Wednesday, May 16, 2007

My Weekend in Val Verde County Jail: Part II - Who Knew Fruit Loops Were Legal Tender?

Sheriff's Deputy 2: "Follow him… have fun ladies."

An inmate of Hispanic descent appears before us wearing a white jump suit with "TRUSTEE" stenciled across the back.

Trustee: [yelling above the dissonant chords of whoops and whistles] "Vamanos, vamanos"

We stepped from the holding area into an extended corridor which curved out of sight 40 feet down the hall. Flanking the central thoroughfare were plexi-glass walls checked with inlaid wire for reinforcing strength. The contents of the area behind each wall were obstructed by our gentlemen-callers, standing at attention to receive our arrival.

"Fishee fishee fisheeee... You're gonna like it here, new fish. A whooole lot...Make you wish your daddies and mommies never bumped uglies... You takin' this down, college boy? Gonna be a quiz later. Fishee fishee fisheeee..."

The cacophony of cat calls would have made Stephen Hawking out run Carl Lewis.

Me: [noticing, in my periphery, an inmate with a salacious grin sizing up my best friend and his testicles] "Josh, I swear to God if somebody tries to get to you I'll shove this toothbrush so far into their eye they'll quiver 'til their buried."

Josh: "Right on man."

We are led by Trustee through the horse-shoe cell block. We arrive to find our new home in a state of relative calm. No wall of inhumanity wagering on our fortitude. No disease riddled playthings exposing themselves. Trustee motions to an elevated guard and the door in front of us opens.

As it does I scan from left to right and observe a simple, half empty, 50 x 50 square room of 24 free-standing bunk beds, concrete tables with fixed benches, and what appeared to be a 7 foot high pyramid of industrial supply toilet paper. I consider the peculiarity of the single-ply stockpile and allow my mind to recall other places I may have seen such a collection…

Me: [to self] "High school bathroom? No. College dorm? No. Hospit… Wait, hospital… that's what this place reminds me of… it's like somebody knocked down the walls to like 20 hospital rooms and everybody just wants to lie down… except him, the guy who is sitting up, damn… dude is huge… wait, is dude is looking at us? No eye contact Dave, Discovery Channel said no eye contact, no disrespect… I love the Discovery Channel, so informative… it's in my top 5 channels with Food Network, ESPN, PBS and The History Chan… F%$&!"

It is my experience that precious few things can reel in a tangential thought and streams of consciousness more quickly, more completely than seeing a large tattooed Mexican who has just been stirred from sleep, beckoning for you lay next to him.

Josh: "Dave, that dude is patting the bunk next to him."

Me: "I know. Locked jaw man. Don't react."

Josh: [as stone-faced as humanly possible] "I'm not. I'm just trying to figure out how I could talk him into preferring you over me."

Josh has a Sub-Saharan sense of humor. How he was able to maintain it in a time like this is beyond me.

Psychotic break? Possibly. Adrenaline intoxication? Not unheard of. Rationalizing that I was the reason he was here and therefor dead to him? Most likely.

All I know is that his humor fell on deaf ears.

Trustee: "Go, go. Do what he say."

Me: "Bull. Shit."

Trustee: "No. No. Ok. Ok."

Damn the language barrier… damn it to an eternity of hell.

Me: "No. No. What? Ok. Ok. What?"

Trustee: "Angel trustee."

From this broken exchange I gleaned that the man wishing for us to rest next to him was 1) named Angel… assumingly for the product he was most adept at smuggling and 2) he had been designated a "Trustee" and, presumably, would not do anything to jeopardize that designation for a nice (read as "new/virgin") piece of ass.

Think on that folks. Number 2 is a big f%$&ing presumption.

That said, I knew from watching prison exposes on the Discovery Channel and A&E that showing the slightest sign of disrespect could make things run afoul quicker than… than… than something that is really super quick.

As such, I walk towards Angel, jaw set and arms flexed, readying my toothbrush underneath the fold of my mattress.

Angel: [pointing to the bunk next to his] "Aqui. Aqui. Here. You been here before? You know how dis works?"

Have you ever said something, the tortured reminiscence of which sends you into cardiac arrest? Where just a millisecond of the memory instantaneously makes you contemplate guzzling Drano? I have one or two of these recollections. They occasionally organize themselves into stealthy sneak-attacks like so many ninjas.

I'll be having a pleasant conversation with a friend about a random subject (say, the deliciousness of butternut squash soup), and something my friend says will set off a reaction of brain cells that will unlock a Vietnam-Vet styled PTSD flashback of embarrassment which will, in turn, make me spasm and shout "OH SHIT!" like a tourettes victim. My startled friend will look up from his tablespoon of creamy bisque and say, "What the hell just happened?" I will timidly respond, "Oh...nothing."

My response to Angel is one such memory.

Did I recognize that I was possibly the freshest fish to ever darken the doorstep of Val Verde County Jail? Did I assume that Angel had a cognitive functioning higher than that of coppice stone moss and could see through transparent bravado?

No. I did not.

My response?

Me: "Haven't been here before. But I know how it works."

Shoot. Me. Uggghhhhhhhhh.

Seriously, on the Unintentional Comedy Scale, an upper middle class, honors student of a private, Church of Christ affiliated university telling a hardened Mexican felon awaiting his arraignment for trafficking meth that he was familiar with life on the "inside" in hopes of somehow intimidating himself out of an anal raping has to rank safely in the upper echelon… somewhere between "David Silver singing 'Keep It Together on '90210'" (97) and "Mullets" (99).

Luckily, smuggling a drug that is essentially asthma medicine boiled in kerosene doesn't require one to have all their tacos on their combination plate.

Angel: "Asi. Asi. Trustee come at seex. [pointing to Josh] You sweep. [pointing to me] You mop. Free times a day until next gringo comes, si?"

Me: [nodding nonchalantly yet wondering if it is only the white guys who sweep and mop, contemplating a potential injustice] "yeah, si."

Angel: "Desayuno at seex-turdy. When you brush teef [pointing to sink], you dry up [pointing to mound of toilet paper]. When you wash hands [pointing to sink], you dry up [again pointing to toilet paper]. We have muy muy. You put anyteng on de floor, you use muy muy to dry up. Clean, clean. Si?"

Me: [Utterly shocked and completely pleased at this Mexican's attention to personal and environmental hygiene] "Si. Si."

Angel: [laying back down] "a few weeks, you will be Trustee and everteng is cool."

Josh: "Gracias."

Angel: "De nada."

I know beyond a shadow of doubt that I did not sleep so much as a wink on the ninth night of December, 1999. Up until that point in my life I had only one occasion to know the meaning of the word "hypersensitive". That occasion was as a freshman in high school as myself and Jarrod Gaston had returned to the high school field house in the late evening from a baseball tournament. My mother was late picking us up and in the middle of taking an absolutely prodigious dump on the hood of Stone Scoggin's Jeep, the choir room alarm decided to summon local police.

Seriously folks, if you went to high school with me you know he totally deserved it… he used to walk around singing "Stone Daaaaawggi Daaaaawg…" to the tune Snoop's "What's My Name" for shit's sake… but, God love 'em, that was our Stone.

I can honestly say that running from officers of the law, wind pants around your ankles, hoping you haven't shat yourself too bad as you find refuge in the bushes of a Plum Street alley isn't even in the same "Dear God, please let nobody notice me" universe as trying to telekinetically melt yourself into the mattress on your first night in a border-town jail.

[Familar voice from the bunk above]: "Dude..."

Me: "I know… I know."

Morning arrives.

How could one tell you might ask? Was the dawn of a new day announced by Edvard Grieg's "Morning"? Rossini's "Ranz Des Vaches"? Au contraire... I woulda been just peachy had it been friggin Reveille, but no no... what else could call to order those in Val Verde County Jail other than the music of Lucifer himself...

A mere 4 hours prior Angel mentioned in passing that I could potentially rise to the level of "Trustee" in a scant 3 weeks time. To this day I am unaware of the specific requirements in place to earn such a title. Though, I can state with relative certainty that never has a "Trustee" been made of an inmate who has done something as seemingly psychotic and irrational as gouging out his own ear drums.

In that first, stirring moment of the new day, I would have been pleased to die.

I should say however that I was pleased to see that my friend Josh and I had been placed in what appeared to be the Val Verde County Kiddy Pool. Clearly posing no threat to the processing deputies, they had seen fit to place us in a cell with a dozen or so Mexican inmates primarily of ages 15-17 and 63-67… presumably arrested for stealing a car stereo or vagrancy and unable to post bail.

Asserting that Josh and I were for all intents and purposes tied for 2nd place as the "most physically imposing inmate", I began to feel a little better about the prospects of the both of us leaving this experience without having to hear a medical doctor utter the words "ruptured sphincter".

I designate Angel as the alpha male and decide I must first and foremost firmly entrench myself in his good graces.

Trustee enters the room with push broom and mop. As I rise I notice my friend Josh climbing down from the top bunk my friend Josh's ginormous testicles swaying in the stale air.

Me: "Dude, seriously… I should have let you have the bottom bunk."

Josh: "Naw man, it's cool… I really think that Angel dude thinks you spent puberty in Juvie instead of Pettyjohn Springs Christian Camp. You need to stay down there and apply some heat."

Me: "Seriously, something's gotta give with you scrote'n it all over the place… you wanna trade pants? I got drawr's on."

Josh: "Dave, give me one good reason for being naked from the waist down at this time, in this place."

Me: "F$%# you man, I'm trying to help."

Josh: [whispering, and sternly so] "If you wanna help, follow me with that mop and make sure you don't miss a single square inch. I don't wanna find out how the only O/CD beaner in history reacts when somebody f$%#s up his house."

We complete our duties and return to our beds, being careful to not so much as fart without witnessing a more established resident do so first in order to establish the accepted protocol.

As we observe, Angel addresses us.

Angel: "Gringos, gringos… floor.. good… bueno, bueno."

Josh: "Gracias."

Trustee returns to the door with a cart resembling those used by flight attendants and begins passing trays of breakfast through a slit in the window. Josh and I assume our rightful positions in the back of the line and wait.

I was surprised to learn that, evidently, Val Verde County Jail contracts with the same food supplier as Durant Independent School District. I had had this meal before… sausage links wrapped in syrup infused flap-jacks… apple sauce… and not one but two single serving, hermetically sealed bowls of Kellogg cereal… Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops.

This might be a decent day after all.

I make my way towards an empty table. On the way I pass Angel and place my bowl of fruit loops on his tray.

Son of bitch.

I type that now and I almost fall out of my chair.

Where did I think I was, Pelican Bay?

Say what you will about my woeful reality testing, but what you cannot say is that I failed to apply... perfectly... all academic knowledge of the U.S. prison system I had ever learned from any book, tour, evangelism, movie or documentary.

Angel nods affirmatively and I feel significantly more secure than I did prior to purchasing myself.

The morning passed into the afternoon and afternoon slipped into evening.

Consider please the most mind-numbingly bored you have ever been in your entire life.

Maybe it was a restless Saturday just last month… maybe it was an afternoon at a family reunion or a potluck lunch at your church's gymnasium. Whatever it was, multiply it by 7. Nay, 7 times 70 and you might begin to have the vaguest conception of what it is like to pass the day playing Solitaire with a 48 card deck or reading "La Biblia, colocó por el Gideons".

In a word, torture.

Honestly, in what level of hell are things like the Bible and Sportscenter (yes we had a TV) available only in Spanish? Where were we, Florida? I thought this was America. And that music manifestation of venomous rage… at what point did the accordion become part of Mexican culture? Did some random Polac stow away with Cortes? I must have missed that day of 5th grade when Mrs. Taylor talked about the Conquistadors.

Ladies, gentlemen… this persisted for not 12 hours… not 24… not 48.

No, no. You see, when Stephen Wells says "We'll have to wait and see" what he actually means is "I'm gonna call back after putting the fear of God into you, you ungrateful, disrespectful pissant, and make sure you aren't gonna be in a cell with murderers and rapists. Then I'm gonna make you wait until you are convinced the only reason you have not been bailed out of jail is that me and your mom were killed in some freak electrical storm."

In all actuality, a playful, cross cultural discussion with Angel and a young Mexican teen about the medicinal benefits of anabolic steroids was not interrupted by a grace-filled phone call until the first hours of day 3, Monday, December 12th.

Interestingly, debilitating stress and pure elation have very nearly the exact same effect on memory. That is to say, my memory of being released to a rather large bailbondswoman named Maria Sanchez is almost as vacant as the transfer of custody from the DEA to Sheriff's Department.

This vacancy persists until I find myself in the back seat of a sedan assisting Josh in describing to Maria exactly how idiotic we are.

Josh: "It's tough to describe just how idiotic we are."

Maria: "I don't doubt you two for a second… you is dumb en's. Why you didn't just mail it back to yourselves… only like one outta 10 get stopped and der's a fed ex just next door to that pharmacy you describin'… what on earff you tink its der for, Christmas presents?"

Josh: "I think I'm gonna throw up."

Maria: "One a you's got a good sista tho. She got a room reserved for ya at la Ramada so you don't hafta drive back to Abilene tonight."

Josh: "Dude! Karen!"

Me: "Oh kind and blessed soul…"

That night was spent in what was very nearly complete silence. Perhaps only this brief exchange:

Josh: "Dude… did this happen?"

Me: [In the middle of brushing my teeth for the 6th time] "Yeah… it did… and I have an Organic Chemistry final in 32 hours."

Josh: "You know any of it."

Me: "It's supposed to be 32 questions long. Unless Dr. Reeves thought of 32 different ways to ask 'What's added to the halogenalkanes in a Grignard Reaction?', I'm f#$%ed."

Sadly, I was never asked that question… not even once.

I would have answered "Magnesium".

I would have received full credit.