The first time I was arrested was for littering without ID. Picture me at 17: big boned but skinny–short hand-cut brown hair, size 8 pants with holes in the knees, a riot police vest festooned with ragged multi-colored patches. Everything I owned on my back and a flute case over my shoulder. I was stoned out of my gourd when I made the mistake of attempting a philosophical conversation with an officer. Honestly, he probably would have arrested me anyway, but when I threw a hand-rolled cigarette butt on the cement (anti-littering to my mind–which would biodegrade first?) he saw his chance.
Turns out anything that you do in San Francisco without ID is pretty much illegal. Even if you pick up the trash instantly, it’s your word against theirs.
They took me to the station, where they went through my stuff.
“You know, this is a weapon, I could take it.” The cop found my box cutter I had tied on a string to my belt and tucked into my back pocket.
“It’ a box cutter, you can buy it in any hardware store,” I told him scornfully. (This was pre- 9-11.) He dropped it in the brown paper bag that was becoming the new home for my possessions. Between the four pockets of my vest and the four in my pants I had a lot of stuff. A matchbook missed the bag and fluttered like a moth to the floor. Before I could grab it, The cop snatched it up.
“Groundscore!” He cried triumphantly. “See,” he said, giving me the smirk of a disobedient child, an expression I would see often from Frisco cops abusing their power, ” I know your slang.”
They handcuffed me to the chair for hours, and I occupied myself with belting out tunes: Amazing grace, Nothing Left to Loose, Mercedes Benz, Redemption Song…at one point a big black lady cop added her full throated voice to mine. Finally an officer asked me to be quiet, and I accommodated. I was tired by then, and coming down.
They took me downtown and finger printed me under a false name. Since I had given them a false birth date as well, they put me in a general pop holding cell. The holding cells in downtown Frisco are glass cages lining a big room full of cops doing paperwork. On one side was a cell crowded with men in orange jump suits.
I was put in a room with two other women, a working TV and a broken pay phone. (The pay phone seemed redundant, as all of our money was confiscated when we were booked.) In the corner a girl lay shaking on the cold bench. She had sores all over her face and the shakes real bad as she came down off junk.
The other woman was middle-aged and slightly off. She kept waving at the police and trying to get their attention. It seemed that she knew or was related to each of them in some way or other. She looked pityingly at the girl in the corner.
“I would never do heroine.” I agreed. God, that looked awful. Coming down in jail had to be hell.“I only smoke pot” she paused as I nodded my agreement, “and crack.”
The show changed on TV to Billy Grahame. No, just no. I thought. This was cruel and unusual punishment. Examining the set-up, I managed to perch on a bench and just barely reach the controls on the TV.
“You’re not supposed to do that.” The woman said as I flipped through the channels. “Can you put on Cops?”