The Weekly Cover Story: Nightmare On JR

Nicholas Jackson

Ever since it happened, the friends of mine who know about the incident feel obligated to inform me whenever they see Live Oak County in the news. The last big event: Dolly, a Category 2 hurricane, smashed into southern Texas this past summer and threatened to flood the county, which sits 60 miles directly northwest of Corpus Christi, the town that sits on the water.When I heard that Dolly had the potential to flood Live Oak County, as horrendous as it might sound, I put the damage she had already done out of my mind and felt good. I felt vindicated. I knew that even the slightest bit of standing water could potentially destroy the crumbling, infested jail where I was locked up for more than a day. And I hoped that it might.Headed southbound on I-37 outside of San Antonio there isn’t a whole lot to see: the occasional dead dog on the shoulder of the interstate left for a state employee to scoop up; roadside motels advertising vacancies; and, every so often, an ominous sign of warning. They read: “Don’t mess with Texas.”I had been living in Texas for five weeks, and it wasn’t the first time I had seen the signs, but something made this one more unsettling than its clones. Austin, the city where I lived, is a much warmer locale for said signs than the rough sage- and cacti-filled desert landscape of the southern part of the state. Its ominous setting was enough to spark conversation – however brief – between my roommate and myself; he was comfortably settled into the passenger seat, making the trip south with me. It wasn’t more than an hour later – my attention now focused on the music rather than the sights along the road – when I started wishing I had taken the sign more seriously.We were headed for the Mexican border-town of Nuevo Progreso. Not on our way to score a hot drug deal with our neighbors to the south as the trooper would later suggest before searching my car, but rather to experience a piece of a country we had never visited before. The original plan was to visit Nuevo Laredo, one of the closest Mexican towns. Following a conversation my roommate had with a woman who was born and raised in Mexico, we decided to spend an extra two hours on the road each way to see the cleaner, more recommended Nuevo Progreso. Had we followed our original plans, we could have avoided the town of George West altogether.It was like seeing the Stephen King novels of my childhood come to life. The only difference was that instead of the nightmarish visions planted in my head of sacrificed dogs swinging from poles in Deliverance, you find them on the side of the road in George West, their heads crushed by the speeding wheels of semi-trucks racing to get from one big city to the next. George West isn’t a destination; it is a blip on the map somewhere between here and there. You are born there and you stay there, I imagine – living with your mother your whole life like one of the guys I later met in my cell – or you graduate from George West High and you get out. I don’t think that many people come back, an idea supported by the fact that the population has slowly dropped since the 1980s. In 2003 it was estimated that George West was the home of only 2,416 people. The houses are boarded up with splintered plywood. The schools, the same. The courthouse is the only building of any significance in the town proper and its unwashed brick façade, fronted with six Roman columns – a holdover from public buildings erected nationwide with the bravado of a period of rapid economic development – is slowly crumbling. Constructed in 1919, the courthouse stands as a fitting metaphor for the law enforcement that works daily inside the walls of the building’s extension, a shoddily-constructed multi-story structure that serves as the county jail. This extension is tacked onto the back of the main building, accessible by side roads and contained behind the wings of the courthouse, where anybody facing the impressive columns in front won’t be able to see anything more than its shadow on the ground to the west. The second floor of the jail is shaped like a long ‘L’ as far as I can tell from the one point on the concrete floor on which I’m allowed to stand. The jailer sits in a special room located in the short branch of the building. A scratched and neglected office chair that may have been one of a hundred similar chairs in any officescape is here, a throne. The yellowed padding spills out from the busted seams. I try to make small talk and keep from looking too paranoid as I use my senses to take in everything around me.”So you’re from Chicago?” he asks. This man is loud. A byproduct, probably, of spending so much time with the inmates who, he later warns, “like to make a whole lot of noise.” His question almost hides the jangle of the oversized ring of keys hanging from the belt loop in his oversized pair of blue jeans. Almost.”Yeah, I’m a student at Northwestern University,” I respond. “It’s just outside of Chicago.””Oh, I think I remember them. Are they that team who, a while back, never won any games?” he heckles. At this point, I’m terrified. My $200,000-plus college education seems to be worth very, very little: A laugh and a joke from a jailer who holds the keys to my freedom and a bologna sandwich which is passed to me from the guard who escorted me up to the second floor. The sandwich consists of a thick, round slab of discount bologna stuck between two stale pieces of square white bread. There is a glob of mayonnaise sitting next to the sandwich on the white Styrofoam plate with a plastic spoon to use for spreading. A mound of Lays, or a similar brand of plain, salted potato chips, fills the rest of the plate, going soft with age.I didn’t bother responding.The jailer – I never did get his name – should have been able to put together a warmer welcome. As it turns out, he had been warned. Before the metal door of the elevator slid open, revealing me, a new animal for him to watch out for once locked on the other side of the iron bars, my stepfather had ferreted out his extension and called the jailer directly. He told the jailer to “watch over me,” or something to that effect. Luckily, whatever my stepfather’s comments were – made, I’m sure, with the best of intentions – only the jailer, rather than the entire company of the county jail, ridiculed me for them.My stepfather made the call because my mother was worried. My one phone call was spent, approximately half an hour before – it takes a long time to complete a full set of fingerprints – on reaching the home phone back in the suburbs of Chicago. My mother grabbed one line and my stepfather another so I could inform them at the same time of all the pre-jail details that led to my arrest. My stepfather, livid – with the system, not with me – spent the majority of the time screaming that it was unjust for the trooper to arrest me for speeding, or even for reckless driving, as the trooper called it in his report. My mother, from the time I completed the first sentence until the end of the call, just made it more difficult to communicate the details as her sobbing and frantic questions were nothing but an interruption.”Oh my God. Are you going to have your own cell?” No. “Have they hurt you? What did they do to you?” Well, they handcuffed me, searched me, took my belt and piercings (ears: eight, lower lip: one) from me and emptied my pockets of everything: loose change, papers, wallet. They stared me down as they completed some paperwork, obviously deciding whether or not to trust me when I told them I only had the two tattoos that they could easily see. They took my mug shot with a cheap Polaroid camera that spends the majority of its life trapped inside a locking black metal cabinet in the “intake” room. The intake room was filled, aside from the cabinet, with a heavily-scratched wooden table and two benches. I spent a great deal of time avoiding eye contact and looking at the scratches, trying to decipher them with the hope that I would find something that made sense for the first time in the day. The room, no larger than a closet, is where they locked
me from the time we arrived at the station until I was moved to the fingerprinting room and finally, up to the second floor. Styrofoam plate balancing in one hand as I hold a cup filled with pink lemonade in the other, I’m asked to remove my shoes before stepping through the six- or eight-inch thick steel doors that separate the jailer from the other part of the ‘L’ shape of the second floor. I don’t realize then that I won’t step back through the doors until at least twenty-four hours have passed. I don’t even consider it; instead I’m still wondering how the hell I got myself into this situation.My roommate was beside me shuffling through his iPod as I barreled down the interstate. No less than five minutes before, he had asked me if I wanted him to take the wheel; the plan was to alternate driving as we expected to spend eleven hours in the car that day. When I saw the cop in my rearview mirror I immediately thought, “Oh shit, I can’t afford a speeding ticket right now.”I put on my signal and slowed the car on the side of the road. Halting to a stop, I waited for the trooper to pull up behind me and approach the car before retrieving my license and insurance information. I had seen more than enough episodes of Cops on daytime television to know that you don’t move before they are next to you in case they decide you are trying to dig up a gun or to dispose of any evidence. I handed over the cards and figured it would take a few minutes for him to call it in and check out my record before writing the ticket and sending me on my way. Instead, he asked that I step out of the vehicle. Surprised, I paused for a minute, opened my mouth to ask a question and then pulled my jaw back in, thinking it better to stay quiet and follow the orders.The next thing I knew, he was pulling my arms behind my back and trapping my wrists into the cold, steel handcuffs.”I’m arresting you for reckless driving,” he told me as the circulation to my fingers began to noticeably slow. And then, as though trapped in a bad movie, I was read my Miranda rights from a laminated card that Trooper Lamp keeps in his front chest pocket. Then, tossed into the front seat of his police car. My roommate was directed to sit on the grass to the side of the road as Trooper Lamp searched my car; I couldn’t hear any of these directions – I was watching through the thick glass of the windshield as I fidgeted around in a seat not made for the extra lump that hands held behind your back make. With the Trooper’s ass hanging out of my driver’s side door, his hands digging under my seats as a backdrop, Angus Young began to sing “Back in Black” to me from the speaker of a cell phone sitting in the cup holder.I’m standing on the other side of the bars, Styrofoam plate in one hand, Styrofoam cup in the other. In front of me is a long hallway; to the right, six permanent cells used to hold the guys who “like to make a lot of noise,” or the regulars; guys waiting for a court date or for their relatively short sentences to expire. The cellblock is lit with bare bulbs that the inmates are kept away from by a tiny steel cage reminiscent of the larger one that I am now locked inside of. That’s smart of whoever designed this building because the light bulb – if it weren’t for the cage – could be unscrewed and broken into small, sharp, razor-like pieces. These are the sorts of things you start to think about after a few hours in the cage. Initially, I was infuriated when they took away my shoes – without them, I had to leap over the puddle of water that separated the toilet from the aluminum picnic table anchored to the cement floor on the other end of my cell. With them, though, I would have been able to kill myself with the shoelaces. That sounds morbid, yes, but it’s the truth. I would have been able to and I might have tried; it is something that came to mind as I sat there with nothing else to do. It wouldn’t have been a difficult feat to pull off; I was only there for a day, but it was long enough to learn that the jailer only left his perch once every hour, on the hour. The only book in the entire building, it seems, is a James Patterson novel, the third in the mystery author’s women’s murder series. Great. I haven’t read the first two – and I don’t plan to – but I knock out the 400-page book before rising from the spot I picked at the aluminum table. The jailer drags in my bed – a thin mat and single white sheet – and plops them on the ground in the puddle spreading from the single shower against the wall.With the novel finished, I doze off on the mat. I wake a bit later – how much later, I don’t know; the windowless room isn’t only similar to a casino in that one way: there are no clocks here, either, the lights never dim and the terrible music, it seems, is always blasting from the cheap speaker strung from the wall outside of our reach – to the sounds of a fight. Someone is on the floor, pinned up against the steel bars, people are screaming and someone’s foot is connecting with someone else’s body over and over again. I roll over and try to go back to sleep without disturbing my sheet; I’ve carefully folded it so half keeps me from touching the dirty mat and the other half covers my body.The next time I wake up, the jailer is standing in the hallway, talking to some of the regulars. He sees me stir and cackles in my face: “Finally going to eat your dinner?” “Sure,” I respond. Then I see it – my dinner – in a tray on the floor in the middle of the room. The jailer must have sent it into my cell via the small hole at the bottom of the door. The rats have gotten to it first. They’re nibbling on my hamburger when I rise from the mat, scattering into the corners of the room when I make a move towards the tray.I notice that my nine cellmates have been picked up throughout the night in various states of inebriation and tossed into the cell with me to await the arrival of the judge in the morning. One especially overweight man in an oversized T-shirt finds it necessary to whine to the rest of us that he needs to get home to his bed. The incessant talking is particularly annoying because it emerges from this man’s remaining two teeth in a loud whistle. Standing against the bars on the far side of the crowded cell, I explode. I yell at the man who immediately stops pacing and an awkward quiet descends on the room, but I can tell that I have earned the respect of the other guys. Success. I maintain a straight face and an air of machismo, but inside, I’m terrified. I feel a lot safer sharing a cell with a bunch of drunks. The AC/DC hit – playing for the second time – coupled with obnoxious vibration against the plastic spot where the phone rests, I would later learn, signals a text message. This message, despite its informal presentation to the world through the classic rock ring tone, must have been important, as the trooper felt it necessary to respond immediately. With one hand on the wheel and one eye on the road, the trooper drove me to the county jail at a speed less than that allowed by the law as he typed a response. The rest of the trip was spent in casual conversation. I didn’t care at all about the vegetation of southern Texas, the dogs owned by local farmers or the climate in the area; I was just trying to make a good impression, be friendly. In the end, it wouldn’t be worth it, but the trooper tried to convince me that it would be.The car pulled up to the back of the building and I was searched while standing against the outside of the door, legs spread and face pressed against the warm shell of the car. I never thought a straight man would willingly touch that much of my body, even if a layer or two of clothing did separate his skin from my own; it was humiliating. Sitting in the intake room with Trooper Lamp across from me, I am quiet as he fills out all of the requisite forms, completing his statement: He stopped and arrested me for reckless driving because he clocked me at 108 mph – I to this day maintain that my 1999 Pontiac couldn’t hit 100 if I tried – in a 70 mph zone and I was swerving from one lane to the other. Finally, removing his sunglasses, the trooper finishes wri
ting and, before leaving the room, tells me I have been very cooperative and that he is going to recommend the smallest bail to the judge; I can expect to pay $500 for a class B misdemeanor, he says. In the end, the judge – outfitted with a cheap flannel shirt with pocket square – slapped me with a $2,000 bail after his lecture; Did I know that this was a small town and if I would have killed anybody with my speeding he would have to be the one to come out and identify the body? I kept all of my smart comments to myself – yes, I know this is a small town but I think the four guys you saw immediately before me had a better chance of killing somebody by driving drunk – and put on a smile, calling him sir. My nerves were off for a month, the amount of time between my night in jail and my court date. Because of the classification as a class B misdemeanor, the reckless driving charge could have resulted in a month in additional jail time if the flannel-wearing judge decided that’s what he wanted to do with me. Thanks to the father of a friend, I didn’t spend any additional time in jail, but I did unwillingly “donate” $500 to the county food bank and pay an additional $250 in court costs.Everything they – in a collective sense: your parents before you leave for three months in Texas, the talking heads on loose-lipped television broadcasts, regular people you encounter in the lower states – say about the law in the south, at least according to my limited experience, is true: the cops are frightening, the judges unforgiving and the system unjust. I believe it took me nearly twice as long to drive out of Texas as it did to drive in, paying more attention this time to the minimum speed limit rather than the maximum. To this day – and I waited months to put this story into words – I still get anxious when driving at or above the speed limit. Thanks to Texas troopers, I question the motives of every law enforcement individual whether they are directing traffic on the street or stopping for a quick refill at the nearest convenience store. I don’t bother them anymore, but it’s hard for me to respect them. One thing is certain: If I ever go back, I’ll be sure not to mess with Texas.