Once upon a time in the East Village in the early nineties there were only two functional twenty-four hour bank machines before there were little ATMs in every corner bodega. Twenty-four hour cash machines were a relatively new technological development and presided exclusively in bank branches. One of them was in the Dime Savings bank on second and eighth and the other’s location I cannot recall. It was also the case that on any weekend evening after two or three a.m., these automated bank machines were more likely than not, deplete of cash. And although I would give anything to claim that this was the reason for my subsequent fall, that would be far from the truth.
Me mate’s Murray’s mates, Pete and Jason, were “on holiday” from Manchester, England and as we planned an evening of bar hopping we thought it good and prudent to “prime” before hitting the town. I had convinced them that the only way to seriously prime would be via an honorable initiation into the venerable “Twenty Shot Club”. This was an arcane college tradition involving a cheap 1.75 litre of vodka (plastic) known as a magnum–but to which we reverently referred to as a “meanster”–a magic marker, and some artificially flavored orange soda, preferably diet. It was God’s mysterious grace that the cheapest most artificial tasting soda proved the most effective chaser to the meanest, most violent and vengeful of swill. It was remarkable that it cut the caustic booze taste like a switch.
The magic marker’s role was to chonicle an orderly participation in the ritual. One would do a shot, followed by the chaser, followed by a tally to one’s arm. The etiquette involved praising highly the effectiveness of the chaser, filling one’s neighbor’s shot glass and saying, “OK, You go!” We had learned early the importance of repetition and ritual to this tradition, or to be more specific, the tally system. Even if one were honestly deposed to an accurate count, without the tally system–and even in spite of it–one would invariably lose one’s way before reaching the club. However, like gentlemen, we three successfully joined that eve. The first five tallies are usually neat an orderly and the last are broad vulgar streaks that one might acquire after falling from a horse and being dragged through a briar patch.
Of the several bars that transpired that evening it was only the last one that I recall. It was the Coyote Ugly on First Avenue and 10th street and it was here I was slapped by some woman unimpressed with my sloppy advances, though Pete and Jason were very impressed with my perseverance. My inebriated logic made me brim with confidence that I had been struck because I believed that this had sanctioned me some advantage to continue in this pitiful pursuit. The belief was rendered impotent when shortly after she belted me a second time, really hard. Somehow I became disorientated and separated from my two amigos. I had apparently wandered out of the bar alone and imbibed with some solo quest, completely forgot about “me mates”.
It had been a grand evening and since my wallet was devoid of bills–a fact the bartender was well aware–my thoughts turned homeward. In the street I swaggered and hailed a cab. “I’m going tuh Duane street and West Braw-way, buh firss I neee teh stop at a benk mashin”. The cabby did not seem to understand but after a great struggle we started off and I directed him towards the first bank. I keyed my way into the bank and found the procedure of working the cash machine a great challenge. It was all for naught as it the machine read, “unable to make transaction at this time”.
Though I could not understand the Pakistani cab driver who had only recently begun speaking English, I knew he was losing patience with my not having any cash and my inability retrieving cash from the machine. We began to argue but I eventually convinced him to search out the other bank. I repeated the procedure but this machine also read, “unable to make transaction at this time”. I cannot be entirely certain whether the machines were in fact out of cash or whether I was just too drunk to execute the transaction.
At any rate, the cab driver was unconvinced and heartily nonplussed. A hot and spicy curry of mideastern expletives from him and drunk belligerent words from myself were exchanged and I remember staggering out of the cab as he made a call on his radio. About thirty feet down an unsteady, shifting sidewalk I suddenly found myself tackled to the concrete. A sharp pain from my knee helped to sober my foggy head and I grew enraged at the man clinging to my back. We twisted and rolled on the sidewalk for several moments and I managed to get atop my assailant and to get an arm free when police cruiser lights and sirens suddenly appeared from nowhere and everywhere, blinding and blaring. I heard doors open, felt the cuffs clicking hard on my wrists, and then I was riding to the precinct house.
Still incensed from the scuffle, I jostled about cursing in my newfound predicament. It was a short ride and with remarkable casualness I was removed from the vehicle and guided into the precinct house. Although I do not remember any names or badge numbers, I do remember using them at the time fervently and so clearly I was not making any new friends. But alas, the cuffs came off and there were several officers, myself and the cabby standing in an open space with tiled walls. One officer was trying to milk the scenario from the cabby who, as I recall, was having great difficulty communicating in English. Ironically, the cabby and I shared this travail but for him it was English as a new language while its privilege was driven from me through drink.
As I adamantly interjected, “…but the cash machines were tapped ow…” the officer turned….and with the same motion, “shaddup!” , shoved me back into a nearby wall.
Without thinking I bounced back punching through the officer, clocking him squarely in the face and with horror witnessed along with his comrades, the sickening slow motion plummet of his hat as it dropped to the floor directly under where his head had been. “Noooooooooooowoooooooooooooeeeeeeee.”
After an instant of serious but futile apologizing and backpedaling the officers fell upon me. My apologies and sincerity were in vain. I was duly quelled and wholly subdued. My cheek felt the cool flat floor and I winced as a knee pinned deep in my back. I wasn’t going anywhere. I am certain I surprised vs. injured the officer, yet, protocol was required in such and instance and before I knew what was happening, my right hand was removed from behind my back by fellow officers, laid flat and outstretched on the floor, and “bingo”–welcome to “club melonhand! “
“Owww!” that hurt. My hand was returned to behind my back and the handcuffs were returned to around my wrists. As my head and hand throbbed and were gushing warm as the pain subsided, I began to understand. Apparently, my actions had warranted the due process of said sanction, that is, the modus operandi of the “melonhand”. I had hit an officer in the precinct house and so rightly so, he fairly and squarely remitted with a curt melon stomp to my soon to be meloned paw. “Wow Ow Wow!” said my hand to my head as it grewd and swollup.
As I returned to the subject of the cash machines out of cash, as though nothing had happened, I was flatly rebuked with an, “I don’t wanna hear it” and “Bookim.”
I was to learn only later in the “tombs” that I hand contracted “melon hand” and that amongst the fine patronage with whom I was to reside, that “melon hand” was not such a bad thing. Indeed I was warmly greeted into my new surroundings and referred to reverently as “melon hand”–and not so reverently as “Whitey”. I was granted cigarettes from total strangers to complement my newfound badge of honor. “Yo, hook Melonhand up with a cigarette”. I may have been a whitely but I had given it to the Man in the precinct house and that was straight up. And so I had a new name and a new group of friends.
Now the “tombs” is a term referring to “central booking” and is somewhat like the belly of the whale that swallowed Jonus. From the precinct house I was transferred from handcuffs to a chain gang of five, crammed into the dark back of a truck with grated shaded windows. This transport was overcrowded amongst four or five other chain gangs of disgruntled, uncomfortable, odoriferous men, the fortunate of whom were able to seat themselves along benches on either side. I was not so fortunate. I would stand and sway completely exhausted until I would pass out, lean on my neighbor and drool upon him. “Yo, man!” and then I would be painfully awakened with a sharp dig to my ribs or jerk to my chain-cuffed, decidedly meloned hand. And I would bob awake and like Sisyphus begin again from the bottom and futilely try and stay awake. This lasted for about six hours. Although it was a short drive from the East Village to 100 Centre Street, the truck had to wait outside before unloading its precious cargo. There was a cue of other police trucks filled with all the rascals gathered up from all the other twisted circumstances and misunderstandings of a busy Manhattan weekend.
Finally, finally, finally we were corralled single file into a line where they took from us our names, addresses, personal effects, belts and shoelaces. I was then brought past another officer and through a turnstile to a large gated, steel-barred room known as the “bull pen”. I finally found a quiet reprieve cuffed to a bench upon which I curled. Upon the hard wooden bench I let sleep take me. The hard flat coolness of the bench on my side and cheek were a relative comfort to the torture of the truck–though not to my proper bed which was less than half a mile away on Duane Street and West Broadway. Nonetheless, I rested and drooled a fine-sized puddle.
Later, though I am not sure how much later, I was wakened by a night stick or tonfa dragged across the bars of the bull pen. My cuffs were removed from my well meloned paw and I could not decide which hurt more, my head or my hand. My hangovered-ness had eclipsed my drunken-ness and there were no creature comforts to pamper the inevitable morning after a twenty shot club. The officer’s wake up call felt as though my head were a worm on a snare drum in a military band. Wait, I knew which hurt more. When I moved my head my head hurt more, When I moved my hand, my hand hurt more. And when both were moved in chorus, I was in a world of hurt, a fish in a fish bowl of gasoline.
We were then marched to cells holding about a dozen inmates each. There was a hallway and a row of cells, each about ten square feet in size. Each had three walls of thickly painted, off-white perhaps champagne or peach, cinderblock. The cage wall was of your traditional steel-barred variety with a gated, steel-barred door. The floor was black and white, one inched tile, with a drain in the middle to piss down if need be. There were no chairs or benches so we all crouched holding our knees about our heads and backs against the wall in a ten by ten semi-circle. Had the piss drain been instead a campfire we would have looked like a troupe of boy scouts. One of our inmates had shit himself and so we were all relieved when he was led away and we could hear him wailing as they hosed him off nearby–apparently with rather cold water. As this individual was not returned to our cell, eventually the foul, nauseating stench dissipated.
It was here we waited and waited and waited and got to know each other. I cannot remember any names but I remember there was one other white dude with long greasy hair. Everyone, it seemed, was in for drug related possession charges or assault and was either black or Hispanic. As the obvious exception I began to realize it was no small feat to be included in Guliani’s program to clean up Manhattan. It seemed a white guy had to really “stick out”.
There was this one annoying whiny guy that was effeminate and not very powerful and the bullies soon began circling him like sharks about a wounded seal. He shouted and proclaimed that he was HIV positive and darted about the cell like a fox darting about a wood evading and outsmarting the hounds. Fortunately for him, his ploy plea-bargained him down from a beating to a mere teasing as the bullies–being cowardly–lacked the conviction of punishing him to the full extent of the natural law.
I also suffered a moment of terror from a bully. I was in no mood or shape to fend for myself but to not fend for yourself with a bully in this shit hole would be even worse. My hungover head made me feeble and the condition of my hand ensured that, if brought to violence, the outcome would be painfully hopeless. It was for this reason that when the situation arose, I was deeply distressed.
Dining in the cell consisted of stale bologna sandwiches on wonder bread and Dixie cups of purple Cool-Aid handed though the bars. It was clear the sandwiches had been prepared well in advance as the edges of the bread and bologna were very dry and brittle. The Cool-Aid was really “tepid” but I noted it would have probably made good chaser. Hence, I valued it given my present circumstances. Furthermore, since there was no mayonnaise to properly lubricate the sandwich. Hence, the cool aid was of significant utility and highly valued. Squatting with my back against the wall I worked though the sandwich trying to save as much Cool-Aide for the end as I possibly could.
A tall wiry black male who must have been about nineteen swaggered up to me and said, “Yo, Whitey give me yo drink…I thirsty.” I ignored him and hoped he would go away. “Yo! You deaf? I said give me yo drink”. The confrontation was beginning to gather the attention of the other denizens. Some chiding in, “Don’t give him shit” and yet others addressing him and saying, “Fuck him up!” This was bad. This was very very bad and how did I ever get myself into this mess. If I didn’t do anything or started to cry as I would have liked, then I would become the wounded seal and lose my rank of melon hand. I managed to say “Go fuck yourself” and acted like I didn’t care enough to look him straight in the eye. The fact was I was too terrified. “Yo, git up and say that shit to my face!” he answered. Even if my head and hand weren’t in such an unfortunate state I would have been afraid of this kid. He was as tall as me but thinner but he seemed fast and probably much more accustomed to this type of scrap than me.
Instead of getting up I leaned over and picked up the Dixie cup still two thirds full of cool aid. I resigned myself that if it came to a fight I would rather it be a wrestle than a fist fight and if he started to kick me I could go for his legs and bring him down. I brought the cup slowly across my body and towards him. Then I looked up at him and he down at me. In one motion I downed the remaining cool aid just as if it had been a shot. This surprised him and he exclaimed “Mutha Fucka!” Thank God for me everyone started laughing and just then a cop strolled over in the hallway and called one of the incarcerated over for removal and told my bully to sit the fuck down. Thank God. Some of the guys were still snickering and saying “melon hannnnnnnd” and finally my bully cracked a smile, shook his head from his seated position across from me and then said, “Fuckin, melonhand.” I was so relieved I had to laugh, or was it cry? Whatever it was I got away with it and saved my ass.
However, the good times were not to last as worry about my future and the ramifications of this adventure began to sink in. I wept bitterly and the dignity of melonhand–for all to see–seeped from my carcass like piss down the drain.
The repercussions of this fateful eve were sure to ruin my life. I had just been hired as a financial consultant at Merrill Lynch and I knew well enough that even a misdemeanor meant my pink slip. Not only that, no other respectable Wall Street houses would hire me as I would never pass their background checks. Forget the cabby, I hit a cop. I figured that was at least “assault on a police officer” and “resisting arrest”. I was going to get fired and I would never work on the Street again. Of course, my friends in the cell with me couldn’t care less. It was not that they weren’t stockbrokers or couldn’t identify with the loss I was lamenting but rather they said, “Shut the fuck up, Whitey. They ain’t gonna charge you with shit.” They explained to me whities like me never got charged and never went to Rikers like them. Rikers Island is like a New York version of Alcatraz situated in the Harlem River where “perps”, too black and too poor to make bail, await trial. I didn’t believe I would just be “let off” and so was inconsolable.
After waiting about twenty-four hours from the time I was branded “melonhand” to the time the officer called me up from the cell, I was finally led up to a public defender. It was explained to me on the way that I must meet with a public defender before I could go before a judge for arraignment. Then bail could be determined and it was possible I could go free if there were no bail. I was then brought to one window among several where people from my cell and others are being processed by their public defenders. To my great astonishment my public defender was none other than a college buddy of mine, Sal Bernard! We had worked on the same underground newspaper together. He was editor and I did cartoons and wrote a little. We had also been on the same left wing organization called “Students for a free Southern Africa, SFSA”. Small world!
“Sal, how you doin?!”
“Wylie, How you doin?!”
“Well, I been better….” I answered.
“So what are doing here?” he asked.
Well, I kind of hit a cop, see?” and raised my melon for his inspection.
“Ohhhwwwooooo. I see you got some melon hand there. Well, don’t worry, we’ll get you outa here.”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry about it”, he reassured me. Apparently this was not the first time he had seen melon hand.
There was another guy from my cell a few feet away who overheard this and who had also heard me crying in my cell about my ruined future. He swung his hand across his body in disgust and with a snap of his finger exclaimed, “Aw man, thas jus whut we wus sayin. Yo, that shit’s typical. Fuckin whitey never takes the rap!”
About a half an hour later I was standing soberly before His Honor. My friend, the public defender, made good on his promise. With a few words he whispered in the judge’s ear I was given a curt lecture by Hizzonor on maturity, made to admit the errors of my ways and promise not to repeat them, and then bang went the gavel. I was ordered to pay $14.92 to the cabby and warned that if anything else should happen in the next six months that this incident would not be completely erased from my permanent record. Justice had been served and I was free to go. I walked out onto Centre Street and it was a beautiful clear fall morning. Freedom never smelled so sweet. “Wow, that was a rush. No more twenty shot club for this mofo”.