First off, the statute of limitations on my crime has surely expired and one little inter-state move of a ‘quantity for sale’ of marijuana probably doesn’t matter as much now as it sure as hell did in 1970. Second, jail is weird space. If you haven’t been in, there’s no way to get it. Time, logic, reality, and the very meaning of innocence is altered there. This is the story of how one hippie first learned about the weirdness.
This is July 1970. The kid with me in the van knew about the dope I was carrying too, which could well have been a problem. When I met him he was hitchhiking on I-80 outside of Salt Lake, headed west to Berkeley, part of the pulse of young folks toward California. God bless them. I picked him up. He was a runaway, 16 I think, from Michigan. We talked and smoked some of the dope and drove my green hippie van west, toward Berkeley, toward Reno.
Now at that time — you have to imagine — the Interstate did not detour around every city and town it came to. It went thru them on Main Street. In 1970 the Interstate had intersections and cross traffic and stop lights. This story I’m telling surely would not have happened in later times. Because these days I would rocket right around Reno at Interstate speed. Because nowadays I would not really ever have been in Reno, driving on the street. Because these days I would have dropped the kid at a freeway ramp and just gone on my small-time way down 395 toward Lee Vining and the back way to Yosemite. Because it was the Reno cop who had seen the bulletin about the armed robbery in South Lake Tahoe and it was he who, reasonably it turned out, figured that I and the kid were probably the armed robbers he was looking for and followed us down the street in the middle of Reno.
Seeing him back there spooked me, I can tell you, and I blew a jog in the street, drove my hippie van into a dead end, and they pulled me down right there in that blind street. A lot of cop cars all of a sudden, with lights and shotguns and revolvers and noise. They got me out of the camper so fast the engine was still running and I was on my face in the gravel. As was the kid, whom I never saw again but owe a large thank you. Thank you very much, kid. You did me right.
Believing me to be an armed robber from South Lake Tahoe, they took me to the Reno jail. Because they were so certain I was the robber, they did not search the hippie camper van, only around the front seats where I could reach. Not the back where my stuff was, including the mayonnaise jar full of grass which the kid and I both knew about and didn’t say anything.
At the Reno jail they put me in the cell for the really bad guys, three of us, one guy who seemed to sleep pretty much of the time, one young guy who talked a lot, and me, the hippie armed robber. There is a kind of reverse status in a jail, and we were at the top of this upside down thing — the baddest. Including the talking guy who was under arrest for attempted murder. What he did during the night and the day and again the night we were together there was tell me various stories about what he had done… or not done… around this attempted murder. What the cops did was entertain themselves by dropping by our low-rider cell to tell the Talking Guy how poorly his victim was doing in the hospital. Which understandably freaked him out and made him talk more.
The attempted murder was with a knife, I gathered, and the details of his various explanations are lost to me now, alas, but the theme of them was the same: exculpatory, to one degree or another. The stories did… I would say ‘vary’, but what they really did was totally contradict each other. He would narrate the evening and its events, each time trying out a version that would reduce his responsibility or eliminate it altogether, each time listening to himself talk, to how this telling sounded, whether it might possibly work to get him out of this awful jam. It wasn’t his knife. The other guy started it. He was defending himself. There was someone else there, but absent when the police arrived. I don’t think Talking Guy had a whole lot more experience with criminality than I did. He not once acknowledged that his story was…. fluid, and consequently not credible. Each iteration was presented without guile, without reference to the previous, completely different, version of ten or twenty minutes before. Fresh. Virginally honest. Jail is a very odd space, it’s own reality. And we spent that night, Talking Guy and I, both in terrible trouble, talking. Trying hard to figure out something that was essentially incomprehensible.
Jails alter conventional reality. I say we spent the ‘night’ but there were no windows. No clocks. My watch belonged to the property clerk. Meals are scheduled to suit bureaucratic kitchen staffing — within one eight hour shift, I suppose. So I don’t really know when anything happened, or how long it took. But sometimes they brought the new prisoner, the Big Guy, to join us. But it seemed a welcome new misery to distract from ours. Briefly. He told us this story.
Big Guy was a walk-away from a mental institution in California, he said. He’d gotten as far as Reno on a freight train and took a break from travel. Sometime after that — a day, a week — he decided that he’d made a mistake leaving the ‘Home’ in California, that he wanted to go back, and that he wanted his medication. So, he said, he had approached a police officer in Reno and explained all this. Presumably Reno cops, indeed officers at any destination resort, have heard pretty much every story and learned to ignore them. They blew the Big Guy off too, he said. Whatever else mentally was wrong with him, Big Guy was resourceful, so when the officer didn’t respond to the story, Big Guy right away threw a handy street trash can through a store window. That the police did not ignore and Big Guy was arrested and put in the Reno jail drunk tank.
Of course, in the drunk tank he was really not much closer to getting his meds and transport back to the California institution than he had been. Big Guy figured that out soon enough and when the keepers took him to be photographed and finger printed, he trashed the place, just smashed everything. He was actually quite large and strong. Anyway. that’s when Big Guy was put in with us, the bad-ass group of murderers and armed robbers…plus one vandal. As I digested and considered his story it came to me that I shared Big Guy’s interest in getting his meds and even transport to California. He was much bigger than I and there wasn’t much besides me in the cell worth throwing or trashing if he needed to make his point again. Pretty soon whenever a keeper walked by the cell I was standing right there at the bars with Big Guy supporting his demand for his medication. You can probably imaging how fucking little they cared, about Big Guy, me, or any of our problems.
One of my problems was my crime. In the course of things I had begun to think hard about how — though I had been hundreds of miles from South Lake Tahoe, in Utah in fact — how I didn’t remember the robbery at all, how the mind plays strange tricks. I began to think about how I might have actually committed the robbery I was in jail for.
I figure there were a couple reasons for this, and it has remained a useful piece of experience in my life. First reason, the police and the other guys in jail assumed I had done the robbery. Other guys in cells had actually done what they were there for. Why should I be special. Once I was actually arrested, cuffed and in the back of the police car, the officer who arrested me was kind of nice. He was sure I was guilty and so I was good bust, good for his record. So, you know, in jail you’re surrounded by people who all believe in this one thing — your guilt. It’s very much like the religious cults I ran into in my life.
I could never again hear about a person confessing to a crime without remembering that jail is very strange, its own reality, and that once upon that time, I myself, a sober and thoughtful adult, sat in a locked room wondering if this amazing, impossible, unbelievable thing they were saying, could somehow in fact be possible. I have never since taken at face value any alleged ‘confession’ to police by a child…. or anybody, really.
Second reason, the investigating officers read me the bulletin from South Lake Tahoe, the cause for which I was noticed, followed and arrested. My very own APB. And when he read it to me, damn if it didn’t sound like me. Two young hippie types. Green hippie van. This and that. Cops read me the bulletin and sat there looking at me. I had to say…. well…. far out….
In fact, both I and the police knew, when busted I was carrying an American Express Card and police press credentials from San Francisco. They’d already talked to my boss there. They just assumed that I was a secret smack junky and that’s why I, with a respectable job and all, had stuck up a pet store in South Tahoe with a gun, for seventy-eight dollars. Confronted with the San Francisco professional Tom, they didn’t miss a beat.
So I sat in the cell, losing touch with out-of-jail reality, caught up in the psychiatric dilemma of the Big Guy, and to a lesser extent with the failing health of the Talking Guy’s stab victim. About that point, whatever time of day or night it was, I got a phone call.
Because I was lawyerless, the keepers let me take a call from a lawyer at the booking desk. Not private or anything, but very nice of them. My Berkeley housemate Danny arranged the call from lawyer Stan and for this I will always be grateful. The phone call was the first moment of rebooting my brain, and the first step on getting me out of the Reno jail. Altogether a good thing. This is what happened.
Stan told me that friend Danny had put ten thousand dollars in cash in a briefcase and was at that moment driving toward Reno to bail me out. I told Stan that the Reno police had towed my hippie camper away and that — I’m more or less quoting here — I love that car, Stan, and I’m afraid they’ll tear the shit out of it. Do you know what I mean, Stan? He got it. And Stan, my hero, told the police that he didn’t care what they thought, they couldn’t legally search the car anymore. And the Reno cops caved. They didn’t search the car and consequently they didn’t find the shit, the mayonnaise jar with a felonious amount of marijuana in it. (And, to emphasize my thank you, my passenger the kid, by this time in juve and his father on the way out to drag him back to Michigan, the kid did not tell the authorities about the dope either. Which was a huge favor for somebody he didn’t know. And it surely crossed his mind to trade me for not having to go back to Michigan and start running away all over. God bless him and I hope somebody in life did something wonderful for him.)
Anyway, between the kid, Stan the lawyer, sloppy police work, and especially Danny with his briefcase full of cash, I did not have to spend a lot of money and time in Nevada courtrooms, and maybe not just a few months in a Nevada prison. That was very good.
I don’t know what happened to the murderer. Or the Big Guy from the mental institution. Good things, I hope, but probably not. Good things did happen to me. Mostly I got out. About the time Danny got to Reno, in a sports car with a brief case full of cash and a very pretty girl, the police gave up on my case. The robbery victims in South Tahoe could not identify me from the picture of me taken in the Reno jail with the camera equipment the Big Guy trashed a bit later. Danny and all that cash was the last straw. They gave me my watch and wallet, charged me thirty-five bucks for impounding my car and kicked me loose. Danny, the pretty girl and I had a very good dinner at a casino and he went home to Berkeley. I went on down 395 to the back way to Yosemite, the very way I had intended 24 hours earlier.
I remember driving through the high country of the National Park the next day, by myself, singing at the top of my voice.