The First Time I Almost Went to Jail
I remember the first time I almost went to jail. It was my senior year of high school, 2001. I was just a few weeks removed from the purchase of my first vehicle, a 94 Honda Accord my mother had helped me finance. I finally had freedom of movement and immediately went about putting it to good use.
You see my friends and I had been smoking weed for a few years at that point but were limited to purchasing locally in Paterson NJ because of the inconvenience of traveling Uptown to the land of crazy fat dub sacks. But I had a plan. It was simple. The $20 bags uptown were twice the size of the $20 bags in Paterson and the surrounding area. So all we had to do was go buy 10 20 sacks, come home , break them down, and we could have 20 20 sacks. Double our money. Easy peasy. We now had the car, the money I had saved from my server job at Friendlys, and knew the spot uptown that had the fat 20s.
What I did not have at the time was the life experience to consider all the things that could go wrong. We successfully purchased the 20's, went back to my friend's house, and broke them down. It was such an invigorating feeling. I was Nino Brown, I was Tony Montana, I was the godfather. I was playing the angles and taking control of my future. I was a moron.
I had a server shift at work that day. I was due to be there by 4. I wanted to have everything bagged up, in part to have it available for distribution to my fellow servers who I new smoked and would have cash at the end of the night. I changed hastily out of my clothes, into my work uniform, tossed my clothes onto the front passenger seat, and sped off towards work ready to take over the world.
It was a warm Saturday afternoon in the spring. The sun was shining, I was on my way to get twice the money I would normally make on a Saturday night, I had a new car, and not a care in the world. I popped in my Onyx 'Shut Em Down' cd, turned it up full volume, blasted my ac and proceeded to cruise to work. My car was new so I had the license plate in the front window and not properly mounted as I was still waiting on the rear plate i believe. I honestly forget the reason. On the way to work there was one long street that for whatever reason, I was just catching all the green lights on. There was maybe a 10 block stretch of lights where all the lights were green and no one was in front of me.
All I can think to myself is "man, what a great day." Cut to moments later when I see a police car with flashing lights approaching rapidly from the left at the 4 way intersection. Imagine my shock when he drives directly in front of my car to cut me off. Imagine my even deeper surprise when I look around and notice there are two more cop cars with flashing lights surrounding me. Before I can even react there is an officer with his gun in hand pointed towards me at the driver's side window screaming at me to put my hands on the steering wheel! I complied. The next few seconds were a blur. There was a lot of screaming and confusion. He got me to put the window down but even then the music was still blasting,(I had not thought to turn it down) and all you could hear was "shut em down! shut em down shut 'em down!!" Blasting from my car. He yells "turn that down" and I finally do.
After a confusing back and forth I came to understand that this officer had been driving behind me for 6-8 blocks attempting to pull me over and I had not seen him or noticed. I was a new driver and not yet in the habit of checking my rear view for police or any other reason. I also had been doing the speed limit which I think genuinely confused the officer when he was questioning me. So now I'm outside the car with my hands on the trunk. At this point there were 6 cop cars around me and maybe 10 police officers. The ranking officer was an older gentleman with kind eyes in his early 60's who spoke to me very calmly. I explained that I played football at the local high school and that I was on my way to work and my uniform was evidence of that. He made a comment about how his daughter always plays her music too loud in the car also and us "kids" don't know any better.
Finally I felt like I may get out of this situation alive and unscathed. Then the million dollar question comes up. Where is your license and registration? My registration was in the glove box as per usual but I will never forget the deep feeling of nausea in my belly when I realized where I had left my license. My license was sitting in the small left pocket of my cargo shorts in the front seat of the car. These cargo shorts also contained the 10 individually wrapped dub sacks in a brown paper bag that I was planning to distribute for profit.
So I tell the officer, " I'll grab my license it's just in the front seat." He grabs my arm before I start to move and says "no, tell me where it is and i'll get it."
I knew It was a wrap for me but I had to take a shot. The weed was in the large right pocket of my cargo shorts. So in the clearest voice I had ever used to enunciate any thing in my life, I said, " my license is in the small left pocket of my cargo shorts. There are 4 pockets, 2 big 2 small, my license is in small left pocket." I literally said all of that. In retrospect, had the officers not been worried about getting in trouble for having pulled a gun out on a high school kid, they might have found my attention to detail suspicious.
So I watch the original officer that had pulled me over walk over to the passenger side of the car and pick up my shorts, holding them in the air. He puts his hand in the big left pocket and I almost screamed out "the small one!" but stopped myself. He puts his hand in small right pocket, again nothing. He reaches in small left pocket, retrieves my license, and tosses the shorts back on the car seat. My whole body exhaled at once. I couldn't believe it. There is no way I could be that lucky but there it was .
The officers ran my license, and it came back clean. They decided to write me no ticket, warned me to get my license plate framed, and sent me on my merry way. I cried the whole way to work. I blubbered like a newborn waling for it's mommy. I was overwhelmed with relief. In those brief moments standing at the back of the car with my hands on the trunk I had already internalized the shame of disappointing my family, my friends, my football coach. I could hear all the conversations people who knew me were having. "He had so much potential" and the like. I had seen the next few years of my life playing out and within an instant the weight was lifted off my shoulders. I was free. Free to make more mistakes and learn new lessons. Free to see myself sink to much lower, darker spaces and walk back towards the light. Free to grow and understand the value of that moment. I think about this day and a few others like it every time I walk into Rikers. How many of these brothers are like me? Fully capable of loving and being loved and impacting the world in a positive way? And how do we treat them? And why?
I volunteer as a yoga and meditation teacher at Rikers once a week through the Liberation Prison Yoga program run by Anneke Lukas. When she first approached me about this program, I was enthusiastic but hesitant to join her. It took five years of contemplation and preparation before I could work up the nerve to do it. The overwhelming feeling that I had/have when I thought about doing the work is guilt. I was relieved to have escaped the clutches of the law but I was ashamed to have put myself in that position in the first place. Even more embarrassing is how many more times I almost threw my freedom away after this incident. Never doing the exact same thing but always finding a new way to avoid the lesson; there are no shortcuts.
I share this today to unburden myself of that embarrassment as it has hindered my growth and ability to be comfortable in my own skin. I struggle with how people in the world view me because sometimes I feel I have presented myself in a less than honest way. I have strived to control the narrative. All of this in an effort to avoid the shame of my past decisions. I am gradually learning to see myself through more compassionate eyes. There is no need for shame. My life experiences are my own. Their value and meaning only hold the weight I give them. My positive contributions to the world far outweigh the negative. Everything I have been through has made me the person I am today and I am truly grateful for it.
If the cops had found the weed that day. Would I be of less value to you? Would you call me inmate? Felon? Criminal? Would you say that I deserved it? Did I deserve to not get caught? Would you still have enjoyed a drink at my bar? A kind word as my friend? A lesson in my class? I don't have a proper ending to the story or answers to these questions. I have just been deep in thought. If nothing else, I hope after you read this you will pause before passing judgement on the next person, or maybe make a donation to an organization like Liberation Prison Yoga, that is working to provide incarcerated people with tools for self care and a reminder that they are cared for. ✌🏿❤