Jail for Beginners
tatiana de la tierra

Coral Gables, Florida, 1996. The day began with a list of errands: gasoline; bagels; clinic; protest; photocopies; Eckerd’s-film; prescription; step aerobics. After all that, I intended to come home, sweaty from my work-out, and put some eggplant Parmesan in the oven while I showered. After eating, I’d get in my king-size bed and flip through channels on the TV, and if nothing inspired me, I’d grab my mystery novel of the week, Devil’s Gonna Get Him, and read myself to sleep. My day would be that simple.

But it wasn’t.

For one thing, I was poor. The business that I’d managed for five years was sold the year before and I hadn’t worked since. I had been living off of unemployment and my savings, both of which were just about depleted, and I wasn’t exactly looking for a job. I was a writer, dammit, and I was going to cultivate my craft. Which meant poverty.

Most people didn’t know how poor I was. I wore emerald earrings, thick Cuban link chains, solid gold bangles and an assortment of gaudy rings studded with diamonds, garnets, sapphires, pearls, amethysts and stones I didn’t even know the names of. I sported Christian Dior sunglasses, scented my aura with Oscar de la Renta’s Volupté. I had kick-ass music, rock, and book collections. I had a Nikon, Bose 901 speakers, a Yamaha stereo, a $50 stapler, a $200 halogen desk lamp, and a decent computer. I still had my health club membership. And I still had a taste for fine food and designer clothes that any employed, vegetarian, liberal, thirty-something lesbian living in Miami would have. I just didn’t have the cash.

And so I cringed at the price of a sturdy 30” X 42” piece of cardboard at Office Depot the night before my arrest: $6.49. No way could I afford that! On the other hand, what if I used it so carefully that I could return it the next day, saying that I didn’t need it after all? Poverty makes you resourceful, and since I had been plenty poor growing up, I knew how to handle simple survival skills. I bought the cardboard.

I worked by the light of my 25” Mitsubishi. With the cardboard on the floor, I placed continuous sheets of printing paper over the surface and taped all the sheets together. Then, I attached the taped sheets to the edge of the cardboard with paper clips, and I was ready to make my sign. After using it, I would just remove the paper clips and the makeshift paper sign, return the cardboard, and get my money back.

Or so I thought.

Being unemployed gives you an edge when it comes to civic protests. I was editing a Latina lesbian magazine and working on a series of creative nonfiction stories, which I wasn’t being paid for. It’s not like I had loads of time on my hands, but then I also didn’t have to punch the clock. When I heard that there was going to be a demonstration in front of the Colombian Consulate by Cubans who were incensed because Colombia was negotiating the sale of petroleum to Cuba, I decided that for once, I wasn’t going to sit back. I also decided to keep my impending actions a secret from my macha Cuban lover; the Cuban flag dangled from her rear-view mirror and she was as right wing as the rest of them when it came to issues relating to politics on her island. Comunistas, she would sneer.

Like many others, I was accustomed to rolling my eyes when Cubans strutted along Miami streets chanting things like No Castro, No Problem. There they go again, I would think. But when it came to Colombia, the beautiful country where I was born, I had to draw the line. Colombia, my crib on earth, the place of cumbias, vallenatos, volcanoes, arepas and tiny towns tucked in the mountains, was too dear to me. I wasn’t going to let it get slapped around by a bunch of crazed Cubans.

And so I made my sign. It read: Down with the Cuban embargo.

The next morning, I filled up my gas tank, as planned, and bought sesame bagels from the Bagel Emporium in South Miami. Then, I headed to the poor people’s clinic in Coconut Grove, where I had an 11 a.m. appointment. I got there early, well knowing the paperwork and waiting routine. The receptionist ignored me. Snotty-nosed kids bolted through the waiting room. Cristina provoked the audience. Heterosexuals sat with their arms around each other. A woman in a sleeveless housedress shuffled around the waiting room. Doctors paraded by in their white lab coats. It was 11:30 and the receptionist was still ignoring me.

“Listen,” I said, indignant, at a receptionist who obviously wasn’t listening. “I have an appointment at noon. Can you speed this up?”

“They haven’t found your records, ma’am. You’ll have to wait.” She replied without looking up.

“What if I come back in an hour?” She shrugged. I figured I could go to the protest, wave my sign around a bit, and be back in time for the doctor.

OK, it was an ignorant thing to do. There they were, about a thousand demonstrators, all of them revved up. A huge Cuban flag was held by over a dozen pair of hands in front of 280 Aragon Avenue in Coral Gables, the site of the Colombian Consulate. Protesters chanted No oil for Cuba! and Colombia Sí, Gaviria No! They said things like Giving Cuba oil is like giving oxygen to Fidel Castro. Meanwhile, Colombians, who had been advised by the Colombian Consulate to avoid confrontations with the protesters, silently passed out flyers that read Long live sovereign Colombia and Down with the dictatorship of the Cuban exiles! Network news video cameras were strategically perched around the crowd and police officers roamed the periphery in their blue uniforms.

And then I appeared.

Viva Colombia! I chanted, marching with my sign. I wore a brand new cotton T-shirt with Free Cuba on the front and I had the Colombian flag draped around me like Superman’s cape. The Colombian National Anthem played inside of me. ¡Oh gloria inmarcesible, oh jubilo inmortal!

And then they creamed me.

In a matter of seconds, the sign was torn from my grip. The overpriced cardboard was shred to pieces before my eyes. Suddenly, I was surrounded by flailing arms and bulging eyes. ¡Comunista! ¡Puerca! ¡Puta! They cursed and screamed at me. And then they pounced on me. A thump to my ribs, a kick to my shin, a bop on the head. They pulled at my Colombian flag, trying to rip it and strangle me with amarillo, azul y rojo, the national colors. I was a fist accidentally thrust into a revolving fan.

So I fought back. Now, I grew up fighting with cousins and siblings and neighborhood bullies, and when it comes down to it, fighting is nothing more than survival instinct. So I belted, punched, pulled, grabbed, grunted and basically, lost all my demure demeanor in public. Unfortunately, a few of those punches landed squarely in the chest of a city of Coral Gables police officer.

And then swiftly, even gracefully, two hairy-armed cops dragged me away from the crowd, lifting me as if I were nothing more than a fluffy teddy bear. “They’re the ones who attacked me! Why don’t you get them?” I yelled. I was pissed. A group of protesters followed us on the block-long journey to the squad car, continuing with their curses. They swatted at me, smacking the cops instead.

From all appearances, you would think that I was under arrest. I mean, there I was, in the back seat of a police car, locked in. My bottle of Evian was confiscated, as well as my waist pouch and the Colombian flag. The only problem was that no one would tell me what was going on. Cops milled around, glancing at me. One fingered my driver’s license. Another spoke into the car radio. One, dressed in blue jeans, a white polo shirt and a baseball cap, got into the front seat. He slid open the bullet-proof divider a few inches and asked questions without looking at me.

“So what are you doing here? What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“A writer, huh? What do you write?”

“Stories.” Was this a job interview? He was taking notes. I wanted to say, “I’m a lesbian terrorist and I write cunt stories and I hate men, especially ones like you, and can I please have my bottle of Evian now?” But something told me to play the game. For all I knew, I was being interrogated by an undercover agent from the red squad. Just be cool, I told myself.

If things really happened like they did on Cops, they would have had me place my hands on top of the squad car and they would have patted me down. Then, they’d read me my Miranda rights, handcuff me, shove me in the car, and peel off with blue flashing lights, sirens wailing. I would be foaming at the mouth and thrashing about on my way to jail, and once I got there, I would be allowed one phone call and then I would sit behind bars until I was rescued.

As the squad car pulled away, I saw the flags and signs from the demonstration dancing in the afternoon wind. I watched Miami through black-tinted folding Ray-Bans. The wind beyond my stifling vacuum-sealed box taunted me. Hair blew. Skirts rustled. Signs quivered. Leaves trailed. A little girl in peach overalls crossed the street in front of me, looking like she might flutter away. A scraggly-bearded man gripped a hand-made sign that read Soy Balsero, Ayudenme. Written on corrugated cardboard, the sign moved in the wind. A newspaper vendor cradled a flapping stack of The Miami Herald to his chest. Fronds of Royal palm trees whipped, seeming to spiral into the sky.

I thought of a teenage photograph of me standing in the back of a Renegade jeep during a drive through Colombian mountains. My face cut through the gushing wind, my hair flew, and I was ecstatic.

But the wind in Miami, the salty ocean-side breeze, would just have to wait. There I was, a grown woman in the back seat of a squad car, strapped in like a two-year old into a car seat. Thirty-three. That’s how old Jesus Christ was when he was crucified. Was this a thirty-something rite of passage? And then I flashed on one of those rebirthing sessions I’d had the year before. In one life, I had been beaten to death by a small-town mob. In another, I had been publicly executed. Was this a continuation of horrid past-life habits? As soon as this was over, I swore to myself, and as soon as I could afford it, I’d see a psychic, an astrologer and a rebirther, for good measure. I would confront my karma.

But first I would have to confront a jail cell in Miami.

Contrary to the zillion jail images that I’d seen on TV all of my life, I was never actually behind bars. In fact, I never even saw bars. What I did see plenty of was concrete walls and benches, steel doors, and bulletproof steel-meshed windows.

And about that one phone call. I did see a public phone along the wall in the first holding room I was in, but as soon as I grabbed the receiver, a correction officer yanked me back to the bench. I eyed her butch hardware with great interest, allowing myself a brief dyke fantasy, even though she did take my one phone call away. That gave me more time to think of whom I would call. My Cuban lover or my Colombian mother? Neither would be very sympathetic. That’ll teach you to mess with Cubans, my lover would say, laughing. You’ve shamed the entire family, my mother would say, crying.

Suddenly, I had my image to consider. What would my family and friends think? How would this affect my Latina lesbian public image? My valiant entry into the protest and the ensuing mêlée had been captured on film. I was the only counter-demonstrator and I knew that my performance, however unintentional, was a newsworthy item. I hoped that at the very least I looked good on film. I had been wearing my bright yellow plastic carnation earrings, which contrasted dramatically with my dark curly hair. And my lipstick was fresh and my hands were adorned with my many gaudy rings. Color coordination was important to me, even in jail.

I had to use the bathroom, or rather, I pretended that I had to use the bathroom, hoping to be able to cradle my head into my hands in private. The officer handed me a wad of stiff white paper. Then, to my surprise, she led me into a large room full of chatty women. Oh oh. This is where I had to pee? Prostitutes with wilted hairdos and smeared make up eyed me without halting their conversations. One wore a mini-dress, had finely-sculpted bronze thighs, and enchanting big breasts. The sort of night woman my lover would whistle at on Biscayne Boulevard at three a.m. Suddenly, I was in solidarity with my competition in that room that had two concrete benches along the sides, with stainless steel toilets and a water fountain at each end. I felt like an intruder, like I’d crashed a private party. Was this an opportunity to have deep feminist talks with the girls? To make connections for post-jail sexual encounters? To get manhandled into ecstasy by uniformed female officers? The possibilities were endless.

“You better do your business. I don’t have all day,” scolded the cop.

No one seemed to care while I pulled down my black Danskin leggings and pink Jockey underwear and nonchalantly peed.

Then, it was back to the solitary bench for me. Back to looking at a public pay phone I couldn’t use. Back to a bologna and cheese sandwich that appeared out of nowhere. I tried to be well-mannered about the situation. “Can you please tell me what is going on?” I asked the officer stationed by the steel-bolted door. A pink property form and a yellow arrest warrant were my only sources of information.

“Sit down,” she ordered. Then, without explanation, I was taken into another room and locked in alone with that gummy white-bread sandwich. Is this where they put people when they ask questions?

There was some process involved in what was happening to me, but I didn’t know what it was. Couldn’t they have designed a brochure explaining the procedure? I fantasized getting out of jail and having the City of Miami hire me to write the text for the prison public relations pamphlet. Welcome to the Dade County Public Jail! If you find yourself facing concrete walls behind steel-bolted doors, it means that you are under arrest.. Or maybe I could produce a video dramatizing the process, with helpful tips on jail cell etiquette. Jail Time for Beginners would be required viewing of first-time arrestees.

But no such luck for me. I cursed the cop shows I grew up watching on TV. Hunter and Columbo and The Mod Squad were all useless as I succumbed to being a jailbird. I thought of the fierce dykes who stood their ground at the women’s encampments on nuclear sites. I thought of all that news footage I’d seen with Vietnam protesters, anti-nuclear activists and Black power crusaders. They looked so fierce while they chanted and pulsed their fists in the air. I had imagined that when they were jailed they would be defiant. They would sing You can’t kill the spirit. They would laugh at uniformed authority. They would be tough, they would know their rights, they would have massive support on the outside, and they would have colorful stories to tell their grandchildren.

But being in jail is actually very boring. You get put in one room and then another, and then another. You get processed. You get bad photos taken of you. You’re fed watery string beans, Spam and Kool-Aid. Your behind gets sore, and you get no answers. Eventually, you get to make your one phone call, and you call your mother, the one person who will put up with you, no matter what.

And then, at some point, you post bail and sign out and go home. You disconnect the telephone, put on the mellowest music that you have, and take a deep, hot bath with lavender suds. Then, you light some sandalwood incense, get in bed and open the window in the bedroom. The wind travels inside, purifying and soothing you.

And then you say to yourself, Tomorrow, I’ll look for a job.

Revised 27 de abril de 1997, el paso, tejas
Published as:

“Jail for Beginners.” Tropic Miami Herald Sunday Magazine Mar. 8, 1998: 18-21. Also published as: “Jail Time for Beginners.” Latino Heretics. Ed. Tony Diaz. Normal, IL: Fiction Collective Two, 1999. 64-74; “Jail Time for Beginners.” Women on the Verge: Lesbian Tales of Power and Play. Ed. Susan Fox Rogers. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999. 153-162.