How I Spent My Fifty-third Birthday
A condensed version was Published in DAMn Magazine No.11 May 2007
My birthday is in July, as are the birthdays of two of my close friends, Simon and Eve. For many years we have held a joint party. Our 2008 party was planned for Saturday the 8th. Invitations were sent, booze was bought, and I put an order in for eighty tamales at my local Mexican bakery.
On the day of the party I noticed that the airplanes coming into LaGuardia were on a low approach pattern. I rushed home, picked up the tamales, got my cameras, and headed to the airport.
I parked my motorcycle across the street from Plainview Park, above the Grand Central Parkway, and began photographing incoming aircraft. When I snapped an American Airlines jet coming over the top of a street sign, I noticed an Enterprise Car Rental employee staring at me while talking on his cell phone. Minutes later, a Port Authority Police K-9 unit pulled up. The officer stepped out. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“I’m photographing airplanes?”
“Well because that’s what I do.”
“Well you’re on public property. You’re not breaking any laws. Can I see your license?” I handed it over and he walked back to his car. Three other cop cars pulled up and then my phone rang.
It was Simon, “When are you going to get over here and help start setting up for the party?”
“The cops detained me but I should get there soon.”
“Hang up the phone,” said a voice behind me. Suddenly, he grabbed my wrists and cuffed me. “You’ve got a warrant.”
“I haven’t had a ticket in years. You’ve made a mistake.”
“The computer doesn’t lie.”
Across the street, the Enterprise guy threw two thumbs up, convinced he had just helped apprehend a white, fifty-two year old terrorist. The cop waved back before he and his partner put me in the patrol car. No one ever told me how difficult it is to sit in the back seat of a patrol car with metal cuffs cutting into your wrists.
“This is for something stupid. Have you ever been issued a ticket for public urination or open container?”
“No. I have no warrants.”
The patrol car crossed the Grand Central Parkway and turned onto a service road that wound around the runway towards the Marine Terminal. We went through a gate to the back of a one-story brick building that sat on the edge of the tarmac. When they removed me from the back seat, the rear cushion was flipped to see if I dumped contraband.
The Port Authority Police Station was tidy and organized. I was escorted through a locked door into a holding cell that reminded me of a Japanese economy hotel without the bed. My cuffs were removed and the officers began cataloguing my camera gear.
“Have you been to court for anything? Any kind of court?”
“Only ECB court at the Buildings Department in Queens,” I replied.
“What was that for?”
“That’s it,” the officer said.
The cops convinced me to leave my gear in the property room at the airport. I was told I might not see my cameras again if I brought them to the Queens’ lockup. They gave me a receipt listing the contents of my bag and I was re-cuffed for the ride to Queens County.
I was escorted me into a dank, fluorescent-lit basement where I joined a line of men, several of whom I would have crossed the street to avoid. In the next ten minutes, I was un-cuffed, processed and taken through multiple doors and hallways until reaching a packed fifteen by twenty-five foot cell. It was incredibly loud and disorienting.
Time slowed down. One minute equaled five. Most of the occupants were under the age of twenty-four. I felt surrounded by a pack of scheming, scamming jackals.
Inside the cell were two Catholic confessional sized rooms manned by public defenders on the other side. The collective energy would pick up whenever a lawyer appeared on the other side of the small window. An inmate would shout out a name and that person would enter the box. If no one answered, the sleeping were kindly kicked and asked their names. It was high-speed justice, each inmate had one minute to explain his story to his lawyer. Over the next hour, these names would be called to appear before the judge. But the number of people in the cell remained constant. As soon as a group was sent into court, a new group would be delivered to the cell. Crime didn’t take a holiday on Saturday night. It celebrated.
There were two open toilets at the rear of the cell. When I went to take a piss, the first toilet was completely stuffed with peanut butter sandwiches. I moved to the second and it stank so bad that it masked every other odor in the room.
Night court ended at one p.m. and as it approached the mood turned testy. After the last group was called, half of them returned very unhappy. I was unhappy too. I had officially missed my birthday party.
As the cell grew quieter, the air conditioner pumped in cold air making it impossible to get warm enough to fall asleep. Like my more seasoned veterans, I removed my shoes to cushion my head from the funky concrete floor. The Mexican guy next to me snored peacefully while I tossed and turned like a fall leaf flipping down the gutter. At six a.m. a trustee in an orange jumpsuit entered the cell to distribute peanut butter on musty white bread with a small carton of 2% milk. I gagged on the sandwich, washing it down with my first swallow of milk in twenty-five years.
The cell ebbed and flowed but I remained immobile. I became aware that there were two other men also not moving. We were the criminal warrants. A young cellmate informed us that our cases wouldn’t be heard until all other recent arrests were cleared. Not a hopeful sign.
It was officially my fifty-third birthday. Everyone from the party was now asleep and possibly hung over. I too felt hung over from lack of sleep.
The delivery of stale white bread was the only thing that marked the passage of time. I passed on the food but drank the milk, the only source of liquid available.
The thought of spending another night in this rank cell troubled me. I prayed that my bowels wouldn’t move and kicked myself for not contacting someone to try to get me out. To bolster my optimism, I stared at the junkie shivering on the floor. Things could be worse.
Around nine p.m. the room started to thin. Those of us with warrants began to have guarded hopes of getting out. But my stomach turned sour whenever a new group of inmates entered the cell, sliding my name back down the list.
At eleven p.m., my name was called. As I stepped into line, the world sped up to its normal rhythm. The door opened and we were led inside.
The courtroom looked like a movie set. Each defendant approached the bench when his name was called. None of them spoke directly to the judge. A rotating set of public defenders and prosecutors made 20 second to 2 minute arguments. Agreements were made, fines doled out, defendants scolded and sometimes escorted out in handcuffs. The court was a giant pinball machine of chance, bouncing the defendant from bumper to tilt. I watched one pathetic story after the next before the court thinned out to a couple of people. When the clerk called my name, I walked up the podium and stood next to a pretty Public Defender.
The Judge read out my offense. “Ran copper piping, ran gas piping, and ran waste lines…” There was a ripple of laughter in the courtroom. I hadn’t slugged my wife. I hadn’t sold drugs.
“Your honor, I went to court on these matters and was fined sixteen hundred dollars. I have since hired a licensed plumber and he filed the proper documents with the D.O.B.”
“Sir this is something entirely different. This is a criminal case. I’m setting a new court date. Show up with your lawyer on this date. If you fail to appear a second warrant will be made for your arrest.”
“Criminal? Soldering copper pipe is Criminal?”
“Yes sir. That’s why you need a lawyer.”
“What world is this? Am I in a time warp?”
The Public Defender put her hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter. Something unusual was happening: I was having direct dialogue with the Judge, unlike any Defendant before me. I turned to the Public Defender, “Can I hire you?”
She was still laughing. “No, I work for the City.”
“I pay taxes.”
The Public Defender looked towards the Judge.
“I am not going to hear this today. You must hire a lawyer. I am going to reset the court date. Can you come back in three weeks with your lawyer?”
“No, I will be out of the country,” I replied.
“Or you can plead guilty to Disorderly Conduct and pay a $95 fine,” he mumbled.
My ears pricked up. “If I plead guilty, this Kafka farce will end?”
“If you keep your nose clean for one year.”
I hadn’t a clue what Disorderly Conduct meant, as my plumbing was quite orderly but in my depleted financial situation, this was a no-brainer: A $1500 lawyer opposed to a $95 fine.
“I can do that. I plead guilty to Disorderly Conduct and I will pay you now.”
“Guilty it is, but we cannot accept your money today as the payment office has closed. You must bring a cashier’s check for that amount within three weeks or you will be in contempt of court and a warrant will be made for your arrest.”
“This is a good goddamned way of making money,” I said to the Public Defender.
Everyone except the Judge laughed. Then I lost it. “I am so sick of this city. First you take me for sixteen hundred dollars and now you want another ninety-five. Fine. You’ve put a hand into every one of my pockets and now they’re empty. I’m going to pack up and leave this greedy, money sucking, city.” More laughter, but not from the Judge, he ignored me. The bailiff gave His Honor a look, unsure of what to do. I’d mistakenly had the impression that any fines imposed would be offset by my thirty-six hours locked up. I’d even thought the Judge might offer an apology on behalf of the city and erase this stupid ticket.
After I was dismissed, I bolted for the exit and was met by Eve and Simon who presented me with a birthday gift that had been left on their front door. It read: “Ring #1001 for Simon, Eve, and Bobby’s Birthday Bash.” Then, later amended with “In Jail” next to my name. Although “Happy Birthday” was sung to me, I never heard a word. I was too busy getting my birthday present from New York City – a criminal record.