numbering among the institutions from which i am banned is chicago’s Harold Washington Public Library. as far as i’m concerned, Harold Washington Public Library can suck it. Harold Washington Public Library is not an asset to Chicago’s outstanding architectural history. the structure sullies an entire city block in its grotesquely inflated neoclassical splendor. i might describe the library as aesthetically and functionally retarded. the exterior features bronze ornamentation of stylized americana such as corn and indians. the perimeter is lined with dozens of false entrances only one of which is ever open, and so a person must stalk the perimeter until a functional handle is found. once the entry is discovered and breached, one must navigate a labyrinthine corridor to access a cavernous vestibule which serves no function other than being cavernous and aesthetically retarded. from here one must ascend two escalators to a second floor which houses computers shiny with germs for public use, a perpetually empty gallery, and book check-out. riding this escalator involves passing a large piece of laminated wall art comprised of words drawn in crayon that are ‘representative of chicago’ in pairs of two i.e. STRONG LEARNING or LOVE CITY. in what is perhaps an unfortunate oversight, one set of words is CRACK ROCK. once you ascend to the second floor you have the option of using elevators to access your bookfloor of choice or you may continue to ride escalators in a staggeringly ineffective fashion. either way you will pass security -- two sentries at the neck of the check-out floor.
i spent nearly every day at Harold Washington Public Library in the month preceding submission of my Fulbright application in early fall 2008. the week before the application was due, i did not sleep or do much of anything aside from sit in the library photocopying endless pages of shit which seemed pertinent to my country of intended scholarship. on the morning two days prior to the Fulbright application deadline, i photocopied quickly and gathered my things to leave because i needed to pack for my flight to san diego the next day; my ‘gathered things’ included two books i intended to check out because they contained too much pertinent shit to photocopy. i used the bathroom. while in the bathroom i put the books in my handbag so as to not dirty them with library bathroom filth. i was very tired. i forgot to remove the books from my bag. i forgot the books were in my bag. i forgot. i proceeded to exit as usual and passed through security. problems developed rapidly.
i set off the security alarm. as an ostensibly innocent person who feels they are being accused of something unsavory i immediately affected an expression of annoyance and surprise when the guards approached and asked to search my things. i grudgingly complied and opened my bag still not realizing that i had books therein. the guard pulled the books out, and looked at me, and i was kind of aghast. OH THOSE ARE MINE i said and immediately realized that this was the fucking stupidest thing i could possibly say. really said the guard. these look like library books to me. these are yours? he inspected the books. they have Harold Washington Public Library stamped on the inside he pointed. i’m sorry i said i forgot to check out. please let me go through the line. the guard ignored me and summoned a second guard and they examined the books and spoke to each other in hushed tones. i began to sense that i was imminently fucked. the guards summoned more guards with their electronic summoning devices, and these new guards escorted me to Library Security Headquarters, which apparently is a place that exists. i was led into a locker room and seated in a wooden chair in the center of the room beneath a cinematically placed spotlight. i politely answered several questions and appended my answers with yes ma’am and yes sir and proffered my driver’s license and library card. a female guard frisked me. a large, imposing man entered. he was wearing a black suit and a red tie. like satan i thought. he was head of library security. how did you get this library card he demanded. i applied for it SIR i said. but your driver’s license is in california, he hissed. i’m a student sir i said i aquired the library card using verification of my current address in the city here. this doesn’t add up he said. he handcuffed me to the chair and informed me that they were waiting for the police to arrive. it is likely that my eyes were really big and maybe kind of red at this point. the handcuffs were sort of painful, which was something i had not anticipated. i remember thinking ‘the man’ has me in a kind of frantic way.
while waiting for the police to arrive i sat in the chair and listened to the guards in the next room talk about chipotle. I NEED ME SOME CHIPOTLE, the female guard said. I LIKE THAT SALSA THEY GOT THERE.
two police officers arrived, a male and a female, and asked me more questions. they said they were not getting radio reception and would need to take me to another location for further questioning. this other location turned out to be jail, which was another thing that i had not anticipated.
i was led back up the basement stairs flanked by 8 people in uniform with my hands cuffed behind my back. we conducted the ten minute journey through the library’s causeways and library-goers stopped to watch, agape. i felt kind of important, i thought this is how Lindsay Lohan must feel sometimes. i was led to a waiting police vehicle and the female police officer conducted a spread eagle patdown before instructing me get into the back of the car. WHERE ARE WE GOING MA’AM i asked. she didn’t answer.
about twenty minutes later we pulled into Cook County jail. the police officers exited and left me with the driver, who seemed kind of friendly, and who asked how my day was. i said i had probably seen better days, and he replied: IF THIS IS THE WORST THING THAT YOU HAVE TO DO TODAY THEN YOU’RE HAVING A GOOD DAY. i thought about asking him for some sort of context, and then i thought about what Chicago police officers contend with on a daily basis i.e. getting shot in the face, or stabbed, or gang-raped, or being set on fire, and i said YEAH I GUESS YOU’RE RIGHT.
the female police officer and the male police officer, aka ‘my people’, took me into a booth room thing and handcuffed me to a wall. is that really necessary i thought. they had my handbag and removed all of my possessions from my handbag and noted all of my things in a computer database. for some reason this process took two and a half hours, during which i mostly thought about what i would eat when i got home, and acknowledged that i was thirsty and that it was time for me to take my xanax. i felt lonely. i tried to ingratiate myself with the female police officer because i was sure there was humanity in the chicago criminal justice system, and that the good people of law enforcement would take pity on an anorexic college student in a cardigan and pink high heels who had accidentally taken two books from a library in preparation for a scholarship application. i complimented the officer on her eye glasses. she looked at me and did not smile. she asked me a lot of questions that i had already answered several times. she asked me why i had taken the books. i said that i was very tired and had forgotten to remove them from my bag. i said that i had not really slept in several days, i was preparing my fulbright application, did she know what that was, it was a very prestigious scholarship to a foreign country. the male police officer approached and asked about the motive for theft. the female police officer responded TEMPORARY LOSS OF SANITY.
eventually i was placed in a large cell with other detainees. i was never exactly sure what i was waiting for, but i accepted the process as part of american justice. i was handcuffed to a metal bench, and waited another two hours while people filtered in and out. at one point i was completely alone in the cell and i began to hum Amazing Grace to myself. i began to feel increasingly distanced from my body. i began to feel very patriotic. after an hour or two they moved me to a hallway directly outside the cell and i was seated in a chair next to a latino man in his late 20s with several tattoos on his face. he said he liked my shoes. i said thank you. he observed me suspiciously and asked ‘what i was in for.’ LIBRARY THEFT i said WHAT ABOUT YOU. GRAND THEFT AUTO AND POSSESSION OF A CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE he said. OH i said THAT SUCKS.
they called my name and took me into a weird and tiny space that looked like a doctor’s examination room. i was asked to take my hair down. i was frisked again. a woman took my shoes and gave me plastic booties. she snapped my mugshot. in my mugshot i appear to be extremely non-plussed, and this mostly because i was upset about taking my hair down. it had been nicely pulled into a tight chignon, which, when taken down, requires a lot of ‘zhooshing’ to look fluffy and pert, and i was not allowed to ‘zhoosh.’
my prints were taken on a strange machine with an led screen. PROCESSING YOUR PRINTS WILL TAKE BETWEEN 12 AND 24 HOURS the prints processing woman said. WOULD YOU LIKE TO MAKE A COLLECT CALL TO NOTIFY SOMEONE OF WHERE YOU WILL BE. i felt something very bad happen to my heart rate. WAIT i said WHAT i said. YOU WILL HAVE TO STAY HERE UNTIL YOUR PRINTS ARE PROCESSED, she replied. YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND, i said, and maybe my voice became kind of stern and rose an octave or two. YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. I NEED TO FINISH MY FULBRIGHT APPLICATION. I HAVE A PLANE TO CATCH. WELL she said YOU ARE GOING TO MISS YOUR FLIGHT. she led me to a cell. ARE YOU THIRSTY she asked. i nodded. she gave me a three ounce dixie cup of jail water. she closed the door of the cell. she left. to this day it remains a complete mystery why i was placed in a room i later found out was an isolation cell, a part of jail typically reserved for highly violent detainees. perhaps regular jail was full. when my eyes acclimated to the darkness i observed that there was blood and what looked like fecal matter spattered across the walls. scrawlings were carved into all surfaces of the room, reading FUCK U or HELP or ALFREDO RUIZ RIP. there was no place to sit. there was a hole in the floor which seemed to have the dedicated purpose of toilet. a sliver of light shone in through a slot in the door at eye level. in the cell next to mine i could hear officers struggling with another prisoner who may have been getting a chrome rod shoved into his rectum judging from the pitch of his screams. i heard one of the officers say YOU WON’T STOP BLEEDING IF YOU DON’T STOP MOVING.
i ceased to feel patriotic and began to feel very anxious and certain that i would die. i sat down on the floor and rocked back and forth, as per the filmic response to being held in isolation which seemed like the appropriate thing to do but was not particularly comforting in retrospect. after a few hours in the isolation cell my very high prescription dosage of xanax had worn off, and i had a panic attack. i began to pace the room sobbing and hyperventilating in a very uncharacteristic fashion. i started to pound on the door. I NEED XANAX i shrieked. I NEED XANAX AND I WANT TO GO HOOOOOOOOME.
i think i must have been really obnoxious, because pretty soon after that they gave me my pink high heels in a plastic sack, and my handbag and its contents in another plastic sack. they gave me some papers, and they showed me the door. i didn’t know where i was. i thought about taking a cab. FUCK CABS i thought. i thought about taking the el. FUCK THE EL i thought. i walked home. it was maybe four or five miles. it was raining. it was dark.
it seemed like a really good idea to stop at the Loehmann’s on State Street on the way back. they were nearing closing. I NEED A TRAVEL MAKEUP BAG FOR SAN DIEGO. i thought, LOEHMANN’S WILL HAVE A CUUUTE ONE BY BETSEY JOHNSONNNNNN. when i stumbled into the store (and by ‘stumbled’ i mean ‘limped heavily in an utterly delirious PTSD way’) the Loehmann’s security officer’s eyes became very large and his mouth became very small. he stared at the ID numbers that had been scribbled all over my hands and arms with thick black sharpie at various junctures during the day, which i had totally forgotten about, and which were kind of dripping blue from the rain. he nodded toward my arms and asked what the numbers were. I JUST CAME FROM A CONCERT i kind of whispered and this made perfect sense to me at the time. the security guard shadowed me in the store to the extent that i said FUCK BETSEY JOHNSON and continued home. when i finally arrived back at my apartment i looked at myself in the mirror and saw a creature that looked a lot like Mary-Kate Olson after a five day coke bender and forty-five minutes in a washing machine. i drank a bottle of water very quickly. i called my mom and we laughed together, afterwards i sat on my window seat overlooking the city and thought about america and felt very wise.