wrist was cuffed to one end of the L-shaped bench. On the other end,
the prisoner’s hands were free. The other prisoner, I should say. We
were both behind bars. Behind glass, anyway, an aquarium-style glass
tank in a holding area somewhere at O’Hare airport, where I’d been
dragged out of the First Class line after assaulting a ticket agent.
We’ll get to that in a minute. For now, I was locked up a cell with a
perp who was free to roam. I was innocent, but I assumed he was guilty.
After all, the man was in jail.
If he came at me, what was I
going to do? The scenarios went through my mind, each one grimmer than
the last: There I was, locked to the bench, my free arm flailing, a
shank sticking out between my ribs. I’d bleed out on the grimy tile,
protesting with my last breath how I didn’t belong here. Or worse, a
shank to the jugular and a mute half-minute before death.
The other guy, maybe half my
size, was distraught to the point of tears, but when you’re in lock-up
for the first time, details like that don’t register.
When I finally realized I wasn’t
going to be in a life-or-death battle, when I finally calmed down long
enough to notice that on the other side of the glass, a group of
middle-aged detectives were watching a golf tournament on television,
the surreality set in. Here I was, in the exact situation the word Kafkaesque
was invented for. I kept repeating it in my mind. Kafkaesque.
Kafkaesque. I almost told one of the detectives, too, when he
came to photograph and print me.
“This is Kafkaesque.”
Thinking, of course, he’d
realize his mistake and cut me loose. Instead, I kept my mouth shut and
they transferred me via armored car to a precinct in town, where a pair
of country music–loving corrections officers stuck me in a molded cell
that looked like a slightly enlarged airplane bathroom. My crime? When
the snotty ticket agent finally handed me my boarding pass, I said
“Thanks” and snatched it away. With attitude in my voice. That,
according to airport security, was assault and battery.
Our hands never even touched.
Hurt People Hurt People
Ten years later I sent an
innocent character to jail. Write what you know, they say, and that’s
exactly what I did. When you’re locked up without cause, you keep
waiting for someone to say it’s all a joke. The longer they treat it
seriously and the longer they act like it’s real, the more frustrated
and angry you get. The uniforms that circled me and put on the
handcuffs, the detectives who indifferently processed the arrest might
have just been doing their jobs. But in my eyes they were cogs in a
corrupt bureaucracy that valued procedure more than truth. I tried to
capture that feeling in fiction, hopefully with success.
a good thing you were arrested,” my wife said.
been present at the
original ordeal, as had my mother. Even my pastor’s son, who’d been
traveling with us, witnessed the whole thing. I was supposed to start
teaching a Sunday school class the next week.
The funny thing is, even as it
happened, even as I agonized over the injustice and an undeserved
shank, I was taking mental notes. Part of me was even excited. I could
use this. I was innocent, and my cynical streak doesn’t run so deep
that I didn’t believe the whole thing would at some point be cleared
up. In the meantime, here was a firsthand journey through the
experience of being arrested. I knew I was going to write about this.
Several weeks ago, a friend
invited me along on a last-minute social outing, introducing me to an
eccentric acquaintance, a guy who’d lived an extraordinary youth that
went from European jet-setting to apprenticing in the corridors of
Washington DC power. I sat quietly, regaled by one story after another,
until he asked the inevitable question: “So, what is it you do?” When
he heard I was a writer, he gave me the same look a frontier cameraman
suspected of stealing souls might have gotten.
“And he’s going to put all this
in a book!” my friend added for extra emphasis.
Come to think of it, I probably
will. Being a writer doesn’t make it easier to suffer injustice—or
anything else. But there is a silver lining, or at least a
nickel-plated one. When bad things happen to you, the time isn’t lost
the way it is for other people. Instead, even in the worst
circumstances, a little voice tells you this is something you can use.
For most of us, the most experience can do is make us better people.
For a writer, it makes our stories better, too.