I have an arrest record. It’s not as extensive or as glamorous as say, Tony Spilatro’s, but I am on record. How many of you can say that?
You never know what will happen to you at the beginning of your day, at the beginning of your night. All horrendous experiences have their birth in normalcy. Going to work. Going to market. Going to buy drugs.
In my case, I was driving home from a club my friend Dan and I frequented on Thursdays. Yeah. A dance club. I was in my twenties, still unsure how to talk to girls, actually, not a lot has changed in that respect… But for some reason, I fit in this place. You see, I had spent most of my adolescence without the company of any female. I was awkward. I was opinionated. I was a loud mouth. Again, not much has changed there either… As such, girls tended to stay away from the weirdo with all the causes and judgmental attitude. Can’t say I blame them.
But then, I went to this club wherein they played a lot of industrial, electronic and gothic music. Essentially, a playground for weirdos. I fit in. Though, I have to say, I tended to stay out of the “Goth” room. I just couldn’t wear fishnets on my arms. I dressed rather normal, if a bit vintage. Slacks. Shirt. Jacket. Also, I learned to dance. I was pretty good at it, as I remember. Why did I dance? For girls, stupid! What the fuck else for? I learned really quickly that the ladies that frequented this club really went for guys that danced. I didn’t even have to do anything else! I still didn’t have the guts to go up and talk to girls, again, nothing has changed there… So, I’d just dance to a few songs I liked, and hoped that one of the many lovely girls there would get drunk enough to talk to me. They did. Which was great, because there was no way I was going to be brave enough to talk to ANY girl.
So. I was there every Thursday. Vintage suit. Long hair. Thin.
We were on our way home. I was dropping off my friend. It was an okay night, as I remember. I had a couple phone numbers in my pocket written on cocktail napkins (it was the 90s, no smart phones, just pagers). As we neared his house (we both still lived with our parents at the time, what do you want, we’re Mexican!) and I saw the red light in my rear view. Instant dread and fear shot through me. I know how often cops get away with anything, and I didn’t want to become a victim. Again.
To this day, I have no idea why he pulled me over. He didn’t say. He just asked for my license, registration and proof of insurance. Thankfully, I was clear on all these. I thought. As he went back to his cop car with my info, my friend and I angrily grumbled about why this happened. We had no idea. I was driving normally (for once). I expected a field sobriety test, but knew there’d be no problem. I haven’t drank alcohol since I was sixteen (don’t ask, another time).
Just then, he comes back to the car.
“Mr. Vargas, I have a warrant for your arrest.”
The words pulsed through my head over and over. What? What the fuck for? I hadn’t done anything illegal in a long time, definitely nothing I for which I had been caught. Is this my past of running with revolutionary communists coming back at me? Is the government out to sweep us all under a rug somewhere in Uzbekistan?
“Are you sure?,” was the best response I could come up with.
He assured me.
He then asked me to get out of the car.
The adventure begins.
Luckily, he allowed my friend to take over the car, even though he was probably still drunk. Ha. Stupid cop. My mom needed it the next morning to go to work. Yes. I also didn’t have my own car. So what? I asked him if he could drive it to my mom’s and drop it off and ask her to drive him home. It’s 2.30 in the morning, by the way. Also, did I mention, no mobile phones then? I can’t imagine the scene at my mom’s that my unfortunate friend had to endure. Knocking on the door until someone came to it. Then having to announce: “John was arrested. Can I get a ride back home?”
By this point in our family’s life, most of the male Vargases had been arrested. So, I’m sure it was a surprise, but not a shock.
Handcuffed in the back of a patrol car at 2.45AM. Try it.
The back”rest” of the back seat was hard plastic. Okay, fine. But what are these V shaped grooves in them about the size of my arms?.. Oh… Hey, that’s pretty cool! So. I leaned back, fit my arms into the grooves where many other miscreants have, and asked the cop, “What’s the warrant for?”
“It doesn’t say. It’s a bench warrant for $10000.”
Nice, I thought. I’m wanted for ten grand! I felt like Billy the Kid, you know, without all those murders and all… I even got arrested by a deputy sheriff! I imagined an old west poster with my image printed on it: WANTED: JOHN VARGAS FOR… Who knows what.
“Seems like a lot,” I said.
“Yeah. Some judge wants you bad.”
Now I’m really confused. And stayed that way until we got to the Walnut Sheriff’s station.
The doldrum of processing you into jail is much too interminable to be included here. Suffice to say that it takes a long time to catalog and warehouse humans into jail. I guess that’s a good thing. I mean, if it were fast, who knows if I’d still be in there, some fat ass sheriff trying to find a twenty something year old index card with my misspelled name on it.
I was put into a holding cell to wait. Soon after, my first jail bunk mate was thrown in (they didn’t actually throw us in, they just opened the cell doors and eased us in). He looked irritated but experienced at this. I remembered all the stories about guys in jail that will fuck you up just to show their strength. I remember hearing that if someone asks what size your shoes are, you are to answer, “MY size!” Otherwise they’ll try to steal them. Though, I’m sure that response would be followed by a brawl. I was looking in his direction, but not at him. I didn’t want him to surprise me.
“The fuck you looking at?!” Oscar said, thinking I was staring him down, I guess. I named him Oscar because I never liked that name and fuck that guy.
I just shook my head.
Soon after, they found a space for me. In a regular cell. I hoped it’d be a private one. Yeah, like that was gonna happen, Hannibal Lector!
They gave me a “mattress” which was about three inches thick and rubbery, about the consistency of a gym wrestling mat. I didn’t like the way it smelled, and I tried not to think about how many drunken and bloodied humans had tried to sleep on it. They opened the cell and five, FIVE other dudes were already in there on mats, in various states of sleep or repose. I found a space just big enough for the mat and laid atop it. No pillow, I used my shirt. The light above still on. I’m a back sleeper, I covered my eyes with my arm.
I think it’s around 4.30 in the morning.
“What the fuck?” I whisper.
A few hours later, I’m still awake. A sheriff opens the cell door and starts handing out food trays. Breakfast. That’s what it probably was, I couldn’t tell. A scoop of something white, that’s all I remember. The rest must have been so scary looking that I have since blocked it out. It came with a tiny carton of milk, the kind we used to get in elementary school for lunch. I hate milk. But it’s the only thing I somewhat trust on this plate of whathefuck.
They start calling our names one by one. You then have to come out, and they handcuff you to a chain, on the other end of which, they handcuff another inmate. This is the time honored tradition of chain gangs to discourage fleeing. I was handcuffed to a young black dude, he looked 15, but was probably 18. At least I hope he was. They walked us onto the big black bus.
You ever notice one of those buses? The black ones? The ones that read “Sheriff’s Department” on the sides? Probably not. But the people inside, they notice you. I noticed you. I looked at you through the steel cage behind the glass and wished I was sleepily driving to my shitty day job. You could do whatever you wanted. You could turn around and go home. Drive away to another state. Go eat a real breakfast. My stomach hurt.
I’ve been incarcerated 5 hours and I already felt like a prisoner.
Oscar is handcuffed to a young Mexican kid. They sit in front of me and the black kid. I don’t remember seeing any white dudes. Interesting… The black kid tells me he got busted for firing a gun off into the air at a park. That was fucking stupid, I thought. But not as stupid as my answer when he asked me why I got picked up: “I don’t know.” Then I hear Oscar plotting with the Mexican kid.
“I’m gonna bolt, man. You down?” he ordered, more than asked.
“Yeah man, I’m down,” the answer was more out of fear than an actual want of escape.
“Alright, man. When they stop, there’s gotta be a chance for us to run.”
Fuck. I am so glad I am handcuffed to this mellow kid. Oscar was a big scary looking dude, by the way.
From Walnut, we got to Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles. Now I’m scared. This building is built on despair and fear. Are they seriously going to put me in here? I still don’t know what the fuck I did!
Thankfully, we were there only to pick up several more guys that all had court dates at the same courthouse. So we wait. Again. Interminable.
At least the handcuffs are off. We sit on concrete benches in a large holding cell.
One guy breaks the silence and asks another, “What size are your shoes?”
“MY size!” he answers with vitriol. Then they both laugh.
Ah. It’s a story we’ve all heard. Anyone of us who has had family or friends in the joint (I’ve been there, I can call it that), has heard this story. I smiled for the first time in this ordeal.
Cell door opens. They start calling names.
Please let me get the mellow black kid again, please! That Oscar fuck is hanging out with some other hardcore dudes, plotting it seems. Or maybe just hanging out, I don’t know. But this fucker wants to run. He’s the last fucker I want to get handcuffed to.
My name is called. I go out. I’m handcuffed to a chain. Another name is called. They handcuff him to the other end of the chain.
It’s. Fucking. Oscar.
Okay. Maybe he’s got it out of his system. Maybe he can tell that escape is a the dumbest idea he’s ever had in a lifetime of dumb ass ideas. He has to.
In the bus, we’re in the back, behind a chain link fence which separates us from two women who are also on this trip. Then another fence. Then four sheriffs, as I remember. He has to know this is impossible.
“I’m running, first chance I get. You coming with me?”
Of course. He thinks he’s fucking superman.
“Dude, I got a minor charge, I know it. There’s no way I’m running.” I answer with as little fear as I can show.
I’m not going to prison just because this fuck wants to run.
“We’re handcuffed together. You ain’t got a choice.”
That’s it. My life is over.
He’s gonna run, he’s a lot bigger than me, and he’ll be dragging me as I scream, “I’m not doing this! I’m not running! I’m handcuffed!” they shoot at us, they have shotguns and they take our legs out, all four of them somehow, then I’m sentenced to prison for trying to escape, now I gotta join the Mexican Mafia so I won’t get raped, but they task me to kill a rival gang member, and I have to do it, otherwise they’ll kill me first, my sentence gets changed to life, I work my way up the chain of command until I get shanked about a thousand times on the tier by a rival gang “American Me” style.
As the visual of my limp, dying body being thrown off of the tier fades in my head, we get to West Covina Courthouse. Oscar eyes me. Then he checks his chances.
“As soon as there’s an opening, we’re running.”
“No we’re not.” I say with strength.
Oscar is looking around as the bus pulls into, basically a giant chain link box. After the bus enters, sheriffs lock the gate. Only then do the doors open. The ladies go out first. There’s another caged hallway from the bus door to the processing area, filled with armed sheriffs.
Oscar knows he’s beat. He slumps a bit, as if to say, “Fuck it.”
I thank the sheriff’s department for having such high security.
My trip to this point had been holding cell to holding cell to holding cell. Finally, I was in the last holding cell waiting to see a judge to find out what the fuck I had done. I just hoped it was something I really had done, and not something made up. I don’t trust cops. Or judges. Or the justice system in general.
This holding cell was the biggest yet. In West Covina. You’d think the one in LA would’ve been bigger, but it wasn’t. Then again, I hadn’t taken the all inclusive tour, I was just shoved into a room and pulled back out. I’m sure the Los Angeles jail system has cells that can hold their own in any third world country. But the one in West Covina was huge. Nowhere to sit, really. The concrete wall made a right angle turn about two and half feet above the concrete floor, then another right angle turn to the concrete below, making a bench of sorts, but only if you sat against the wall, and every inch was occupied. The rest of us sat on the floor.
At one point, a sheriff dropped a box of food in the middle of the room. It was about lunchtime. Now I knew what animals at feeding time felt like. Bologna sandwiches, apples and milk. Again with the milk. I ate most of a sandwich, I was hungry by now, ate the apple and drank the milk.
As I was finishing my five star jail lunch, I noticed a toilet. Against the wall. No walls for privacy, not even in the corner. Awesome. I’m holding in whatever wants to come out. Oh, yeah: no toilet paper. Probably some kind of security measure. I’m sure they didn’t want us having toilet paper fights or something.
There was a pay phone near the cell door. You can make any call you like, as long as it was collect, and someone allowed you to use it. I saw what must’ve been the first white guy among the black and brown of us. Maybe there were more, but he was the only one I finally noticed. He was on the phone. I could tell he was having trouble hearing, and was getting frustrated. The din in the room, almost on cue, got louder and louder. Louder. Louder…
“I CAN’T FUCKING HEAR!!” He screamed. Not yelled. Screamed like a psychotic man being tortured for information he never had.
The place fell absolutely still. Gangsters turned their heads slowly towards him. Some took a few steps towards him.
“Someone’s gonna get fucked!” Oscar gleefully yelled out.
Shit. That’s not gonna happen, is it? I mean, not really? Now I was scared. The fear for what I thought I was about to witness suffocated me. I wanted to turn away. I couldn’t.
The cell door opens. A sheriff starts calling out names. One of them is the white dude on the phone. A few others. Me.
We all head out one by one, handcuffed. We await outside a courtroom from an area I’ve never seen before. The area the goes to and from jail. I looked at the white dude. I wondered if he knew what was happening back there. If he was as scared for himself as I was for him.
Finally. I stood before the judge.
Looking at my file, “You were making payments on a ticket?”
“You still owe us $50.”
“WHAT?!” I almost yelled it out. He looked up, rather shocked.
This his why I was here? Because I had forgotten to make the LAST payment on a ticket I got a year ago?! They couldn’t send me a threatening letter? A fucking warrant? They wasted my whole night, my whole day, I had to endure Oscar the Great Escape Artist and fear and imagine a life behind bars because of this—
“When can you pay it?”
Hold on, I’m not done… I had to I re-imagine my whole life as a lieutenant in La Eme, almost watch some poor crazy white dude get beaten and raped because of some—
“Uh… Right now, actually. I can pay right now.”
“Very well. Pay it. Dismissed.”
The gavel slams.
I’m led out to a hallway. Handcuffed to a bench. These fuckers really want their fifty bucks.
Oscar is called out of the holding cell. He’ll be seeing the judge soon.
Back in the holding cell I go to await to be processed out. This, like getting processed in, takes for fucking ever. I sit on the floor, almost laughing at this whole ordeal. About an hour later, I’m still waiting to be released. Oscar comes in and lays on the cold concrete.
“What you get?” Another hardcore dude asks him.
“They gave me a bullet.”
Huh? What’s a “bullet?” Death? That can’t be right…
“Shit, a fucking year?!” His friend explained, to me I thought, but really he was just thinking it out.
I turn away. I won’t have to bother with this Oscar fuck again.
An older Mexican man is sitting on the toilet. He had to go. He flushes every time something hits the water, as is the accepted form of courtesy. Still no toilet paper.
Something in his eyes. He looks despondent. Lost. Afraid. He reminds me of my father.
Pops had spent quite a bit of time in county a few times for several months at a time. I know he suffered a lot in there at the hands of sheriffs, mostly. In county, they just slam you if you do anything that isn’t what they asked. They don’t give a shit if you don’t speak English well. They have to prove how powerful they are by subjecting men to physical and mental abuse, because that’s how real men act in their awful fucking world.
My time was minute, by comparison. It was in a series of holding cells. Big deal. Pops was in county. My friend Brian was in Folsom at every exact moment I was going through my minor ordeal. I cannot, and will not ever be able to wrap my mind around what my father and Brian have gone through.
Unless I end up in there, of course. Who’s to say? The way our society is enamored with punishment, we may all be behind bars at some point in our lives.
I’m ready to go home now.
They call my name.
I get my stuff back. My wallet, my belt, finally. I had been cinching my pants with my hands most of the time I was there. I pay the stupid last payment.
The door opened. No cage. It’s late afternoon in a boring suburb. I’m free.
I call my mom who is glad to hear from me, but not at all too shocked by what has happened. Almost every male she has ever cared for has been arrested now. I ask if she can pick me up. She tells me my brother took the car, and she’s not sure when he’ll be back.
I began the long walk to Azusa. Annoyed. But at least I wasn’t seeing everything through a steel cage anymore.