It's 6:30 in the morning, and there is a thump on your door followed by the doorbell chime and then more banging. You peek out the window to see two police officers standing on your porch. You open the door, concerned that something's happened in your neighborhood. But they are not here to ask you about the kids across the street. They are here for you. You are under arrest.
It seems that a misunderstanding over a traffic citation has turned into a bench warrant. The officers are kind. They pet your cat and let you change out of your pajamas into a T-shirt and jeans. They don't even handcuff you, allowing you to walk out your front door and sit in the front seat of the police car so as not to arouse the suspicion of your neighbors.
On the way downtown, you chat. You discuss your neighborhood and their beat. You are worried about missing work, but they tell you not to worry, that you'll only be there for a couple of hours. You imagine walking from the jail to your office at lunchtime with an amusing anecdote.
You drive up to Central Booking, a place you have only glimpsed in the past while driving down I-83. They stop the car in the parking lot and handcuff you, sliding what looks like giant plastic twist-ties around your wrists. They actually apologize, telling you that they can't bring you in any other way. One of the officers accidentally handcuffs you around your seatbelt, so you slide your right hand out of the cuffs, put it under the belt and then slide it back in, offering up your arms so he can tighten your restraints. You are very accommodating.
You've been talking to these guys for a while now, making jokes, but as soon as you enter the facility with its cement floors and fluorescent lights, the talking stops. They hand your information to a female guard and sign off on you like a package, without meeting your gaze. No one on this side of the cell barrier will look you in the eye all day. The moment you entered that door you stopped being a person and became a problem to be dealt with. But you don't know that yet.
The guard cuts off your handcuffs, and as you look up, you realize that the officers are gone. You are momentarily surprised that they didn't say goodbye, but you are determined to hit it off with your new keeper, too. The guard is pretty, petite, with shoulder length hair streaked with honey-blonde highlights much like your own. But she doesn't crack a smile as you try to make small talk. She silently replaces your handcuffs with a plastic bracelet that fits snugly on your left wrist. Your name is not on it, just a barcode. You will be scanned.
She pats you down roughly but thoroughly. You are told to remove your jewelry. The items you can't get off are cut from your body, and it is all shoved into an envelope along with your keys, wallet, and cell phone. You will miss your watch the most.
The guard takes the envelope to the guard station. The only things you're allowed to keep are the few sheets of paper that you brought to prove that this is all a big misunderstanding. You fold them in fourths and stuff them in your back pocket, waiting for a chance to plead your case.
The guard with the highlights leads you to a long hall lined with cells. They are not what you imagined. There are no bars or cots. Instead they look like aquariums, harshly lit and enclosed in a greenish gray cement with large glass windows. The guard uses what looks like an oversized house key to open the thick metal door and you hesitantly step in. The door is shut behind you, and for a moment you can't breath.
Standing in this barren room it finally hits you. This is really happening. You try not to cry, reminding yourself that this will all be over in a few hours. Just a funny story to tell your friends over a beer.
There are five other women in the cell. Three women stand against the far wall, some with their heads up, some with their eyes on the floor, none looking at you. A heavy-set bleached blonde sleeps on the floor using her sweatpants as a bed roll, and in the corner by the door, a body is tucked inside a white T-shirt with just a light brown ponytail and a pair of socked feet sticking out. The floor is gray cement, and the cinderblock walls are painted in a similar hue. The room's only feature beyond its inhabitants is a metal toilet with a short cinderblock wall beside it that does nothing to obscure the toilet or the person using it from view. The cell is silent except for the sound of heavy breathing from the two women who're asleep. You don't know what to do, so you sit down on the cold floor and wait for the guard with the highlights to return.
The bleached blonde wakes up, suddenly pulling on her sweatpants and heading over to the toilet. You avert your eyes, but the sound of urine hitting the metal bowl reverberates through the room. The guard returns and hands each of you a brown paper bag. The ball of girl in the corner doesn't move, and the guard drops the bag by her feet. You look inside more out of curiosity than anything else and find two peeled hard-boiled eggs, four slices of mushy white bread, a small Styrofoam cup of Rice Krispies, and a child-sized carton of milk. There are no utensils, no napkins, no water. Most of the women ignore the bags, but the bleached blonde eats hers ferociously.
You look at her in disdain. You haven't eaten yet today, but you can't imagine ever being hungry enough to eat hardboiled eggs on soggy white bread. You will wait until you get out. You're not going to use that toilet either. You will hold it. It won't be long now.
There is no clock in the cell, so you don't know how long it takes for the guard with the highlights to return. It feels like a long time. Finally she calls your name and takes you to a large room with a long row of windows along one wall. People in uniforms sit behind the windows like bank tellers, but the chains on each counter connect to a metal handcuff instead of a pen. The guard takes you to a counter and clamps the accompanying handcuff around your right wrist. The chain is heavy and causes the metal to bite into your skin, leaving little pink and blue half moons.
A woman with short hair slicked against her head sits behind the counter facing a computer screen. She is several feet above you, and you can barely see over her side of the counter. She doesn't address you, so you stand there listening to janitors with belts full of jangling keys pushing squeaky buckets, the whir of a giant fan trying to dry the freshly mopped floor, and the sound of guards bantering above the din.
"Name?" says the woman behind the counter without even glancing your way. "Address?" "Social Security Number?" The questions come one right after another. She speaks softly, directing her words at her computer screen. You stand on your tiptoes, trying to hear, but twice the roar of the room wins out and you have to ask her what she said. The first time she repeats her question, her voice getting harsher but not louder. The second time she snaps, "Don't you say 'What?' to me again. You can hear me."
You strain to get closer and try to read the sliver of her lips you can see. You do not ask "What?" again. When she has finished getting your information, she runs through the list of your belongings. She hands you a piece of paper with a vague list of your effects. You sign by the X. She gives you a copy of the list and your bench warrant, tells you that you will be fingerprinted and photographed, and then stops speaking to you.
So you stand there, resting your arm on the counter to try and keep the cuff from digging into your arm, and think about how unbelievably horrible your mug shot is going to be. You haven't showered. You didn't even get to brush your teeth before they took you away. You comb your fingers through your hair in a futile attempt to appease your vanity.
The woman behind the counter asks a passing guard to take you back to your cell. On your way you are given a phone call. You call your lawyer, the one who was supposed to have cleared up your traffic citation. He promises to come down, to get you out of there. You nod despite the fact that you are on the phone and put down the receiver. And once again you are in the frigid gray cell sitting quietly and waiting to see what happens next.
The guard with the highlights returns and calls your name, and the names of two other girls in the cell. One name belongs to the ball of girl on the floor. She doesn't move, and the guard jabs the girl with her foot until she moans and pops her head out of her T-shirt. You think that they are going to take you to see whomever it is that can release you, but you are simply being herded to another cell, a smaller one. As the guard is about to close the door, you tell her you haven't been fingerprinted. You impart this information partly because you want to get through the process as quickly as possible and partly because you can't bear having another door shut on you.
She takes you to the fingerprinting room. Men slouch in chairs along the wall, and a woman in a dark blue uniform mans a large machine. You walk toward her, and without looking up, she tells you to stand on the black square. You scan the room looking for it until one of the slouching men lazily points it out to you. You stand on the square, and the machine takes your picture. The woman behind the machine tells you to turn to the left. You do and see a sign on the wall that says look here and . . . smile! You don't. You wonder if anyone does.
You are then directed to another machine manned by another woman who does not look you in the eye. This one looks like an oversized copy machine. The woman takes your right hand and pulls your fingers apart, rolling each over a clear panel. She scans each hand several times, and then tells you to go back the way you came. You do, ending up in front of the guard station, but there is no one there to put you back in your cell, so you stand there waiting. You do not consider making a break for it.
The guard with the highlights finds you there and takes you to your cell. As she closes the door, you ask her how you will know when your lawyer has arrived. She says that you can't see your lawyer until after you see the commissioner so it doesn't matter, and the door clangs shut.
the ball of girl has retreated back into her T-shirt and is sleeping on a small cement bench. Another girl sits on the cement bench along the opposite wall, her arms wrapped around her body inside her orange tank top, trying to fight off the chill of the blaring air conditioning. Her hair is partially braided with chunks of it sticking out in uneven tufts around her right ear. You sit down beside her, wondering who the commissioner is and when you will see him.
The door to the cell opens, and three more women walk in. A girl in trendy jeans sits down at the far end of the bench across from the toilet. The cell is so narrow that she has to make an effort not to kick the bowl. A girl who looks about 16, with stringy blonde hair haphazardly dyed pink, sits on the floor by your feet. An older woman sits beside the ball of girl and closes her eyes, rocking back and forth with a look of pain stretched across her hard-featured face. Slowly, the ball of girl uncurls herself, jean-clad legs extending from her stretched out T-shirt, and a pretty face marred with scabs emerging from the neck.
She has to pee. There is no toilet paper, so the girl bangs on the window demanding tissue. No one comes. She paces the narrow cell, alternately pleading for toilet paper in a pitiful tone and angrily banging on the door. When there is still no response, she starts kicking the door as hard as her tiny frame will let her. A disembodied voice tells her to stop but brings no toilet paper, so the pacing and yelling continues. She can no longer hold it, and the girl in the trendy jeans has to move so that they don't bump knees while she uses the toilet. She pees leaning her head against the cinderblock wall for support and then sits back down on the bench. A little while later the guard comes by with a small wad of paper, which she takes all the same. You will learn what this girl already knows: Always take toilet paper when it is offered. There is no guarantee you will get another chance.
After a while, you realize that you have to go. Holding it until you get out of here no longer seems like an option. You try to get it over with as quickly as possible, but the awkwardness of the situation makes your bladder unwilling to cooperate, and you end up squatting there trying not to look at anyone.
The next time the door opens, you are told to line up single file in the hall. You make your way down the line to a box of brown bags. Apparently it is lunch time. Much like the toilet issue, you have lost some of your pride when it comes to the food, and when you open the bag you are willing to consider eating its contents. You are greeted by four more slices of mushy white bread, some waxy cheese, and a piece of luncheon meat that is gray around the edges and iridescent pink in the center. A few rubbery brown carrot sticks, a bag of barbecue chips, a small carton of grape drink, and two lemon cookies round out the meal. You eat the least offensive carrot sticks and other snacks, leaving the indeterminate cold cut in the bag.
The ball of girl has come out of her shell for food and eats eagerly, making everyone laugh with her in-depth descriptions of the gross food. Before long you're all talking.
The ball of girl is Sammy.* She is just 19, but already has two kids and one on the way. She says she has been here since 1 a.m. Two police officers busted in her door to serve her with a warrant and found her in her living room about to "drop a pill." Since then she has been trying to stay asleep to keep from getting sick. It takes you a minute to realize that she is talking about drug withdrawal.
The girl with the pink hair is Allison. She's 21, but her childlike face makes that difficult to believe. She was also found with drugs when the police came to serve her warrant. She asks you if you are sick, and you say no, a bit taken aback. She says you look sick. You are not flattered.
The trendy jeans belong to Malika, who is 20. She and her husband got into a fight. She told him to get out of her face, but he wouldn't, so she knocked him down the stairs. He called the police, though when they came he begged them not to take her, saying how much he loved her. She tells you that where she comes from, no one would call the police for a little thing like knocking around your husband. Sammy commiserates: "I don't care if you get shot in the head, you don't call the cops. You go to the hospital get the hole sewn up and come home."
You are struck by how young the girls are. You're not even 30, but you feel like a matron and affectionately call them all babies. Sammy says that with two kids and a divorce under her belt, she hardly feels like one.
You, Malika, and Tanisha--the quiet girl with the partially braided hair--are the only newbies here. Sammy and Allison know the drill. They tell you what they know about the commissioner, which isn't much. He is the only one who can set you free. He will set your bail, release you on your own recognizance, or send you upstairs to the jail proper. Sammy tells you it is better upstairs. Up there you can take a shower, lie down, go to sleep. She seems anxious to go. You have no intention of going with her. You also have no idea when you will be taken to see this great and powerful commissioner. The guards won't tell you. The other girls don't know. But the fact that Sammy has been here since last night hardly bodes well.
There is nothing to read in the cell except the papers in your pocket, which you have already memorized. There is no way to get comfortable on your small slab of hard narrow bench. Sammy is antsy and tries to distract herself from the increasingly fluttery feeling in her stomach by literally climbing the walls in an attempt to escape through a hatch in the ceiling that looks to you like a fuse box. She asks you to keep a look out as she wedges herself up the wall until she is practically in a split. The hatch doesn't budge.
A little while later, Sammy decides she wants to go to the hospital and bangs on the window to tell the guard. She is pregnant, she says, and feels sick to her stomach. The guard is unimpressed. If you aren't bleeding, you can't go to the hospital.
Meanwhile, Estelle, the older woman who has been quietly rocking back and forth and wincing, shows the guard her hand. You hadn't really noticed it before, but when she holds it up you see that it is badly swollen, so red and puffy it barely looks human. The guard says it was like that when Estelle came in, so it's not their problem. Estelle sits back down without a word and cradles her hand, her face fixed in a permanent grimace.
Later there is a commotion in the hall, and you all jump up, crowding around the window to see what's going on. They are pulling people out of their cells and lining them up in the hall. An adorable brown and white dog walks around them, sniffing at them like an eager puppy. When it is your cell's turn, you're excited. It's something to do. The dog weaves his way through you and your cellmates. When he sniffs you, you smile and resist the urge to scratch his head. After he is done, you head back to your cell, but the guard tells you to stop, leading you, Sammy, and Allison down the hall.
The guard opens the door to a small room with two shower stalls in it and orders you to get in. She closes the door and tells you to take off all your clothes. You ask the guard why, and she tells you that you have been doing drugs, that the dog smelled them on your clothes. You protest, you haven't been doing drugs. "You don't do drugs?" she asks skeptically. "No," you answer. She raises an eyebrow and tells you to take off your clothes.
Your hands are shaking as you unclasp your jeans. You pull your T-shirt over your head, unclasp your bra, drop your panties to the ground, and try to hang each item neatly over the side of the stall. Standing in the cold beige room completely naked, you are told to turn around. "Bend over," the guard says. "Squat and spread your cheeks." You do it, trying to breathe, trying not to think about it. While you are in this position, the guard opens the door into the hall to chat with a co-worker. You jump up, unable to stifle a yelp. The door is half-open and people are walking by. You try to cover yourself with your hands, but the guard just repeats her command and instructs you to cough. You bend back over, so humiliated your cough is barely audible. She tells you to cough louder. Worried that the guard will stick one of her gloved fingers inside of you if you don't cooperate, you cough as loud as you can.
When you are put back in your cell, you're relieved. You feel safe, oddly comfortable in there with the girls you have come to know surrounding you, the only ones who have listened to your story, the only ones who look you in the eye. They even ask you if you're OK, even though none of you have been OK since you entered this building.
As the day wears on with no sense of time and nothing to do, things begin to fall into a predictable rhythm. Allison sleeps peacefully in positions that you aren't even capable of assuming. Tanisha stares at the wall, absent-mindedly sliding her flip flops against the floor. Malika mutters under her breath, cursing her husband's name. Sammy paces saying, "This shit ain't right, yo" like a mantra, and Estelle continues to moan softly, her ever expanding hand placed gingerly in her lap. And you, sometimes you cry just a little bit, but mostly you wait. When toilet paper is offered, you grab it.
Three more women enter the cell, and what little space you have evaporates. One of the new women squeezes in on the bench and wants everyone to huddle together for warmth. You decline, moving to a small open space on the floor. Allison has stretched out underneath the toilet and is sleeping peacefully. For a moment you are jealous, but as you watch people step over her to pee, you realize your spot isn't that bad.
A woman with short brown hair and the calm composure of a cattle rancher sits down beside Estelle, whose hand is now so swollen the skin has begun to crack and bleed. Sammy asks the woman what she is in for and she hands the younger girl a thick pile of warrants. Sammy looks them over and her eyes widen. "You did all this yourself?" she asks, and the woman nods, leaning in close to Sammy so that their faces are just a few inches apart. "She said she recognized me, but all she saw were my eyes," the woman says. Sammy shivers, and says, "If you looked at me like that I'd recognize you too."
There is a shift change, and the guard with the honey-blonde highlights so much like your own is replaced by a woman with jet-black hair. The new guard rescans you all. Dinnertime comes, and this time when you open the bag you are actually eager. It isn't so much your hunger, but the fact that for the next 10 minutes, you will have something to do. The mushy white bread is now accompanied by bologna that is more or less bologna colored and the same array of snacks you sampled at lunch.
You eat it all, and one of the new girls, pretty in designer jeans with her hair and make up done, looks at you in disgust. She can't believe you are actually eating it and tells you as much. She would never eat that crap or use that gross toilet. This is all a big mistake. She won't be here long. You can't help but smile to yourself.
Sammy's withdrawal is getting worse. She can't stay still, and there is no longer enough room to pace. So she sits for a minute and then gets up, stands, shifting her weight, and then lies down, only to get up again a few minutes later. She says she feels like her stomach is full of butterflies, and she's only comfortable when she's moving. The woman with the pile of warrants tells her to stop fidgeting. They are all going through it, she says, and talking about it only makes it worse. There is something about this woman, maybe it's her calm country voice or the air she gives off of someone who has seen it all before, but she is actually able to calm Sammy down for a moment. The young girl curls up in a ball beside you and asks if she can put her head in your lap. You don't even hesitate. Of course.
A sort of slumber party vibe gradually takes over the cell, and the girls start chatting about boyfriends and girlfriends. An in-depth discussion of J. Lo and Ben Affleck's relationship leads to the conclusion that she can do better. A calm has come over you. You can do this. The word is that they can only hold you for 24 hours; you don't know what time it is, but you guess that you have been here for about half that. You can do 12 more hours, and somehow the idea of a fixed end point, however distant, is comforting.
And then something happens, something that you had ceased to dream was possible. You hear someone call "Man on the floor," and a man walks down the hall with a list of people to see the commissioner, and he calls your name. You are so shocked you don't say anything for a moment, but the other girls bang on the glass and yell, "She's over here." And you are not the only one. Sammy, Malika, Allison, Tanisha, Estelle, and the woman with the long rap sheet are coming too. When the guard opens the door of the cell, bags of uncollected lunch and dinner trash spill out into the hall. She kicks them back into the cell, but you don't care, because you are going to see the commissioner.
The guard leads you down the hall and into another cell. This one is a single. There are 10 of you. You are packed in so tight, people have to stand on the bench and sit on the toilet. At least you aren't cold anymore. A previous inhabitant covered the air-conditioning vent with spitballs, and with all those bodies in that tiny space, you are actually pretty warm. Sammy goes first, then Estelle. One by one the names are called. No one comes back.
When it is your turn, you are taken to another small room. A bald man with glasses wearing a shirt and tie sits behind a pane of glass. He is the commissioner, or one of them at least. There is a metal stool bolted to the floor on your side of the glass partition. He says your name without looking up and tells you to sit down.
He asks familiar questions: address, Social Security number, date of birth. You can hear him perfectly and respond like a good little teacher's pet. The time has come, you think. You will finally be able to explain to someone what happened. You start, but he interrupts you. "I don't care," he says. He passes a series of papers to you through a slit beneath the glass. It is late, and you are more tired than you can ever remember being. You look over the papers, but with all the legal jargon you can't make any sense of them.
The commissioner tells you to sign the papers. You ask him what they mean, telling him you don't understand. "Sign them, then I'll tell you," he snaps. You sign them. What else can you do? He gives you copies of the papers and a booklet explaining what happens when you are arrested, which seems a bit after-the-fact at this point. And then he says the words you have been waiting all day to hear: "You are being released on your own recognizance." You thank him profusely, though he doesn't respond, and expel a little sob of relief as you step out of the room.
A short heavyset guard with glasses tells you to walk straight ahead down the hall to a door. It is the door. The door out of the cell block. You want to run, but feel that that would be frowned upon, so you try to keep your gait even, a smile spreading across your face as you get within arm's reach, but the guard tells you to stop just short of the door. She does not open it. Instead, she opens up a cell right beside the door and tells you to get in.
You have just been released on your own recognizance, and you have papers saying so clutched in your hand. How can they lock you up again? You take a breath, and ask the guard in your most subordinate, ingratiating tone why you are being put in another cell. "They are processing your property," she says, "and the more questions you ask the longer it will take, so sit down and shut up." Across the hall, a sign on the door reads release area and shows a little stick figure jumping in the air and clicking its heels.
You sit down, completely defeated, and start to cry. Not the silent tears trickling down your face of earlier crying jags, but rather the body-shaking, gut wrenching, face-contorting heaves of a teenager whose first love has just crashed and burned. Malika, who is also waiting for her property, tries to calm you down, but you can no longer put on a brave face.
An hour and a half later, you finally walk through that door. Your barcode is cut off and your belongings returned. You walk out into the darkness of Eager Street to wait for your ride. The sense of exaltation you were expecting isn't there. You're too tired, too dirty, too small. It's 1:30 a.m. , 19 hours after the knock on your door. Nineteen hours of being ignored, of not knowing what is happening to you, of never having anyone, except the handful of girls in your cell, look you in the eye.
* The names of all the women in the cells have been changed.