Passport | By Nicholas Cormier III
I’m levitating. Chest pressed in pavement. Eyes widening. Cuffs grab my wrist flinging an arm upward. Air enters my lungs. I can breathe. I gasp for air then say “thank you” to the cop that saved my life. He cuffs my other wrist. I’m sitting on the sidewalk watching two officers speak to the men that jumped me. Heads nodding. I can’t read their lips. The hum of slow-moving cars mixes with the muffled static of waves crashing a couple blocks down on Ocean Avenue. The streetlights of downtown Santa Monica shimmer off of the gold eagle on the cover of my prized little blue book. The great seal illuminating the words: United States. Each page stamped with multi-colored tattoos that harken to my life before these nightly searches for dirty cigarette butts and food. “I need that,” I say to the officer as he picks it off the ground. Examines it, then shoots a puzzled look in my direction. I can’t be sure, but somehow, I know he knows. The narrative doesn’t fit. How does a homeless man have a valid U.S. passport? I managed to save that passport throughout each endless day on the streets. It went everywhere I went, along with my Texas Driver’s License and electronic benefit card. I kept them tethered to my clothing or strapped on my back in a black Oakley rucksack, a European girlfriend gave me. I’m in the car now. The cuffs claw into me. I scoot to the edge of the seat and lean back, sliding my wrists to the base of the backrest, creating a pocket of relief. A trick I learned along the way. Piercing pain. “My ribs.” They broke them. I tell the officers. The cuffs tighten with every move like silver teeth biting to break skin. I say it again: “My ribs.” I’m lying across the back seat. I’m screaming now. The X-rays are inconclusive. The Latino lab tech consults with the officers as they break toward me. The form they’re holding reads ready to book. The rest of the ride is a blur. Each holding cell, a longer and longer wait to the next. Morning eventually comes. The van is cramped, but there are windows. No way to foresee how precious the familiar fleeting scenery will become. The muted green mountains of the Antelope Valley shine with that bright white sand easily mistaken for snowcaps at night. It’s November. All Saints Day. My heart leaps, shame covers me as we pass my former place of employment. I look for some symbol in moving from the corporate jail of aerospace manufacturing to Wayside Correctional Facility, only a mile or two up the road. I never knew it existed, and now it’s to become my home. They file us in. They tell us to strip down. I hesitate. I look around. The others seem less resistant. Tan uniforms surround me. My hands slowly move to my underwear. I slip them down. It feels as if a million eyes watch me do it. They tell us to bend over. I can’t. My eyes lock on the officer barking the order. I call him a “faggot” and fight with every backward fear I have to save my masculinity. It works, if only for a moment. They wrestle me down. Then throw me in a solitary cell. I keep screaming as loud as I can. Then run headfirst at the officer standing behind the steel door. I slam my head against the small square glass. It doesn’t break. I sleep.
Vertigo. The room spins. I hear football in the distance. I grow more and more nauseous with each rotation of the room. I sit up. The revolutions of the room slow. I see bars. A television in the distance suspended on a concrete wall. Game in progress. I can’t make out the teams. I lay back down. The room spins faster. I sit up again. My feet scrape the ground. I touch the bone protruding from my rib cage. Skin’s not broken. I hear guards talking from below. A labyrinth of cells surrounds me. Three levels, of which I am at the top. Guard slides a meal underneath the bars. The first meal I’ve seen in months, and it’s jail food sectioned off on a brown plastic tray. I can’t make out the main entrée. I take a few steps toward it. The room rocks like a ferry on choppy waters. I can’t eat. Tray seems to sway on my lap. I’m no longer levitating. The freedom I felt wandering the streets in open rebellion of a life spent checking the boxes is gone. The military service. The weddings. Birth of my daughter. Degrees. Divorces. Gone. My daughter moving 2,300 miles away. The hate that ensued. Prayers and platitudes to a God that abandoned me. Prescriptions. Hospitals. Fed Ex package holding my termination letter from the corporate job. Eviction notice pinned to my luxury apartment door. My sanity. Gone. Thoughts continue to flood my already racing mind. My eyes find a narrow rectangular window. A sliver of light breaks through illuminating the niche below it. Top right corner of the tray contains bleached shreds of cabbage that look like crinkled confetti. I wonder aloud how it all came to this. I stand up, tray in hand and sprinkle the cabbage on the niche spreading it out evenly until the entire area is covered. My head aches. Room seems to shake. I take my seat. They won’t break me, I think as I stare out the window. A bird drops into view, appearing to see the cabbage on my side of the glass as a potential nesting place. Wings flutter as it hovers for a moment. Chest is orange. Seems to see me. Overwhelming rush of emotion. I fight back tears.
It’s been a week, or maybe not. I’m alone in a large room sitting on a cold concrete floor. Each outburst has netted me exactly what I’ve wanted. To be alone, apart from all of the activity around me. Protected from inmates shuffling from each checkpoint of in-processing to the next. I’ve judged them. I’m shivering. I pull my elbows through the sleeves of the jail-issued blouse I’m wearing unwittingly bumping my left side. Pain shoots through my body. Hours pass, until a small bespectacled man enters the room. I imagine him to be Jewish. He has dark curly hair, and a professorial look like a friend of mine from college who happened to be the same. We called him Bubbles. The man is speaking, but all I hear is: “I’m a psychic.” He actually said “psychiatrist.” I respond with: “Do you want me to speak to you psychically?” I meant telepathically. I use the two interchangeably. He says: “You can just talk.” I say a few more things. His eyes are kind. I bellow from some strange uncharted space in my soul: “I’M IN PAIN.” “I DON’T BELONG HERE.” He listens and says: “Let’s get you to a better place.” Before I know it, I’m in a van and we’re heading away from the jail. I lean my head against the window, as close to the metal wall as I can to avoid touching the man cuffed to me. I hear the walla of conversations all around. I don’t take part. I don’t remember music. About a half hour later we’re in downtown Los Angeles pulling up on two large towers that look like elevated sections of the Pentagon. I read the signage on the concrete: Twin Towers Correctional Facility. Our black and brown bodies form a daisy chain as we are brought inside.
I learn on this stop of what seems like a series of layovers on an endless travel day that I’ve just left what’s affectionally known as Gladiator School. I also learn that the yellow shirt I’m given has a mental health stigma and sets me apart from the general population, which wears blue. My cellmate gives me my first airport book: Mary Higgins Clark’s Still Watch, which will become my new mode of travel. I take it to general population a day later. There’s a sense of pride in now wearing the blue shirt. With it comes additional privileges and a dangerous set of gang and racial politics. The cell has four metal slabs, but only three are occupied. The owner of the cell, the one who’s been there the longest, teaches us how to use the toilet. He’s hung a sheet that acts as a makeshift curtain. He says: “Make sure you flush before it hits the water—keeps the smell away.” A necessary jail courtesy. There are others. He sits on the bed silently. His large round black body hunkered over, heaving. He appears to cry, but I brush that aside. He whispers calmly: “My mom just passed away, and I wasn’t able to go to the funeral—cause I’m in here.” “If you see me crying, that’s why.” Crying is frowned upon in jail. One might receive a beat down for doing so. I don’t learn this till later. I try to sleep; my dislodged rib cage stabs the metal slab. I complain of pain. I’m hungry. The flat screen television mounted directly outside the cell appears out of place. I haven’t watched TV in months, except for the World Series, which was a respite from the streets. I’d stand outside of bars with a joint and a ginger ale spiked with Aromatic bitters and root for my team. Dodgers lost. Bounce, a hip black channel plays a hip black movie. I try to listen. My new celly keeps a bag laden with snacks underneath his bed. Brings out four packs of ramen noodles, drops them into a clear bag with water. Minutes go by, then adds a concoction of Fritos’ and other chips and seasons it with packets from the noodles and cut up pickles. I try not to stare. Breaks out several bags of bread and packs the “spread” into them making sandwiches. I’m handed one and a packet of Tapatio. Heaven. This is the first kindness I’ve received in recent memory. I look the other way and try not to cry. During the call for medicine my cellmates school me on how to get treatment in jail. An appeal to the nurses handing out pills is the quickest way. I do so and receive ibuprofen, another yellow shirt and am relocated to a medical dormitory.
I have to shower. There are many ways to get bloody in County Jail, but the easiest is to not be clean. I only have one pair of blue pants, the yellow blouse, a T-shirt and lime green boxers, along with a far-too-tiny towel. I’m told where my bunk is and it’s a top bunk. The top bunk is customary when new to a cell or pod, unless you’re a Triple OG or willing to pay top dollar. Despite my years, I still only qualify as an OG and read even younger which becomes a problem later. There are no pillows in jail. I acquire another book. Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. The dormitory is segregated and consists of two floors lined with bunk beds. I’m on the bottom with Black; Latinos are on top and, by numbers, control the pod. I take my shower with no thought of not having clean clothes to change into. I forget where I am for a moment. The water is near scalding. I mosey back to my bunk with the far-too-tiny towel wrapped around me. My bunkmate’s gaze is far from comforting. He seductively says: “I can’t protect you if you keep doing that.” I remember where I am. I see myself. Beaded drops of water glistening on my chocolate brown body. Towel creating a jail house slit. Triggered. Paranoia places me on high alert. I quickly dress. I don’t think I slept that night but traveled at light speed with Andrew “Ender” Wiggin to the planet of Trondheim. My agitation continues into morning. It’s an education pod and, as the GED studies begin, a young caramel-colored gang member with tattooed teardrops wearing a do-rag picks a fight with me. I’m ready. I’m also voted out of the section for the hostility. This is accomplished by the kid rolling up my mattress and tossing it outside. I await my fate chained to a metal bench in the main floor foyer. I protest. The guards speak to the Latinos in charge—it’s official. I’m evicted. Branded with a maximum-security level. I save my books just before the elevator ride to a higher floor.
Blood upon entry. Two black men fire away furiously at each other’s faces. The guards let them fight it out. Blood sprays from the smaller more muscular man’s nose. Defeated. He hides away in a cell. The Crips run this pod. I’m told to go upstairs and pick an empty bunk. M is my bunkmate’s name. I learn he’s on vacation from North Kern State Prison fighting an appeal. Penitentiary rules apply. Bunkie’s prison neurosis places me in silent deference as I listen to his litany. He’s a dark-skinned meaty man about five-foot-seven with a pristine shiny complexion and wears Warby Parker glasses. “Don’t touch any of my shit” “Dry the water out of the sink after each use” “Make sure you piss sitting down at night.” “If you’ve got to fart get up and go to the toilet and flush while you do.” I imagine how to fight him as he speaks. I decide to use his size against him. He’s likely to charge like a rhino and I’ll follow his force into a corner then go for his throat. This makes listening easier. The room is large. Clothing lines made of tightly wound T-shirt strips stretch from the top bunk to the sink. Pencil graffiti tags the walls. A mural of a black Jesus rests above my bed. The desk next to the beds is covered with M’s books, none of which I’ll get to read, he made sure to tell me that too. I can’t find a place to climb to the top bunk. I contemplate attacking him, he reads the energy and makes a space for me. I take in the picture of Jesus, which is not as well-drawn close up and bears an uncanny resemblance to the homeless inmate I’ve become. Down to a matching soul patch extending from the goat beard.
“Prayer Call! Prayer Call!” an inmate bellows from the base of the stairs. I wander outside and watch a few bodies walk into a cell. No desire to heed the call. Propelled by my childhood upbringing, I guess, I’m pulled downstairs and loiter outside the cage the men walk into. I’ve got nothing to lose. Sigh heavily, then sheepishly go inside. The walls sweat, and the smell matches. A group of men stand in a circle. The leader, a tall hulk of a man with a black Texas twang bears a striking resemblance to Michael Strahan, gapped front teeth and all. He stands with an open bible in his hands reading from Hebrews. Brother Wayne, the lone “Piru” looks a lot like a child with a graying five-o’clock shadow permanently puffing air through his cheeks. Wayne likes me immediately. This coupled with his incessant fidgeting makes me uncomfortable. He bounces his boxer build up and down like he’s jumping rope continuously saying “Amen.” I break out in a series of hand gestures meant to protect me from Brother Wayne’s countless demons. A tick I’d picked up early on into my madness. The circle is completed by a short Irish kid with too many gambling debts along with T, a long-winded pod preacher with a freakishly lazy eye that I’d seen at the corner table with some inmates teaching from Blackstone’s Statutes on Criminal Law Book. We all join hands.
“What are my charges?” I say, sitting across from two investigators sent from the city to interview me. They’re questioning me about what happened the night of my arrest. Their faces are a blur, the man on the left reads the charges: Count 1, violation of penal code 422(a) Felony criminal threat, carries 16-2-3, the 16 refers to months, two and three to years in state prison. Count 2, PC 245(a)(4) Assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury, also a felony carrying two, three, or four years in state prison. Count 3, PC.664/203, Attempted Mayhem, another felony. Charge ranges two, four, or eight years. Count 6 penal code section 242, misdemeanor battery, only six months. I don’t understand. There are three allegations in addition to these charges, one a serious felony and two are a violent felony to borrow their terms, which guarantees the prison custody time will be in a California State Prison. Not sure about the years. I tell them I was jumped by five or six men. How the attack squad approached tactically and assaulted me. How I screamed for help. How I couldn’t breathe. I show them my ribs. It sinks in. The men wearing what looked like cargo pants and blue T-shirts were firemen. The man I fought in the alley prior to the attack is the Battalion Fire Chief of Santa Monica. I kicked his Mercedes. The men are conducting an internal investigation. I’d never spent more than a night in jail. It’s been a week—at least. My mind still races. Delusional. I think the men are here to help me. Satisfaction washes over as I rest my case. I return to my cell expecting to be released.
The guards walk through every fifteen minutes. “Get down!” an inmate yells while I stand frozen staring at the correctional officers entering in a single file line. They break in different directions throughout the pod. Reluctantly, I crouch just enough to not attract their ire. For what will become a ritual of dropping to one knee or getting low whenever they enter. The male guards wear loud cologne. This pisses me off and I view it as an attempt to further emasculate us. Everyone must remain in their respective houses for most of the day. This is largely dependent on the guard’s moods, except when the jail is on lockdown. We are let out for brief intervals. I learn to tell time by tracking meal delivery. An annoying hygiene video plays for most of the morning. Hepatitis A is abundant. My fellow inmates escape their cells by burying plastic inside the small rectangular box where the door latch strikes. Canteen cards act as keys. Sliding one between the door pushes the lock back and presto we are free to roam. Dickhead guards know the trick and pull the door so hard during checks that it pops open then dig out the plastic. This usually happens after breakfast. M spends most of his time playing chess on one of the many metal tables downstairs. The bottom floor is lined with cells and a few rows of bunk beds. The cages vary in size. The leader of the pod is a Crip and a trustee. He leaves for work at five a.m. and returns home after dinner a little after six p.m. like a father returning home to his family bearing gifts for the pod, primarily food. The Crips ensure everyone is well-fed. It’s easy to go hungry in jail. I like their operation, but mainly that they keep the peace and leave me alone. I watch as they make delicious jailhouse pies out of meal remnants. The ingredients for these are daily hustle for many. Avatar, the head Crip, a bald older yellow-skinned black man with a reddish hue, collects most of these and his pies are the most decadent of all. Whites are a minority and allowed to exist within the environment with little to no hassle. Very few Latinos are with us. I spend my days on the top bunk reading. This becomes a problem for M. We argue and come to a compromise. I agree to leave the cell twice a day and stay downstairs. I imagine this is so he can jack off. I also imagine him to be prison gay. The time away from the cell leads me to my first friend. Will resembles a mulatto Abe Lincoln with few teeth. An impressive conversationalist and generous to all. Will is jailhouse rich, due to a deal he’s struck with an attractive black woman with a tiger on her tit that he gives a stipend to for cashing his social security checks and placing the money on his books. He’s also a former Hollywood writer and voracious reader. Will negotiates all of our book deals netting me more reading material than I can handle. We bond over our love of writing. The fact that I’m delusional adds to our long talks. He indulges every flight of fancy I have, from my relationship with Scarlett Johannsson to my street friendship with Bill Murray.
The night of December 11th, a guard calls my name and hands me a sheet of paper with a court date and time on it. I’m summoned to Burbank the next morning to deal with a case I’d caught a few months before becoming homeless. I’d made each court date while living on the streets. This was a source of pride for me. I’d seen the long buses with blacked out windows and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department plastered on the sides pulling up to the courthouse like steel slave ships on wheels during my morning walks from whatever stone bench or bus stop I’d slept on. Now I’m riding in one. Rap music blares. I’m shackled to three other inmates. We awkwardly position our bodies to sit in the first two rows of the bus. The wrong person enters first and a dance ensues akin to musical chairs in chains as we fight for comfort. I try not to touch the others. This is impossible. Far too cold air blows. It feels good to be out of jail. I remember the night of this arrest. At the time I lived in the media center of Burbank in a luxury apartment next to Warner Brothers studios. The main structure was bright orange with matching curved euro-styled furniture inside, a two-story gym that I only visited on the day I signed the lease. An occasional TV star would be standing outside one of the uniquely styled buildings on Sunday mornings, which was the only day I got to see neighbors unless checking the mail. Each building in the complex had its own pool and electronic garage and grill. I rarely got to use these amenities due to my work schedule but smiled on the drive back from Santa Clarita each early a.m. because it had them. Right before being evicted I’d taken to grilling all of my meals outside and swimming in the pool nightly due to the electricity being turned off. I felt I’d outsmarted them all. There was even an outlet near the grill to charge my phone. I was finally getting my money’s worth. This allowed me to dismiss my neighbors glaring from their windows and patios, which admittedly may have been due to the loud rants coming out of my apartment at night, or even the fact that I’d moved my full refrigerator outside. Overworked and delirious, one night I drove by Disney Studios and saw beautiful big stage lights blasting through the night sky. My body pulsating with manic energy. I steered my car toward the beaming beacons and parked outside the security gate. Jumped out of my Camry and hopped over the checkpoint gate arm and ran onto a big stage. I danced to Remember the Time, as if I were Michael Jackson for what seemed like a full set. I morphed into a mouseketeer and imitated Mickey’s voice for an impromptu speech, then attempted to get back to my car. When the police found me, I was wandering up the road filled with electricity. This earned me a second 5150, and a trespassing ticket. I was determined to fight despite the new charges and confinement. My public defender had soft features alabaster skin and brownish red hair. She looked too young with too big a butt for her pin striped pantsuit. Jail eyes are markedly worse than civilian eyes. The kind that make every woman fifty times better looking due to lack of exposure. This woman was a knockout with my new eyes. I fell in love instantly. She counseled me to plead guilty. “You’ll get time served, and then be able to focus on fighting the felony charges.” This is the first time I realize I’m charged with felonies. I’d made it through four decades without a felony despite being black in America. The 1% of the 1% of black men with a master’s degree in Business to go along with a bachelor’s and an Associates. Graduated with a near 4.0 with minimal effort. Exemplary military service record to boot. The racism I’d previously encountered was brushed aside as a bad night or day. White women a validation of having one up on “the man” and a byproduct of growing up a military brat. I suffered from the inanity of upwardly mobile black privilege and this, along with homelessness, is my wake-up call. When the time came to speak up in court, I couldn’t utter a word. I stared at the white beauty jealous of others staring at her too. It felt like the modern version of that scene in Ralph Ellison’s Battle Royal where the whites stare lustily at the bloodied blind-folded black men boxing and the invisible man can’t avert his eyes from the nubile naked blond. Only we were Black and Brown similarly turned against each other lusting over a milky white do-gooder. Before being escorted out of the court room she walks over and places her hand on my cuffed black hand. “Good luck,” she says. My lips quiver. Tears brim. I say nothing.
The bus makes several stops before reaching the Twin Towers. We arrive after 8 p.m., which is late for a return from court. We’ve missed dinner. A trustee hands out burritos that look like the microwavable pizza pockets my mother fed us after school. Food is a commodity. I receive many offers for my bean and cheese-filled meal. I’m greeted by Will as I enter the pod. He’s enthusiastically asking how things went. Jail is short on empathy with few exceptions. Court being the main one. The pod freezes and studies me as I stop to talk with Will. I tell him I pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and share the story about my liberating dance at Disney Studios. We laugh loudly as I show him the restraining order barring me from repeating my rendition for three years. A pod trustee screams “PILL CALL! PILL CALL!” interrupting our laughter. The yellow-shirted inmates file upstairs making an orderly line and await their nightly doses. Some scamper off immediately to crush and snort bartered medicine. I sneak up the stairs. I lock eyes with M as I enter the cell, even he displays an inexplicable tenderness in his eyes as I climb atop my bunk. I notice the picture of Jesus has Mona Lisa eyes that follow you from every angle. Nightly prayer call comes and goes. I lay in bed thinking of my love for Kami, the lawyer. Her touch. My plea. The defeat. The charges. I pick up a book. I cry for the first and only time in jail muffling my whimpers in a linen packed T-shirt that doubles for a pillow. I pray that M doesn’t hear.
About the Author:
Nicholas Cormier III is a veteran of the United States Air Force. Spent several years as an Air Traffic Controller. Graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington. Studied Art with a concentration in Film and a minor in Theatre. Holds a Masters Degree in Business Administration from Texas State University. Actor. Writer. Director. Nicholas owns Runner Films, a film and video production company. Volunteers for Veteran-centric service organizations. Regularly advocates for mentally ill veterans, including those with substance abuse issues—living on the streets of Los Angeles. Nicholas is the Homelessness Liaison on the Community Veterans Engagement Board and serves on the Veterans Patient Advocacy Council for the GLA VA in Brentwood, CA. USC Warrior Bard and longtime member of the renowned UCLA Wordcommandos Creative Writing Workshop for Veterans. Nicholas’ flash fiction and short stories were accepted for publication by MAYDAY Magazine, Lolwe Magazine and The Good Life Review.