Right Field Jail Blues
Photo by Frank Hunter.
Behind home plate at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, right of the Blue Monster between the Goodmon Field sign and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Insurance Company logo, in the shadow of the tower-tall courthouse that obscures it from the view of DBAP patrons, sits the Durham County Detention Facility. There, sleazy bails bondsmen, frustrated loved ones, pissed-off sheriff deputies, and prisoners of various offenses from drunk and disorderly conduct to murder go about their daily routines. I’m feeling some kind of way about that. And even though I can’t name this feeling, it still causes certain biological responses every time I look out beyond the right field fence. The smile leaves my face, my beer doesn’t taste as good, and a lump rises in my throat.
I’ve got a thing about jails and prisons. Maybe that’s because I tend to be the same color of the majority of people in those TV specials. The ones that document the horror some poor bastards endure as a result of spending years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, the DNA evidence absolving them coming only after the best years of their lives have been lost to iron bars and concrete walls. Kafka may have been German, but I always felt Josef K. was a black man. His full name was Josef Keyshawn Jones.
The jail beyond the fence has no slogan, no bright lights or flashy signs declaring its purpose. Last summer, my friend Reg found himself in the county dungeon and called me for help. He was driving on a suspended license. It was a tax and tag issue, not something as sexy as street racing with screeching tires, nitro canisters, and bombshell vixens, like some new installment of Fast and Furious. It was what can happen to working folk when they have to make those paying-for-daycare or paying-for-car-insurance choices at the end of the month. I got to the jail as soon as I could and met the bondsman I talked with on the phone. A middle-aged, potbellied fellow with sausage fingers, he kept breaking our conversation to navigate his Blackberry keyboard, answering calls from the impatient and desperate.
“Looky here, you go ‘head, have a seat in the lobby. I’ll have your boy out in a miz-nin.”
The lobby of the Durham County Detention Center is not much different than the lobby of an emergency room: tired faces, no smiles and one person who believes everyone else wants to hear his or her conversation and is always on the verge of security — in this case the sheriff’s deputy — coming over and throwing his ass out. A soda machine that’s out of everything except diet soda and the feeling that Father Time is doing resistance exercises on the hour hand of the clock complete the comparison.
Reg came out not in a minute or “miz-nin,” but forty minutes later, shaking his head, glad to leave, and at a lost for words with regards to what he was going to tell his boss. We hopped in my hooptie and I drove him home beneath the bright lights spilling over from Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
The crack of the bat as it sends the ball flying over the right field fence is an awesome sound. I wonder if they can hear it in the jail. If they can, what do they feel when the crowd roars? Is it like being on punishment when you’re a kid and you can see all your neighborhood homies running, laughing, playing, seeming to have more fun than they’ve had in their whole lives while you sit in your room where there’s nothing to do but do homework and pout? They play baseball in jail — at least they do in the movies. No one’s handing out bats at the Durham County Detention Facility though. They are handing prisoners over to the judge at the courthouse around the corner so those prisoners in turn can be handed time.
In the late eighties, a high school friend of mine started selling crack. His dad wasn’t there and his mom was struggling to pay the bills. A few years later, he went to prison and I went to college. He wasn’t a baseball fan, but he got twenty years as a result of President Clinton’s three strikes and mandatory sentencing legislation. I never visited him. I never sent him a letter. For a while I tried to keep up with how he was doing from friends who had made the trip to the federal prison in Pennsylvania. I tell myself I didn’t visit because I didn’t know what to say, that my visiting would make his time harder. What use would talking about college and girls and parties be to a man whose best years would be spent in a cage?
Now I know I was no different than him. Had I been faced with similar circumstances, had I needed to feed my family, hell yeah, I’d do whatever was necessary. So would most people, whether their self-righteousness will allow them to admit it or not.
In truth, the reasons I used for not visiting him were all bullshit. I didn’t go because I was scared. As an arts educator, I have more than a few friends who do work in prisons. I’ve avoided teaching there like the plague. I’m as irrational about it as people who refuse to be organ donors because they fear that somehow they may end up needing that lung or that kidney in the afterlife. I fear I may walk into a jail or prison and not walk out, that they may confuse me with someone else, that a riot may take place. At least a hundred unlikely scenarios have played out in my head, and they haunt me.
When I’m sitting in the stands on a bright sunny day, looking out on that beautiful baseball diamond, it’s guilt I feel when I think about the jail just out of eyesight of all the fun I’m having. Guilt for being blessed enough not to have had to make bad or worse choices. Guilt for making it past the age of twenty-five without being a statistic. Guilt for watching baseball on a beautiful day while a block away, people wonder how long it will be before they can go to a ballpark or any park again. It’s like I can feel the entire edifice laughing at me. It’s a hyena waiting at the edge of a herd to catch that one gazelle slipping. You want to believe what most take for granted, the idea that if you want to stay out of jail, just don’t commit a crime. But when the majority of the country believes you fit the general description for everything from gangbanging to kidnapping white toddlers, wholehearted commitment to what should be logical or is for most just isn’t for you.
This is what I know. But for the grace of God, there go I, so I never let the guilt or the fear overtake the thankfulness. It’s always good to be at the ballpark, like it’s always good to be alive. The jailhouse beyond the outfield changes none of that, but rather helps keep it all in perspective.