It was calm night when I left work. It was Valentine’s day at the time, over 10 years ago here in Calgary, Alberta. I was feeling a little down as the reality of the day was hitting me; you know, love and being without someone. I took the train at Chinook and headed downtown to go home. I got out at the 1st street station and walked up to the corner over by the Olympic plaza, and I just stood there, thinking. I was deciding whether to go to Booker’s Crab Shack to listen to some live blues music to stoke my own feelings of loneliness, or to go home and call it a night. I stood for a minute or two until I decided it was better to hit the hay. As soon as I started walking south from the corner towards the Stampede grounds, a police van flew out of Olympic plaza towards me, against traffic. I was shocked, but I stopped as the van screeched to a halt next to me.
The cop in the passenger seat rolled his window down to ask me how I was doing, which I responded with an underwhelming “Fine.” I was worried as I always am when I see cops. I may have done nothing wrong, but I have been conditioned to carry fear and loathing when I see a cop. He was clean cut with one of those fades in his hair, and a car salesman look about him, slick hair and a wide smile, showing off his pearly whites. He wondered why I had stopped on the corner for so long, so I explained my predicament to him, hoping to be on my way. He then asked me if I wanted a ride home or to anywhere else to which I declined. As soon as I said no, his friendly demeanor changed, and he asked me for my Identification. I was unaware that if a cop asks for ID with no cause, you can deny the request; but I was oblivious to that and wanted to not cause any trouble, so I said sure. He looked at it for a second, then typed it into his computer console that every cop car/van has on hand. There was a pause, then he handed it back and said, “Looks like you have a warrant for your arrest.” I was shocked and asked him how that was. He said I hadn’t paid for a ticket that was owing. Damn.
I wonder now as I write this if this has happened to many other people, but I suppose it happens to people of color, or anyone else that doesn’t fit the societal norm, like homeless people and aboriginals that usually populate the benches and parks downtown and around Inner city. I lived across the street from the Alpha House, a detox center for drug addicts and alcoholics. I remember meeting many on my travels home, and I even got to know a few of them. When I told people I lived by the Alpha House, they usually asked if I was alright, or if I felt safe in that area. I said why wouldn’t I? They are people like you and me after all, but the more I talked about it, and the more I got that response, I started wondering if maybe I should be worried. It is interesting how ideas enter our minds, even ones you may not agree with at first, which makes me wonder if just casual conversation like that is an underlying reason that racism continues in the west – which I know will bother some people, but as a Canadian that was born here, and a person of color, let me tell you: it hasn’t gone away, and maybe never will.
The next thing I know, I am sitting in the back of the van, headed to the police station on Stephen Ave. When I got there, they asked me if I could pay for my ticket, which I said no as I was broke didn’t have enough money in my bank account. The only option was for me to spend a couple nights in jail. I recognized one of the cops at the reception as a regular at my place of work, and I grew embarrassed because he recognized me as well. He was reluctant to mention anything more about me spending time in jail, and he tried to ease my mind. He said, “You won’t owe any money” and “It won’t be that bad” like I had a choice.
I was in the waiting area for a bit, waiting to be registered into their system, fingerprints and all that. Once I did, a couple cops led me to another room. Both were bald with one being slightly taller, while the other a bit stocky and broad chested with a couple tattoos on his arms. They explained that they were going to try to either have me spend time at one of the cells on location, or let me go as I had no record, but had to wait in this room till they got back. I think it was an interrogation room, or another cell of some kind, with a beige tone throughout the room and an incandescent light hanging from the ceiling. I waited for what felt like an hour and I was growing restless. I started boxing maybe a few months ago, so I decided to shadowbox at one point, but as soon as I did I got a sharp reply from an intercom: “If you don’t want to make things worse, I suggest you cut it out.” I sat on the only seat in the room and continued to wait.
I used to wonder about the appearance that some police officers have here in Calgary. A lot of the officers reminded me of gangsters, with some being bald and carrying an intimidating presence. I noticed that a few had lots of tattoos that were visible under their uniforms. I carry no ill towards tattoos as I have one myself and love tattoos in general, but they had this gang like appearance, and made me wonder if the police were only another gang that had the law on their side. I suppose if the law is on your side, it is easier to do as you will.
After what felt like hours, one of the cops came back and told me that I was out of luck and would be going to the Remand center, the jail here in Calgary. I felt defeated, and reality was hitting me square in the gut, but I suppose I wouldn’t be alone on Valentine’s. The two went to handcuff me, both my hands and ankles, which were joined by a small chain. I was joined by several other prisoners outside, and we were connected via chains. We stood single file as we approached the van that would take us to our beds for the night. I felt like I was back in the 1800’s, like a slave being led to some plantation. I wondered what need was there for this, I just failed to pay a ticket, right?
There wasn’t much chatter in the van, everyone was lost in their thoughts, perhaps wondering what was it that brought them to this point. I just sat there thinking what a great Valentines this was. I was lucky tomorrow was my day off.
When we arrived, we were sent straight away to this waiting cell to… well, await the next step. At the time, I looked like a Latin gangster, with my bald head, clean shaven face, clean white t-shirt and my tribal tattoo sticking out like a sore thumb. Everyone in the room left me alone, and I didn’t bother talking to anyone in there. I carried the world on my shoulders, and I put on this tough guy act, one I grew accustomed to having when I was out and about, to avoid talking to anyone in the first place. One of the guys, a thin young Caucasian guy with light brown hair that appeared wispy and thin enough that a quick flick with my fingers would be enough to cut it off; he talked about how he would be finally getting a good meal and a place to sleep. While listening, I learned that most of the guys were repeat offenders looking for a place to stay warm. Most of the crimes were petty, like stealing a chocolate bar from a store, to mouthing off a cop; all to come in to sleep, versus staying outside in the cold.
We waited for about an hour till we were called out by the guard to get cleaned up and inspected. I thought “What is there to inspect?” We walked down this dimly lit corridor towards a guard in a room with no doors. We went in one at a time, and I learned that the guard was inspecting us to see if we had anything in our anuses. He asked me to strip, then to turn around and bend over. I never thought I would hear those words in my life, but I guess this is jail after all. I suppose it is better a guard then an inmate.
Afterwards, we got our garb; the orange uniforms that you see most inmates wear on television and court hearings – or was it blue? Anyway, we continued walking to another room, another waiting room. We were waiting for the nurse this time, she had to administer a medical exam with each of us. Mister wispy hair was cracking jokes about banging the nurse, I was wondering if this was all real. The nurse was quite nice and very patient, I imagine that is a good trait for a prison nurse. She asked me all the standard questions she asks everyone, like the questions you get when going to donate blood, “Do you have STD’s?” “Do you take drugs?” and “Do you take prescription medication?” Afterwards, she starred me down. She had this calming gaze, but I wasn’t sure. I wonder if she was sizing me up, trying to figure out if I was a crook or not. But I am used to being stared at, babies do it all the time, and some dogs too. They say babies and dogs stare because they see goodness in you, but who knows.
Finally, we were on our way to our cells. I can’t say I was thrilled about it, but it was better then standing around waiting all night. The hall was dark with large windows around us and above, and shadows covered our tracks. The guards stopped at a intersection, I went with one to the left while the rest of them kept going forward. One of the guys, he reminded me of Cory Feldman from Stand by Me, shouted to me as he was being led away: “You lucked out man, you get the nice rooms!” See before that, they were talking about running into murderers and hard-core criminals at the section they were going to. They explained that the prison was divided into a couple sections, each one containing different types of prisoners. One housed the serious criminals, repeat offenders, and manslaughter convicts; another contained robbers, first timers and petty criminals. I got lucky I suppose, I didn’t crime hard enough.
The guard and I didn’t talk much, although what is there to talk about, he was only leading me to my room. The section was huge, maybe three stories high, with railings wrapped around the landings on each floor. There weren’t bars, but white paneled doors, with a plexiglass window at about eye level. My room was on the ground floor, which was also the cafeteria. The guard told me I have a roommate and to be quiet. I walked into a dark room with a window to the outside. Shadows were cast on to the bed, and I couldn’t make out my bunkmate. He heard me though, and threw something at me, what I made out to be a pillow. This pillow was covered with those bags you would get when you went to the library, the plastics bags for any DVDs or CDs you borrowed, and inside was a foam of some kind. Comfortable enough, but no blanket, however I went right to sleep. It was maybe 4am at that point.
I was woken abruptly a few hours later in the darkness of my room by one of the guards. He said it was time to go. I thought I was dreaming, and I wondered how many days passed by. We walked in the darkness of the jail, retracing our steps through the Remand center. I got my clothes back, my wallet, my phone, and my backpack which still had my work clothes. There was some paperwork the guard had to do, but otherwise I was out. I found myself in a waiting area that looked like one at a hospital, and it was then that I knew I was a civilian again. I met some new people in this area, and I learned we were stranded as the Remand isn’t near any Transit stations. I was the only one with a job and some money in the bank, so I got us all a cab into downtown. When we arrived, there was this unspoken bond, like a form of respect. We all nodded at each other, they thanked me for the cab, and then we all went our separate ways. I walked back to that corner and continued the journey I had set out the night before. I was still in such a stupor and wondered where or who I was. How did this happen? Oh, that’s right, a cop stopped me to say hi. At least I didn’t spend Valentine’s alone.