My adolescent years are the most vivid of my memories. Maybe because they were the most intense and shaky of my life experiences.
Back then nothing seemed normal. It was always me against the world. Then again, what teenager doesn’t feel that way? However, I believe my episodes were a little unconventional compared to most teens. At least I think so.
I’ve had my share of “the worst day of my life” incidents or times when I was simply filled with terror. Even as a little kid. Like when I was in the first grade receiving my first feel of the wooden paddle.
I was given a swat for pissing in the field during P.E. class. I remember telling the coach that I had to go really bad, but he ignored my request. When he walked away, I withdrew and went out in a burst of glory as cars drove by honking in jest.
I was infused with panic on the way to the principal’s office and trembled at the sight of the thick paddle clutched in his white-knuckled fist. None of my pleas or tears did any good in persuading the principal in letting me off the hook. Subsequently, by the time I made it to the fifth grade, I became immune to corporal punishment.
In my teens, I recall times when I wondered if I was going to live or die. Times when the ticking seconds were precious. When on numerous occasions I was chased by speeding bullets or when I had guns shoved in my face by trigger-happy gang members. Or when I was fifteen I was handcuffed by Officer Jimenez and beaten because I wouldn’t tell him the whereabouts of a friend. The list goes on.
Like many people, I’ve gotten over my dreadful experiences or even laughed about them years later. Then there’s those you don’t use for amusement. Ones you try to forget about and bury in the back of your memory landscape. For instance, there’s an experience I had that bruises my heart whenever the memory creeps out. It’s a memory that maybe even Alzheimer’s couldn’t erase.
It wasn’t a life or death situation. It was an incident that took place in a hallway when I was sixteen. No, it wasn’t in a school hallway on the way to see the principal. It was one that led me to a man that would have a helping hand in shaping my future.
Early in the year of 1993, I was in juvenile hall. It was my first time ever confined. Or shall I say, the beginning phase of my long tour of incarceration. In those days, there was nothing intimidating about my size. I weighed in at a buck-fifteen and was one of the smallest delinquents on a dorm that housed the most serious offenders on the facility.
I grew sleek, black hair that tempted to stick up and sported the occasional black eye. I spoke with a low voice that often had to be repeated. I stuck to myself, considering that none of my friends were on the same dorm with me. Despite my reticence, I was confident in myself and never turned down a fight. For a skinny kid with timid looks, I was conscious of my surroundings and tougher than shoe leather.
I was in juvi behind some gang activity and didn’t know when I was going home. I had already been there for a month. During your stay there, every week you have to attend a hearing that is overseen by a legal counselor. The purpose is to give you an update on your legal status and to respond to questions, comments, or concerns regarding your release. If you’re not satisfied with the feedback, you have the right to request an appearance before a judge. If so, then the juvi staff have to drive you to the courthouse. Of course, some put in the request just so they can get off the facility and take a ride. Anything to get off those obnoxious dorms.
After attending a hearing, I decided to go for that same reason, “to take a cruise.” This would be my first ride to see the judge, which I learned would be a regretful one.
On this day, when I was getting ready to depart for the trip, I frowned at my attire: orange pants and shirt and bright florescent orange slippers with grey socks underneath. Strapped around my slim waist was a thick leather belt with a large metal loop on the front. I was put in handcuffs that were attached to the loop, so there was limited arm movement. Connected to my ankles were leg shackles with a short chain. Was I going to the courthouse or going to the gallows? I thought.
When walking, you have to take baby steps or slide your feet. Kind of like the way a dog drags its ass on the ground when it has an overwhelming itch. I was told that if I was not cautious with my steps, the metal will tug at the ankles and leave red marks throughout the day. After so much biting from the metal, one quickly learns how to shuffle in shackles.
Of course, the idea is so the prisoner won’t go rabbit. Years later, I wondered if being chained up outweighed any psychological effects that it might have on the still-maturing mind of an adolescent? Could it create a negative perception of himself? Perhaps to plant the notion that he’s a dangerous criminal? A self-fulfilling prophecy? I’ve seen kids as young as eleven clumsily walk to court like this.
Leaving the facility, I was the only prisoner in the back of a white van. Pulling out, one of my two escorts turned the radio on and tuned in on a station for old folks. At first none of the songs caught my attention, but after a few minutes into the ride one stood out. One that grieved the words, “ain’t no sunshine.” I later learned that it’s a song by Bill Withers.
Since then, those words left an impression on my psyche. Maybe because I didn’t know when the sunshine would shine in my life again.
I knew the courthouse down town wasn’t far, so I made an effort to absorb all the scenery through the van’s tinted windows. I remember looking out and searched the sidewalks in hopes of seeing any of my friends. I even checked out the traffic for cars of people I knew. But my scanning came up empty. I guess at the time I didn’t realize how big the world was.
After what seemed like several minutes of stop lights and left turns, we were downtown and not far from the courthouse. Driving through, I couldn’t help but notice the vibrant interior of downtown San Antonio. Some areas were adorned with radiant fiesta colors as if preparing for a major Hispanic event. Other sites displayed historical monuments with some kind of Mexican vendor near by. Groups of tourists wandered aimlessly with fingers pointing in every direction. Nearly every block carried some kind of picture postcard scene.
A few minutes later we met our destination. We pulled in at the courthouse and parked close to an entrance on the side of the building. I was helped out of the van by my two escorts because of my shackles.
Getting off the van I instantly got a whiff of the fumes from the nearby traffic. After a few weeks of confinement, the exhaust was overwhelming. Looking up at the pearl grey sky, I wondered when I would be free again and walk on my own.
We ambled our way to the entrance and entered into one of the building’s lobbies. People nicely dressed were scattered as sounds of click-clacking echoed off the waxed floor. Everyone seemed in a rush to get somewhere, except me. The inconvenience of my shackles kept me at a slow pace. But hey, the longer I was away from being locked in a roaring dorm the better.
The elevator wasn’t too far. I received a couple of confused looks from people passing by. When we hopped on the elevator, I wondered what those people thought. Probably thanking God it wasn’t their kid in chains. The elevator ride wasn’t crowded or didn’t last long. The distinctive “ting” sound came too sudden and the door slid open.
We made our way out, taking a left. My escorts walked on the side of me, stoned-faced and sentry-like. In front of us was an intersection to a long and noisy hallway. People walked by unaware of our presence on the side. When we got to the intersection, I looked both ways and the hall was very long. I couldn’t see the end.
It was flooded with people. Most of who seemed to be waiting. After taking in the setting for several seconds, my escorts motioned for me to take another left. At this point I didn’t know where our assigned courtroom was or how long the walk would be. I shuffled several steps into the mass of people and suddenly it was like a DJ stopped the music in the middle of playing. Instantly, everything began to slow down. The world was shifting in slow motion with me in the spotlight.
Instead of my heart beating fast, it felt like it came to a halt. At that moment I just wanted to turn back and return to the juvi center. I somehow continued to move forward. Maybe because I didn’t have much of a choice. My shoulders went limp with hands dangling in front of me. Shuffling down the long hallway, I tried to keep my eyes on the floor. With my peripheral vision I saw people moving to either side to let me through. It was something like when Moses parted the Red Sea. Except this was a sea of people.
The passageway was not only getting wider but longer. For a brief moment I forgot I was in shackles and tried to move faster, but all too soon the metal pulled on the bones of my ankles. My legs went rubbery on me as I tried to recapture the rhythm of my pace. All the talking ceased and the only noise was the erratic sounds of the chain on my shackles tapping the floor.
I didn’t want to look up and face the piercing eyes that were burning a hole in me. But I told myself to be strong, after all I was a tough kid from the streets. So I forced myself to look up and when I did, I was automatically filled with unworthiness. I felt smaller than a Fred Flintstone vitamin. Now my toughness was no more than a thin shell, easily cracked. I was passing the onlookers like an animal in chains.
Is that what they thought of me?
It was impossible to see all their faces. Too many.
I attempted to scan the crowd. A man looked me up and down, then slowly shook his head.
An old woman gawked at me like a child staring at an empty Christmas tree. Others leaned over to one another and with prison-yard whispers exchanged their thoughts.
I kept going.
A mother holding her little daughter’s hand pulled her closer to her waist as I approached. The little girl’s eyes were glued to my shackles. She pointed and said something to her mother.
I looked back at the floor. Then after what seemed like hours, I glanced back up. The stinging stares from the crowd were never-ending. Their expressions varied with: curiosity, sympathy, puzzlement, and scorn.
A woman wearing too much makeup saw me draw near. She became unnecessarily dramatic and backed away from me as a person might back away from a dog they knew meant to bite.
How much longer to the courtroom, I thought.
Several feet ahead of me sat a bench with a person I recognized from a few years back. We were in the fifth and sixth grade together. His name was Greg and he sat next to his mother and little sister. I remember him being a trouble maker, so they were probably seeing a judge because of him. As I advanced we locked eyes. His mom noticed. She looked at me, then at him, then at me again, trying to make the connection. I could tell that Greg wanted to say something to me, but nothing came out.
I passed them up.
His mother had looked concerned and I wondered what she asked him. I could easily picture her questioning him in a stern voice, “Do you know him? Is that the kind of people you hang around with?”
Poor Greg. Now his mom was going to watch him like a hawk.
People watched, transfixed, as I proceeded down the hall. I continued to undergo judgment by spectators who didn’t even know my name or the reason I was confined.
Hopefully by now I was getting closer to the courtroom.
Near by, I saw an old Hispanic woman who had her hands clasped in front of her. Her brown face crinkled as a smile stretched across her leathery skin as we made eye contact. Unlike the others, behind her eyes were sparks of gentle kindness, as if the sun had suddenly glinted through some rain clouds. Something about the way she kept leaning forward gave me the impression that she wanted to reach out and hug me. Instead, she just clasped her hands tighter. As I was about to pass her up, she came closer to me and in a low accented voice said, “It’s going to be alright … I’ll be praying for you.” I felt concern in her words. Perhaps she had a grandson my age or simply just felt bad for me. Maybe she was an angel, if so, the only one in this dreadful hallway.
Suddenly my walk of shame was interrupted as one of my escorts pointed to the door of our assigned courtroom.
I was relieved.
My heart started to finally beat again.
When one of them opened the door for me, I glanced back at the crowd. The gap was slowly closing in. There were still a few lingering stares and mumbles. After seeing me, I’m sure some of those people were questioning their competence as parents.
Well, I would have to walk back through there when I was done seeing the judge. But at least I knew what to expect.
I walked in the courtroom and immediately saw my mom and both sisters sitting in the benches. Apparently she knew of my hearing in advance.
When she saw me she waved and forced a smile.
I smiled back.
I wanted to hug her more than ever.
I then saw my attorney, who reminded me of a rodeo clown. Not only because of his mannerisms, but also because his clothes never matched. I remember his pants being wrinkled, as if he kept them crumpled up in his brief case and only pulled them out on court dates.
The woman who played the D.A. was young and attractive. She strutted around the courtroom and sent out the impression that she would fulfill any kind of favors to elevate her career.
We were called before the judge and approached his bench. I looked back at my mom. She forced another smile despite her watery eyes. It must’ve broke her heart in a million pieces to see me like that.
Her baby boy.
I don’t think the judge ever looked at me. He just went back and forth with my attorney and the D.A.. The hearing didn’t last long.
I wasn’t going home.
Back to juvi, but first I had to take the long walk through Judgment Hall.