I read the Pelican Brief like six times during my time in jail. It was either that or the Bible, and, honestly, I read a lot of that, too. In jail you have plenty of time to ponder it all, even the validity of John Grisham and burning bushes.
I wasn’t there long, not compared to most of the women — bad check writers, shoplifters, addicts, and the mysterious, tight-lipped others I co-habitated with. I was only there for 30 days. And it wasn’t even 30 consecutive days. After 20, I did weekend jail until I’d clocked in 10 more nights. A cocktail of a DUI and a DUS landed me there.
December 3, 1998 began like any other day. Shower, coffee, a cigarette. But there were slight alterations as the morning progressed. Instead of ironing my work uniform, I dressed for court. A brown pantsuit I’d shoplifted the year before, with wide-legged trousers and a sheer, floral shirt. Instead of packing my bag with a wine tool and a clean apron, I stood in front of my dresser and emptied my purse. Money? Nope, won’t need that in jail. And for that matter, my jewelry could come off, too. I put my rings and cash in a drawer, packed my Marlboro Lights, and said a useless prayer as I headed for the door.
I knew the officer, a family friend, who drove me to Leeds Avenue from the courthouse. Before escorting me inside, he allowed me one last smoke. I stared at myself through the rearview mirror and said so long to the 21-year-old who had been hiding from reality for so long. Goodbye to the girl who numbed the events of that year with alcohol, and who swept all that ailed under the rug. “I’ll deal with that later,” I always thought. Later had finally arrived.
In 20 days, surely, I’d be myself again, the girl with ambition and purpose, who could call a cab at 3 a.m., obey the speed limit, and go back to college. I exhaled the last of the smoke, and I was gone.
What I remember the most are the following: I longed for the Christmas season. What I missed the most was that feeling, the Christmas spirit, that didn’t exist within my cell walls. I could hear workers reminisce on holiday parties, eating out, and living life. It was so within grasp, but not at all attainable.
I remember staring out my window, baffled at how close yet far away I was to the cold December air. Sometimes we walked outside, and though we were still enclosed I still relished the feeling of grass.
I missed live music and my CD collection, though I was grateful that I could purchase a radio walkman from the “canteen.” The canteen: where the outside world could make its way to us in the form of crossword puzzles, colored pencils, Kit-Kats, and potato chips. Anyone who gave a shit from “the outside” (yes, that’s really what it’s called from inside) could deposit funds into a loved one’s canteen account. My friend Steve is responsible for my walkman, my salvation. Though 96 Wave provided hours of relief, I still strangely found myself in tears over songs like Creed’s “My Own Prison” and “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan. Like I said, you have enough time in prison for most anything to make sense.
I remember eating rice so much that to this day, I shy away from it as much as possible. I remember Steve visiting me and noting my freakishly white teeth — nothing to do but brush your teeth sure results in some pearly whites. And I remember Friday nights — we were set free in the common room to watch Showtime at the Apollo, a memory I genuinely look back upon very fondly.
My favorite fellow jailbird was someone I rarely spoke to — she wasn’t the talking type. But she had a message for me every day and delivered it under my door each morning. The notes contained simple words of encouragement along with scripture. After high school, I hadn’t known where to turn for a long time. I’d always had the Bible — my upbringing taught me to cling to it, though the real world raised questions that made me flee from it, its lessons and all. Still, that’s what I needed at that time. Not Sarah McLachlan, and certainly not Creed. But familiar, comforting words that made those lonely moments easier to bear.
On December 23, I returned to Christmas and my coveted cigarettes. Though I gave up smoking six years ago, my Christmas spirit ascends with each passing year, and it’s safe to say I’ll never take this season (or Uber, or good music, good books, and good food) for granted ever again.
Merry Christmas, Charleston.
Kelly Rae Smith is the CP music editor, plus a freelance writer and business owner who lives in West Ashley with her partner, two dogs, and three Christmas trees.
Alison Brynn Ross is a Charleston native who works with line in 2 and 3 dimensions, with illustration and wire taxidermy. See her work at AlisonBrynnRoss.com.