I didn't go to jail for any kind of a cool reason. I wasn't arrested at a protest; I didn't assault somebody deserving. I went to jail because I was a doofus. How I became a doofus of the magnitude I was—that's a different story.
Step one was a car accident. I caused it. It was the summer of 1998, I'd just turned 29, and I was leaving Capitol Hill in my old Volvo one late afternoon, heading back to Fremont, where I lived. I was near the old B&O Espresso, making a right turn onto East Olive Way, and I didn't leave enough room between cars going by for me to fit in, and I got rear-ended. The car behind me got rear-ended, too.
There was no place to pull over without blocking traffic, and I didn't get that I didn't have to find a great parking spot to deal with this matter. I didn't know that you can and should just stop and get out and face the music. So I did a U-y and parked on a side street across the way.
I got out of the car and checked things out. There, across the way, were two angry-looking men out of their cars, yelling at each other. I watched them do that for a spell. If this were a party, I wouldn't have gone up and introduced myself just then. It wouldn't have been the right moment.
And then I reflected for a bit on how nice it was that there were three of us, three cars involved in this accident. Each mad guy over there already had someone to yell at. Why mess with something that's worked out so elegantly? Shouldn't I just let them continue? Isn't it, in a way, more polite? Because aren't they just going to get madder and more stressed out if I go over there?
The sun was setting in the west, meanwhile—so pretty. I'd been driving west, heading to my apartment, where no men were yelling. And then I thought about the sounds of the accident. On the spectrum of sounds caused by cars making contact with other cars, I rated the sounds I'd heard at about a 2. No explosions, no crunching. Just boonk. Boonk. And so maybe this day didn't have to end with bad feelings! For me, I mean. Maybe I could just get back into my car and drive toward the sun, like I was doing, and then take a right and be home, all by myself, the evening my oyster.
So that's what I did.
We have to double back now to an earlier bad decision, one that took place seven years before the car accident. A group of people in a bar was proclaiming that my friend Caitlin and I would never get tattoos. The implication was that we were pussies. Well, fuck these people. We weren't pussies. Caitlin and I vowed right then and there that not only would we get tattoos, we would get them the very next morning.
After the sun came up, Caitlin pulled up in front of my apartment in her little Corolla and we drove to the tattoo parlor. Caitlin already knew what she was going to get, AS YOU SHOULD WHEN YOU ARE RIGHT ABOUT TO GET A TATTOO. She was going to get a small blue rose on her left shoulder. I didn't know what I was going to get. I only knew that I wasn't a pussy.
Caitlin went first, and I flipped through the idea book to see what I maybe wanted on my body for the rest of my life. Eventually I saw a little picture of the Cat in the Hat. This seemed kind of good. I liked Dr. Seuss. That book was pretty good. Not a favorite, necessarily, but hey. Good enough. Done. And so I got a small, meaningless, shitty Cat in the Hat tattoo on my left shoulder, right where it would show if I were wearing a tank top and standing on a side street on Capitol Hill and somebody who'd witnessed a car accident could use it as an identifying characteristic when they reported the person who caused it leaving the scene of said accident to the police.
So in time, I got a phone call from a detective. He said, "Is your name Kristina Kunz?" It was. That's my maiden name. He said, "Do you have a small tattoo on your left shoulder?" I did. Then he said something something "you" and "charged" and "hit" and "run" and "arraignment."
My best moment in this story was the arraignment, in that I went to it. Later came a court date, which ended up not being convenient for me. The night before this court date, see, I ended up in bed for the first time with the person who'd be my boyfriend for the next four years. In the morning, we were all dreamy, and he was like, "What are your plans?" and the answer "I'm going to court for a hit-and-run" didn't seem good because I wanted him to be my boyfriend. So I said, "Nothing" and he said, "Do you want to go out and get some breakfast?" and I said "YES" and I got biscuits and gravy.
Now, I didn't know a lot about the law, but I did know how to read, and I could read right there on the piece of paper that told me about my court date that if I didn't show up, a warrant would be put out for my arrest. But that just seemed crazy. Really? A warrant? For my arrest? Naah. I'm just this mild little lady. But then the actual warrant arrived in the mail, so then that seemed pretty convincing.
I didn't like looking at that warrant very much, but it seemed bad to throw it out, so I compromised by hiding it under a pile of magazines. I was operating under the premise that if I couldn't see it, it couldn't see me, and then maybe somehow in this way the warrant and I could live in harmony.
And the warrant and I did live in harmony, briefly. For three months, nothing happened except a lot of drinking and having sex with my new boyfriend—with an undercurrent of quiet dread, sure, but I always had an undercurrent of quiet dread, given who I was and how I did business, so I could stagger along with a little more. No problem.
And then it was the 29th of December, and I drove down to pick up my roommate from the airport. The plan was for me to wait for her outside baggage claim. These were the days before everyone had cell phones, so a plan to meet outside baggage claim was inconvenient to undo. And maybe it's become clear that inconvenience was not my thing.
When I pulled up outside baggage claim, there were announcements that if you waited too long there, you would be towed. You had to get in, get your person, and get out. My roommate kept not emerging, and it was getting time to pull away and go around, or go park. But I didn't feel like it. I'd go in a moment. First I wanted to reapply my lipstick.
Fifty feet or so behind me, it's important to say, was a cop car. I kept looking at it, assessing the threat level it was giving off, and dismissing it.
There are moments in life when time slows down and a halo of special awareness descends, and I had one when I adjusted the rearview mirror and began lifting my tube of lipstick to my mouth. The realization dropped on me that I was making a bad decision. This, now, what I was doing, this lipstick move, was bad. Was maybe going to be fatal. Not fatal like dead. Fatal like fate. Full of fate. Fateful. But the lipstick was in ascent, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and fuck it, I put the lipstick on.
I have not mentioned yet that my tabs were expired.
A cop emerged from that cop car behind me, as I understood would happen when I was making my lips pretty. The cop, who looked just like Roseanne Barr, strode toward my car and I rolled down my window and the jig was up. I was out of the car in a moment, and then I was against the trunk of the car getting patted down, and then there were handcuffs going on my wrists, all of which was so shocking that I may as well have shot into space, and then I was up and she was leading me through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
It felt bad, this arrest, and I was crying, just softly, in a dignified way. It felt bad, but it also felt good, because the thing I was afraid of was happening now, and not in the future, which was good news for the future. Also I was wearing this vintage black leather blazer, which I hoped gave me a seedy glamour and that the people watching me would think I was being arrested for drugs.
Did you know that there's a tiny jail at the airport? Officer Roseanne took me there, right behind a nondescript door in the middle of everything. You'd never have known there was a jail in that spot, but there it was, like a shitty little Narnia. An older woman was behind the desk. She asked for my shoes and purse. Then she pushed a button, and the cell door opened. "Hop in," she said. The cell was basically a fluorescent closet with a metal bench running along the side, and nothing else. I hopped in and the door slid shut.
There's nothing to do in Tiny Jail. No magazines, no crossword puzzles, no books. I had never been so baldly alone with my thoughts in my entire life. This was like enforced meditation, and I had a phobia of meditation.
My stomach began to churn. And then I made a decision. While my stomach was flipping around, painfully, I thought of massages, and how a good massage sometimes hurts, and I like it when it hurts because I know it's doing something. And so I decided that this painful stomach churn was like some kind of massage of whatever the fuck was wrong with me that I'd let everything slide so far that I'd found myself in jail at the airport, and I decided to like this pain. I decided to like this whole event for its therapeutic properties.
So there I was in the cell with my new good attitude and my positive stomachache, and I was starting to get kind of excited. I was thinking about what I could do with all this potential uninterrupted time. Maybe I'd be like Malcolm X and work my way through the dictionary from cover to cover, better myself, make a contribution to humanity.
And then the metal door opened and the fantasy melted because I was getting out and going home, probably, right this minute! Yay! But then the lady behind the desk introduced me to a couple of plainclothes cops who were taking me downtown because I was not done being in jail, but instead being transferred to big jail, King County Jail. Dear god, boo.
First stop at the King County Correctional Facility was the holding tank, where I got to make my one phone call, which was to my parents, who flipped out but did not die, and also agreed to bail me out, so kudos to them. There I was given a bag lunch containing a bologna sandwich, an apple, a cookie, and a half pint of milk, and I got to watch Judge Judy on TV. This was all doable. I figured in an hour or so I'd be going home, so I started to relax. Then I was pulled out of the holding tank and told I was going to be taken upstairs to The Tombs, so now I was going to strip naked in front of a guard and change into a jail suit.
Jesus! Why did I have to go change? Was I not going to get to leave? Also: THE TOMBS? I was going somewhere called The Tombs? Fuck! Also, when you're stripping, you're not in a little dressing room. You're in a kind of hallway, where it feels like anyone could come on through. So off they came, my clothes, and there it was, my bare ass, and then there was jail underwear and a jail bra and navy misdemeanor pants and a navy misdemeanor top and socks and then it was time to dig into the sandal bin.
I had this idea, all day, that if I was really polite and cooperative, that all of this could come to an end at any moment. That somebody in authority was going to be charmed by my fine attitude and pliability, and make the decision to set me free right then and there. So instead of taking the time to investigate whether these sandals came in a variety of sizes, I decided to demonstrate what a low-maintenance, snap-to kind of girl I was, and I grabbed the first pair I saw and put them on. They were half a length longer than my foot, which was unfortunate.
Also, I was not immediately released.
The mood swings grew severe from this point. When I was taken for my mug shot and fingerprints, I got a hard case of the giggles. Jail employee after jail employee looked down at my feet in their clown Tevas and beamed at me, saying, "First time?" which made me feel cozy, like it was Take Your Daughter to Work Day. And then when I was taken into a smaller, crowded holding tank with a bunch of hard-ass-looking women who were all wearing the right-sized sandals, I forced all the energy I had into not wailing.
My name was called and I was led out of the holding tank and up through the jail to my final resting place. Long, circuitous walk. Halls, elevators, filing rooms, laboratories, classrooms, nail salons, who the fuck knew. The place just kept unfolding. And finally my guard and I arrived at The Tombs.
The Tombs was a giant space, with two floors of cells all around, with big glass windows through which you could see the inmates. There were navy misdemeanor ones, like me, and there were also orange felony ones. To my dismay, the navy ones and orange ones were all mixed together. There was a platform in the middle of the space, and my guard had an announcement to make, so he had me climb the stairs and stand on the platform with him while he said whatever he said, which I don't remember because I was shitting myself due to the fact that all these angry-looking orange types were up against the glass, looking down at him and, by default, at me.
The guard then led me up to the second floor of cells, to a blessedly empty section. He said that I had a choice: I could get locked into a small private cell, or I could stay out in the open living-room-type area where I could move around more but other people might end up later. Private cell.
And with that, I checked into my final dingy hotel of the night. This cell had a bunk bed, a toilet, a sink, and a small round table with three books on it, which seemed promising. What did we have here? We had the Bible, and a hardback picture book called Changed Lives in San Quentin about men who found God in San Quentin, and a dog-eared novel about serial killers. I flipped through the San Quentin stories and then settled on the Bible, which I hadn't read. There were some bits that were printed in red ink, which seemed like a good focusing tool, so I stuck to those parts when I wasn't taking advantage of the privacy to sob like a baby on my bunk bed.
Time passed slowly. Dinner never happened. I looked up and out the window into the night and wondered which direction I was facing. I thought about Jesus, as per my reading material. And I marveled at the thing I knew now, now that I had been found out and held accountable. I was not, as I had thought, a nonimportant half-ghost not subject to the rules of humanity, free to fuck up and be ignored and get by with it for the rest of my days. I was just like everybody else, a trackable citizen. I was subject to rules, it turned out. I was visible. People could see me. I was real. A voice came eventually, and my dad came, and the voice said, "Kristina Kunz, you are being released."
Tina Rowley is a writer and performer who blogs every Wednesday at her site The Gallivanting Monkey (gallivantingmonkey.blogspot.com).