after another was called out of the cell for reasons unknown, so I didn’t question anything when my name was announced by a policeman with dreadlocks. As we were walking away, he said, “They’re smoking weed in there.”

I replied, “Yeah, I thought I smelled something.”

We went down one hall, through a barred gate, into another hall, through another gate. At last, at the end of our journey, I saw the smiling face of David Schreier, Esquire, aka The Schry. The Schry had met my cousin in law school and had become a family friend. When Michael told him that I was in unique trouble, he left his wife and daughter, put on a suit, and came downtown. “What’s doing?” he said as if we’d bumped into each other at the Skylight Room.

“Been better.”

“Been bad?”

“David!” We hugged. I was placed alone in a cell, watched only by a large black policewoman with a missing front tooth. “Here’s what’s gonna happen,” The Schry explained. “Ed Sapone will come down as soon as your case is called. You will not spend tonight in jail.”

“Who’s Ed Sapone?”

“Your lawyer. I can make any doctor squirm on cross, but he’s the best there is in criminal. He’s going to get you out and drive you home.”

I said that I didn’t require that service, but The Schry informed me that I was paying. We chatted about the events of the evening before and about my adventures in the system. Though he’d been allowed into the Tombs as a lawyer, The Schry was there as a friend. Mostly, he wanted to know if I needed anything. “Some water, maybe?” That was a great idea since I don’t drink plain milk and hadn’t touched the fountains in the cells I’d occupied.

Unfortunately, no one is supposed to get anything that isn’t delivered per routine. Never mind that marijuana and God knows what else seeps through the pores of the Tombs; it’s the system. “Excuse me,” The Schry addressed the attendant. She looked up from her paperwork.

“I’m David Schreier and this is Melvin Jules Bukiet, the author,” he said politely while leaning over her desk with the intimacy that melts juries, explaining the awful miscarriage of justice that had occurred and how thirsty I was. Her name, it turned out, was Lazare, and she understood. There was a sundries stand in the lobby of the building.

“Can I get you some, too?” he asked. The Schry could charm a rattlesnake out of its babies, but Lazare was no snake, only a woman with an unpleasant job.

“That’d be nice,” she said.

While he was gone on the errand, she and I talked. She’d been working in the Tombs for nearly two decades, but she wanted to get out.

“Why?”

“This city, the last few years, it’s beginning to seem like a police state.”

Did I really hear that? The woman, despite her badge and her easy smile, was complicated. I asked, “But what would you do?”

“You really want to know?”

“Sure.”

“I always liked little children,” she said. Indeed, she’d hoped to be a teacher, but life had other plans. Now, five years away from a pension, she was thinking about moving to North Carolina, where her parents came from, maybe take some education courses, get a certification, work in pre-K. At this point, The Schry returned with the water as well as a bag of ersatz Cracker Jacks. Would Lazare mind if he offered me some? Why not? I gobbled the entire bag and life was as fine as it had been in the pen with Marco and Stefan and his pot. Once relations are established with cops or cons, everything changes.

Occasionally other police passed through and greeted Lazare. “How’s it going?” Once, I answered, “We’re having a party,” and The Schry hushed me because one wasn’t supposed to make little of the situation. He was willing to keep me company as long as I wanted him to, and I was allowed to remain in this privileged place as long as he was present. We gabbed for an hour, an hour and a half, about college admissions, the state of the Mideast. The signal we were waiting for was notification that I was “on the docket.” First, one’s paperwork must be complete, then it’s got to be placed on the docket, then one’s place on the docket must arise for a presentation in court before any decision can be made.

The party continued until we were interrupted by the entry of another prisoner. Like every new arrival, he was handcuffed, but he also had footcuffs linked by a horizontal metal bar, which he didn’t enjoy. He glared at the cops on either side of him, at Lazare, at The Schry and at me before he was shuffled toward the exit.

“What do you have to do to get those?” The Schry asked Lazare, drawing an imaginary metal bar in midair. We received a one-word answer. “Murder.”

As if he knew that we were talking about him, the man turned back in our direction. One of his eyes was darker than the other, though it was hard to tell because his skin was almost literally black. Later when I mentioned this, The Schry said, “Yeah, the cops could have popped him one,” though it was also possible that he’d been in a fight before he did whatever he did. But that was academic; I was concerned that the police took him off in the direction that I had come from. A moment earlier I had been ready to return to Stefan and the gang, but the idea that this man was going to be uncuffed and set in one of the pens, perhaps my pen, didn’t sit well, so we continued to make awkward conversation about everything under the sun for another half hour until it was obvious that I was delaying the inevitable.

“Schry?”

“Yes.”

“I should go. But there is one thing . . . ”

“What?”

“A pen.”

He’d done everything else by the book, asking permission for my water and Cracker Jacks like a schoolboy; this was a trespass. For the first time, he treated the system with disrespect as he angled his body between me and Lazare and slipped a ballpoint out of his breast pocket into my greedy hands. The pen was red, white, and blue and advertised his practice: 212-889-0686. Lazare went off duty for a few minutes and returned with the news that I was officially on the docket—if she put me there, bless her; oh, fuck, bless her anyway. We all said good-bye.

Another nap. Another peanut butter sandwich, another appearance of the janitor with a bucket and a desultory sanitary swab, another few encounters that I was once again able to chronicle on the square centimeters of blank paper left in my pocket.

One guy was making phone calls in the pen opposite my old crib, but he ran out of quarters. His friend across the corridor aimed to toss him a quarter. It clinked against the bars and bounced into the dead center of the seven- or eight-foot-wide hall, just out of arm’s reach of either of them. “Excuse me. Excuse me, would you please . . . ” he asked several policemen who walked by without responding. At first this seemed callous, yet jailhouse routine deadens everyone. The police have their roles, and sometimes they don’t play them easily.

When a cop left, he said to the others, “Everyone have a nice tour.” To repeat, we were not convicted, we had not even been charged, but we were subject to the majesty of the system that has evolved over time. Unlike most of my friends on the Upper West Side, I’ve never felt overly sympathetic toward prisoners’ rights because I’ve assumed that most prisoners, from Riker’s Island to Guantanamo, are guilty, yet I felt for the crack dealers and the falsely accused assaulters. On the other hand, I was certain that the man with the footcuffs (who was not in our pen) should not be released. Life is complicated.

Finally, around 8:30 p.m., Lazare, who had been shifted to the Central Desk with the same institutional irrationality as I had earlier been shifted from one pen to another, gave me the wink and my name was called along with 16 others. Several were in for “license,” which meant anything to do with a car, drunk driving, etc. These were the latecomers, and we who’d been there since dawn were the aristocracy. A policeman whom we hadn’t seen yet counted us at least half-a-dozen times, once before leaving the pen, once immediately outside the pen, once at the bottom of a stairwell, once at the top, twice more in the hallway. When someone asked him a question, he lost track and got testy. “I can count you, or I can answer your question. What’s it going to be?”

I was tempted to say, “Answer the question,” but he was on edge and we were presumably on our way out. The last room, obviously carved out of a space intended for other use, was larger and several times the height of any pen. It was irregularly shaped with alcoves behind corners. Those of us from the same pen stuck together. At one end of the big room were three enclosed cubicles with heavy plastic windows, like those at a bank, through which people could speak to their lawyers, mostly court-appointed.

When I was called to one of the windows, Stefan announced, “Melvin. Your man is here.” My man, Ed Sapone, had a small muscular wrestler’s body packed into a perfectly tailored suit. The first thing he said was, “I’ve got good news.”

“Yes?”

“I saved a ton of money on geico.”

“I’ve got good news, too,” I said.

“What?”

“If you weren’t on the other side of that thing, I’d throttle you.”

He got down to business and showed me the actual complaint. “Where did they lie?” he asked.

“Well it says obstruction here. Now maybe I was obstructive, but I failed to accomplish anything, so there couldn’t have been any obstruction.”

Ed Sapone, who later told me about the really bad people he usually represented, wasn’t interested in parts of speech and replied, “Let me do the talking.”

Marco was talking when I returned. He’d said this before, but he repeated it like a mantra. “They charge you with a felony and then you plead down to a misdemeanor.” Now I understood; he hoped this was true.

I sat down beside him. “Look man, when you come back, you’ve got to present yourself. I want you to lose the scruff and this windbreaker and get yourself a suit.”

“I just want to get out.”

“I know.”

Sympathy turned him gruff. “But I’m gonna meet Mr. Fridge when I get home. Have a spliff and see my woman.”

Except for the spliff, I had similar thoughts. Luxury consists of a clean toilet, a hot shower, a full refrigerator, and a soft mattress.

“Bukiet, Melvin!” shouted a guard with a clipboard.

Before leaving, I had to say good-bye in the native language: to Stefan a last hand slap, to Marco a clenched fist. Be strong.

On the other side of the wall lay a bright open courtroom with clean wooden benches, good lighting, and my lawyer. In moments I would be released on my own recognizance, and the case would eventually, thanks to the brilliant intervention of Ed Sapone, be lessened to a violation by assistant district attorneys who had better things to do than prosecute a loudmouthed writer. What better things did they have to do? Narcotics laws have always seemed idiotic to the libertarian in me, yet I’d never met anyone who might spend eight years, less if he pled down, in an environment like this for breaking those laws. Marco acted tough, but he was a child. Eight years from now, he’d be a man. If junior high school and high school—if he’d gone—brought him to this place, where would he land after eight years in Attica?

And Stefan, Mr. Resilience, I never did find out what his crime was, but approximately 20 years earlier he’d committed the original sin of being born into a world destined to lead to the Tombs. Affirmative action has always seemed intrinsically wrong to me, but the lack of options for Stefan and Marco is horrifying. I’m not saying they’re geniuses and I’m not saying they’re angels, but they’ve got zero chance in life. Would it hurt to give them a pair of glasses and a Penguin paperback of Bartleby? Who would suffer and who would benefit?

If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, then maybe a liberal is a neocon who’s spent a night in the system.


Melvin Jules Bukiet is a novelist and professor at Sarah Lawrence College.


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