Every weekend, for the past 5 months, I have spent a sizable chunk of my time sitting in an uncomfortable chair in the dirty, cramped waiting room of the jail, watching an hour and a half of my life march by so I can spend 30 minutes talking to Gary through smeared, scratched, filthy plexiglass on a phone I swab down with alcohol before placing anywhere near my face. This has given me plenty of time to observe the people in the waiting room, and that is exactly what I do. I watch them. I read them. I alternate between wanting to help them and wanting to slap them.
Every imaginable stereotype parades through the waiting room in technicolor. I have seen a woman beam with barely-contained pride because her three-year-old daughter announced on cue, “My mommy is a hoochie-mommy!” I was the only one who didn’t laugh.
I have seen women show up decked out in dresses and heels, smiling sheepishly and admitting they had to wear the outfit to visit their boyfriend and see if he will let her wear it later that night.
I overheard one woman tell another, “I really want a tattoo, but he won’t let me get one.” They exchanged indulging glances, like “Aww, boys will be boys!”
I heard one woman complain viciously about her boyfriend’s mother, loudly re-enacting the argument (with a decided slant to her own quick comebacks which likely were fabricated on the spot to embellish her story), which spawned because the boyfriend’s mother didn’t want her swearing in front of her 1-year-old son. This mother tossed her head defiantly and declared, “I use the F-word a lot! I’m not going to change who I am because of her.” When someone asked why her boyfriend’s mother was living with her, she said that his mother paid her rent and her utility bills. Well, the sheer audacity to expect a bit less vulgarity in return!
I try so hard to leave my judgments at the door, but damn, they test me. Gary and I have fought to stay positive, to find meaning in all of this, to focus on improving ourselves, our relationship, our lives.
A lot of the women refer to their husband or boyfriend as “that bitch”.
“That bitch hung up on me last night! I don’t know why I’m even here today to see him.”
“Don’t you hate that, when you paid for that bitch to call?”
Some women kill time in the waiting room by comparing jails or sharing their own rap sheet. One fine day two women discovered they both hate the same female inmate, so they heatedly discussed how they could get arrested just long enough to find her, beat her up, and then get released. One of these women felt herself to be an authority on the scheme, as she had served time for assault.
It’s good to have goals, I suppose.
I don’t say much. I keep to myself and read.
There’s a lot of bragging, a lot of excuse-making, a lot of griping, a lot of bravado, in that waiting room. One thing there is none of: support. At least of a healthy variety.
One afternoon I arrived earlier than usual and found the queen bee of the pack lounging on the curb outside, smoking a cigarrette. She struck me as the toughest and most aggressive of the regulars. I nodded politely as I walked by, and she suddenly called out to me, a fluff comment about the weather, a nothing statement that told me silently “wait”. I sat down a respectable, “we’re-not-really-talking” distance away on the curb and just listened.
She watched the parking lot as she talked, and she told me her boyfriend was being transferred to prison. He was going to be there for quite a while. She started crying. I wished for something to tell her, to comfort her, but nothing came. She finally flicked her cigarrette into the parking lot, shrugged back into character, and said, “Let’s go inside before all these ants eat you up.” I laughed because I thought I had been discreet about brushing off the biting ants.
I haven’t seen her for months. I also haven’t seen a girl of about 17 or 18 who told me one day that her mother kicked her out of the house when her boyfriend was arrested, so she had nowhere to go after she visited him.
Every weekend I show up with my book and settle in, trying not to hear any of the words zinging around me, trying not to catch their stories. They either leave me desperately searching for a way to help, or ferociously battling the urge to slap sense into them. For some, that remedy would be one and the same. For others…I simply come up empty-handed.