A Night in Central Booking, NYC, ‘97

It was the end of the summer of ’97, and my man, Riz, needed a few ounces of weed for a couple of friends. Knots was over my crib, so I told Riz to come by and the three of us could roll together. I had no idea that the “couple of friends” would actually be the ones driving. When they pulled up in front, Knots looked out the window and just shook his head: “Jesus Christ, Foster.”

Jersey plates. Riz, Knots and I were all white, but these two kids made the three of us look like Wu-Tang. Dressed without an ounce of urban influence and blonde as Hilter’s image of perfection, they looked like the Danish terrorists from Die Hard With A Vengeance (which had come out the year before and filmed some of its scenes just down the block from my dealer). If Knots had had a car he would have immediately gone home. Instead he was kind of forced to tag along.

It was midway through Giuliani’s tenure, and things had begun to change in New York. “Bad neighborhoods” were getting safer. Weed spots were closing down left and right, occasionally entire blocks barricaded off and lit up with those huge police lights (how did all the non-drug dealer people there get to sleep at night?). Hustlers were scattering like New York roaches and the streets were quickly drying up.

My connect didn’t even chill much anymore by his spot on 164th, as it had become too “hot,” and he requested any time I came over that I never park on his block. Of course I couldn’t take any of this personally. By that time I knew he trusted and liked me very much. I’d been to his place many times and eaten dinner with his family, but we were both aware of my racial handicap within this context, and thus had to manage each deal accordingly.

I had the Swedish All-Stars park on Amsterdam and 177th, a few avenues over, which constitutes an eternity of space in Manhattan blocks. Unfortunately, I hadn’t considered that we were still probably parked within a few hundred feet of five other major hustlers the cops were scoping out as well. I walked over to St. Nicholas Ave., and buzzed up.

“Oye, es David,” and I pressed stop on the latest Stretch & Bobbito tape on my walkman.

In the apartment was business as usual. But when I got back to the car I saw Knots sitting on a park bench smoking a cigarette, almost a full block away.

“I seen the cops circle like five times,” he told me. “Unmarked cars, but definitely cops. I ain’t getting back in that car, Foster.

I told him not to worry. We’d pass the two ounces into the car and simply walk together up to the next spot on 187thfor my final smaller order, then meet Riz and the neo-Nazis on another block. Knots trusted me.

I always hated worry. Worry reminded me of my Jewish mom, and for this reason I usually ignored it, probably at times to my peril, as it can be a totally functional component of street smarts.

We passed the two ounces into the car window and told Riz to meet us on Riverside Drive. Before we could even get across the avenue, a van full of big white and Puerto Rican guys in Yankees jerseys swerved into our path and jumped out with badges in hand. There was a half-beat during which I was naïve enough to think how smart we’d been to dump the weed. Wait ’til these assholes pat us down and realize they ain’t got shit! We looked over our shoulders and saw another van of the same clichés charging the parked car. Fuck.

We sat on the benches for about a half hour, each of us getting patted down, then handcuffed and having ID’s checked for warrants. I worried that the blondes might be wanted for a multiple homicide somewhere in the Midwest, but we all came up clean and were loaded into the van. For some reason they actually let one of them go (white privilege?), but the other got hooked and booked along with us. He looked like a terror-struck fish out of water, though to be fair, not much more than he already had through the entire trip prior.

First is the ride around, packed into the back of the un-air-conditioned van with the other petty criminals from the same shift. We were handcuffed to the inside of the van wall and seated on its floor facing each other, forced to listen to two cops making typically bad jokes in the front seat. “Real fuckin’ geniuses, these guys are, huh?” and the other one laughed on cue, as if there had been any punch line at all.

For whatever reason, it’s always about intelligence, isn’t it? “Real geniuses.” “Pretty fuckin’ smart!” “This guy’s a regular Einstein, eh?” Where do cops get the idea that society views them as being so sharp that they can pass judgment on everyone else’s mental capacity? I just hope that at some point in history some cops unknowingly arrested a rocket scientist or nuclear physicist and put their foot in their mouths with the same hack material.

Knots and I were on Probation at the time, with an included clause that we were not to hang out with one another. Needless to say, this was cause for concern. Riz, on the other hand, was probably in as good spirits as even the cops up front, and to this day I cannot even speculate why. Squirming in his awkward seat, giggling in his characteristic fashion, he looked practically giddy, and was as much a joy to watch as could be in the situation. I supposed we were 19, no longer 13. We hadn’t done anything horrible, and Riz’s dad was a [Grateful] Dead head, sure to only get so upset that his college-age son was buying weed. Thus, he was completely unperturbed, until of course the next addition to the van arrived.

A call came over the transmitters, and the engine suddenly revved as the van took a hard u-turn with no regard for our comfort. Handcuffed to the pole behind our butts, we all toppled into one another and Riz giggled like a 10-year old on the bumper cars. The cops swerved through city traffic, apparently in hot pursuit of someone, until they finally stopped on a curb in the same way they had for us just minutes ago (they must teach that in the academy). They quickly hopped out, and for a few minutes we were left alone.

The teacher had stepped away from the classroom, and the kids were free to speak freely. In every cell block, every jail cell and police van across the country, there’s at least one motor mouth; a know-it-all seasoned vet, who’d been there and done this one too many times, and took every opportunity to share what he knew to be some factual analysis of any situation.

“They gettin’ somebody,” he said, and Riz couldn’t hold back more giggles that I figured he’d been as much repressing for the cops’ benefit as they were catalyzed by the kid’s comment.

Know-it-all, turned to me: “What’s wrong with your man?”

“Oh, he’s just high,” I said, and Riz laughed even harder. He was sober as a judge.

Knots shook his head, and a few moments later the cops re-opened our back door to introduce their latest catch. Tall, thin, dark-skinned Hispanic in dirty jeans and an oversized wifebeater, his appearance was relatively unremarkable… but his aroma was not. Unsurprisingly, Know-it-all was the first to sacrifice tact in response to the apparent reality that New Guy had literally shit his pants.

“Goddaaaamn!” he exclaimed, which once again broke Riz apart, and he grinned at me from ear to ear, his eyes lit up with amusement over poop. As bad as it stunk, it may have been that much funnier, and for at least a few moments, all of us besides Knots had forgotten the reality of the greater situation. We were back on the elementary school playground where Riz and I first became best friends, and the van’s collective focus was no longer on the group of gringos going to jail.

When we finally got out I wasn’t sure where we were. It looked like some precinct in Harlem, but it was hard to tell while being quickly filed out of the van and into the station. I was separated from Riz and Knots and placed in a tiny cell with a few others that couldn’t have been bigger than 8x8 feet. The new guy was with me, so we were all grateful that they’d cleaned and changed him before bringing him in.

I remember feeling bad watching him squirm and swear as they sprayed him down with cold water, a few cops heartlessly satirizing the suffering of the poor bastard. While it may not have been “abuse,” it was needlessly insensitive and immature, each individual cop apparently too scared to be the outlier of the group who dared acknowledge the kid as a fellow human being. He wasn’t a violent criminal or even necessarily a bad person. He was just a heroin addict in severe withdrawal, hopefully in what was one of the lowest and most humiliating moments of his life.

Once clean, they pushed him into our cell, where he shamelessly released his rage in one last vocal explosion.

“Fuckin’ assholes!” Why don’tchu fuckin’ give a nigga some warm water though?!”

Sitting just a few feet away from him I could feel his anger reverberate through my being, and I grew a bit overwhelmed with discomfort. It was the closest in physical proximity I’d ever stood to such guttural rage and desperation.

“It’s not a hotel, kid,” one of the cops sternly responded, and he took a deep breath. No one else in the cell said a word and I chose to follow suit.

Unfortunately the kid’s suffering and withdrawal had just begun. When they handcuffed us all together to transport us downtown he twice had to be released to vomit his guts out into a trashcan, cursing and wheezing the entire time. My sympathy for him frequently outweighed concern for myself.

Every cell of prisoners were shackled together and loaded up into one of the NYPD police buses, and it reminded me of the old Wu-Tang lyric: Handcuffed in back of a bus, 40 of us, Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough. If one of my unconscious adolescent goals was to be Wu-Tang, success!

Unfortunately, under arrest things just cannot be all so simple, and shame on a nigga who dare think his cellmates will not bring da ruckus and force you to protect ya neck or risk shedding tearz.

I was lucky. Our cell block of about 30 characters were either more peaceful or less racist than those of the guys across the hall, in which a few other white kids whom we didn’t know but appeared as similar pods, were relegated. More than once we saw them desperately cry for the guard, as the more volatile thugs in their cell were bullying and abusing them off and on throughout the night. Of course it was just central booking and nothing so bad as rape would go down, but from the surface appearance of things I had reason to be grateful for my cell.

It looked as it does in most movies, large, square and cement, with a bench around the periphery, though most films omit the bathroom component, as it would probably distract from any scene that was not focused on shit jokes. There was a toilet bowl sectioned off with a panel that would ordinarily qualify as only a urinal wall, and I was also thankful that my bowels didn’t rumble once in the night. Neither did New Guy’s. He took care of that back on 183rdSt. As for the guys who did appear completely at home dropping bombs in the crowded cell, it was apparent that we’d come from different worlds.

I made it a point not to speak to the Blonde, insecurely figuring my street credibility was already minimal without associating with the whitest man in the building, cops and judges included. I did have one, “Whatchu’ in for?” conversation with a Puerto Rican skateboarder who’d beaten the shit out of a storeowner for racially discriminating against him. Brutal violence. Nice. I was just getting weed for friends.

I asked him for a cigarette, but he claimed the one he was smoking was his last, and he was definitely my last option. I looked across the hall at Knots, who was in the cell next to the bullies, and he had an even cooler crew than I did, smoking away all night long. He looked at me and winked, gloating by blowing O’s with his smoke, and I figured he deserved this moment, as I’d gotten him into this mess to begin with.

Cigarettes are currency in jail, and it was apparent that certain prisoners had connects with certain guards and were allowed to pass in with their smokes. A dubious honor, I suppose: “I know people in central booking.”

Guys would shout from cell to cell, requesting cigarettes: “Lemme get a bone!” “One loose!” And all night I watched crumpled up dollars fly from cell to cell, even sometimes no-look passes between adjacent cells, and rarely did anything miss. To conserve matches they actually split them in half the long way to create two out of one, and even those were occasionally flicked successfully from one to another. I wanted a cigarette so badly, but figured it best not to rock the boat that presently sailed with me free of physical harm. Instead I just enjoyed observing the impressive antics and techniques of the others. I could wait a few more hours for nicotine.

A night in jail is as long as it is boring, and you get plenty of time to think. I thought mostly about what I could have done better to have not landed in this situation. I thought about my Probation officer and prayed she wouldn’t find out. I thought of my parents, figuring by now they’d gotten home and found me not there. We still weren’t even close to phone call time and I was worried about how worried they must have been. There was nothing I could do.

I thought about weed and sex, and by the end of the night some of the female corrections officers who I hadn’t noticed hours before started to look good. “Central booking effect,” I later coined it, when one is relegated to an environment particularly void of attractive girls for long enough, one’s standards will plummet. Some of the guards were curvy and thick to say the least, and I may have gotten the ever so miniscule glimpse into how homosexuality eventually arises out of otherwise heterosexuals in real prison.

After about 12 hours our names were finally called and we were brought to meet with the public defendant, then moved into some kind of on-deck cell before seeing the judge. We finally got our phone call from a pay phone in that cell and there was a ton of shouting and background noise.

“What’s all that noise?” my Dad demanded into the phone.

“Oh, I stayed over at Riz’s in Nyack, and we’re at the local YMCA. There’s a swim meet going on.” A swim meet?! Awful.

“Why didn’t you call us last night?” That’s fair.

“I couldn’t get to a phone, sorry. They had a black out. There was a black out in Riz’s dad’s house and we couldn’t use the phone.”

“Fine. When are you coming home?” he sounded more impatient than anything.

“After the swim meet. Next few hours,” I told him. “We’re leaving soon.”

What I later found out when I got home was that Dad was simply humoring my ridiculous lies. They’d already spoken to Riz’s mom, who’d already spoken to the Blonde who’d been released by the cops. Dad knew exactly where I was and why it took so long to call.

Court was short and sweet. The judge sentenced us each to community service, then let us go, and I can only imagine what freedom must feel like after a real prison sentence, because walking out into the warm summer sunlight on those steps at City Hall felt like a bear hug around my spirit, like an orgasm of the soul, after which the first logical order of business was a cigarette; and every smoker and ex-smoker in the world knows exactly how good that felt.

We got on the crowded subway headed home and Riz sat down on the train floor.

“Get up!” I urged him. “You can’t sit down on the subway floor.”

“Dude, I just spent the night in jail.”

The worst part of the night wasn’t the “hard time,” nor the community service or punishment from Mom and Dad, which had become our regular M.O. anyway, but the fact that my Probation officer was made aware of the incident. It wasn’t in my next monthly visit, which came too soon after the incident for word to spread, but the one after when she asked me: “Do you have something you want to tell me?”

I paused. “What?”

“Please don’t lie to me, David. We’ve been together too long now for you to lie about anything. Something that happened in Washington Heights?”

I hung my head and confessed. She revealed a truth that she’d been withholding as well. My drug tests had been coming back positive all year, all to varying degrees.

“I’m afraid you’re not abiding by the requirements of your Probation. This has to stop, or I’ll be forced to violate you, which would mean you’d have to do some jail time. Now, I don’t think you want to go to jail, do you?”

“Definitely not.”

“So then this doesn’t happen again, right? This is your official final warning. No more positive tests, no more vaguely maybe positive tests, and definitely no more arrests in Washington Heights or anywhere else… or else. Okay?”

The first two weeks of sobriety were hard, not because I had such a difficult time being sober or such demons to face, but because I missed my beloved weed. I missed the ritual. I missed how it made me feel, having it as a crutch for bad times and a source of celebration for good. But what scared me most was no longer having weed as a part of my identity. I’d come to largely define my character by blunts. I was a smoker, a renegade against the establishment, one of the white embodiments of hip hop culture and the personification of many of my favorite Smif N’ Wessun, Redman and Cypress Hill lyrics. I identified as a weed head, even a guaranteed head for life, and felt as if I’d been suddenly dumped by a best friend or the girl I thought I was going to marry. Who the fuck am I? was the most terrifying part of my separation, and it took a few months of time around friends and family, beer and cigarettes, before the answer finally fell in my lap. My best friend was an actor, also a total clown, and suggested I get a video camera for Christmas so we could make comedic videos, which sounded just fun enough to possibly fill my void. I got the camera, and after two years of having a blast making our ridiculous skits, I thought I should also try stand-up comedy. Out of forced sobriety, a new self-definition was born.

Originally published at davidfostercomedyblog.com.

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