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Baby, I’m a firework.

Or at least, I was. In the sense that, once lit, I was impossible to contain without a net and a gallon of water. And even then, I was just as likely to explode and take out myself and anyone dumb enough to get close. And not in the smoldering, James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause way – although I certainly did not have a cause. More in a rabid pitbull, danger-to-myself-and-others way. 

“But Matt,” you might say. “this is not gritty traveling.” You would be incorrect. My teenage wanderlust led me to travel to that most gritty of all places: jail. Not just one jail, mind you, but four. For a combined total of 39 days. When it came to getting arrested for incomprehensibly-stupid crimes, there was no one better than me at my peak. However, it took me a lot of practice to get to that level. I started small, and had to struggle to the top. Eventually, people took notice; everybody wanted me in their jail! You could say I was the LeBron James of getting arrested.

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“Just cuff me already.”

For the first 15 years of my life, I was instead the Stephen Curry of not getting arrested. That is to say, I came close but didn’t deliver in the end: on my 16th year, I lit some shit on fire. I was walking down a road at night with a friend and his girlfriend, hanging back and feeling like a third wheel. I bought a Zippo lighter earlier that day and I was flicking it open and closed and holding the flame up to bushes along the sidewalk as we passed. It was raining and any flaming foliage quickly burned out. I figured it was harmless. The police, called by a neighbor in one of the houses we walked past, thought otherwise.

I learned something about people that night: they fucking turn on you. The cops put my friends and I in separate cars for a grilling. I stayed quiet while my friends quickly ratted me out. It was the Prisoner’s Dilemma turned into a delinquent case study; they defected and I was dejected. This was my big debut as a criminal mastermind. I was no LeBron, not even a Curry. I was more of an Anthony Bennett.

Given my age, and my decade-and-a-half of prior good behavior, I was let off with probation and the first of what would prove to be a lot of community service. My crime was technically a felony, but since I was underage that meant practically nothing. Many would have given up on a criminal career at this point in favor of something more productive. But teenage Matt wasn’t like most people.

For example, I’m guessing there are some reading this that wouldn’t cut class in high school to go to a toy store. I’m guessing there are some that, having matured to the ripe age of 17, would not buy a toy cap gun from said toy store. Within this ever-shrinking hypothetical circle, I’m guessing that there are in fact some who would not bring said cap gun back to said high school and playfully point it at people in the parking lot. I acknowledge that these kinds of people exist, but I’m not saying that I understand them. I don’t think we could hang out; we’d have nothing to talk about. Because that’s exactly what I did.

I still don’t understand why no one found this as amusing as I did. Perhaps my school administrators were more Dry Humor types. You know, more Parks and Recreation than 30 Rock. Although it could also have been because it was less than five years since Columbine. In any case, I was swiftly arrested.

The judge didn’t buy my defense that a traumatic brain injury made me do crazy and impulsive things. Just kidding, I let my lawyer do the talking. My door prize was an all-inclusive weekend trip to Juvenile Detention. Juvie is a lot like school, if you weren’t allowed to speak to your classmates and the guards counted the utensils three times each meal to make sure no one stole them. I met a charming, gentle soul of 16, who had served a year already and had two more to go. His only crime was stabbing a little too much. Maybe those utensil checks were a good idea.

In those days, I was a man of simple tastes. I liked toy guns, I liked comic books. I particularly liked Calvin and Hobbes. A lot of the humor stems from Calvin’s charming deviousness. He’ll pull a laser gun on his teacher in school. He’ll run from authority figures while crafting his escape into an elaborate alien fantasy. But would he ever chase after a group of teenagers that egged his house while brandishing a switchblade and a baseball bat?  Frankly I’m surprised that Bill Watterson never illustrated that. Well, just like Ben Franklin discovered that metal keys tend to attract lightning during storms, one night I found out that knives in parking lots tend to attract the police. Hashtag arrested again.

The judge didn’t buy my defense that I was only trying to make pocket money by selling knives door-to-door. Just kidding, I let my lawyer do the talking. But by this point, my skills were too advanced for Juvenile Detention. I was ready for the Big Leagues. Well, sort of. The judge wanted to punish me, sure, but he didn’t want to throw me in the big, regional Lake County Jail, with all its hardened adult offenders. I wasn’t quite ready for that main event. Instead he devised an unusual punishment: I’d spend a weekend in the lockup of a small police station. These were usually only for people to spend an hour or two in while being processed and either released or sent to the bigger jail attached to city hall. They didn’t even have food for the prisoners on site, so three times a day a cop brought me McDonald’s on the city’s dime. My cell was about the size of a closet, had a door of metal bars, and looked out onto a little room with the station’s breathalyzer. I figured I was probably the only guy who ever cracked an algebra textbook there.

One night I was asleep when a cop brought in a woman, pulled over on suspicion of a DUI, to use the breathalyzer. I awoke to the unmistakable tone of flirting. I was groggy and let out a McNugget fart and the flirting stopped abruptly as the biker babe, several years past her prime and sagging in all the wrong places, looked over at me with disgust.

“Don’t mind him, sweetheart, some people have no manners,” said the cop, disregarding the fact that he was hitting on a drunk suspect in a fucking jail. “Just put your mouth on the tube” – he laughed – “and blow for me.” He laughed again.

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“Blow me”

Now I’m not trained in the fine art of breathalyzer engineering, but the red lights and angry beeps coming from the machine probably indicated that she was not in top form. But the cop seemed unperturbed. 

“That little number ain’t nothing to worry about,” he said. “Tell you what, I’m going to drive you home myself. You can pick up your car in the morning. Now let me just make sure I have your info correct.” And they walked out the door. It was a romance straight from a Nicolas Sparks novel.

I then had what Oprah might call an “aha!” moment, realizing what I needed to keep myself out of jail: a vagina! These were different times, however, and MtF transitions weren’t yet socially acceptable in Podunk Ohio. Instead I resolved to merely try very hard not to get arrested.

For a while, it worked. Why, I didn’t even get caught for some of the illegal things I did! Actually, that’s an exaggeration. There’s only about one crime I committed without getting caught. Don’t worry, it’s past the Statute of Limitations (I checked). My high school girlfriend hatched a scheme to steal cartons of cigarettes from the grocery store where she worked, which she and I would sell for half price at school from the trunk of my car. What could go wrong? For some reason, no one wanted to buy obviously-stolen car trunk cigarettes from a guy with a reputation for getting arrested. Left with twenty unsold cartons, I decided to pass them out at neighborhood elementary schools. Start ’em young, I figured. Maybe if they’re lucky they’ll get cancer before they realize there’s a world outside Ohio they’ll never see. No, just kidding. I used the spare cigarettes to teach my dog to smoke.

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Perhaps it was frustration from my failed business enterprise, or maybe I was upset with my dog after she angrily bit me when she ran out of Marlboros and needed a nicotine fix. I can’t remember why exactly. Hell, I don’t know why I did most of the shit I did back then. In any case, one day I decided that I just had to scream “fuck you” at a cop from my car window and lead him on a suburban, 100 mile per hour chase while going the wrong way down one-way streets in a school zone. I thought that my silver car might look better in child’s-blood crimson.

My suggestion to the peace officer was simply that he engage in auto-arousal, not that he match my speed and corner me at the apartment complex where I eventually parked, hoping to cut through a few backyards on foot to my house the next street over. But that was the course he chose. He seemed to think that my actions were inappropriate. I tried to explain that the street was only one-way during school days, and that the school day was almost over, but no luck.

Astonishingly, I received no jail time for this. My only explanation is that the judge believed, for me to commit so bewildering a crime, that I must have been under the divine influence of God Himself, and that it was best simply to let Him work in His mysterious ways without interference. In any case, I did receive many, many more hours of community service. I worked 60 hour weeks without pay at the local Goodwill, where I found that homeless people tend to drunkenly collapse in the bric-à-brac aisle and shit themselves in their sleep. I didn’t even know that there were homeless in Mentor, Ohio. Needless to say, I had to clean up the shit. I think I would have preferred jail.

I would soon be in luck! Months passed, and I was approaching the end of my senior year. It was springtime, the birds were chirping, and my peers were getting ready for prom, graduation, and a summer of freedom before going off to college. It was a time of optimism! But Rage Against the Machine told me that The Man was ruthlessly oppressing me. Thus, I had no patience for frivolous pursuits. What choice did I have but to take action?

I decided to rage against my high school. I had been parking my car in the school lot without a parking pass for months. One afternoon, I finished class, walked outside, and spotted a bright orange tire lock attached to my car’s wheel. To have it removed, I was supposed to go to the school office and pay a $50 fine. But rules were for other saps, man, not me. I was a rebel. What right did they have to tell me where I could and could not park? I would not stand for their oppression. As Elie Wiesel once said, “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out– because I was not a communist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me– and there was no one left to speak out for me.” I figured that it was probably a metaphor for my current situation.

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“Do it for me, Matt. Bust that lock.”

So I did really the only logical thing a man can do in such a situation: I took a tire iron from my trunk and started bashing the thing. I was hoping to break the boot’s locking mechanism so that it would simply slide off and I could drive home having stuck it to The Man. Maybe Zack de la Rocha would write a song about me. A small crowd of teens gathered around me to watch. I was Robin Hood, a modern day freedom fighter. The onlookers shouted suggestions and words of encouragement.

“Aim for the hinge!”

“Try using a sledgehammer!”

“You’re our hero!”

Sweat was pouring down my face from the effort. I needed a new tactic; bashing was not achieving the desired result. What would Elie Wiesel do? I thought back to Night. Wasn’t there a part where the Nazis impound his car? Perhaps not. But I came up with a bright idea: Instead of trying to remove the tire lock, I would simply take the whole tire off the axle and replace it with the spare. Then I could drive home and liberate the lock at my leisure. I opened my trunk to get the spare. Suddenly, and with the precision of a SWAT team, cop cars pulled up from three directions at once, boxing me in. The crowd scattered and it seemed I was destined for jail once again.

The judge didn’t buy my defense that Elie Wiesel made me do it. Just kidding, I let my lawyer do the talking. For trying to take the tire lock off of school grounds I got an “Attempted Theft” charge (which to this day remains a fun thing to explain to potential employers). I had to pay $700 restitution to the school for their damaged tire lock, after which I got to keep the thing. (I put it in my bedroom as a conversation piece.)
.

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(It never started quite the conversation I expected it to)

I was also sentenced to thirty days in jail. My lawyer was able to get me weekend release so that I could work to pay off the restitution, but I’d have to wear a GPS bracelet on my ankle to alert the authorities if I tried to go anywhere else. The judge still didn’t want to throw me to the wolves of Lake County Jail, so he came up with another novel solution. My six week, Monday-through-Friday sentence would be served at the city’s police headquarters in the cells normally reserved for people with stays of only a few days, or however long it took between arrest and arraignment if they couldn’t make bail.  This would keep me away from the more hardened criminals – mostly wife-beaters and alimony-evaders – with whom I’d be brushing shoulders if I went to County.

However, it also had the side effect of making my thirty days almost entirely solitary confinement. I wasn’t alongside white trash scumbags, I was completely alone. There were ten cells in the city jail, broken up into groups of two one-person cells that shared a tiny common area. Only during my final week in jail did I have company in the second cell. For the first twenty-five or so days, my only human contact was during the three daily meals, and the cop who brought them wasn’t exactly chatty. What’s worse on a teenage mind: complete and total isolation or hobnobbing with wife-beaters? If I had gone to County, I could have at least improved my backhand.

Jail does not bring out the best in people. Mom did so much crying that she could have laid a surfboard at her feet and had a self-perpetuating means of transportation. Dad, on the other hand, was a bit of a dick about things. A technician from the court came to attach some sort of beacon to our telephone, which would sync up with my GPS bracelet, and mentioned that it might interfere with our internet service. Dad was so upset at this prospect that he asked the guy if they could just skip the house arrest part and have me serve the full sentence without coming home on the weekends. In his defense, he had only recently discovered the wonderful world of internet pornography. A child’s freedom vs. digital tits: it was the Sophie’s Choice of contemporary philosophical conundrums. In the end, the techie found a way that Dad could get his naked cartoon ladies without interruption and everything was golden (showers).

Some people go on wild, devil-may-care road trips the summer before college. Others take a gap year to travel the world, hike Machu Picchu, volunteer at a Cambodian orphanage, and contract syphilis from a Thai hooker named Tequila. I was sitting in a jail cell, greeted each morning by panic attacks prompted by my waking realization that I was a caged fucking animal devoid of freedom. Well, I did get three TV dinners a day. Those little brownies were so yummy. And the baby carrots – to die for. Oh, did I mention that I missed prom and graduation? But the itty cartons of milk, they brought me straight back to my childhood. Ups and downs, I suppose. Strikes and gutters.

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The cow and I have something in common: WE’RE BOTH TRAPPED IN A FUCKING BOX

One of the deepest cuts came from Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, a Dr. Seuss book typically given as a gift to high school graduates. I hear that, in the original manuscript, the good doctor included a subplot on Yertle the Jailbirdle that didn’t make it to the final draft. That would have made me feel better. Instead, the book – displayed prominently at the grocery store I worked at – was a constant reminder of all the places I was not going after high school. How ironic that such an inspiring, congratulatory book was one of the few non-jail sights I saw on a weekly basis. It screeched mocking insults in my direction every time I passed. I’m not sure where Mr. Seuss went to medical school, but somewhere along the way he abandoned the Hippocratic Oath.

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“The only place you’re going is FUCKING JAIL!”

Maybe the book wasn’t actually speaking to me. But solitary confinement does strange things to the mind. Being isolated for long periods of time forces one to distill thoughts into simple, almost primal, urges. By the Friday of each week, as I was counting down the minutes until I was released for the weekend, I had a mental laser focused on three things: sex (obviously), video games, and… cheesecake. Yes, cheesecake. Not just any cheesecake. Sara Lee Cheesecake. Perhaps the three can be interpreted as a product of my respective needs for sexual release, catharsis, and comfort food all kicked into overdrive after a week’s deprivation. Or perhaps Sara Lee’s cake scientists have perfected sour cream toppings and delicious graham cracker crumb crusts. Whatever the case, I fucking loved those cheesecakes. I would eat four per weekend. One Friday when I got home from jail, I misplaced my car keys and no one was able to drive me to the store to get my beloved cheesecake, and I had a literal temper tantrum. I’m not proud. Cheesecake does it to the best of us.

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For six weeks, the only places I knew were the grocery store, my home, and jail. But that worked for me. I had no desire to show my shameful face in the larger community, and indeed the GPS ankle bracelet prevented that. In fact, the bracelet turned out to be a bit of a help. Each Monday morning, upon checking into jail for the week, one of the guards would walk me into a bathroom. I’d strip, he’d take my clothes and hand me a crusty two-piece jail uniform that smelled like the space between an old person’s toes. But I obviously couldn’t take off the ankle monitor, and the guard never inspected it closely. So I devised a plan. Every Sunday evening I would take a strip of black electrical tape and stick about ten Tylenol PM pills to it. Then I would tape the strip to the inside of the black ankle bracelet. It was essentially invisible unless you happened to be looking straight down into the bracelet’s strap from a foot away. The pills helped me get a solid, relatively panic-free night’s sleep while I was in jail.

Once I had my panic attacks under wraps, the long days in jail were less torturous. I read a profound amount of Dean Koontz thrillers, worked my way through a stack of People magazines from the 90s (that Princess Di is going places!), and perfected my card castle building. But jail wasn’t just a place to unwind, get some reading done, and get strung out on sleeping pills. No, I also used the opportunity to network. During my final week, they put a guy my age in the cell next to mine. We had actually gone to school together, but I don’t think we ever spoke. He might have thrown me against a locker in junior high. You see, this guy was a “gangsta.” Or at least he cultivated this persona at school. An appropriation of a hip hop lifestyle, as it were. I guess he saw it through ’til the end and got arrested. He wasn’t there the full week; he just couldn’t make bail and was waiting a few days until his arraignment. The second day, he broke down and cried. Couldn’t take jail. Guess it’s not for everybody, not even gangstas.

Come Friday of that week, it wasn’t for me either. I was getting out, baby! Just in time, too, because this firework was ready to explode. I stepped outside and the warm air hit my free face and I reacted like Nic Cage getting his own taste of freedom in Con Air:
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It was time to turn my life around. The first step was to resume my education. Mom kept a big glass jar on the counter with a piece of paper taped to it reading “Matt’s college savings.” Good thing that paper was double-sided, because soon it read “Matt’s criminal defense fund.” Actually, I made that part up. The funds were one in the same, but apparently they were kept in a bank. I wouldn’t know, I never went to banks. I spent all my money on cap guns, knives, and tire locks.

But my college savings-turned-lawyer’s-cocaine-fund did indeed deplete quite quickly. My pitiful finances were one of the reasons why, after my adventurous post-high school summer of counting jail cell ceiling mold spots, I decided to attend the prestigious Lakeland Community College, where the school motto is Latin for “Somebody Has to Fix HVAC.” At least I think it is. They don’t offer classes on Latin at Lakeland, only Slovak. I kid, I kid… I’ll forever have fond memories of my days as a “Lakeland Laker.” Like the one, for instance, in which I had to refrain from going to Lake Erie to drown myself every afternoon for the first semester.

I made it a year and a half before I ran into trouble with the law again. At least my crimes were getting more conventional: instead of brandishing a weapon or getting in a high-speed chase, this time it was simple drinking and driving. Well, there was a twist: I was drinking while driving: I hand one hand on the wheel, one on an open Red Stripe, and I was watching a movie on my car’s pop-out dashboard DVD player with a friend in the passenger seat and one in the back. We were on our way to a party, which had started an hour prior and we were trying to catch up before we got there. I had gotten a couple semesters of book-learnin’ under my belt, but that sure didn’t raise my criminal aptitude: I was driving with a broken headlight.

Sure enough, a cop pulled us over, but I had a plan. The case of beer was on the floor in the back, resting between the legs of my backseat passenger. The cop car came to a stop behind us and flipped on its searchlight as two officers slowly got out and approached. While they did, I discreetly slid my hand with the open beer bottle behind me, into the case. Then I whispered for my friend to cover the case with a sweatshirt. Mission Accomplished, just as two police stopped on either side of my car.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“Because I’m wearing white after Labor Day?”

“Your headlight is out. And a few seconds ago, we saw furtive movement as we approached the vehicle.”

“I’m no more furtive than usual, officer.”

“What’s under that sweatshirt,” inquired the cop on the passenger side. “Remove it for me so I can see.” I had spent enough time forming defenses with my lawyer that I knew I wasn’t legally obligated to do as he asked. Moreover, it would constitute an illegal search if he moved the sweatshirt himself. But, motherfucker, that’s exactly what he did. Without waiting for my response, he actually stuck his arm through the open passenger window and revealed the case of Red Stripe. I guess when they covered the Fourth Amendment at the academy, he was home sick with Swine Flu.

“Whose alcohol is this, gentlemen?” To their credit, my friends said nothing. But I knew that it wouldn’t take much longer for them to sell me out. Five minutes in the back seat being grilled by Officer Handsy and things would go about the same as they did during my very first arrest. The funny thing is, I didn’t even buy the beer and we were all sipping from open containers. But since it was my car and I was the oldest in the underage group, with by far the longest rap sheet, I knew that I’d be taking a disproportionate amount of heat sooner or later. Instead of putting my friends through the shameful ordeal of having to pin blame on me under duress, I decided to do the noble thing and take the blame right then and there.

The judge didn’t buy my defense that it was really my identical twin brother named Ttam who had been driving the car. Just kidding, I let my lawyer do the talking (after he wiped wayward flecks of cocaine from his nose). The blatant illegality of the search of my car was justified based on the “furtive movement” the cops saw right after they pulled me over. Given the several probations I violated and my past history, the judge would make no exceptions for me this time: I was finally going to the dreaded Lake County Jail for three days and two nights.

My wing of the jail looked a lot like we’ve all seen on TV: two stories of cells off catwalks, with each cell containing two bunks. In the center of the room was a large common area with stainless steel tables and benches bolted to the ground. And unlike the city jail I spent six weeks in, County was full-to-bursting with people to talk to. But I tired of the usual talk of sports and spousal abuse and kept to myself.

In truth, it was not that bad. When people think of “jail,” the mind invariably wanders towards violent anal rape. However, I must draw a distinction between jail and prison. Jails typically house less violent chaps on shorter stays, whereas prisons hold the more dangerous felons on much longer stays. In fact, each of the Lake County inmates were serving terms of a year or less. And there was no (convicted) rapist among them.

Nevertheless, there was certainly aggression afoot. Each morning, the guards brought in breakfast, followed by two massive coolers of Kool-Aid, which were set on two metal tables in the common area. The drink was ostensibly for anyone who wanted it, but on my first morning my cellmate gave me a hushed warning.

“If I were you, I wouldn’t go near the Kool-Aid. See that group of guys there?” He gestured to a circle of big dudes sitting at the tables near both coolers. They were a racially-diverse group, but they shared imposing statures and, apparently, a love for sugary fruit drinks.

“Those guys will sit there all day, until after lunch when the guards remove the coolers, and muscle everyone else out of Kool-Aid. They want it all to themselves.” Thus I learned an important lesson. Some jails have Aryan gangs, some have black gangs. Apparently some also have Kool-Aid gangs.

Some hardened criminals have teardrop tattoos as a telltale sign of badassery. Similarly, biker gangs wear a “1 Percenter” patch to indicate that they’re not part of the 99% of law-abiding motorists. But the motherfuckers you must really watch out for have a blood-red dried Kool-Aid mustache adorning their upper lip. If you happen upon one in a dark alley, don’t bother running – given their sugar high they’ll certainly overtake you. Just curl into a fetal position and hope they’ve sated their sweet tooth that day. Otherwise, the fiend will proceed to twist off your skull like the lid of fruit punch container and slurp out your hypothalamus in search of glucose. I hope you have a living will prepared.

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“I’ma shank you, bitch! Oh YEAAAAAAH”

Ladies and Gentlemen, I drank no Kool-Aid that weekend. But you could say that my stint at County inspired a thirst for sugary drinks while sating my thirst for criminal behavior. In the nine years since, I’ve drank many a cup of Kool-Aid and committed no crimes. My firework has stopped exploding and my inner NBA star has retired to a life of golf and arthritis in Palm Beach. 

I’ve blossomed into a respectful young man. I transferred from Lakeland Community College to several more uppity schools where professors use terms like “couched” and “unpack.” There is no more of The Rage in me and I’ve become enmeshed with The Machine, incurring over a hundred thousand dollars of public debt to pay for my fancy education, which someday I’ll maybe pay back. With all of these legal and academic improvements, I’ve made great strides in my professional life as well. It’s taken me ten long years, but I’ve successfully transitioned from a part-time grocery store employee with criminal tendencies to a part-time bookstore employee with suicidal tendencies. But the important thing is, I’m darn polite now!

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