I met Jonathan after being moved from a holding cell into the back of the jail and assigned to a bunk. It was a 24-man tank. There were two rows of bunk beds on either side of the room with six rows in the middle and a few stainless steel chairs and tables bolted to the ground where men played cards, loudly slammed down their dominoes and ate jailhouse spreads concocted of instant soup and meat packs.
The beginnings of full-on heroin withdrawal were creeping up on me.
I was terrified of showing weakness in front of these men. I knew that jail was the one place on earth you could not afford to appear weak. By the next morning, I was so sick it hurt just to sit down.
Jonathan was most definitely not the kind of guy who does well in jail. We all called him Wisconsin, because that’s where he was living when he was picked up. He had pending charges in Texas, so they drove him down to Texas in a paddy wagon. He said he only wished there had been a window in the wagon so he could have watched the world go by. “We must have passed some beautiful country,” he said with a sigh.
Wisconsin was a real character. He sang show tunes in the shower. Once he sang The Star-Spangled Banner and Bankroll while showering. A Mexican cat doing 25 years fell into a fit of laughter and yelled, “Hey, Wisconsin! You fixin’ to start a game in there or what!?”
Everyone made fun of Jonathan because, frankly, he was easy to make fun of. But he had a heart. He was a kind man, which was why he was not someone who did well in jail. Jail changes you; it squeezes the kindness out of you, drop by drop, until all that’s left is a broken animal pacing in a cage. Despite everything, Jonathan seemed to survive without changing.
He noticed me before I noticed him. One morning, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I assumed it was my cellmate waking me up. If one man slept in, the whole tank could lose television privileges. This doesn’t sound like a big deal; but the longer the TV was off, the more fights erupted.
When I looked up from the towel that doubled as a makeshift pillow, I was surprised to see Jonathan’s smiling face. He pointed to one of the steel tables in the dayroom where two coffee mugs sat. I recognized one as being mine. At first I felt angry that he had touched it without asking, but that feeling quickly subsided.
“Want to join me for a meeting?” he asked. My burning brain struggled to understand what the hell he was talking about. I was so defensive those first few days in there . . . anything said to me appeared to be an invitation to fight. After all, I was a new guy, and nobody knew anything about me except that I was a junky.
Wisconsin repeated his invitation, “Do you want to join me for a meeting? It would just be the two of us, but it might help you feel better – and the coffee is warm. I noticed you didn’t make commissary and . . . well, you probably haven’t had anything warm in your stomach for days.”
The beginnings of full-on heroin withdrawal were creeping up on me. I was terrified of showing weakness in front of these men. I knew that jail was the one place on earth you could not afford to appear weak. By the next morning, I was so sick it hurt just to sit down.
I was still in a fog, but the prospect of drinking something warm was enticing. I decided to trust Wisconsin.
As we sat down, Wisconsin asked me, “Have you ever attended a Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meeting before?”
“Once or twice a few years ago. It wasn’t for me,” I said, as I reached for my mug of coffee. I was hoping that would do the trick and he’d give up on this silly jailhouse meeting, but it only got him more excited.
“I understand,” Wisconsin said, as he picked up a book and leafed through the first few pages. “Well, let me ask you this . . . do you have the desire to get clean?”
I thought about this question as I sipped on the freeze-dried instant coffee in my plastic mug. The taste was off, but the warmth of that dark liquid was revitalizing. I think it may have been the best cup of coffee I had ever had in my life.
I thought about my last ten years since I had first begun using – using cautiously at first, then more frequently, until finally my whole life revolved around dope. Sitting there in a county jail in Texas, things sure looked bad. I realized I had finally found that bottom I had been searching for.
After what felt like a long time, I said, “Yes. I do.”
“Well, that’s all you need,” he said, as he sipped from his own mug and smiled that goofy smile of his. “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using. Welcome. I believe God has great plans for you.”
I remember thinking, How the hell do you know God has great plans for me? How do you know that? You don’t even know me. Why are you trying to save me? If you knew me, you’d know better than to try. If you really knew me, you wouldn’t bother. I was full to the brim with negative self-talk, fueled by years of living sick without seeking help. I was a mess, but Jonathan assured me there was an answer.
Wisconsin and I held our meetings every morning. He woke me up with my coffee mug filled, and little by little I came back to life. He became my first sponsor. Some of the other men laughed at us, but it didn’t bother me. Over time, a few even joined us for a meeting or two, but none ever stayed long. “Keep coming back,” Wisconsin would say. For the first time, I felt sobriety was something attainable. I admired his resolve. Even though he had landed in jail after relapsing, he didn’t seem discouraged. “I need this, now more than ever,” he said.
The jail provided inmates with Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that I attended as well, but those were few and far between – sometimes as little as once a month. And they lacked the power I felt working with Wisconsin and the other men in our tank.
One morning I heard his number called over the intercom, “Number 555035. Pack your stuff. You’re going home.”
He had served his time; he was getting out. I was happy for Wisconsin, but I also felt a little sad and a little afraid. When I asked him how I was supposed to keep working the program on my own, he said, “We can only keep what we have by giving it away.”
We eventually got a new crop of guys in our tank. A kid walked in and unfurled his mattress on a top bunk. He looked like hell. He was thin and gaunt, sniffling that familiar sniffle and huddling under his grey wool blanket for warmth. He rarely got out of his bunk, not even to eat.
There was a fight the day he came in. A guy was being beaten up pretty badly, and the guards rushed in to break it up. The two fighting inmates had begun arguing over what TV show to watch – there was always some petty reason behind the violence.
I was on cleaning duty that night, and I noticed the new kid watching me with wide eyes as I mopped the blood off the dayroom floor. The blood had a sharp smell, like copper, that stung the back of my throat as I cleaned. The dirty grey suds in the bucket had turned into a dark reddish slop. It was startling to me how much blood a human being could lose and still manage to keep swinging.
I must have been desensitized at that point, because I didn’t feel much of anything about the fight. When I saw that poor kid looking terrified at the blood and the madness, it snapped me back into feeling . . . I remembered my first few days in the tank. I had been scared out of my wits. I thought of my own long, painful withdrawal. I thought of Wisconsin and our daily meetings.
The next morning, I got up 20 minutes early, made my bunk and walked over to the kid’s bunk and took his mug, careful not to wake him up. I filled it a third of the way with freeze-dried grains of coffee, then filled my own and topped them both off with water. I didn’t know how he took his coffee, but I decided some sweetener and creamer would probably be in order. I stirred them and let them sit for a few minutes to cool down.
Long, blue tongues of steam licked up as the morning light poured in from the three window slits that ran across our quad. I fetched the AA Big Book from under my mattress and my pad of notebook paper. The intercom crackled, “Rack out! Rack out! Get out of your bunks! If I come in there and anyone’s still under their covers, you lose the TV tomorrow! Meds on the floor! If you take meds, get some water, fellas. It’s a beautiful day!”
The kid groaned and rolled over. His grey blanket was still pulled up to his ears, his lanky hair sticking out like scarecrow straw from underneath it. I tapped him on the shoulder. He sat up with a jolt and looked at me, scared and confused. It’s a beautiful day, I thought to myself.
“Hey kid,” I said. “Want to join me for a meeting?”