The Terrifying Truth about What It’s Like to Spend a Night in Jail


I was nearly beaten and killed because of a speeding ticket. And not by the police, either—at least not directly. This can happen to you, too, if you’re dumb enough to rely on your dumb friends for legal advice.

I got the citation about a week before moving from New York to California. My timing was amazing—at least according to Scott Klein, the high school buddy I used to funnel kegs with. He told me to ignore it because New York and California don’t share computer records. California won’t know and I won’t have my New York license anymore.

“So what does it matter?” Scott asked.

He was actually right about California’s obliviousness. I traded in my New York license and saved $300.

Four years later, I made an errant right on red while visiting a girlfriend in Queens. I gave the officer my squeaky-clean California license. He gave me my Miranda rights. Running my name and birth date revealed the old bench warrant.

“Sorry,” said the station sergeant at the 1111th Precinct in Bayside, where I was delivered by squad car in tight handcuffs. “We have to hold you for 24 to 48 hours.”

The idea is that someone who ignores a warrant for his arrest—even if only for a traffic ticket—is probably guilty of more serious crimes the police need to take their sweet time researching. It sounds reasonable enough when it’s not being applied to you.

I used my one phone call on my girlfriend. “Really,” I told Kelly, “this is no joke.” Only that’s exactly what I would have said if it were a joke, with my friend Roy pretending to be the sergeant. So 10 minutes of convincing was now required. It is safe to say that the sergeant did not enjoy this little comedy routine.

At midnight, I was transferred by another squad car to Central Booking in Kew Gardens, an ammonia-reeking concrete maze of a dozen cages described by reviewer Dave C.—and quite generously, I might add—as “sucking donkey balls.” I was uncuffed, photographed, and fingerprinted by an officer who then walked me to my first cage and locked it behind him.

Here, I snagged the least-apparently claimed corner of an aluminum bench shared by six gentlemen. The one next to me wore scrubs, but my hunch was that he wasn’t late to perform an operation. I suppressed my natural curiosity, but you can only kill so many minutes by thumb-twiddling, humming to yourself, and trying desperately not to make eye contact with six other people. I introduced myself. George was amazingly friendly. And by that I mean that he didn’t shank me.

He explained his outfit in measured tones: “They brought me straight from the hospital.”

That was all he would say, and 2 silent minutes transpired before I summoned the nerve to inquire why. Something with his gall bladder?

“A cop shot me,” George replied.

Again, silence. And you can’t follow up in anything less than 4 minutes after a whopper like that. When I finally did ask George why a cop would want to shoot him, he sent me a look that burned through my face, charring the shiny pale green wall behind me.

“Let’s just say there’s a guy who deserved it,” he said.

So we agreed to say that.

The seven of us were then marched to a cage that wasn’t nearly as much fun. It was only about twice the size but already crammed with 35 men and no bench this time. In the center was an aluminum toilet, encrusted with new and old feces, and it gets worse: The only drinking water came from a fountain mounted precisely atop that toilet.

George took a seat along the back wall, next to an apparent murdering friend of his. It occurred to me that this was the badass VIP section, strictly for gangbangers, rapists, and time-share salesmen. These were the only gentlemen who felt sufficiently authorized to 1) sit down and 2) avail themselves of our deluxe commode/drinking structure.

In the middle of our cell stood what I assumed to be the friendlier felons, detainees most likely accused of more piddling offenses such as assault, arson, and grand theft auto. And desperately clutching the bars, hoping the guards don’t look away even once, were me and the other sissy misdemeanor suspects.

There was one Caucasian-American other than me. He was passed out drunk on the floor, getting kicked in the stomach and testicles by the friendlier felons as the guard did some paperwork. (In New York City, being drunk in public is apparently a crime punishable by losing your life in Central Booking.) The others laughed when the poor schlub didn’t wake up. I laughed, too, since you’ve never seen something so hysterical when you don’t want to be next.

Food arrived at 4 a.m. It was Rice Krispies and whole milk, no bowl, or even a plastic spoon. You downed your box of cereal, then your box of milk. I hadn’t eaten since 8 p.m., so Emeril Lagasse couldn’t have prepared anything more welcome. The friendlier felons removed Drunk Schlub’s left tennis shoe—made it snap, crackle, and pop with goodness—then put it back on and kicked him some more. I laughed again.

Then I remembered just how lactose intolerant I am. I tried calming myself. This condition was probably all in my head anyway. I thought of Dr. John Sarno and the mind-body connection. I remembered that my people survived 40 years in the desert with only matzo and some stolen Sweet’N Low packets. If they could do that, this is nothing. Right?

Twenty minutes later, I received the answer to that question, and it was considerably at odds with the future life I had planned to partake in. I was now a different kind of badass. I had gas—the angry kind that demanded instantaneous expression. I fought it. It fought back, shooting behind my eyeballs and flapping about.

If I had a choice, I would have let it rupture my internal organs before exposing it to the precious few gallons of air being breathed by a group of gentlemen who didn’t appear to look like they would mind adding 20 more years each to their sentences. Advertisement – Continue Reading Below Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

Alas, there was no choice. As my next involuntary flatulence wave crested, I opened my rear more gingerly than you would a can of Bud Light that you still wanted to drink after it rolled to a stop from a moving party bus. As I did it, I wept inside. The discharge was silent. But lactose-intolerance farts are not good farts. Plumes of evil sprouted from my rectal escape hatch. As they reached the badass VIP section, I heard a question, uttered softly, like a tree rustling in the breeze.

“Who farted in my face?” it asked.

The question was repeated, this time louder and less rustlingly: “Who farted in my face?”

Then its utterer stood up to reveal that he was, in fact, a tree.

We misdemeanors cowered. I exchanged “not me” glances with the one next to me, a ringer for Rerun from “What’s Happening.” I wondered if I had gotten to know George well enough to call in a favor.


Mr. Tree coiled for a kick. I closed my eyes and braced for its potency. My life flashed before my eyes—including a supporting appearance by my high school guidance counselor, Mr. Bashner, who came pretty damn close to predicting how it would end.

In a moment the guard picked to turn away, shoe met spine loudly. But not mine. I opened my eyes to find Rerun squashed into the bars. Under his clothes, he must have resembled a charbroil-lined hamburger. If there was ever a time in my life I should happen to be standing next to someone who looked more like a sufferer of IBS than me, boy, was this ever the right time.

Mr. Tree sat back down and silence returned to the cell. However, my relief was quickly replaced by fresh dread. I had between 16 and 40 hours of hard time left, and my next fart could be my last in life. I would receive a certain beating not only from Mr. Tree, but also from Rerun for letting him take my earlier beating for me. (This has got to be up there with snitching on the Buzzfeed Top 10 List of Jail No-Nos.)

Gas kept bubbling southward, but my cork was plumber-tight. This was the sphincter-holding Olympics, and I was going for the gold. Alas, my blood was also slowly carbonating. And, as I knew too well from all my previous experience with holding in farts while suffering from lactose intolerance while incarcerated, another one was due to be released long before I was.

Because there is either a God or I owe my life entirely to chance, our cell was unlocked at 5 a.m. and a list of names was read. These were the people who would follow the guard out. My name was on that list. So was Drunk Schlub’s and most of the other misdemeanors’. We were finally being properly crime-sorted. It was like “Schindler’s List.” (Rerun, strangely, was not on the list. Maybe he was a sissy felon.)

After the guard slapped Drunk Schlub awake, we were marched around the corner, whole milk and soggy Rice Krispies leaking from Drunk Schlub’s left sneaker. I dubbed our new cell Misdemeanor Heaven—at least in my head. (Actually, I felt like making a sign, like you see on beach houses.) Here, we all finally introduced ourselves and revealed what we were picked up for. I remember a petty theft, a cocaine possession, a public intoxication (guess who?) and, of course, an ignored speeding ticket. I felt tempted to exaggerate the nature of my crime to appear more “street.” However, we were building real bonds and I didn’t want my lies to snowball when gathering for our annual reunion barbecues on the outside.

Meantime, I danced around that cell like a silent-but-deadly Baryshnikov, tainting every molecule of air with my internal musk. And you know what? No one cared. We were all so equally freaked out by what we had just been through, it didn’t matter how fecal the air smelled because none of us was in any more danger of having bows placed in our hair and being referred to as “Cinnamon.” I was still too grossed out to use the toilet/fountain thing, however.

Two more musical-cage transfers found me by myself in a cell with a door leading to the rear of a courtroom. On the other side of it was a judge who, 15 minutes later, made disgusted faces at the prosecutor that, at least to my mind, communicated: “This is a guy you needed to lock up all night, you putz?”

Twenty-two hours after my errant right on red, my misdemeanor was lowered to a traffic infraction and my ass was lowered to a clean toilet. When I paid the $70 fine to the registrar with the cash I had in the wallet that was returned to me, she stared at me as if she had never seen anyone do this before.

If jail is meant to be a learning experience, here’s what I learned: 1) It might be a better idea to separate violent criminals from ticket-evaders for the entirety of the NYC holding process; 2) Lactose intolerance is a real phenomenon; and 3) Never take legal advice from your dumb friends.

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