San Francisco, June 25, 1997
Chunks of the doorframe fly through the air and fall on either side of me. I stand there, immobile. A hundred cops outside, some in uniform, some not, guns drawn, faces and bodies tense. A tall, heavyset blonde police officer steps forward through the doorway and smacks me in the face with the butt of her shotgun as more cops push past her and into the apartment. I lie on the floor, a foot across my throat, a knee in my groin, a shotgun and a 9mm leveled at my head.
A plainclothes policeman shouts, “Where are the guns, motherfucker!” His badge, hanging loosely on a chain around his neck, swings back and forth over my face. “Are you alone?” asks another. Before I can reply I hear Jenny, oblivious, slurring her words, wondering what all the noise is about. A finger to his lips, the plainclothes cop points toward the bedroom. My stomach tightens and I fear what the cops will do to Jenny if I don’t try and make her understand what is happening. I put up my hand, palm out, motioning for him to stop.
“Jenny? Jenny!” I shout, “Could you come out here?”
“What for?” she asks, and then there’s the crash of breaking glass, furniture being shoved, voices shouting for her to get down on the floor. They must be coming in through the windows. Then someone’s turning me over, handcuffing my arms behind my back, and I’m being lifted—half carried, half dragged—out into daylight.
On the street in front of my apartment building are a dozen police cars, lights flashing, radios blaring. A small group of my neighbors watches from down the block, a few pointing at me as I’m dragged to the nearest patrol car. Over my shoulder I can see my friend Dolan spread-eagled, being searched on the hood of another car.
Tossed into the back seat, I try to sit up and ask the nearest cop for a cigarette. He slams the door in my face. A minute later a man in a suit walks up, opens the door, introduces himself as a detective and apologizes for the other cop’s behavior. Then he calls me by my name, says he’s been watching me for some time now. “I’ll see you down at the station later on tonight, Mister O’Neil,” he says, then he shuts the door, tells the driver to take me downtown, and stands there staring at me through the window as we drive away.
I keep thinking that this isn’t real. That none of this is happening. That the cop who’s driving the car will pull over to the curb, unlock the handcuffs, and set me free. Every turn of the wheel makes me lose my balance and I push up and off the seat with my elbows to keep myself upright. The cuffs dig into my skin. The monotone of the police dispatcher’s voice coming out of the radio is the only sound piercing the oppressive atmosphere in the car. My heart pounds, the motor accelerates, an abrupt stop sends me crashing into the metal cage that separates the back from the front.
I feel helpless. I feel like screaming. I feel like crying, only I don’t know how. I want a cigarette so bad I can’t think of anything else. I start to get angry. I start yelling. I call the cop a motherfucker, tell him that this is all a mistake, that I haven’t done anything. I kick the cage, tell him he’s got to believe me.
San Francisco passes by: the Ferry Building, the waterfront, the Bay Bridge, Harrison Street. We arrive at a parking lot behind the Hall of Justice, pull into a space marked Official Vehicles Only. The cop opens my door and I feel the cool air against my naked chest. Without saying a word, he grabs my arm and drags me out onto the ground. Two more cops walk up and there’s a kick to the ribs, sharp pain in my shoulders as I’m raised up off the ground to my feet and shoved toward a large metal door.
One cop pushes the intercom button and waves at the camera above our heads. The other presses my face against the coarse stucco wall, his gloved hand firmly on the back of my head. With a mechanized hiss, the sally port slides open and the smell of jail hits me: dirty feet, unwashed bodies, rancid food, exhaust fumes, and human shit. Pushed along by a hand on my shoulder, I stumble down a hall lined with empty holding cells. The cop signs a couple of forms at the booking desk before handing me off to the sheriffs who run the jail. My anxiety had been holding the heroin in check, but now the pills I also took are starting to kick in and I’m fading. Slurring, I mumble my name, address, social security number as a woman in uniform types it all into a computer.
Herded through a maze of desks and filing cabinets, I lose my bearings. An older deputy, bald with glasses, tells me it’s almost over and I wonder just what he means. One of the sheriffs grabs hold of my fingers as if they weren’t attached to me and shoves them in black ink, pressing the tips to a sheet of paper and leaving smudged imprints on the appropriate squares. Someone hands me a brown paper towel and I try to wipe the blackness from my fingertips. My surroundings are becoming more and more unfocused, the meaning of what is going on increasingly vague. A deputy gives me a shirt with frayed cuffs. I open my eyes and a flashbulb erupts, temporarily blinding me. I’m turned to my left: profile shot. Metal hitting metal, the sound of a door closing. The constant roar of the jail decreases to a low growl. Half crouched, my back against the wall, I feel a hard surface and collapse.
Exhausted, I nod off into a dream about a large Siamese cat that rubs against my body, her fur soft on my skin. She tells me she’s been starved for days and stands on my chest screaming for me to feed her. Our protruding rib cages mesh together, her paws embed themselves in my skin. I’m confused as to why she doesn’t just run away when she has the chance. I reach to pet her and feel my own cold skin taut against my bones. Running my fingers along my ribs, I press the bottom of my sternum and hear it click. I try to light a cigarette with the cat’s face. Its claws tear at my arms and they start to bleed.
With a jolt I wake up freezing on a cement slab that sticks out of the wall, forming a bench. I look for the cat, but she’s gone. Drool runs down the side of my face, and my mouth tastes metallic, bad as the air I’m breathing. It takes a minute for me to realize where I am. I want a cigarette really bad, and I want to go back to sleep. I want to be anywhere but on this bench in this fucking holding cell. Sitting up, I rub my eyes and look out through the wire-mesh reinforced windows. I can see Dolan in a cell across the hall. He flashes me a weak smile. I can tell from his eyes that he’s as worried as I am. Twelve years younger than me, he’s less experienced. But that hasn’t kept him from driving the getaway car for most of my recent holdups. Sitting upright makes my head hurt. I want a cigarette. I think about Jenny, wonder where she is, if she’s okay. Last time I saw her she was in handcuffs being led to a cop car. I could see her head moving. Probably giving the cop an earful of shit.
Thinking of her makes me miss home, a ground-floor garden apartment in the back of a three-story building in the Marina District—a once nondescript upper-middle class neighborhood that reinvented itself as a yuppie stronghold after the ’89 earthquake. Not the most typical of locations to find an apartment full of dope fiends, and maybe that’s why we’d been able to go unnoticed for so long. Nobody expects us to be living there, especially not the landlord, whose been lied to so many times about the rent that he’s practically given up ever seeing it.
I’ve been living there for about two years. Me and my girlfriend, Jenny. Twenty-one years old and just as strung out on heroin as I am, beautiful in a pasty-face, walking-dead junkie-chic sort of way. I’d met her three years earlier coming off a horrendous speed run I’d started so I could get away with shooting less heroin. I hadn’t slept in months when she asked me if I could get her some dope.
A succession of nodded-out friends like Dolan had been living with us, using the walk-in closet as a place to crash. These days, though, no one could stand staying with us. Even other drug addicts couldn’t deal with our insanity, our demands for money. We smoked all their cigarettes and used up whatever else they might have. All day we’d lie together side by side in the bedroom on the futon. Jenny, in a nod, continually burned herself or the bed with lit cigarettes—small fires and red welts becoming daily occurrences. Over on my side I’d ignore her until I felt flames, and then I’d roll over and put out whatever was on fire.
Jesus, Jenny, I wonder where you are. She’s never been to jail, never dealt with cops. I can only imagine the bullshit they’re putting her through.
The cell door opens. “O’Neil!” yells a gruff looking deputy with a clipboard in his hand, and I look up.
“Where am I going?” I ask. It doesn’t really matter, and the look on the deputy’s face tells me he doesn’t care either. We walk down the corridor to an unmarked elevator. “Against the wall,” he commands. I turn, face the wall, raise my arms. Taking my right hand, he circles the handcuff around my wrist, pulls the other down, cuffs it too. The elevator door opens. It’s dirty inside and smells like piss. The deputy motions for me to enter, and when I hesitate he pushes me in against the back wall. I hear the door close, feel the elevator car start to rise.
“You a tough guy?” taunts the deputy. I stare at the wall, say nothing. There’s no point getting into it with this guy. I’m handcuffed, he’s not; I’m under arrest, he’s an officer of the law. And I’m not a tough guy, never said I was. The elevator shudders to a stop and he pulls me out into a corridor. Hand clamped around the back of my neck, he leads me through a door with Robbery Detail written across it in black letters with gold trim. Inside there are four or five empty desks. A man at a computer, his shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows, looks over at us as he continues to type. “Put him there,” he says, pointing to a chair by a desk in the middle of the room.
I’m suddenly very tired. I can feel that familiar emptiness creeping in. It’s not that the drugs have worn off yet. More like my anxiety has kicked in full force. I can’t count the number of nights when I’d be asleep at home and then suddenly, so gripped with fear of this exact moment I’d all of a sudden be awake, sitting up all in one motion, holding my chest as my heart fought to burst through my rib cage. Somewhere deep down, whether I wanted to admit it or not, I knew all this was coming. I knew someday I’d be sitting here in handcuffs.
PATRICK O’NEIL is a nonfiction writer from Hollywood, California. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including: Juxtapoz, Salon.com, The Weeklings, Razorcake, Sensitive Skin, Fourteen Hills and Word Riot. He has been nominated twice for Best of the Net, and is a regular contributor to the recovery website AfterPartyMagazine. Patrick holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and teaches at AULA’s inspiration2publication program. His debut memoir: Gun Needle Spoon, from Dzanc Books, was published June 9—an excerpted in part French translation, Hold-Up (13e Note Editions) was published in France in 2013.