Down for the Count

850 bryant

Sunday, February 5, 2012


I had a red scar that started in the center of my cheek and stretched down all the way to my chin. The other women on the crowded 6th floor of the jail were whispering that I had some strange disease and that they should stay away from me. I did indeed. It was a dis-ese with everything I came in contact with.

For the first time in my life I was ugly. For the first time in my life I could not use my looks to get through it. For the first time in my life nobody wanted to fuck me. For the first time I was free.

I was lying on a small blue mat on the floor of the jail. There were all these women camped out on all sides of me. Everything was in rows: the windows to my right overlooking Bryant Street, the white barred cells to my left, the guards in their chairs in front. And then there was my group--the ones huddled on the floor--again in rows.

My cigarettes were tucked under my mat somewhere. I had to try and keep track of them. I was having trouble with every little thing. Every function kept creeping away from me and then returning--in waves. I felt like I was floating on a raft but there were sharks all around me waiting to bite and chew. And I could not hold still. Everywhere I moved made it worse. My feet would not stop, and the woman lying on the cot in front of me would raise her head and look back at me like "What the fuck?" I would change positions every 30 seconds. The guards brought me nothing.

Several days past like this. I would sit up to eat and drink small amounts and then lie back down again and twist and turn to wring out the day. And at night I would twitch. To keep from choking and sneezing I would sit up and hold my fingertips over each nostril to try and keep the convulsions in--otherwise all the women would yell at me, "BITCH SHUT THE FUCK UP--WE SLEEPIN' HEAH SO SHUT THE FUCK UP!"

My night clothes looked like light blue hospital scrubs. My day clothes were bright square and orange. I had to change my clothes and I could not understand why. My days and nights were all scrambled up.

Women were talking all around me--always. I kept hearing "I'm not the one" and "Down for the count." I was thinking I should try and remember those lines since they would make good songs. I liked the husky voice that said those things. I liked the way she laughed at everything.

One night, when I was finally able to sit up for more than five minutes, I looked up and saw this tiny woman with mousy straight brown hair and huge eyes talking to 2 other women on a bench in front of the windows. When I looked at her closely I realized that her eyes only looked huge--it was the glasses--very thick glasses--like two fish bowls--her eyes would just swim out to meet you. She was sitting there, casually, as if she was just having a chat and then would be ready to go. I looked up at her and we started to talk.

"You had a bad kick" She nodded her head back and forth sullenly. "A bad kick."


"Why are you here?"

"B Cases."

"Are they gonna let you out"

"No. What did you do?"


"How much didja get?"


"Whew! How?"

Deborah motioned with her hand for me to get up and sit next to her on the bench. She lit a cigarette and looked out the window.

"I used to go to my little old lady next door neighbor's mail box and go through her mail and I found out about her bank account stuff and I had her signature and I just went into her bank and said I was her caretaker and started cashing checks. And the bank let me. They believed me."

"Didn't they call her?"

"I don't know."

"Well, how didja get caught?"

"It was just too much money--I got greedy. When I went before the judge she said that the bank was as much responsible for this whole thing as I was. She said she wanted to put the bank in jail with me. "

She started to laugh--like a man would laugh--deep in her chest--husky hoarse.

I started to laugh. It didn't hurt.

"What is your name?

"Deborah Ellstat."

"Cathy Lemons."

"Look I have some antihistamines, and if you gimme a couple of cigarettes I'll just give them to ya to help you sleep."

"I am starting to feel a lot better. OK." I went over to my cot and started rummaging under it.

"God dang it they got me. They got my cigarettes--those...."

Deborah and I both eyed the black woman in front of me that was sleeping and then one that was casually walking by my mat--a big tall looking girl who looked mean and stupid.

"Low as you go."

"Well--it don't matter anyway 'cause when I inhale I almost pass out."

Deborah scooched up on the bench closer to me and placed in my hand a small white napkin all scrunched up.

"Take them at night--when you need to sleep. I'll get you some more later. Where are they puttin' ya?"

"I don't know. I go to court tomorrow."

"Let's hope you don't go down for the count. What happened to your face? They are saying you got AIDS."

"Nope. Just heroine and speed and tweaking."

I grinned. She grinned back.




The tall guard finally called my name with 7 others. We lined up in a row and began to make our way to the elevator with the big green mesh screen. The bright hitting sounds were all around me--bolts and claps--metal on metal.

I was escorted down into the bowels of 850 and finally we were all let into a long iron corridor and then an iron room with a big heavy door that slammed hard and echoed everywhere like a shot in the head. There were now 6 of us. I was starting to feel better. I was walking upright. I was able to sit and not lie down. I could feel that my face was beginning to heal and then I remembered the scar and I felt ashamed.

One by one everyone got to see the judge. That morning.

I was alone in the iron cell and the echo was beautiful. And I could not hear a sound nearby.

So I began to sing. It was my old voice--the one that I had lost--the real one. It came out of me like a fountain--clean and alive. It spilled into my heart and over my breasts and even into my fingertips--it streamed like tears down my face and into the scar.

I sang a Mavis Staples song:

"Sommmme somebody saw me--wheeeeeen--when I was sinking loooow--ooooh it was Jesus--saaaayee—saaaeeying, come in.

Sommme--somebody rescued me. Out in the desert--oh--it as Jesus--saaaayee--saaaeeying come in."

I felt so alive and blessed and I thought to myself, "What in the hell am I doing in here?"

Then I could hear the guards coming for me.


Deborah Ellstat and I were together on the San Bruno County Jail bus the next morning. The sun was streaming bright. We ended up sharing a tiny cell together for 2 months. I can't count square feet, but it was like the size of a closet. We talked all night sometimes about what we had done and how we did it. And we made plans about getting straight.

I used to sing to Deborah at night. Beautiful unexpected songs--like an unexpected lover who blind sides you when you are least expecting it.

My voice would echo up and down the iron corridors and you could hear a pin drop all through the iron world.

And no one told me to shut up.