Nonfiction NYC

Visiting Rikers Island (IV).

The people operating the sally port were not vigilant. They opened the first door and permitted us to walk in. Before the first door, now behind us, completely closed, the second door, in front of us, opened. We could not see the officers who were monitoring the doors. They were located above us and hidden behind a darkened window. We only heard them knock on the glass and saw one shady hand point at the black light on the wall. They wanted us to put our hands there so they could see the stamp that was placed on them earlier.

Two officers greeted us on the other side.

“Who are you here to see?”

“The Person,” we said.

“Go to Table 14, over there in the corner,” an officer instructed, pointing over a group of inmates seated near them. They were in grey jumpsuits, wearing flip-flops on their bare feet, and examining us.

The top of each table was about knee-height. Three grey chairs were on one side of the table. One red chair was on the other side of the table. All the red chairs faced the single point of entry to the room.

The Person strolled in and sat in a chair, looking around.

“The Person?” the officers called. “The Person? Go to Table 14! Over there!”

Fellow inmates laughed as The Person jumped up and looked at Table 14. The Person had no idea who we were. I hadn’t seen The Person in over six months and didn’t recognize The Person, either.

Our conversation was short. The Person didn’t have much to say to us and it was noisy room. Many of the tables in the room were occupied, some by couples who were holding hands (above the table), others by family and friends, everyone leaning in over the table. People laughed, chatted, and murmured.

No one in the room was white.

My companion and I got up to leave. We had only spent about fifteen minutes in the room.

“SIT DOWN!” the officers shouted at us. “The Person needs to leave first.”

We immediately sat back down. The Person nonchalantly got up and walked back into the jail block. Rooted in our chairs, we looked at the officers, waiting our turn to go.

“Okay, now you can leave,” they said. They handed us back the notecards that documented our times of entry at the various checkpoints in our trip.

Back out the sally port we went—they were more vigilant about our exit—and we rejoined the crowd of over 20 people in the waiting area. The officer who opened my locker said out loud to no one in particular, “Why did people spend so little time in there?”

Buses reportedly only came around once an hour. This meant that the officers had to monitor us until a bus arrived to take us back to the main gate.

Everyone had put their earrings back into their earlobes, rings back onto their fingers, necklaces around their necks, and belts through the loops. Overall, everyone seemed more relaxed; people talked to each other and were leaning casually against the wall. One woman, though, appeared sad and on the verge of tears. She stared blankly out the far window.

Buses rumbled past and people expectedly crowded near the exit, hoping to get out of the jail first. They sighed audibly with disappointment and irritation when the buses didn’t stop.

Ah, New York, I thought.

A bus finally pulled up about fifteen minutes later and the driver honked the horn. The police officer was still big and burly, but no longer bilious: He smiled broadly at us as he collected our notecards. His teeth were straight and white.

The bus was completely full. People stood in the middle aisle and gripped the vinyl seats for stability. I was the last person to get on the bus and balanced myself on the steps leading into the vehicle.

“Lean back,” he barked at me when he began to turn a tight corner. “I can’t see the mirror.”

I bit my tongue and leaned back. Don’t complain, don’t explain.

After stopping at another cell block to let people off and other people on, we finally arrived at the main gate. People pushed their way off of the bus and walked quickly through the gated chain fence. A city bus, the Q100, was at the stop and people were boarding.

“Wait wait wait,” people breathlessly said as they raced up to the Q100.

“Hey, there’s the bus,” I said to my companion, bracing my bag as I picked up my legs to run.

“Wait—we still have to get our stuff from the locker,” he called out to me. I immediately halted, starting to smile at myself.

“Right,” I said. “Right. I am so ready to get out of here that I completely forgot about all of my stuff.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I almost did, too.”

I think he was just being nice. We hastily walked back to the lockers as a steady stream of people walked in the opposite direction, many of them picking up speed as they noticed the city bus.

There wasn’t a single white person in the crowd.

(Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.)