by George Potter
I have seen a preview of Hell.
They call it "Receiving", at Cook County Jail.
Imagine -- 110 men, exhausted from a night spent in the just above freezing holding cells of the Grand and Central Police Station. From there we are packed like cattle into three paddy wagons -- basically sitting on top of each other. Several are junkies undergoing severe dope sickness -- vomiting every few minutes. One of them explosively shits on himself. The man next to him, disgusted, elbows him hard in the jaw and knocks him mercifully unconscious. Another man is just climbing down into the desperate pit of the DT's... shivering violently, crying, shoved into a corner as the cuffs that connect him to his neighbor bite into his wrist hard enough to draw blood.
And we haven't even arrived in the true Inferno yet. This is just the first circle.
I sit somewhere in the midst of this horror; this cage of horrendous noise and filth and stench, fighting to stay calm, praying to a God I'm not sure exists just to help me through this ordeal. I am bleached pale, bleeding from a host of scratches on my face, and dressed in only a ago T-shirt and shorts, shoes with no laces and no socks.
I am the only white face in this crowd of dark skins.
I am a ghost.
"I'm just giving you boy's a warning." says the affable driver of the paddy wagon as we pull to a stop in the fenced and guarded lot of Cook County Jail. "These guys here -- they don't fuck around. These are some mean sonofabitches . Don't argue, don't back talk -- hell... try not to say anything that's not an answer to a direct question."
A couple of guys laugh -- hard assed little gangbangers . They've been taken it all in stride, chatting cheerfully about seeing this guy or that guy, and what ward they'll end up on.
"Yeah, go ahead and ignore me smart asses. Go ahead. These guys will hurt you. They'll hurt you and laugh. They've been sued, people have been fired, careers ruined. It doesn't stop them. They have a code."
He's talking about the Cook County Sheriff's Department. I will soon learn that this man is no liar, and is telling me the absolute truth with nothing but virtuous motive.
"Just stay quiet and do what you're told. You'll be OK."
But he was wrong about that part.
* * *
We are unloaded from the wagon, two by two -- squinting in sudden bright sunlight. I look around at the gray on gray lot that leads up to a towering ugly building as we are herded into a long line pressed up against that building and told to sit. We sit, like good doggies.
The guy I'm handcuffed to stretches out and kicks back, enjoying the sun. "Better enjoy it now, dawg ." he tells me. "Might not see it again for awhile."
I met him the night before, in the holding cell, as I shivered in the air-conditioning. He introduced himself as "Squeak".
"What you in for? Simple?" he asks, noticing my bleeding face and referring to "simple assault".
"Domestic Violence." I correct him. He laughs.
"Looks like you got the worst of it, homey."
I agree. A screaming match had let up to slapping that turned into clawing that turned into me shoving her onto the couch. This led to the police being called, which led to me being led out of my home, handcuffed and bleeding, as she settled in to finish her second liter bottle of white zin .
"How is it" I asked the arresting officer "that I get my face torn up and she gets pushed away in defense -- and yet I go to jail?"
"Well, she called." replied the bored cop. "If you wanted her taken in, you should have called. That's the way it works. Don't blame me for the system."
The grand justice of the System. "Let they who be quicker to appeal to The State be accorded its benevolence."
"You want to file a complaint?" the cop asked. "That face is grounds enough for us to take her in, too."
I didn't even bother to ask who would watch my sleeping daughter. I just said no, disgusted.
"Then shut up whining." says the cop, who fires up the cruiser and heads for Grand and Central.
* * *
Squeak laughs loud and long at my story, without a trace of derision. "Damn, homes. That sucks. You need to stay away from those Polish bitches though... they nuts."
"What about you? What did they grab you for?"
Squeak grins. "Got me with a hundred rocks. I was on the way to a drop. I'm gonna be inside for a while, homes."
We are interrupted by a voice from the next cell. "Anybody want bud? I got the flame .."
Since we are going to County in the morning, the search they did was minimal, knowing that we would be flushed inside and out by the diligent Sheriffs brings out the laziness of the Chicago station rat. A minimal pat down, shoelace confiscation and into the cell. They even left us the money in our pockets.
"Once second, bro" Squeak says. " Bidness ."
Squeak goes and haggles with the unseen dealer in the next cell. He returns minus a hundred bucks, with five fat dubsacks in small re closable plastic packs, imprinted with hearts.
As we continue the conversation, he swallows the weed, packet by packet.
"Better than money on the inside, homes."
* * *
The line leading into Hell moves slowly. The progress is weary -- stand, shuffle forward a few paces, sit back down on the concrete and wait. Eventually, though, we make our way to the huge doors that mark the mouth of the inferno.
"Don't worry, homes. You won't be here long. Bond'll be set 'round noon Won't be no more than a couple hunnert . You be out by tonight... tomorrow tops."
But he is wrong. My preview of hell will last three days.
As we step up to the gatekeeper -- an obscenely fat and red faced Sheriff who will take a peculiar and sadistic interest me as the hours of this endless day pass -- we are greeted with a mocking and hearty salute:
"Got us a lil ' two-toned couple here, boys!" the Pigman says and laughs. "It's a shame to break up such a cute pair!"
He unlocks us from the cuffs and sends Squeak on ahead.
I say goodbye to the sunlight and step through the door, stomach boiling with fear.
" Goddam . There ain't nothing that sickens me more than a lil ' scared white boy." Pigman grunts.
"Keep your fucking hands behind your back and your head down, shit -- or I'll beat some respect into your skinny ass."
He shoves me heard into another line -- another line in an infinite series of lines that await me, as I leave the world of air and light and embark upon my preview of Hell.
"Welcome to Cook County, ghost."
* * *
The search pen in Cook County jail is a graffiti strewn concrete room that measures 25 feet by 25 feet and boasts length spanning concrete benches that provide the minimum in human comfort. As we are passed in, we are marked with a number on our arms, in indelible black ink.
We are hustled into this pen and seated. A group of Sheriffs glare at us, the Pigman among them. He tosses a plastic bowl onto the floor. As it rattles to a halt, another of his ilk begins what has the feel of an oft spoken but still much loved speech:
"Listen up you worthless pieces of dog shit. This is your last chance. Shoes off. Pockets emptied. Put everything in front of you, beside your shoes. We're gonna turn our backs. You have one minute to put any contraband in the bowl. One minute. Anything your caught with after this means your ass."
I comply. I have no contraband. Beside my shoes I place 65 cents, a wallet containing three one dollar bills, an Illinois state ID and various scrap pieces of paper.
No one else places any contraband into the bowl either.
"All right you fuckers. You were warned." Pigman says, perhaps pissed that there would be no rocks to smoke at break time.
The sheriffs busy themselves in bagging up out property and impatiently waiting for us to label it with the same number that was inscribed on out arms. Then we are patted down thoroughly. They then make us rip the soles of our shoes out, and poke around in them for a bit.
From somewhere, I hear an angry voice say " Motherfucker , these are 150 dollar Jordans .." and I turn to see a young gangbanger take a blow to the head. As he drops, several Sheriffs get their licks in. They laugh, seemingly happy to have an example.
I shudder visibly. To the right of me sits an older man -- a battered looking Hispanic. He seems oddly calm, complacent -- as if he's sitting on a beach somewhere, enjoying the sun. He sees my reaction, and shakes his head.
"Don't worry. Just stay cool and it'll be OK. They're trying to break us. You know how to keep from getting broke don't you?"
"How?" I ask.
"Act broke." he replies, and winks at me.
* * *
Long hours pass, after the Sheriffs leave and the cons tell their stories. After a few dozen, I simply can't listen to anymore. Or tell mine anymore. I lie down on the cold concrete and close my eyes, trying to pretend I'm somewhere else.
What we are waiting on is a bond hearing. When it finally arrives, it is one of the most surreal experiences of my life -- like something out of Orwell, made odder by my shot-to-hell nerves and lack of sleep.
Once again we are lined up, and taken one by one to stand in front of a video camera. Above the camera is a large color monitor. On this monitor is -- I kid you not -- a judge in full dress robes standing at a podium, looking at his own monitor on which my own bedraggled form appears.
I am asked to say nothing and can understand not a word that is said -- the volume is too low. Figures on the monitor interact, reading from files, mouths moving in garbled speech. The judge mumbles something, and bangs a gavel. I am hustled away from the camera and informed: "Your bond was set at 200 dollars."
I am returned to the pen and left to wonder if I hallucinated the entire experience.
* * *
We are at last fed. I haven't eaten since breakfast the day before... almost 30 hours. We are handed plastic bags that contain two cold bologna sandwiches on bread hard enough to hurt someone with; an apple; a small container of juice and a cookie. The juice is warm and the cookie is a bit state , but I wolf it down and am grateful for it.
About an hour later we are herded from the search pen and deep into the guts of the jail. In my mind I imagine passing from the Second Circle into the Third -- and I wonder what new horrors await. It's not long until I find out.
We are lined up against the wall and -- for some odd reason -- this moment is chosen to return our shoelaces -- laboriously saved, sorted and numbered from the station house. It may sound odd, but after hours of walking in loose and ill-fitting shoes, the small luxury of shoelaces is enough to brighten one's mood.
Not that it lasts long.
I spot a piece of gravel on a bench. Incongruous -- a little piece of outside here on the inside. I pick it up.
"What the fuck are you doing?" a Sheriff shouts, grabbing my hand and taking the piece of gravel.
"I just picked up a rock." I say.
"He probably thought it was a crack rock." Pigman laughs.
I actually laugh. "Yeah. What would that be ..like a 200 dollar rock?"
My head is rocked back by a slap as Pigman nails me. "You mouthy little shit."
I swallow hard and fight down a wave of desperate hate.
"These motherfuckers always on some shit." says the guy who got thumped in the search pen.
"Shut that shit up." growls a Sheriff.
" Yo , pig ..suck my fucking' dick!"
The Sheriff grabs him, smashing him against the wall, but this time he decides to fight back, and elbows backwards hard -- catching the Sheriff in the nose and shattering it. Blood paints the hall.
In an instant, five Sheriffs are on the boy, smashing, clubbing and spraying with pepper spray.
We all leap back, shocked, out of the way. "Holy fuck. Midget went off!" someone says.
Despite the beating and toxic chemicals, I am stunned by the fact that the little son of a bitch wont give up. He keeps coming back up -- screaming, punching, kicking and cursing. In seconds, he has been reduced to a bloody and writhing mess on the floor, surrounded by uniformed thugs.
I feel sick to my stomach. I want to help him. I want to leap into the fight. I want to rip one of these concrete benches from the floor and shatter skulls and hurt these mother fuckers.
I am grateful that a gun does not magically appear in my hand. There would be five dead men on the floor, and an interesting news story about a violent incident and a dead white boy for the soccer moms on the evening news.
The boy is barely conscious when a stretcher from the infirmary arrives. He is loaded onto it like a sack of potatoes. As they carry him off, this young man -- who's name I do not know -- musters the strength for one final act of defiance. He raises his hand, middle finger outstretched, like a salute to the men who beat him down.
Fuck you pigs.
Until the day I die, I will carry that image with me in my head. I will think of it when I feel oppressed, as an image of freedom that may not be denied. Of defiance.
* * *
We are hustled into a vast and crowded room where we shall be interviewed, re interviewed, numbered, re-numbered, categorized and classified again and again and again. Every move we make is ordered. Every step we take is approved.
All I can do is wish for a place to lie down, some quiet, and a few hours of sleep. It has become apparent that I will not be allowed use of a phone today, nor a shower. Fear and desperation create their own kind of stench, and I reek with it.
We are lined up yet again.
"What now?" I ask the guy next to me.
"Medical." he tells me. "Blood drawn, TB test, and the Dick Doctor."
I go woozy. I have a fear of needles that has been with me since childhood. I see static at the edges of my vision and bite down on my tongue to keep from fainting. Somehow, I remain conscious.
"What the hell is the Dick Doctor?" I ask.
"Well, you whip out your dick, and they jab a q-tip into the hole, twist it around, and pull it out." I am informed, in the tone of a man describing the proper way to put hang a shower curtain. "It hurts like a son of a bitch."
We are processed through, like an assembly line. When I emerge from the other end, into what seems like the millionth cavernous room, I am humiliated, sore and shaking. For a moment, everything seems like a dream. A nightmare. I'll wake up in a minute, gasping, and the dark confines of my bedroom will materialize around me. I will snuggle up to my woman and wait for the images to fade from my mind. Maybe the baby will wake up in her typical good mood and we can go into the living room and play until she gets sleepy again...
I sit on the hard concrete bench and cry. I know it isn't going to happen. A man I met earlier pats me good naturedly on the back. "No worry." he says in his limited English. "It get better, bro." His name is Umberto .
We are fed again -- another packet of bologna sandwiches. I force them down, too tired to even care.
A guy in the corner of the room freaks out suddenly. Delirium Tremens. He has been shaking all day, and sick. He suddenly begins screaming that he's going to kill himself, and starts smashing his head into the wall. He is subdued by other prisoners, then dragged away by the Sheriffs, to the Psyche ward.
"Fucking ass holes!" someone mutters.
Suddenly Pigman and his brethren are in the room. "Who the fuck said that? Huh? Who fucking said it?"
No one answers.
"All right, fucks. Up against the walls, palms flat. We're gonna play a little game."
We all comply. The Sheriff's begin to make their way around the room. Some men they tap on the shoulder. Some men the playfully punch in the arm. Others though, get a hard blow to the kidneys. "Who said it? Whoooo said it?" they keep asking.
Pigman catches me three times. Every pass, he catches me. And he laughs.
But the mother fucker only makes me scream once, on that third shot.
And nobody rats.
Eventually -- whether they grow bored or are on some form of schedule -- the Sheriffs give up, and continue with their duties.
We are broken up into small groups, and lined up yet again. We are stripped searched, forced to lift and spread and perform a bizarre dance that I am actually nub to. It feels as if someone else is doing all of these embarrassing activities, and I am simply observing.
The groups continue to be broken into smaller units. We are given jail clothes -- dirty beige. The outfit I'm given is a hilarious mismatch. The pants are at least two sizes too small, while the shirt balloons on me like a gown. It doesn't matter. I dress in my numbness, right side a blaze of fire, and follow instructions like a robot.
We are finally broken into pairs, and assigned temporary sleeping cells for the night. The idea of sleep seems like a golden, faraway dream. I do not allow myself to believe it full -- since it may turn out to be a lie.
I end up paired with Umberto . "Worst part over now, bro. You see!" he says.
I simply nod, and hope like hell he's right.
* * *
It turns out that, because of a lack of space, Umberto and I have been placed for the night in Lock Down Ward -- where the troublemakers go. This is where they pen the big mouths and the fighters, the prisoners caught with drugs or "weapon materials"; with porno or gun magazines.
We are signed in and led to a cell. Curious eyes peer out from the meager slits of the cell doors as we pass. We are greeted.
" Yo , ghostie ! Yo , ricky ! Welcome to Lock Down! You homies smoke? I got squares... one juice or one dessert for a square! You come see me dawgs , hear?"
" Yo yo , fuck his cheap ass! I got two squares for a juice! Two motherfuckin ' squares!"
The Sheriff leading us ignores the greetings, as do we -- not knowing what the hell to say. The thought of a cigarette makes my mouth water, though.
We arrive at the cell, and are ushered in. It's a tiny, L-shaped room with a toilet, a sink, a scratched and utterly non-reflective steel mirror, and two hard bunks. We are given one sheet and one blanket each. Then the door is slammed shut and auto locks.
I take a piss, and am not surprised to see the bright red presence of blood in the urine stream. My right side aches like a rotten tooth -- a deep seated throb that it seems I can almost hear. I think of the Pigman and grit my teeth in a rage so intense that I shake with it. I imagine hunting him through the wooded mountainsides of Kentucky , following his stinking spoor as he runs terrified through the unforgiving scrub of holly-bushes and stinging nettles, of finding him trapped at the base of a sheer, crumbling cliff face and approaching him, grinning, as I bring up my .308 for a clean neck shot...
I make up my bunk, wanting nothing more than to fall asleep and kill the hours until I can contact my family and set into motion the mechanics of being freed. I sit gingerly on the edge of the bed, trying to ignore the ache in my side.
Then the sing-a-long commences.
In lock down at Cook County , the night always begins with a freestyle rhyme contest that continues into the wee hours of the morning. The beat is provided by pounding on the echoing steel of the cell walls, the vocals by the Lock Downers in a series. Each prisoner is allowed to rhyme as long as he doesn't break flow... and as long as his efforts are appreciated. If he flubs or gets repetitive, he will be shouted down and the guy in the next cell will start up. The entire process is competitive entertainment made interactive by the audience participation in cheering or shouting down each contestant.
And, those who don't compete are expected to contribute start-ups. One startup for each non-competing cell, worked out on a system that remains a mystery to me, but was no doubt honed by tradition. All I do know is that, on occasion, I would hear someone speak a few words, or be prompted to speak a few words, and the current competitor would launch into an intricate, usually quite violent and raucously sexual freestyle rhyme story -- until he either grew tired or was shouted down.
I am beginning to drowse into sleep, despite the pounding and raised voices, when someone in the next cell thumps. " Yo ! In the cell! Start up!"
I am silent. I really don't know what to say.
"Come on ghost! Your turn, homey!"
From somewhere, the words come to me. It is not a conscious decision -- it is pure emotion that speaks with my voice -- and I hear it say:
Oh lord, if hate were a gun
You'd be dead and buried so deep.
Your mother would cry,
Your children would weep,
but I would dance on your grave.
There is an odd silence. At first, I expect derisive laughter from the Lock Downers. Then comes an answer, in a voice that echoes with respect, and I receive one of the finest compliments of my life. "Damn, dawg . That's some cold ass shit."
The primitive, inescapable rhythm begins again -- insistent and unstoppable, the primordial defiance of men beating on the walls of their own cages. A juggernaut of sound. A voice joins it -- ragged but flowing, searching for the right pattern like a cat stalks a mouse. It finds it suddenly, with the audible click of a key in a lock, and I hear my own words taken and transformed, made solid and meaning drenched.
Others join in, in a lock step pattern, variations on the theme, until a chorus of voices cry out in that same elemental act of defiance -- a challenge tossed out to the captors by captives who refuse to lie down and shut up.
Oh lord, if hate were a gun
You'd be dead and buried so deep!
Your mother would cry,
Your children would weep,
but I would dance on your grave!
I look across the cell and Umberto is grinning at me. He says something to me in Spanish, but it's drowned out in the thunder of the rhyme. I wouldn't have understood his words anyway.
I lie down, exhausted and emotionally wasted. The storm of voices and noise around me seems to wrap me in a protective cocoon as I close my eyes. I am drifting into sleep, and it feels as if someone were turning the volume on a blaring stereo down very slowly.
The last thing I think of before slipping under is this: I will never hear a rap song again without knowing what it really is, deep in its fundamentally angry heart:
The battle cry of the defiant.
Sleep takes on a different meaning in jail. Sleep becomes an intermittent thing, something you dive in and out of, like a blissfully cool pool on a hot day. You surface to various sounds of reality: cell doors slamming, guards changing shift, boots clanging down a hall.
At 4:30 am breakfast arrives. The food is bland and cold, but I eat anyway. It's something to do. I save the juice for later. I'm dying for a cigarette.
I lie back in my bunk and stare at the graffiti covering the wall. It seems that there's not a single square inch that hasn't been marked, personalized, by the uncounted hordes who came before me. Most are gang signs and slogans. A few are religious affirmations and bible verses. One is a monotonous countdown to freedom, inscribed in a surprisingly precise hand with a felt-tip pen. "In 36 days, J.S.D will be a free man!", "In 35 days, J.S.D will be a free man!", "In 34 days, J.S.D will be a free man!" and on and on, until it ends with, "TODAY I AM A FREE MAN."
I admire this unknown chroniclers tenacity, and silently wish him well.
Before I dive back into sleep I find a stub of pencil, wedged between the thin plastic coated mattress and the bunk frame. On the wall, I add my own contribution to the mosaic: "George Potter Loves Lily Elizabeth Potter, now and forever." I laugh at my own sentimentality. I wonder what those who come after me will think of it?
* * *
Hours later the door to the cell opening wakes me. "You boys can come on out." says a Sheriff. "You aren't on lock down. Phones are out here. You can get a shower. Smoke ' em if you got em ."
Umberto ignores him, snoring. I emerge with the saved breakfast juice. "Who's got a smoke?" I ask.
Instantly, a small auction ensues, as various cells try to win the 6 ounce prize. I end up with two hand rolled cigarettes and a book with two matches. I later discover why the juice is so prized: it's used to make "hooch" -- a crudely fermented alcoholic drink that is -- in turn -- used as currency by the inmates.
I discover that Umberto and I weren't the only newbies quartered in lock down. I greet two other faces I met in Receiving the day before. They are using the two pay phones, and the shower is occupied, so I lean against the wall and fire up one of the cigarettes. Relief floods my nicotine starved body and I relax, enjoying a slight buzz.
When the shower is free, I pass half the smoke to one of the guys on the phone. No sense in being stingy.
Hot water hits me like a blessing, washing the way the stink of two days of fear and anxiety. I stand under the high pressure water and let it wash away the caked blood on my face, reveling even in the sting of the opened scratches.
I emerge, feeling much better. The torment of the Receiving process had stifled my spirit, but sleep, food, a cigarette and the luxury of hot water has revived it. I am ready to fight again.
But I will remember to act broke.
* * *
A problem presents itself: the phone company that provides service to my home does not allow collect calls as a matter of policy. It's a pre-paid, local only service that allows 300 outgoing calls per month for a flat rate. I can't call home, and don't really know if there is much point. My family in Mississippi are internet junkies who log on at 11 am sharp every day -- and it was 11:45 when we were let out of the cell. I try anyway, but get the expected busy signal.
"They'll put us on a permanent ward today, bro" I am told by a fellow temporary Lock Downer, whose name is Robert. "They pop the doors at 8 am on permanent wards. You can call your folks then."
The thought of spending another night in jail is disheartening, but there's nothing to be done about it, so it's a waste of energy to bother with cursing my luck.
An hour or so later, Robert and I are hustled out of Lock Down, and taken upstairs to a permanent ward.
I am nervous as we are ushered in, wondering what new situation I'll find myself in. My mind reels with possibilities. Will it be fighting gangbangers ? Some rules obsessed jail culture where newbies must be broken down, their food stolen and ghosts are reviled?
Imagine my surprised when I discover a group consumed almost entirely in the peaceful practice of capitalism.
* * *
They call it "The Old Timers Ward", for two reasons. The first reason is that it's made up of men over the age of 40. The second is that they are almost all men serving over 30 days -- "old timers" in county jail parlance.
The lack of space in other wards has worked in my favor. A few see the two young faces enter and look suspicious. Most of them smile and nod politely. A man named Lamar -- a grizzled looking black man in his sixties -- steps up and greets us.
"Welcome to the old timer's ward, brothers. Hope you get along here -- and hope you don't have to stay too long, if you know what I mean." He grins. "Now, we got some rules here -- intended to keep things peaceful. First rule is: If it ain't yours don't touch it. Second rule is: If you make a mess, clean it up. Third rule is: If you a gangbanger , that shit gets left at the door\u2026understand? Ain't no "nations" in here. Ain't no "crews". You is you and I is me. Understand? Shower's over there, phone's over there. Bible study is every night at 8 at table 7, if you interested. Now, you got any questions, you feel free to ask, hear?"
Slightly overwhelmed, I look around. The Ward is large -- probably 100 by 30 feet. The lobby area is a communal space filled with objects that resemble nothing more than plastic picnic tables. Unlike the rest of the jail, the Old Timer's Ward is meticulously clean. No graffiti adorns the walls, no dirt marks the floor.
The residents of this ward also have a different look about them. They seem calm and peaceful. Laughter is the prevalent sound as they pass their time playing cards, dominoes and chess.
A man steps up. He hands me a cigarette, which I accept with thanks. "No problem." he says. "You look like you had it rough. First time in?"
Within an hour, I have the system down cold. These men are traders. It's the way they keep their sanity in captivity, and the unwritten law that keeps the peace. I discover that my ability to hand roll cigarettes is a marketable commodity here -- and I score myself the equivalent to a pack by trading my services. I roll an entire can of Bugler in half an hour. I am complimented both on my speed and the precision of the smokes I produce. I thank my older brother, who used to make me roll joints for him when he caught me snitching bud from his stash.
Everything is traded. Desserts for main courses, snacks for smokes, books for other books. I realize that you simply cannot kill the market. It cannot die. You cannot destroy the desire to trade that which you value less for that which you value more. This basis for interaction, this mother of civilization, this primeval tool of society -- will live in any environment, route around any block, and eventually it will prevail.
This is the thing that gives men hope.
* * *
I spend the rest of the day talking to Lamar over a few games of chess. He trashes me soundly each time. I don't mind.
"You believe in God, George?" he asks at one point.
"I don't disbelieve in God." I reply.
"Good enough." he says. "What do you believe in?"
"The market." I tell him, and explain what I've seen in his ward that strengthens that belief.
He considers it. "So you don't believe in that socialism ideal? That men should care about their fellow men more than money and such?"
I assure him that I do not. I explain that the first two rules of his ward are a powerful anti-socialist statement.
He thinks about this for a minute, then grins. "I guess you'd be right. Damn. I never thought of it that way."
* * *
Lock down is called at 9 pm .
"Since they didn't assign anything, you can bunk in my cell", Lamar tells me. "Hell, I aint had a celly in weeks. I probably forgot how to talk to people."
After the doors lock shut, Lamar asks. "You said you were born in Kentucky , right?"
"Well, I'd like you to meet another fine Kentucky gentleman, George. This is Jim." he says, pulling out a pint bottle of Jim Beam bourbon. We have a few shots, and I am polite enough not to ask him how in the hell he got whiskey into the jail.
I sleep soundly, and Jim chases the nightmares away.
* * *
As soon as the cell doors unlock the next morning, I am on the phone.
Before allowing the collect call to be accepted, the jail system informs the receiver in agonizing detail that "This is a call from an inmate of Cook County Jail. All conversations are monitored."
"You OK, bro?" my brother answers.
I explain the situation, and ask him to get in touch with my woman, and inform her of the bail amount.
"Don't worry bro. If she doesn't have it or won't pay it, I'll make sure it gets wired up there, paid with a credit card or something. Call back in an hour and I'll let you know. Hey ..they said this call was monitored, right?"
"Good. Listen up you fucking pigs. If you touch my brother again I'll fucking come there and kill every goddam one of you. I'll blow your fucking jail into rubble. I'll raze fucking Chicago to the ground!
You are fucking with the wrong people!"
As I hang up, I have to laugh. Because I know he means it.
* * *
An hour later, I am relieved to hear that my woman is on her way to pay my bond. Apparently, she freaked out when she heard that I was in County. She had assumed that I was I-bonded from the police station the next morning and was simply pissed off and avoiding her. I do not know whether to believe this or not, but really can't muster the energy to care. Being set free is the only thing that matters to me. All other considerations are, for the moment, swept away.
When the Sheriff calls out "Potter! You made bond!" I nearly scream with joy. Instead, I simply accept the congratulations of the Old Timers and say my goodbyes.
Robert makes bond a few minutes later, and joins me in the hall. "Soon as we're out, bro, we're hittin ' Popeye's for some real food. Then I'll call my boy up and get us a ride."
The process of being released is nearly as time consuming as being taken in. It has a whole different feel, however, and the attitude is a polar opposite.
Three hours later, after a final agonizing lineup to receive our property, we step out of the doors of Cook County Jail -- back into the sun.
* * *
We make our way a block up the street, to the Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits franchise. Robert phones his boy from the parking lot and gains us transportation. We walk into the nearly deserted restaurant and order.
As we are eating, two Sheriffs walk in, on lunch break.
One of them is the Pigman .
Their laughter ends and their faces grow sullen. There they are, and here we are. In a place where they have no authority, no truncheon, and no backup.
I just grin at him. Grin and wolf down the greasy, delicious chicken. Staring. They order and wait for their food, eyes down. I will be pissing pink for the next two days.
"Might wanna stay clear of the Northwest side" Robert says casually, and winks. We laugh.
The Sheriffs receive their food and scurry out. It may be petty, but I hope we ruined their fucking lunch. No doubt they wanted to eat it inside the air-conditioned comfort of the restaurant. But we prevented that. They can either stand in the sun or take their food back to the pit where they belong.
Sometimes the small victories are the best.
* * *
Robert's friend pulls up just as we finish eating, and we pile into a battered 87 Corolla. As we race through the streets, Robert tells the story of our time inside as if it were an action film, complete with brawls that never happened. I just nod, and enjoy the air from the rolled down window, and think about the Old Timers. I wish them a speedy release.
We arrive just off Division and Cicero, at a small, rather seedy used car lot Robert's friend runs. Our reason for stopping is to "switch cars" because the Toyota is almost out of gas. Unfortunately, some crisis has come up and I sit waiting for awhile.
I am sick and tired of waiting.
I say goodbye to Robert, tell him to look me up sometime, and head for home.
* * *
I find Cicero Avenue and head north, and I feel as if the sun is shining just for me, and that the air is especially sweet and clear. That grand river of cars takes on the aspect of poetry -- chrome glint and windshield reflection a tribute to my perseverance; the muted roar of their passage as beautiful as a Strauss waltz.
When I arrive home there will be tears and apologies, and forgiveness will be begged. My daughter will stride up to me and punch me on the kneecap and try to look angry, before collapsing into a laugh and hugging my leg and saying "Where you been, Dada?" There will be a cold six pack in the fridge and a bath drawn and great deference paid. It will be an illusion, but I will immerse myself in it nonetheless, and be grateful for it.
But I will not allow myself to be fooled. I will not allow myself to be pushed into captivity again. To return me to that cage they will have to beat the fight out of me and carry dead weight. They will have to make me a ghost in more than name.
I toss these thoughts aside as I stride down these Chicago streets, my healing face drawing stares, the smile I can't repress unsettling the drivers of cars and the people who glance out the windows of storefronts and happen to see me pass.
It is the smile of a free man, realizing that freedom is relative. It is a smile of the damned who have found forgiveness. It is the smile of the animal released from its cage.
The smile of a ghost, back in the land of the living.
George Potter -- like the rest of humanity -- was born an anarchist. His great good fortune was to not have it beaten out of him. He currently lives in Mississippi.