Before I was taken to my jail cell, the guards made me undress and put on ‘blues’. My new wardrobe. Criminal pajamas. Then one of them taunted me by loudly spitting out from over his desk, “Hope you don’t have claustrophobia!”
I did have a fear of enclosed spaces and being trapped. This was just the beginning of my fears rising up like demons and destroying any sense of calm I had when I entered the jailhouse.
I looked at the guards in silence and they reminded me of my father. He was a prison guard for 25 years. Somewhere inside my head, I heard his voice yelling and calling me punk, loser, and shitbird.
The guards took me through a heavy, locked door and marched me down a white, windowless hallway through a series of corridors connected by small rooms. Each one required permission from faceless other guards. I heard men’s and women’s voices, guttural and blunt, speaking into intercoms allowing us through until we arrived in a large common area.
There, various inmates wandered around scuffling between tasks, but most were in their cells looking out from behind glass. Caged animals. There were no bars and no one’s arms and hands hanging out from them catcalling like in a movie. It was eerily quiet.
I was brought to a cell. Through the plate glass door, I saw dirty white cement walls, a double bunk bed to the left, and a seatless metal toilet to the right. The toilet was inches from the head of a gray-haired and unshaven man who had his hands clasped behind his head looking at me. The door slid open, I was escorted into the cell, and then the heavy, glass door slammed, reverberating off the walls.
My heart sped up, my skin began to blister with panic-stricken goosebumps and my breathing accelerated. I was locked in.
My new cellmate lifted himself up, arching his back because his head nearly touched the bed above him. He stuck his head out from the bunk beds and said, “How are ya? I’m Tom Cat, but they call me the Owl Man. You wanna know why?”
I responded, “I’m ok. Not really…but…yeah…ok. Why? Why are you the Owl Man?”
“See behind you, in the corner of the glass there. That’s an owl from a magazine. When I find ’em, I tear ’em out and stick ’em there in the glass. I get to look at ’em until the guards come in and tear ’em down. So, see there…I’m the Owl Man!” and he belted out a hearty laugh.
“You got the top bunk, kid,” he said. “They won’t give us no pillows, but I’ll show ya how to make one out of a towel. We get new towels tomorrow.”
There was no ladder, so I used the bottom bed to hop up, pulled myself up, and situated myself cross-legged. My head grazed the ceiling and I felt a coarse, dark gray blanket under me. Under that was a thin, bare mattress.
“What do ya think of these Bob Barkers?” Tom Cat the Owl Man asked from under me.
“Sorry…what?” I asked still staving off panic and in caged shock.
His finger pointed out and down to the sandals on the concrete floor and he said, “These shoes they make us wear.”
In addition to our blues, we wore white socks which we then slipped into tan, plastic sandals. ‘Bob Barker’ was written on the bottom.
“You’d think he made enough money on The Price is Right and wouldn’t have to sell shoes so criminals like us had somethin’ to wear in here. Ha ha ha!”
Tom Cat the Owl Man liked to talk. I quickly learned that he was 67 years old, he had done time on several other occasions, and he was doing nine months for driving on a suspended license. He and I now shared our six-foot by twelve-foot cell.
In the corner near the locked door, there was a desk and chair. On it were various items in plastic packaging: cinnamon rolls, Ramen noodles, and decaf coffee. Over the top of the items, a laminated magazine page with a barn owl perched on an old, wooden window frame stared at us from the glass.
“That’s my commissary by the owl picture. They told me yer not in long, so I’ll share some of it with ya. But they don’t give us real coffee.”
Tom Cat was a generous man and though he talked endlessly, his voice was a drone and a source of distraction. It kept me somewhat calm. I could have been stuck with anyone in there, but Tom was a gentleman.
‘Inside’ was a very different world than ‘outside’ and I became hardened to my own emotions fast, swallowing them and staying quiet.
I looked out the glass door of our cell at the two stories of other cells and the men stuck behind them. Sitting and staring out back at me. We were monkeys and gorillas and orangutans. Captured from our habitats and brought into captivity, but the only guests at this zoo were stoic, angry-faced guards.
The other inmates were Latinos with big, wide eyes. Black men with shaved heads and tattoos. Pasty, gaunt white men. Some with their blues pants rolled up like shorts or wearing their shirts around their waists like kilts. Few smiled. They looked sickly, lost, angry, and scared.
We were let out each day for two hours of community time in the common area. The rest of the time we were in our cells other than when we gathered our meals. Then we’d immediately bring our food back, we were locked in again, and we ate. Showers were allowed every third day. And occasionally, an inmate would get out to receive pills from the nurse or to receive a visitor from the outside.
During my first two hours in the commons, I learned more about these men. When our cell doors slid open, inmates made a mad dash for one of two TVs, or to get outside to the courtyard and fresh air. One TV played Spanish shows and the other English. Groups of men grabbed plastic chairs and huddled around both sets. I was surprised to see that the English TV played a reality show about a prison in Tennessee and the detainees were quickly engrossed.
I needed a book to occupy my mind, so I went to the library cart and surveyed what was there. Old magazines sat in stacks near paperbacks you’d find in grocery store aisles. I chose Michael Crichton and took it outside for air.
The outdoor courtyard was small and circular — about the size of a half basketball court. In the middle, black and white men sat together at a metal table talking about doing time in other jails and how nice this one was. They talked about their many months spent in holes, and in prison buses being transported from state to state for trials. Men complained about their attorneys and how they got screwed by them.
On the outside of the circle, several Latino men meandered speaking in Spanish. I moved to the outside with them and looked up. Above us, a grate allowed slivers of sunlight to pierce through. I allowed the light to hit me. Then I heard a voice with a thick Spanish accent say, “Hello. What are you doing here?”
“I’m in jail, amigo,” I said hard and blunt.
“No, no,” he said with kind eyes. “You look different. I am here because they caught me working. I’m illegal. From Guatemala. I’ve waited for 13 months to get a trial.”
“I’m so sorry. Es terrible,” I said.
Over his shoulder, I saw an overweight, middle-aged man secretly crush a nurse-provided aspirin and then snort it. Afterward, he complained about waiting too long for his trial because he sneered, “They say I touched some kids.”
I looked at my Guatemalan acquaintance and simply said, “I must go back inside.”
Once I returned to the community area, I went to a high counter where a guard stood and I asked him for paper and pencil. He gave me several sheets that had already been printed on one side. The blank side of these pages, my pencil, and my paperback book would keep me sane for the next 22 hours until lockdown ended again.
Jail was a place of inequity where those on the fringe ended up. Those with less financial opportunity. Raised in homes of abuse, addiction, and poverty. Illegal immigrants, drug users, traffic violators, violent offenders, alcoholics, and drug dealers. These same criminals walked free among people every day on the outside. But we had been caught.
Many of us were closer to the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Men who couldn’t afford anyone but court-appointed defense attorneys. Prosecutors and judges told us we were bad men and we were being punished for our various crimes.
Dinner came a few hours later. When they let us out it was a slow, laborious zombie scramble for plates that looked like those you’d get in the school lunch line in elementary school. Slopped onto our plastic trays was a melange of various piles, boiled meat, and reconstituted dried vegetable mash. Then, we’d walk slowly back to our cells to eat.
Tom Cat was ecstatic when he learned that I told the guards I was allergic to poultry. It was a lie. I just didn’t eat it. Instead, I received two roast beef sandwiches on white bread. I gave one to the Owl Man.
“Roast beef! Roast god damn beef!” Tom exclaimed. “Usually we get this once a month. But you got me eatin’ it now. Oh man, you’re a good cellmate, G. You’re a good one to have around. I wish you was stayin’ longer.”
I watched him take a big bite then said, “I’m glad my time in here is short, Tom Cat. I’ll be happy to be outta here as soon as possible. But I’m glad you like the sandwich.”
Tom Cat the Owl Man had many stories about the outside — some I believed. He said he owned a houseboat and several houses. He said his ole lady was a former junkie who drove a limo for the mob. He said he’d been picked up for doin’ nothing, just drivin’ a semi. Inside, he was a professional criminal. A skilled inmate.
I listened to the Owl Man while watching the TVs play in the community area but couldn’t hear either TV. Inside our cell, other than Tom, I heard other inmates mumbling through the walls mixed together with the hard slamming of doors.
When it was time for lights out, that only meant time to go to sleep. But the lights stayed on in our cells and I barely slept.
At 6:00 am, I was startled awake from one of my fits of sleep with guards yelling, “Breakfast! Up!”
We scuffled to get our trays of food and when Tom and I returned to our cell to eat, he said, “That food looks like shit so much that it makes me wanna take a shit!”
Then, he went, sat down on the metal toilet inches from our bunk, and defecated.
Blue pants still around his ankles, he looked up at me from the toilet and said, “When you get out, make sure and tell your ole lady about Tom Cat and how looking at that guano made him wanna shit! Ha ha ha ha! Guano!!”
Every time meals were served after that, he called the food guano and reminded me of his name for it.
Later that day, an abrasive guard with a crew cut opened our cell door without warning and yelled, “Can’t have this! Ya know ya can’t have this, ya dirtbags!” Then, he tore down our barn owl.
After he left with the crumpled photo of the beautiful nocturnal bird in his fist, the Owl Man laughed and made fun of him. Then he said, “Don’t worry. We’ll get another bird, G.”
During my time in jail, we never found another owl in a magazine to replace that one.
When the morning came that I would be let out, I impatiently watched the community area for a guard with keys approaching our cell. In my mind, anything could go wrong and I’d be left inside.
Below me in his bed, I heard Tom Cat stirring. Then, he asked with childish innocence, “You’ll come visit me, right?”
“I will, man,” I replied. Sleepy and anxious to walk the white-walled hallways through unlocked gates to freedom.
Then, he asked, “Can you do me a favor? Can you find a magazine with an owl? Cut out the picture and bring it to me, will ya?”
“You got it, Tom Cat. I got you covered, man. I’ll find a good owl.”
When I returned to freedom and emerged into the sunlight, I took a day to recover. Then, I went to a grocery store and freely walked the aisles among the mothers pushing carts with children, mist raining down on fresh vegetables, and music gently playing overhead.
I found a magazine rack and scanned it until I located a National Geographic. No one yelled, watched me, or slammed doors as I paged through the magazine.
Eventually, I found the perfect photograph of an owl for Tom Cat. I made sure he received it with the hope the owl would stay up in his cell until the Owl Man was free again.