Twenty five or so years later, after years of incredibly interesting, but low paying Museum design and education projects, I’d gotten my first real ‘for profit’ job as a Jr. game designer for Mattel Toys in California. It was my dream job, in my dream place. With benefits. And the beach. Wow.
But no matter how great a job it was, I still looked forward to the weekend, and its quiet ‘do nothing’ vibe. So when the phone rang early that Sunday morning, it was already an unwelcome intrusion.
It was my cousin Victor. Victor was the ‘black sheep’ of our family, moving to Las Vegas as soon as he could and making a living in ways that somehow nobody ever wanted to talk about. Probably just gambling. Personally, I loved Victor because whatever I did wrong, when my back was up against the wall, I could always pull out my “at least I’m not like Victor” defense and my parents would wilt before my eyes and begrudgingly begin to count their blessings.
But we’re not kids anymore. Now it was Victor on the phone telling me he’d been arrested for DUI, and asking me if I could possibly come bail him out. Oh man. After momentarily computing my chances of getting out of this (zero), I said OK. He told me he was at The Los Angeles Men’s Jail and said all I had to do was to come by and pay $200.00. That’s all. I didn’t have to wait for his release. He told me where this place was and then gave me his Prisoner Identification Number (PIN) which he said I would need in order to pay.
OK, it didn’t sound all that bad, so I headed out to the cash machine and on toward downtown. It was still early Sunday morning, a beautiful day, the freeway blissfully empty and in what seemed like a short time I was crossing the proverbial and actual train tracks into an industrial part of the city.
Now my mental image of a Men’s Jail was based on my New York City idiom where the jail was called ‘The Tombs’. I expected it to be dark and permeated with an air of despair,
but I forgot one thing. This was L.A. California. The home of ‘have a nice day’. The LA Jail’s front wall was all glass. And outside, running the length of the building, was a wide lawn of gently sloping grass populated by incredibly colorful family groups picnicking. Picnicking! It reminded me of Seurat’s painting, ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’. No kidding.
I wondered why everyone was out on the lawn until I looked over at the Jail doors and saw the hand-lettered sign that read:
OK. What can you do? So, back to La Grande Jatte: there were a couple of differences, the biggest being instead of that lake there was a lunch truck. I bought myself a breakfast burrito, a container of coffee and the Sunday Los Angeles Times, found a nice spot and joined the festive atmosphere.About an hour and a half later, the doors opened and everyone began to pack up their stuff and head inside.
Now it's important for you to know how the place was laid out. Basically it was two big rooms with a hallway down the middle leading to the actual jail. On the left side was where we were supposed to queue up. The line snaked around and eventually led to a raised dais where the officer in charge sat, like a judge. On the right side was the waiting room.
After we were all lined up, the officer actually welcomed us (California again), and told us how everything worked. She said that when we come up to her desk, just give her the Prisoner Identification Number (PIN), and then go to the waiting room and have a seat. When you hear your prisoner’s name over the intercom, come up to the desk, pay your bail amount and then you can leave or wait for your prisoner to be released. Sounded reasonable.
The line began to move. When it was my turn I gave her Victor’s PIN and asked how long the wait might be before his name was called. “It could be up to four hours” she said.
“FOUR HOURS! FOUR HOURS! SHIT!” Things had been going so smoothly, and now....four hours. I took my seat in the waiting room totally deflated. I looked around. Nobody else seemed to mind the wait, in fact, the somewhat festive nature of the crowd outside had just moved inside. People were eating, kids were playing. The multi-cultural nature of the group made it the most visually colorful group I’d been in in a while, but their brightness and apparent happiness only added to my depression. Four hours! Shit.
After about an hour a name came over the loudspeaker. I could barely understand what I heard, the sound quality was that bad. I gave up. I left. I drove home, and by the time I got home, it was noon.
One of my regular Sunday rituals was to call my dad in New York to discuss my week at Mattel. After what seemed like a lifetime of bouncing around, my parents were more than delighted that I had a real job with a company everyone had heard of, and I even seemed to be doing well so far. After I filled my dad in on my week, I told him what just had happened with Victor and the jail. There was a silence on his end of the line, and then, “You know you have to go back, right?” I guess I did. I already felt bad about the whole thing and my dad’s voice of reason just sealed the deal.
OK. I’m off again, but this time to be prepared for the long wait I stopped off to pick up a couple of magazines and paperback books. I got back on the freeway. It was empty this morning. Now it’s bumper-to-bumper. I crept along. Finally I arrived back at the LA Jail. The Grande Jatte was deserted and in shadow. The lunch truck gone. Inside, whatever festive mood I had experienced that morning had now been replaced by a kind of municipal despair. Les Miserables.
I got into a new queue and inched forward toward the same lady officer who now seemed to have lost any of her earlier joy. As I reached into my pocket to get Victor’s PIN, I felt.......nothing! I started to search my other pockets as a film of fear covered my body. There’s a moment when you know you are completely screwed and I had just found mine. I had to confess to her that I didn’t have my PIN. She took my cousin’s name and told me to take a seat with a look and vocal inflection that suggested that I might never see the outside world again. Doomed and I knew it.
So I took a seat in the waiting room. I knew I had turned my sweet Sunday into this and had no one to blame but myself, and, just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. As the next person came through the front doors, a tiny bird flew in with him. The bird fluttered and flew in a big circle around the waiting room and then, in an effort to escape, slammed right into the front glass wall, and slid straight down behind a row of seats.
The kids started running towards the area. As an animal lover I knew this probably wasn’t gonna end well. But just as the kids got there, surprisingly the bird was up and flying, but again, confused by the space and the people, it slammed loudly into the glass and fell behind the trash can.
Enough! I’d had enough and moved to the can and began to tilt it backwards to see if the bird was still alive. That room was totally silent and everyone held their breath as I continued to slowly tilt that can. Then two things happened.
First I heard these little murmurs and out of the corner of my eye I saw the police officer whispering into her microphone...”yes, right now he’s tilting the can backwards and the little bird....” My mind momentarily flashed to ‘Whispering Joe’.
But more amazingly I watched as three men got up and, without saying a word, took up positions in that room just as if we had rehearsed it hundreds of times before. One man stood at the entrance to the jail corridor and another at the entrance to the queue room and they both started to jump up and wave their arms in the air. The third man went to the front doors, and since the doors wouldn’t stay open by themselves, he laid down flat on the ground and extended one arm and his opposite leg to both hold the doors open and to block them as little as possible with his body. The officer continued her whispered play-by-play.
There was no time for me to mentally process all this. I continued to tilt the can ...until...there it was....the little bird, no more than three inches long, alive, hunkered down and staring back at me. There wasn’t much I could actually do holding that can at a 45 degree angle except stare back at that bird and will it to....FLY BIRD! FLY!
And it did! It flew one great loop over everyone in the waiting room, then another loop and then....right out the door! The whole place burst into applause. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.
I tilted the trash can back to its full upright position and headed back to my seat as the three men went back to their respective family groups. The place glowed. Just before sitting down I said to the group “He’ll be back, he didn’t have his Prisoner Identification Number”.
And just about one minute later my cousin’s name was called, clear as a bell. I went to pay the officer who gave me a great smile that said it all, and with that I was out those same doors and free again, just like that bird.