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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
I was recently confined to a holding cell in Inglewood as a result of some civil disobedience. This was part of a planned direct action against one of the companies that operates out of LAX airport. This action took place the busiest travel day of the year, November 21st.
Getting arrested itself wasn’t too bad. I was a little worried that I might get overly emotional. I’m always so nostalgic at protests— each one like it was my first. The moment before an arrest I get glassy eyed and usually have to take a glug from my water bottle to cover up the fact.
This time the cops surrounded me, the Sergeant was giving me orders, telling me what was to happen. That when he said so, I would have to scoot to my left while someone in front held on to my right foot. While he was speaking to me someone was putting pressure on my shoulders and leaning on my back. It felt good. The pressure was a sigh of relief. I wanted to ask for a massage and at the same time thought of my dog in her thundercoat and little kids with autism I used to do behavioral therapy with. I thought of when I placed a led blanket on one of those kids when they were feeling untethered in the world and how it was like adding a string to a helium balloon.
When I got up I immediately spread my legs, turned my head to the left and clasped my fingers together, one of the cops asked, “Have you been arrested before?”
And I replied “No but my partner is a Sheriff’s deputy and I helped her practice at home.”
There was a chuckle and then I was put in the back of the paddy wagon. There were two other people already in there waiting by the time I was put in. We were to have twelve arrests in all.
The paddy wagon is metal inside. There are little holes in the ceiling for air conditioning but we did not have any air conditioning. There was also a little circle in the roof with a camera pointed at us. The guy sitting on my left had bad breath and the guy sitting on my right started to flip out the moment door closed and there was no light and no air. He started to say how he was going to, “Choke that bitch ———— who had arranged the whole thing.”
He was calling the cops assholes and stupid motherfuckers and I just kept looking forward out of the front window of the van.
I thought about how Charles Baxter called the front window of a car another screen in his essay “Stillness” in Burning Down the House. How at this moment it was true—the window was my screen and I was watching the world move outside. Cops in full riot gear, protestors, I was watching everything outside move while I was stuck sitting still. I started to feel really woozy. With the heat and no air. If I didn’t think about it, if I just looked at a spot on the floor, or if I looked out the window at the light I’d be okay.
And then I thought about something else. I thought about how other parts of my life prepared me for this. I thought about how when I was a kid my mom locked me in the closet. Only she didn’t really lock me in because there was no key required to access the closet, which meant she just really shoved me in there. She told me to sit in the closet and to think about what I’d done.
My mom got this idea because I was caught shop lifting once and I’d promised to never ever do it again. She thought there was something to the holding cell idea. She didn’t realize that I confessed I’d never do it again because she was hitting me with a hanger and shaking me and her eyes were a scary concentrated vile look and her nails cupped little half moon marks into my shoulders as she shook me, demanding “Tell me you will never do that again.”
So I told her but then the next time something came up, (cigarettes), she decided to shove me in her closet. It was a walk-in-closet that would have had space but it was stuffed with clothes and shoes, and heat rises and so there was no air and the light switch was on the outside so I sat in the dark and the worst part about the whole thing was the roaches. This apartment was stuffed with roaches, little empty manila cocoons all over the place. I knew what that meant, roach eggs, with roach babies. Roach babies that humped or fluttered or whatever they did and made more more more.
When I was there I also thought about how I was okay, how I had this endurance in me because if you told me just how long everything was going to take I would be fine. If there was a start time and an approximate end time in sight I would be okay.
Eleven o’clock. That was the approximate end time. It was currently 2:00 pm. They would be able to pick me up bail me out and let me out buy 11:00 or midnight at the latest. There was a batch of phone numbers written on the insides of my arms. The jail liaison teams numbers, the attorney, a former teacher/activist willing to bail me out.
10:00 am that morning all the arrestees got briefed and one of the guys sitting next to me, that showed up late, that needed to be caught up, asked me for the numbers. He was copying the phone numbers that were written on my arm. I covered up the final number. The number of my former teacher. That was my number. My special number. And this specialness made me think of something else. It made me think of being in foster care. Of being in another van marked with the seal of L.A. COUNTY that transported us foster care kids to and from Children’s court. I was often being courted from a family home to the court while the other kids were carted back and forth from big anonymous institutions and that in a way made me feel special or lucky or different in some minute way.
A minute way that mattered deeply. The thing that affected me most about foster care was the complete lack of privacy. Everything shared. Everything observed. Everything seen and heard. I don’t think I slept fully from that moment on. I had great difficulty sleeping in public. I was scared of being robbed or made fun of. I was still a young teenager, fifteen, so I was really self-conscious and didn’t ever want to be seen doing anything that could have embarrassed me.
On the way to the jail one of the guys hollered out could they please pull over? Could they please pull over his feet were falling asleep and he thought he might be getting a blood clot. The officer asked him did he in fact get a blood clot? He insisted no. But it was possible that he could eventually get one.
We were on the freeway. We were almost there. The guy next to me that was talking about assholes and bitches and sweating profusely said that if he could make it okay with his circulation in his hands fully cut-off then he expected that motherfucker to make it.
Once we were booked back at the police station all the women and I shared a holding tank. We sang and sang and sang. I happen to know all the words to all the songs in Annie so that was my contribution and then there were songs like We Shall Overcome and Lean on Me and I thought about how much resilience women have. How our threshold for discomfort seems to be greater than others. I thought again how if you just told us when, when approximately the discomfort would end, we’d be okay.
I was thinking about how the people that were whining were the men. Complaining about their arms and their legs and looking as if they might be on the verge of loosing their minds. And then I learned later that they were both military men and they were maybe suffering a little bit from PTSD. Sometimes I wonder if I have PTSD but it seems to work in the opposite way. It seems to make it hard for me to understand and accept love. It seems to give me screwed up messages about the way people feel about me.
Dorothy Allison came to teach at my school and she spoke about the importance of home in stories. Dorothy Allison acknowledged that our home, our original home, could be a fucked up place but in this instance by ‘home’ she meant either an established place or one we’ve created for ourselves and writing from the comfortable center of that place but then reaching back into the abyss of the fuckedupness.
Allison gave us a writing assignment, to write from Home and begin with the sentence, “Fuck I was not ready for this…”
I realized in that moment that this lack of compass is my deepest pain. It’s true that today I have a home, one I created with a girlfriend, and dogs, and a cat. But I’ve been completely untethered from my biological echo. It’s that feeling of homelessness that I will never get rid of. I used to say I suffered from the disease of More. I always longed for more more more. More food, more fuck, more hurt, more worry, more work. I thought that insatiability was handed to me through my mother’s genes of mental instability or my father’s addict tendencies. I’ve worked hard to rid myself of that discomfort but sometimes I’ll find myself up all night, writing, reading several books at a time, reading aloud to myself, pacing, revising, a place alive with mania and that might be my home. An agitated place.
It was in the holding cell that I saw this as a great asset. I was made of the strong stock to do these sorts of things and that for once that was good. The next day was Thanksgiving and I awoke to my picture in the paper. I was proven wrong. I went to my foster parent’s home for dinner. There all over their house was my picture. A photo from the LA Time of me being arrested. It was on the stairwell and in the fridge and on the toilet.
I have not been an easy foster child. I got decent grades, but I smoked and drank and was promiscuous and at times needed lots of attention and was very withdrawn in lots of other ways. My internal life has always been very rich. I tested every one of my foster mother’s ideals. Although she was independent and a feminist and used to making a way for herself amongst her siblings, I took it all to another level. I’m a lesbian and was active in politics. I started a young communist league in Los Angeles. In my early twenties I left to drive a car across country and work for the Communist Party in New York.
I have spent any period of time after the age of fifteen suspicious of people’s love. When I learned that there was no such thing as permanence in the child welfare system I fostered a feeling of detachment with the world and could not see any good things that were offered me.
So you see what happened to me was that I was in my folks place, that is less then five miles away from my house but I only go to over the holidays. I was there and I was seeing that despite our differences they were proud of me. Despite our differences they loved me. I realized this is Home. I have a home. I have several homes. I have a home in the hearts of a Dutch-Indonesian woman and a British man that live not too far from me in Glendale California. They have seven kids between them and I’m one of them. I also have a home in the Pacific Palisades in the heart of a woman that is now a retired social worker. She has big red frizzy hair because she suffered from the German Measles as a young girl and she loves me so hard and strong and always offers me food and a house on the hill with a bed with my name on it should I ever need it.
There’s a home for me in the heart of a pit bull terrier named Tsuki, that I met one day when I was interviewing a woman on Skid Row. I wanted to see if she was eligible to come to a program I worked at, a transitional housing program for women, but she wasn’t interested in coming—instead she pointed to an underweight dog with cigarette burns on her chest and back and asked maybe I could take her. I told her we didn’t take dogs but the second I tried to turn my back I knew that she was mine and I was hers.
Then there’s the home I’ve built for myself with my girlfriend. Where I live there’s a bridge that dips and turns into Glendale Blvd., the main vein that runs through Atwater. The east side of the vein houses young hipster parents that go to Bikram yoga and drink a green milky beverage called “Pirates Chai” over at the cafe. The west side of the vein markets at the discount bulk store “Costco” and eats dinner at Sizzler. The street is lined with nail shops, latin food, a dance school, a children’s crafting station. The local wine shop arranges food trucks to serve tapas. There’s medicinal marijuana storefronts and a quaint bookstore. This is Atwater Village, where me and my girlfriend and at least another couple that live along the L.A. River lay kissing into the night.
Melissa Chadburn is a lover and a fighter, a union rep, a social arsonist, a writer, a lesbian, of color, smart, edgy and fun. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in Guernica, PANK Magazine, WordRiot, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, SLAKE, Salon, Northville Review, The Rumpus, and she is a regular contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. Reach her at fictiongrrrl(at) gmail.com or follow her on twitterhttp://twitter.com/#!/