I stared through the bars and looked up at the ceiling in the corridor.
“You should have never turned around,” I thought to myself.
“You should have left when you had the chance…”
As the door closed after my escorted walk down a foul smelling hallway, with frosted windows at the ceiling height to the wall to my left, and caged cells to my right, I heard the loud banging of hardened steel crashing into steel.
Then I heard the sound of the guard’s footsteps as he walked away.
I could hear the complaints of an old drunk, unsure of why he was locked in a holding cell, and occasionally shouting, “And where the hell are my Goddamned shoes?”
The echo from the drunk’s vomiting sound, retching, as if his insides were spewing from his mouth, painfully rang down the line of caged men. And each time the drunk would heave, someone in one of the other cells would scream, “Shut up, old man! I’m trying to sleep.”
Everything about this place was awful; the smell was a mixture of unclean bodies and cleaning solution. The air was thick and the bars were an exclamation point.
I wanted to sleep as well, but there was no luck for me.
I considered the holding cells to be a criminals’ limbo or purgatory. I saw this place as a way station between freedom and further confinement. Only, the angels wear horns in places like this, and demons wear wings, which makes it difficult to determine who is good and which is evil.
After the hours turned late, eventually, the cells started to quiet. There were only the sound of the corridor’s overhead light fixtures buzzing and the sporadic coughs from different inmates. There was the occasional threat; some were clearly violent, but others were muffled through brick walls and distance.
During a different overnight stay, I recall a man telling his cellmate, “From now on, you sit down when you pee!”
He said, “Don’t let me see you standing up again.” and he sounded as if he meant it.
It was after midnight before the guards brought someone in to share my cell with me. He had a baby face and he looked much younger, but his arms were big, and his nose was runny.
I slid down the light-colored wooden bench in the darkest corner of the dimly lit cell. I did not look at my cellmate. I just moved away and gave him room.
He kept sniffling and his eyes were watery.
I leaned my head into the corner of the small room and closed my eyes. I tried to imagine myself somewhere else. I thought about the way the beach looked in the middle of wintertime after a snowstorm. I thought about the seagulls that flew overhead an followed the offshore, commercial fishing boats.
I was not alone in my case. My codefendant was in another cell nearby. We were separated because the officers refused to keep us together.
“This ain’t no day camp,” argued one of the officers at the front desk. Then another officer unhooked my friend from the wooden bench in the waiting area. He cuffed my friend, and then the officer took him through a doorway with a sign above it that read, “No guns beyond this point.”
I was on my own, but every so often, my codefendant would call out to me.
“I’m good. you?”
He would answer, “I’m fine,” and then we stopped talking.
After trying to rest for so long, I finally fell asleep. But the sleep was not real. I was just dreaming while awake with my eyes closed, and weaving in and out of consciousness.
Each time I felt myself drifting closer to the imagination that I was someplace else, I was quickly brought back to reality by the sniffling and throat clearing from my cellmate.
I would wake, but I refused to open my eyes. This way, I could either slip into a dream or wake up from this nightmare.
However, in my clearest dream, I dreamt I was flying. I dreamt I was free and soaring towards a bright light. The light was pure and I heard children laughing. Its beauty was enough to make me forget myself until my cellmate cleared his throat, and then I was reminded of where I was and who I was with.
In the late hours of night, before the morning rolled in and the soft colors of sunrise lightened the frosted windows across from my cell, the holding cells were finally silent. Even the old drunk stopped resisting and his retching subsided for the moment.
I suppose everyone from the veteran criminal and the frequent short-stay visitors of the Nassau County Correctional Facility, to the first time wannabe gangsters, drunks, and youthful offenders, wondered how they found themselves locked up in a small cell with their shoes taken away, and placed in the hallway across from the holding cell’s door.
(They guards did this to cut the risk of suicide. My guess is they grew tired of finding inmates hanging by the neck from their shoelaces.)
I suppose we all wondered in our moment of purgatory. We wondered what would come next, and though emotion is weakness in jail, I suppose I was no less afraid and no more worried than anyone else in the Hempstead Holding Facility.
By morning, the inmates began to wake and noise began to stir. The moment of silence came to an end and it was followed by jailhouse lawyers, claiming to know the system better than the court appointed attorneys, and advising each other on their case.
Next was breakfast. I think it was an egg sandwich on a soggy roll with watered down coffee, painfully light with milk, and over-sweetened with too much sugar.
Not long after they fed us, we were emptied from our cages, one cell at a time, cuffed to one another, and then we were taken into the back of a cold truck with steel bench seats on either side.
We were delivered to the courthouse and placed in larger cages. We called these cells, “Bullpens,” because this was where we warmed up before standing in front of the judge.
The bullpens were overcrowded and noisy. The old drunk was back to his dry-heaving, sounding out with each dry retch being worse than the one before it.
I assume I was most afraid here. I was exposed in the bullpens and there was too many people around me. At least in the holding cell, I was sectioned off from the others. But here, I was sitting on benches with the degenerates of our society and trying not to show fear.
I had to listen, as if I cared, to the stories of different arrests of men that claimed to be innocent, which only proved one thing; every inmate says they’re innocent . . . even when they’re not.
I looked around to see who I hoped would not reach the judge before I did and who I would rather follow. It was my opinion that an angered judge is a strict one, and I did not need any of these soon-to-be convicts to stand before the court and frustrate the man with the gavel.
I tried to figure out who would be held and who would be released. This way, I could size up the crowd after my bail was set.
And me . . . after the judge set my bail, I was taken downstairs with my codefendant. We were given lunch, which was a dry bologna sandwich on stale white bread with a carton of warm milk.
I left mine untouched, and this led to me fielding the same repeated question.
“Are you gonna eat that?”
Eventually, I was so tired of being asked, I gave the sandwich and milk away.