Try not to think less of me, but I have been in jail. It was one of the more fascinating experiences of my life, but it’s not for everyone.
It all started innocently enough. My then wife and I were living outside Philadelphia PA, in a not too nice part of a not too nice town. Our landlord (I’ll call her “Salome”), was part of a family that had been in the town for at least a century. They owned a number of properties, her brother (I’ll call him “Charles”), a legendary delinquent, lived next door. After a few years of asking for some minor repairs (the water in the shower was controlled from the pipe access in the wall, among other things), we gave our notice and started looking for another place.
Suddenly, Salome couldn’t stay away. Not only was she going to perform the repairs, she was going to make improvements! If only we wouldn’t leave. Charles showed up one day with a new front door. Maybe the only thing we didn’t need. A week later, after spending most of that time with no locking door and one full day without any door, it was ninety five percent installed. There were now gaps that at the top and bottom of the door, and the finish work on the frame needed to be done, but Charles was very proud of himself. We told Salome that we would keep looking for another place.
Salome realized that she would need to actually repair something, preferably something that needed repair. She interviewed “handymen”, apparently having placed an ad at the local half way house. She asked my wife to meet the new person she had hired, so she could show him the apartment. While they were standing in the yard talking, the handyman (I’ll call him “Lenny”), passed out and fell on his face. Salome did not consider this to be inappropriate behavior.
Lenny said he’d be by Monday morning to look at the plumbing. Monday afternoon he called to reschedule to Tuesday. On Wednesday when he called to reschedule for the third time we told him not to bother, it would be easier once we moved out. Salome called within the hour to say that Lenny would most assuredly be there on Friday morning.
Thursday evening Charles called and said he and Lenny were almost out of beer, and they’d stop by to look at the plumbing on their way to the beer store. I ever so politely told Charles that we had an appointment with Lenny for the morning, and that we were about to go to bed. He argued a bit, seems a few six packs are the best way to prepare for plumbing work and he didn’t want to waste his progress. “What difference does it make if it’s tomorrow or tonight?” he asked. “I’ll be in bed tonight” I said, “Don’t come over”. We went to bed. Fifteen minutes later there was a pounding on the front door. I wasn’t sure the hinges could take it.
And then I made the first (if you don’t start counting with moving there) mistake. I pulled the pistol out of my bed stand and put it into the pocket of my robe. I told my wife (Emma) to call 911, and I went to the door. Charles was shouting “We’re here to fix the shower”. I shouted back, “Come back tomorrow”. Then Charles started trying to come in through the window next to the door. I make mistake number two. I opened the door, staying inside with the screen door closed. Emma had come into the room and I told her to go back to the bedroom and wait for the police, hoping that the word “police” would shake Charles enough to send him home. It didn’t.
Charles and Lenny were standing on the landing, Lenny holding a pipe wrench in his right hand, slapping it against his left hand. I said “Charles, go home” in my authoritative command voice. Charles said “We’re coming in”. This went back and forth maybe three times, a little louder each time. Mistake number three. I drew the pistol, pointing at Charles. I don’t know that he was sober enough to see it, because he didn’t react until Lenny said “You can’t point a gun at him!”. Charles charged through the door. Mistake number four, I didn’t shoot Charles.
Charles tried to wrestle the pistol away from me and I yelled at Emma to get back to the bedroom. She never was one to do as I asked. She jumped into the middle of the fight, and we all fell onto a couch, the gun pointing down. With everything going on, I knew I was going to lose control of the pistol, and being an automatic there was also the possibility that it could go off from being banged about. The only good thing was that Lenny, still on parole, ran away. With the pistol against the couch and as far as I could see pointed away from anyone, I pulled the trigger. Charles punched me in the face, grabbed the pistol, and ran out the door.
The bullet had pierced Emma’s calf. Now the Police arrived. I’ve worked through situations like this, I know that you have to secure the scene first, so I wasn’t surprised when they had us lay down with our hands behind our backs. I wasn’t terribly surprised when they put handcuffs on me and took me to a police car (with my robe open), before they took Emma to the ambulance. I was surprised when I first stepped out the door and saw more police vehicles than the three surrounding boroughs had parked in the street, but I wasn’t truly stunned until the officer driving me to the Police station spoke. His first words were “The best thing you can do is get out of town”.
This was a perversely corrupt little town, and they had no shame in acknowledging it. They did their best to intimidate me, isolating me in a cold cell with no clothes and making threats. I had trained air crews to survive POW camps and was completely unimpressed. Sometime in the middle of the night they brought me some clothes and told me Emma was okay. The clothes that they brought included Emma’s keyring, which they held on to and returned to me when I was eventually released, never realizing there was a handcuff key on the ring. When I was returned to my cell, I cried tears of joy for the first time in my life.
The next day, I was arraigned. The Judge patted himself on the back for being so understanding when he set my bail at $49,500. $50,000 would mean that I was a “dangerous offender”. He also set as a condition of bail I could not go within one thousand feet of the victim. Yes, Charles was a victim now. There was no way I could return home after making bail.
I spent the most fascinating week in jail, while I arranged for bail and a place to stay once I got out of jail. I met people who, for rather obvious reasons, I would never have had the opportunity to meet. My first two days were spent with a young heroin addict. I learned so much about his life, he was exceptionally well spoken for a man that had spent almost half of his life incarcerated. The best was a guy whose life had mirrored mine, in a fun house. We had lived in the same places, been married to women from the same towns. He asked where I had been born and then said “Yeah, I’ve been to Corsicana. Got busted with six hundred pounds of weed in my car”. Like I said, a fun house mirror. From him I learned how to get by should I end up staying longer than planned. Jail is a fairly simple society, and if you have a few brain cells, you can survive nicely. If you have a few more, you can stay out altogether.
Around ten o’clock in the morning each day the new prisoners were brought in from processing. It was like a high school reunion. Everyone knew everyone else, so it was mostly jovial “Hey, where ya been”s, with a few “Keep your eyes on that guy”s. Jail is a revolving door. Most people who end up there are stupid enough to end up there again. I had decided that if I couldn’t make arrangements to make bail, I could get on quite nicely and spend my time writing. But I did make bail. I had about thirty charges, my attorney said if I was found guilty I could expect to spend fifty years in jail. Emma and I lived with her brother in Philadelphia while I awaited trial.
After almost a year of legal games, I plead no contest to disorderly conduct and reckless endangerment. I was sentenced to an additional ten days in jail which I could serve on the weekends, and two years of probation. I would have to wear an ankle monitor for six months. During my weekends, I had adequate time to read the entire New Testament and the more interesting books of the Old Testament, and also met people who had no idea what to do with temptation. One guy got arrested for drunk driving on the way home from the first weekend. One guy who didn’t smoke got in trouble for smoking, he said to me “Now I have to spend the rest of my sentence in general population (the main, full time, jail) just because I have to do what I’m told not to”. House arrest was really the most stressful. You are open for search at any time, twenty four hours a day. Emma couldn’t stand it. She couldn’t relax thinking that at any minute there might be corrections officers at the door. We couldn’t keep wine in the house, even though my offense hadn’t involved alcohol. No one ever showed up, which only made her more nervous, thinking they were due any moment.
Emma recovered beautifully, if there is such a thing as a “perfect” bullet wound, she had one. The bullet passed through her calf without damaging any bones, blood vessels, nerves, or muscles. Charles, emboldened by the episode, stormed into another house. This time the guy had a baseball bat and beat Charles nearly to death. The Police told him he had used his last favor and filed no charges. He remains in the same town, where he is now a full time meth head. Lenny ended up back in Jail. Salome tried to run over Emma when the judge told her that she couldn’t sue us for moving out, no charges were filed.
I gained the experiences of an absolutely corrupt legal system, a week in a real prison, five weekends in a bizarre world of weekend confinement, six months of “house arrest”, the probation system, and my brother in law’s house. There are dozens of stories in there.
It was fascinating, but it was not for everybody. It was more than a decade ago, and I can laugh about it now. It has become the basis for my advice to young people, “Living on the edge is the best, falling off the edge is what you make of it”.