Doing Tiempo

I’ve had very poor luck with the tenants-slash-housemates I’ve lived with since buying a condo three years ago. One moved out in the dark of night without telling me; he left the key on the upper shelf of a cupboard to ensure I wouldn’t find it and realize his departure for at least a few days; I never heard from him again. One disappeared altogether for two months, leaving behind his pet tarantula, a creature which can apparently survive without food for at least two months, since I sure as H. wasn’t going near it. One otherwise well-bred fellow occasionally sat shirtless on the couch drinking beer from a bottle, as if our couch were located in a trailer park.

And yet despite these characters, it wasn’t until last month that I ever had to visit a roommate in jail.

Raoul (names have been changed) moved to Utah from his native Argentina three years ago to pursue the American dream, which evidently consists of working at a call center and watching a lot of the E! Channel. He’s a pleasant, harmless, law-abiding fellow, so you can imagine my shock when he was arrested on DRUG CHARGES!!!!!

Man, I was excited. I got a collect call from the Utah County Jail at about midnight on a Monday night. It was Raoul, but as soon as I accepted the charges, the call disconnected. So I found the number for the jail and called back, asking if I could talk to the inmate who was unfamiliar with American collect-calling systems and who had just tried to reach me. Raoul came to the phone, and this conversation ensued:

ME: Raoul, it’s Eric.
RAOUL: Aaron?
ME: No, Eric. Eric Snider.
RAOUL: Eric Essnider?
ME: Eric your ROOMMATE!
RAOUL: Oh, Eric, listen, I am in jail.

I don’t know how many of his friends Raoul thought would be calling him in jail, nor do I know why he felt it necessary to tell someone who had called him in jail that he was, in fact, in jail. But I suppose he was probably not in his best frame of mind. He told me he’d been pulled over for a traffic violation and that an outstanding warrant for his arrest had been discovered, a warrant issued in Wyoming (which state Raoul has never visited) and including several drug-related charges. He assured me it was a mistake, which I tended to believe — Raoul exhibited none of the usual signs of drug-dealerness, such as having expensive things or paying his rent on time — but nonetheless it would take time to sort it out. I told him I would call my lawyer friend the next day and determine what we needed to do.

Well, I was worried now, let me tell you. They were talking about extraditing Raoul to Wyoming. There’s no justice in Wyoming! That’s frontier country up there, with posses and lynchings and saloons and country stores and town meetings and old Indian chiefs who live on the outskirts and offer terse advice to cowboys who pass through as they search the territory for the outlaw who shot their brother. This was no place for a domesticated Argentine!

But I was also excited, as I mentioned. All those hours of watching “Law & Order” were finally paying off, because I knew how things were going to work. Raoul had said on the phone that he couldn’t afford a lawyer, and I’d said, “Well, you have the right to an attorney, and if you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” I could have told him the rest of his rights, too, if so required. And I knew that if they were serious about these charges, they’d probably send detectives — ooh, real detectives! — to the house to search his room. The search warrant would only cover his bedroom and the common areas, though, and would not include my room, which I was relieved to realize, not because I have anything to hide, but because they always make such a big mess when they conduct those searches. I don’t want detectives rifling through my stuff.

So I was a little disappointed the next day when Raoul appeared before a judge who quickly realized, as did the stormtroopers in “Star Wars,” that Raoul was not the fugitive they were looking for, that he could go about his business, and that he could move along. The actual bad guy, it turns out, has four names to Raoul’s three, and only two of them match. I’d rather not believe that Utah police officers see a “WANTED” poster for a Mexican fugitive and then arrest the next Latino they happen to stumble across, but I guess it’s possible.

At any rate, no charges were filed, but Raoul’s troubles were not over. It seems he had allowed his visa to expire, which fact the immigration department was not pleased to learn when the Orem Police Department helpfully informed them of it. Consequently, Raoul remained in jail for another two weeks while he accumulated the necessary bail money, which I assume he did by making license plates.

In the meantime, he became very bored and lonely. State prison is probably thrilling, what with the constant shankings and shivvings. But county jail is dull. No one’s there for the long haul; it’s mostly just drunks and speeding-ticket non-payers, staying for no longer than one night. So there’s no chance to bond or join gangs or whatever.

Being a decent roommate, and wanting Raoul to be in good spirits so he’d let me access his checkbook and write a draft to myself to cover his rent, I headed for the hoosegow one afternoon to visit him. I had never visited anyone in jail before, and I was fascinated to see the waiting area full of people assembled to visit their loved ones. What an assortment of folks from all walks of life! There was old white trash, young white trash, white trash men, white trash women, white trash people of indeterminate gender, white trash in stretch pants, and white trash with mullets. Oh, and a few bishops. We all sat quietly until a surly, burly policeman called us, one by one, and told us how to access our inmates. (I guess we can’t all visit at once, or we might stage an uprising.)

When it was my turn, I walked down a long, yellow, fluorescently lit corridor to where Raoul was. Here I learned the Utah County Jail names its sections after Utah ski resorts. Raoul was in Alta; I could also see a Snowbird and a Sundance. Is this to taunt the prisoners? (“Hey, jailbirds, people are out skiing right now, but not you! You’re in jail. You were naughty. You suck.”) If so, I LIKE IT!

Just like in the movies, Raoul and I were separated by glass, and we had to talk on telephones. I was grateful for this, as it eliminated the awkward question of whether I’d be expected to shake hands with, or possibly even hug, Raoul. Unfortunately, due to the language and cultural barriers that separate us like a figurative glass window, Raoul did not fully appreciate the humor of my asking, “Can I get an outside line on this phone?”

Raoul was eager to hear news of the outside world, and I was eager to help him regain some of the dignity and humanity that was lost when he became part of “The System.” So I told him about the Oscars for 20 minutes or so. Then I made up an excuse about why I had to get going. (I believe it involved lunch.)

After a first-hand encounter with a correctional facility, I am left with many questions. Does jail rehabilitate people, or does it merely humiliate them into deeper scofflaw attitudes? Does our penal system work, or is it impossible for it to be effective when it’s known as the “penal system”? Why keep a law-abiding person in jail for an expired visa? Seems like if you let him out, the worst he might do is flee the country, which is sorta what you wanted him to do in the first place.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I’m too tired to see if Google has them. But I will reflect on them the next time a roommate of mine is arrested, which I suspect will occur regularly from now on. Essnider out.

Regular readers may recall that this was not the first time I had traveled to the Utah County Jail: I had to go once in 2002 to fetch my brother; a column about it is here. That didn't count as a "visit," though, because all I was doing was bailing him out and taking him away.

The last line -- "Essnider out" -- is a reference to "American Idol." If you don't get it, then good for you.

The question of how to express in writing Raoul's pronunciation of my last name occupied a great deal of my time. "E-Snider" or "eSnider" is closest, but people might pronounce it "ee-Snider," like eBay or e-mail. I had "eh-Snider" for a while, but that looked like "ay," like the Canadians say. I tried "uh-Snider," but it's not really an "uh" sound; it's a short "e" sound, as in "let." I finally decided "es-Snider" was best, then simplified it to "Essnider."

I've told the story of Raoul's arrest to all my friends, of course, and everyone's favorite line is: "Oh, Eric, listen, I am in jail." (It's even better when you hear me say it, because I do a good impression of Raoul, or at least of him at that particular moment.) One friend said for April Fool's Day, he wanted to call home and say, "Oh, Mom, listen, I am in jail." I definitely support that sort of thing.