MY FIRST CLUE that there was trouble came when the officer told me to get out of the car. He’d only pulled me over for expired tags, and I’d been stopped for worse. Even the time a state trooper stopped to marvel at my chandelier-like front window, shattered hours earlier by forty pounds of ice sliding off the dorm roof, he’d just waved me on, and that’s what I expected this time too; a little lecture, a snide comment, a curt wave.
Then he mumbled something that sounded like, “suspended license,” slipped the cuffs on, and stuffed me into the back seat.
We were five minutes from the detention center, which was just enough time for me to sort out the convoluted way I’d gotten here, worthy of an OK Go video. I’d let my tags expire, planning to save $70 when I moved out of state two weeks later. I’d also avoided a $100 speeding ticket months earlier by requesting traffic school. But the notice for traffic school never came, and I forgot about it until we pulled past the chain link fences. Then it hit me that the notice must have gone to my old address. That’s what was on my license, which I’d saved $10 not replacing. What I couldn’t figure out is what I’d spent that $180 in savings on in the meantime. Mainly Milwaukee’s Best, most likely. Bad beer. Bad call.
Years earlier, when I was a teen, I’d run up to trouble and dare it to punch me. One time four of us were goofing around in the sandpit by the football field, waiting to start practice. Greg Grant lined up to block me, which was a problem, since he outweighed me by sixty pounds and didn’t seem to like me. He said he was going to pancake me, and I believed him. So I threw him. The closest thing to an athletic skill I’ve ever had is making people fall down, and I used it then, shifting my leg under his and pulling his arm, making him land on his ass. He came up with a handful of sand, looming five inches over me with his hand cocked back, not sure yet whether to punch or throw. I just stood there waiting, staring up at him until he dropped the sand and walked away. People misunderstood this behavior and thought I was brave, but that’s not what was going on. I only wanted something to happen. I couldn’t believe how far I could push people and not have them push back, at least in any way I could see. It made me feel like life was fake. If this were real, something ought to happen.
Two officers handled the booking, a black man and a white woman with a German name and accent. Tom, the other arrestee in the room, was determined to talk to the man, so he went first. The woman called me over, and I answered her questions in German. I can’t say exactly how I imagined this would help, but I guess I thought I could test out of the drunk tank. She smirked and said, “What are you doing here?” I wanted to say, “I know!” She told me to sit back down. She said it in English.
Tom had a similar conversation with his officer. They had worked together on a Scared Straight program, and he also got a, “What are you doing here?” That made me feel less special, but Tom and I still hit it off. We commiserated over the mistakes clearly made in bringing us in, and we weren’t even mad about it. If they had let us go right then, we wouldn’t have asked for an apology. We were in an entirely forgiving mood. We were nothing but sweetness and light.
When they moved us, I imagined we would play Rock, Paper, Scissors for the top bunk and swap stories until lights out. We walked instead into a solid concrete room, bright florescent lights gleaming off of white walls and floor, sixty feet long and fifteen wide, with no furniture unless you counted the single, exposed toilet. The door shut, and Tom looked concerned.
“Maybe they’re keeping us here until our bunks are made,” I said.
He sulked. I hated him a little for his pessimism.
I can’t begin to count how many times before that moment I had imagined myself trapped, whether in a classroom, at a job, or in a relationship. As I looked at that door, though, I knew I’d been wrong. I had almost always been free to go, as long as I accepted the consequences, like bad grades, getting fired, breaking up. That’s what I wanted to tell someone right then: “I accept the consequences. Just let me out.” I could have said it in German, if that helped. I was only starting to understand that getting locked up was the consequence. There was nothing else to accept.
By midnight there would be twenty men in the tank, eighteen white and two black. Some of the drunker white guys screamed about wanting to fight the officers, and I worried they’d look for a substitute. I was pretty sure I knew who they’d pick.
Troy, an older black man, was the third guy in the room, and he’d come in hot. He paced back and forth in front of Tom and me twenty times, ranting about how wrong it was that he got arrested. He’d gotten back that night from a cross-country, three day haul and parked near his girlfriend’s place. They drank, exchanged words, and she hid his keys when he tried to leave. He called the police to get his keys back, but they refused to arrest her. Then when he walked outside, they brought him in instead.
He quit pacing.
“Now, I had another set of keys,” he said, “but that’s not the point.”
He stopped talking, and I watched his eyes grow big as he tried to make sense of what he’d just said. I figured he was asking himself whether that hadn’t been the point after all. If he’d gone back to his truck with the spare keys instead of calling the police, he could have slept things off and gotten the other set in the morning. He sat down, still angry, but no longer so sure what he should be angry about.
Perry, the other black man, arrived an hour later, and Troy came over to sit by him. A friend had recently explained to me how whenever he saw another black guy at a “white people party,” they’d nod at each other. It was a wordless way of saying that if things went down, they’d have each other’s back. That might have worked better than what Troy did. He began by saying they ought to team up in case some of these assholes started something. Thing is, the room echoed, and all us assholes were listening. But Perry agreed, and they traded stories about getting locked up. Troy left out the part about the spare keys this time. Perry admitted that the cops caught him red-handed, but he still said he was innocent.
“It wasn’t my crack,” he said. “I was holding it for a friend.”
Troy let his eyes bulge again. He slapped Perry on the shoulder as he stood up, saying, “Buddy, you never hold another man’s crack.”
Everybody laughed. Troy wasn’t going to be able to count on Perry’s help in a fight, but I thought maybe anybody coming after him might remember laughing and leave him alone. I relaxed a little.
Then Troy stole the toilet paper. We had one roll for all twenty of us, and he took it to use as a pillow. That seemed like a big mistake to me. I didn’t see any way we were making it through that night without somebody defecating. Just judging by odors, we’d eaten plenty of friend food between us, and there was no way that was all staying in. I pictured one of the tougher guys going to pull that roll from under Troy’s head, and it was hard to imagine how a fight wouldn’t follow. So a white guy and a black guy would be going at it in a small, locked room filled almost entirely with white men. As I saw it, that ended with Troy in the hospital, if he was lucky.
My heart pounded as I thought this over, but I made up my mind. If guys ganged up on Troy, I’d try to break it up. It’s not that I particularly liked him. He’d called me an asshole and mostly acted like one himself, and I could have avoided thinking this whole scenario through if he’d accepted sleeping without a pillow like the rest of us. But if things developed like I thought they would, he was going to get the shit beat out of him, and he didn’t deserve that. I didn’t intend to let it happen, if I could help it. I would stand up. This time I wouldn’t be daring Greg Grant to pummel me, just to see what would happen. I would be trying to stop a senseless beating instead of provoking one. It felt right. I could tell by how terrified I was.
The test didn’t come. Nobody needed the toilet paper, and there were no fights. I didn’t get to find out whether I was only fantasizing about being brave, and I never saw any of those people again.
After my one night in the drunk tank, I mostly stopped looking for trouble.
My tags and license are up to date.