Friday afternoon, school is clear of children and teachers. I sit at my desk assessing the neatly organized paper piles laid out before me. I could work a couple more hours or keep the promise I made to myself and go see my son. Quickly scribbling a to do list for Monday, my decision is made and I pack my bags. Crazy to get on the freeway at 4:30. I neglected to check visiting hours before I left. Do I have until 5:30 or 6:00? I try to remember what I read on the website a few days ago, but my memory fails. I inch along in rush hour traffic and wonder if I’ll arrive only to be turned away. Compulsively I check my navigation every few seconds. Traffic begins to flow and I relax a bit.
I have never visited someone in jail, not ever. My son has been incarcerated before, but I refused to see him, believing somehow that my absence made me a better person. He could throw his life in the toilet, but I would not play along as mother of the inmate. My moral high ground filled me with contempt and judgement. I showed my lowest self, my ugliest side to the one person who needed me the most.
My directions indicate that I have arrived at the facility. I pass several buildings, Juvenile Justice, Orangewood Children’s Home, an animal shelter. Where the hell is Theo Lacy? I find a parking structure, park and remember there are restrictions about items allowed inside. Shit, again I cannot remember the list. I take only my keys, ID, credit card and my phone. I find a human being manning the ticket booth and ask for directions. Of course it’s the farthest building from the garage. He tells me final check in is 5:30. I check my phone for the time and break into a sprint.
Breathless I arrive at a table manned by three young women. They immediately ask for my son’s booking number which I don’t have. Seeing the distress on my face, one of the girls offers, No problem, I’ll look it up for you, what’s his name? I’m surprised by the casualness of her questions, as if I’m picking up my dry cleaning. I suppose if you are processing visitors at a jail that houses over three thousand inmates helping a frantic middle aged woman is all in a day’s work. She flips through a thick directory, finds his name, along with his booking number and writes them on a plastic ticket I’m to show to someone inside.
I head to the visitors’ entry and drop my belongings in a tray before going through a metal detector. The deputy stops me, No phones. There are lockers outside and points in the direction of the check-in table. I rush to the lockers where I make my next rookie assumption. I actually believe these government issued lockers will be outfitted with a credit card swiper. Nope. I just need a quarter, twenty-five cents and I don’t have it. I panic. Even if I had time to run to my car, I know there is no change to be had. Desperate I ask one of the young women to hold my phone while I visit. She shouts to the few people checking in, Come on, who has a quarter, help her out. Do a good deed. A young woman with heavy black eye make-up, very red lipstick and purposely ripped stockings, holds up a quarter. I squeal, squeeze her forearm and tell her she is my angel. A tiny smile forms on her ruby red lips, but no words. I lock up my phone, Remember, locker 92, 92, 92.
I pass through the metal detector and stand in line. I have no idea why I am here. I look to see if others are holding the same ticket I have. Yes, yes they are. With at least twenty people ahead of me I begin to scan the room, taking in my surroundings. There must be over a hundred people waiting their turn, mostly young women sitting in uncomfortable plastic chairs, some with babies in strollers, toddlers and elementary school age children laughing and talking. They appear to be whole families or at least friends. I don’t know whether to feel sad because visiting jail is a normal occurrence in their young lives, or relieved that despite the circumstances they seem happy. Elderly folks look tired and sad, maybe too many visits or too much heartache. Forty somethings dressed up to visit boyfriends I imagine. I have a story for everyone. I wonder . . . do they have a story for me? Middle aged woman thinks she is better than us, but here she is.
Finally at the window and I am greeted, Don’t be afraid we’re the good guys. I quickly answer, I’m not afraid. Then he asks; Have you ever been in jail? Is that what he said? What? Me? No. He directs me to wait until I hear my son’s name called, and glances toward another waiting area. Still no place to sit. I pass the time examining faces, making more up stories, and searching for someone who looks like me. Should I be looking for someone who looks scared?
I hear my son’s name, another window, another deputy, a piece of paper and more directions. I walk along a path to the visitors’ center. Other than the barbwire on the tall concrete walls on either side of me, I feel as though I am walking through a park. I enter the dimly lit building. A deputy stands behind glass so dark I cannot see him. His hands appear in a tiny counter window. I give him the paper, Go to number 11. Turning the corner I see several stalls with metal stools. I’m surprised to see we will be separated by glass while we visit. A phone for each of us lies on a counter. I wonder if they ever get sanitized and I cringe a little. I sit and wait in clear view of an elderly man and woman facing me. Their inmate has not yet arrived. Her head rests in her hands, her face tired and sad. His arm is around her, holding her steady. Their heartache is palpable. I am startled out of my gaze as my son hits the glass. He is smiling.
Each of us, phone in hand, begins to talk. Strange to see him in jail clothes and clean shaven. He looks great and tells me he is 70 days clean. I smile and tell him I am proud of him. He asks me about his sister and his nephew, even asks how I am doing. We small talk a bit. He asks me to encourage others to visit and gives me a message for his girlfriend. I tell him I’ll put some money in his account so he can get some shaving cream and the occasional treat. He is so grateful, I want to cry. We’ve said all there is to say for this visit. I put my hand up against the glass and spread my fingers wide. He aligns his hand with mine. It’s understood. I am closer to my boy in this moment, than I have been in more years than I can remember. We say I love you, smile, and lay down our phones. I watch him walk away.
I make my away along the path and back into the building where I began. I look at the faces of those who are still waiting and some who shuffle out the door. We share a common experience. We love someone who has struggled, made mistakes until they ran out of chances and now pay their debt. We know there is nothing left to do but love them without conditions . . . and hope for a second chance.