I feel my stomach sink, and that queasy, empty feeling takes over my midsection. The handcuffs are digging into my wrists behind me, and I’m very conscious of them. When we arrive at the police station, I’m left in the car while the officer files some paperwork. After 10 or 15 minutes, he returns, uncuffs me, and escorts me into a small room where I’m given a Breathalyzer test to determine my blood-alcohol content. Twice. Literally for “good measure.” Each time, despite my attempt to inhale as much of the room’s air before breathing out, I register 0.11 percent, which is 0.03 percent over the 0.08 percent that defines me as legally impaired. That figure will follow me around for the next year and a half, when one person after another in the drunk-driving program I am sentenced to asks, “What did you blow?”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, the 0.11 means that I’m going to spend the night in the drunk tank, and I’m going to be booked for a violation of Section 23152 of the Vehicle Code, “Driving Under the Influence,” formerly known as “Driving While Intoxicated.” The distinction is noteworthy. The state does not have to prove you were “intoxicated,” only that your driving was “influenced” by the intake of alcohol or drugs.
So the standard booking routine follows. I give up my wallet, keys, coins, wristwatch, and so on; I am photographed and fingerprinted; I’m taken to a dank and urine-smelling cell in which about a dozen men in various states of intoxication are lying, sprawling, leaning, pacing, sitting, and whining and moaning. There is a pay phone on the wall, and someone is always on it. I find a concrete bench about half the length of my body and lie down, closing my eyes, hoping to pass out and wake up to find this is only a nightmare. But of course it’s not, except metaphorically.
The hours pass slowly, very slowly. Minutes feel like hours, hours like whole days. After a while — God knows how long — my name is called and I’m taken to another holding cell outside a glassed-in office where a woman is interviewing detainees, one after the other. In about an hour, my name is called again and I’m cuffed again, this time to a chair, where I sit while I answer questions about any prescription drugs I need to take, where I work, do I have any health problems, and so on. While the questions are tedious, it feels like something of a relief to just be out of a cell and away from the stench of urine, even though I am handcuffed to a chair. Freedom is relative.
When this is over, I’m taken to another cell (it’s now about two in the morning) where there are about a half dozen sleeping or semi-sleeping guys. Every 15 minutes or so, someone’s name is called, and he is escorted from the cell to a small window that is visible from where I sit. At the window he signs some papers, gets his belongings back, and is released into the wee hours of the San Diego morning. This happens regularly until everyone who was in the cell before me is gone. Then suddenly it stops.
Another hour or so passes, and I call to one of the guards, “How come they’ve stopped calling names?” I ask.
“The computer’s down,” he says. “Won’t be back up until about 10 a.m. They update it on Sunday mornings.” Again, the sinking feeling, the queasiness. I lie down on the bench and pretend I’m sleeping.
After what seems like days, I discover that Hemingway was right when he (taking his cue from Ecclesiastes) said “the sun also rises,” and it actually is Sunday morning. The hours continue to crawl by until it’s finally 10 a.m., and like clockwork, the guard calls my name. I’ve never been so glad to hear it. By now, of course, I’m sober as a saint. I sign my name to various documents saying I’ll be in court at a certain day and time, get information about where my car is, get my things back, and walk out into the glorious sunlight. It’s an absolutely beautiful day. Nature has not noticed my arrest, nor anyone else’s. I live only about a mile from the downtown jail, so I decide to walk home. Actually, I don’t have much of a choice, since my car is at an auto wrecking yard somewhere.
After I get home, I look through the papers I’ve been given and find out just where that junkyard is. When I call them, they tell me I will have to pay daily storage for the car until I get it out of there. First things first. I call my insurance company to report the accident and tell them where the car is so their adjuster can look at it. Then I call a friend and borrow her car to go take a look at mine.
When I arrive at the junkyard, I’m truly astonished. The car — a gold 1994 Honda Accord that served me well — is a total loss. One whole side of it is accordionized, the front is bashed in, the windshield is smashed, there’s scarcely a single square foot of it that is not damaged. Both air bags had deployed and are draped across the front seat looking like spent giant condoms. It’s clearly a total loss. So I get my things from the trunk and glove compartment and sign some paper saying that the junkyard can turn the auto over to the insurance company.
I really don’t recognize the gravity of what has happened and how deeply and widely it will affect my life until the first several days of the next week, when each day my mailbox is stuffed with letters of solicitation from lawyers who specialize in defending drunk drivers. (Okay, let me be politically correct: people who are accused of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.) In all, I receive more than 30 of these solicitations, but I am very wary of hiring a lawyer at all. After my first arrest, I hired an attorney who did virtually nothing and charged me $2000 for the privilege of having her represent me. I certainly wasn’t going to hire her again. But this is a second offense, and these solicitation brochures used all sorts of scare tactics to make it seem that if you walked into a courtroom unrepresented for a second DUI offense, you should begin thinking of yourself as certifiably insane.