Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve in Jail 
With the Terrible Tenors

You've heard of the Three Tenors, opera singers Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo, right? Well, this tale is not about them.

Ten-years ago on Christmas Eve, I was locked up at the San Francisco county jail, pictured, with David Pasquarelli because of charges stemming from our over-the-top AIDS accountability campaign that included phone calls at midnight. We each had half-million dollar bail hanging over us, as we waited for the preliminary phase of our case to be heard before a judge.

Neither one had that kind of money sitting in the bank, so our 2001 holiday season was spent in the county lock-up. It's depressing being in jail at anytime, being in the slammer on Christmas Eve can really bring on mental troubles. We simply had to make the best of our bad situation.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, the mood in the pod where were incarcerated was subdued and everyone, including the sheriff's deputies, wanted to be anywhere but inside a jail. Most of the inmates were watching a holiday special on the TV, a few were playing cards or chess, and I was on my power-walk trying to exercise away the blues.

From the sheriff's perch overlooking the pod, one of the deputies demanded everyone's attention. He announced that an inmate, a 20-ish Asian guy charged with shoplifting, wanted to sing for us. The Asian guy sang some of "Jingle Bells" and the TV volume was muted so we could hear him, until he started laughing so hard from who-knows-what he had to end the singing. That brought much-needed good cheer to the pod.

Another inmate, a dark-haired and naturally built straight white guy in his forties (who reminded me of Jim Eigo, a hero of mine from ACT UP/New York), facing auto theft charges walked up to the perch and asked the guard if he could sing.

He sang all of "Silent Night" and brought a feeling of contemplation to many of us, stuck in jail on that cold, dark night. The applause for him may have been not as hardy as for the first inmate, but it was because the mood was quite sad.

"Hey, what about me? I wanna sing too," soon came a voice from the upper level of the pod where the transgender inmates had their segregated section (for their own protection after several of them were sexually groped by horny inmates). The voice belonged to a 40-ish black transgender woman finishing off a sentence for drug use and parole violations.

Try as she did to imitate Eartha Kitt performing "Santa Baby", the sounds out of her mouth were very male, but we all cheered her on even when she couldn't remember all the lyrics. She gave us all a genuine reason to laugh.

After she left the stage, er, sheriff's perch, the deputies said we were getting an extra hour out of our cells because it was Christmas Eve and since all inmates were on their best behavior. This news made us inmates happy and everyone got back to what they were doing before the singing started.

In that bleak situation, the free gifts of song and laughter and extra time to exercise sure brightened my mood, and all because the Terrible Tenors, as I dubbed them, simply had to sing for the inmates and guards. We were all stuck in the Gray Bar Hotel, away from loved ones on the outside, but for a short time that Christmas Eve there was genuine good cheer in our pod.

If you're reading this, count your blessings that you're not in the county lockup! Merry Christmas to all!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a true Christmas tale that rivals Jimmy Stewart's White Christmas. The life of an activist is a blessed one that is surely rewarded in the moment of intention, then the action, and the afterlife. Blessings to all HIV/AIDS activists past and present and future during this 2011 holiday season. ;)