Steelyard Blues is a cult film with a one-man cult - me. In the opening scène, Donald Sutherland is thrown into a jail cell, dressed in jeans, a black sweater and stocking cap, and an insolently defiant grin. The cell is already populated by several large black men who are not grinning at all. Sutherland slouches down on a bench and continúes to grin. After a few moments, one of the blacks gets up and stands over him, glowers and speaks. "You're tough, but you ain't dangerous," he announces. "I've been dangerous since I was eight years old." With this, everyone breaks into a grin, high fives are exchanged all around, and the most consistently funny fílm since the Marx Brothers gets rolling with a blast of raucous rock. Somehow, a lot was lost in translation when Jonathon Ellis and I did our time at the county jail last month. Hilarious it was not and even a romantic like me could not sustain the illusion he was dangerous. Jonathon said our memoirs of the occasion should be called Boredfor Peace. We arrived on a Tuesday morning at 8, with two photographers and some placard wavers, one of whose signs proclaimed us "prisoners of conscience," an embarrassing overstatement I don't know what the deputies thought of us, but they cannot have been too happy to have us there. Who would be? After the paper work, we were put in the holding tank with a couple of drunken drivers who were sobering up. They were both quite pleasant, and showed no signs of contrition. To them, drunken driving was no big deal, and they were not distraught, not even very annoyed at being caught. After a while, we were given prison uniforms and deprived of our shoelaces, "for our own safety." The deputy who took our belongings apologized for not being a college gradúate, and assured us that most of the deputies were. I think he thought this would be comforting, but I recalled that half the CIA went to Yale. We were taken in through the doors that separate the lockup proper from the admitting area, and put in a room that seems to serve as a way station for people going in or out The room had high barred windows that look out on an unused exercize área, a toilet, shower, and sink, a double-deck bunk and some miscellaneous furniture that the Salvation Army would not accept. This was to be our home for three days. A young black man was already in the room. He had been picked up in Detroit over the weekend for something or other, and (see Bored, page 8) Bored (Continued f rom page 3) brought to Washtenaw County after a computer discovered that he was behind on his child support. He was rcally agitated, having alrcady misscd a day of work and in the process of missing another. He kept making phone calis to get someonc to come and bail him ouL Between calis, he would throw himself on the bunk, smoke, curse, and writhe with impatience and impotence. I was glad to see him go when his ride got therc, more tor my sake than his. After this, we had no more contact with other prísoners. I found this maddening. One thing that made me want to go to jail (see Bored, page 14) Bored (Continued f rom page 8) was the hope of talking politics on moreor-less even terms with people with a minimal stake in the existing order. "Respectable people" don't often get a chance to do this. Indeed, you must somehow shed your respectability to do it at all. I would like to think the jail authorities kept us from other prisoners to keep us from talking radical politics, but I fear it was just for our own protection. I am 53, small and gray-haired. Not dangerous, alas, but endangered. How humiliating. The two and a half days we spent in the cell were uneventful. Our food (not bad) was brought in three times a day, and three times the trays were collected. The only time I left the room was to visit briefly with one of the chaplains, who is a friend of Jonathon's. We could see other prisoners, mostly young and black, when they passed the window that faced the hallway, but there was no way to get a sense of what their lives were like, other than noticing that most of them seemed quite cheerful. We were scheduled to get out at midnight on Thursday, but neither of us objected when one of the deputies appeared at six in the evening and said we could go then if we wanted. Judging from my experience, people don't have much to fear from doing time in Washtenaw jail. This was not true in the sixties, when handcuffed people frequently "tripped" and feil face first down the concrete stairs, and others were thrown in "the hole," an empty, black-painted, pitch-dark room in the old jail, and forgotten for long periods of time. But the sheriff s department is thourougly professional now, the people who work there are friendly and courteous, and the jail itself is a model "correctional facility." But take plenty to read if you go there. And if you hate to have your shoes untied, as I do, get some of those sneakers with velero fasteners. Until someone figures out how to commit suicide with velero, you will be able to wear them in jail.
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