Not long ago, I stood in the office of Records Management in the Indianapolis City-County Building and watched as a man with crooked glasses punched my name into his computer. It was spring. A bright blue sky, sunlight danced between the glass and steel of the taller buildings. I was there in the sub-basement to search for criminal records—my criminal records.
Outside it was sixty-five degrees. The landscape was turning green, flowers were blooming—everything was being renewed, coming back to life, starting over.
Inside the office it was musty and the exposed ductwork stretched its way across the ceiling like a fatted-up snake. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were shoved full of case files, manila folders with colored tags, some thick, some thin. As the man pecked at his keyboard, index fingers hunting the next letter, I started to wonder which folders were mine. Where was I in that basement below the basement among all the paper and bookends and binder clips?
The man shuffled away and told me he would be right back with my requested information. I watched others take looked-through files to a clerk who stacked them off to her side. I wondered whose job it was to re-shelve the pulled files—to put them back where they belong after lawyers, or people like me, were done with them.
What kind of person could spend all day arranging and rearranging files? I don’t want it to be the man who helped me—the man who wore dirty glasses and an un-tucked shirt, the man who badly needed a shave. It should be a person whose hair is perfectly combed or brushed, someone whose clothes are pressed and sharply creased, who would get upset if instructions were not exactly followed. Someone with “strong organizational skills.” That’s what the job posting would have required.
I couldn’t have gotten that job. I can’t put things back where they belong, keep them straight and neat. I can’t keep a checkbook balanced; I lose receipts, don’t write things down. At home, papers and files wind up in stacks and tossed into a box, so that I have to dig to find what I need. I don’t follow plans. Even when I got sober, I didn’t work the steps, didn’t go through a program, or follow a pattern. Instead I hung on with white knuckles hoping my grip and resolve were strong enough.
I watched others do it—move through the twelve steps—set up a pattern of meetings, remembering the dates and times and places. They told me it helped them—to organize their life around A.A. meetings. I couldn’t even make it to my probation appointments. I would lose the slip of paper with time and date written on it. Would plain forget until the next day when I remembered and would curse myself and vow to write the next one down on a calendar—but I didn’t. “Violation of Probation.” That’s what my files said. For all the times I missed appointments.
My files—three manila folders. Less that fifty sheets of paper clipped in place—clipped in order. I was warned not to disturb that order—to make sure the papers remained organized. To the office of Records Management, I am these files. I am looked up, retrieved, perused, copied and then slotted away until someone else wants to look at my arrests for operating a vehicle while intoxicated, resisting arrest, and battery. I am case number 010218327; I am probable-cause affidavits; I am court proceedings. I have been separated—expertly collated—pinned down in the proper order. Parsed out into name, date-of-birth, charges, and recommendations for sentencing. I have been condensed¾compressed, folded so that I will slip quietly away between the other files. So that I will blend in and disappear.