Yes, Sadly, It is Possible to Operate a Motor Vehicle When You Have a Blood Alcohol Level of 0.24%, and This is How I Know: Part Two
Before I begin today, I want to remind everyone to enter our inaugural ABDPBT Sucky Sweepstakes. Your entries must be posted in the comment section of this post by 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, August 20, 2008. Good luck!
When we left off, I was handcuffed in the back of a highway patrol car somewhere off the Interstate 5, and heading into what might be thought of as the second stage in Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief–if Kubler-Ross were describing an alcoholic in distress, that is–or that stage known as “being an arrogant asshole.” Sure, it was clear that I was totally drunk off my ass. And clearly I had been driving. However, I had convinced myself that there was a way out of this. Because there was a way out of everything.
“You realize,” I told my new buddy, the highway patrol officer who had described me as “cooperative” just moments before, “That your case is getting weaker the longer we stay here.” I said this because I was thinking it was taking a damn long time to get things moving. Was I going to be booked? Well, then, let’s get the show on the road, I thought. What are we waiting for? How drunk could I possibly be? Surely if we sit out here all night, I’ll be sober by the time they hook me up to the Breathalyzer machine. What a bunch of dumbasses.
The patrolman just laughed. Disdainfully. Which pissed me off even more.
My perception of the passing of time was undoubtedly impaired, but it had to have been an hour or so after putting on the handcuffs that I actually arrived at the women’s lockup. The San Diego County women’s jail is located roughly thirty miles outside of the city in Santee, a small armpit of a town boasting not only this correctional facility, but also a Frito Lay distribution center. The precise location of the jail is only of concern if you are incarcerated for a Driving Under the Influence charge and are–as was I–unwilling to call anyone to pick you up, and if you are also carrying no cash and therefore incapable of getting a cab.
Upon arrival to the jail, I was chained to a bench outside of a glass window with a woman behind it. I’m not sure of this woman’s exact job descriptions, but if it involved pretending like she didn’t see me, well then she was an exceptional employee. I would soon find out that she was in charge of filling up and emptying those envelopes like the ones into which prisoners empty their worldly belongings during the midway point of Scorsese movies.
“You do realize, that every moment you make me wait, your case gets weaker,” I said, again, audacious, even in the face of total humiliation and criminal degradation. The woman-behind-the-glass did not acknowledge me. She did not even look up, in fact, even when she told me to hand over my ID and my shoes (why?). And let me keep my watch and my pearl earrings. (Again, why? So I could use them to purchase temporary protection once mixed in with the general population?)
I had the choice of three different forms of blood alcohol determination: 1) direct blood test–bad, because likely the most accurate of the three, and also because it allows possibly sadist correctional officers (hey, I’ve read about the Stanford Prison Experiment) to stick needles in your arm, or finger, or something–I didn’t know and didn’t want to find out; 2) a urine test, probably better than blood, but still, the presence of a laboratory technician suggested too much room for accuracy to me; or 3) Breathalyzer, which seemed the path most likely to lead to error, since it was administered by the police officers who arrested me, and I had already determined that, while I might be morally degenerate, they were definitely morons.
Or, I could have–of course–refused to have any kind of test taken. This would have allowed me to avoid adding more direct evidence of my infraction to the record. But it would also have complicated the already clusterfucked situation, since correctional departments do not generally take kindly to people refusing to cooperate with BAC tests. Besides, when I tried to come up with a reason to refuse, I was tongue-tied, or perhaps my spirit was broken by the seriousness of it all.
So I relented, and agreed to the Breathalyzer. It still seemed to be taking for-god-damn-ever to get this all done, but eventually I blew once, 0.06 (“You will need to blow harder, ma’am, the machine does not register at that strength.”), 0.10 (“Still harder than that”), and 0.24 (smug smile; “THREE TIMES the legal limit”; head shake of disgust). If I were to take the test again, I would now know to continue to not blow hard enough, since they always take three to allow for error, and (as I learned 30 days later in court–dressed in a long, yellow Laura Ashley floral print dress and repentant look) the discrepancy in the scores can allow some leeway for a good lawyer to argue a community service sentence from 90 days down to 9. If your client is white, blonde, and looks like she just walked out of the J.Crew catalog, that is.
But as of then, I did not have any of those world-wise criminal tips, since I was still in the process of gathering them, and they went with (of course) the 0.24, which is either embarrassing or peculiarly impressive, depending upon your audience. Years later, in an AA meeting, I would feel worlds away from that moment as I related my experience, strength, and hope to a room full of women in early recovery. But even then, when I related that number–0.24–I would hear gasps from the women, many of them unapologetic and unrepentant heroin addicts and mothers–these are not mutually exclusive categories by any means in early recovery. And I would realize how lucky I was, now that I wanted to live, that all I did was spin out on a freeway and make a fool of myself in a jail in Santee, when by all rights I should have been impaled by a tree or splattered across the I-5.
“Step over here.” Now there was a female officer in charge of me, gesturing towards what appeared to be a backdrop for pictures and, sure enough, there was the sign, just like the one in that picture of Hugh Grant, except with my name and serial number on it. While I was musing over the comedy of the situation, because I was just sober enough at this point to understand what was going on around me now, but without any of the guilt or remorse that would flood upon me later. And I thought about those celebrity mug shot books they used to carry at Barnes and Noble, where I had worked the year before–an exercise in humility was how I referred to it at the time, though I felt compelled, always, to tell people (strangers) about my background. Where I had been and where I was likely to go. And they could care less.
And where I was likely to go, apparently, was the San Diego County women’s jail.
But of all things, this was the real exercise in humility, wasn’t it? Was there anything more humiliating than being reduced to somebody incapable of stopping themselves from drinking and winding up on the side of the highway?
But the time for Proustian remembrances had come and gone, and so after taking my mugshots, I followed the female correctional officer into what I (correctly) assumed to be the drunk tank, a large cell with a glass front dotted with breathing holes–not unlike the cage in which Hannibal Lecter was housed–which was situated directly across from the woman-behind-the-glass. There was a long bench that ran along all four sides of the drunk tank, and on that bench I would have the opportunity of getting to know two new women–my cellies–I have cellies, I thought to myself, bitterly amused by the fact that I had occasion to use this word at all, much less in its correct context. I checked the time on my inexplicably-not-confiscated watch. It was about 4 a.m. Impressive, given the quantity of alcohol still in my system.
There was a pay phone located on the wall of the cell and I decided that whole “one phone call” thing must be a construction of Hollywood—in my experience, one can make endless calls from jail, provided they are willing to wrestle the receiver away the scantily clad young woman who seems to have taken up residence in front of it, and provided they have a credit card number memorized. I did, but I had no intention of calling anyone. What would I have said?
“What’d they get you for?”
The individual who had inserted herself in front of me appeared to be asking me a question. She was a woman not of a certain age, but of a certain kind of aging—of note because the woman had the kind of face that appears significantly older than the rest of her body and demeanor indicates should could possibly be. It is a face that is all over AA meetings, I would find out later–a sixty year old face on a body with still buoyant breasts, a butt without a hint of sagging, and clothing that had to have come from Wet Seal, Charlotte Russe, or Forever 21. The woman was the kind of thin that only comes from being born into old money or from sustained hardcore drug abuse. Or some combination of the two. But the face, the face was the singular phenomenon of the drug addict, particularly the crystal methamphetamine abuser.
“They will follow you now, you know.”
“Once you are in the system, they will follow you everywhere you go.”
“Who is ‘they’?”
“The FBI, the police, everybody.”
This woman, whose name would be, inevitably, Crystal—because it had to be Crystal or Dawn, given the circumstances), had a penchant for conspiracy theory. This was not Crystal’s first sojourn in the San Diego County lockup. As a matter of fact, she had frequented the lockups of several counties, and fancied herself an expert of sorts on how best to beat the system once you were put on their list of offenders. I had apparently worked up some kind of rapport with Crystal during our short acquaintance, and had also earned Crystal’s trust. Clearly this trust was not tough to earn. Ordinarily, if I had met this woman in the street, or if Crystal had approached me, say, coming out of the grocery store and begging for change, I would have pretended like I did not see her, or say, “sorry,” as if I had done something, personally, to make her circumstances what they were. But what else did I have to do? So I listened to Crystal’s paranoid stories until she wandered away, preoccupied, which did not take long since the mind of a tweaker is always racing onto the Next Big Thing.
Then I was able to befriend the woman who had been previously occupied with the phone. She was a stripper by trade, and told me her boss was going to come bail her out. I feel like I have an opportunity to construct whatever reality I want to these people. So I started telling this woman that I felt “lucky” to have been arrested, you know, “for the experience.” I think I thought if I told myself this enough times eventually I would believe it.
“You are so funny,” she said, and returned to the pay phone on the other side of the room to call her “boss” again.
It was not even a real jail cell, though. It was where they put people they wanted, for some reason or another, to keep segregated (even if only temporarily) from the rest of the jail population. I knew this because I had seen some of the more domesticated of the prison’s inmates walking past me, visible through the glass wall of the cell but inaudible due to the lack of speakers on my side of things. I realized that this seeming challenge to communication was insignificant, as the language of lewd sexual innuendo was not only universal, but nonverbal.
“They watch you, you know.” Crystal again.
“Once you are in the system, they watch you.”
She seemed certain. I would give her that. Her burgundy tank top was dirty and did little to cover up the loose, sun-damaged skin hanging off her neck. At least she had maintained a tan during her days tweaking.
“You’re a little bitch, aren’t you?”
I suddenly remembered my surroundings and thought carefully about the best way to handle this woman’s evident dislike of me.
“Listen, I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“You’re a little rich girl, I can tell, where’s Daddy now?”
“I don’t know. Probably asleep.”
“I guess he’s sick of bailing you out.”
“Maybe so,” I took a stab at a chuckle. The thought that I might be in trouble with my hypothetically rich, coming-to-the-rescue-prone father seemed to please Crystal, and for a moment her hostility seemed to have quelled itself. She wandered off again.
The women’s inmates were delivering breakfast, and I was given the opportunity to join the ranks of those familiar with rarefied institutional cuisine. The breakfast, housed in square to-go containers of the type used by small Mexican food stands throughout the Southland, consisted of a yellow spongy substance, presumably eggs but likely mixed from a powder, a rock-hard English muffin of the flat variety, clearly not a Thomas’, and sans butter or margarine of any kind, and a scalding Styrofoam cup of coffee that lacked all flavor, good or bad, a reality that simultaneously confused and thrilled me. I had hoped that at the very least there was still caffeine contained in the blackish liquid. No taste, but then no sugar packets or cream to doctor it with, either. So it was a wash.
This breakfast was one of the “three squares,” I supposed, that were often referenced by bitter taxpayers lamenting the free ride convicts got from the government. I am not at all confident that nourishment is actually provided by the kind of meal I enjoyed during my time in The System. I have had my share of public school lunches, but this is a different animal altogether. This was food gone wrong, or cardboard gone wrong, or industrial waste gone wrong. This was food meant to punish, I felt.
But perhaps if I stayed long enough I would begin to enjoy this kind of fare—to look forward to it as one of the only significant events of the day–chow time–and would I forget what good food tasted like? Or would it be like when you go on a diet, and all of a sudden the simplest of foods, like string cheese, took on an unbelievable flavor and importance in life. Food is like anything–on the fourth day of a diet you are dying for even one green grape, and on the fourth day of a binge even the best chocolate bread pudding is tiresome. What was the saying, one is too many, a hundred is never enough? But that is about alcohol.
I had come full circle now, and so I pushed myself up from the wooden bench, assumed an appropriately submissive posture and successfully navigated past Tweaker to the pay phone on the wall of the cell. After inputing the credit card number, I dialed my father’s office phone number. I am still not sure why. It was well before business hours, and besides, it was best to leave my parents out of this, wasn’t it? I would be out in just a few hours–they make you wait 8 hours to leave unless you call somebody earlier to pick you up–why not just keep it to myself?
So I hung up. I didn’t call my parents, I didn’t call my friends. I decided I could handle this by myself. So I stubbornly handled it by myself, nursing what would become an insane hangover, for 8 hours on a wooden bench inside a drunk tank on the outskirts of San Diego.
And I sat. And I watched the clock, and watched my watch, and theorized on which one was accurate, and I thought about how one day I would write about this and it would be a funny story. And wouldn’t that make it all worth it? I thought about how I would have to not drink and drive ever again, and how was I going to do that? Because any time I drank I might blackout and start driving. And if I stopped drinking altogether–so that I knew I wouldn’t drive–well, then, what would I do in situations where I “had” to drink? Like on dates. Or at New Year’s?
And on the long cab ride home—how does one avoid a long conversation with a cab driver, having been picked up from the Santee women’s jail, anyway? Was there any way I could have avoided this particular humiliation?–I continued to think. Even while I made the cab driver wait while I got out to go to the ATM so I could pay him, I continued to try to think of a way out of this quandry.
And upon arriving home, I headed straight for the shower, and after scrubbing myself thoroughly and turning off the faucet, I would feel like I needed to take another shower, and another, and another, until I was so tired I could crumple myself into a little ball in the middle of my green futon bed, and try to sleep away the memory of this night.
[Author’s Note: Hey, turn that frown upside down, it all works out in the end.]