Sunday, July 03, 2005


I never for a minute imagined when he was born that I'd be visiting my firstborn in jail almost exactly 20 years later.

In fact when he went in last Monday, the day after his birthday, I decided he could sit there and stew for a week. Which was the length of his sentence for probabtion violation.The charge was OWI -- operating a vehicle while under the influence of liquor.

"You're not going to go see him?" my friend Ken asked. He was a little disbelieving. He also can't believe I didn't go to my son's court appearance. "He wanted to handle it himself," is what I said. But I felt like I was making excuses.

"You going to visit?" a friend with overnight jail experience asked me before the weekend started.

"You should at least call to see for sure when he gets out," another friend said today.

OK. You guys are right. The kid made his own bed and he's lying in it. But that doesn't mean his mother can't visit and say, "Hi, how ya doin', do you need me to come get you, and when?"

I called the corrections facility. And got nowhere. I have never navigated a phone tree that, when you got to the area you needed, said, "All the lines are busy now, please call back later." Call back later? What happened to "your call is important to us; please stay on the line for the next available operator"? Apparently the county figures it's not in business to please customers.

So I checked the corrections facility website and found out about visiting hours -- Wednesday through Sunday, three times daily. Each inmate can receive one 30-minute visit per week; two people in one visit, max. Suddenly I decided that I had to go. I quickly showered, threw on jeans, a T-shirt, and my tall sandals that don't let my jeans drag (what do moms wear to visit kids in jail?). Then I twisted my hair up atop my head, put on a little makeup, grabbed a magazine and a bottle of water and jumped in the truck.

I'd been to the jail once before to bail him out of the drunk tank. That time all I had to do was pay the lady and wait for him to be sent out into the waiting room. This time I was going in.

I filled out the little yellow slip with his name, my name. Showed my picture ID with DOB. Checked my purse, cellphone, water bottle, magazine into a locker. Then I walked through the metal detector that "isn't working, so we'll have to just pass the wand over you a second."

I headed to the elevator immediately beyond the metal detector and pressed the button to go up, as instructed. The door opened and out came a white woman holding a little brown girl's hand and an older black gentleman wearing a straw hat and a red Hawaiian shirt. When he saw me he stepped back into the elevator and bowed me in before he would get off.

"Ma'am," he asked, leaving, now that I was inside, "If they call me, why should I have to pay?"

"Oh, you absolutely should not," I told him, wondering why I was suddenly part of this re-enactment of a TV spot. He sauntered off without looking back at me. The door closed.

Up the elevator to 1M. Down the hall to another elevator. Up to 2M. The sign in both elevators read:
If the inmate you have just visted has just received upsetting news and seems depressed, please notify the corrections officer as you leave.
Clearly the county could use a copywriter. Stuff like that bothers me; I know it shouldn't.

On 2M I walked the length of the hall and pushed open the door with the sign "2M Visitation." Inside was a long, curved wall of windowed booths, each with a round metal stool and a telephone-like box with a receiver, just like on TV. On the other side of the windowed wall was a catwalk with two flights of stairs leading up to it from the main floor and identical booths with stools and phones. A control room on the main floor was occupied by a couple corrections who allowed the inmates to enter the area and who monitored the visits going on where I now stood.

There was one couple talking at the far end of the row of booths: he in the prison green jumpsuit, she in a red T-shirt. As I stood there looking for my inmate, their alloted 30 minutes of phone time apparently came to an end. "Can we talk longer?" I heard the man shout. "C'mon!" The woman in the control room shook her head vigorously. Time was up. The red T-shirt woman got up and walked past me to the exit. The man sprinted back down the stairs and disappeared through a door under the catwalk.

So far, my son had not appeared. I spied a call button high on the wall near the door and pushed it. "Yes?" A woman's voice inquired, like she hadn't seen me or didn't know why I might be standing there. "I'm here to see my son," I said, and gave his name. "Oh, she said, "Let me see where he's supposed to be."

"It'd better be here," I grumbled to no one in particular. And I waited.

After a few minutes I saw him down on the main floor, looking confused, motioning to the guards in little room, "What do I do? Where do I go?" I was obviously his first visitor. I jumped a little and waved but I knew he couldn't see me.

A few seconds later he found the stairs to the catwalk and bounded up, looking this way, that way, trying to find me. I waved some more and he saw me. A smile crossed his face in spite of himself. Then he gave in and smiled full face, waving a little goofily. We sat down in facing booths, picked up our respective phones and tried to talk. "Can you hear me?" "Nope." We tried again. The woman in the room downstairs called out to him and I could hear her, even throught the glass. "Go down to booth one," she said curtly.

He looked back then motioned for me to move down the row. I jogged down to booth one, laughing, trying to make light of what I knew was an embarrassing moment for him. It was obviously the kind of thing he should've known; it didn't look good to have made such a mistake. Turns out it was my fault for being in the wrong booth; they'd told him where to go before he climbed the stairs. He assumed they'd told me, too, and though it didn't look like I was in anything that could be considered the first booth, well, I usually knew what I was doing, he figured, so ...

He thanked me for making him look dumb. I let it pass. Nobody was around to see it anyway.

In booth one, we sat down and picked up the phones, each on our own side of the window. A recorded voice told us the conversation was being recorded. We said hello, and hello. He pushed the volume button. I asked how he was.

He was fine, he said. It was boring as hell and people talked too much, but he was doing OK. The first night was bad, but after that he'd gotten used to things.

He was glad I came because he didn't know how he was going to get home. You can't call cell phones from any phone in the jail (all we have are cell phones) and he didn'tknow anybody's number except his buddy's down the street, which was a cell anyhow. He didn't have any money for commissary, so he couldn't even get a letter to us (a letter? You'd actually write me a letter? was all I could think).

I told him I wasn't going to visit, but then I thought maybe I'd better come find out when for sure he was getting out and if he needed a ride home.

"Yes," he said pointedly. "Eight o'clock Tuesday morning. Be here. Please be here, Mom." He smiled. Same kid. Same attitude. It's what passes between us.

How was Dad? His sisters? His cat?

I told a story from earlier in the week when I'd scared both cats out of a life by suddenly starting up the coffee grinder as they sat unwitting, one cat on the kitchen table, the other on a kitchen chair.

Did anybody call or stop by?

Two guys, unsavory looking to me, but aren't they all, had stopped by on separate days. I told them where he was. They were sympathetic but not surprised.

I owe them both money, he told me.

He asked: Is my phone charged? Is my new razor still plugged into its charger? Will you check? The razor will be ruined if it's still plugged in ...

Then: I'm really glad you came. I thought I wouldn't have a way to get out of here. And you know me, I'm not even sure where I am. They're not too helpful around here. They probably wouldn't even tell me which way to go to get home ...

"Well, I'll be here at eight," I told him. "I'm off next week, so it won't be a problem. I'll bring your cigarettes. We'll go to breakfast."

"Cracker Barrel," he said. "Yeah, you'd better bring cigarettes for me. I will want one of those for sure."

He said he'd gone to court again on Wednesday and his driver's license was suspended for a year. Sixty to 90 days with no license at all, then a restricted one so he can drive to work and back. He needs to really get a job when he gets out, he says. A real job this time, not one at a gas station or a restaurant. I told him I'd help in any way that I can. Transportation is going to be difficult.

And so the conversation went. After awhile neither of us had much to say, for even though the two of us can carry on hours-long conversations -- and arguments -- this just wasn't the time or place. The 30 minutes was starting to feel long.

Finally he said, "Well, I don't want to be cut off, so I'll say goodbye. I'll see you Tuesday at eight. I love you."

"I love you," I said. And we hung up the phones.

He stood and pressed his palm against the window, fingers spread. I pressed my hand to his. "I love you," I said again. He smiled and walked away, making some kind of sign with his right hand. I walked to the end of the row of booths and exited through the door.

Out in the hallway I traced the long way back downstairs. I retrieved my driver's license from the check-in area and my belongings from the locker. I stopped in the restroom, then I left. I felt in a kind of daze. I suddenly realized my head was pounding.

Back out in the parking lot I walked toward my truck, trying to digest, to make some sense of the whole experience. I took my phone out of my purse, called my husband, and left a message. (He was out of town and didn't know I'd decided to do this.) Then I climbed into the truck and drove out of the correction facility complex. It was some minutes before I collected my senses enough to turn on the CD player, and I turned it on loud. I sang along:

Calling out to the astronaut. I need some of what you got. I need to be high ...

Which is totally dumb, I know. But sometimes that pop-y music is just the thing -- just the right amount of whine in just the right key to let me sing along full voice and make me feel better.

Tuesday morning I'll drive out to the jail again. I'll pick up my boy and give him a cigarette. Then we'll go to breakfast and he can tell me all about what it was like to spend a week in jail. I might cry a little. Then we'll talk about what he's going to do next. I won't be judgemental or get all preachy and he'll appreciate that. We'll figure out something.

Then come Wednesday,Thursday, Friday, we'll see what happens. He won't take things any faster than one day at a time.


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