Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Tombs

Everyone’s heard of the tombs. These are the cells underneath the criminal courts on Centre Street downtown. When you are just visiting or facing a date, you go in front, when you are brought against your will by the Blues you go in the back. There’s a little street by the park where the Chinese do their slow motion dance. The cells are underground, clammy and infested, not just with bugs and slime but with the busted dreams and bad life karma of all those that have come before.

They have always been there, dating back to the beginnings of New Amsterdam and evoke dungeons, torture and other things that really suck to be a part of. And of course they are called that because you can get lost down there, forever. They are also a transporter terminal to Rikers and upstate where the North American police state stores its disappeared.

For us none of it was that serious. It gave us a chance to talk and act tough, to feel a part of the life the dealer immigrants lived everyday. For us the Tombs were like an annex to our neighborhood. It took about twenty minutes to walk home when you were released and it was even quicker to get there, handcuffed in a police car or with some other poor souls in a paddywagon.

All of us on the street were picked up in sweeps eventually, usually to be sprung in a matter of hours, over the weekend was a bummer. Or a skid bid like mine, at most 30 days. Anything more and you were sent to the island or upstate. But that didn’t happen to many of us, unless we went hardcore or hurt somebody. Upstate was for the dealers, for the blacks and Latinos, we were mostly white kids out in the life on a pass. It could turn serious on a dime, though and the thing about jail is that when you’re locked in there, life goes on outside.

You talked to the men in your pod of cells, never having a clear idea how many of them there were. You made a buddy or two, mine was called Tyrone. One night he asked me what I was doing and I don’t know why I told him:

“I’m looking for my grandfather.”

“Oh yeah, is he still around?”

“He was last seen on the Bowery or in Times Square.”

“You saw him?”

“I checked with the Veterans Administration.”

“He was an army man?”

“That’s right.”

Tyrone had kids he was thrown out on by three different women and a father of his own that he had only seen once getting into a taxi.

"That’s your father,” his mama said. Tyrone looked good and hard. He expected more, maybe an introduction but his mama just stared.

“Longer and harder than me,” he said. “Biting her lip.”

“The fact is my grandfather’s probably dead.”

“You never know, man.”

“He’s my great great grandfather.”

“So you’re looking for a ghost?”


“That makes it harder.”

Bless his heart he said it as casually as you would put on your shoes to go outside. Jail was good for that. People had nothing better to do than listen, nowhere to go and nothing to burn but time.

“But why you looking for him?”

“He was the last man in my family to go down as far as me.”

“I only wish I could say that,” Tyrone said and he laughed. We all laughed as much as we could in there, it was a veritable laugh fest.

When I caught my breath, I told Tyrone something else. “I used to look at so & so and think he’s worse than me. All of them. Dozens I can think of.”

“And none of 'em done what you have.”

“How did you know?”

“That’s what we call looking in the mirror."

We laughed and all the others joined in because you know laughter’s infectious and the sound of us echoed in the cells long after we were gone to some place else to live, play, love, suffer and die.

Our cells were six feet wide and eight feet long. There were bars just like in the old west that clanged shut. The painted cement walls sweated whether the heat was on or not. Usually it wasn’t. You could see your breath when you talked or breathed and the cold was something you had to get used to. Blankets were something you might find crumpled in the corner and stained that you reached for desperately in the dark.

Tyrone was looking for his family too, as we all were, whether we admitted it or not, the idea that life was going on very well without us is like the weather in jail. We didn’t have windows but the voices of our brothers, children and wives found a way into our cells and sat down beside us, lived in our heads, took forms of life we never knew existed, something like daydreams that have sensory weight like a smell or a fear or something gaseous that you can taste in your saliva when you breathe, that pressures the eardrums and prickles the skin.

Most of all we lived with the knowledge that there was absolutely nothing we could do to effect whatever was going on out there. We could not stop our wives from taking solace in some other dude’s arms, our kids from throwing that rock through the window or soften our father’s shame or mother’s lament. All that was real, it was happening just beyond our grasp but we could not touch it. And that makes a man really angry, whether he gets with it or not.

So you exercise, pushups and sit-ups, running in place, miles from nowhere and you pound things or lash out and find yourself twisted into positions you never knew were possible. Because all of us we only know a tiny fraction of what is possible to withstand.

Just ask Donny J. or any of the others who told their stories.

Donny broadcasted in a laughing voice that fooled no one that night, his voice at once as sharp as a knife and fleeting as the dream just before you awake. He was a low level coke dealer, paranoid enough to bury his stash in the backyard plot behind his tenement building on Pitt Street facing the projects. His wife was eight months pregnant. On his birthday he dug up the coke and his wife cooked his favorite, spaghetti with red clam sauce.

He heard the banging on the door as he was snorting his second line. He did the third and stood up as the door bust open. A cop put a gun to his wife’s head.

“Where the fuck is it?” he demanded.

His wife went into labor. He saw the ambulance coming down the street as the squad car took him away. From the first phone call he learned of the complications, from the second of a collapsed lung, from the third that the motherfucking doctor put the hose in the wrong way, collapsed the other lung and the baby died. Donny didn’t even know the sex, whether in its short life it was Donny Jr. or Elizabeth after his wife’s grandmother.

Shackled, wearing an orange suit, the muscles in his face constricted by shame, he tried to convey how he felt to his wife. It was the last time he had seen her. The last time he would if she knew better. We did, now, anyway.

We knew that everything that happened was our fault. This is what jail taught you, if you were paying attention, or even if you weren’t. Even someone like me who thought it was all happening to make a great book one day, I realized that my sweet young pretty wife had lost her husband, that the stress that caused the outbreak of her epilepsy was no accident. I was the driving wheel. And I had a life too I was missing.

One thing that was true was that I did not get high in there. Others did, but I had no money and nothing to trade. You could bum cigarettes, for awhile, but nothing more. When I got out I was clean. I walked through the brightly colored Chinatown night on a Saturday straight to the Narcotics Anonymous meeting on 2nd Avenue at 2nd St. For the first time it meant something to me. For a little while anyway.

An oldtimer shared about how hard it was for junkies in the old days. How they had to carry identification so if the cops rolled up on them in the street and found two or more together they were arrested.

“This is a meeting of addicts who have found a better way,” he said. That they were really clean was something I could never believe before.

I raised my hand and told them what had happened to me. I got phone numbers, a meal and even the offer of a place to live. I wish I could say that I never used drugs again after that. Well, to be honest, that’s a lie, because I still wanted to get high. And I would because I was too scared to try anything else plus it was still sweet and compelling to me. Like a bad girlfriend.


"Jail House Blues" mp3
by Lightnin' Hopkins, 1950.
available on Classic Sides: 1946-1951

"Fish In The Jailhouse" mp3
by Tom Waits, 2006.
available on Orphans, Brawlers & Bastards

"30 Days In The Hole" mp3
by Humble Pie, 1972.
available on Smokin'

top photograph: © Ted Barron
Southside Doorway, Brooklyn, New York, 1996.
(click on image to enlarge)


Wardens World said...

Sounds like you were Scared Straight by the jail time, yet somehow it still took just a little longer to sink in. Wonder why that is...

Mike said...

Yeah. You never consider what your behavior is doing to the people you love. That's a hard damn thing when you get sober & realize. I know.
Thanks for sharing.
Oh, & hope your gig went well.