reuben in oz

Welcome to the next installment of my guest bloggers! I met Reuben on a cold, snow covered island off the coast of Mystic, CT. No, really…its true. He was starting his first semester in the MFA program at Fairfield and as I’m sure you’ll understand by the end of the post….he doesn’t get lost in the crowd. Reuben is full of spunk and is always up to make sure everyone is happy and having a great time. When you’re done reading about his defining moment, head on over to his blog.

On November 22nd, 2006, I surrendered myself to the Bulloch County police station in Statesboro, GA. I cried being processed, having my fingerprints smudged down on paper by deputies, standing and turning for pictures. They took my keys, my phone, my empty wallet, my pack of cigarettes and my belt and then put me in a holding cell until I could be extradited to Gwinnett County, in the Atlanta area.

My mind went lots of places while I sat in the holding cell that darkened as the day stretched on until the sun went down. I was ashamed, and terrified. I was mad at myself and every one I’d ever met. I was a degraded statistic, another man of color locked up in the system. Days before surrendering, I thought about suicide; not wanting to face consequences, or the world, or the complete failure of my personal life. But jail, in its tricky way, silenced my self-destructive urges. For one thing, I couldn’t harm myself even if I wanted to, the cops took all my personal effects. For another, I was locked up with dangerous people; the only other guy in my holding cell was being interrogated for armed robbery.

My instincts kicked into that “fight or flight” mode, except that in jail flight isn’t an option. But, all told, the best thing about being locked up was just being locked up. My life had turned to shit on the outside and it would take months if not years to really piece it all back together. I didn’t have the energy to even try to sort it out, and I didn’t have to; I wasn’t going anywhere unless the judge wanted me to.

I spent one night in Bulloch County. The Gwinnett extraditor couldn’t pick me up until some time the next day so I was moved back to the cell block, Cell Block E. A deputy took me to a storage closet and made me strip out of my clothes and in a two-sizes-too-large jump suit. For the night I was put on the top bunk in cell with an old man, seemingly harmless.

“What are you in for?” I asked him.

“Man! Everybody says I touched that little girl. I ain’t touch no girl no where! I ain’t touching girls! God says…” And I cried myself to sleep during his sermon.

It’s easier to wake up in jail than it is to be processed and placed into it fully conscious. I played poker and watched Walker Texas Ranger with a group of guys who were “on their way down,” jail-talk for going to prison, for kidnapping children. I kept my mouth shut and my eyes glued to the cards or the encased TV bolted up to the wall.

I was a zombie in Cell Block E. No one ever asked me my name. There was no conversation without anyone until the extraditor came for me. Once I was situated in the backseat of the squad car the cop asked me, “so what’s your story?” and it took less than five seconds to start crying all over again. I laid my pitiful life out as we barreled down Georgia back roads until the cop couldn’t take it anymore and told me to shut up.

I put myself here, he told me. No one else but me, and no one else to blame. No one feels sorry for you, he told me, you’re in jail.

And that was the moment it bottomed out for me. That hard truth realization made my head spin as we swerved along country roads. Until then, my life the past few years were nothing but running and evading responsibility. I could see my path of choices stretched out like branches of a tree, where I always climbed the weak limbs because they’re closer to the ground and I wouldn’t have to work as hard. Finally, the branch snapped.

We got to Gwinnett County’s lock-up late at night and I was a new handcuffed man: no more tears, no shame or anger, and remarkably, no fear. I was put in another holding cell, over night, with forty-three other guys—we knew this because in our boredom, we counted. When the only kid close to my age wouldn’t stop crying about how his parents were going kill him when they find out he’s been selling ecstasy, I yelled at him, cursed him out, dropped three or four punk-@ss’s and threatened to fight him. I stayed up late with a forger, a parole violator, and bank robber, cracking jokes and learning more prison slang.

Turns out nobody says, “what are you in for?” it’s always, “what they trying get you on?” and whatever it is, it’s always false. The bank robber said, “they’re trying to say we took hostages.” The forger didn’t even know how to forge documents, he was just trying to deposit his paycheck. The parole violator on his way back down asked me what they were trying to get me for and when I told him he said, “they always be lying on you, huh?”

“No, I did that shit. I’m guilty.”

To keep myself from being targeted as a gay man I invented a fake girlfriend named Audrey, a former junkie who keeping scaring me with false pregnancies.

I spent eight days in Gwinnett County’s Cell Block J with my friends The Forger, The Bank Robber and The Parole Violator. My cell mates, DC and Mexico, were cocaine traffickers about to face trial. My jail-house nickname was College Boy because I read every Time magazine on the library cart in a day and explained Republican and Democratic political stances during dinner. I traded my coffee, sugar and cream packets for cigarettes during breakfast and won a free haircut in a game of Rummy. By the time my mom came to visit me, my jumpsuit had been downgraded from large to medium, on account of my weight loss, and she even remarked on how handsome I looked in it.

In total, I spent nine days in jail, including Thanksgiving, until I could go before a judge and be handed time-served for my mistakes. And looking back now, I needed those nine days away from life. I needed a reboot from the catastrophe my bad decisions had created. In court, I shuffled my shackles up to the podium and told the judge, “I’m sorry.

“I did everything wrong. But I’m trying to make it better. I’m in college and was hoping to make Dean’s List. I’m ready to be an adult and take responsibility for my actions.”

The judge didn’t recognize me but I recognized him, from three years earlier, when all this mess had first started to happen. He wasn’t particularly moved by my admission; he just flipped through my paperwork, said “nine days is enough,” and let me go. I was released from the county jail that night, where I met my mom who had been handed my keys, my phone, my empty wallet, my belt and my pack of cigarettes. She bought me new underwear (the best gift you can ever give someone who’s getting out of jail) and she drove home, laughing about all my anecdotes from Cell Block J. Back in Statesboro, my life was still in shambles, and there would be a long arduous road ahead of me. But for that night my mom and I could laugh and hug and celebrate in the moment because I had been freed. Freed from Gwinnett County Jail, freed from the dead end of poor choices and finally, freed from the ignorance and immaturity that kept me running from life, instead of toward it.

6 comments

  1. A.J. says:

    Wow.,Reuben, what an amazing, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting post.

    I’ve covered courts, and it’s true — most defendants don’t accept responsibility for their actions. It’s always someone else’s fault; the cops, the attorneys, the judge, anyone but the defendant. I admire your ability to own your mistakes while sharing a cell with a bunch of guys who assume you’ll say you’re innocent and who are offering you a chance to save face by asking “what they trying get you on?” That takes courage and self-honesty.

    Great post.

  2. Brooke (Books Distilled) says:

    Reuben, thanks so much for sharing with so much honesty. Your vulnerability knocked the breath out of me! What a great post. I especially loved your nickname College Boy and how you were explaining politics over dinner–I can totally see it!

  3. Elizabeth Hilts says:

    “I did everything wrong. But I’m trying to make it better.”
    Which is all any of us can ever do.
    Great post; I can’t wait to read more of your writing.

  4. Reuben says:

    Thanks guys! I’m glad I got the chance to share that story! Honestly, once I got over that initial self-pitying thing I actually really enjoyed jail. There was a genuinely nice and happy comradorie (sp?) amongst all of us in there. I try not to ever forget that.

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