On the sidewalk, perpendicular to the institutional double-glass doors, lies a neat row of small personal objects: hairbrushes, cigarettes, pens, a disposable baby diaper. People are waiting on the concrete benches along the edge of the sidewalk. One of several toddlers playing nearby stumbles over a hairbrush, disarranging some of the objects. His mother dispassionately thwacks him on the back and carefully rearranges the items. The waiting women sit reading or talking. To keep busy, I sit writing these notes.
As I watch the children tumbling together in the grass, I remember the chubby fragrance of my own son as a toddler, the curiosity and intelligence we watched grow in him, the delight in his eyes when he got his first puppy, the intensity with which he lay on his stomach and observed the insect life on our sidewalk, the mad humor of having five resident lizards in our living room, escapees from his collecting mania--all the natural, lovely events of a seemingly normal childhood. And as I watch the little boys at play, I wonder how many of them will have mothers, wives and children placing little objects in a line for the privilege of visiting them in a similar cold, gray building.
At 5:10 p.m., everyone converges on the possessions in the line, replacing the objects with a crush of bodies lined up too closely. Now a few men have appeared. Some animation has entered the group; people are chattering matter-of-factly about their men's experiences inside, or about their children or the latest hairdos. At exactly 5:15 p.m., guards pass out slips that visitors must fill out.
Wilma, a black woman with the sculptural beauty of an African statue, explains how to fill out the form. A white woman enters into the conversation, joking with Wilma about their joint expertise. Others are also anxious to help a novice, showing solidarity in the bleak environment.
Strange to imagine that while outside, family and friends are showing every sign of more social conscience and courtesy than the system that binds them, the men inside are separated into rigid gangs whose boundaries are seldom crossed in friendship or cooperation.
After the slips are filled out, the guards call names of the visitors. A guard checks our ID and gives us the booth number our son will be in.
There is a strong feeling of expectation in the waiting room. Just before 6:40 p.m., everyone lines up along the side of the room. A waist-high bar demarcates the single file path that leads to the visiting aisles.
We follow the line and enter the appropriate aisle. Shallow booths containing wall phones line each side. A single backless stool confronts the glass in each booth, the glass separating the visitor from son, husband, friend, lover.
Yes, behind the glass in Booth 16 sits our son, his handsome face marred by the drooping lid that was scarred by a knife attack on the streets. My husband, braver than I, picks up the phone and bears the first brunt of the self-pity and terror, the rush of alternating confession and self-justification, and the unspoken pleas for understanding. I sit in an empty stool in the booth next door, craning my neck to look around the shallow partition, watching my son's contorted face and his eyes filling up with tears. I can imagine what he is saying from past experience and by hearing his father's end of the conversation.
When it comes my turn, I do not pass with flying colors, but I don't berate him. The situation is, after all, beyond all mending through any parental admonition--it has passed into the hands of a far crueler authority. I listen to details and excuses for his crime that I do not want to hear; with a mother's ear I hear instead his unspoken words, his terror of this place, of the other inmates, and even of himself.
I ache desperately with my inability to protect him from any of these things, even knowing that he has seriously violated the rights of others and can't be allowed to continue.
He tells me how he was beaten several days earlier when he was put in with a large group of barrio Hispanics, part of the vicious circle that forces inmates to align themselves with racial gangs for self-protection. He fears the court will designate him a career criminal because his record, although not as heavy as some, is long. This would add years to his sentence.
He admits that while attending Alcoholics Anonymous, he had a good thing going, but offers no explanation for why he started again on marijuana, alcohol and then cocaine--expensive habits. The guard announces that visiting hours will be over in one minute--the phone goes dead while we are still saying goodby.
I try to mime that we will return for another visit the following week. I see that my son's eyes are red, and I worry that this sign of weakness may put him in a vulnerable position with the other inmates. I shed some tears--not many, because I am reasonably stoical and have had a lot of practice containing tears.