Harlan Ellison's Day in Jail
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
September 29, 1960, Vol. V, No. 49
My Day in Stir
By Harlan Ellison
If Hemingway hadn't said: "A man should never write about what he doesn't know," I might not have spent 24 hours recently as a guest of the New York City Police Department. But he did, and so I conscientiously decided if I was going to write about juvenile delinquency, I would have to join a kid gang, run with them as one of them, to deal with the subject truthfully.
That was six years ago, and from the 10 weeks spent with the Barons in Brooklyn's Red Hook section, I produced a novel ("Rumble," Pyramid Books, 35 cents) and a book of short stories ("The Deadly Streets," Ace Books, 35 cents). I also came back with assorted weapons used by the kids of the streets which were later used in an extensive tour of PTA, boys'-club, and youth-group lectures on the evils of j.d. Among these implements were a 6-inch stiletto (without switch), several pairs of brass knucks, and a .22 short revolver.
The revolver was in working order, and despite the fact that it was never used for any purpose but that of visual-aid during lectures, it was a weapon. That was fact one. Fact two: the Sullivan Act.
A frightened weirdo whose name will remain forever burned in my heart, bugged at me because I took a dim view of his pawning a typewriter I had loaned him, called the police some three weeks ago and informed them - anonymously - that Harlan Ellison not only had a deadly arsenal in his apartment but (to get quick service from the fuzz) also tons of heroin, marijuana, pep pills, hashish, and the like.
Sunday, September 11, I was arrested by two plainclothes detectives of the Narcotics Squad, who found no junk (hell, I don't even use No-Doz) but who did find a gun. Thus followed a tour through the New York detention system I won't quickly forget. A guided tour through Dante's Inferno.
The Charles Street pokey was my first residence. I lay in durance vile in a cell whose dimensions, if accompanied by handles, might have served as a coffin; a toilet without a seat or flush equipment, a fla hardwood bed-slab, and a light that never went out. The evening was spent sleeplessly, for the body has not been constructed that could find respite on that bunk, reading three books brought by a friend. (For completists, they were Conrad's "Nostromo," "The Wizard of Oz," and "Eichmann: The man and His Crimes." I sometimes wonder about this friend.)
Early Monday morning, September 12, I was taken by paddy wagon to 100 Centre Street, where I was mugged (having already been printed) and tossed into a pen with perhaps 30 other gentlemen, fine specimens all. At one point I was handcuffed to a chap who had hammer-murdered a 14-year-old girl when she would not, as he succinctly put it, "give out with a little trim." After being shunted in and out of a dizzying sequence of pens, cages, and assorted grey-painted enclosures, all of which smelled faintly of vomit and urine, I was brought before the arraigning judge.
Unless you have seen the conveyor-belt justice of an overcrowded New York court, until you have felt the helpless inevitability of not being heard, you don't know what it means to be hung up. The judge, harassed, tired, overworked, and impatient, found it unnecessary to hear any of the facts in the matter and dulcetly intoned: "One thousand dollars bail," at which point my literary agent, on the scene by request, collapsed in an ulcerous heap.
Then began the jollies, as I went through the police-detention routine, while awaiting bail to arrive. The Tombs, as they are aptly called, are very clean, brightly lit, and because of this perhaps more frightening than the typical conception of Torquemada's inquisition chambers.
The closed-in feeling, the almost claustrophobic terror being chivvied, harried, moved in a line without face or freedom - the entire weight of the building, the city, life - everything comes down on you. Don't believe it, a grown man can cry. Frighten him sufficiently, it'll happen.
I saw teen-agers, arrested for the first time, hustled around and caged in with the time-tested homosexuals, junkies in the last stages of withdrawal, acknowledged rapists, heist artists, homicidal types.
It was something out of Kafka of Dinesen, almost Surrealistic, the narrow grey world of the bars; going through the disrobing-and-showering scene, one Negro queer (who carried a bottle of new, clear Stopette roll-on deodorant and two bottles of perfume in his jeans) trying to perform obscenities while the teenagers blanched and dodged. They put you down there, helpless, and then they rub your nose in your own misery. The saucehounds and wineheads vomit on the floor; one of them missed and my shoes carried it for three days no matter how hard I scrubbed them. I stared with morbid fascination at my hands as, after the shower, they were once again fingerprinted, with no soap or water to wash off the black stains; a physical manifestation of my current state as a criminal.
And when they brought in a line of old bums and vags, I saw the truly damned ones of our time. Old men, their baggy pants and white hair and stubbled jowls almost a uniform. The stench of dead whiskey on them. I stared into their dead, hungry eyes and I wanted to say something to them, tell them they could have a piece of my life, anything to stop the hopelessness of what they had become. A cop who had been smoking threw a half-inch butt on the floor and four of them grabbed for it; the one who got it was shaking so badly he burned his lips getting it lit for one puff before his spastic movements confounded him.
The waiting. The nothing-to-do. The putting my hands through the bars so just a little of me could be free. The feeling I was no longer a human being; just another can of anchovies being labeled, packaged, sent down the conveyor belt. The absolute loss of all humanity; the penultimate agoy of realizing my life was in someone else's hands completely, subject to his whim or fancy. And you can't yell: "The game is off. I don't want to play any more!" It's their game, their rules.
And finally the bail came through. I got out - and found the newspapers had been "tipped" to my misdoings and had run a cleverly worded story which (1) made it clear that no narcotics were found, (2) explained that the weapon in question was in my possession for a thoroughly rational reason, and (3) defamed me completely. By inference. By non-statement. The twisted word, the malleable wonder of "have you stopped beating your wife?" And in 24 hours I found myself referred to as: "Oh, yeah, Ellison. Isn't he the writer that got picked up on the junk charge?"
So what good is it? You try to make it in this game, you ply your trade the best you can, and what good does it do? Because there are people who will play with someone's life and career, for a lark, for revenge, for misguided idiocy. There are people who will wash a guy down the drain to get five bucks from the Daily New for a not-quite-accurate tip. There are newspapermen who will go for news even if it isn't really news; to hel with him, if we're wrong we can run a retraction.
Who do you curse? That's the question, God help us all. That's the big thing: who do you blame? Or is the common man just too common?
I've got this Common-Man Wind-Up Doll, see. You wind it up, set it down on a table...and it finks.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.