In the weeks leading to the beginning of my sentence, I contemplated the romantic write-a-novel-while-in-jail idea. One afternoon I watched a Tupac documentary on VH1. He was interviewed about his own incarceration.
"Everyone thinks you'll write great rhymes while in jail. That ain't true. It's impossible, 'cause jail crushes your spirit, man. Crushes your spirit. Shit."
My own week in jail did not crush my spirit, not quite. I did my best to frame the experience as a story even as it was happening, which was made easier by my colorful colleagues.
One fellow seemed at least a little retarded; the law has no shelter for the kind-of handicapped. He arrived a few days after I did, accompanied by an instant rumor: that he had joined our ranks for making love to a dog. Supposedly he had an accomplice, who was also with us, who had held the unhappy animal in place. The thing was, both of these luminaries claimed to have been the spotter, an apparent defense of character which struck me as equivalent to explaining that the canine tryst was not consummated, but "we did everything else." In jail, as in life, at least you aren't the guy who screwed a dog.
One interaction I can never forget. I was walking in circles around a square bathroom area, the center of our living space. I came upon a guy walking the opposite direction. He stopped, so I stopped.
He said, "How's it goin'?"
He didn't look a day over 18. I spent the days trying to sleep and avoiding talking to people; nervous and self-conscious, his greeting threw me into old, learned modes of socialization.
I said, "Oh, uh, you know, I'm chilling. Um, how about you?"
He said, "I'm in jail."
Jail featured a television, although our access was limited. The other inmates argued over which show to watch, usually deciding on heavy metal music videos. One evening, however, I discovered a group of them gathered around a different program: "Cops."
I showered once. I was terrified of the idea, of course, but on my last day I decided, in the way that boys decide to eat an insect or jump over a campfire, to go for it. Nothing happened.
A nice old guy let me borrow his shower sandals -- preferable, barely, to the bare floor: An amputee inmate in a wheelchair spent most of his days ranting about how the jail water had infected his every wound. A page ripped from Maxim of a model posing in a swimsuit graced the shower's linoleum wall, no doubt to allow careful study of her quoted wisdom: "Oh, I would totally consider a threesome -- if she was hot enough!"
To my horror, a guard threatened to shave my head. Military haircuts were required, and it was only by virtue of my short stay that I avoided that shame. Apparently, shaggily fashionable I'm-in-college mops are culturally lost in translation to people who end up in Grafton County Prison. Inmates seemed bemused that my hairstyle was on purpose, and asserted to my face that I must be a "pothead" or a "skater."
Still, I managed to avoid conflict; I came closest to confrontation at dinner when I was told, rather politely, that I was sitting in the wrong place.
The cultural rift between the other inmates and myself was obvious and unavoidable. My upbringing and education would have me couch the experience as a noblesse oblige research field trip: striking demographic differences, the harsh reality of the system, etc.
My actual psychological experience was more incriminating: My selfhood was under attack, and my inner monologue fought dirty. I found myself belittling the other inmates in my head, accompanied by reminders of my (so deserved!) Ivy League status and the attendant socio-moral high ground.
True to culture, the most frequent questions I got in jail were "What are you in for" and for how long. ("A week" was often met with scoffs.) When I got out, the most frequent question from peers about jail was unsettlingly jovial variations on "Were you raped?"
Two friends visited me, Kapil Kale '07 and a now-senior girl. They had to visit on Sunday, and the rules explicitly forbid "touching, hugging or kissing," which struck me as a cruelly redundant phrasing. No glass walls and phones like movies, just two facing parallel rows of metal chairs with three feet of no man's land marked off by two long strips of red duct tape along the concrete floor.
My friends were visibly worse off than I was. The girl looked like a mother watching her son strike out in Little League over and over. Kapil, who had involuntarily high-fived me and cried "Awesome!" when I told him I was going to jail weeks before, was no longer so pumped.
My release was abrupt. I was simply told, much earlier in the day than I expected, to grab my things and follow an officer. I only had time for one thought: "Wait -- I didn't thank the old guy who gave me his sandals!" After a no-longer-scary series of hallways and clanking brown doors unlocked by radio, I was quickly processed and, with confounding lack of ceremony, told to walk out the door.
I stepped into the crisp New Hampshire air, the same cold I was arrested in one year before. It felt like waking up in a strange bed; I couldn't get my bearings fast enough. I looked around -- I was very alone. I thought my lawyer had called friends to have them pick me up. Did they even know when to get me? How would I --
Just then, Andy Blancero '08 and Elise Hogan '09 jumped out of a car fifty yards away, beaming, giggling, running toward me. They --
They'd hidden from me on purpose. It was a joke.
The giddy 45-minute ride back to Hanover through fall-scorched hills was soundtracked by their tailor-made "Jail Mix": "I Fought the Law," "Cop Killer," "Folsom Prison Blues" and so on.
Shortly after returning to campus, I was suspended from Dartmouth for nine months. I ended up spending most of the time off in Biloxi, Miss. doing Katrina relief, which I documented in this column last winter and spring. I was reinstated for this past summer quarter, and thanks to a series of uninteresting miracles, I will graduate on time.
Now this column will return to everything the Mirror was meant for: gossip, ad hominem attacks, facetime favors and sweeping, unqualified prescriptions for cultural change.
Actually, I'm looking for ideas.
I want to interview the best Dartmouth has to offer. I mean high-volume drug dealers, people who've slept with professors, and campus celebrities past and present (I'm looking at you, defenestrators). I am serious. Please contact me via Gmail: email@example.com.