I recently slipped into the Massachusetts penal system, though it's not clear who I was or how long I was there. Being unable to attend my hearing on driving with outdated registration, I received informal permission from a clerk to come downtown later that week to make a new date. Since the call was not officially noted, a warrant was issued for my arrest. The State's apparatus of capture was on the lookout for a person matching my description as I waited in the courthouse line to reschedule my hearing. I had no idea.

                                                                 *  *  *  *

I had been in the old Boston courthouse as Director of a local Community Development Corporation trying to pry abandoned property out of the death clutches of English Law. I had also researched maximum security prisons in another incarna­tion. The power and drama of the judicial system are unique. Courts tell us what we may own; what we may or may not do; where we end and where another person begins. They tell us, in effect, who we are.

    Moreover, they can deprive us of something nowhere else at risk—time. Time

was the overarching currency, not just in terms of judicial decisions, but in the minute‑by‑minute procedures of the courthouse. Everyone is rewarded for saving the system time.  Everyone in the court room is doing time. 

    There is much at stake, and while the violence of injustice and violation lurk, the system channels passion into routine. Comes now the bailiff, knowing and bored, to order the day like a camp councilor with a clean‑up wheel. Bailiffs and clerks stage manager these ceremonial displays of respect and place—this theater of the routine.  They are the strictly brought up sons (perhaps politically connected in that old, local sense of a favor returned, a silence kept) with short hair and tempers to match. They are the rule‑followers, waiting to be angered; and one revealing rule, strictly enforced, is the prohibition against reading books even in the very back rows. We are allowed to look down, but not down at something. The acoustics belie this pose of concern, but then, showing contempt for the legal system is illegal.

    I was bureaucratically confusing because my status as a fugitive conflicted with both my voluntary arrival and my attitude of near total obsequiousness. I was assured that I would be out in "no time at all." In a sense that proved to be prophetic.

    First, I was channeled. 

    It began in a small interrogation room, on loan, apparently, from central casting.  The battle‑worn official was pleased to be able to pull strings to get my case processed quickly (it took about three phone calls). I was a cooperative "client" (we are all professionals here), but it was clear that she would rather be in that small, poorly lit room with a person accused of very violent behavior. Then she could pull bureaucratic strings and talk in the jargon of the TV cop shows and be close to the fire of someone who stood to lose real time. Her tough talk marked her as a bureaucratic handler of those too hot for society. I was of no use to her.

    After much inter‑office commuting I found myself facing "my" Probation Officer in a sterile cubicle. (Two hours off the street, and I had my own probation officer!)

I was, despite myself, proud to provide prompt information about my finances, my mother's maiden name and so forth, but all this did was reduce her job to absurdity. I knew my place, but this was not it. I attempted informal, non‑flirtatious contact, something I am usually successful at. Not here. The more cooperative I was, the angrier she became. Clutching my blue sheet of paper, the bureaucratic passport I refused to dignify by reading, I was curtly told to revisit one of the many offices I had been at before. 

    I had begun to grade each room by the friendliness of its inhabitants, and these were my favorites. They were the sort of folks you ran into on a good day in government offices: not the stereotyped incompetents that columnists thrive on, but friendly, resigned clerks (generally older and Irish in this city) with a perpetually bemused look, waiting for irony, hungry for something out of the ordinary. Besides, they had an interesting collection of handcuffs which got me to wondering whether there were enough police to install them all.    

    By this point I was mourning, as had so many before me, the loss of a productive day. I shared my growing annoyance with my friends in this room who responded with knowing looks and tired smiles. I chatted easily with the latest arrival, and he put me in handcuffs.

    "The Judge runs hot and cold about the rules, and strictly speaking you're still a fugitive until the warrant is returned," he explained. 

                                                                *   *   *   *         

    I stood in the middle of the room, hands in an unnaturally supplicatory position, near prayer. The outside of my field of vision blurred as I focused all attention on the surprisingly comfortable devices binding my wrists.

    The moment I realized this was not a joke I started thinking about how I might get them off.

    There was no way I could get them off.

    I no longer remembered what the person who put the cuffs on looked like. I couldn't look at him. I had just been involved in an annoying, middle‑class,

pa­per‑chasing tangle. Now I was being frisked for dangerous weapons. 

    "Don't you want to check his briefcase?" taunted a clerk. "That's where he keeps the bombs." Even in jest, my briefcase was transformed from a mark of respectability to a possible source of danger. Such mock threats, like frivolous highjack jokes, imply a lack of respect which can seriously anger people in authority. But here the representatives of the penal system were making them. They were now untypically close to the "action," but it was with someone who had comparatively little at stake because he was not really risking time. It was probably as confusing to them as it was to me. I couldn't judge its impact on the person who had put me in cuffs. I still couldn't face him.   

    Someone else approached, saying, "We have procedures we have to follow" and led me out of the office into the hands of a uniformed officer who took me a short distance (it may have been a long distance. At that point I was just floating). He put what seemed like a large key in a large lock, opened an old metal door and motioned me in.

    To the extent that I expected anything, it would have been a bored, slightly bemused Judge at a well‑used conference table who would let me explain my situation and let me get out of there, get out of there, get out of there.

                                                                *   *   *   *         

   Instead, I was led into a dingy room with bars on the tiny windows and an open toilet bowl in the corner. A holding cell. 

    I was with the people the system was there to protect me from.

    There was a timeless moment of personal orientation during which the emotions that ran over my face must have been insultingly transparent to the 9 black, 1 Hispanic and 4 white faces who checked me out briefly and resumed their activities. After a perfectly timed, echoing silence, a sardonic black voice said, "We're all your friends, here."

   I blushed, letting out an inadvertent laugh at my predicament, my vulnerability and the classic embarrassment of the middle class child trapped in shorts while the tough kids wore jeans. A nice middle class Jewish boy. Here.

   I put my head down, walked purposefully to the nearest and only window and pretended to look out. I glanced at them: a bunch of young, working class guys hanging around a grimy rec room; some playing cards, some wandering, some in small groups talking, all casually passing time. All wearing handcuffs.

    I tried to make sense of all this as quickly as I could. 

    The first thing I looked at, being in Boston, was race. The national affirmative action program which increases the chances of non‑whites seeing the inside of jails was at work, but there appeared to be no obvious cliques based on race. I was immediately struck by one young white man with that frozen‑in‑childhood look you see in bleachers—the kind who needs only the right kind of encouragement to take after a non‑white and beat him to death. This was someone to whom you paid attention even when he didn't demand it. And then he demanded it.

    With a sudden lunge, he began banging on the steel‑barred cell door and screaming for food. He didn't appear to be weak with hunger, and it was not clear to me what was going to happen next.

    Of course it was clear what was going to happen next. That is what it means to be imprisoned. The guards came rushing in, and one of them informed us through words and sneers that we could make just as much noise as we wanted because the Judge would just give us more time when we came to trial. So we should, he concluded, make even more noise, "assholes". Not since I had been at summer camp had I heard that tone coupled with that invitation. I was momentarily transformed into a rebellious con, testing the limits of the common enemy. I tried to foment a rebellious bond, a smirk, with the fellow nearest. He turned away, of course, facing the wall of his time.  I remembered who I was.

    I tried, not for the first time, to check my watch. I looked at it. Forgot what it said.  Double checked it. Forgot and checked again. I simply could not read my watch. I was trying very hard to remember everything about my experience, and it seemed to be sticking, but I could not read my watch. I looked out the dingy window and saw people walking around the street. They didn't know I was here.

    As soon as the guards left, the black man who had "welcomed" me approached the white fellow, made small talk and shook his hands. (I had forgotten that they all had cuffs on. They maneuvered them as naturally as hockey players maneuver skates).  They held what appeared to be a summit meeting on one of the long benches. The black man acted as warden, and it appeared that the white man had fulfilled an initiation of rebellion. We're all niggers here?

    Shortly thereafter (I could no longer testify even remotely as to how much time was passing), the white man started in again. This time, however, he was immediately intercepted by the black leader who quite professionally cooled him out without any apparent humiliation or threat. The other blacks monitored them with the knowing looks I had seen white guards use on black prisoners. 

    Perhaps the black was not simply congratulating him the first time. Perhaps he was taking his measure in anticipation of just such an outbreak. We're all administrators here. 

    With exceptions, the blacks seemed somewhat more "normal" than the whites.  (One of the whites, for example, had not only handcuffs but manacles. He stood alone throughout). This echoed the results of previous research I happened to have done about prisons. Being in this setting was less out of the mainstream for young black men than for their white counterparts. Blacks didn't have to do as much to get there. 

    Things settled. I kept trying to read my watch and eavesdrop on my compatriots.  They spoke of judges and lawyers, strategies and hopes, betrayers and betrayals...shop talk. One talked with wry understatement about how he had mistakenly failed to get a deposit slip on his way out of the bank. There was enormous emphasis on details — consciousness imprisoned. Every facial twitch of the defense lawyer or some other actor in their court room dramas was chewed over endlessly and mercilessly. 

    As I listened in on their conversations and the details of their lives (how many times over the next years would some of them replay those last moments!) it dawned on me that I had been there for a very long time. I kept trying to work my watch, but I was no longer sure why. 

    I tried to remember if my outside obligations were under control. I...was...not...

ge­tting...out! I couldn't even approach the window to look out. I couldn't even look at the window. All of a sudden time ceased. There was no progression of events, thoughts or feelings. I was suspended in time just as I had been suspended in space when I was first entered the room. These surroundings were all I would ever see — always these walls; the other men were the only companions I would ever have — always these faces. There was no movement, just an anxious awareness that I couldn't move. Might never move. Count to five, and it could be five seconds or five minutes. I tried to take some control. Walked across the room. Walked back. I don't know if I repeated this; there was no sequence to things, no end. What could I control? I once commuted interstate and noticed that a certain driver would periodically and without justification accelerate and then decelerate. I initially chalked it up to bad driving, but it began to make more sense as an unconscious need to create the illusion of control, of autonomy. The endless rural stretches were not challenging. He was, I think, asserting his expertise, his decision making capacity, by accelerating and decelerating. He was re‑creating his skill, like the circus elephants that sway to the music, do the routine, even after the show is over. I felt nausea without release. Suffocation. The room didn't spin. Nothing moved.  

    A guard came in and intoned the typical Boston mispronunciation of my name.  Bang! I was out! Bang! It was over! All he had to do was to say my name, and the final wall came down between me and them. Did they know I was Jewish? My name always stood out in Boston. No one here could pronounce it (Freed), but rather said it like what you did to eggs. I no longer correct them, but I am always uncomfortable saying it in public. Now I was grateful for its blessed mention. I floated out on my own two feet and was led by my cuffed hands to the court room, ashamed of my relief.

                                                                *   *   *   *  

    The question of what time it was ‑‑ what time itself was ‑‑ began to fade, but there was still some question of who I was. Paraded down the aisle in steel constraints and under police guard, I was torn between the desire to disassociate myself from my apparent status and the desire to sneer at those not yet in cuffs. Such is the power of circumstance that even as part of this transient theater, I felt an uncharacteristic kinship to street toughs. I had "survived" the magnetic north of their lives.

I had done time—not in the chronological sense or in romanticized solidarity with street‑wise dragons, but rather in the sense of having involuntarily lost touch with the world, with who I was and with time itself.

    Yet I was unable to make eye contact with the "audience" as I walked down the aisle. This was revealing, from an inveterate starer and New York master of public spaces. I was ashamed, after all. I was returning. What part of me would have returned if I had done real time?

                                                                *   *   *   *  

    I was led to a special box by the side of the judge. I stood shielded from the pristine sensibilities of the "audience" with the shrouded intensity of a Medieval confessional. It felt as though there were an arched hood over my head. Perhaps there was.

    I had an emerging sense of who I was, what I was "in" for, and what I had been through. The rule of the short tempered clerks had reasserted itself, probably triggered by the Judge's outraged remarks which I began to discern. 

"There are rapists running around the streets and he's in there like this?" 

    The Judge quickly ordered me out of my confessional to appear before him and demanded to know who had put me in handcuffs. 

    No one, apparently.

    I was ordered to pay a small fine to the man who quickly freed my wrists. ("Don't do the crime if you can't pay the fine...")  I was told to go to the site of my hand­cuffing and get my belongings. The Judge apologized for my treatment. I didn't point out that it had occurred because someone believed He might be angry if it hadn't.  Easy time, now.

    I would soon walk out onto the same street that was dimly visible from the small, dirty, barricaded window of the holding cell. The prisoners wouldn't notice me (none of them ever looked out during my stay) any more than I had ever known they were up there (how strange to go to jail in an elevator). I had experienced through a finite, protective bubble the reality‑without‑limit for many of those young men. While I was there, they made indelible stamps on my consciousness. I began to forget them.

    I found my way back to the site of my official capture, picked up my briefcase and make small talk with the clerks. "Out so soon?" smiled one. (Ah, yes, 'no time at all...') "They haven't made the prison yet that can hold Bill Fried!" I joked, emphasiz­ing the correct pronunciation of my dual purpose last name. They laughed and went back to work. I glanced at my watch on the way out.