“Well, I’m just telling you the rules,” the man said.
“Where am I supposed to get the right sweats, then?” I felt near tears.
“Steve!” the man called to a colleague. “Where do you get the sweats now?”
Another man walked over to the window. “I think it’s called Jeans Town,” he said.
“Where is that?” I asked, trying not to cry.
“Patchogue. They have the right stuff,” the other man said.
Everything I said and did when interacting with these institutions seemed to be wrong. There was some unwritten code that I wasn’t privy to, so much I didn’t understand. Such as where I was supposed to buy the sweats approved for my son to wear in the county jail.
* * *
When my boy was a baby, my top priority was keeping him safe, fed and warm. I did not know that two of the three — keeping him warm and fed — would become so important 20 years later. I couldn’t keep him safe in jail.
This wasn’t how I had pictured parenting. I had expected our future to be Ralph Lauren, not Jeans Town. By now, my husband and I, wearing Shetland sweaters and corduroys, would be tailgating with our son in an SUV at the annual Yale-Harvard game. My husband went to Yale, so it stood to reason our son would go there, too. Maybe we would have a couple of younger children tagging along; one of them would go to a small, artsy college.
It didn’t happen. That neither of us like heavy sweaters, corduroys or SUVs didn’t really occur to me. The boy didn’t have the grades for Yale, nor did he want to go away to school. And my husband moved out when my son started college.
* * *
Jeans Town was in a gritty downtown area. The storefront advertised jeans, sneakers and cellphones. I saw a section that might as well have been labeled “Jail Wear.” Sets of hunter green sweats, packaged in plastic, were stacked neatly; some of the packages included thermal underwear.
I selected a couple sets in XL. I didn’t want my baby to be cold. I wanted him to have everything he needed to survive in this alien environment. The checkout clerk regarded me compassionately. He talked me to sympathetically about the clothing needs of inmates and what they were allowed to possess, and recommended thermal underwear for the winter, when the jail was underheated. More tears came to my eyes. I felt worn out, beaten up, exhausted by life. And alone.
* * *
Sometimes I get tired of pretending I’m rich and happy or like everyone else in the Hamptons. Pretending I don’t answer my cellphone because I don’t like to, instead of the truth, which is that bill collectors and credit agencies hound me every day and fill up my voice mail. Pretending that I’m not overdrawn on my bank account or that going to the post office to get my mail doesn’t fill me with anxiety. Pretending that my family problems are funny on Facebook — ha-ha-ha, my crazy kids drive me nuts! — not things that also cause me to stay awake at night, wondering where my child is and whether he’s safe.
Pretending that life is as it used to be before my husband left and my income plummeted, just as my son started college. Before I had to pay for a criminal lawyer, plus fees and fines.
I never talk about my actual life: canned soup for dinner, unpaid bills and sweats from the Jail Wear section.
* * *
My boy did commute to a local college, for which we bought him a car. He got sent to jail after driving drunk in that car on New Year’s Eve when he was 19. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged except for his car, but he was underage and the judge wanted to teach him a lesson. My son shook uncontrollably when the judge issued the sentence. The judge then asked if he was on drugs and had the shakes. “I think he’s crying, your honor,” our lawyer said as the guard fastened handcuffs around my son’s wrists. “The time for tears is long gone,” intoned the judge. He might as well have said, Welcome to Jeans Town.
I ran out of the courthouse that day in shock. I didn’t know they were going to send him to jail. I thought nice middle-class college boys like my son got a slap on the wrist. I called my husband, crying so hard he didn’t know what I was saying. I drove home in a daze and hid under a blanket, alone. I was ashamed, so I didn’t tell most of my friends. I didn’t know anyone who’d gone to jail. In our family, we went to Yale, not jail.
The sentence was for five weeks in a minimum security facility. I visited my boy once a week. The road outside the correctional facility helpfully had an enormous sign reading JAIL with an arrow. That feels like a punch in the head when it refers to where your child is being kept.
The guard at the front said to me, “Do you know where to park?” and I, thinking of other things, replied “Mmmm.”
He said sharply to me, “Is that a YES?”
“Yes,” I replied meekly. In my former middle-class existence, I was used to politeness, but now rudeness from authority was the order of the day.
Finally, after divesting myself of my wallet, jewelry, cellphone and so on, I was permitted to see my boy. He was the same old kid — funny, smart, well-read — only now he was wearing a prison jumpsuit. He was hungry because the food was disgusting, so he needed money to buy oatmeal. That much I could do for him.
* * *
Weeks — a lifetime — later, I drove alone to pick him up. The JAIL sign still felt like a punch. I told the man I was here for a release. The uniformed guard barked, “Processing will take one to four hours. Have a seat.” I waited in the molded plastic seats, using my cellphone, even though it was against the rules.
Other women were waiting. It was easy to talk to them; we were all in the same situation. I complained about having to possibly sit there for four hours. They laughed and said that’s sometimes how long it takes. One had to get to the jail via three buses. Their kindness and understanding, like the store clerk’s, humbled me.
A couple of hours later, a heavy metal door clanked open, and my child was there, smiling.
They gave him his belongings, including the dark green sweats, in a plastic bag. He stowed the sweats in the trunk of my car. I said, “Surely you don’t want to keep these?” He said he didn’t know; maybe he would keep them as a souvenir. The next day, I put them in the bottom of the trash bin. I found mostly kindness in Jeans Town, but I don’t want to go back.
Laura Euler is a writer and mom of two who lives in Montauk, N.Y. She blogs about real estate in the Hamptons at behindthehedges.com.
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