I moved to Houston from San Antonio at the age of 24 because a best friend lived there, but mostly because it seemed like the perfect party environment. Sure, I would go to University of Houston and get a job, but partying was the real reason for the move. Partying was the only way I was going to find the “one”, or so I thought. I know my dad was leery about the move, and I didn’t reveal the real reason he would have to lug my stuff from San Antonio to Houston, although I’m sure he knew. He helped this prodigal daughter out anyway.
One weekend in the Fall of 1995 (or was it 96? Who knows, it’s all a blur now), I traveled from Houston to Temple, Texas to attend my precious nephew Xavi’s birthday party. I had a wonderful time celebrating with family, and all seemed right with the world. Sunday afternoon I got back in my Honda Civic to head back to Houston with a smile on my face and a bounce in my step after getting my tank filled up with “family time”. My mom reminded me to call her upon my return home. The drive back was beautiful – rolling hills, sunshine, car was working fine. I even passed the Blue Bell Ice Cream capital of Brenham, Texas.
When I got back to Houston, I grabbed a few baskets of clothes from my apartment and drove over to my best friend’s apartment to get some laundry done. I drove down Westminster singing along to the 90’s grunge songs on the radio. My smile quickly faded and my heart started thumping out of my chest when I saw the lights of the cop car behind me. “OH NO! Why didn’t I take care of that freaking ticket?” I pulled into the parking lot of a beauty salon. I could see the 2 cops slowly walking to my car as I whispered a popcorn prayer to God. The next few moments were a blur and all I remember is that in a matter of a few minutes I was sitting in the back of a squad car. I had failed to pay a traffic ticket. A warrant had been out for my arrest for well over a month. I was headed to jail in downtown Houston. The cops were nice. They didn’t handcuff me. They were supposed to impound my car, but they said I could leave it in the parking lot and pray that I didn’t get towed. They tried to encourage me and tell me that it wasn’t the end of the world, but boy, it sure felt like it. They told me that I would get my phone call and I would be out before I knew it. I slumped in my seat and decided right then that nobody could know about this. I wasn’t going to use my phone call. Pride entered in…well, long ago but it was rampant in that squad car.
We arrived at the jail and the cops told me to ignore the male inmates’ inappropriate comments as we entered the “booking” area. My fingerprints were taken and I had to sign some paperwork. The ticket that had caused all of this trouble was for “failure to show proof of insurance”. I told the cop who was preparing me for my night in jail that I did in fact have insurance (I couldn’t find the card during the initial traffic stop..still, I was guilty for not dealing with the ticket) and that my proof was in the purse that another cop had just taken downstairs. Either they were unwilling to bring my purse to me or by law they were not allowed to look in my purse. Nevertheless, jail would be my home at least one night, because remember, I had already decided I would call NO ONE!
They put me in a temporary holding cell with one woman brought in on prostitution charges who appeared to be strung out on something big time. She was begging to go to the clinic. My heart hurt for her – for whatever led her to prostitution and for the pain she was enduring. An older lady joined us shortly thereafter. She was kind and could tell that I had never been there before. I wasn’t crying yet, but I’m sure I looked very anxious. She asked what my crime was and I managed to mumble it. She looked me right in the eye and said “Honey, it’s going to be okay. God is taking care of you”.
About an hour later, the three of us were escorted hand-cuff free to the “big house” – the cell block. There was a large holding cell with exposed toilets (the first thing I saw) and tons of rowdy women watching TV. I was surprised there was a TV. I hesitantly walked into the cell and tried to remain unnoticed. I found a small spot on the bench to sit down and contemplate my dilemma. I noticed one of the ladies talking on the pay phone attached to the wall. It was in an interesting spot – right underneath the TV. I thought “NO WAY, Nope, I’m not going to use THAT phone. I’ll just serve my time”. Then, I started thinking about the job I was supposed to start the next day. I was so excited I had gotten hired at Pappasito’s as a waitress and Monday would be my first day of training. I also thought about the classes I had and the homework still left undone. I had planned to work on it after the laundry.
Dinner was brought in later that day. I took one look at it and decided I would be fasting during my stint in the big house…pride again. I shyly asked one of the ladies if she would like my meal. She asked if I was sure. “Yeah, I can’t eat anyway”, I mumbled. I kept looking at the phone. It seemed it was never free. Some of the ladies spoke to me a little bit. They could tell I was scared. I don’t remember all that was said, but none of them were mean to me or wanted to “get” with me (like you see in movies or Reality TV).
After dinner we were escorted to smaller cells. If I remember correctly, there were 2 beds in the smaller cells, but four of us ended up in the cell that first night. It was first come, first serve and this non-confrontational, scared to death girl wasn’t about to scuffle over a bed. I knew I wasn’t going to sleep anyway, so my bed was the floor. At one point I remember me and my cellmates sitting around chatting like we were at a campfire. I was telling them about all the heartache I had caused my parents and that I just couldn’t seem to get my act together. They shared some of their stories too. The older lady, I think her name was Maria, who was with me in the booking cell was one of my cellmates. I will never forget what she said that night. Well, first of all, she explained to me that in the morning we would go to court and that I should plead NOT GUILTY – she said more than likely the cop wasn’t going to show since it was a first offense and she tried to convince me that I wasn’t guilty anyway. Then she said “Mija, it’s going to be okay, maybe God is protecting you from something on the outside, maybe that’s why you’re here, it will all work out, don’t you worry.” I started bawling and I made a decision to believe what she was saying, even though I had been ignoring God for quite awhile.
That night I tried my best to keep my cries under wraps, but even though I don’t think I was crying out like the guy that bets were made on in Shawshank Redemption, I was desperate and fearful and the tears were flowing non-stop. Even though Maria was kind to me, I wondered if I really should follow her advice and plead NOT GUILTY. I wondered if a trick was being played on the “wimpy” girl. But I decided I would follow her advice.
I talk to God that night a lot. A lot of apologies were made. I made a lot of pleas..pleas for the Lord to please get me out of this mess, pleas for him to change my life, pleas for him to still love me even though I was always screwing things up. I slept ZERO that night, and my stomach was in turmoil.
The next morning the “wardens” (are they called wardens in jail?) woke us up and served us breakfast, of which I only drank a few sips of milk. They didn’t tell us we were going to court, but thanks to the experienced inmates in my cell explaining to me what was going to happen, I knew it was coming. The sad news was that sentencing wouldn’t take place until the following day. The phone was looking awfully tempting, but I had made a decision.
We walked in a straight line through an underground tunnel to the courthouse. When we arrived at the courthouse, we were taken to a small room with white walls and benches, and our companions were scores of dead cockroaches. The prostitute that I had seen in the booking cell the first day was attempting to place a tongue ring in her friends tongue. How she managed to have something sharp like that in jail was beyond me. The ladies were screaming and taunting them saying she was going to give her hepatitis and kill her. I just wanted out.
I plead NOT GUILTY. The cop didn’t show to contest my verdict.
That night was a total blur. I think I fell asleep a few times, and I actually had a bunk. The ladies that were with me the first night had been bailed out, so I had a new set of cellmates. A young mother showed up late that night. She was arrested with her toddler daughter in the car, for bouncing a check. She told me that the cops were going to call CPS to pick up her daughter. She said she told them to call her husband, but they wouldn’t listen. They finally complied when she begged and pleaded.
It was the same routine the next day, although a lot of the faces from the previous day were replaced with new faces and my tears had run dry. The judge released me for “time served”, but I wouldn’t see freedom until late afternoon.
I was exhausted, stinky, and starving. I’ll spare you the details of toilet issues. I was given my purse and release papers. I was FREE. I walked out of the jail and the bright sun burned my eyes after two days of fluorescent lighting, no windows, and rivers of tears. Pride still ruled my thoughts. I decided I would take the bus home with the few dollars I had left in my purse. I asked one of the ladies I recognized from the cell block where I could catch the bus. She advised against it. She encouraged me to call someone to pick me up.
I went back inside and dialed my best friend’s number. No answer – only the answering machine. I left a message. I thought about who else I could call and came up blank. Her number was the only one I knew by heart…well, of the few friends who lived in Houston. No way was I going to call family. I wanted them to think I was getting my act together. I was making it in the big city. I didn’t need help. I decided to walk back outside in hopes that the sunshine would help me come up with a solution for getting home. I was two steps out the door when I saw three men walking up the jailhouse steps. They looked familiar but the sun was still blinding my eyes. “Tina!!” my dad yelled out. I squinted and saw my dad, my brother Jeff, and one of my dad’s best friend from high school, TG, surrounded by sunlight. They looked like angels. “Daddy!!!” I exclaimed and ran over and hugged him for who knows how long with tears flowing to my toes and onto the pavement. He cried too. No questions were asked. He did tell me they had been so worried and thought the worst had happened. He told me they had an APB out and had been calling all of the hospitals and police. When I calmed down, Jeff chuckled and said “You could have at least called me”. Dad had traveled from McAllen to Houston to find his prodigal daughter and Jeff had traveled from Temple to find his “head always in the clouds” sister. My dad handed me his best friend’s mobile phone (one of those huge mid-90’s cell phones) as soon as we got in his truck and said “Call your mother, she’s been worried to death.” I could see joy and relief on my dad’s face. At no time did I see condemnation or shame on his face, nor in the face of my brother or dad’s friend. I dialed home, and my mom answered right away. She scolded me, but in the way that Elliot’s mom scolded him after he was missing all night trying to get ET home. Can you picture it? We cried on the phone for awhile as I relayed some of the details of my ordeal.
They drove me to the beauty salon, and guess what? My car was still there. Grace upon grace.
Jeff had to return to Temple for work the next day and dad and his friend took me to dinner. I was ravenous. They asked me what jail was like and I told them all I remembered. My dad, with tears in his eyes, ordered me to please call him if I am ever in trouble again. He told me that he and TG had gone to Pappasito’s to look for me. They even had to beg the apartment manager to let them into my apartment, fearing what they might find. They found a mess, but no sign of me.
After dinner, dad and TG followed me to my apartment to ensure I arrived safely. Dad had a flight back to McAllen early the next morning, so he was going to stay at TG’s house. I collapsed on my bed after a long shower and started listening to the messages on my answering machine. There were 26 messages in all. The flood of tears resumed after I heard my mother’s voice, then my father’s , then my mother’s, then my brother’s, then others – begging me to call them, wondering where I was, pleading with me to call them back, apologizing for anything they may have done to cause me pain, etc. 26 messages of that. I couldn’t listen past the 13th message. I think I had a pretty good idea how much I was loved, both by my family and by God right at number 13. The tears would not stop. I think Maria was right – God had me in the big house for a reason. I look back and am so saddened by the unnecessary heartache I caused my family due to my pride, but see the experience as a glorious intervention. I was GUILTY…and Jesus met me in that jail cell, in that courtroom, He comforted me when the three angels walked up those steps, in the cries of a mother, and in those 26 messages.
Note: My beloved dad died less than 5 years after this event.