Nonfiction NYC

Visiting Rikers Island (I).

As my days in New York are ending, the details of terminating with patients, saying good-bye to dear friends, and relocating to the other side of the continent are consuming my time and energy. As a result, I will repost some earlier writings.

Following is the multi-part story of my visit to the jail of New York City. Everything in the account (except for some names and labels) is true.

Across the street was a large sign advertising the entrance to Rikers Island, the jail for the City of New York. On our side of the street were several check cashing and bail bond storefronts. There was also a jewelry store. A hot dog truck was parked near the intersection.

No buses were approaching. A small crowd of people was gathered on the corner, patiently waiting. They, however, were not at the bus stop.

“The bus does stop over there to go to Rikers, right?” he asked the woman standing at the periphery of the crowd.

“Yes, that’s where the Q100 stops. There’s a van that goes there, too. It’s coming.”

“A van?”

“Yeah. Two bucks to get across.”

“Oh, thanks,” he said. “We’ve never been here before.”

The empty van, painted blue with E-Z Travel splashed in yellow on the sides, pulled up to the curb. The driver, short and mustached, turned the car engine off and came around to the passenger side. He wordlessly slid the door back and pulled out a thick stack of bills. He looked up.

We were in the back of the line and people silently handed over money to him to enter the van. His thin fingers smoothly sorted through the stack of bills to provide correct change. He did not look at me as he took the two dollar bills from my hand.

We crawled inside and sat down. Every single person in the van belonged to a racial minority group.

The van rumbled across the two-lane, sidewalk-less bridge. Planes sat in clusters at Laguardia Airport to the right. The waters of the East River below were choppy. A dark, long-necked bird passed overhead.

Not even five minutes later, the van came to a halt outside of an old building painted an institutional shade of dull white. We all crawled out of the van and looked at the chain-linked fences surrounding the cement campus.

“That’s a great way to make money,” I commented. “A mile for two bucks? Nice.”

My companion agreed as we made our way around the building that looked like a terminal for a small airport. Metal barriers guided us to the entrance, which had both a ramp and a set of stairs. A wall of lockers lined one side of the building. A police officer—hair tightly pulled back out of her face, hands on her hips, firearm at her side—shouted: “C33 and C34 are not open today. If you are visiting someone in these wards, you cannot come in today. Everyone else, take a white bin.”

We pulled our bags from our shoulders and walked inside.

I had purposely removed the small Swiss Army Knife that usually resides on my keychain. The blades on the contraption could do no serious harm, though civil servants often thought otherwise.

“No hoodies, no jackets, no cosmetics, no food items, no electronics,” another police officer shouted. “Put your bags in a bin and then step through.”

My bag and my jacket were already in a bin and rolling along the conveyor belt when I heard this. As I stepped through the metal detector, it beeped.

“Put your arms out,” the police officer on the other side of the metal detector said. He guided the metal detector wand across my chest. “Turn around.” He repeated the motions.

Meanwhile, yet another police officer was digging through my bag and listing all the violating items. “No lip balm, no cell phones, no water, no food, no scissors.”

Still another police officer was also pulling offending items from my companion’s bag.

“Okay,” he said. “We’ll be right back.”

“Where can we get keys for the lockers?” I asked. “We’ve never been here before.”

“You pay with quarters,” the police officer said. “Fifty cents.”

As we turned around to leave the building, I noticed the “Amnesty Box”. The box was about waist high and had a thin slot on top. The words “Amnesty Box” were in faded red and blue hues and the letters were shaped to suggest beauty or hope or joy. The box looked like a tithing box.

Later I would learn that boxes weren’t meant to hold money.

Only a few locker doors hung open like baby birds crying for food. Quarters were jammed in their slots. There were smaller lockers on another wall, but they were too small to hold all the prohibited items we had brought with us.

“Next time, we’ll just leave all this stuff at the office,” he said as he scanned the wall for functional lockers. His efforts paid off and we soon put our offending items inside: A tangerine, two cell phones, hand sanitizer, lip balm, scissors, water bottles, gum, and keys.

We re-entered the building and heard one of the police officers loudly commenting for all to hear: “What does he think he’s doing? Everyone else is taking off their jackets and sweaters and he walks in here, doesn’t take off anything, thinks he can just walk in like that….”

The young man in question turned around so another police officer could wand him.

The police officers dug through our bags again, running their hands deep into each pocket. Since the metal detector beeped again, I was wanded again.

“Where can we find out where The Person is?” my companion asked an officer. The Person didn’t know of our visit, as he said that he hadn’t been able to speak to The Person directly.

“Go to the information window,” an officer replied, pointing deeper into the building. We followed the queue inside.