The Sunday Rumpus Essay: The Right to Remain
May 5, 2005, Houston Southeast City Jail.
The blankets are “at laundry,” the guards say. Some of the other inmates grouse at the news. “Like we just fuckin animals,” one girl says and then slams the fleshy side of her fist into the Plexiglas opposite the guard picket, leaving a sweaty hologram like one of those baby feet prints Josh and I used to make on the inside of Dad’s frosted hatchback. I am tempted to walk over and dot five little toes in an arc over the print before it fades, and the thought forms a sad lozenge in my throat. The guards ignore us, but it’s a studied nonchalance, sadistic and mirthful.
“Shhhhhhh!” I scream inside, thinking it can’t be good to piss them off, better to be sycophantically polite. I am so white.
We are in a communal holding cell, where about fifty of us sit at a cafeteria table in front of our middle-of-the-night breakfast trays. We are in mini-skirts and stretchy knits, in soiled jeans and Goodwill t-shirts: we are bloodied, stricken, wigs akimbo—all of our night-filth naked to florescence. The table is god’s waiting room: here we sit together, passing stories and powdered eggs. The meaty part of my upper arm oozes blood from a two-inch gash, what will later be the one physical scar I sustain, and my thighs and knees ache from the crash, the blood now a dark syrup that stiffens my jeans. From my tray, I drink thick fruit punch from a disposable cup with a foiled lid, but avoid the pale spitballs of scrambled eggs. A lanky black girl, who reminds me of Big Bird with her fried blonde-turned-yellow hair and her huge Muppet hands, asks what happened.
“I dunno,” I offer. “Car accident,” I say, then tell her I was arrested for drunk driving.
“No shit,” she says. “Hope you didn’t kill no one.”
If only I knew. If only I could figure out that central thing that drove me here. These reckonings always squared me against the larger thing, where for a moment I would be alone, repentant, promising to do better, only to squirm away again. If only I could figure out the thing first. Practically speaking, I drove me here. Yes. In a jeep. And then the police drove me here, here, from the crash. But what ugliness or wrongness compelled me to these ever worse troubles, these ever more dangerous waters? Was I testing, looking for further proof? The dark thing that gnawed me from my marrow. I wanted its name.
I do not remember my first drink: it was either a Fuzzy Navel in my best friend’s laundry room, or it was a White Russian in my parents’ kitchen. It doesn’t matter, but the accounting is compulsive, a futile effort to control the thing. I can’t remember how many I had before the crash. I lost count, but I gave the cop a number. I can’t now remember the number. Reasonable might have been two or three, but if two or three was the number I gave, it was a lie. I never have just two or three anymore. I have to stop drinking, I know this, but I push the thought away.
I should be transported to County any minute now—where I will stay today, tonight, the next, forever, who-the-fuck-knows-how-long, my future like a horizon that unravels in my body. I sit with my back to the guards and facing my fellow arrestees, across from a chubby blonde who keeps burping-up on herself after some fascinating head lolling; the rest of us watch her—partly out of boredom, partly to duck projectiles. I’ve seen a lot of drunkenness as a bartender, but never someone quite so possessed, never someone quite so committed to being an absolute mess, and yet, I watch her as much with recognition as horror. I know this head-wagging, barfy, lilting nonsense state of oblivion. This is the place I set out to nearly every time I drink in recent memory. Off to oblivion, I imagine myself announcing at some portal of insanity; see you if I get back! It’s just cheap comfort, but comfort nonetheless, to laugh as others taunt her, to partake of the schadenfreude that provides false distance from the self. I might be a little bruised and bloodied, but at least I’m not covered in puke.
I am from a quote-unquote good middle-class family, which is to say that I am a white, college-educated woman with access to the privilege of my packaging, including the expectation that I would never see the inside of a jail. On paper, I am a Polish/ English/ Irish/ Catholic girl from Chicago and Phoenix and Texas, but mainly from New Hampshire. I moved to Houston where my younger brother, Josh, goes to college last year with a vague idea that together we would beat our mutual malaise. Our rescue plan didn’t go very far: we thought we might get an apartment on Richmond Avenue and watch Beverly Hills Cop and Planes, Trains and Automobiles and recite the words to each other like childhood koans, and everything would get better, as if by sibling-bonded osmosis. But by the time I arrive, I am waist-deep in champagne and tequila and unable to leave its vapors, and Josh toes around the edges, shiftless and bored. I am still working in the bar biz, as I have done for the last eight years since college, but “At least I’m a manager!” I tell myself, “And I’m writing!” (Never mind that it’s just a hucksterish wine marketing newsletter.)
Alcohol encircled me subtly and, at first, slowly. Busy with sports and grades and the college prep rat race, I didn’t bother much with drinking in high school, nor in college, where I was busy trying to get that one Tom Waits character in my English class (for there was always one) to look my way. I did not have the early, stomach-pumping alcoholic experience that many of my fellows in recovery now point to with hindsight clarity.
I started drinking in earnest when I moved to San Francisco a couple of years after college in 1999. Primed by a strange admixture of Rat Pack movies, pulp fiction and too much Didion and 1980s Vogue magazine, I was easy prey for San Francisco’s moody stylishness.
I got a job as a cocktail waitress at a velvety hotel lounge, around the corner from some or other filming location of The Maltese Falcon, where I balanced silver trays overhead and played the role of wry and mysterious bon vivant. The lounge hired only girls with a certain look, and this heady knowledge carried me off to a place of ego from which there was no easy return. I began to drink Fernet Branca, champagne, pricey tequila, and aperitifs and digestifs that I’d only ever seen people drink in old movies. I was 24, and insufferable. While I see this headiness now as an optimism reserved for the young, I see it also as a kind of privilege, for unconsciousness is privilege.
Part of the headiness, too, came from the belief that nothing was real or permanent, that everything could be undone or redone or begun again. While traveling in pretty packs with my coworkers from bar to bar after work or flying off to Vegas with them because someone knew someone who knew someone who would comp our whole weekend, I knew I didn’t belong to this world. Perhaps our entrée was just a collapsed time wave, and none of us belonged. Whatever stardust or magic propelled me then, I still remember these years both fondly and sheepishly, as a time when I fell through a portal to a place seemingly without consequences.
It feels like days have passed, but I realize it’s more like an hour or two as I catch a glimpse of the outside world when the sally port doors rise to let in a paddy wagon of what the more seasoned women call “new fish.” The light looks pre-dawn, blue limning the black edges of night. We’re still waiting for the county bus, this motley assemblage of women, and we are growing antsy and cold, the air conditioner unit blasting like a jet engine. At my end of the table, there’s a white office-type a few years older than I, who looks at me sympathetically; she has dishwater hair and wears a cardigan twinset. There’s the burpy blonde in her early 20s who wears heavy maroon lip liner and pale gloss like the Puerto Ricans I knew in high school. There’s Big Bird, and there’s me—barefoot, blood seeping through the thighs of my jeans, with a stretchy brown dress pulled over them to the knees in a way that seemed cute when I got ready for work earlier, but which now seems ridiculous, itself a cause for arrest.
In memory, the other inmates are a blur of light-skinned and dark-skinned faces, mostly black or brown. I want to say the other white women made an impression on me because we looked so out of place by comparison, because I felt conspicuously white, my skin on fire with its whiteness. I want to say that I wasn’t drawn to them for kinship, yet it troubles me now why I should remember the white ones more clearly. But memory has its own story to tell, and this is in part the story of the beginning of my education, my other education.
I run through a panicked inventory of what I remember from earlier in the night: I crashed my jeep. IcrashedmyjeepohfuckIcrashedmyjeep. Don’t remember how I got to the pulsating intersection about a mile down the feeder road from the Tasting Room where I work.
I came to while standing barefoot on one leg in Yia Yia Mary’s Greek Kitchen parking lot. A full-bloom accident scene—multiple crashed cars, at least three cruisers, lights swinging, the caterwauling crackle of radios breaking in and out, and voices bouncing all around me. A DWI task-force SUV was parked, while black-clad officers shone their flashlights all around the jeep. The traffic backed up in a smear of headlights down San Felipe Street. My face felt hot. I must have been drinking at work, as usual (maybe corked wine from the mug I have hidden in the work kitchen?). I must have left before the end of my shift.
Next I was in the rear of the cruiser, my arms pressed together and hands clenched in a fist behind my back, playing a version of the old daisy game. I knew. I didn’t know. I knew. Later, the arrest report and the statutory warning, which is made upon refusal of an alcohol breath test, would fill in other details, including that four cars were involved. It was a “Major Auto—A-A-A-A,” which occurred at 10:50 p.m. The first three officers were dispatched at 11:05. Not long after arriving on scene, they asked for a DWI task force, who arrived and performed a field sobriety test. Parts of this I remember (for example, my jeans rolled up like Huck Finn). At some point, it is also noted, an off-duty officer, one identified only as T. Ha “made the scene.” The crash occurred at 1800 West Loop South and San Felipe, the weather conditions were clear with some clouds, and the roadway was dry. I was arrested at 11:57 p.m.
Sitting in the cruiser, I knew very little, other than that it was bad, the worst reckoning yet. Too much to hold in my body at once. I felt like one of those Whack-a-mole arcade games. As soon as I had stuffed down one unknowable truth, ghoulish and taunting, another leapt from its sadistic cabinet. All of what I worked so hard to contain around my drinking—its central ugliness, the lies and self-feints, the clanging empties and cigarette burns, the swallowed pills and stomach pumpings—sprang up around me.
In one depression of the gas pedal (Had I pressed it down hard, to the floor, and held my breath? Hadn’t I?), every single thread came undone. My private mess was rendered public, splayed out at the intersection of San Felipe and the West Loop. This time I had made victims and carnage. And if the people in these other cars, three other cars containing an as yet unknown number of people, were victims, what did that make me?
As Officer S.W. Pierce wrote on a clipboard from the front seat, I put my knees up on the Plexiglas partition and slumped back in my seat, letting my head fall upon the window. The lights went around all helter-skelter, orbs of blue and white lurching at my eyes and head, then circling away and lurching again. I didn’t cry, not then. I didn’t try, but I knew I couldn’t have opened the door from the inside.
I raised my head and asked the question that made it heavy. How were the other people in the accident? He didn’t respond at first.
“Are they okay?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “That lady is going to the hospital.”
There were years, too, that followed my initial and relative innocence in San Francisco when drinking was no longer fun, but it was habit. While my old friends moved on, I stayed at the bars, where I made new friends every night, or afternoon, or whenever. And when I wore out those places, I moved.
The “geography cure,” I would learn later, was a popular remedy among drunks as it often pre-empted the falling hammer of consequence. And here again, I thought I had been unique—romantic, special, coursing with wanderlust and a keen appetite for the sensual world. The geography cure allowed you to outrun loss, leave before wearing out your welcome, start fresh, have a do-over. From age 21 to 28, I bopped from New England to North Carolina and back to New England and to San Francisco and back to New England before Houston at nearly 30. This was how I had ended up here, with my brother, Josh, and our sad non-plan.
“I have to stop,” I think, but more as a question, and this truth yanks me from my inventory. Some women down the table trade arrest stories with seasoned bravado. One in particular, a white, weathered old bird with fanned, feathered hair conjures Aileen Wuornos. Still finishing the trays she’s asked for and piled up around her, she shows more interest in my powdered eggs than in my personal drama. I pass her the eggs, but keep the little hunk of cornbread I’ve been picking at for hours. Most of my fellow inmates arrived here this morning by way of drug charges, public intoxications or prostitution. It occurs to me this would all be surreal if it wasn’t actually happening.
I am unable to summon what my friend Ellen calls a writer’s critical distance, a phenomenon of observation that affords one an aisle seat in life. Surreality, irony; these rhetorical lenses will prove to be past-life luxuries, skins of a former self. Tonight, I am scrubbed down to my ugly core. The acuity runs too high: that lady howling coyote-like and one over there trying to take a dump in the toilet while talking on the pay phone. One woman talks about having been “shanked up in county,” and I have the presence of mind not to ask her what this means. I may be green, but I’m also at least half-New Englander, which means that stoicism was part of my early childhood training.
I’ve been here a few hours by the time I notice a list of phone numbers taped to the glass wall that stands between me and freedom. I’ve already tried my brother from the one sticky payphone, to no avail. As it turns out, mobile numbers cannot be dialed collect. I realize that I don’t know many numbers by heart anymore. Plus, the characters I know these days are good only as drinking buddies; they aren’t the types with connected cell service much less home telephones, much less the ability to make bail.
The two home numbers I can remember, in fact, are my own childhood phone number and my best friend’s old number. Strangers live in our old houses now at 5 and 7 Carlene Drive, respectively, in Nashua, New Hampshire, but for a moment I imagine myself dialing 603-881-7574. My Dad answers from our little fiberboard kitchen; he’s angry, and he makes the sucking fish face that he wears when he’s mad, but then he comes to pick me up, and I know that he will fix everything.
After trying a few numbers from the list, I get through to one of the bail bonds offices, and a nice man takes down my information and promises to call the numbers I give him: my brother Josh and my mother, in that order. While the bondsman has me on hold, I mouth-whisper a few inadequate prayers. Please. Please. Please. Oh god, please be okay. Please tell me no one else is hurt. I can’t form the word “dead,” not with my mouth, nor in my mind.
Later, I’d find out that the bondsman got through to my brother sometime during the middle of the night. Josh thanked the bondsman, but said he wanted to use another guy, his guy. My brother is a loveable hustler, so it didn’t surprise me to learn that he had used his petty marijuana arrest from a few months before to develop a “relationship” with this other bondsman. Of course Josh knew this guy’s personal cell number, this Rodney Tompkins, owner of Am-Mex Bail Bonds. Of course Rodney would bond me out that night without payment up front. He allowed us to bring by the money the following morning, or once I got out of jail.
After making the call, I look for Big Bird. She’s moved into one of the adjoining cells with bunks, and she waves me over. “Get a top one,” she says. “No one will fuss with you up top.” I climb into the bunk opposite hers.
“You think this is bad, County a dog pound,” Big Bird tells me. “I just know I’m fixin a be transferred over any minute. Ain’t no one gonna bond me out. I bet you got people, you look like you got people.” I nod. I have people. I had always had people.
When I didn’t make the crappy, B-team basketball cheerleading squad in 8th grade, I called Dad and gurgled my naked rejection into a pay phone by the school’s loading dock. A few minutes later his tan Datsun appeared, and I began to sob. “Get in,” Dad said, and then he instinctively took the long way around the parking lot, avoiding the gymnasium entrance and ball fields, until we had made a clean getaway.
On a trip many years later, when an Italian waiter put his mouth on me in an apartment swirling with children’s toys and my protestations, I used another pay phone. Dad said go to the embassy. He said the Marines will be there by the entrance. They will take care of you. You will be okay. You have people.
After another hour or so, a small group of us is herded out and led into a tiny office where we have to sit until we are called up to give our information to a lady through a grated window—full name, nickname, aliases, “where we stay at,” height, weight, race, eye color, birthplace, occupation, tattoos, mental illness, prescriptions, priors, medical conditions, and whether or not we are wearing our real hair.
“Chicago,” the lady exclaims. “You a long way from home.”
“Well, see, I live here now; I only lived there when I was a baby.” I say, anxious to engage.
“Occupation?” she barks, without raising her eyes.
“Bar manager.” I leave off wine, as it now seems supercilious.
“Yes.” We are in a nice rhythm now.
“Well?” she asks looking at me impatiently. “What are they?”
“Oh, yes, okay. Well, there’s a little star on my hip and …”
“Colored or black?” She demands, annunciating slowly, and lifting her head as if in great labor, to look at me.
“And the other is like this drawing I did of a lady with her head down and a waxing moon coming up over her shoulder.”
Another wearied expression, this one just slightly bemused. “Say what?”
“It looks like a dolphin, you can just put down dolphin,” I tell her, remembering the time Dad first saw it poking out of the top of my bikini when I was home from college. “A dolphin on your arse,” he had observed, never mentioning it again.
“Well, now I have to see this,” she says, motioning for me to stand up.
I stand up, face away from her, and hoist my dress to my waistband. I unbutton my jeans, aware that all the other women are eyeing me. I hook my thumbs into my jeans and panties, pull them both halfway down my butt, and let her take a look.
“Well, I don’t know what that is,” she says and calls over another officer. I hear them talking behind me.
“Whatcha call that? I have here dolphin.”
The other lady agrees that dolphin is close enough, and I am allowed to sit back down. The Q and A goes on for a few more minutes before I am called out of the little room by another officer who pokes in her head and hollers.
I check my number on my paperwork, like this is a game of bingo.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Well, come on, then,” she says. My heart crashes in my chest and ears.
“Where are we going?” I ask her when we get into the hallway.
“You bonded out,” she says, “you goin’ home.” I hear HOME. A delicious place of warm socks, hot food, hot tears, a bed.
I am instructed to sit in the hallway, while she goes into another office. I watch her through the glass as she hums to herself, typing on keys, then pulls out a little metal tray. She’s singing now and wags her body side to side as she waits for the printer:
“You should let me love you. Let me be the one to give you…everything you want and need. Baby, good love and protection. Make me your selection. Show you the way love’s supposed to be.” It’s the Mario song that’s blowing up the charts, and I start to whisper-sing along,
“Baby, you should let me love you, love you, love you.” She emerges with a little baggie and some forms.
“Here’s your paperwork and your property,” she says, handing me the loose contents of my purse and leading me down a long hallway to a door that looks like a submarine hatch. She pops it open and holds the door for me to walk through. I am blasted by sun and heat.
“Go home,” she says. “And don’t come back.”
I give her a nod and see Josh leaning against the hood of his Corolla, smoking a cigarette. He cocks his head to the side, “Hey, sis.”
I walk over and hug him, still humming that tune in my head. I have people.
I wish I could say that I kept the vow I made to stop drinking that first night in jail; I did mean it in the moment, or at least I meant to mean it. I managed only a month after my arrest without drinking. I wish I could say that quitting for good seemed an obvious conclusion after learning that I had struck three other cars in the crash and sent the woman to surgery for a broken leg—two days before her wedding, which meant that instead of walking her down the aisle, her father wheeled her down the aisle. I wish I could say that getting charged with felony Intoxication Assault, which carried a sentence of two to 10 years in prison, scared me “straight” immediately as if in an afterschool special, or that I could see plainly that there was only one variable left to change. Of course, I knew the name of that dark thing that gnawed me from my marrow after all, but alcoholism is not a word one can retreat from.
Months after the crash, I went to rehab, and a year after that, I finally went to County, where I served two months. Not two to 10 years, but two months. Such is the arithmetic of having people: my lawyer who enlisted the help of a great trial lawyer who helped us win a misdemeanor conviction, rather than a felony; family, friends, coworkers, and people I didn’t even know rooting for me, watching out for me, helping, presuming my innocence, or simply looking at me differently because white girls with nice teeth and college degrees and sling-back pumps didn’t go to jail much in America, let alone in Houston, Texas.
Exactly nine months after my arrest, one of those people—a man named Keith whom I’d fallen in love with—steadied me through my last blackout, cleaned me up, dressed me, and in the morning told me softly, “You need help.”
No one had ever said it so plainly.
Finally cornered by years of evasions, I stopped scrambling, and everything went quiet. Everything fell away but a peculiar awareness of something new. The four sides of the box I’d pinned myself in collapsed into one vast plane, and for the first time I saw everything clearly.