I expect the visit to start at exactly two o’clock, but when nothing seems to be happening, of course I’m immediately worried I’m waiting in the wrong place. Which is dumb, because there’s only one place to wait.
After five more minutes, the Deputy who checked me in comes through a door in the back of the booth. She carries a handful of white papers and her walk to the center of the waiting area is determined. She calls out, “Two o’clock visit!”
Bam! My hand pops into the air like my pre-school teacher had just asked who can spell the word cat.
No one else raises their hand.
The Deputy looks at me, and then back at the papers in her hands.
A couple in their sixties walks up and takes the paper from the deputy.
“Ohhhhhh, I get it now,” I say in a too-loud whisper.
OK. Name is called. Visitor walks up and takes the paper and gets in the line to the metal detector.
Oh for God’s sake, she’s not taking attendance, I remind myself as I get my paper, say “Thank you,” and get in the line.
Another Deputy starts moving from person to person along the line, comparing picture IDs to the visitor name on the paper. He takes my paper, looks at Daniel’s name, and then back at me.
“You haven’t been here before, right?”
“So how do you know him?” He seems genuinely curious.
“I actually met him just before his arrest, but I didn’t start writing to him until a couple months ago.”
“Wow. It’s such a crazy story. Do you know where you’re going?”
A weightier question for me than he knew. “Not exactly.”
“After you go through the metal detector, head to the elevator and take it up to J. He’ll be in J4.” He shows me the letter J and number 4 that someone had written on the top of my paper in black Sharpie.
“Thank you,” I smile.
The line moved at a good pace. Most of my stuff was in the locker. I have the key on a red elastic wrist band, my paper and my ID, and I put them in the miniature white plastic basket before going through the detector. I don’t need to remove my Vans, but I mentally note that I should never wear my black combat boots with the metal studs.
I pick up my things and walk over to the elevator to join the other waiting visitors.
So far, so good. In spite of having a dry mouth and pounding heart, I’m doing OK. I really wish I could have taken my water bottle with me. How exactly is a bottle of Arrowhead going to be a security risk? I promise it’s not a Molotov cocktail, or I wouldn’t be drinking from it.
The elevator doors open and everyone stumbles inside. “J” was the next floor up. I wondered what happened to floors “A” through “I.”
Even though Daniel and I had been writing back and forth for a couple of months, standing in that elevator I’m not sure if we’ll have enough to talk about to fill a one hour visit.
The elevator doors open again and two women get off. One has a small boy with her around the age of four. I follow them out.
Directly ahead and to the right are walls of glass. I can see down to the floor where we’d just been. To the left is a hallway, and this is where the other visitors head. There are no signs, just a green arrow. It feels more like an abandoned inner city high school than a jail, and reminds me of when I taught English as a Second Language in downtown Los Angeles.
I follow the hallway for three turns, then finally come to an end at a doorway marked with a stenciled “J.”
Inside, I see a row of metal stools butted up to a large glass window. There are small wall dividers creating semi-private “cubicles.” Each has a steel shelf jutting from the window and a white telephone receiver hanging from a cord coming out from the wall. I wonder if it had actual real wires and such, or is this just a creepy game of “telephone?”
There are signs reminding you your conversations will be recorded. Even though I don’t plan on talking about anything important, that still feels awkward. Invasive, even.
Side note: In TV and movies, people always seem to be able to kind-of hear through the glass. This is not true. Sometimes, you can barely hear the other person even when you have the static-y phone pressed to your ear. I always end up taking out my earrings because they stab into my head.
People aren’t sitting down, even though we all have papers with our cubicle numbers. I ask the woman with the little boy about this and she explains it’s because the inmate doesn’t always get brought to the correct cubicle. “You could be sitting in J4 and the person you’re visiting is locked in at J2. Once they are locked in, they are stuck.”
It’s nice that other visitors were so helpful.
I do that, now. When people are confused, I’m the person who explains how the lockers work, which is harder than you’d think.
“When you put in your quarter, do not take the key out before you close the locker door or you’ll end up with it locked open. Then you have to put the key back in and use another quarter.” Lady in the red shirt—if you’re reading this—thank you again for your assistance.
I see Daniel Wozniak being led by a deputy to his side of J4. He waits patiently for the guard to open up the little cage and lock him inside. Their conversation looks almost amiable.
Daniel wears the ubiquitous orange jumpsuit. I can see a white cotton t-shirt peeking up through the top of the V-neck. His hands are in his pockets. No handcuffs or leg shackles like in court.
He’s a big guy, but he looks thinner than when I’d met him at the theatre. In spite of his height, Daniel doesn’t come off as intimidating at all. He has a friendly and slightly sheepish smile on his face, and he’s sporting the hair style and facial hair of Hugh Jackman in Wolverine.
Yes. You did read that correctly. He’s a huge Hugh Jackman / Wolverine fan and had done this for Halloween (obviously he didn’t go trick or treating, but I could see doing anything to pass the time). I must say, it was pretty damn accurate. Halloween was long over, but he hadn’t changed it yet. He thought it was funny. I did, too.
There was another thing about it that was weird: that day, I’d chosen to wear a Marvel t-shirt featuring Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor and Wolverine. A bizarre coincidence that we both found pretty entertaining. Ice broken.
Turns out, we have enough to talk about for an unheard-of three hour visit. To this day, that is still the longest visit we’ve ever had. Usually it’s an hour, and that’s it. I learned later that the guard told him he let the visit go on so long because it looked like we were “having a good time.”
I honestly can’t remember everything we talked about, just like you might not remember all the specifics of your dinner conversation with a friend. There was a lot of laughing. It was easy.
I do recall talking about how my son and I had recently been reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I told Daniel that we watched the Gregory Peck movie version from 1962, and we got in a discussion about the possible modern casting if Hollywood were to re-make the movie today. When Daniel jokingly suggested Tom Cruise could play 2015’s Atticus Finch, my response was to threaten him with bodily harm (specifically a jail phone hitting him upside the head). He pretended to cower even though we were separated by thick glass.
This has become a running joke when I visit. He’ll says something sarcastic and immediately pretend to cower and then say, “put down the phone.”
The visit is, dare I say, fun.
I didn’t even notice that four year old boy had lifted my locker key out of my back pocket… until his mortified and extremely apologetic mother finds and returns it to me.
I know the visit is over when the deputy comes back to take Daniel out of his small cage… in order to lead him back to a slightly larger one.
Daniel thanks me for visiting and tells me he’d write soon (this first visit was long before we started also speaking on the phone). I promise that I’ll also write him, and that I’ll visit him again.
I keep watching him as he’s walked down a set of stairs and through a set of doors.
When I can’t see him anymore, I walk back down the hallway and get on the elevator.
Going outside, I feel like it’s sunnier, clearer, and the air smells fresher than when I got there.
I buy an ice cold Diet Coke from a vendor and head back to my car.