The Hidden World Behind This One

…I still thought about what happened to me as he looked up at me from the cement floor of that holding cell. In the depths of a real dungeon I found a piece of my humanity.

“Holding Cell” by terraplanner is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Not all of us are presented with an opportunity to enter into the truly dark world that lies hidden just out of reach of what most people consider normal. It could bee 20 miles away, 100 miles away or just down the street — but I can assure you it’s there. It’s an entirely different world with rules of conduct that do not in any way whatsoever resemble the everyday world most people know. My initiation into the hidden world of steel bars and concrete chambers was dramatic and eye-opening. Those first days in the dank and dark dungeons of a 1930’s — style jail, confronted with the worst of society’s rabble seem very far away in some respects. Conversely, working in that field took my untreated PTSD that I brought into the job and germinated it like a seed in fertile, black Ukrainian soil. The prison environment will induce PTSD in anyone once you’ve been there long enough, but my case was varsity level intensity. There it is. The word that best describes what I was like back then -intense. Whether on duty or off duty, it didn’t matter. The laser focus, the hypervigilance, lack of excitability with that cool, calm demeanor and take charge attitude in a crisis. Yeah, I was the guy you wanted in charge. I was extremely capable — and I was suffering for it. The many things that I saw in that place continue to haunt me even now. This vignette is one story from a manuscript I’m writing about this hidden world and the lives most people don’t see.

For five years (1986–1991) I served with the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department as a Corrections Officer, Prisoner Transportation Specialist, Squad Leader and Reserve Patrol Officer, attaining the rank of Corporal. In addition, I was routinely embedded with the U.S. Marshal’s Service for maximum security transportation of federal inmates, witness and jury protection and high risk security operations. We were dealing with Hannibal Lecter types and cartels, etc. At the conclusion of those five years I left the public sector and became a Private Investigator.

You may ask yourself why I left law enforcement and went to the private sector. Well, it wasn’t the bad guys. It was the politics and the lack of the ability to tell it like it is from people wearing badges. They were complacent and comfortable in their bureaucratic mindset and their political consciousness allowed for obfuscation and omission. I didn’t feel much of a trust vibe. When it came to detainees and inmates I didn’t trust them either and never took my eyes off them because assuming I knew their motivations or mindset could be fatal. There was one exception: the old school bad guys didn’t lie. They told it straight. I might not like what I was hearing, but I knew it was the truth. When I tell you that you really don’t want to know the transcripts of those conversations you’ll just have to trust me. You don’t. There isn’t much sense in both of us having PTSD. As I said. These guys haunt me.

I tended to have a rather closed mind regarding “problem” people like the homeless, the junkies and the criminal element before I took the job at the county jail. Many think of these problem people as an embarrassment to both them and their community. This is an ever growing problem that is much larger now than it was in the 1980’s and 90’s. Our economy is being shredded and people are being squeezed out of any sort of a viable life. We’ve all seen them — they sleep in doorways and under bridges, with 99% of them active alcoholics and drug abusers. Well of course they are. This is self medication. Addiction is the big lie and a rampant disease destroying lives. Law enforcement has a role in the solution to this problem, but it isn’t the one they have been given so far. This is a medical and mental health problem first and foremost. These aren’t derelicts. These are neighbors and family members that desperately need help.

So, as I said, having been exposed to a good many drunks and junkies through my job in the cellblock holding area, I saw them through a very prejudicial lens. The concept — indeed the fact — that their drinking and drugging is a disease totally escaped me, as it did for many of the other guards. Of course the theory of alcoholism being a disease was familiar, but the gut-level is the place you truly come to grips with things of essential importance when you are confronted with visceral challenges — it’s possible to know something but not really understand it. Knowledge of something does not equal realization.

I didn’t understand the drunks — Bob would teach me an enduring lesson .

Bob was invisible to most people — the way that pretty much all homeless alcoholics are invisible: a homeless man with a severe alcohol problem, he wandered aimlessly, staggering throughout the community on a constant roving, drunken, aimless trek. Bob’s only focal point seem to be making sure he cashed in his government check each month to maintain his ability to buy that next month’s supply of alcohol and hopefully ration it. It was addressed to Bob [Lastname] General Delivery, Bangor, Maine, 04401. It was likely his only tangible link to the real world.

The first time I saw Bob he was being brought into the jail by the local police. The arresting officers were wearing rubber gloves because Bob’s hygiene was so utterly nasty. It was clear he hadn’t bathed in a long time and his clothes could not have been taken off his body in, well, forever. Bob was a veritable potpourri of smells — a bouquet of wretch if you will. The first odor was overwhelming — he reeked of alcohol. It’s the kind of alcohol smell that emanates from the pores of severe alcoholics and it was mixed with the stale vomit and alcohol on his clothing. Then there was the strong body odor mixed with unknown and indescribable sour and rotting smells as well as evidence that Bob had in all likelihood shit his pants. The man stood six feet and was in a stupor, drunk out of his mind and he was crying. I was wondering if he was genuinely sad or maybe his mind was half gone by this point.

I just described for you a fairly pitiful scene, but when I encountered it I was somewhat numb to it. That was my survival mechanism — shutting off. If I didn’t shut off, all the stimuli, all the gut-wrenching assaults on my senses, the job would eat me alive.

Bob was not combative and as I took the cuffs off him and patted him down I found that he was urinating in his pants and was once again vomiting down the inside of his coat. One of the police officers delivering him to me said “Jesus H Christ, that’s disgusting!”, as though Bob wasn’t there. I responded to the Cop, “You know what? You’re right. But you’re in my house, now. Try to act professional.” I gave Bob to the Jail intake area where he was taken by two line officers. In a usual case where nothing is wrong an arrestee is sat down and booked as soon as possible but as the officers shuffled Bob through intake our primary destination was the shower room. I made sure of that. For our sake and his.

Bob was so drunk that we had to undress him I had to hold on to him while he took a shower because he wasn’t able to stand on his own. Another officer had bagged all of Bob’s belongings to be examined and catalogued later. Needless to say I took off my shirt and got wet while the other officer used liquid soap and a brush on Bob. We scoured him from head to toe. I dressed Bob and his orange jumper and got him into a holding cell. The holding cells measured 6 feet by 5 feet and the floor was a split-level. Most of the floor sloped into the center where it met in a drain fixture the drain was a catch-all for urine, fecal matter, vomit, blood or anything else you can think up. The rest of the floor comprised the upper level or “bed” — it was about 4 inches higher and set against the wall. The bed section was covered by a mattress which was actually a thin mat.

I laid Bob down and got him some bedding. As I covered him up he spoke to me in a clear but quiet voice that sounded very tired, “This drinking is killing me. I never thought I’d die in a place like this. Don’t let me die this way.” He looked at me as though he had sobered up a bit. We made some small talk, even though I was not that good at small talk back then. It required the ability to relate and open up a little. Blasphemy. “When you are little and all dressed up, your mama never sees you ending up like this.” When Bob said those words it made me stop right then and there. It made me think not as a guard but as a man. Bob was looking up at me. He looked 70 years old but I knew he was only in his forties. You see, Bob was in the real world — albeit the ugly side of it — but the real world nonetheless. It suddenly struck me that until that point I had not been. I was too busy saving the fucking world to see real life.

All that was required was kindness.

Everyday I saw people in their worst condition, stripped of all their dignity but it never affected me until Bob said those words to me. I felt grief. After those few quiet moments of real connection, I asked him if he was hungry and he quietly told me that he had last eaten four days prior — at least he thought it was four days. When I asked him where, he reluctantly told me that he ate from the supermarket dumpster near the Dunkin Donuts on Main Street. Hoping that I wouldn’t sound judgmental, I asked him why he didn’t eat at the soup kitchen or shelter. Bob told me that they won’t let a drunk come in and that he’s drunk all the time.

I headed for the kitchen to find something for Bob to eat. The sergeant in command of the shift asked where I was going. “To the kitchen”, I said. “You can’t do that! The kitchen’s closed!”, she said. “This guy’s going to get something to eat”, I said. My decision to feed Bob was met with official disapproval by the sergeant but I fed him anyway. I was actually written up for feeding a starving man. After I got him to eat and drink something I went to intake to catalogue his effects before his clothes went to the laundry unit.

I carefully went through his clothing and effects — they were soaked in urine and vomit. Among the loose change and meaningless, random receipts receipts and assorted items found in his clothing was his wallet. As I opened it I was confronted by photos of small children that presumably were his, taken some years prior. There were pictures of Bob as a younger and healthier-looking man with his wife, smiling for the camera. Better times. Happy times. My best guess was that the pictures were about ten years old. He still carried them. They meant something to him. That broken man in there on the floor could be anyone of us, I thought. Hell, he is us.

I was written up for insubordination and given a hearing at the office off the county commissioners. I was demoted for that one, but later I got my stripes back from the County. Bob would be released at court the next day with his clothes laundered and having been fed and a chance to sober up for 24 hours. The world didn’t notice him and he didn’t matter to anyone. He was a man of no consequence. But to me he was the man that saved my life. I mean that quite literally. Had Bob not delivered that epiphany to me in the darkness of that dungeon, I would have continued on my path of progressive mental illness and self destruction. I still thought about what happened to me as he looked up at me from the cement floor of that holding cell. In the depths of a real dungeon I found a piece of my humanity.

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