It was a cold winter day when I found myself down at the Tombs. A blizzard had just hit, and the snow was still fresh on the New York City sidewalk. Because of the people heat and the traffic, the snow was starting to melt, becoming an awkward slush pond. My goal had been to get down there as early as possible. It wasn’t to be obnoxious to my less than law abiding friend AJ. Rather, it was because I knew everyone and their Baby Mama would be there in the afternoon, and I wanted to make as little contact with that shady foot traffic as possible.
Then again, it was ironic I was judging them as we all had a friend or loved one in jail. As I stood there, seeing the white bus that had Corrections written on it in blue lettering, I waited for the austere metal doors to open. As I finished my coffee I knew Mother Justice might not have been blind but nearsighted. Sure, maybe marginalized minority young men and poor whites got the rough breaks because they couldn’t afford a Kardashian, but in the end if you broke the law, the law always won.
The Tombs are on White Street, next to Court Street. AJ was waiting there until Rikers had a bed for him. Usually Rikers is overcrowded, so he had to wait. His mother was distressed because her prodigal son could be transported at any day without being notified beforehand. Such things happen when one is property of the state. Either way, the reason I was there on a Saturday was because the visiting days correspond with their last name, and he was at the end of the alphabet. Plus his parents, who came once a week to visit the dunce they raised couldn’t come because of the snow. While it was now a pain in the ass in the city, Long Island where they lived was still rather crippled from Mother Nature’s wrath. After a call from his mother asking me to come as a favor, I decided to go. Plus I wanted to visit my buddy anyway.
Yes, he was a dunce. AJ was my buddy and therefore my dunce. The details of his original charge and arrest were one for the record books, and if he played his cards right he might even be able to earn a Darwin Award someday. Yet while that was more likely as time went on, I didn’t want that. Despite having a head riddled with one bad decision after another, and leading a life on constant collision course, AJ above all things did have a kind heart and was someone I adored deeply. Often, we would check out guys together, the fag and the hag, and joke about getting into trouble with an entire basketball team.
AJ had been arrested for selling drugs to an undercover cop. With AJ, sex is always on the brain. The dude was cute, and he thought he was going to get some action. Instead, he got handcuffed, just not in the way he wanted. Because he had priors for possession, AJ was sentenced to Haven House, a therapeutic community. A place like Haven House is the last stop on the drug treatment train. It is for those who regular 28 day programs had not worked for, and AJ had done those like a revolving door. Jail had not worked either, partially because these people were repeat offenders because they were addicts. So in this setting that was akin to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, my dear friend was losing his mind every night when he was in the long line to get his anti-depressant medication.
Haven House was not the place for my buddy. An NYU educated dancer, he had appeared on tours as well as on Broadway, where he did everything from swing to dance captain. Before his arrest, AJ had promised me a lesson. Either way, the inmates running the asylum, most of whom lived on the street and had no home training, grated on my pal’s nerves. AJ began to earn day passes, and would run off to meet various boyfriends. Then he would run back to his cage after a taste of freedom. One day, after six months drug free, he took a day pass and was determined never to return. It worked out because an old druggie friend called him.
Next thing I knew I got a message from our friend Dale telling us AJ was missing. No one knew where he was, and AJ was due in court. Because he had absconded, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Of course, as his mother was calling Dale, AJ was partying it up with three nice looking black models in the Chelsea Hotel. Like Amy Winehouse to rehab, he said, “No, no, no.”
After a bunch of us called him to see if he had died, AJ turned himself in. Off to the Tombs he went to finish the rest of his sentence in jail. If his sentence was one more day, AJ would have been going upstate to Sing Sing or somewhere of that like. His mother had given me his info, and AJ had spoken to me on the phone before my visit. Despite being locked up, my friend seemed to be in good spirits. Part of me thinks it is because he was just happy to be out of Haven House. Then again, by the looks of that Hell on Earth perhaps I too would welcome jail.
While some of our friends were surprised AJ headed to the Chelsea Hotel to do more damage when there was a warrant for his arrest, I wasn’t. At one point, before his life had taken the latest wrong turn, AJ had been a regular. My late friend Chacho had been the drug dealer of the Chelsea Hotel. A queeny king pin in his Louis Vuitton, Chacho was like a Santa Claus for bad kids, he supplied a substance known on the street as ice, and it was at the top of their wish list. On top of that, he knew who was sleeping, and he knew who was awake for days.
When I mentioned meeting AJ, Chacho was less than thrilled. He regaled me with tales of how AJ ran naked around the Chelsea Hotel, and was fisted routinely by muscle men. Not to mention once AJ leapt out a window using his tighty whities as a parachute he was so high. (For the record, it was the 2nd floor and he landed in a dumpster). More often than not, Chacho was reluctant to deal to him and even cut AJ off on a few occasions. His fear, AJ was crazy, and the drugs were just going to make him a safety hazard. When a drug dealer calls you crazy and cuts you off, that says everything.
Then Chacho informed, “He also has a tattoo on his back that says Cum Fuck Pig with an arrow to his ass. I hope he never goes to jail. That will be one rough shower. You didn’t hear that from me, because snitches get stitches and I did illegal things at the Chelsea. Don’t want to incriminate myself.”
The steel door finally opened and I was jarred back to the present. A female guard reminiscent of the drill sergeant in Private Benjamin stood as I entered, eyeing me suspiciously. In a serious, authoritative tone, she informed me that my cellphone had to be turned off or risk being confiscated. The lighting was dim, almost as if they were going out of their way to make the place was depressing as possible. Yes, this was jail.
The female guard seemed angry and scary, so I complied. On the wall, as my things went through the first metal detector, I saw a sign that said, “Stop Inmate Suicide.” Underneath was a 1-800 number that could be called. Yup, I was in jail. No ands, ifs, or buts about it.
After passing the preliminary security check, I was greeted by several more female guards, all less than thrilled to see me. It wasn’t personal. They didn’t like anyone in the building, but then again, there was nothing to be liked about many of the tenants that resided here. One short guard, a Latina, served as an attack dog of sorts. I lifted my arms as instructed, and my sweat pants were rolled up because they were too long and I didn’t want them to drag. As I followed instructions, some skin unintentionally showed.
“Undo your pants so your skin doesn’t show. If you don’t, I’m giving you a shirt to wear so you don’t expose yourself!” She barked. This was her house and she was bitch in charge. Shit, when they took away a person’s freedom they weren’t fucking around. On the other hand, I knew she was probably like this with everyone and this was far from being personal. She had her reasons and I was best to comply. I followed the command, she softed from a bolder to a brick. Then again, dealing with the criminal element would make anyone a callous asshole.
After passing inspection, I was escorted to a waiting room. Across from me was a young woman, Italian or Latina, I couldn’t tell. She had done her hair and makeup for the visit, probably seeing a boyfriend of some sort before he went to stay for a period at Rikers. Either way, apparently her outfit did not pass inspection. She wore a burlap sack like shirt that said, “STATE OF NEW YORK” in white lettering. The bitch who was in charge of the house had gotten her. We exchanged a half knowing smile. It was a long day and it wasn’t even ten o’clock yet. Yes, we were both visiting people who when you said their names, the words asshole or fuck up most likely followed. The staff of this place wouldn’t let us forget it, either.
There were plenty in my group who would call AJ an asshole and fuck up, especially Dale after the antics of the past week. However, I still didn’t see AJ that way as hard as I tried. While I had known about his drug driven escapades through Chacho, I knew AJ the person through my other deceased friend, Joe. AJ had met Joe through Dale. In the gay world, Dale is sort of a Kevin Bacon. Because he is a party planner, he connects everyone by 6 degrees. AJ had gone to Joe’s art show and they hit it off. Through Joe, AJ had heard about his funny friend April the puppeteer and writer, the one with big dreams writing a book. So we knew each other long before we did. Thus in the end, unintentionally, AJ became my living link to Chacho and Joe, two dearly departed friends.
When AJ found out about my book being published, he always encouraged him to be vocal. Maybe this is what made him such a hit when he taught dance at some of the best studios in New York, the gift to bring out the best in his students. AJ told me that people had to know that it was possible to accomplish a dream, but also that the book existed. He told me this during my visit to him at Haven House where a guy wearing an Afro with a comb in it asked me, “Do you have change for a dollar?” Then again, according to AJ, he asked all the ladies that question. It was his pick up line.
Because AJ was mandated to treatment and had no money, I gave him a copy of my book for his birthday. He had been deep into it during the time of his arrest, and intended to finish it in jail. However, the book was confiscated because there was writing in the front, aka my special message to my boy. Something about security. Again, when the state takes a person’s freedom, they aren’t fucking around.
Looking around the waiting room, the walls were covered in posters that looked as if they had been stolen from the classroom of my 5th grade teacher. One had a squirrel chewing a nut that stated, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.” Granted, those who were staying here weren’t here for doing the right thing so this was irony at it’s finest.
Then the next poster was a Bald Eagle. The caption read, “Soar high like an eagle.” Now this one was just plain funny, because the clientele in a detention facility had done just the opposite, going for the lowest common denominator as they tested the laws of nature and the land. Not to mention they were terribly allergic to achievement.
Finally, the best poster was of an owl with a bubble coming out of his mouth. The bubble said, “Remember The Golden Rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated.” There was no comment for that one, none, except a full belly laugh where I ended up on the floor in my mind.
The book shelves of the place were filled with various reading materials for children. These books included The Bernstein Bears, Arthur, and of course Clifford. Then I realized that when the Baby Mama Squad brought their progeny to see their errant father who had seldom come around let alone paid child support. Probably mostly undisciplined because they were the product of a con and the dumbass that bred with him, these youngsters too needed entertained in the waiting room. This whole set up was campy, bizarre, funny, and sad all at the same time.
Finally, I heard a loud male voice announce, “YOUNG!”
I looked over and there was a guard with a handle bar mustache that looked like he was Shining Time Station with short man’s syndrome. Expressionless, he motioned me to a second metal detector. When I entered the visiting area, these were enlarged versions of Play School tables and chairs. Of course they were cemented in so inmates could not throw him if they felt like rioting. Yes, once again, I was reminded of where I was.
A minute later, AJ entered. Looking more refreshed than ever, he was dressed as if The Trix Rabbit picked his wardrobe. Adorned in a lime green jump suit, I figured the State of New York was already punishing this dude by making him wear something that clearly wasn’t his color. AJ gave me a huge, bear hug. “This is perfect! I am up and just had my hot chocolate.” Sigh, only a gay man would have hot chocolate in jail.
“How are you?” I asked. After all, my buddy was in jail. This was a place where you could get stabbed for being the wrong color. One never knows when they are wearing the bulls eye for the day.
“I’m good. Glad to be the fuck out of Haven House. You see, I go to Rikers. Then I am done. No treatment, nothing.” AJ said happily.
“Are you safe?” As I fielded the question I grabbed my friends hand, worriedly. Between the dim light, scary guards, and possible axe murderer for a roommate this was no place I would want to spend the night.
“Yeah, most dudes are drug offenders like me. We just play cards most of the time. Jail is kind of boring.” My buddy said. Then he reiterated that he was glad to be out of Haven House.
“Do they heat this place? It is winter.” I informed him.
“Oh yeah.” He told me. “The only downside here is I am without my hair dye. Other than that, I’m pretty good. They have me on a new anti-depressant that makes me lose weight and is amazing.” Again, only a gay man would see these particular ups and downs in this given situation.
As he said this, AJ stroked his salt and pepper hair. He was now in his forties and it was beginning to show. AJ told me his parents had been visiting him weekly, and his mother had been getting on his nerves. It was getting harder and harder for his family to come, and his sister was outright angry with him. She had told him after his initial arrest that if he screwed up again, she was done with him. Well AJ’s sister made good on her threat, proving it was a promise by not visiting him. While this saddened AJ, he admitted he knew she was justified.
Then sheepishly, AJ asked, “Is Dale mad at me?”
The answer began with a Y and ended in a yes. Dale was beyond pissed. From having his patience and friendship stretched, he had to deal with AJ’s ever beleaguered mother melting down on the phone. To boot, Dale had actually dragged AJ out of his drug den in the Chelsea Hotel and walked him to court where he voluntarily turned himself in. Perhaps AJ deserved the words fuck up and asshole tacked on after the mention of his name. He was still my friend, and he had lost his freedom. So I lied and told him no.
“Am I a fuck up like Benny McMahon?” AJ inquired.
Good old Benny McMahon was a rent boy we had all known. Working as an escort well into his ladder 40s, recently the lifestyle had begun to wear on Benny as he had been forced to get dentures. Sober for about an hour a day, Benny recently got into a neat building with a door man through the welfare system. While Benny would definitely screw this up, he had one thing AJ didn’t: his freedom. Not to mention Benny could also pick his own clothing. In this case, Benny McMahon was far superior. Again, I didn’t have the heart to tell him this. So I changed the subject.
“Are you happy?” I asked him.
“Oh of course I am. Are you kidding? No more treatment. And as you know, I love the black and Spanish guys, the dark meat. This place is a candy store for me.” AJ informed me, his eyes gleaming with mischief.
I burst out laughing as he said this. Sure, I should have done a face/palm but I couldn’t. Chacho and AJ had something in common. Aside from a serious drug problem, they couldn’t lie. They could steal and have sex with lots of strangers, but they couldn’t lie. As a matter of fact, there were times I preferred they did.
“You have a boyfriend in here?” I asked now intrigued.
“Funny you should say that. You see the other day the guys asked if I was gay. They said they had no problem with it. Just wanted to know. I told them I was. Next thing I know this hot, gold toothed Dominican drink of water starts tapping me on the shoulder when I am not looking on the tier, and then running away. I was like, that is a dangerous game to play in jail, Pal.” AJ said.
“That is fifth grade affection if I ever heard it.” I told him. “Shit, looks like you found yourself a husband.”
“He says he has a girlfriend, but I think he’s into me.” AJ assured.
“Oh, he’s so into you.” I said. “And before you know it, he will be into you.”
“Oh I hope it’s in the shower. I have always wanted to have sex in the jail shower.” AJ told me. Then we proceeded to gossip about people we knew in the midst of our gigglefest.
Just then, we caught site of a Spanish gangster dude and his gal pal. She was wearing too tight jeans that accentuated her J-Lo-esque derriere. Playfully, she slapped her Boo, and he slapped her back. “Stop that!” The guard with the handle bar mustache thundered. The place went quiet. When things get quiet in jail, it is generally a bad sign. The air became so thick a pin could drop.
“Oh, he can slap me anytime.” AJ cooed. I laughed again. Yes, my gay friend and I were checking out men in jail. His life had sunk as low as it could get, and he could only think about the sexual fantasies he had yet to live. And there I was, checking out a dude with him. The whole thing felt unreal, but it was also kind of fun to behave like 7th grade girls about boys regardless of where we were. Only AJ could make a jail visit this much fun.
Just then the guard announced the visit was about up. “Thank you for visiting me in jail on a snowy day, if there is anything I can do to repay you, let me know.”
“Take care of yourself and stay out of trouble.” I said. Then things got real. It’s the moment where I got to go to freedom, and he had to stay. Perhaps he was making a heaven out of hell to quote John Milton, but alas, he was still in jail. He hugged me quickly and ran off. There was a part of me that was offended, but part of me knew it was a way not to deal with things getting real. Then again, maybe this was why he was looking for love in jail. And this is why he turned to drugs in the first place. AJ couldn’t deal with real, and he had to do whatever he could to escape it.
Exiting the jail felt good, especially when they opened the metal gates and off to freedom I went. Despite the cold, I appreciated the sunlight gracing my skin in a whole new way. Even though I saw my breath as a result of it being January, I was outdoor to see my breath. I got on the subway, and back to my home to plan my day, my decisions and not that of a bunch of guards. Needless to say, I also made sure I had the right away when I crossed the street. I made sure the clerk truly gave me a $5 and not a $20 instead. When I owed money, I paid it honestly. In short, the visit with the friend who made horrid decisions made mine better.
AJ was released and relapsed again. I saw him on the street as he was coming off a bender and brought him hot chocolate, his favorite drink that got him through his time in jail. The poor thing was sweating bullets in November. I had to. AJ assured me he would pay back the favor.
Months later, I had a DVD taping. AJ told me he was coming, and I put him, Dale and the rest of the posse on the guest list. However, AJ was a no show. Word on the street was that he got arrested again. I hope he finds Mr. Felony Murder in jail, because visiting a friend once is good for the soul but it’s not something that should be done twice. Either way, it’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice as the poster says. I hope AJ gets it right this time. Like the bald eagle, I hope he soars high. And I hope he isn’t like the squirrel looking for his latest pair of nuts. Sigh McSigh Sigh.