“Bouncing Off the Bottom”
— a jailhouse memoir —

Teddy Ruiz’s reputation didn’t align with his first name, with the Steady Teddys of the world, society’s Winnie the Poohs. Ace, Ivan, Tito—these shadier, grittier names better suited Ruiz’s history. A small-town larrikin, he had managed to etch the “Mr. Bad Boy” image into the scenery of his youth.

I’d never met him, but the stories were garish—beat up his old man for a lark at seventeen; tossed out the door of a polite party, he re-entered swinging a fire ax; broke a cop’s arm with his own nightstick. Not heinous crimes by modern measure, but these dated to the West Coast’s peaceful ‘60s, before Mac-10s and drive-by mayhem. In that context, Ted Ruiz had a rep. Still, it wasn’t a name I expected to find scratched in the paint of my cell block, especially at County, where some of my cellies, for crimes even more sinister than mine, were waiting for transfer to the state pen.

“They booked you for trespassing? The guy talking—the dude talking, named Dwayne, as I would learn—had been pushing a broom down the narrow cellblock hall. Now he stopped, looking at me, leaning on his taxpayers’ broom on the taxpayers’ floor in the Santa Barbara County jailhouse, corner of Anacapa and Figueroa. He was loafing, a fact I chose not to point out to someone who seemed inured to life in the joint.

“Yeah, trespassing,” I repeated, staring at my bare feet, still grass- and dirt-stained from my venture of the night before, “and disturbing the peace.”

“Is that a fact?” His accent was Billy Graham-Slim Pickens.

I nodded. “And malicious mischief.” Though unschooled on the codes of incarceration, I sensed copping to the whole rap posed no risk to my standing among the prisoner class. The three-strikes rule wouldn’t apply.

Disgusted, disappointed, Dwayne nearly spit bile. “Fucking screws!” he cried. It had the ring of learned opinion, and I hoped it didn’t refer to me.  

Cool Hand Luke-ish, I said, “Yeah. Yeah. What about you?”

“G.T.A.” Yes, grand theft auto, but this was 1971, not a video game.  

“What’d you steal?”

He considered me from under one rust-colored eyebrow, an honor-among-thieves appraisal. “Which time?”

“Which . . .? Oh.”

Looking wistfully into space, as if in self-analysis, he began confirming things. “XKE,” he said, “Olds 4-4-2. MGB.   409 Chevy. I guess I got into them letters and numbers.” The observation seemed new to him, and he nodded. “I liked the Os, too—Camaros, Rancheros, El Dorados.”

Wholesale boosting of high-value vehicles was well beyond my own criminal ambitions, but we were rolling now, Dwayne and I. “Anything else?”

“ADW.” He was challenging my code-breaking skills, which must have been evident across my corrugated brow. “Assault with a deadly weapon,” he said, as though explaining to a ten year old.  

I looked around for an escape tunnel to mommy and daddy’s house.   Again, he read my mind.

“Don’t sweat it. It was a cop. I don’t hassle squares, no offense.”

No offense taken . . . at being called a square by Dwayne while on his way to the Big House for—get this—trying to kill a policeman. Offended? Moi?   In fact, I was relieved, though I doubt it was apparent through the film of sweat now covering all my exposed surfaces.

If I may explain—

#

It was Saturday morning.   At about 11:30 the night before, I and a dozen other good-for-nothing teenage drunks stumbled out of a fraternity house near UCSB wearing only boxer shorts, and intent on popularizing ourselves with some of—any of—the local females. The communal alcohol-and-testosterone hallucination under which we were functioning argued that we were exceedingly desirable to young women, but invisible to authority figures. Within the hour, disabused of this imagined state of affairs, three of us were in the back seat of a Dodge black-and-white en route to the county lock-up.

            Standing barefoot in one’s choners, courting a mammoth hangover before a small crowd of sniggering coppers, while being fingerprinted and booked on three penny-ante misdemeanors makes for deep regrets in the small hours of the morning. Still, to paraphrase the man, Act like slime, you do the time. So, we were ready, right? Bullshit.

#

The two guys I got nabbed with were near strangers to me, one called Baff-man, patios for buffoon, and UCSB argot for deranged, someone who abused the rules. He thought the nickname made him sound licensed to raise hell, which he did.   I’d met Baff-man for a few sober milliseconds in some lifetime before being handcuffed to him and hauled off to the calaboose. His buddy, Mike McLaughlin, was known as Jackal to his confederates, not because he scavenged dead meat that others had abandoned—though he did this—but because it referred to a scurrilous, untrustworthy creature beneath a dog’s contempt. He liked the effect. Ah, college life!

At the last sorority house to which we’d laid juvenile siege, Jackal and Baff-man had been tossed without ceremony into the sheriff’s car. I, in inebriated chivalry, and convinced that they shouldn’t go to jail alone, behaved obnoxiously to all and sundry long enough to get collared and pushed into the backseat of the cruiser.

            Once booked on the ground floor at County, we climbed three flights of stairs into a short corridor bounded by five-foot windows to the left overlooking the courthouse’s spot-lit main wing—an icon of Spanish Colonial architecture—and the lawn of its sunken gardens, now shrouded in a veil of midnight mist tinged silver-gray by the light of a descending moon. On our right, opposite the windows, was a floor-to-ceiling wall of white-painted prison bars. Beyond them lay a parallel universe, another corridor onto which opened a row of square, iron-slatted chambers—the jail. Our guard marched us