Behind the booking desk, the jailer talked so tough he left bite marks on his curses. I was under his power now, as I waited to be led to a cell in the Chicago police headquarters.

This was the second of three days of living on the street amid the homeless poor of Chicago, a city with a municipal dog shelter but no facility for human beings.

Late in the afternoon, during a snowstorm, I became frantic. I had put in about eight miles looking for shelters. I found three, but they had long been filled to capacity. I didn't want another night in the mission downtown, where the poor are subjected to religious zealotry in exchange for a cot or floor space. Then I recalled what a policeman had told me the day before: There's always jail.

Near the Loop, I approached two foot patrolmen. I said I was cold and hungry. Would they direct me to the city jail? "You just can't walk in," one said. "We'll arrest you first and call the wagon."

The police, a pair of kindly men who were on the streets and saw the human faces behind "the issue" of homelessness, explained that the judge would release me in the morning. Writing me up, one cop asked the other, "What should we charge him with?" It doesn't matter, said his mate: "Put down begging."

It reminded me of the line in Shaw's "Major Barbara," in which the millionaire weapons dealer, Undershaft, says that "the worst of our crimes is poverty."

That was to be my last literary reflection of the day. The paddy wagon came and unloaded me at the jail on South State Street. I immediately heard the chaos and smelled the squalor of the most sordid level of the American penal system, the overnight lockup.

To a man, the six or so cops at the desk were vulgarians who used their ounce of power to wield a ton of viciousness. They shouted the vilest obscenities at the prisoners, whether they were cocky street toughs, old beggars or the mentally vacant. For the low-life guards, the prisoners were the only underclass further down. No opportunity was missed to let the wretches know it.

After a frisking (I was allowed nothing, not a pen and least of all not the book of poetry I was carrying), I was led to a cell. Seven of us were in a space designed for two. Half an hour later, a bellowing guard came by and led two of us to a cell down the row. Two others were already there. I allowed myself a musing. From seven-in-a-cell to four: The jailers at the deck must have read Chief Justice Burger's latest discourse on prison overcrowding.

The cell was about 10 by 7 feet. It was dominated by two thick boards--the beds. Neither had sheets, pillows or blankets. About 40 inches from the boards was the toilet head. It had no seat. No toilet paper was provided. On the toilet rim, vomit was visible. The bowl was stained with fecal matter. Urine stains yellowed the wall behind the bowl.

My cellmates talked little. One was a 250-pound Hispanic hauled in for drunkenness in the subway, another a street dweller rounded up after a barroom brawl. The third was a high-strung, incoherent drifter. He paced the floor, or what there was of it, breathing heavily and talking to himself. I made the mistake of establishing eye contact with him. He lurched at me and snorted in my face, letting me know he wasn't to be stared at.

I feared the worst about sleeping arrangements: Who would get the choice appointments of the "beds," who the grimy floor? No one argued when the Hispanic heavyweight spread himself over one board. I was ready to sit up through the night when the babbling pacer suddenly dropped to the floor. In five minutes, he was sleeping. I was sitting to his side, which gained me the second board by default.

I lay awake all night. I don't recall even blinking. In adjoining cells, men screamed at each other in tirades that stormed for hours at a time. Guards seldom came by, and then only to shout into the cells to be quiet, which only increased the screaming. More would join in, from a hundred feet down the row. Everyone threatened to kill everyone else once out on the street.

Once again, the poor were venting their rage at the only outlet available, other poor.

We were "awakened" at 4 a.m. In the mission, I thought, the homeless are at least allowed to loll around until 5. We were led first to a holding room and then a courtroom to wait for a judge to arrive to release us. The hours were marked by fistfights, vomitings, beratings and, in one case, a guard belting an aged derelict on the head for having bugs in his hair.

At 8 o'clock, the judge came. About 180 men, in the full glory of Cook County rehabilitation, were released. Many would return that night, but not me.