I came to, or woke up, or whatever I should call the process of becoming aware of my surroundings, in the Yavapai County Jail in Prescott, Arizona. At first I was confused, then I knew I was in jail. My chest tightened with fear. Why was I there?
I started crying, I don't know why. I'm not a big crier, and certainly not when I get busted for something. If I did something and got busted, my reaction was a kind of resigned defiance. I certainly would not cry as if someone were being mean to me. I'd been arrested four times before. Twice I was put in juvenile lock-up, once with a young girl who didn't seem scary at first, but told me she was there for attempted murder. She claimed it wasn't her, she just held her sister's wig and earrings during the knife fight. She was kind enough not to mock my truancy charge.
I'd been locked up ten years earlier in adult jail for illegal hitchhiking. I was in a cell with six other women, one of whom was young and seemed respectable, another of whom was elderly and demented, while the other four were hard luck, alcoholic trailer trash who scared the shit out of me. I'd been arrested and released, not a moment too soon, at a college sit-in. My fellow protesters, aflluent white revolutionary youth, were workng my last nerve. Prescott was kind enough to lock me up all by myself, with no scary or tedious cellmates.
But I started crying. It was a culmination. I had been flunked out of the local college nursing program, for reasons that could only have had to do with racism. They don't like my kind in Arizona. A black law school professor explained it to me (black people have always been kind to me in explaining my rare run-ins with racism, a problem I don't often deal with in the Bay Area). I was "Mexican" (I'm of Salvadoran descent, but the Arizonans of the time made no distinction) and I had a degree from Berkeley. I was the smartest person in my year. It was an affront to my white, fundamentalist instructors.
In spite of my straight A's, I managed to be kicked out on the basis a bad subjective evaluation. I had fought the decision in an academic appeal to the college, which consisted of my professors testifying to my failings. When it came my time to speak, it turned out I had no right to speak. Nurses at the local hospital wrote letters of support, and my English teacher--I took Shakespeare for fun--tried to wing it by presenting my case, since he, as a professor, was allowed to speak. But I had no chance at all. The decision was made that my inadequacies were vast and I had no business being in the program.
I had made a (to me, not the patient) fatal mistake. One mistake, in the last 10 minutes of the semester. We were required to be checked off on a list of hospital procedures. After adjusting drips, doing dressing changes, even performing a gastric lavage, I failed the task of handing a pill to my patient. As the semester wore on, the nursing instructor made herself extremely scarce. She blew me off when I asked to be checked off on procedures. She was setting me up to not complete my required procedure check-offs.
Fortunately, the RNs on the floor could also check you off. I went to them and they got to know me and were willing to help. I had dispensed medications under the supervision of the floor nurses many times, and never missed a step. But the school refused rather arbitrarily to allow me to be checked off on medications by the floor nurses. On the last day of the semester, after I had tried for weeks to get the nursing instructor to check me off on medications, she finally agreed to watch me administer medications during the last 10 minutes of the semester.
Though I'd done this many times under the supervision of the hospital nurses, this time, feeling pressured and nervous with the hostile instructor, I forgot to check my patient's arm band. In my defense, we only had one patient every week. I had checked his armband several times that day. But it was a routine step that you had to learn to do by rote, even if the patient was as familiar as your brother by then.
While this was a required step, the teaching staff routinely overlooked this oversight if the student was able to identify the mistake. I'd seen that happen. The instructor would say, "Did you forget something?" "Oh, yeah, the armband." Pass. Except that one time. Several students, shocked that this happened to me, wrote letters to the academic committee saying that they had passed that procedure in spite of not checking the bracelet. In fact, if a student really screwed up medications, they got a do-over. Except me.
It was something about me. I realized the ultra-conservative, evangelical nurses of the school did not like anything about the annoying Latina from the Sodom and Gomorrah town of San Francisco. I was told not to ask questions in class. I was accused of "flirting" with a friendly patient (Latinas are over-sexed), when what I was doing was going over his rehabilitation history for my semester clinical report. I wrote a killer report, which the instructor never read. A student who flunked his report, a requirement to pass the course, was given time to get help writing it and turn it in that summer.
I could not do anything right. When I advised a maternity patient that it was not a good idea to beat her 4-year-old with a stick (as instructed by the Bible) I also reported the conversation to the instructor. I said I did not think she was an abuser, but maybe some counseling would be helpful. My final evaluation concluded that I did not respect the patient's religion. When I asked if there was a known dangerous level of radiation (actually a conversation a couple of students took part in) that question made it to my clinical evaluation as "questions the authority of doctors to order tests." There was nothing innocuous or even laudable I did that was not recorded as a serious failing.
When the year started, there were quite a number of Indian, Latino and black people. At the end of the first semester, they were all out except for one smart, perky, white-sounding black woman who came into the program with a certain amount of clinical experience. I was supposed to flunk out the first semester, too, but I protested and forced them to re-write my evaluation. The second semester, they were ready for me. I simply wasn't going to pass the clinical evaluation, no matter what I did.
I would have gotten a devastating review no matter what, but I handed them a legitimate issue when I forgot to check the guy's armband. The fact that the requirement was not enforced, and that the hostile situation and last minute nature of the test made it impossible to repeat the procedure, did not mitigate the fact that I had forgotten that one step.
So I was feeling pretty worthless. I had tried to fight. I had even spoken to a young lawyer in town who was so outraged by the case that he offered to take it on contingency. I felt somewhat validated by his take on it, and by the level of support I got from nurses I worked with and fellow students. But ultimately, it was my fault. People like me, female, minority, unintentionally abrasive, not having a sense of my proper place, are not allowed to make mistakes.
Other bad stuff was going on. The guy who I had moved to Arizona to be with had withdrawn from me, while at the same time playing on my guilt to pursuade me not to have other relationships. I gained 20 lbs from the stress. I drank every day. Three drinks were all I allowed myself on weekdays, but weekends were another story. Sometimes I went to one of the historic bars (mahogany bar brought by sailing ship around Tierra del Fuego!) on Whiskey Row. I would drink light beers out of caution, so I could drink steadily and stay in control.
I had already had one experience back home of getting a ride from a bar that ended in a high-speed police chase where I was seriously injured. I still wanted to drink but maybe with less excitement. When I wanted hard stuff, I had it at home. I don't remember being a whiskey drinker, but I do remember drinks with ice, so I must have been doing scotch, or possibly rum. Tim hated my drinking, and I figured he had a nerve, as miserable as he had made my life.
I met this guy from around town, about my age, mellow, cheerful, not pushing any kind of relationship, just wanting to hang out. I knew Eddie for a very short time, as it turned out. Tim was on a rare out of town trip, and I was alone for the weekend. Eddie asked if I'd like to go to a brunch gathering with him, a regular Sunday thing at the home of his friends. There was food, and they served vodka and grapefruit juice.
Strangely enough, I was never wrong about a guy I trusted to keep his paws to himself. Still, guys got me in trouble other ways when alcohol was involved. I went to this party just to meet some new people, people not from nursing school who did not know of my lost battle and disgraceful expulsion from the school. The party was in a subdivision rather far from our rental, which was closer to town. I decided to take my own car and follow Eddie. I was cautious. If I didn't like the company, I could leave and not disturb Eddie. When we got there, the folks were indeed kind of boring, though I remember little of what was said. I was offered a vodka and grapefruit. I said, sure. I figured it was similar to a Bloody Mary, which I'd had at restaurants a few times. While I was not fond of early drinking, a vodka and juice drink was kind of a breakfast tradition. I would have just the one.
I was handed a drink which tasted mainly of fruit juice, though I later learned it contained five shots of vodka. I like grapefruit juice. I found it refreshing. I drank it in about 10 minutes. By 20 minutes, I was feeling strange. I was drunk, but not like any other drunk I had ever experienced. I passed mellow, overtook tipsy, and reached the state of sick, dizzy intoxication within 20 minutes of walking in the door. Oh, I did not feel well at all. I asked Eddie to take me home, as I did not think I could drive. He refused, saying he wanted to stay at the party. That was, I suppose, our deal, but I was in trouble and he left me to fend for myself. I excused myself, saying I wasn't feeling well and went out the door.
I saw my car in the street and left it there. I was fortunate in that, of all the delusions I was capable of when drinking, thinking I could drive was never one of them. My cars had to get used to being abandoned at other people's houses until I could sober up and reclaim them. I have no sense of direction, but I chose a direction and walked and walked. Somewhere along the route, I noticed that I was not carrying my purse. Could I have left it at the house? Could I have dropped it? I never got it back. At that moment though, I realized that I did not have a key and that Tim wasn't home. I didn't have a friend in that town that I would just drop in on. My last conscious thought before I woke up in jail was, "I'll just break a window." This is what my family did when we got locked out, broke a window. I thought everybody did that.
Something went wrong, crazy wrong. Whatever I did, it must have been bad. Too much noise? Drunken antics? Hysteria? Or perhaps this was just what happened to outcasts and misfits. You go to jail, because jail's for hopeless fuck-ups and failures, and it's especially appropriate that you don't even know how you got there. I started crying, out of fear and despair.
"That's right, let it all out. That's the best thing to do." The young man's voice, soft, came from around a corner, from a cell that was hidden from me. Apparently, men and women were separated by a bend in the hallway.
"Who are you?" I asked, humiliated that anyone had heard me cry. "I'm sorry, I thought I was alone."
"Don't be ashamed. I can't tell you how many times I've cried in jail cells." It was the first kind, understanding, supportive statement I'd heard since moving to Arizona. Simple kindness from a stranger in another cell. A miracle.
We talked. He asked what I was there for and I said I had no idea. He advised me to call the guard and ask. I did, and I was stunned to learn that I had been arrested from trying to break into a house on Terrace Road. What house? The deputy consulted a report. "It says 922 Terrace Road."
"But I live there!"
The cop was dismissive. For one thing, I had no purse, and no ID. For another, I was not charged with breaking and entering, or trespassing, or anything that could be tied to the address. I was charged with disorderly conduct. I later learned that the cop who arrested me claimed on his report that I had assaulted him, though I was not charged with assault or resisting arrest. They gave me the catch-all charge, something easily justified.
Still, I was indignant. I realized by then that I had been stinking drunk on my one drink, and very likely had trouble explaining myself (which, as hungover as I was, was still a problem) but surely when the police understood the situation, they would let me go.
They did not. The deputy, giving me typical cop legal advice, told me my choices were to plead guilty, pay a $50 fine and go home, or wait another day for court to be in session, plead not guilty, have bail set, find a lawyer, and fight the charge in court. By now, my boyfriend was home. He was willing to come get me and bring $50 dollars. I had to get out of there. I agreed to pay the ransom.
Meanwhile, the young man was still there, and we continued to talk in between negotiations with the cops. He was a protected witness, a drug snitch. He had a handler in Phoenix, and the DEA had placed him in Prescott jail for his protection. But he hated it there. He said it was the worst he'd ever been in. The cops loved to fuck with him. The food was terrible. They would not let him contact his agent. Would I call the agent for him and ask that he be moved? Of course I would. I memorized the agent's name.
Sometime that morning, an older woman was placed in a facing cell. She was there for passing bad checks. She had a daughter that she wanted to notify, but she lived in another county, and the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department did not allow phone calls outside of Prescott and environs. She had no way of contacting her daughter. Would I call her?
Those were my first clients. They gave me something to think about besides my horrible situation. Eventually, I was taken to court, where I bitterly pled guilty. A board judge ordered a $50 fine. Tim paid. He was surprisingly gentle when he understood the situation, though I think he secretly blamed me as much as I did.
I did not forget my promises. I called the DEA agent in Phoenix. I told him that it was urgent that he move his witness. He said, "Ok, I'll handle it." I called the daughter of the incarcerated woman and told her that she needed to bring a couple hundred dollars and she agreed. I wish I could have done more to be sure that they got out.
The next day, I got a call from Eddie apologizing for not taking me home when I asked. "Uh, that's ok." I didn't want to get into it. I no longer trusted Eddie.
But he was sincerely apologetic. "This wouldn't have happened if I had taken you home."
"What wouldn't have happened?"
"You wouldn't have gotten arrested."
Shit. "How did you know that?"
"It's in today's paper."
In the newspaper. Where everyone from the hospital, the school, could read it. Why did I cry in the jail cell? For the same reason I wanted the earth to swallow me. For the shame.
Strangely, I felt no guilt at all. I had not done anything. Things had happened to me. But I felt the daily shame of being an outcast in my environment, of being unwanted and not tolerated for reasons I would understand later on, but which at the time I thought had to do with my innate inferiority. The only redeeming aspect of the whole debacle was that I was able to be of service to my fellow inmates.
I never told anyone about it, not friends, not family. I have a million stories, many of which are funny whether or not they make me look good. But that one carried a special charge of shame, and it was for years my skeleton in the closet. When a close friend confided that she had spent the night in jail for reckless driving, I could not bring myself to tell her that I'd been in jail, too. The shame defies logic.
Shortly after being arrested, I packed my struggling Volvo wagon and came home to San Francisco, where people like me are unremarkble and anonymous. Within a few years, I was onto my next career, teaching. I pushed the incident into an unvisited corner of my mind.
When Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested for breaking into his own house in 2009, my experience, which I'd largely avoided thinking about for 30 years, came back to me. I decided to to speak about it, to exorcise the shame, make it a funny story. After all, it was topical. Me and Henry Louis Gates. The hilarity of becoming blackout drunk on one drink. The absurd futility of trying to argue to the cops, "But it's my house!" I can tell it as a funny story.
But I can't write it that way.