They Made Me a Criminal
THE JAIL DOOR SLAMMED and I was left in a women’s holding cell with seven teenage girls. There were no benches so we sat on the floor. I was fifteen but looked twelve. With long hair on my head and not a whisker to my chin, I resembled a homely girl, although the plainclothes officer who frisked me could have verified otherwise. The cops had picked us up in Point State Park after observing us pass a joint. They’d intended to bust a big dealer named Lonnie — a white guy with long red hair. Fortunately for Lonnie but unfortunately for us, a white guy named John also had long red hair, also happened to be in the park, and also happened to possess and publicly share a joint.
I was there after trying to find a summer job selling hot dogs at Three Rivers Stadium. 10,000 other boys my age had had the same idea that day. Possibly a dozen of them landed a job. My friend Mike and I did not. It was a hot day, and after waiting in line for three hours to fill out a job application, we were ready to go home. But first we had to pick up Mike’s friend Donny, who was tripping in Point State Park.
Donny was our age but looked eighteen. His dad was in the Mob. There were guns in his house. Mike looked up to him the way I looked up to Mike.
Mike and I found Donny sitting in a circle with a bunch of teenage girls and a red-haired guy resembling Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. We were tired and they were girls so we sat with them. Someone passed a joint and I pretended to smoke it so nobody would know how uncool I was. Moments later a half-dozen men in suits and dark sunglasses burst from the bushes like clowns from tiny cars and began frisking and collaring us. Nobody tried to run away. It took a while to realize these guys were cops. A man in a hat made me stand up, then felt my balls. I asked if he was gay and he hit me in the face. After that I didn’t say anything.
We rode downtown in the back of a genuine paddy wagon. It must have been more fun, or scarier, for the kids who were actually high.
The officer who separated us by sex put me in the women’s cell, which was good with me. We were the cell’s only occupants; me and the girls hung out playing with matches, learning each other’s names, and wondering what our parents would do to us if we ever saw them again.
A few months before this, I’d been picked up for shoplifting. I hadn’t actually done the shoplifting — my friend Paul had. I didn’t even know he’d taken anything. But the sales girls at G.C. Murphy’s hated Paul and me, and the cops believed their story, so I now had a juvenile record in my parents’ suburb, and was about to get one in Pittsburgh for drug use.
I’d spent the previous year getting beaten up for moving to Pittsburgh from somewhere else, and for being Jewish, and for being small, and for having no facial hair, and for not knowing how to fight, and for not swearing, and for not stealing, and for not smoking, and for sucking at gym, and for raising my hand in class, and for knowing the answers to the teacher’s questions. Now I was a delinquent and almost nobody picked on me. Maybe there was an alternate path out of being the class punching bag, but, if so, nobody had clued me in.
There was a little window in the jail door, just like on TV. After a few hours a lady cop appeared in it and began taking everyone’s information. I was the last one to go to the window. The lady cop asked my religion and I said none. She didn’t like that, although it probably explained things in her mind. She shut the jail door window when she left.
Two minutes later she was back with a male cop — a huge black guy named Tiny, who made me leave the cell and follow him. During the jail door window interview, I’d given my name. I guess somebody had looked twice at it and realized I was a guy. Tiny escorted me to the cell where they were holding John, Mike, and Donnie. I joined them and the door closed. We all watched Donnie come down from his acid trip. It didn’t look like fun.
My father cut my hair short and grounded me for two months. He cut it himself with a hair cutting kit he’d bought at the drugstore in the town we’d lived in before Pittsburgh. The box the kit came in said “Cut Hair At Home And Save!”
We were tried as a group in juvenile court. My parents and Mike’s parents attended. Donny’s dad did not. Before the trial my lawyer instructed me not to deny I’d smoked pot because nobody would believe me. I was to plead emotional instability and request probation on the grounds of being from the suburbs. Right before our trial began, they sentenced a 14-year-old black kid to six months in a juvenile detention center for stealing chewing gum. I stood up. I don’t know what I intended to do. Yell at the judge for being racist, I think. My dad grabbed my hand and pulled me back to my seat. I could see in his eyes that he was afraid for me. My whole life, I’d never seen my dad look afraid. His eyes made everything real.
As part of a plea bargain, my parents agreed to send me to a psychiatrist. I was given a year’s detention and forbidden to enter Point State Park.
I started using drugs the next day. If I had a record, I was going to live up to it.
This is my story from Graphic Content: True Stories From Top Creatives (Print, 2014), curated by Brian Singer, available in hardcover and Kindle editions.