Braids

I see you standing in the back of AG1, arraignment court, right hand jumping up to smooth your braids compulsively. A man with a tic—or a boy, maybe. I wonder what your name is. You look like so many of my friends—Noel (Dominican name Leudis), Alexis (Dominican name Aramis). You have the ageless face characteristic of boys from upper Manhattan; smooth caramel skin, naturally tanned from your father’s island sun. You could be sixteen, twenty-two, twenty-nine. An athletic build fed on mondongo and ghetto P.E.: dunking basketballs into a netless hoop on Edgecombe Avenue; leaping up for signpost bars affixed to the corner and doing chin-ups; whacking baseballs over chain-link fences that line an empty lot—that counts as a home run. You were the Manny Ramirez of the block.

Prison puffs some bodies up, muscles the size of watermelons bulging from all-day weight-lifting and push-ups. I can see you’ll have the other prison body, though. Your brown eyes are too soft, too skittish, jumping around the courtroom, glancing at the judge hopefully. In prison, you’ll age ten years in five. Your body will become a collection of sharp angles, melting away until you become a skinny candlewick. The hopeful flicker in your eyes will flair out, too.

None of that has happened yet, and the only damage incarceration has done is to your braids. Their neat, uniform cornrows have turned frizzy, impossible to maintain even as you try to smooth them out every couple of minutes. More stray hairs popped out with each hour of your journey here, I imagine. A few teased out by the soupy humidity when you ventured onto the summertime streets of Washington Heights last night. Maybe some more when you were sprayed by a rogue fire hydrant. A good bit of hair came loose from your braids when you started running from the cops. Even more when they caught up to you, pushed your forehead against the pavement and cuffed your wrists. Dug their fingers into your skull as they guided you into the wagon. You slept on the braids overnight in the jail cell, waiting for your arraignment. They weren’t equipped for such action.

Judge White, the master of these proceedings, wouldn’t understand. She looks like an African queen sitting atop the judge’s bench; slim, erect neck, wide-set no-bullshit eyes, a gleaming bald head. Some judges get tired of arraignment court, the constant stream of freshly incarcerated defendants still formulating excuses, flustered defense and prosecution lawyers flying through dictionary-thick stacks of paper, trying to remember who this one is, what did he do?

Not Judge White. I’ve seen her work when my co-intern Hazel and I come into AG1 during slow stretches in our trial bureau, no copies to make or 911 calls to transcribe. We like AG1 because it moves quickly, all kinds of people filing through, like the Ellis Island of the DA’s Office. The guy two places in front of you, inexplicably, waited until his ex-girlfriend left the house, broke in and threw her DVD player and TV out the window. I wonder if they used to fight over the remote.

Next, Columbia frat guys who got a little too rowdy with the cops after getting caught jumping the turnstile. No priors. A fine. Open and shut. Judge White sits by with pursed lips and an alert expression, not handing out any free passes.

I’m worried for you.

As you tug at the braids, you look around for someone. The boys from the block aren’t here, and maybe for the better. They would mock you for those messy braids. “Looking raggedy son.” They would belly-laugh. You got them done after-hours at the barbershop, everyone bumping to merengue and half-watching the Mets game. Maybe you paid twenty bucks. Maybe less, because you are someone’s cousin. Maybe you got them done on the front stoop, children circling you like tiny hurricanes and colonies of older men in lawn chairs drinking, playing dominoes. Your aunt did them, or your girlfriend or her friend, stitching each strand into tight communion. It will take a while, over an hour, but her fingers work expertly and efficiently and do not indulge your grumbles if it hurts. In the end, she is proud. They look good.

Does she know you are here?

Your odds were never good, just by virtue of the caramel skin and the Spanish. You came out of the womb at risk to become a statistic, affixed a ratio heavier than a nametag and left to your own devices: two times more likely to be in prison than your white counterparts, a projected one in six chance of being incarcerated in your lifetime. On average, inmates cost the city $167,731. That’s per year. I don’t know what you’ve done yet, if anything, but the majority of incarcerated Americans receive a sentence of 5-10 years. That means you and your twenty-dollar braids, in prison, could cost over $800,000—more than half a million dollars. Maybe one of the reasons you’re here is because nobody, least of all the state that stuck you in a class with thirty-five kids and a harried Teach For America blonde who couldn’t speak Spanish, the state that gave the OK for a stop-and-frisk every few weeks, ever suggested that you could be worth that much.

***

 Across the narrow street that separates the DA’s Office from the criminal courts where you’re awaiting arraignment, my boss, Assistant District Attorney Janine Gilbert, is rifling through file cabinets. She’s on the phone at the same time, maybe fielding a call from a reporter or a defense lawyer. I know because she’s always doing two things at once, if not more. She is a chess player. Whether in or out of the courtroom, her eyes are perpetually narrowed in calculation, trying to map out how any given moment can be maximized.

Her office is the only impediment to such productivity. Loose papers coat the floor and furniture like honeymoon roses in a hotel room. Any slight movement results in the sound of rustling papers, papers massaging the air as they float from the desk to the ground, papers being punctured by a paralegal’s office-appropriate pumps. Our first assignment from Janine was to organize the chaos, one or two hours a day spent on the task. In the end, it took months.

I formulated a foolproof system. Each of Janine’s file cabinets would be labeled with a name, each name assigned its own color. As we gathered the papers, mostly photocopies of evidence from long settled cases, we would mark them with the correct color. One man was prosecuted for serial rape. We marked the photocopies of the letters he sent to his victims blue. Another man, adept at ingratiating himself to the elderly only to steal their identities, had stacks of bank statements marked in green.

One criminal, Jamal (pink), boasted three full drawers worth of files. Impressed by the breadth of paper devoted to him, I waved a sheet from his case at Janine one day as she worked on her computer. “Janine, what did this guy Jamal do?” I asked.

“Something horrible, obviously,” Hazel said, adding another stray paper to his stack.

Janine never needed to pause to recall her cases. “A-1,” she said. “He shot someone, killed her. 85-year-old woman.”

“Why would he do that?” I asked.

“He was aiming for another guy,” Janine said. Hazel and I stopped filing for a beat, the silence filled by the ceaseless clicks of Janine’s keyboard. “He won’t get out,” she said.

I wondered if that was supposed to be a comfort.

“That’s good that you put him away,” Hazel said.

For a millisecond, I saw Janine’s fingers freeze above her keyboard. She blinked. “He was seventeen.”

I looked at Jamal’s stack. I wondered if prison was like high school: bigger file, bigger badass. Or could Jamal even imagine that so many copy machines, so many ink cartridges, had been devoted to him?

“Do you ever worry about convicting someone innocent?” I asked.

Janine shook her head. “If I think someone is innocent, I won’t bring it to trial. It has to be black and white.”

***

 Hazel and I took the back entrance into the criminal court building on our way to AG1. We exited our office building on 1 Hogan Place and crossed over to the grand structure. The Chrysler Building’s homelier sister, the art deco behemoth stretches across Centre Street with imposing columns reaching skyward. In the front, boxy limestone towers are striped with windows, creating the optical illusion of massive vertical prison bars, as if to remind you this is not a good place to be. The back is not nearly as imposing, just a double door manned by a bored security guard. Above the door, a sentence is engraved in the limestone: Justice Is the Firm and Continuous Desire to Render To Every Man His Due.

 Someone calls your docket number. You pat your braids one last time, tuck your hands behind your back like a good schoolboy. You look at the prosecuting attorney uncomprehendingly, a stranger in a half-wrinkled suit. I wish I knew you. I wish I could have warned you of Janine’s words: it has to be black and white. It has to be neat, like your braids when they were fresh. You have to be careful not to get caught in the grey area.

I leave before they give you your due, too afraid that you’ll become hundreds of papers, outnumbering your pre-prison years many times over, highlighted pink and stuffed into a file box.

Don’t Cross the White Picket Fence: Suburban Spaces of Terror in “Halloween”

“Doctor, do you know what Haddonfield is? Families, children, all lined up in rows up and down these streets.” — Sheriff Brackett  

 Gothic conventions famously dictate that a shadowy, castle-like structure is the site of the horrors that fictional characters face. In his essay on “demonic imagery,” which details many of the motifs and symbols of Gothic fiction, Northrup Frye includes “the labyrinth or maze, the image of lost direction…” (150). The imposing homes found in so many Gothic works house Frye’s secret passages. In 1764, there was the tunnel of escape beneath the castle in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Over 80 years later, Charlotte Bronte sent Jane Eyre off to Thornfield Hall, a vast, haunted mansion with a secret behind one of its many closed doors. Horror films went on to appropriate the labyrinthine castle; recall Rosemary (Mia Farrow) finally exploring the secret spaces of New York’s storied Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby. Consumers of horror movies and Gothic works are trained to expect something wicked inside any grand, oftentimes isolated home.

In his 1978 slasher flick Halloween, John Carpenter flips this Gothic convention on its head. Parents are largely absent in the film, but one of the first things we learn about protagonist Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is that her father works as a realtor. Mr. Strode is trying to sell the Myers house, the site of a horrific crime years earlier, and one can assume he’s having a tough time closing a deal. The Myers home, after all, perfectly fits the image of the haunted house, and Carpenter’s introduction to the home tries to trick the audience into thinking that it will be Halloween’s version of the Gothic castle. As Laurie and her young neighbor Tommy approach the house, Carpenter shoots it from a low angle, then settles briefly on a long shot of Laurie and Tommy paused in front of the house. These shots emphasize the home’s size and dilapidation; in the long shot, we see that it rises a full story higher than the two neighboring homes, but what it has in square footage it lacks in décor. The paint is far from fresh, part of the awning is falling off and a threatening darkness lies behind the windows’ dirty screens. When Carpenter reveals, with a spike of music, that killer Michael Myers lies within, the audience can’t help but imagine that the film’s atrocities will be played out inside the Myers home. Continue reading

Power-mad Men: Character Manipulation through Narrative Manipulation in Mad Men

In the second scene of critically acclaimed AMC drama Mad Men’s pilot episode, the protagonist, 1960’s-era ad-man Don Draper (Jon Hamm), knocks on a mysterious door and checks his watch.

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It’s soon revealed that Don is paying a late-night visit to a bohemian lady friend, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt). “You weren’t worried about waking me, were you?” Midge says when she opens the door, smiling slyly at Don. Midge isn’t surprised by Don’s impromptu visit; by now she knows what viewers will soon find out: Don Draper is a man who is only late when he wants to be late. The only clock he runs by is his own. This point is reinforced when, the next night, Don takes the train from New York City to an impeccably decorated home in the suburbs, where his pretty blonde wife, Betty (January Jones) lies in wait. “I thought you were staying in the city again,” she says. “There’s a plate in the oven.” Don begins to kiss her suggestively. “Unless you’re not hungry,” Betty giggles. The pilot episode’s Don, the Don Draper of 1960, is representative of the gender roles of his era. He’s a man in charge, a man who can visit his mistress anytime—early or late—and climb into bed with his wife long after the sun has set with no interrogation. Just as Don refuses to sign an employment contract with the advertising company he works for, he refuses to sign a contract of sorts with any timekeeper in life. He is beholden to no one, least of all a woman, and thus he is powerful. Continue reading

Behind Every Man: Gender Roles at Play in Mad Men

The first time we meet Betty Draper (January Jones), wife of protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) for the first three seasons of AMC’s critically acclaimed, 1960s-set drama Mad Men, she lies in bed peacefully, outfitted in a pale pink nightgown. She’s one of three women introduced in the show’s pilot who seems to play an important role in Don’s life; along with Betty, viewers become acquainted with Don’s bohemian mistress, Midge Daniels (Rosemarie DeWitt), and his new secretary, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). Only two of the three ladies have staying power—Midge fades into the fast-growing mass of Draper mistresses by season’s end, but Betty and Peggy have remained important characters throughout the show’s five seasons. Interestingly, despite their consistent presences in Don’s life, Betty and Peggy have only met once during the show’s run. In “5G,” episode five of season one, a panicked Peggy must problem-solve when Betty brings the Draper children to Don’s office for a family portrait, only to learn he’s not in. Peggy rightly suspects that Don is with Midge, and must vouch for her cheating boss in front of his seemingly unsuspecting wife until he arrives and thinks up a lie to cover for his whereabouts on the spot. The scenes between Betty and Peggy are short, taking up less than five minutes of the episode, but even their brief exchange illuminates their differences. Searching for a topic of conversation with her husband’s nervous secretary, Betty goes to what she knows best. “Do you have a boyfriend, a steady?” she asks, lighting a cigarette. “No,” Peggy replies. Then, after a pause: “I work a lot.” In this interaction we see women who inhabit two separate spheres—the home and the office—collide, to awkward results. Continue reading

Welcome to the Hellmouth: Representations of Helplessness in Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s “The Body”

When Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in 1997, fans and critics fell in love with the show’s witty banter, creative and insightful retellings of the average high schooler’s struggles and, perhaps most of all, its sharp, strong heroine. Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was relatable—she fell for the wrong guys and wore questionable clothing—but she was also aspirational. Almost every episode featured Buffy battling it out with various vamps. “Patrolling,” in which Buffy, stake in hand, played one-woman neighborhood watch, was part of the show’s vernacular, and Buffy prided herself on punning while slaying. Watching Buffy land a perfect roundhouse kick or stake to the heart while her blonde ponytail bounced perkily was undeniably part of the show’s appeal. A sad rarity, viewers were treated to a woman with punch—literally. Continue reading