I have another fear and it borders on phobia. I’m terrified of being trapped, imprisoned, restrained. Then it happened. I was trapped, imprisoned, and restrained. This is my story as I wrote it, minute by minute, as it happened.

9:07: It’s been minutes now since I was free, outside, in the sunshine. That was before I was forced through the machine that x-rayed my belongings and scanned me. I’m being held against my will! They put me in a huge room, the lounge, as they call it. But names don’t matter here. There are a couple of hundred of us in the lounge. I look at the faces around me. Most are heavy-eyed, their minds numbed by the monotony of imposed inactivity. Those of us lucky enough to have laptop or Blackberry are allowed to escape to a smaller cell called the business center where we sit in chairs that are adaptations of the medieval rack, but we don’t complain. We know we are better off. There are only a handful of us.

We don’t speak. The quiet in our cell is interrupted by the slight clicking of nails tapping keyboards. There is a rustle as a newspaper page is turned, but it doesn’t happen often because the owners of these journals milk every word from a page before moving on lest they be left with hours of no distraction to keep them from going mad.

One man has a folder of what looks like legal briefs and contracts with miles of small print. He attacks it hungrily. Speaking of which, I’m worried about the possibility of starvation, scurvy, my hair falling out from malnutrition — even though it’s been only an hour since breakfast, and I smuggled in a biscotti. I’ll call my friends to arrange a break. I’ll go on the lam, hide out with distant relatives I don’t even like.

Too late. They just called us from our cell for a roll call. The lounge is stuffed now. There’s a man who looks like Allen Ginsberg. He stands apart, intent, as though he’s studying the room to find there the truth in words he wrote long ago. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” and so on He alone seems unperturbed. The rest of us are plenty perturbed! Who would be called? I listened, and with every name called, not mine, I breathed a little prayer of thanks.

Suddenly and finally the roll call is over and I’m one of the spared. I watch as the wretches whose names had been called are marched, single-file to their fates, and I know their faces will haunt my dreams for years. For those of us left, there will be other roll calls, and with every one intensified tension. As they go on, I begin to see something like relief on the faces of those whose names are called. At least the not-knowing is over.

It’s 10:47 and it’s happened. My name was called, and it’s possibly the last time I’ll ever hear it. The guards force-march us to another wing where I learn Ruthi is gone. I’m prisoner number 063. I hope they don’t give me a tattoo (or tat as they call it here in the joint). We’re commanded to stand in three lines. I’m at the head of one line. Is that bad? The man who looks like Allen Ginsberg breaks in front of me. It’s okay. I like his poetry.

My legs start to hurt from standing at quasi attention. Shin splints? Is my circulation slowing? Stopping? Just as I think I might faint, a man comes to call us, by number, to form yet another line. Another single-file forced march into a different room. At least here we are allowed to sit. The pain in my legs eases a bit. But will there be permanent damage?

An icy blond woman, probably the warden, speaks to us. “You were handed a piece of paper as you came in.” I looked at the paper in my hand. I’d not even realized it was there. “Write your number on the top right. The guard will pass out pencils. Write nothing else until I order you to do so.” I write my number and go on to start answering the questions because I’m not good at following directions. But something’s happening. I stop writing.

A man in a suit approaches the warden, whispers to her, and steps back. She turns to us and says we can go. Does she mean it? I practically leap over the tall man with the cane beside me to obey her and go before she can change her mind! I’m free, I almost shout it. But, wait, the warden commands. Had she been merely taunting us? Wait, she says again, before you go, return those pencils! I’d dropped mine by my chair, so I stay in the line, marching back to my cell where I’ll wait to learn what they’ll do with me next. A few of us are out the door. A guard chases down the man walking next to me. One pencil nearly got away.

It’s 11:43. I’m still here. Maybe I should keep up with my time by drawing hash-marks on the wall. They just had another roll call. By now I don’t know if it’s good or bad that I don’t hear my number. A sad song wails in my head. “All my trials, Lord, will soon be over.” It’s 11:56. I’m pretty sure I’ll starve.

What’s this in my pocket? It’s the crumpled paper I’d stuffed there as I ran from the warden’s office. I read the list of questions I’m sure they never meant for me to keep. It seems there are things I can do avoid imprisonment in the future. I can comb the newspaper and form strong opinions on every criminal matter that could come to trial. I can become a defense lawyer. I can become a victim of a criminal attack. Here’s one that seems the simplest and least painful. I can join an anti-gun advocacy group. My lap top is already open and Googling its way to the nearest group. I wonder if I have to march to be a member.

More hours have passed. It’s 11:59. There’s an announcement telling us to come back into the lounge. Another roll call? No. The guard looks angry. What will they do to me now? He says something to the group. My mind doesn’t take in his words. Did he say I’m being freed? I can leave? No. There’s a catch. He said before I can leave I have to stand in a line that’s already forming in the hall. Why? To collect wages. I’m to insert the paper with my number and 15 dollars will pop out of the machine.

Another line. No! I’m going to run. I look at the paper in my hand and remember what happened to the man who tried to make off with the pencil. Forget it. I’m going. I look around. Neither the guard nor the man I suspect could be a prison snitch seems to be watching.

I kneel as though to pick up something from the floor and stuff the paper into my shoe. Then I stand and walk toward the exit as quickly as I can without drawing attention to myself. I’m nearly there. Don’t look back, I tell myself. I’m there. I’m out. The air never felt so good. Sweet freedom!


  1. Ann Williams says:

    Ruthi – your blog is like a warm and funny converation with a wonderful, longtime friend – a leisurely stroll of comfortable conversation – love it!!!

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