Two years ago I was in a bad way before I ended up at the Pacific Garden Mission. The depression that I hit after my parents died was enough for me to not want to look back after I started getting on my feet again. Well, on Monday, my trying to forget my past came back to haunt me.
The job I have here at the mission is in the transportation department, and I ride all over the city picking up donations to feed the 600 homeless folks here. We go to many chain restaurants and coffee shops, even out to O’Hare airport in our rounds. On Monday we were at the airport to pick up the bins of sandwiches, like we have for weeks, and part of that process is behind the security fence so they check everyone’s IDs. This time, they must have checked mine a bit better. I saw 6 policemen and women come out to the security shed and start talking to each other and then they approached me and asked me if that was my ID. I said, “Yes,” and they told me to empty my pockets, that I was under arrest. I had no idea what was going on and wasn’t about to argue with them as they looked serious. All they would tell me is that there was an arrest warrant out for me. I spent the rest of that day, into the next, sitting in a small blank cell at a police station in the 16th district with only gang symbols scribbled on the wall to look at. By the way, hand cuffs are no fun. Early in the morning I was herded out to a metal seated paddy wagon in 19 degree weather to enjoy a ride to . . . I didn’t know, or couldn’t see to where; freezing and banging around for an hour trying not to get the guy I was cuffed to mad. They stopped to pick up some fellow car poolers along the way, to save gas I guess, and by the end of the ride it was jammed full of people. The rest of that most miserable day of my life was spent being corralled from one over-crowded bull pen to the next. The first was big enough for 10 people and had 17. Sometimes you don’t realize how good you have it. The next bull pen was perhaps 20 by 20 and had 140 guys or so, many of whom were sprawled out on the floor, dope sick and kicking; the rest of the lucky ones were sitting along the walls. The unlucky ones had to stand for the next, well, as long as it would take; we never knew how long we would be there. For hours at times, standing, trying not to step on anyone, not able to move, and crammed in. I am amazed that no fights broke out, but after a while I understood that everyone knew that if one fist flew, it would be a terrible chain reaction with no way out, so everyone just held it in as best they could. While being processed in, they write some numbers on your arm in magic marker, tell you that you could use them to make a phone call after you registered your voice, but most of the guys couldn’t. I later found that the prisoners that had been there for a few weeks had figured out what the numbers on your arm might be and kept trying to hack it by mumbling things till one got through, all day long. The next day, when I could get through, I found that the Mission, the only number I could recall right, didn’t take the collect calls they allow from those phones, so no one really knew where I was.
Where I was, was at 26th and California on the south side of Chicago at the Cook County Jail, the largest, and from what I hear, nastiest jail in the USA. You’ve seen the movies where a prison is surrounded by deserts or are on an island with sharks all around? Well, this one was in the middle of Latin Kings territory and I’d rather face Komodo dragons wearing flippers in the sand.
The next bull pen was 15 by 30, with a small smelly bathroom in the back with as a sliding griddled door. Sixty guys were in there when I arrived, with 15 more behind me, so I moved on in, somehow, till I could find enough room for my feet. We seemed to end up in this series of pens a few times, and once I had the pleasure of being way too close to that steel toilet. Some pens had cold drafts, others had no air, but I’d rather not complain too much and end up swarmed, hand cuffed tightly and set in a cell by myself for 6 hours that way. I saw it happen to a poor guy that needed to use the washroom. I can’t really blame the CO (Correction Officers) too much. They know what works and what gets people shanked, but it is not a positive atmosphere really. If you don’t like it, just don’t come back is all. One memorable cell was right before the kangaroo court. It started with a nasty toilet area, hooked to the left, was dirty, small, had a pillar in the middle of it, and felt for all the world like I had just landed in a Turkish prison. I was able to sit down in this one and didn’t mind the dope sick guy doing flip flops next to me too much, since his glazed over eyes indicated he didn’t mean it. Oh, and let me tell you about the smells . . . or maybe not. Never mind.
The kangaroo court might have had actual kangaroos in it, but I was swept through so fast I didn’t get to look around. Five or 6 people behind a raised desk flipped papers back and forth, one rattled off either my reason for being there and bond, or where they were selling a 2010 Chevy at auction. Less than 20 seconds later I found myself back in the Turkish prison and found a place next to the pillar. The rest of the day was a miserable blur of being sworn at for not doing my finger print right, getting my DOC clothing, and realizing that the T shirt I had on underneath my hoody had a cartoon of three hotdogs dressed up like suburbanites at a cook out. How would I get into that sack cloth DOC shirt with no one seeing that T shirt?
When you have sat uncomfortably in one of 9 different bull pens on that first day, you try to just block it all out. Around me guys were yelling to each other or to guys in other cells like it was a reunion. Ninety percent of the words started with an N, F, MF, S or worse. Occasionally someone would walk by and flash a gang sign to which 6 guys in your cell would pop up yelling back with their fingers in odd formations. The Hispanic guys all seemed to know each other. During the day we were led through tunnels, past barred doors, up stair wells, and through whole body search machines. By 8:00 that night we were led outside into the freezing cold to an old building till they could find room for us on the “deck” as they called it. From 8:00 till midnight I slept, like a lot of guys, worn out on a very cold floor. We then got led back out into the cold, which I didn’t notice as much at that point, to what might be my new home, Division 2, dorm 4, Q town, lower bunk number 43. We got a quick run-down on the do’s and don’ts; my favorite being to not touch the huge exhaust fan on the wall in the bathroom or you’d get a really bad Mersa infection. I later saw a guy drying his underwear on said fan . . . now that was going to hurt. I was lucky to get a lower bunk since they had no ladders for the uppers. The guys around me were decent enough. On my right an elderly gentleman, that looked like DeNiro, spoke almost no English but was able to have us cut a deck 4 times randomly and then flip every card in perfect order . . . the whole deck! The guy above me had a long goatee and was in for stealing $100 of baby food for his infant daughter. It turned out he knew the guy that was in the bunk next to me here at the mission. He also had a small Bible he let me read, which really was a bright spot in the turmoil. I asked him if he ever read Psalm 51, so he picked it up and read it out loud while we were sitting on the floor waiting to work. “8 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” The guy on the bunk to my left came in at the same time as I did. His name was Lindsey and we hit it off right away. Lindsey was a slender black man about my age. I found that he was a church going man with a serious situation going on at home. He told me how his wife died a few years ago from cancer and his girlfriend he was living with now allowed her daughter to move in with her boyfriend. It turned out they got drunk and did drugs all the time. The thing that landed him in jail was a fight the two ladies were having. His girlfriend got slashed with a knife across her face and around her stomach, while the daughter got her teeth knocked out with a frying pan. Lindsey told me he was just trying to break up the fight, but I couldn’t help wondering if perhaps he was the one who did the damage at first. As they say, everyone is innocent in jail.
The hours dragged in there, so you would spend 20 minutes sleeping, 10 sitting up looking around and then go back to sleep. You knew wandering around too much was just inviting something to go wrong; so you sat back and listened, watched without looking and figured out what to ask without angering people who were already on edge. By the second day I faced up to the thing I dreaded the most. . . I needed a shower badly. Beyond the idea of no privacy was the fact I had no shower shoes and didn’t want to get a disease, so I had to borrow some. I have size 13 feet. The only guys I could borrow from were big dudes. I asked around and one guy agreed as since this must happen all the time in there. As I walked in his flip flops to the shower not only did I have to be careful not to walk into anyone or look at anyone wrong, but I also didn’t want to take a misstep and break one of those shower shoes. That would have angered the rather large owner that I had no way of repaying. The shower itself was nasty. It was just one of those things where you mind your own self and get it over with. Everything you did in those rest rooms was very public and barely useable, such as the sinks. They were 5 foot long troughs where you pushed a button and water trickled out for 20 seconds, never very hot or very cold, and you dried your hands the old fashioned way, on your shirt. They hung a couple of rolls of toilet paper on a string outside the bathroom. You just had to be sure to take enough wads in with you. If you ran out, you couldn’t just reach up and get more.
Division 2 was a working deck. My job was in the kitchen. No one was going to run around and explain everything to you, so it was good to talk with folks that had been there before. Lindsey to my left had been there before. We headed down to the staging area, and tried to get a jumpsuit that fit. Everybody wanted a bigger jumpsuit, but there were only so many. The last thing you would want as a tall guy was a tight jumpsuit that would pit your shoulders against your crotch in a tug of war. Your shoulders are bigger, they would win. Then you waited. My bunky Ben showed me how to grab a pile of jackets from a bin and make a nest on the ground to lay back on and just wait. Many of those conversations turned to why guys were in, and what they needed to do to get out. Some of these guys knew the ropes really well. Like a person who has been playing a game a long time, they knew all the strategies and possibilities. For example, which programs might be harder to deal with, but would get you a shorter stay, or which programs might ask if you had a record or not. You had to weigh the merits. In your other life you knew people for a long time, and nurtured relationships of the like-minded. You knew who to turn to for a deep conversation on those things that fascinated you and heard them agree or add to it. In prison you didn’t have that luxury. You felt out a bit, but mainly just listened to learn how to survive. Boring conversations about what might be complete lies were better than being by yourself in there.
The work in the kitchen was pretty straight forward. You stood next to a conveyor line of food trays, scooped up some mixed vegetables, threw them in the veggie square and just kept up. For the next 5 hours this was my life with almost not a second to even look up. I’ve had worse jobs, I think.
Going back to the dorm it seemed louder than before. They had two TV’s on a few bunks down and guys were gathered all around to watch BET and a basketball game. I thank God I was not on that first row, right in the crowd. I looked around and saw some guys sitting and talking on a bunk. One was chopping food with a piece of plastic in a plate on his lap. Being a working dorm, they earned like a dollar a day and could buy stuff at the commissary, so these guys were getting all gourmet. I heard a voice calling in a childish way, “Mr. Man, oh Mr. Man . . . Man, oh Mr. Man” and saw a dude stooping low enough to see under a top bunk. He stepped a few times and repeated the words to his sleeping buddy who woke up and they both got a laugh. Laughter. How amazing is Man that here, in the midst of misery, we had laughter. There was a lot of it really. Maybe it was mainly nervous laughing, like, “I don’t find this funny but don’t want you mad at me”. Guys made comments at the TV and an eruption of laughter broke out. Sometimes from a group of guys who were just talking 4 rows over you could hear it. This was a lousy, lousy place to be, and yet they found glimmers of joy. I lay back, trying to pass time, thinking about what I did wrong and how I needed to take care of some things. Thinking that maybe that was not the only reason I was here. Maybe it was a higher calling. I recalled about a year ago Pastor Green telling us how he was on vacation with his family and had been pulled over in the farthest southern point of Illinois, Cairo. Some ticket he had from years ago had caught up with him and he ended up in jail for a few days also. He used that time to witness to the guys around him in there, so I put my mind to do the same. It might have been easier for him, being a Pastor, 6’6” and recognized by a bunch of the guys there. Then again, I had graduated from a Bible program recently and had over 1,500 sermons taught to me in the last 2 years. I may not be a theologian, but I had learned a few things. I tried to bring it to them by first applying it to my life, and then observed how it may be true for them too. Lindsey talked about how he was living with his girlfriend and I gently pointed out that he professed to believe that God is up there, but his actions indicated he didn’t care so much. I know God slapped me a bit to wake me up. Didn’t he think that perhaps ending up in jail might have been a wakeup call also? He listened and looked away saying how hard it would be to move out. I encouraged him by saying that God knows how hard life is, and He was here. Once you accept doing it His way, it gets easier.
Luckily for me, my court date was 2 days after I got into the jail. I boarded a bus with a bunch of guys with shaky stories and high hopes. The driver played a radio station with angry rap music the whole way. Oh joy. There is nothing like being in a jail bus hand cuffed to guys all bobbing their heads and singing along to Death row records. The bull pens in Rolling Meadows were much nicer than Cook County jail, but had glass doors and little ventilation. We kidded about no one passing gas. An hour later when the policeman slid open the door, one of the guys slipped out to the right quickly. The cop yelled, “Where are you going?” We could hear a sheepish voice say, “Sorry, I had to fart.” Lol.
It was my turn to see the judge and I still hadn’t seen a lawyer or even a public defender. If I have learned anything in the last 2 years, it is to not say more than you have to. The judge assigned a public defender to me and the guy was good. I told him my situation, that I had missed a court date and that there was no criminal intention, just deep depression. I told him how I spent the last 2 years at Pacific Garden Mission, graduated from the Bible program there and did volunteer work helping guys set up e-mails and other things in the library. He took all of that back to the judge and I did yet more praying. I have a prayer that I do that really works for me. I pray that the Lord will soften my heart and soften the other person’s heart so that we can all get a long, but you really have to mean the first part. After a while I was brought in front of the judge again, and was asked if I would agree to a 2 year supervision, meaning that my slate would be clean in 2 years if I didn’t get arrested in that time. I have no prior record, so I told the judge that with the Lord’s help I believed I could do that. I pleaded guilty to making a mistake and was allowed to go home, eventually.
Two a.m. in a holding pen later that night, sitting with 20 other guys waiting to be released; most of the guys were upbeat. They talked about what they were going to do once they got out or complained about how long it was taking to get out. A funny Hispanic drug dealer on my left named Jay was talking about what he'd do with his girlfriend, how much he'd drink and smoke, and that was just on the way home. A white kid on my right was talking about the booze he wanted to drink and said he only drank the white stuff, like Jack Daniels. A few of us looked up. I said, “Dude, Jack is dark.” He went on and said, “Yeah, and Seagram’s,” to which the dreadlocked black kid next to him started laughing and said, “That’s dark too!” So the white kid defended himself by saying, “I mean I only drink the white peoples’ booze,” to which the dred man said, “We all drink that stuff too.” So white said, “Yeah, but you like other things more, like, what do you prefer?” Dred started a short list with cognac and such, and white bread looked at me and asked what I liked. Part of me wanted to revel in my past life, to impress them with my stupid prowess of drunkenness, to fit in; but I couldn't. I said, "I used to drink Knob Creek 100 proof, but booze is booze. You just like the taste of some better than others, but it all just messes you up." I could hear the conversations stop a bit as I went on, "Yeah, I used to drink a lot, but all that got me here, in this stinking cell, sitting miserably with you guys right now. I should have had a nice house, a wife, a family and a dog running around, but I'm here! People ask me how I became homeless and I tell them I drank a lot, I smoked a lot but that I can't blame those things. I was addicted to being selfish! I put all that crap in front of my family, my friends, and my God. I did what I wanted when I wanted and ended up right here. See, the finish line isn't here on earth, it's up in heaven, (I pointed up in emphasis) and God keeps telling us how to get there but we keep turning away." I left it hanging there in front of them and saw a few heads bobbing in agreement, so I left well enough alone. It may not have been what they wanted to hear right then, but it's what they needed to hear and I hope some took it to heart so they wouldn't have to be back in this hell 6 or 18 more times again.
Finally I was outside on California at 2 in the morning with only a bus pass as my way home, but no busses running at that time of the night there. The others reminded me of all the stories of how the gangs there liked to jump guys, to which I answered, “But they know we have no money.” The others replied, “No, they just like to beat us up.” I said again, “But it's a Thursday night and really cold.” To which they said, “Naw, they are all warmed up on alcohol.” So I scanned the cold, dark sky looking for the Sears, tower my old friend. I knew that if I stayed close to it, it would show the direction to walk. It wasn’t where I thought it would be so instead of walking too far the wrong way I looked around for someone to whom I could ask directions. I saw Jay the drug dealer and another guy standing across the way and asked them. The guy he was standing near, an elderly black man with a beard jutting out from his hoody, asked me if I wanted to take a cab. I replied that I was a homeless man with absolutely no money; I was going to have to walk. He told me how dangerous it was out there and I told him all I had was Jesus to protect me. So he looked at me and said, “If I get another fare, I’ll give you a ride to the nearest L station.” I thanked him. Jay, who was standing right there, negotiated a fare to a northern suburb and we got into the van-cab. At that point I just wanted to get back to the mission, but the driver, James, offered to take me there on his way back home, so I accepted. Over the next half hour I was able to witness to the drug dealer. When he tried to downplay things, the driver Jay, a clear cut but crusty gentleman, raised his hand and told him I was right, lol. I wasn’t going to beat him over the head with things, but I surely was not going to just let him walk on me and what I have learned. It was an interesting ride, to say the least, and I feel I planted seeds in a person that has a good amount of influence with his peers.
Yes, it was a terrible 4 days, but I did a lot of thinking about how I have been spending my time, and praying about what God wanted me to learn, but most of all what God wanted me to say to those that need so much hope. That’s the thing... no matter what you’ve done or how badly you think you’ve been condemned, there is always hope... all you have to do is accept the free gift.