A few years back, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a measure meant to reduce the number of people arrested for marijuana possession after they’ve been detained under the New York City Police Department’s so-called stop-and-frisk policy. According to the article, “Cuomo…said today at a news conference in Albany that he wants legislators to decriminalize possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana that’s in public view. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he supported the change. About 94 percent of the more than 50,000 arrests last year in the state for 25 or fewer grams of marijuana were in New York City, and 82 percent of those arrested were black or Hispanic, the governor said.” Where were these clowns when I needed them?
Apparently the governor released no statistics at all regarding the remaining 18%, who just might belong to another minority: gay men wearing leggings, smoky gray eyeliner, and a full mane of freshly crimped, ginger tresses. I feel compelled, after twenty-five years, to break my silence and share the heartbreaking story of how a young, guileless gay man was arrested for buying the equivalent of one joint and thrown in the slammer for three days and left for dead. This was an experience for which I was simply not prepared emotionally or, perhaps more importantly, sartorially. The residual trauma of my incarceration and its subsequent shame-based cover-up has, I believe, equipped me uniquely to advise my gay brothers on how to prepare for a visit to prison with a particular emphasis on what not to wear when one is, as the Mob Wives say, “going away.” Wasn’t it David Geffen, himself the very paragon of a well-adjusted gay man , who said, “we are only as sick as our secrets?”
It sounds positively Victorian: I moved back home to New York from Los Angeles in May of 1987 because of poor health. Though just twenty-three, I had been struggling with Crohn’s Disease, a debilitating gastrointestinal autoimmune disease, since my late teens and after a year of being extremely sick on the West Coast, I felt that it made more sense to be starting my career closer to family and friends. Even though L.A. had been initially welcoming—presenting me with the realization of a lifelong dream to work on a major Hollywood film, Martin Ritt’s Nuts (said the film’s star, Barbra Streisand to me after a hospitalization in clipped Brooklynese: “Crohn’s Disease, what the hell is that? Is it something you get from your cronies?”). I was in chronic pain and heading toward a major surgery, so after just a year in in L.A., (cue the theme from Rhoda), I packed it all up and hollered, “okay, New York, this is your last chance!”Flash forward two weeks: on June 16th I was back in New York hanging out with my friend Kristine and ventured into Washington Square Park to buy a little weed, just as my crew and I had always done during our N.Y.U. days, which, at that point, was only “last year.” It was a hot early summer day and a little toke seemed like the perfect accessory for a planned afternoon of romping around the Village in cute little outfits. I left Kristine at the northwest corner of the park with a casual “be right back,” only—like the gas station scene in the brilliant Dutch/French thriller The Vanishing (don’t bother with the insipid American remake with Jeff Bridges)—I went in to the park and I never returned! What happened instead (though far more benign then the last scene of the movie) was a strange enough tale to be worth retelling some twenty-five years later.
After making my purchase, I hadn’t taken more than four steps toward the park’s egress when, faster than you can say “Officer Krupke,” I was grabbed by two undercover cops who frisked me, cuffed me to the dealer—an overweight Jamaican man who was soaking wet in a flop sweat due to the unseemly heat—threw us against a police van, read us our rights, and threw us into the vehicle. There we were: a postmodern Laurel and Hardy for the scofflaw set. It all happened so quickly that there was a cognitive delay: I wasn’t able to process the reality of me, David Munk, a nice Jewish boy, being arrested. Truth is, the only thing I could think about at that moment was Barbra Streisand’s monologue from Live Concert at the Forum, the 1972 Warren Beatty-produced concert to benefit the presidential candidacy of George McGovern, where she lights up a joint, looks out at 18,000 fans, and deadpans, “what….it’s still illegal?” That phrase kept looping in my mind in the voice of Barbra, for it had never even occurred to me that buying a little weed in the park was actually, you know, against the law. In my defense, this was the pre-Guiliani era when people smoked pot walking down the street with complete impunity. Plus, if you saw the shitty count—well, let’s just say, it was about enough for a joint—hardly Midnight Expresss territory.
After their initial aggressive greeting, the cops were actually pretty friendly and informed me that Washington Square Park, my erstwhile playground, was now a “pressure point,” meaning that the city was “cracking down” on its drug trade and what would have been formerly regarded as an infraction meriting a warning or, at worst, a small fine, was now punishable by incarceration and a visit to the judge. Holy Shit! Hoping that they would have a change of heart, I got all Little Bo Peep on them, recounting my mournful tale in a panicked, unexpurgated effluence of oversharing: “But officers please listen to me I just moved back from Los Angeles because I have Crohn’s Disease and may need an operation and was not apprised of the changes in park rules and I only bought the pot to help increase my appetite due to my many hospitalizations and if you would just release me I would never ever cause anybody any trouble and was actually just on my way to my therapist who I see because of the depression from my chronic pain and he is going to be extremely concerned because I never miss a session and…” The cop interrupted my monologue and told me that it wasn’t possible set me free but not to worry because I would probably be “out in a few hours,” which had a salutary effect on my mood. Now becalmed, I decided to just have fun with this very outré experience that was, to be honest, initially difficult because I was still handcuffed to a two-hundred–pound Jamaican man who smelled like salami. I reasoned that since the remark about my therapist was a fib and I didn’t actually have to be anywhere until the next day, why not just have a little fun for a few hours and pretend I’m on a field trip?
When we got to the air-conditioned Precint 6 on West 11th Street I was finally able to breath again. The closest I’d ever been to a police station was watching Barney Miller. I was fingerprinted and given my one phone call, which struck me as cinematic and funny in an old-timey, film noir-ish kind of way. Never having gotten in any kind of trouble for anything—the worst thing I’d ever done was get a “C” in Algebra in ninth grade—once the nice officer had taken the fear piece out of the equation, I found the idea of being arrested and going to jail for an hour or two pretty exciting, which is easily discernible from what can only be described as one of history’s most upbeat mugshots. Two hours in jail…big deal. My biggest concern was that Kristine would worry on account of my disappearance, so in a decision that I would come to rue, instead of calling someone who could actually help spring me from the clinker, I made my one call to my best friend Elisa to relate the unexpected turn of events, my tone more attuned with finding a bargain at Fiorucci than any reality-based assessment of my situation. With visions of Raymond Chandler and Humphrey Bogart dancing in my head, I told Elisa to “get on the horn with Kristine pronto and tell her I got picked up by the coppers. But listen to me, kid, tell the bird not to worry ’cause they say I’ll be outta the joint in no time. I’ll see ya on the outside, baby!”
After I was fingerprinted I was put in a holding cell with the dealer, who tried to make conversation and who I completely snubbed, disconnected as I was from the notion that we actually represented two equal sides of an equation. Instead, I happily surveyed every detail of the place with the curiosity of a 1940s gumshoe, appreciating the chance to observe the mise-en-scene of the criminal element with the discerning eye of a production designer doing research, completely oblivious to the irony that in that moment, I actually was the criminal element.
This might be a propitious moment to describe what I was wearing on that long ago afternoon of June 16, 1987, which may also serve as a primer on What Not To Wear When Going To Prison. Let’s start at my feet: an old pair of Chuck Taylor’s—nothing too odd there; a pair of tan E.G. Smith socks all scrunched down; on my legs I wore a pair of black and cream tie-dyed leggings; over them, a pair of cotton, plaid shorts, also tie-dyed, with a big chunky drawstring; around my waist I wore a sensible, black-leather fanny pack that made it easy to carry a few essentials, including a few loose Darvocet tablets to combat chronic pain (more on that later); a cotton tank top that had bits of scalloped trim about the neck—which made it look more like a camisole; a large, oversized, pin-striped, sharkskin jacket that I had purchased at the flea market in Paris and on warmer days still smelled vaguely like an old French man; a small Indian-beaded satchel around my neck that was a gift from an eccentric friend from L.A.—Dawn Littlehawk—and was said to contain a mystical blend of herbs that would protect me from harm (a claim that would soon be discredited by the details of this story); on my lapel, I wore an evocative gold-toned brooch from the 1960s that depicted a Venitian idyll, replete with gondolier in mid-stroke; an armful of bracelets of every possible size and material from wrist to my elbow; from the neck up, I looked like nothing as much as a Long Island dentist’s wife on her way to the city for a big night out: a long dangling ceramic earring (see detail below); smokey gray eyeliner; and, the piece de resistance, my hair: long, red, and completely crimped!. This, my friends, was an outfit for Danceteria, not for an extended trip to prison.
Here is a close-up of my earrings from that period:
After about fifteen minutes, a C.O. (“correction officer,” to the uninitiated, or, if you’re a devotee of women’s prison films as I am, “matron”) banged on the bars and said we were moving. Excitedly, I figured my little visit to prison had come to an end. “The perfect length,” I thought, “not too long, not too short—I can’t wait to tell Elisa everything,” as they chained me to the dealer again and walked me to a common space. Suddenly we were approached by a very intimidating, very large black officer who reminded me of Louis Gossett in An Officer And A Gentlemen in mien and temperament, and who began to scream “give me your shoelaces and the drawstring from your shorts!” Don’t you hate it when people start a conversation pre-angered? Though I was confused by this man’s hostility and duly frightened, I was not too frightened to ask “why?,” which I was soon to find out was not a good question. “‘Fuck you is ‘why,’ don’t make me ask you again!” Evidently in possession of a reference point I was lacking, my dealer bent over and whispered to me, “it’s so you won’t hang yourself,” which, though perhaps intended to help, made me feel exponentially worse, an unequivocal portent that my adventure was not in actual fact at an end, as I had assumed, but at some indeterminate mid-point. It turns out I was wrong on both counts because my visit to jail was just beginning.
I desultorily complied with my captor’s directive, removing the shoelaces from my Chuck Taylors and the drawstring from my shorts, my thoughts now migrating from the playful identification with Bogie to the significantly less hopeful identification with heiress Patty Hearst. Quicker than you can say “Tania,” another matron brought a chain gang of prisoners into the room, one shackled to the next, just like in Cool Hand Luke, only a quick survey of this group did not reveal anyone who resembled Paul Newman as much as a generic bunch of dirty, menacing criminals! I was starting to have a vertiginous feeling of displacement as I realized the next chapter of the story was going to include something much less fun than sitting with Elisa at a cafe in the West Village and smugly laughing about the odious transformation of Washington Square Park into a sanitized police state. My criminal compadres and I were led and loaded into a police van bound for points unknown.
Read part two: