It’s never made sense to me that Sunday starts the week but three hours into this one I was wakened by a cell phone call. I answered it by reflex. Calls in the middle of the night were always about work. I forgot . On the phone was a young man I’ve known his whole life, which represents about one third of mine. He’s no longer a minor but he’s still a kid. I had a hard time figuring out what he was saying. He was loud, talking fast, and not letting me into the conversation. I kept saying
“Where are you?”
But he ignored me. Someone was yelling in the background, telling him to get off the phone. He yelled back. Before he hung up he said
“Call the police department!”
Five hours into the first day of this week I woke up, checked my cell phone, and found the same unknown number had called me three times, leaving three voice mails. I listened to the first one. It was a recording telling me how to accept a collect call. I called the police department and inquired about the young man who had called me earlier.
“He was here, we held him for a while, but all those kids are gone. Call the county jail.”
I called. He was there. I identified myself and ask what he was charged with. It wasn’t a bad charge in the world of law breaking, fairly minor in fact. Then I inquired as to the amount of bail required to get him out of jail. I weighed my connection with him against the dollar amount.
“I’ll be there in half an hour,” I said.
Sunday was bitter cold. The parking lot was largely empty and the jail was quiet. I found the second entry door locked. I looked into the brightly lit lobby and it was absolutely empty, save for a metal detector, a desk, and a stained cloth office chair. Dark windows covered most of the wall opposite me. I didn’t know how to get in. Then I saw a sign directing me to push the buzzer on my right. Before I could talk on the intercom the door buzzed, the electronic lock clacked open, and I entered the county jail. It was going on 5:30 a.m..
I didn’t know whether to go through the metal detector or not. I went around it, hoping I wouldn’t get in trouble for doing so. I couldn’t see anyone behind the dark glass. It was thick. Bulletproof. I could see the bank of video surveillance monitors with scenes flashing on and off; the front door, the lobby, the hallway, something else, repeat. Then a face, disembodied, really just the eyes and mouth, appeared behind the glass. A voice came through a speaker
“Can I help you?”
I identified myself again, identified the person I was there to bail out.
“Do I pay you?”
“See the unit on the wall? Looks like an ATM? Follow the instructions. When your payment is approved an officer will talk to you.”
It was touch screen. Enter this, enter that, hit next. The amount of bail appeared. I’d brought cash. There was a slot for inserting cash but in large letters was a notice “ANY BILLS INSERTED HERE WILL BE RETAINED. THIS MACHINE DOES NOT GIVE CHANGE.”
My Dad kept a small wad of cash on the farm in case, as he once told me “I have to bail one of you kids out of jail.”
He smiled as he said that. It was just he and I in the basement.
“You think I’m going to get thrown in jail?” I asked, smiling back.
“You’d know that better than me,” he said.
I always thought bail had to be made in cash, that’s why I brought it. Clearly this machine preferred my VISA card. Five minutes after the machine spit out a receipt a door opened and a real person appeared in the lobby. The first whole person I’d encountered since I arrived.
“Are you here for Jones?” (Not his real last name.)
“Do you have any clothing for him? He’s here without a coat, and I came in not long ago and know how cold it is out there.”
“My car is close.” I thought it was thoughtful of him to be concerned about my friend being warm.
“Has he been cooperative?” I asked.
“Yeah. He’s been quiet.”
“It’s just the one charge, the trespassing?”
“Yeah. Just that. Housing encourages local law enforcement to make those charges you know. Helps them control their properties better.”
“I know. I’m familiar with it. Are there other warrants out on him?” I asked. “Like in other states?”
“We only check locally on a small charge like this. If there was something outside the area we wouldn’t know. I have something for you to sign. I want to show you the paperwork for court. You’ll want to make sure he shows up.”
“OK. He’ll be out in a few minutes. I have to check out his belongings.”
He went back through the door. It shut hard and locked. I looked at the control room but saw nothing but the glow of the video monitors. I looked around the stark lobby. Walled off, with the doors locked all around me, I felt a bit like I was in jail too.
My young friend walked through the door where the guard had exited. He looked skinny, and tired. He was wearing a thin hoodie and a T shirt. His pants sagged. His eyes were bleary. He walked up and hugged me. He smelled like beer.
“I’m so sorry you had to come here. Thank you so much.” He was carrying a big sheet of cardboard. On it was everything he had on him when he came to jail, laminated in see through plastic to the cardboard. Keys. Cell phone. Three lighters. A wallet.
“Let’s get out of here.”
Someone buzzed the door as we approached it. In the space between the first door and the outside door my friend realized he didn’t have his hat.
“My hat. It’s gone. I just got that hat.”
“You can get another one. You might have lost it in the squad car or on the street. Let’s keep going.”
The cold air hit us hard when we walked outside. He clutched his hoodie to his neck and bent down into the wind. When we got in the Buick he was shivering.
I’m going to court with you. It’s January 15th. You have to be there. You understand?”
“Yeah. I have to be there cause you’re responsible.”
“That’s right. But not because I’m responsible but because you want to stay out of trouble yourself. You should plead guilty and take your fine. I’m not going to apply the bail money to the fine. You’ll have to pay that.”
“Yeah. A guy in the jail said you can pay it a little at a time.”
“You want to pay it off as soon as you can. It’s a pain for everyone-judges, court staff, you. They can’t dismiss the charge till you pay that fine.” As I was saying that, I had no idea where he would get the money.
“Did you call your aunt?” His aunt was about the only family he had.
“No. She doesn’t have any money. She couldn’t have bailed me out.”
“Where you been staying?”
“With my girl friend. She got arrested too. I don’t know where she is. I can’t go there.”
“So where am I taking you?”
“I guess to my aunt’s.”
“Does she have a place now?”
“Will she let you in?”
“I think so.”
“Are you on the do not admit list at the shelter?”
“No. Not that I know of. My aunt is I think.”
“Well you can always go there.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Then call your aunt.”
He fumbled around tearing the plastic from the cardboard to free his phone. When he got it out he powered it up and started to push in the numbers.
“I’m out of minutes.” He dropped the phone into his lap and looked out the window. “I feel so pathetic.”
“Look, you didn’t kill anybody. You got thrown in jail on a misdemeanor and now you’re out. Your future is all about work. Until you get work and some money nothing is going to change, nothing is going to get better.”
As I said that I looked at him. Scrawny kid, too old for youth programs, GED (he says), no work history, bad clothes, scraggly beard. Dishwashing maybe? I just don’t know. He doesn’t follow up on everything I suggest. But he tries. He hasn’t known much else for a long time.
I wish it was different. I wish he had grown up here and we could have served him at YSB. I wish he could have found some kind of success in our local schools. But he didn’t. He starts from where he is, and he’s not in a good place.
He directed me to his aunt’s new place as the sky was getting light.
“I’ll stay here till I see you get in.”
“Thanks again, I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
“I do. You would have stayed in jail. I can’t do this many times you know. You have to take care of yourself.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Get some minutes on that phone or call me from someone else’s after the first of the year. You’re going to make that court date, and I’m going with you. January 15. 9:00 in the monring.”
“Don’t worry about that. When’s Christmas?”
“Have a good one Dave.”
He went up the stairs and knocked on the door. The door opened. He turned and waved, then disappeared inside.
It’s my first Christmas on a fixed income and my first Christmas away from YSB since 1978. I thought maybe I would cut back a little on my Holiday giving but I haven’t. If anything, I want to give more. Since I’ve left social work I realize how low on the radar kids like my young friend fall. Puppies and kittens in America get more sympathy than children growing up in poverty. The agencies that have the ability, and the initiative, to help families with kids liked the one I bailed out of jail when it counts, when they are young, need our help more than ever.
I’ve become something of my own United Way. I give to those organizations I know need the money and do the most good. Tops on my list is YSB. I hope you remember to write them a check this Christmas. By doing so, you help young people who are the casualties of families who live in poverty, suffer family dysfunction, and fall to the bottom of the heap. The kids YSB serves find few friends and even less support. We somehow blame them for their problems. Agencies like YSB, however, are there for them. Please be there for YSB.
Merry Christmas to you and your family. Hold one another tight. You make each other strong.