He's a little bit taller than me, and has a look that certain skinny guys have which makes them seem like they're constructed of steel wire wrapped around bone. His jeans are baggy, and his bright blue eyes belie his Irish heritage. There's a long scar running down the back of his shaved head, a constant reminder of the Paterson drug trade. He gives off the aura that he can handle himself in the gutter.
"Trouble's my middle name bra."
"Oh yea? Sorry brother. That one's already taken," I say.
"You ever been in jail before, Steve?"
He smiles. "Then you ain't trouble." He's right. He lights another smoke, a Newport 100 that all the guys from the ghetto smoke.
I tell him the truth. "I've been in the drunk tank. That was enough for me. It ain't my fault you get caught when you do bad shit. I'm just smoother than you."
I'm bullshitting him, and he knows it. I may have done my share of tremendously dangerous and stupid things, but he's been a dealer in heroin and cocaine, and that's taken him to a place I've never been. I've been seen my share of fights, been hit with beer bottles and what not, but none so bad that I was knocked unconscious by a brick to the back of the head.
He was in the county lockup for a spell. It's a bad place. Not quite as bad as the one in my county, but no jail in Jersey is a good one to be in. You live in Passaic, you get the bangers from Paterson. You live in Morris, you've got the Mexicans from towns like Dover and Morristown, the guys who got nothing left to lose. Hudson, Essex...Jersey City, Newark, Irvington. All bad places.
I've seen a lot of fellas like him, and they always make me feel like a wide eyed kid. There is something alluring about jail, something about being in a place that is run solely on violence and physical strength, that draws me in. Oh, I know- the only type of guy that says something like that is the type that's never been there. But if you think about it, all people are intrigued by it. There have been numerous TV shows about it; Prison Break, Oz, etc. Movies? More than you could count. I am not alone in my interest.
"What's it like?"
He sighs. He's been asked this before, most likely many times. "Well it's a lot of war stories. A lot of shit like that. Guys playing poker. Gambling with their commissary. Working out. A lot of male bonding."
I smile when he says this, raise my eyebrows. "Yea, well that's what I hear."
"Not like that, dickhead."
He reminds me of a good friend of mine who lived on the wrong side of the tracks in my suburban town; there's a trailer park down in the floodplain that amounts to a white ghetto. I hung out there a lot when I was younger, smoking cigarettes while the others smoked other things.
This guy was the same kind of way, with the same gritty feel; another tall, slender Irish kid with sharp teeth and blonde hair. He never had a macho attitude, just a wary, hardened feel that permeated off him, and it followed him the way cheap cologne trails on a drunk trying to hide it.
If you left him alone, he was cool with you, and if you got to be buddies with him, he'd do anything for you. He once gave me a knife that had an American flag on it, later telling me that he'd jacked it from a car because it reminded him of me. He was also always more than willing to bring me smokes when I lost my license and couldn't make it to the store. Perennially in trouble, though, he was constantly violating suspended sentences on assault charges- my boy loved to fight, and was always happy to share a good story about some incident or another.
Around people either of these guys liked or respected, they were like wolverines; give them respect, and they will do the same. Cross the line, though, and it didn't really matter who you were. It's a marked difference from the juiced up guidos in this area who think that they've got to challenge the world to show their manhood. Those spiky haired wannabes would wilt in prison like a Christmas tree in the July sun.
"There a lot of fights in there?"
"Not too many. A couple while I was there. Nothing big. You just gotta be cool in there. Don't take no shit, but be cool. Start working out, stay in shape, just in case."
My trailer park friend said the same thing long ago. "When I was in there, I looked like you- I was doing pushups and situps, pullups off the bars of the cell. When I got out, though...well, I started drinking again", he said, patting his stomach that was larger than I'd ever seen on him. "You see what happened."
Somehow, through all their troubles, the guys who have this kind of history are amiable, talkative types. They enjoy a good laugh, a good cigarette after you've busted your ass all day, a quiet drink right after work. I never understood this until it finally dawned on me: after going through a place like the county jail, how much worse could anything be? If you're not in jail, then it's a damn good day. When the bright sun sets, they do get garrulous... but they know, in the back of their heads, that the last place they want to wake up is back in the county.
At this point, I haven't seen either of them in months. I think the first guy is still out, but my trailer park buddy might be back in. Every time I don't see him ambling around down in the flood section, I wonder where he's sleeping tonight.