The NYC Transit Police have a place (I can’t recall where for the life of me but it may have been in Hoyt & Schemerhorn station in downtown Brooklyn) where they take fare evaders during sweeps so that they can check to see if any among their catch of the day qualify as the assholes needed to make Operation Turnstile Jumping Assholes a success. This is where they took me and these other guys by van.
They were hoping to catch felons in this wide net they’d cast. I’d gotten caught in the net, like a dolphin in the tuna hunt. Often those dolphins die, which was about the feeling I was skirting around minus my freedom for the first time, in a van with steel mesh wiring on the windows. A rolling mechanical net.
My record was as clean as a cop’s new shield during his first week of being a detective, so that wasn’t my biggest concern. What had me quaking in my boots was the bag of weed in my pocket and the idea of my mother getting a call about me being “detained” by New York’s Finest.
There were about ten of us in the van, mostly black and a handful of Latinos. I’d heard a couple of different accents, definitely a Jamaican and possibly a Panamanian…I don’t know, all-in-all probably about the same ratio as you’d find in most inner city neighborhoods in NY.
The guy beside me must have smelled by apprehension through my L’air du Indifference and said, “don’t sweat it, yo!”
I pretended not to be able to hear him over the van’s engine while I glanced around at the faces of my co-assholes to see if his reassurances raised any eyebrows among this mostly seasoned looking bunch of detainees.
Thank god for handcuffs, I remember thinking.
“All they gonna do is take your prints and send them shits to Albany. If you…”
“You talking to me?” I asked, turning on him with an expression I hope translated into ‘do I look like I need to be shown the ropes?” But all I was thinking at the moment was, ‘Prints??? Fingerprints???’
“No offense bruh,” this guy, black as tar, half homeless looking and smelling, said. “Just trying to help you out. ”
Though his face told me he couldn’t care less if I were the Atlanta Child Killer or not, his voice was sincere.
When we arrived at the holding facility, the 10 of us were marched from the van down into and through the station (where we were a spectacle for passengers) into the transit facility where we were photographed and fingerprinted.
“Am I under arrest?” I asked the female cop doing the photo shoot, the first fairly friendly face I’d seen since I’d been in custody.
She looked up from her task and, looking through me, speaking with a Robocop voice, barked “just be still,” and returned to her viewfinder. She must’ve seen a hundred kids like me a day, and she couldn’t be opening her heart to whatever good she might spot in them…that would have made her job torturous, I’m sure. Thus, the Robocop routine, I figured.
Didn’t make me feel any better, though.
I knew I was a juvenile and there wasn’t much they could do. But, I’d also heard horror stories about juvenile jails like Spofford, infamous for being as spiteful as the adult variety.
I was sweating. Huge beads of it rolling icily down my back collecting in my boxers.
I knew some guys who’d gone to Spofford, of course. They were mischievous when they’d left. But, when they came back they always had this steely eyed look like most of co-assholes wore. Like my brothers wore, too. That, I can take anything you throw at me, you fucks- You can’t break me! look.
Shit, I’d been broken since the moment that cop had said to me in the station, “today just ain’t your day, is it?”
To their credit, the cops were mad gentle with us…at least compared to the image the NYPD had. They were all “ok fellas, follow me,” and “ok gentlemen, we’re gonna do this the easy way, so let’s make this as painless as possible,” and stuff like that. No kicks, or pokes with clubs or plungers up the ass or anything like that.
One cop, a black one, who worked in the station, was the worst one, really. He kept a look on his face like he hated his job and he thought we were scum. He wasn’t Robocop. He was more like a high school security guard who’d had his application and lifelong dream of joining the Force rejected due to some petty crime he’d committed when he was my age or younger, and had held a grudge ever since, mad at the world for a mistake he’d made of his own volition.
“Get your sorry asses in there!” he snarled, pointing at the tank. “And I dare one of you little faggots to get out of line…I fucking double dare you!”
There were benches, wooden and none too clean, and the floor. I grabbed a spot on the bench…near the gate to the room.
I sat there trying not to make eye contact with anyone and not to think about Spofford or Riker’s Island, or any such places. To have two older brothers who knew the system inside out, I was a really a dumb shit. I mean, I’m sure I’d been told how to conduct myself by them but I always listened to their stories of being in my current predicament like they were adventures I’d never experience out of a combination of sheer will, intelligence and fear. Never as life lessons. Never as words to take heed to. I was of the mind that as long as I kept my ass away from crime crime (and smoking weed, jumping turnstiles and the occasional pilfered item from a Bodega was the extent of my proactive criminal mindedness) I’d never end up in the places and entanglements they habitually found themselves in and painstakingly detailed for my entertainment.
I thought I was better than them in that regard. Smarter. They’d come to feel the same way, too, ironically.
That day, however, I realized I wasn’t better, nor smarter. Just luckier, perhaps.
Had my luck run its course? Was it time for me to go to the place that sent Sean, my neighbor, back to us in mental ruin? The place from which my friend Marvin had returned with the new name, Shaborn, a new set of steely eyes, and a new agenda: rob anyone except people who knew where he lived.
I was in hell. Hope was draining from me like foamy spit from the mouth of the guy seated on the bench across from me, apparently an epileptic.
“Yo, somebody better get in here! This cat’s having a fit!” the guy seated beside him yelled.
Big black and hateful strolled over from his desk like it was his day off and said, “which one of you motherfuckers is trying me?”
“Ain’t nobody trying you man! Look!”
The black cop took a glance at the convulsing man of 30 or so and shouted over to another cop, “I think we might need a paramedic.”
And then he walked away. Just another day on the job, another stroll in the park. The paramedics came quickly and took the guy away.
Watching them haul the epileptic away on a stretcher didn’t help my gloom at all, and I felt tears welling.
I don’t know why I cry so easy. Sappy movies, sappy songs, sappy books, poetry, even weddings or funerals for people I don’t even know, sometimes. All can have me sniffling. And, man, was I in the wrong place to be showing that kind of sensitivity.
I put my head down (but kept my ears on ultra-alert) to hide my face just in case my ducts opened up despite me.
I could hear two of the guys chatting it up in not so hushed tones about their criminal enterprises. Real assholes! I mean, the chance of the room being bugged was low but not out of consideration. Another guy was snoring…who could sleep at a time like this? Two of the spanish guys, I think they were Puerto Rican, were kicking it to one another in Spanish. I could make out some of the words, like Mamasita and Punta, so I knew what they were talking about.
Then, I heard something else, far off, maybe down a hallway or coming from an office. Something familiar. My heart recognized it immediately- that drum solo- before my ears did. Then, expectantly, I heard the Zulu language, the language I had listened to so intensely as a child. Ngiculela…I knew Spanish would follow… Es una historia.
My lips were moving, lip-syncing the words. Hell, my soul was moving, soul-syncing Stevie!
I kept my head down and my eyes closed, though, cause I knew Stevie had set my tears free.
…to be continued